by Ian Mann
October 02, 2012
Brilliant musicianship is again combined with a sense of fun and spirit of adventure.
(ACT Music + Vision ACT 9530-02)
Born in Tel Aviv pianist and composer Yaron Herman is now based in France and has established a reputation as one of the most exciting pianists currently operating on the European jazz circuit. Herman also spent time in the US studying at Berklee College of Music and he retains strong links with the North American jazz scene. Indeed it was albums such as “A Time For Everything” (2007) and “Muse” (2009) both recorded with the New York rhythm pairing of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Gerald Cleaver that helped to win the technically gifted Herman an international reputation. Both of these releases were wide ranging and included notable covers of pop songs such as Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Bjork’s “Isobel” alongside folk and classical leanings.
Herman signed to the prestigious German label ACT for 2010’s “Follow The White Rabbit”, his most consistent and focussed offering thus far. Here his partners were the Canadian pairing of bassist Chris Tordini and drummer Tommy Crane and I was lucky enough to see this configuration give an excellent performance at the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre as part of the 2010 London Jazz Festival. “White Rabbit” included covers of Radiohead and Nirvana (a splendid version of “Heart Shaped Box” ), an Israeli folk tune and a strong series of originals which often recalled the spirit and energy of E.S.T.
I saw Herman play live again at the 2011 Brecon Jazz Festival, this time in the company of the rhythm section that appears on this record, French bassist Stephane Kerecki , a bandleader in his own right, and Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz. If the Brecon performance failed to reach the heights of the Purcell Room show this was largely due to outside circumstances, the gig was held in a draughty marquee and noise from other events on the festival site too often leached in and marred the trio’s performance.
Be that as it may “Alter Ego” reveals that Herman remains a phenomenal talent whose music is still developing. In addition to the core trio the new album also features the talents of Parisian musician Emile Parisien on tenor and soprano saxophones and the American Logan Richardson on alto. Herman has worked on and off with Parisien for around ten years but met Richardson more recently. Richardson has also been associated with the US born, London based musician Michael Janisch and has worked in some of the bassist’s numerous Transatlantic ensembles.
With “Alter Ego” the pop song covers are gone with the emphasis now placed firmly on Herman’s original compositions. The exceptions are two significant covers of works by Jewish composers including an interpretation of “Hatikva”, the Jewish national anthem. The pieces are, in the main, short with no item outstaying its welcome. The brevity is arguably the result of Herman’s “ego-less” approach to the writing of this record, a method he explains in his notes to the album. Indeed several of the pieces sound as if they may be the result of group improvisations with the finished track extracted from a larger whole.
The album begins in reflective mood with the solo piano introduction to “Atlas and Axis”. Soon however the sound of the two horns indicates that this is to be a very different Yaron Herman record. Although Herman subtly dominates the opener with his probing solo the interplay between the pianist and the rest of the group is satisfyingly intimate and complex with Parisien contributing strongly.
Propelled by Kerecki’s powerful bass figures and the clatter and chatter of Ravitz’s drum grooves Mojo is altogether more extrovert and lively with the horns adding a Middle Eastern/ North African feel to the piece (sometimes reminiscent of the sound of Kerecki’s 2008 album “Houria” recorded with his trio plus American saxophonist Tony Malaby). Herman’s joyous solo features him singing along ecstatically a la Keith Jarrett. “Mojo” is an outpouring of joy, a totally invigorating experience for musicians and listeners alike.
As the title might suggest “Heart Break Through” is altogether more sombre with keening saxophone underpinned by freely structured rolling rhythms. For all this there’s a strangely uplifting quality behind the sometimes brooding ambience.
“Your Eyes” is a brief but lovely passage of lyrical solo piano which provides a kind of prelude to the intriguingly titled “La confusion sexuelle des papillons”. My rudimentary French is sufficient enough for me to get the gist of this and the music itself is sometimes given an airy, butterfly like quality courtesy of Parisien’s dancing, mercurial soprano. However both the underlying rhythms and Herman’s expansive solo are surprisingly robust, shades of Jarrett again.
“Ukolabavka / Wiegenlied” is a short and lovely exploration of two melodies by Gideon Klein (1919-45), a pianist and composer born into a Moravian Jewish family. Strongly influenced by Janacek Klein often deployed folk elements in his work as can be heard here. The reeds sound almost oboe like and Kerecki impresses with a deeply resonant linking bass solo.
Herman introduces “From Afar” with a torrent of notes and the music quickly adopts a grooving E.S.T. style approach, initially forceful and attention grabbing but with the horns eventually diverting the music down a more reflective path. At just over two minutes it appears to be a fragment of a longer improvisation.
The following “Sunbath” is of a similar length but is more sombre in tone with Kerecki again featuring strongly alongside ruminative saxophone, sparse piano chording and delicately brushed drums.
On “Homemade” Ravitz adopts a hip hop groove which provides the backdrop for the exploration of the often complex melody. Kerecki again demonstrates his formidably fluent soloing abilities in a more reflective central section with Parisien on tenor and Herman himself also featuring strongly.
Herman treats The Israeli national anthem “Hatikva” (“The Hope”) with due reverence. Samuel Cohen’s minor key melody is arranged as a beautiful duet for piano and saxophone. Unusually sombre for a national anthem the modal melancholia of Cohen’s tune is offset in the sung version by the uplifting nature of the words.
The brief “Mechanical Brothers” is a highly rhythmic snippet featuring clattering industrial style drum beats, squiggling saxes and the sound Herman’s dampened piano strings. Again the piece appears to be a fragment of a larger improvisation and sounds appropriately futuristic. The title may also be an allusion to Ravitz of whom Herman says “I feel like he’s my lost brother of sorts”.
By way of contrast the following “Madeleine” is the lengthiest track on the album, through composed and episodic and superbly played by the ensemble. Herman’s ecstatic, flowing solo is a particular delight. Ravitz drives him onwards with the kind of empathic rapport that justifies the comment above.
The album concludes with the brief but spiky “Kaos”, driven by Kerecki’s monstrous bass and Ravitz’s spare but powerful drumming as piano and saxophone jostle for the listener’s attention. Again it could be a a portion of a larger whole.
Although substantially different from his previous recordings “Alter Ego” is still a quintessential Yaron Herman album. Brilliant musicianship is again combined with a sense of fun and spirit of adventure. Herman’s music combines adventurousness and a certain intellectual rigour with pure joie de vivre. With its thirteen relatively short tracks the album is an engaging mixture of moods and styles and such is Herman’s vivacity that the listener never gets the chance to be bored. The choice of the two outside pieces is an effective affirmation of Herman’s roots but overall “Alter Ego” is about Herman the composer and pianist and the palpable chemistry between the leader and his highly talented ensemble. “Alter Ego” represents another impressive and powerful release in this ACT’s twentieth anniversary year.
Herman and his quartet will appear at the 2012 London Jazz Festival on Sunday November 18th at 2.00 pm as part of a special edition of Jazz on 3’s Jazz in the Round sessions. This free event will feature a variety of artists including Herman’s quartet featuring Parisien, Kerecki and Ravitz. The event will be broadcast in Jazz on 3 on Mon 26 Nov.