Album reviews

Reiner Witzel/Richie Beirach Quintet – ‘The World Within’

Reiner Witzel, Richie Beirach, Alex Sipiagin, Joscha Oetz & Tobias Frohnhöfer – The World Within

(Jazzsick Records 5165 JS – album review by Charles Rees)

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If German saxophonist Reiner Witzel is known to listeners internationally, it is likely for his work in the pop and fusion genres, having performed and recorded with such names as Maceo Parker, The Supremes, Defunkt, and David Sanborn. Yet, for many years he has also maintained a rewarding musical partnership with swinging New York-born (now German-based) pianist Richie Beirach, performing extensively together in a range of settings and releasing two live albums with a third on the way. But The World Within is their first studio effort together…

While creatively it seems Witzel took the lead, Beirach contributed three of his compositions to the set: Two are pre-existing charts (“Flashback” and “Madagascar”) which will be familiar to fans of John Abercrombie’s quartet recordings on ECM. It was particularly thrilling to hear the melody of “Madagascar” recorded with the intended two voices. And it should come as little surprise to those familiar with Beirach that all three numbers are brilliant vehicles for the improvisers.

Witzel produces a fantastic tone with great brightness and depth on alto that puts one in mind of a young Dick Oatts. And his solo on the title track, a medium up-burn which he composed, is surprisingly reminiscent of Peter King; especially with regard their respective tones, but also in the way they feel time and develop their lines (listen to King on “Reverse Thrust” for comparison). This track of Witzel’s is also probably the best of his three contributions to the set; a tune that takes a fairly plain but appealing theme and develops it into a really swinging piece of writing.

For many, soprano sax is a seldom-used doubling necessity.… this is certainly not the case for Witzel. If anything, his improvising is stronger on the instrument, expressing his lines more fluently and with greater energy. It was especially perfect for “Requiem for Chris”, Beirach’s heavy-swinging waltz that is evokes John Coltrane’s “Spiritual”. Witzel tends to play with a lot of inflection: he perfectly judged that here.

Russian-born trumpeter Alex Sipiagin brings the technical mastery and genius improvising that he became known for while playing with Dave Holland in the 2000s. He was the perfect choice to join the alto on the frontline as his experience doubtless brings a major stabilising force to the ensemble. Beirach is also a strong part in the makeup of the band, initiating many of the ideas and helping to draw the utmost from all the solos. Interestingly, this is his first recording on Fender rhodes in 40-years!

On bass and drums are Germans Joscha Oetz and Tobias Frohnhöfer respectively. Both are solid in their roles and play with Beirach as if they are in a long-established trio (the latter is). Frohnhöfer especially deserves credit for stepping in to take the place of the group’s original drummer, Chris (Christian) Scheuber. Beirach wrote “Requiem for Chris” in his memory – Scheuber passed away in June 2021 at the age of 60. Frohnhöfer was a student of Scheuber and works in Beirach’s new trio, so was the natural person to step in. A touching composition by Scheuber called “Old Moscow” did make its way into the set for this album, so it’s fair to say that his involvement can be felt in the final product.

The World Within is a highly-engaging experience for a listener, well worth anyone’s hour. It is already one of the most enjoyable recordings of the year – albeit it’s still early…

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