"And If" is, in many ways, a typical ECM release, immaculately crafted and recorded, and it's a highly melodic record that's likely to have broad appeal to fans of the label.
Anat Ford Trio
(ECM Records ECM 2109 273 3216)
“And If” is the long awaited second album for ECM by the Tel Aviv born pianist Anat Fort. Now based largely in New York Fort made her ECM début in 2007 with “A Long Story”, originally recorded in 2004 with a quartet line up featuring Perry Robinson on clarinet and ocarina, Ed Schuller on double bass and the great Paul Motian at the drums. It was Motian who first introduced Fort to Manfred Eicher and ECM and “A Long Story” was something of a surprise commercial success for the label.
Fort’s new offering features her regular working group of Gary Wong on double bass and the German born Roland Schneider at the drums. The trio have been performing together for ten years but this is their first recording session. With such a long running group it is perhaps not surprising that the chemistry between them is very strong and the album features a high degree of group interaction and some wonderfully delicate interplay between the instruments, all captured in the pristine ECM house style by Eicher and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. Indeed it’s a testament to Eicher’s faith in the trio that he brought them over to Europe to record at the famous Rainbow Studio in Oslo.
The ten tracks are all Fort originals and the album is bookended by two compositions bearing the name of Fort’s former mentor Paul Motian. It’s all very pretty and immediately recognisable as an ECM record and some commentators such as my co-writer Tim Owen have found it a little bloodless. This is a valid criticism but personally I found much to appreciate here, enjoying as I do both contemporary piano trio music in general and, for the most part, the ECM sound itself.
The opening “Paul Motian (1)” sets the trio’s stall out with crystalline piano and filigree percussion anchored by Wang’s resonant bass. Fort has spoken of the sensitivity of her two colleagues and this is clearly demonstrated here. Schneider’s delicate playing bears the mark of Paul Motian himself, the master of percussive understatement.
“Clouds Moving” sounds exactly as you would expect it to. Fort cites not only the lyricism of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett as influences on her writing and playing but also the aesthetic of ECM itself. Fort listened to many of the label’s classic early releases during her formative years and it must be a source of pride to her to now be an ECM recording artist. The attractive melody of “Clouds Moving” clearly evinces something to the sound of early Keith Jarrett.
Fort studied classical piano as a child and the classical influence can be heard on the lyrical ballad “En If”, another highly attractive tune with a flowing melody. Wang and Schneider’s disciplined, sympathetic support is excellent here as throughout. The following"Some” is a little spikier with some sparkling piano and drum exchanges but Fort and her colleagues never quite lose their trademark delicacy.
The album’s centre piece is “Something ‘Bout Camels”, a leisurely re-working of a tune that initially appeared on “A Long Story”. I’ve not heard the original version but here the tune begins with eerie, almost subliminal, arco bass before Fort introduces a fragment of melody at the piano. The piece builds through a reflective passage for solo piano that in turn develops into an insistent modal vamp. Wang and Schneider take up the rhythmic reins as Fort solos and the piece begins to exhibit the vaguely Middle Eastern air suggested by its title, something that Schneider’s exotic but tasteful percussion encourages. The piece comes full circle with a dexterous pizzicato solo from Wang before the bassist picks up the bow to end the track in the same atmospheric manner with which it began. The following “If”, a duet between Fort and the nimble but tasteful Schneider is essentially a cameo, clocking in at just under one a half minutes.
Fort divides her time between Israel and the USA and the next two tracks “Lanesboro” and “Minnesota” are graphic evocations of her adopted homeland. “Lanesboro” is almost hymnal and features another superb plucked solo from Wang. Fort conjures up images of the American great open spaces in a way that recalls the music of both Jarrett and Pat Metheny. “Minnesota” explores similar territory in a slightly more assertive manner with Wang again given space to demonstrate his abilities as a soloist. Both tunes are highly melodic and exhibit strong pictorial/cinematic qualities.
The brief “Nu” (the title a nod to Don Cherry, perhaps?) with its jagged rhythms is the album’s most assertive piece and suggests other directions for the trio to explore. Perhaps in a live context they already do so. Certainly one or two other items in this vein would have given the album a greater degree of contrast and dynamic variation and may also have helped to counteract the criticisms of preciousness and bloodlessness. The album ends with an alternative, more abstract version of the “Paul Motian” piece.
Some commentators have spoken of the influence of Fort’s Jewishness on her music making but to me it’s not that obvious, “Something ‘Bout Camels” being a possible exception. In the main the chief influences seem to be Western classical music and chamber jazz with Motian continuing to cast a strong spell even in his absence.
Fort has spoken of the importance of “leaving space” in her music, something that her accompanists do superbly, and of course this chimes in perfectly with the whole ECM aesthetic, it’s something Eicher and Kongshaug have encouraged musicians to do for years.
“As If” is, in many ways, a typical ECM release, immaculately crafted and recorded, and it’s a highly melodic record that’s likely to have broad appeal to fans of the label. There’s something of Tord Gustavsen’s accessibility here alongside the more obvious influences of Evans, Jarrett, Motian and even Fort’s former tutor Paul Bley. I’ve not heard the album featured on Late Junction as yet but that programme’s audience is likely to find much to enjoy here.