Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

April 21, 2021


The album is undeniably beautiful and the performances flawless. An unfailingly interesting & rewarding listen that can be enjoyed on many levels, from pure relaxation to a more in depth appreciation.

Nicole Heartseeker & Mulo Francel

“Forever Young”

(GLM Music FM 313)

Nicole Heartseeker – piano, Mulo Francel – tenor saxophone, clarinet, mandolin

In October 2020 I reviewed the album “Crossing Life Lines”, a recording by the German born saxophonist and composer Mulo Francel (born 1967).

This highly impressive album was a celebration of the seventy five years of relative peace in Central and Eastern Europe that followed the end of World War 2 and featured the leader’s distinctive tenor playing in the company of a range of guest musicians with ancestral roots in those geographical areas. Although centred in jazz the album explored a variety of musical styles and genres, often nostalgic in tone, but addressing a subject that retains a very contemporary relevance. A fully detailed review of this recording can be viewed here;

I have to admit that prior to reviewing “Crossing Life Lines” I knew precious little about Francel. A frequent award winner he is clearly something of a star in mainland Europe and has appeared on more than forty recordings for a variety of labels, including GLM, ACT and Sony. He is best known as the leader of the popular and long running world jazz ensemble Quadro Nuevo (formed 1996), which also includes pianist David Gazarov and bassist / percussionist D.D. Lowka.

For this latest recording, which also appears on the German label GLM’s Fine Music imprint, Francel is teamed with the classically trained pianist Nicole Heartseeker in a series of intimate duo performances inspired by the European classical tradition.

The marvellously named Heartseeker began as a classical organ scholar with a particular fondness for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Max Reger and a commitment to the preservation of historical musical traditions. She subsequently studied piano and cembalo (harpsichord) and also began to branch out into other areas of music, including jazz and various strands of world music, increasingly blurring the boundaries between the different genres.

Heartseeker and Francel first recorded together in 2009 with the release of “Angel Affair”, an album featuring the sounds of saxophone and church organ. Numerous live concerts followed, usually taking place in sacred spaces.

Subtitled “New Approach To Old Masters” the idea for “Forever Young” originally came from Heartseeker, who describes the inspiration behind the album thus;
“These are compositions that have been with me all my life. This pure music, fixed in every detail with a divine harmonic order. Then came Mulo. An evening with friends, lots of wine, I sat down at the piano and played the ‘Adagio’ by Marcello & Bach. He took his saxophone and unabashedly dissolved the melodic structures. I wanted to capture the fascination of this moment. That’s how the idea for ‘Forever Young’ was born.”

Francel’s album liner notes expand upon the concept;
“One of those old masters. One of the great ones. Bach, Caccini, Vivaldi, Schubert or Handel. Briefly, I stand with him, and ask whether it would be alright with him if we played his music? If my tenor sax from the Paris of the 1950s would blend into his sounds of yesteryear. A question and the hope of a smile. That the result will be pleasing.
What has emerged is a unique moment in its own right – not of classical music and probably not of jazz either. Perhaps just a shooting star in the vast space in between. A luminous spanning arc. To Johann Sebastian. To other heroes. A beam of light in the eternity of the universe”.

The programme features eight improvisations on themes by a variety of classical composers, with these performances being given new, original titles.
There is also a series of nine subtly jazz infused interpretations of pieces by a range of composers, among them Astor Piazzolla and Francel himself.

Francel’s tenor playing has been described as “the most sensual saxophone sound in Europe” and his warm tone is particularly well suited to these intimate, ‘chamber jazz’  performances. Occasionally he is featured on other instruments, namely clarinet and mandolin.

The duo commence with “Delight Inside”, an improvisation based on Caccini’s “Ave Maria”. This is introduced by a stately, subtly echoed passage of solo saxophone from Francel, perhaps representing a link to the duo’s earlier “Angel Affair” release. Heartseeker then joins on piano, her classically honed lightness of touch immediately apparent. The pair continue to improvise elegantly around Caccini’s theme, their rapport subtle, instinctive, undemonstrative and thoroughly effective.

This easy, seemingly effortless chemistry continues on their interpretation of J.S. Bach’s “Sinfonia in F major”. The duo are perfectly ‘in sync’ throughout. This is not a jazz recording per se so there are no orthodox jazz solos as such and the musicians also eschew the push and pull of a jazz sax and piano duo performance. There are jazz listeners who will no doubt miss that competitive element, but this is not a quality that Francel and Heartseeker aspire to, their focus is very much on beauty and melody, and in this regard they succeed admirably throughout the recording.

“The Wide Point” is an improvisation around Handel’s “Larghetto” and sees the duo maintaining that warmth, elegance and mellifluousness even within this semi-spontaneous setting. Francel has never been an aggressive saxophonist and the purity of his tone suggests a healthy respect for the classical tradition.

Even within the duo’s improvisations the structure of the original classical composition normally remains readily discernible, a good case in point being “Our Serenade”, an extemporisation around the familiar theme of Schubert’s “Standchen”.

Francel’s own composition “Mia Bella” remains fully in character with the album as a whole, with Heartseeker’s elegant piano melody embellished by the sounds of the composer doubling on tenor sax and mandolin, the latter bringing an authentically Italian flourish to the tune.

The duo revisit Handel for “Let Me Weep”, an improvisation based upon the composer’s “Lascia ch’io pianga”. As on the opening track, solo tenor sax introduces the piece, with Francel’s gently brooding lamentations subsequently joined by Heartseeker’s piano accompaniment. Occasionally the pianist takes the lead, with Francel’s almost subliminal tenor gently slipping into the background.

“Ouvre tes yeux bleus” is a composition by Jules Massenet and sees Francel moving to clarinet, an instrument on which he is equally fluent and effective.

The original titles often contain subtle allusions to the names of the pieces that inspired them, as with “Dreamlike”, an improvisation based around Robert Schumann’s composition “Traumerei”. The structure of the familiar theme remains eminently recognisable as the duo, with Francel now restored to tenor sax, improvise around it. The performance includes a substantial passage of solo piano from Heartseeker as the pianist demonstrates the beauty and purity of her playing.

“Enlarged Heart” is an improvisation around Vivaldi’s “Largo from Cello Sonata No. 6” that combines classical structures with the emotive eloquence of a jazz ballad.

The next piece in a series of improvisations is “Walking Far”,  based around the Marcello & Bach “Adagio” and which mines the same emotional soil, with Heartseeker’s careful and exact piano shaping the plaintive lyricism of Francel’s tenor sax.

“Lazy Days”, based upon A.K. Ljadow’s “Prelude Op. 11 No. 1” represents the last of these semi-improvised episodes and continues the prevailing mood, with Heartseeker’s piano motifs again guiding Francel’s tenor sax ruminations.

The remaining six pieces are more straightforward interpretations of compositions, beginning with a second Jules Massenet piece, “Elegie”, which again features Francel on clarinet, his sound both smouldering and plaintive.

“A Vucchella” is a Neapolitan song written in the early 20th century by the Italian duo of composer Paolo Tosti and poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio that has been interpreted by Lucian Pavarotti, among others. This instrumental version by Heartseeker and Francel is both elegant and playful, and inherently melodic.

The first of two pieces by the great Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla is “Ave Maria”. Piazzolla inhabited the worlds of both tango and contemporary classical music, with this stately interpretation veering more towards the latter. Nevertheless there’s something of the choked emotion of tango in Francel’s playing, although its Heartseeker’s piano that often takes the lead.

“Minuet in G minor” is credited to Handel and Wilhelm Kempff, even though they were not contemporaries. I assume that the latter expanded on a theme by the former, but I’ll leave the classical experts to sort that one out. It would seem that it’s not jazz musicians that are musical magpies. Whatever the providence of the piece the duo’s performance is beautiful, with Francel’s soulful tenor complementing the more obviously classical sound of Heartseeker’s piano.

Gabriel Faure’s “Apres un reve” features smoky tenor sax above a rolling piano figure and the album concludes with Piazzolla’s “Oblivion”, a brooding tenor sax rumination complemented by appropriately sombre piano accompaniment.. The echoed introduction sounds as if Francel is blowing his tenor into the innards of the open piano, a technique I have seen Tim Garland deploy with the UK jazz/classical trio Acoustic Triangle.

“Forever Young” is a work of great beauty. Each track works magnificently as a stand alone entity but there is also a unified mood about the recording as a whole that makes this album succeed as a collection of great duo performances.

Francel’s sax usually takes the lead and his playing is sublime throughout, but one shouldn’t underestimate Hertseeker’s contribution, the pianist’s peerless, classically honed technique is the perfect foil to the saxophonist’s unfailingly melodic improvisations and interpretations.

Francel is right, it’s not exactly a jazz recording, and it’s not entirely a classical recording either. I appreciate that some jazz buffs will find the duo’s ‘chamber jazz’ approach a little bloodless and may dismiss the recording as bland and inconsequential.

That said the album is undeniably beautiful and the performances flawless. No single piece is allowed to outstay its welcome and despite the apparent limitations of the instrumentation, essentially just tenor sax and piano, the album maintains the listener’s attention and at no point becomes boring. And, for me, there’s a convincing enough jazz element in the music to earn the recording four stars and a recommendation.

I accept that its largely classical approach will alienate some hardcore jazz listeners, but suspect that this is a recording with the potential to reach a large and appreciative audience. One can imagine any one of these pieces appealing to a broad listenership if featured on Radio 3 and with the right exposure this is an album that has the potential to match the landmark Jan Garbarek / Hilliard Ensemble “Officium” album in terms of reaching out to a crossover audience. It’s not a demanding listen, but it is an unfailingly interesting and rewarding one that can be enjoyed on many levels, from pure relaxation to a more in depth appreciation.

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