Album Review

Thomas Strønen/Ayumi Tanaka/Marthe Lea – ‘Bayou’

Thomas Strønen/Ayumi Tanaka/Marthe Lea – Bayou

(ECM 0724298. CD Review by John Bungey)

Clamp on the headphones, kick the cat off the sofa, and settle down for a journey into the land of the free. A whisper of piano, a swish of brushed snares, a satisfyingly resonant thud from the Norwegian Thomas Strønen‘s giant bass drum and then, unexpectedly, a voice. As this open, spacious music starts to unfurl the first stop is a sad old Norwegian folk tune sung by Marthe Lea, her clear tones rising over skeletal backing. Reprised almost half an hour later, this wispy fragment is the most composed element in an album of free improvisation – ten pieces that explore the spaces between organised notes and pure sound. There is silence too, silence with a capital S. Here every sound has intention and awareness. (Which, of course, also means you have to listen with a capital L.)

Often Strønen leads, with intricate explorations of his cymbals, gongs and drums. Ayumi Tanaka‘s piano never imposes, spinning lines that might have wandered out of something mournful and late 19th century. Lea plays some clarinet – playful, querulous, wary – as the music shapes and reshapes itself like sonic fractals.

The group came together at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, where Strønen has an associate professorship and Tanaka and Lea were students. After hearing a recording of one of their exploratory, open-form rehearsals, Manfred Eicher of ECM suggested this album, which has been recorded in perfect sound in Lugano. (You always know you’re reviewing an ECM album when you find yourself checking the dictionary definition of “crystalline”.)

Strønen has recorded more than 70 albums. You may know him from Food, his collaboration with saxophonist Iain Ballamy, with the monolithic, neo-industrial music of Mercurial Balm in 2012, a take-no-prisoners high point. Since then has come Time Is a Blind Guide, his jazz-classical crossover group, with Lucus (2018), a wonderful set that pulled off the feat of being both accessible yet highly original.

There’s nothing here that excited me quite as much as Lucus. But Bayou sets out to paint a different picture – more intimate, more meditative. As with any free improv there’s a good deal of searching as well as moments of revelation, but do stick with it.

LINK: Bayou at UK Distributor ProperUK Release 9 April 2021

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