Azure is a Netherlands-based quartet formed in 2006, and When She Smiles
is its second release. Nine original compositionsseven penned by pianist Pierre-Francois Blanchard, and two by guitarist Rogier Schneemanntake the quartet through lyrical terrain. Although there are no overbearing influences on the music, there is a classical jazz overtone to much of the playing, and the ghosts of the Modern Jazz Quartet
linger somewhere below the surface. There is also a distinct modernism at the core, and the appeal of the music lies in this blend of old and new.
Piano and guitar form the heart of this quartet, and they step gracefully around each other, combining fruitfully to yield arresting harmonies, particularly on the very pretty title track. Blanchard's approach to the piano is not at all common, as his left hand provides minimal chordal input. Schneemann's guitar acts almost as Blanchard's left hand on "When She Smiles." Blanchard's spare use of left hand dynamics does not detract from his playing, which has a free-flowing quality to it.
Schneemann displays a clean, limpid tone on guitar, which suggests an adherence to the Jim Hall
school of playing. His economical, lyrical phrasing produces interesting stories, as on his self-composed "Inmost," or on the subtly hypnotic "B-Y-You." On Schneemann's other track, "Azure," with its nice changes of tempo, Blanchard and then Schneemann take contrasting solosthe pianist's brief and understated, while Schneemann's slightly distorted guitar cuts loose in freer, more fluid fashion.
Melody characterizes each of the compositions, and much of the music has a meditative quality to it. On "B-Y-You," Blanchard caresses the keys, his notes falling ever so gently, before building gradually in momentum over drummer Antonio Pisano's pressed rolls and chattering cymbals. Pisano's delicate brushes and cymbals, combined with bassist Eric Heijnsdijk's minimalism, supply the backdrop over which piano and guitar trace together the gentle melody of "Ballade pour une Paquerette." The subtle dynamics of "A Mon Amour," with its briefly stated melody, discursive drumming, and boldly defined chord progressions, features a tasteful solo by Schneemann, and is an album highlight.
There is energy in this music, but it rests more in the emotional content which trumps the sparingly used displays of virtuosity. "RNP" begins with a lively piano riff over a floating, siren-like guitar; Schneemann drops out and the piano-led trio is left to explore the corners of the composition. Blanchard's most animated playing is on "By Heart," and Schneemann contributes another fuzzy-edged solo full of zest; but even this tune tip-toes quietly across the finishing line.
A beautiful solo piano piece by Blanchard, "Berceuse pour Maelise," provides a fine coda to the album; unfurling from a pensive Esbjorn Svensson
-like elegy, the music builds inexorably to Keith Jarrett
-esque ecstasy before quietly melting away. When She Smiles
is an impressive release which should hopefully bring Azure an audience beyond the Netherlands. It is a recording brimming with confidence, elegance and style.