by Ian Mann
November 06, 2020
An atmosphere of gentle, fragile beauty and subdued melancholy remains throughout and is hugely affecting. There is considerable beauty here, an example of ‘chamber jazz’ at its best.
Berardi / Foran / Karlen featuring Pascal Schumacher
(Earshift Music EAR029)
Kristin Berardi – vocals, Sean Foran – piano, Rafael Karlen – saxophone
with guest Pascal Schumacher – vibraphone
The trio of vocalist Kristin Berardi, pianist Sean Foran and saxophonist Rafael Karlen was formed in Brisbane in 2014 and released their award winning début album “Hope in My Pocket” the following year.
Foran is probably the best known member of the trio to British jazz audiences having studied at Leeds College of Music. He has retained strong links with the UK and has toured the country several times with the Australian trio Trichotomy, a band whose albums “Variations” (2010), “The Gentle War” (2011), “Fact Finding Mission” (2013), “KNOWN_UNKNOWN (2017) and “Live With String Quartet” (also 2017), have all been favourably reviewed on the Jazzmann. I have also been fortunate enough to attend a number of Trichotomy live shows over the years at venues in Cardiff and Stratford-upon-Avon and can confirm their excellence as a live act.
In 2016 the prolific Foran released the excellent solo album “Frames of Reference”, recorded in the UK with a predominately British line up, including Julian Arguelles (reeds), Stuart McCallum (guitar), Ben Davis (cello) and Joost Hendrickx (drums). Review here;
In 2019 Foran and McCallum combined once more for the duo recording “Counterpart”. Review here; https://www.thejazzmann.com/reviews/review/sean-foran-and-stuart-mccallum-counterpart
I’m grateful to Sean for forwarding me this review copy of his latest release, the second album from his trio with vocalist Kristin Berardi and saxophonist Rafael Karlen.
I have to admit that prior to the receipt of this album I knew nothing about his two colleagues. It transpires that Berardi is a former winner of the Montreux Jazz Vocal competition and that Karlen was the recipient of a Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship, the award of which enabled him to study in the US and Europe. Among his tutors was none other than Julian Arguelles.
Further details regarding the careers of both Berardi and Karlen can be found on their individual websites;
I’m on surer ground with Schumacher. The Luxembourg born vibraphonist has featured on the Jazzmann web pages on numerous occasions. In 2011 I reviewed the album “Bang My Can”, recorded by Schumacher with an international quartet featuring Franz von Chossy (piano), Christophe Devisscher (bass) and Jens Duppe (drums). In the same year I saw this line up give a highly enjoyable performance at Brecon Jazz Festival. More recently he released the totally solo vibes/percussion/electronics album “Sol”.
Foran explains Schumacher’s involvement with the Berardi / Foran / Karlen Trio thus;
“We’ve known Pascal for many years. He came out to Australia for his first tour and played a double bill with Trichotomy, so I’ve been into his music for some time. Kristin has also collaborated with other members of his band at various times over the years. When we started thinking about collaborators Pascal came to mind immediately. We were all fans of his playing and writing, and also we were looking for a sound that would complement the trio, something a little unexpected, and the vibraphone fitted that. We already have instrumentation that is a little unusual, so I think this pushed that even further”.
In 2017 the trio invited Schumacher to tour Australia with them, including performances at the Brisbane and Melbourne Jazz Festivals. Whilst the vibraphonist was in the country the ensemble spent two days in the studios in Brisbane recording a new suite of music, written specifically with Schumacher in mind. The result is “Haven”.
The new album features eleven new individual pieces with the writing credits distributed fairly evenly around the core trio. With no bass or drums the music comes loosely into the category of ‘chamber jazz’, and the sound is frequently very beautiful, but still retains enough rigour and variation to make it consistently interesting.
The trio’s influences include Joni Mitchell, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler, Bobo Stenson and Claude Debussy, with elements of jazz, folk, classical and more informing their music.
The album commences with Berardi’s song “No Shepherds Live Here”, which builds gently from Foran’s sparse pianistic introduction. Beradi’s well enunciated vocals exhibit a Joni Mitchell like gravitas, the lyrics telling the tale of a superficially charming but predatory male character. The phrase “a wolf in sheep’s clothing strikes again” is followed by the line “no shepherds live here”. It’s a ‘proper’ song with a strong narrative, but it also allows the instrumentalists to stretch out, with low key solos from Foran at the piano, Schumacher on vibraphone and Karlen on tenor saxophone all adding extended instrumental episodes.
“Ripple”, written by Karlen, introduces itself via a dialogue between Foran and Schumacher. Berardi sings wordlessly here, her long vocal melody lines gliding above the underlying piano and vibes. Vocal and sax lines then intertwine as the piano and vibes temporarily drop out. Subsequently the vibes / piano dialogue is resumed, the resultant sounds reminiscent of the “ripples” of the title. Overall the piece is an excellent example of the kind of translucent beauty that this ensemble is capable of producing.
The pianist’s “Foran Policy” (see what he just did there) explores similar areas, with Berardi again singing wordlessly and sometimes sounding a little like Joni Mitchell crossed with Norma Winstone. Succinct instrumental features come from Karlen on saxophone and the composer at the piano.
One suspects that the Azimuth trio featuring Winstone, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor may have been a particular inspiration for BFK. Winstone has also worked regularly with trios featuring piano and reeds, firstly with Taylor and Tony Coe and later with pianist Glauco Venier and saxophonist/clarinettist Klaus Gesing.
Also by Foran “Orbit” introduces a greater rhythmic focus, courtesy of dampened piano strings and a more metallic vibraphone sound. Berardi continues to sing soaring, exploratory wordless melodies, sometimes augmented by Karlen’s tenor, while the exchanges between Foran and Schumacher sometimes recall those of Chick Corea and Gary Burton.
Written by Berardi “Revolving Doors” features the core trio. Introduced by Foran at the piano the piece demonstrates the flexibility of Berardi’ s wordless vocals, whilst still maintaining an air of fragile beauty. The trio are particularly adept at building and sustaining a mood, and although they are obviously all superb technicians their playing serves the music at all times. BFK are more concerned with atmosphere and beauty than they are with empty displays of vocal or instrumental virtuosity.
Written by Karlen “Bushfire Break” was inspired by the painting of the same name by the Aboriginal artist Ronnie Tjampitjinpa. This is another example of the ensemble’s talent for mood building, a piece that takes the beauty and simplicity of the painter’s work as its inspiration. An extended piano / vocal introduction featuring Berardi’s ethereal, elongated melody lines, subsequently augmented by the composer’s tenor, leads into a more rhythmic and robust second section. This is just for sax and piano, with features for each, including an extended passage of unaccompanied piano from Foran. The piece then resolves itself in the same manner that it began, with the return of Berardi’s vocals.
Schumacher returns to the fold for Foran’s composition “Rambling”, providing the thread around which Berardi’s voice and the other instruments coalesce. There’s the sense of a journey being undertaken, and a bucolic feel encouraged by the charm of Berardi’s wordless vocals. There’s also an extended vibraphone solo from Schumacher as the momentum of the music increases and the guest musician really comes in to his own.
Karlen’s brief “Handwritten” is more spare, introduced by a sombre passage of unaccompanied piano and subsequently featuring Schumacher’s floating lyricism at the vibes. These elements are allied to Berardi’s ethereal vocals and splashes of colour from the composer’s saxophone.
Berardi’s “Chihuly” continues the fragile and ethereal mood, with the composer treating the sound of her voice with a dash of echo. Schumacher’s vibes twinkle and shimmer as Foran reaches into the interior of the piano.
“Bushfire Two”, attributed to Berardi, Foran and Karlen goes even further out. One assumes from the joint credit that the piece is fully improvised. The discrete use of electronics, a feature of the album is a whole, is more pronounced here, with live looping seemingly among the techniques used. Atmospheric and subtly unsettling, one could imagine this piece being used as part of a movie soundtrack.
The album concludes with Berardi’s “Begin Again”. There’s an elegiac quality about her simple, folk like wordless vocal melodies, underscored by piano and vibes. Schumacher later solos with a lyrical elegance, eventually followed by Karlen on feathery tenor.
With his “Frames of Reference” and “Counterpart” albums Foran has already demonstrated his love of melody and beauty and his skills as a creator of mood and atmosphere, and of colour and texture.
Together with his colleagues he brings these qualities to the fore again here. “Haven” establishes its aesthetic in the first few bars of the opening track and sustains it throughout the album. This atmosphere of gentle, fragile beauty and subdued melancholy remains throughout and is hugely affecting. There is considerable beauty here, although some listeners may find it all a little bloodless, and it is definitely an album to be approached in an appropriate frame of mind.
On it’s own terms “Haven” succeeds brilliantly. I’ve not heard its predecessor “Hope in My Pocket”, but the addition of Schumacher seems to suit the ensemble perfectly and he makes a highly positive contribution to all of the pieces that he is involved with.
Fans of the ‘ECM sound’ will particularly enjoy this record, which represents an example of ‘chamber jazz’ at its best. Provided the listener knows just what to expect this is an album that be thoroughly recommended.
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“Haven” will be released on November 20th 2020 and is available via the group’s Bandcamp page here;