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by Ian Mann

April 15, 2011


A worthy addition to the ranks of great ECM piano trio recordings.

Julia Hulsmann Trio


(ECM 2177 274 4262)

Bonn born pianist Julia Hulsmann is hardly one of ECM’s more high profile artists, certainly not in the UK anyway, but this highly attractive piano trio album suggests that her name deserves to become more widely known.

“Imprint” marks Hulsmann’s second recording for ECM following the release of her acclaimed début album for the label “The End of a Summer” in 2008. Hulsmann retains the services of the trio from the previous record with Marc Muellbauer appearing on double bass and Heinrich Kobberling at the drums. It quickly becomes apparent that this a regular working group with a highly developed sense of mutual support and group interaction-they had worked together for several years before signing to ECM. To emphasise the democratic nature of the trio both Muellbauer and Kobberling bring two pieces each to a twelve track programme featuring seven compositions by the leader. The only outside item is a version of the 1940’s German show tune “Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon”, of which more later.

Immaculately recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio “Imprint” is a classic ECM piano trio album with Hulsmann and her colleagues displaying a strong melodic sense and playing with a sense of elegant restraint, very much a “less is more” approach with the emphasis on unadorned beauty. However this does not imply a lack of attention to detail as the opening “Rond Point” demonstrates. Hulsmann’s delicate, crystalline piano paces the tune but leaves room for the delicate filigree of Kobberling’s exquisite cymbal work. Muellbauer is also an essential component of the music, anchoring things discreetly and contributing a richly resonant solo.

“Grand Canyon” is more groove orientated with a greater emphasis on rhythmic qualities. Kobberling’s skittering grooves, Hulsmann’s propulsive left hand and Muellbauer’s subtle bass pulse combine to support piano soloing that still retains a strong sense of lyricism. Muellbauer is given plenty of space throughout the recording and rightly so, he contributes another supremely fluent and dexterous solo here.

The ballad “A Light Left On” has a simple, song like quality that is tenderly embellished by the trio. The melancholy ring of Muellbauer’s bass and the delicately nuanced drumming of Kobberling are essential to the success of the piece. They’re the perfect accompaniment to the romanticism of Hulsmann’s own playing.

“Juni” is more abstract, almost minimalist, with the rapport between the trio as quietly focussed as ever. As an aside I seem to recall this being the title of an ECM album by drummer Peter Erskine from a few years back. Featuring the same instrumental configuration the album included the great John Taylor on piano. 

Kobberling’s first composition “Storm In A Teacup” has something of the song-like quality of Hulsmann’s earlier “A Light Left On”. The central melody is gorgeous and could have come from Pat Metheny or Keith Jarrett.

Hulsmann’s “(Go And) Open The Door” also has a song like structure and by it’s insistent nature conveys a vaguely unsettling sense of implied menace. There are fine solos from Muellbauer and from Hulsmann as the piece gathers pace mid tune.

“Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon” was written in the 1940’s by Anton Profes for the musical comedy “Der weisse Traum”. The song was a favourite of Hulsmann’s mother who passed away in 2009, hence its inclusion here. It may seem an odd selection but the trio stamp their quiet authority on the piece and distil the tune to its essence in their trademark house style. Despite having what might be viewed as unpromising origins the tune fits perfectly into the context of the rest of the album.

Muellbauer’s first offering, “Ritual” initially launches the trio into the more groove orientated sound of the earlier “Grand Canyon”. At this stage of the proceedings it signals a welcome change of pace but still finds room for a fine solo from the composer.

The bassist also shines on Hulsmann’s slowly unfolding “Lulu’s Paradise” before introducing his elegant, song-like ballad “Ulmenwall” to the programme. The air of fragile beauty that permeates so much of the album is present throughout. Hulsmann’s richly lyrical playing is the highlight here but the empathic support from bass and drums shouldn’t be overlooked.

Kobberling’s second tune “Zahlen Bitte” begins with a colourful but innately tasteful solo drum introduction from the composer. There are also features for Hulsmann and Muellbauer in this intriguing composition that combines the group’s familiar lyricism with more groove orientated interludes.

To close the trio play “Who’s Next”, Hulsmann’s tribute to the great Thelonious Monk. This introduces an element of swing for pretty much the first time and is as playful as the trio get. It’s a nice, light-hearted way to round off the album.

Although Hulsmann chooses to pay homage to Monk the primary influence on her music seems to be Bill Evans. Her lightness of touch and the painstaking way in which the trio stitch their improvisations together would appear to owe much to Evans. The fine tracery of Kobberling’s drumming has its roots in Paul Motian and Muellbauer’s wonderful bass work is surely descendant from Scott La Faro. The Hulsmann trio filter the influence of Evans through the prism of more contemporary European developments and the result is beautiful music with a quiet strength and an inner resolve. With the encouragement of producer Manfred Eicher Hulsmann has deliberately kept her music pure and uncluttered.

If there’s a criticism of the record it’s that it retains the same mood almost throughout. For me this carefully maintained clarity and sense of purpose is a plus, my co-writer Tim would probably find it
dull and unadventurous. If you love the ECM aesthetic this record is among their best, a worthy addition to the ranks of great ECM piano trio recordings.

However you view the term this is “chamber jazz” of the highest order.

Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice.

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