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Nicolas Masson: Travelers

John Kelman By

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Following two recordings for ECM Records as a member of the cooperative Third Reel (including the trio's self-titled 2013 debut), reed multi-instrumentalist Nicolas Masson strikes out on his own with Travelers, his first album as a leader for the label.

Third Reel's Swiss/Italian lineup of reeds, guitar (Roberto Pianca) and drums (Emanuele Maniscalco), along with its emphasis on collaboration and interaction over individual focus and overt virtuosity, has rendered the trio the torch bearer for the late Paul Motian's trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, which existed for more than 25 years until the drummer's passing in 2011. And Third Reel may have come first chronologically, when it came to releasing its music on ECM, but the quartet heard on Travelers is, in fact, celebrating ten years together this year, though the group has released but one previous recording, Thirty Six Ghosts (Clean Feed, 2009), under the name Nicolas Masson Parallels.

Beyond those familiar with Third Reel and the trio's 2015 follow-up Many More Days, or those fortunate enough to have caught the trio in performance (including a wonderful set at the 2013 Enjoy Jazz Festival in Heidelberg, Germany), two members of Masson's quartet on Travelers will also be known to fans of ECM's releases from the past decade.

After releasing two trio recordings in 2004 and 2007—the second, Ailleurs (hatOLOGY), representing the start of his longstanding relationship with bassist Patrice Moret, who is also a member of Masson's quartet—pianist Colin Vallon moved to ECM for 2011's sublime Rruga, and has remained with the label ever since. In addition to releasing two additional trio albums, both Vallon and Moret can be heard on Albanian singer Elina Duni's two ECM dates, beginning with 2012's Matane Malit. While two very different projects, a similar attention to space, detail and motif-driven improvisation (not to mention the increased chemistry shared by the Swiss pianist and bassist) have distinguished Vallon and Moret, irrespective of the context in which they find themselves.

Lionel Friedli will be, for those unfamiliar with Thirty Six Ghosts, the new name here, though those who follow the Intakt label may know the Swiss drummer for his work with both vocalist Sarah Buechi and guitarist Dave Giseler. Like the rest of his band mates in Masson's quartet, Friedli is largely disposed towards delicate engagement as well as color and understatement, as evidenced on his opening a cappella solo to "In the Deep." Still, with a foundation centered upon Vallon's dark-hued arpeggios and Moret's spare but perfect supporting choices, it's largely a feature for the drummer, who turns more expressively dynamic during a mid-section solo that juxtaposes the deep rumbling of mallet-driven toms with all manner of cymbals and tuned gongs. Friedli is also fundamental to Masson's soaring soprano saxophone feature towards the end of the piece, where the two players dramatically pull and push each other, to great impact and effect.

Elsewhere, while there's little to compare them to pianist Art Lande and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, there's something about the relatively brief title track that, as a similarly duo piece for piano and saxophone, recalls an early label classic, Red Lanta (ECM, 1973), in its deep lyricism and effortless bidirectional communication. Still, Masson's sound—whether on clarinet, or tenor or soprano saxophone—possesses none of the Norwegian saxophonist's tarter, drier complexion. Instead, Masson's tone is distinctively gentle, warm and burnished, whether soaring into the altissimo range or diving down into his instruments' lower registers, though he occasionally employs a more aggressive stance, as he does on "Wood." An ethereal piece initially derived from Vallon's persistent eighth-note piano figures (and, again, Moret's thoughtfully supportive injections), but ultimately opening up into freer group interaction, Masson's patiently unfolding solo manages to say a great deal with relatively little, another of Travelers' overall modus operandi.

Contrasting Third Reel's egalitarian approach to composition, Masson contributes all nine original pieces to Travelers. Its emphasis may, across Travelers' 50-minute duration, be largely pensive and introspective, but that needn't suggest a lack of drama, dynamics or diversity.

If ECM has demonstrated anything over the course of its near-half century existence (and it has illuminated many often less-considered ideas), it's that the sound and shape of every note often matters far more than sheer volume. That's not to suggest a lack of virtuosity amongst the members of its large roster, and that includes this quartet. If anything, the desire to allow notes the time needed to decay requires a deep understanding and appreciation of just how the interaction between subtle harmonics across a group's overall vertical structure can enrich and, even, define its overall complexion.

In addition to Masson and his quartet's clear appreciation of such harmonic verticalities and constitutional touchstones, they also prove capable of unexpected and, at times, deceptive rhythmic inventions. The tempo of the opening miniature, "Gararine," appears to alternatively speed up and slow down, with only Friedli's cymbals revealing its actually consistent pulse. And as affecting as Masson's soprano solo undeniably is, threading finely honed melodies through this ever-shifting environment, Vallon is more impressive still, subsequently mirroring the saxophonist's penchant for melody with his right hand, even as the pianist continues driving the seemingly accelerating/decelerating tempo with his left.

Moret is far more than an anchor on Travelers; he's an eloquent conversationalist and thematic foil, with his nuanced solo, early on "Almost Forty," as impressive for what he doesn't say as for what he does. In fact, despite this clearly being Masson's group from the perspective of providing its compositional context, it's clearly as purely democratic as Third Reel, when it comes to how its four members intercommunicate.

Masson proves himself capable of writing both spare, jumping-off point sketches and more richly composed music of intimate detail, into which the quartet can fully immerse itself. The sum total, representing a collective sound and aesthetic ideally suited for ECM, becomes increasingly beguiling with each and every listen.

Some albums impress immediately, but sometimes the best are those which reveal their multifarious riches over time. Possibly even more than Anouar Brahem's instantly evocative, career-defining Blue Maqams (ECM, 2017), Travelers is one of those albums that could easily pass people by...but it would be their loss. Evocative and provocative in ways ranging from atmospheric to grounded, softly angular to unrepentantly lyrical and implicit to more clearly intentioned, Travelers is both another potential modern masterpiece for the label, and the album that should rightfully bring the same international attention that Masson and his band mates so deservingly enjoy in their native Switzerland. Simply put: Travelers is an album not to be missed.

Track Listing: Gagarine; Fuchsia; Almost Forty; The Deep; Travelers; Philadelphia; Wood; Blurred; Jura.

Personnel: Nicolas Masson: tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet; Colin Vallon: piano; Patrice Moret: double bass; Lionel Friedli: drums.

Title: Travelers | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: ECM Records


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