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Christoph Stiefel Inner Language Trio

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

3-5 out of 5


A very impressive album overall and one that deserves to raise Stiefel's profile in the UK. "Live!" is eminently accessible and full of striking melodies and strong rhythmic ideas.

Christoph Stiefel’s Inner Language Trio


(Basho Records SRCD 39-2)

Pianist and composer Christoph Stiefel (born Zurich,1961) leads one of Switzerland’s most accomplished trios. Classically trained he later became involved in R’n'B and jazz fusion first coming to prominence in 1984 as a member of harpist Andreas Vollenweider’s Friends group. In 1990 Stiefel formed his first trio and has recorded a total of seven albums in this format adding the Inner Language tag in 2008. Stiefel also works as a solo pianist, in a duo with vocalist Lisette Spinnler and also performs occasionally with a septet, the Isorhythm Orchestra, an extended version of the Inner Language Trio featuring trumpet, trombone and reeds plus the voice of Sarah Buechi.

Stiefel became involved with Basho Records following a chance meeting with label owner Christine Allen at the annual Jazz Ahead event in Bremen. The pianist has long been fascinated with the concept of the Isorhythm, a compositional precept first conceived in the middle ages whereby the melodic and accompanying parts of a piece do not have to follow each other. Stiefel and Allen discovered a mutual admiration for the work of British pianist Gwilym Simcock who sometimes deploys the concept of the Isorhythm in his own work. Simcock is of course signed to Basho and Stiefel subsequently followed him to the label. The two pianists have performed together in a series of piano duos at the Steinway Festival at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club and Stiefel also delivered an impressive solo performance at St.James’s Church, Piccadilly as part of the 2011 London Jazz Festival.

“Live!” is culled from three concert performances given by the Inner Language Trio in Saalfelden, Amberg and Munich in April 2011 and features Stiefel at the piano accompanied by Thomas Lahns on bass and Lionel Friedli on drums. On two items Friedli is replaced by Kevin Chesham, born in Bern despite the Anglicised name. Stiefel, Chesham and bassist Arne Huber form the current edition of the Inner Language Trio that will shortly be appearing at the 2012 London Jazz Festival.

Despite the academic concept behind Stiefel’s music and the dry nature of some of his tune titles the music to be found on “Live!” is eminently accessible and full of striking melodies and strong rhythmic ideas. Stiefel’s background in funk and fusion has given him a way with a groove and fans of contemporary piano trios such as E.S.T. and Neil Cowley will find much to enjoy here.

Perhaps rather perversely the album commences with “Isorhythm #4” which is a good demonstration of the trio’s strengths with a catchy melodic hook and a solid groove courtesy of bassist Lahns (who also demonstrates his abilities as a soloist) and drummer Friedli. The interplay between the group members is engrossing with Friedli’s solid bass and Friedli busy groove framing Stiefel’s expansive piano explorations. The piece may be rooted in a theory and have an academic title but there’s an energy and vitality about the performance (including a Friedli drum feature) that is guaranteed to win over any doubters. 

“Inner Language/Isorhythm #19” is a slow burner in the E.S.T. manner, building in layers of intensity and complexity from the opening motif. Stiefel maintains a strong left hand rhythmic presence almost throughout as he expounds extensively with his right. Friedli’s drumming is crisp and precise, neatly energetic and subtly propulsive. The piece is punctuated by (and closes with) passages of solo piano which helps to add dynamic variation

There is a change of drummer for “Isorhythm # 2.2” which features the more powerful, rock orientated approach of Kevin Chesham. The piece develops from the simplest of introductions to embrace a muscular, angular groove. Lahns and Chesham deliver an extended bass and drum passage punctuated by Stiefel’s dampened strings, interior scrapings and glacial tinkling. This morphs into a full blown, feverish piano solo above the dense grooves - it’s not dissimilar to the approach of the German trio led by pianist Michael Wollny. Fuelled by Chesham’s walloping drums the piece achieves something of ‘s fabled intensity.

The lush lyricism of the lovely “New Waltz For Nina” with Friedli back on drums then shows a completely different side of the trio. Now Stiefel’s playing is sparse yet eloquent and Lahn’s bass both lyrical and deeply resonant. Friedli adds sympathetic, delicately detailed brushed accompaniment.

“Olympus Mons/Isorhythm # 28” marks a return to the more forceful approach. Lahns’ powerfully plucked bass intro and Friedli’s relentless groove sets the tone as Stiefel adds a strong left hand rhythmic impetus whilst soloing with the right. Later things get even more intense with some of the trio’s most complex passages to date, embracing freedom and dissonance before Stiefel emerges to solo feverishly above Friedli’s restlessly chattering grooves. It’s a challenging ride for both the musicians and the audience but its one that the crowd at Munich clearly relished.

“Eliane” recorded with Chesham at the drums is more impressionistic and lyrical, and again represents a welcome change in mood and pace. It offers a different perspective on Chesham’s playing with the drummer now cast more in the role of colourist. The sound of dampened piano strings is used relatively extensively on one of the more atmospheric items in the trio’s programme. There is, however, still an underlying urgency about Stiefel’s lengthy solo. 

“Pensar Positivo/Isorhythm #18” is as upbeat as the title might suggest with a catchy melodic hook and buoyant rhythms. There’s a more abstract episode mid tune based around underpinning bass, gently pattering drums and piano atmospherics from which a groove emerges then fades away before building again for the piece to finish in exuberant fashion.

“Cosmos” begins atmospherically with grainily bowed bass, use of the piano’s innards and small percussive details from Friedli. Eventually a lyrical piano motif emerges before the piece shades back into abstraction, eventually emerging as the groove of the closing “In & Out Of Order/Isorhythm#15”. Credited to Stiefl/Lahns/Friedli it would appear that “Cosmos” is in fact a brief, improvised introduction to the composition that follows.

That final piece surges along busily, as involving and intense as the rest of the trio’s music with its darting motifs and hyperactive grooves. Stiefel’s thunderous block chords add an extra drama and intensity. Along with several other pieces this item formed part of a live broadcast for German radio and the crowd at Jazzclub Unterfahrt in Munich gives the trio another rousing reception.

There is much to enjoy throughout this album and as mentioned previously Stiefel’s music should hold appeal for fans of contemporary piano groups such as E.S.T., Neil Cowley, and The Bad Plus. The standard of musicianship is exemplary throughout with Stiefel in particular demonstrating a huge technical ability. There are moments when it all becomes a bit too intense, Stiefel’s reliance on repeated motifs can ultimately become a little wearing and the more lyrical interludes come as perhaps a greater relief than usual. It could be argued that by adhering too closely to theoretic principles Stiefel is restricting himself as a composer.

However minor personal quibbles aside this is a very impressive album overall and one that deserves to raise Stiefel’s profile in the UK. On this evidence his live shows should be both energetic and impressive with a high degree of musical sophistication behind the inevitable fireworks. UK jazz fans will have the chance to check out what is sure to be a thrilling live experience when the Inner Language Trio play at St. James’s Church, Piccadilly on Wednesday November 14th as part of the 2012 London Jazz Festival. They will be supporting Tim Garland’s Korea Moves. Details at         

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