Sebastien Ammann’s Color Wheel – Resilience(Skirl Records 47. Review by Sam Norris)
Swiss-born pianist and composer Sebastien Ammann has made a name for himself as a forward-thinking musician since moving to NYC in 2008. A former pupil of Fred Hersch, Marc Copland and Antonio Hart, Ammann has collaborated with an impressive roster of names including Tony Malaby, Billy Drewes, Mark Ferber and Kris Davis. He has also released a number of critically acclaimed albums under his own name, including 2017’s Color Wheel which features the same line-up as this album, Resilience; Ammann on piano and Rhodes, veteran avant-gardist Michael Attias on alto sax, trombonist Samuel Blaser, bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Nathan Ellmann-Bell. The quintet’s history together is evident on this latest release, which sees all five of its members breezing through Ammann’s multi-faceted compositions with gusto.
The extra-musical influences on Ammann’s writing are unique; two of the tunes, Yayoi and Pedestrian Space, are inspired by the work of visual artists. The former takes as its basis the brightly coloured installations of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, and the pianist employs harmony which is just as vivid. His light touch, creative comping and inventive improvising are on full display here as they are on the rest of the record, serving as a counterpoint to Attias and Blaser’s fiery trading and later as the focal point during his atonal, quasi-randomly generated solo. The band leads us through several sections, some rubato and some more groove-based (the solo passage has a lopsided Steve Coleman quality to it), but the junctures always sound considered and organic.
Untangled has a lilting 3/4 feel, exploring a number of moods or, as Ammann puts it, ‘sonic worlds’. Blaser’s motivic, powerful improvising is showcased here, combining a rhythmic punchiness traditionally associated with trombone players with a level of harmonic awareness which is not. Ammann hangs on the trombonist’s every phrase, flitting between dark chromaticism and more open, modal ideas, before opening things up for Attias; the altoist eschews his usually cool-toned, reserved approach in favour of Dolphy-ish extroversion, culminating in him physically shouting down the horn.
The two covers on the album, Carla Bley’s King Korn (titled King Korn Revisited here) and trumpeter Dave Scott’s Afterthought, are nicely contrasting additions. The Bley tune’s comedic opening theme is followed by a frantic duet from the two horn players, their snatched phrases ricocheting off each other in excited dialogue. Garabedian, Ellmann-Bell and finally Ammann eventually join in the fun, democratically agreeing on a tempo and allowing the pianist to indulge in some aptly Paul Bley-ish flights of fancy. Afterthought, a well-crafted waltz, is anything but, its delicate solo piano intro followed by some thoughtful, well-blended horn writing. Garabedian takes a melodic solo here, the band dropping down sympathetically before coming back up for Attias’s more subversive reading of the changes.
Other highlights include the previously mentioned Pedestrian Space, inspired by Fred Sandback, a sculptor renowned for stretching lengths of yarn between points to create spaces of different dimensions. It is the most distinctive track on the album, layering multiple rhythmic ideas on top of one another to create a complex patchwork. Blaser makes use of microtones here, and Ammann’s fondness for harmonic detail is present as ever, the pianist arpeggiating big, ear-bending chords from the bottom of the piano. Castello di Traliccio (literally ‘trellis castle’) is similarly texturally complex, seeing a wandering rubato melody superimposed over a hard, Dave Holland-ish groove- creating, in Ammann’s words, a rhythmic ‘indeterminacy’. The pianist switches to Rhodes for this track, and drummer Ellmann-Bell is wonderfully assertive.
Ammann describes Color Wheel as a collection of ‘some of New York City’s most compelling and fearless artists’. This is a fair assessment; Blaser and Attias bring thrillingly contrasting approaches to the pianist’s music, the trombonist digging in rhythmically and stoking up the rhythm section, the altoist floating mysteriously over it. Garabedian and Ellmann-Bell largely play the supporting role, but both come out of the texture at points, the bassist giving us two fine solos on The Traveller and Afterthought. Ammann’s compositions, though, are the most intriguing thing about Resilience. Rarely do contemporary jazz musicians get the balance right between highly scripted and improvised material, focusing too heavily on one or the other; the Swiss pianist has nailed it, and as a result the band are able to express themselves fully within his music while retaining its intended character. The listener’s imagination is captured from the start of Ammann’s polychromatic journey right to the very end.
LINKS: Video about ResilienceSkirl Records