Stephan Braun and Mateusz Smoczyński – Keep on Turnin’
(Seifert Foundation CD-FZS-6. CD review by Mary James)
Keep on Turnin’ is an apt title for an album released during the global pandemic; it articulates all our hopes for jazz. It’s a duo album of arrangements for violin and cello of some well-known classics. But it’s a lot more than that. It’s an extraordinary statement of the power of stringed instruments to groove, and a guarantee that we will see more of them in jazz in the future. Stephan Braun is a cellist who has worked with Melody Gardot for a number of years and was last seen in London with Kristjan Randalu and Thomas Gould (reviewed by Sebastian HERE). Braun plays the traditional four-stringed cello and a five-stringed instrument as well.
Violinist Mateusz Smoczyński won the second Zbigniew Seifert Jazz Violin Competition in 2016, having paved the way with several years with fusion band Turtle Island Quartet, and as co-founder of the impossible-to categorise-but-definitely-jazzy Atom String Quartet. He has also appeared on three albums on the German ACT label, including the well-received duo album Speaking Sound, recorded on Ibiza in a duo with pianist Joachim Kühn. On that album and again here he often plays baritone violin, the impressionistic sound working well with Braun’s five-stringed cello.
This particular duo is a celebration of a friendship that started in Berlin 10 years ago and was deepened at the Seifert Competition in 2016. Like many releases this pandemic, this one was accompanied by a beautifully crafted socially distanced live concert video which, when watched alongside the album, strengthens the impression that this virtuoso duo was always meant to be, a partnership of mutual respect and love of groove. While Smoczyński plays with violin in its purest form in Atom String Quartet, here he includes effects with abandon and enthusiasm.
The album is nine arrangements (eight by Braun) of mutual favourites (they are not covers in any sense, and in each case the instrument is completely different to the original) and one original composition each. The arrangements span pieces from the 1950s to 1990s and include compositions by Randy Brecker, John Scofield and Dave Holland. The opening track Higher Ground (Stevie Wonder) is full on and has a suitably retro feel. But it’s not about being a tribute, it’s about creating a completely new experience. They do this not only by a formidable armoury of technical skills – both love chopping, which gives a strong groove throughout – but by the use of pickups, effects and loopers, which both use. This creates a very complex sound in the studio, one they replicated in the live show with the merest toe tap flicks of switches.
The standout track in an album of superlative arrangements is Stratus (Billy Cobham), the swirly disorientating opening loop on cello is really catchy, easily imaginable in a nightclub, the violin edgy. Braun heard Spectrum (on which Stratus appears) on smuggled vinyl as a boy in East Germany and loved it then. Watch them on the video and you know they love this track too.
Braun’s Black Ice in Rio, originally a piece for solo cello, is lyrical, serene and elegant. Braun says the title is a joke, he’s never been to Rio but wants to go one day. But it has that samba feel noticeable in his performance at the Seifert Competition. Trane’s Mood is Smoczyński’s original. He created it with space between the heads for whatever direction he feels like going in, knowing Braun will always be there. In an inspired arrangement Turbulent Plover (Zbigniew Seifert) is played deliberately slowly compared to the original (beloved by those auditioning in the Seifert Competition for its impassioned mood) and the result is a haunting, refined ballad. The album ends with Invitation (Bronislaw Kaper) which isn’t funky at all but fast and delicate, the two stringed instruments managing to create an orchestral sound.
This is a joyous album that definitely cheers one’s mood, and may prompt you to listen to some of the originals where you’ll appreciate just how clever, striking and original these arrangements by Braun are. They would be the first to say their versions are not better than the originals but they are certainly different, and highly enjoyable by virtue of being great fun. The concert video is part of a series curated by the Seifert Foundation, co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, presenting winners of the Seifert Competition.