CD reviews

CD REVIEW: LBT – Way Up in the Blue

LBT – Way Up in the Blue
(Enja Yellowbird YEB77852. CD Review by Rob Mallows)

I approached Way Up in the Blue with a slightly sceptical ear. The description in the press release indicated the album was an experimental jazz electronica crossover, with a hint of techno to boot. It didn’t sound promising, given I have little patience for the latter two genres of music.

But, you know, beneath the repetitive beats there’s a beautiful, uncomfortable, contemporary jazz album. For (imperfect) comparison, think a super-charged EST, or the Neil Cowley Trio guesting at a rave somewhere off the M25.

LBT – who are pianist Leo Betzl, double bassist Maximilian Hirning and drummer Sebastian Wolf – don’t make it easy for the listener to enjoy this music; but you have to admire their ballsiness in making an album so challenging and disruptive. Given their undoubted pedigree – the group won the German Jazz Prize 2018; Maximilian Hirning was awarded the soloist prize; Leo Betzl is a prize winner of the Steinway Förderpreis, the Kurt Maas Jazz Award and the Bavarian Art Promotion Prize – that sense of hubris is understandable, and earned.

Second track Arpeggione starts conventionally enough with a light melody, but then: boom! The atmosphere changes as things get industrial, almost Stockhausen-like in their weirdness – strange bass glissandos, droning cello, pizzicato toy piano-like pecking. It’s as if the band picked up a box of rhythmical ideas and threw them at the wall, to see what sticks. What results works as a sort of propulsive rhythmic assault.

Title track Way Up in the Blue is part techno banger, part minimalist piano tour de force, where each musician is battling the other to make as much with as little as possible: Wolfgruber’s drums are straight up four beats to the bar bass and snare on second and fourth beats, unceasingly; Betzl sticks to the same rhythmic noodle throughout, with a few chord shifts. Hirning’s double bass is straight up quarter tones, no embellishments. Then half way through it transforms and this is where the value of patience is evident, as the melodic descents which punctuate the tune are as dramatic as any waterfall.

Fourth track Skrjabin is all about Hirning’s bass. It is, in effect, an extended, languid solo for the first two minutes, with a single note all Betzl offers until a melody starts to emerge, Wolfgruber’s drumming providing a clockwork narration as the song wakes up. Four minutes in it picks up the pace further and ends beautifully.

Fifth track Circadian Dysrhythmia offers no obvious melodic entry point, as Betzl’s repeated arhythmic single tones sounds like he’s tuning his piano. The colour comes from the addition of the wonderfully named ‘Paranormal string quartet’ who do exactly what their name promises, by introducing an eery cacophony of plucks, slides, scrapes and ghostly whines, under which Wolfgruber lets off the handbrake and kicks into a hard, pounding rock/dance beat. It’s all about the build, layer upon layer, bar after bar, sounds synchronising with each until it just stops, abruptly.

Underneath the angularity of it all, the underlying musical and jazz credentials of the band do cut through. In the same way it is only the most fervently religious who flirt with heresy, only those steeped in jazz lore – as the band demonstrates on the surprising last track, the jazz standard Moonglow which stands apart from what went before – can feel comfortable rejecting or metamorphosing most of what underpins that very genre. Betzl and co are, after all, experienced jazz musicians, not dilettantes. For example, on This is no way to Vernazza, the periodic interjections from Betzl and the acrobatic bass melodies from Hirning hint at their jazz chops, but it’s all subtly downplayed and repurposed. Eighth track Plectral Comfort Zone is anything but, and consequently the least satisfying track.

Having listening to the album twice, I can’t say I fully understand it, but it has been growing on me with further listens. If jazz-techno-electronica is the next evolution of jazz, then LBT have planted their flag in the ground and staked a claim to leadership. This is an album that will, I’m sure, furrow the brows of a lot of jazz journalists and listeners alike, and I imagine it’s not likely to trouble the Spotify playlists at all. But, I guess, that’s the whole point of it.

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