Album reviews

Julia Hülsmann Quartet – “The Next Door”

Julia Hülsmann QuartetThe Next Door
(ECM Records. Review by Graham Spry)

Since the release of her remarkable debut album, The End of a Summer, on ECM Records in 2008, a new release from German pianist Julia Hülsmann is always an eagerly anticipated event. It is a pleasure to hear her assured touch on the piano, generally evident from the very first notes she plays on her albums. The anticipation is greatest when she is accompanied by members of her regular trio, namely Marc Muellbauer on double bass and Heinrich Köbberling on drums. On her new album The Next Door as on her last album in 2019, Not Far From Here, the trio is augmented by tenor saxophonist, Uli Kempendorff, to make up the Julia Hülsmann Quartet

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There is an especial kind of gratification in hearing music from an ensemble that has worked for so long and so well together, as can be attested in the histories of the Brad Mehldau Trio or the Bad Plus, so when the line-up is changed there is bound to be heightened expectation and greater scrutiny. It is not that there is doubt about Kempendorff’s capabilities, but rather concern whether the additional presence of the saxophone might trouble the waters of such a well-balanced outfit. However, perhaps more so than on the last album, the quartet functions as naturally integrated and mutually responsive as did the trio. On The Next Door, there is also more shared responsibility in the song writing credits. Fewer than half the tunes on the album are by Hülsmann; the three other musicians each contribute at least one composition.

The album opens with two tracks by Hülsmann, Empty Hands and Made Of Wood, which could be described as characteristic of her. The tunes are mostly restrained, the piano assertive but unshowy, and there is space for the saxophone to shine without over-shadowing the other instruments. The musicians explore the opportunities presented by the tunes to work sympathetically with one another. Hülsmann’s composition Jetzt Noch-Nicht appears twice on the album, first as a brief duet with Kempendorff and then, less brooding and with rather more swing, with the whole quartet. Her final contribution is Fluid, a tune whose title encapsulates the shifting interplay of instrumentation that steadily crystalises as the tune progresses.

Three of the album’s tunes are composed by Muellbauer, including the album’s final track, Valdemossa, a charming bossa nova inspired by Chopin’s Prelude No. 4 that ends abruptly (as does the whole album) with the listener still expecting, and perhaps hoping, for more. Muellbauer’s tunes are generally more abstract and angular than Hülsmann’s, as hinted at by the titles Polychrome and Wasp at the Window, and provide a complementary edginess. Köbberling’s two tunes could hardly be more contrasting. Post Post Post betrays the influence of Bill Evan’s Peace Piece from the first note, whereas the most obvious influence for Lightcap is the impressionist drumming style of Paul Motian that sometimes sound like it is advancing backwards and up the stairs. Kempendorff contributes only one composition, the irrepressibly jaunty Open Up, which allows the four instruments to intermingle and weave around each other in a way that suggests plenty of improvisatory opportunities in a live gig.

Like many fellow European jazz artists, not least fellow German pianist, Michael Wollny, Hülsmann’s albums generally include at least one jazz reinterpretation of a contemporary pop song: in this case Prince’s Sometimes It Snows in April. This delightful version exemplifies why this practice, much more common in the earlier days of jazz, has so much to recommend it. The quartet’s exploration of the tune brings to the surface its qualities of a catchy melody, harmonic hook and relaxed groove that can sometimes be submerged under the oppressive weight of studio production. And in the hands of a sympathetic quartet, Prince’s tune could scarcely expect better.

The album’s title, The Next Door, suggests that the album is a further step in the progress of Hülsmann’s music by exploring music that is comfortably adjacent to where she has been before without treading again on ground already covered. The album was recorded earlier this year and she is touring her new album mostly in Germany, but also in Switzerland, Austria and Norway. It’s unfortunate that she won’t be performing in the UK, but this loss to British concert-goers can be partly addressed by listening to the quartet’s exceptional new album.

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