Oded Tzur – Here Be Dragons
(ECM 083 5998. CD review by Peter Bacon)
Oded Tzur makes an extraordinary sound with his tenor saxophone. I suppose the last time I was quite so struck – entranced might be a better word – with the sound of a specific instrument played by a specific musician was when I first became aware of Arve Henriksen. Just as the Norwegian can sometimes make his trumpet sound closer to the shakuhachi, the ancient Far Eastern bamboo flute, so the Tel Aviv-born, New York-based Tzur gives his tenor a distinctly flute-like timbre, though in his case it is the Indian bansuri which is suggested.
All becomes clearer when one reads Steve Lake’s essay in the CD booklet: Tzur has studied with bansuri master Hariprasad Chaurasia, and the influence of Indian music extends beyond the sound of his saxophone to the inspirations behind and structures of individual pieces on this quartet disc. Four of the eight tracks have raga influences and one uses an Indian scale, Lake tells us.
On piano is fellow Israeli/New Yorker Nitai Hershkovits (he will be remembered from bassist Avishai Cohen’s band), on double bass is the Greek Petros Klampanis, and the drummer is Johnathan Blake, from Philadelphia. It’s a marvellous band, each player bringing their own “thing” but each also dedicated to honouring the distinct character of Tzur’s music. The result is an album that has already spent a large chunk of time in my player and is likely to be making frequent visits for years to come.
The CD booklet also contains a neat, fanciful essay from Tzur explaining the album and opening song title with a brief outline of a purported quest by Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (he of that famous dome) in search of dragons out on the world’s oceans. It’s as beguilling as his playing.
The album opens with that saxophone against a bass thrum, a shimmer of cymbals and some graceful insertions from Hershkovits before the pianist inherits, briefly, the melody from Tzur, soon handing it back before they share it in harmony. This melody has a gorgeous, falling leitmotif which returns from time to time. Bass, piano and saxophone solos follow, each one strongly melodic and thoughtful, as if the mood is being handed on.
All is slow and gentle, and while the pace might quicken slightly and the gentleness become firmer, Here Be Dragons (the whole album, not just this track) operates in a similar, relatively restricted range to, say, Tord Gustavsen’s recordings. Just as Gustavsen, in his own quiet way, can take one by surprise with some urgency and intensity, listen as Tzur’s solo on 20 years nears its climax – I find myself leaning intently towards the hi-fi speakers in response to the quiet storm that the saxophonist has slowly and resolutely conjured up and wondering: wow! How did we get to this level of feeling without me noticing?
In addition to the four Indian-influenced (in structure and philosophy, I stress; they don’t “sound” Indian) pieces, there is a trio of solo improvisations, called Miniatures, from Herschkovits, Klampanis and Tzur (the last a masterclass in the saxophonist’s style). Blake may not have a bespoke solo feature but his playing throughout is quietly magnificent – lots of subtle cymbal use, some lovely deep toms, a depth charge here, a flutter there, all just in the right place. The final tune is – how’s this for a curve ball? – a delicate reading of the ballad made famous by Elvis Presley, Can’t Help Falling In Love.
I suppose the nearest I can get to describing Tzur’s timbre is to think Charles Lloyd, except that while Lloyd’s has a sometimes wavering vulnerability to it, Tzur’s is more firmly bedded in that area of meditative thought. And the way he phrases each note and slides so delicately in phrases, his technique always in the interests of storytelling, is exquisite to hear.
A beautiful musical concept perfectly realised.