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Jure Pukl

Broken Circles

by Ian Mann

April 07, 2020


Pukl’s most ambitious and most mature album to date. A European musician who is making a considerable mark on the American jazz scene, “Broken Circles” is a work that he can be justly proud of.

Jure Pukl

“Broken Circles”

(Whirlwind Recordings WR4751)

Jure Pukl – tenor & soprano saxophones, bass clarinet, Charles Altura – guitar, Joel Ross – vibraphone, Matt Brewer – double bass, Kweku Sumbry – drums, kalimba

Released in February 2020 “Broken Circles” is the third release on Whirlwind recordings by Jure Pukl, a Slovenian born saxophonist and composer now based in New York City. Pukl has established himself as a significant player on the ‘Big Apple’s’ jazz scene – as a cursory glance at the line up on this new album will attest.

 I first encountered Pukl’s playing in 2010 when he brought his Slavic Soul Trio featuring bassist (and Whirlwind label owner) Michael Janisch and Austrian drummer Klemens Marktl to the much missed Dempsey’s in Cardiff. I’ve kept an eye on his career, and that of Marktl too, ever since. Later that year I reviewed Pukl’s début album “EARchitecture”, which was recorded in Brooklyn and featured a New York based band including pianist Aruan Ortiz, bassist Rahsaan Carter and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Guests included trumpeter Jason Palmer, another Janisch associate, and rapper Raydar Ellis.
Link to review here;

Pukl’s 2017 Whirlwind release “Hybrid”  was also something of a Trans-Atlantic affair and featured pianist Matija Dedic, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Johnathan Blake. It was a recording that saw Pukl, previously a tenor sax specialist, expanding his instrumental palette to include soprano saxophone and bass clarinet. The album was also notable for a guest appearance on tenor saxophone by Pukl’s wife, the Chilean born musician Melissa Aldana. “Hybrid” was another strong album but somehow slipped through the Jazzmann’s reviewing net.

“Doubtless”, Pukl’s second outing for Whirlwind, appeared the following year.  It saw Pukl specialising on tenor sax once more,  joined in a two tenor front line by Aldana.  The album also featured a stellar American rhythm section comprised of Joe Sanders on upright bass and Gregory Hutchinson at the drums.  It was recorded in Slovenia and mixed and mastered in New York, making it a true Trans-Atlantic project.
Review here;

Pukl reveals a new New York based line up for this latest recording. His current quintet has been playing the jazz clubs of New York City, including Smalls, the Fat Cat and The Jazz Gallery. Brewer returns on bass alongside guitarist Charles Altura and that rising star of the vibraphone, Joel Ross. The drum chair is occupied by Kweku Sumbry,  originally from Washington D.C. , but who comes from a strong African family percussion tradition and who re-located in New York a couple of years ago. Sumbry has been described as a “percussionist playing kit drums” and he brings a unique approach to his instrument.

Most of the pieces on this new album were written by Pukl (with some input from Aldana and with Altura heavily involved in the arranging process) with this specific quintet in mind.
“I am drawn to how the watercolour feel of guitar and vibes changes the sound” explains Pukl, “quite different to the piano, and sometimes even blurs those textures. I hear Joel as another prominent melodic voice”.

Having personally witnessed Ross performing live as a member of Chicago based trumpeter Marquis Hill’s Blacktet group at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival I can attest to his brilliance and versatility as a vibes soloist. I also enjoyed his recorded contribution to the first “In Common” recording by co-leaders Walter Smith III (tenor sax) and Matthew Stevens (guitar), an album also released by Whirlwind. He has also recorded with drummer Makaya McCraven and rising keyboard star James Francies and he comes to the Pukl group after having previously worked with Melissa Aldana.  In 2019 Ross released “KingMaker”, his début album as a leader for the prestigious Blue Note label, but this is a recording that I have yet to hear.

Turning again to this latest release from Pukl with the leader describing the influences behind the recording in his album liner notes as follows;
“This music was inspired by current events, both social and political, and the compositions therefore reflect my viewing on aspects of contemporary Western society. ‘Broken Circles’, for me is an analogy of the laws of nature and life which we, as people, have abused. With this ensemble we developed a strong sound through rehearsal and performance, but we also connected on a basic human level, which for me is the only natural way of making music”.

Pukl adds;
“The music I’m making is evolving. Here I’ve stepped away from piano, added vibraphone and guitar and have taken time to concentrate more on the compositional aspects. I see myself developing not just in jazz terms, but also influenced by my classical training.”

The album commences with “Sustained Optimism”, which reveals the close, densely knit sound of the quintet. A lattice of tight rhythmic interplay underpins the inventive soloing of Pukl on tenor and Ross on vibes. Brewer and Sumbry enjoy their own bass and dialogue before handing over to Aldana for a fluid guitar solo. As befits the title this represents an impressive and energising start.

Altura then introduces the title track before handing over to Ross on vibes and Pukl on tenor who double up on the complex theme, intriguingly just out of sync and effectively shadowing each other, Altura takes the first solo, followed by Ross and Pukl, but these are concise statements, with the overall focus remaining on the ensemble sound. Pukl later stretches out further above the complex rhythms laid down by Brewer and Sumbry, with Ross’ darting vibraphone motifs adding even more flavour to an already heady brew.

After the edgy, urgent energy of the first two numbers Pukl slows things down with “Separation”, a composition inspired by themes of broken communities and relationships, a syndrome repeated across the globe. With its gentler tempo and sparser arrangement the piece is effectively a ballad or lament and features a melodic double bass solo from Brewer alongside Pukl’s mellow but fluent tenor sax and Altura’s lucid guitar ruminations.  The piece closes with the sound of Sumbry striking a single drum, the lonely sound of isolation. Pukl has described the piece as one of his favourites on the record and has expressed the wish that its theme “serves to remind us of our responsibilities to one another”.  I assume that the piece was inspired by issues at the US / Mexican border, but with the onset of Covid-19 it has acquired a whole new, unforeseen significance.

Pukl’s composition “Compassion” previously appeared on the “Doubtless” album. It appears again here in a new quintet arrangement, introduced by the sound of Sumbry playing a Chilean version of the kalimba. Pukl himself appears on soprano sax and performs with great tenderness on this second ballad. Ross adopts a suitably soft edged and fragile tone on vibes, but without sacrificing any of his customary fluency. Brewer and Sumbry offer suitably sympathetic support, with the latter switching to brushes following the introduction on kalimba. Pukl describes the piece as representing “the sound of love, positivity and compassion”.

Co-written with Aldana “Triumph of Society” quickens the pace once more and is described as “an anthem for change that starts with us all”. The piece has a warm, optimistic feel and features a series of dazzling exchanges between Pukl on tenor and Ross on vibes. There’s also a drum feature from the impressive Sumbry and a dizzying guitar solo from Altura.

After the sunny positivism of “Triumph of Society” Pukl ushers in a complete change of mood with his arrangement of Rezso Serss’ “Gloomy Sunday”, surely one of the saddest songs ever written. That said Pukl’s adaptation fully engages the listener with the sombre timbres of the leader’s grainy bass clarinet contrasting effectively with the shimmer of guitar and vibes.  Pukl , Ross and Altura all solo and the piece is paced by Brewer’s bass and Sumbry’s drums, the young percussive talent again impressing in what is here more of a colourist’s role.

“Empty Words” represents a second outing for Pukl on soprano saxophone, moving from a light and airy introduction into more abstract, freely structured territory, his gently probing explorations skilfully mirrored and shadowed by the other members of the quintet.

As its title suggests “Bass Intro” is a virtuoso passage of solo double bass from the impressive Brewer, a leading figure the New York jazz scene for more than a decade.
This serves as the intro to “Half Past Five” a hard hitting piece written in 11/8 that signals a return to the kind of tight knit urban urgency that distinguished this album’s first two tracks. Underpinned by Brewer the piece features scintillating solos from Ross on vibes and Pukl on tenor.

“Kids” was written as paean to the next generation and is introduced by the child like voice of Maya Gourari and the alto of young sax student Elijah Gourari. The music then adopts a more contemplative tone as the adults take over for a kind of jazz ‘tone poem’ featuring the warm sounds of Pukl’s tenor and the cool meanderings of Altura’s guitar. The bass and drum accompaniment is both subtle and supportive.

The album concludes on an optimistic note with “Sky Is The Limit”, which is subtitled “(For Damir)”. This features Pukl returning to soprano, on which he soars joyously above the supple rhythms generated by his colleagues. Altura follows with a typically graceful guitar solo and he’s followed by the brilliant Ross at the vibes.

The press release mentions a twelfth track, a radio edit of “Separation” but this doesn’t actually appear on my review CD.

“Broken Circles” represents Pukl’s most ambitious and most mature album to date. Although inspired by socio-political issues it wears these influences lightly and the album can be enjoyed as a brilliant musical work with no knowledge of the inspirations behind it.

Pukl’s writing is suitably wide ranging, mixing a variety of moods and styles, but unified by a single vision. More importantly the playing, from everybody concerned is quite superb throughout, with credit also going to engineers David Stoller and Kevin Blackler for making the musicians sound so good.

As you’ve read I was already familiar with Pukl’s playing and I’ve encountered Ross and Brewer before too. However Altura and Sumbry were new names to me and I was mightily impressed by both of them. There seems to be a real buzz about Sumbry in the US at the moment and I suspect that we’ll be hearing a lot more from this hugely talented young musician.

But ultimately the triumph here is Pukl’s, a European musician who is making a considerable mark on the American jazz scene. “Broken Circles” is a work that he can be justly proud of.

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