CD Review: Lenny Popkin Trio – Live at INNtoene Festival
(PAO Records 11160. Review by Sebastian Scotney)
Lenny Popkin is a tenor saxophonist. Born in New York in 1941, he is now based in Paris. Like Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, he was a student of the influential blind pianist Lennie Tristano, and he carries the flame for that school of music, and of saxophone playing.
But Popkin, as this CD recorded live by Austrian Radio at the INNtoene Jazz Festival in 2009 demonstrates, is very much his own man. He has an astonishing ability to be elusive and to achieve the suggestion, the shadow of a presence. As he ends his solo on the opening track, Out of Nowhere, he is still there, but has tiptoed off somewhere. When he re-enters after a bass solo, the shifting of the saxophone keys makes as much noise as his tone.
On his own composition E Train, he achieves an effect which imitates the fluttering wings of a bird. On Psaume 22, a composition by the trio’s bass player Gilles Naturel he does step forward with authority, and briefly occupies the whole stage, he ascends to deliver a resonant tone in altissimo, but is just has happy to retreat back to the shadows, to lurk. The fast pulse of “Me ‘N You” has him fixing his gaze on a single note, observing it, stepping round it, re-visiting it, caressing it.
Popkin virtually never re-states the head of a tune, but tends to enter a zone of pure freedom, invention and abstraction when he re-enters to bring the tune back home to port. These weightless, disembodied re-entries are some of the finest moments on the album.
Bassist Gilles Naturel and drummer Philippe Soirat provide measured support throughout. This set was recorded live. In fact, Popkin has a concentration slip in the dipping arpeggios of the final track Starline, but Naturel stays on the pulse,and Popkin quickly finds his way back on board. Having listened to it several times I find this episode immensely touching, a moment of humanity of humility. Popkin also sings in a Chet Baker-ish scat over When You’re Smiling. High risk, the sort of moment which can turn you off an album completely…but I’ve heard it now countless times – this has become a favourite album – and I’m still smiling.
The audience in the barn of the INNtoene Festival, which I went to earlier this year, and reviewed for All About Jazz, is an active protagonist in just the right way. The applause supports and doesn’t intrude.
Very little has been written about Popkin, although I did track down a lengthy review of a 1979 album.
The short sleeve-note by Reinhard Koechl takesthe idea of calls him “one of the last impressionists of jazz.” I prefer to think of him as elusive rather than allusive. For some saxophonists soloing is an extreme sport, a bobsleigh ride. For Popkin it’s the exact opposite it’s an exploration on the borders of silence.
This is a mesmerising album, beautifully recorded, which conveys faithfully the very best of the live experience, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
A trio with a different drummer – Carol Tristano – recorded at the Brucknerhaus in Linz earlier this year is well worth a look.
Live at INNtoene Festival 2009 is available from http://www.pao.at/, which also has sound samples, and from Amazon