by Ian Mann
April 14, 2020
An album recorded by a perfectly balanced ensemble. Despite its sometimes esoteric concepts this is music that is eminently melodic and accessible.
“Here Be Dragons”
(ECM Records ECM 2676, Bar Code 02508 35998)
Oded Tzur – tenor saxophone, Nitai Hershkovits – piano, Petros Klampanis- double bass,
Johnathan Blake – drums
First released in February 2020 “Here Be Dragons” represents the ECM label début from the Tel Aviv born, New York based tenor saxophonist Oded Tzur.
After making his name on the Israeli jazz scene Tzur moved to New York in 2011 where he formed the first edition of his quartet, a group featuring Athens born Petros Klampanis on bass, Ziv Ravitz on drums and, on piano, Shai Maestro, famous for his work with bassist Avishai Cohen and now an ECM artist in his own right. This line up released the acclaimed album “Like a Great River” on the German record label Enja in 2015.
The same quartet followed this with “Translator’s Note”, also on Enja in 2017. This second release enjoyed similar levels of critical approval as Tzur began to accrue a global following for his highly original and very personal music.
Tzur’s move to ECM sees him unveiling a new group with the Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovitz and the American drummer Johnathan Blake joining Tzur and the faithful Klampanis.
In the 21st century it seems almost impossible to believe that somebody could invent a whole new way of approaching the tenor saxophone, but this is essentially what Tzur has done, as ECM’s Steve Lake explains in the album’s liner notes.
Titled “Like a river flows”, for reasons that will later become apparent, Lake’s introductory essay describes the influence upon Tzur of Indian classical music. It might seem an unlikely source of inspiration for an Israeli born jazz musician now living in New York, but as Tzur himself explains;
“Growing up in Israel as a jazz musician I was looking for something that could be my native language, as it were. It was a tough thing to figure out at first, looking across this world of many traditions for the music that spoke to me more than anything else. What I found in Indian classical music is a laboratory of sounds. A methodical, scientific approach to pitches and notes. While it is, on the one hand, a local music, full of ornaments and elements specifically tied to its geographical and cultural point of origin, there is also something that is very universal in the ways it speaks to sound and colour and melody and rhythm.”.
In 2007, with this in mind, Tzur began studying with Hariprasad Chaurasia, the acknowledged master of the bansuri, or Indian side blown flute. Chaurasia has previously collaborated with other Western musicians, among them guitarist John McLaughlin, saxophonist Jan Garbarek and even The Beatles. He has also worked extensively with tabla player and all round percussionist Zakir Hussain.
Chaurasia encouraged Tzur to take a bansuri like approach to the tenor saxophone, making use of slurs, slides and microtonal shadings, thus expanding the conventional range of expression of the tenor sax.
The practice sessions with Chaurasia would see the flautist playing melodic phrases on the bansuri that Tzur would have to translate onto the tenor saxophone. In this way Tzur began to painstakingly develop a whole new vocabulary for his instrument. It’s an approach that Tzur has named “A Middle Path” and he was written and lectured widely on the subject. Although it sounds very different Tzur’s pioneering approach to the tenor sax has invited comparisons with John Coltrane’s ground breaking ‘spiritual jazz’ of the 1960s
The “Middle Path” informed both of Tzur’s releases for Enja and he continues to hone the approach and technique on “Here Be Dragons”.
From Chaurasia Tzur also learnt about the structures and rhythms of Indian classical music. The four major original compositions on the new album all seek to develop “miniature ragas”, three of these being Tzur’s own creations with the fourth being based on the traditional Indian scale called Charukesi. UK jazz fans may remember that alto saxophonist Martin Speake named one of his groups after just this scale.
The influence of Indian classical music on jazz is not new, yet “Here Be Dragons” never sounds like an ‘Indo-Jazz’ record. There are no sitars, no tablas and no vocals. Rather than attempting to create some kind of pan-cultural music Tzur instead takes these Indian influences and turns them into a sound that is intensely personal to him, drawing on several cultures but still recognisable as the language of jazz – and speaking that language with a unique accent.
Tzur himself has stated;
“Raga is, for me, a universal concept. I hear its connection to synagogue prayers, or to the blues – a marvellous creation – and to music all around the world”
The saxophonist has also written his own essay in the “Here Be Dragons” booklet, a fanciful account of the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi being invited, by the Dutch Society of Cartography, to join the crew of a pirate ship in search of dragons. The phrase “Here Be Dragons” was routinely used on ancient maps to indicate unexplored or dangerous waters. Of course Brunelleschi never found the mythical dragons and his short report to the Society of Cartography concluded with the phrase “There are no dragons, but here is a song”. Tzur’s piece also includes another telling phrase, supposedly spoken by the pirate queen Elisheva; “Time has no map. All you can do hear is the music”.
The title “Here Be Dragons” might sum up images of fire and fury but the opening title track represents the exact opposite. With apologies for the mixing of cultural metaphors there is an almost Zen like calm and repose about the music. There is indeed a soft, flute like quality about Tzur’s tenor playing as he sketches melodic ideas above a gently rolling piano vamp and the sound of Blake’s mallet rumbles and subtle cymbal colourations. Within the fixed structures of this “miniature raga” Klampanis’ moving bass line is a key component, forming a juxtaposition between two musical concepts. “The dialogue between these dimensions takes it wherever it takes us”, explains Tzur, a phrase that represents a manifesto for improvisation and which roots this music firmly within the realms of jazz. With this in mind the moments when Klampanis’ melodic bass and Hershkovits’ lyrical piano come to the fore represent ‘solos’ in the conventional jazz sense. Interestingly Hershkovits has also worked with bassist Avishai Cohen, as did his predecessor in Tzur’s quartet, Shai Maestro.
The fragile, meditative mood is continued on “To Hold Your Hand”, the piece based on the Charukesi scale. Hershkovits is given greater freedom to stretch out here and responds with a more expansive solo that is underpinned by Blake’s busy, but always subtle brush work. Tzur credits the Philadelphia born drummer with “bringing the power of swing and straight-ahead jazz back into our collective musical language”. Aided by Blake and the rest of the trio Tzur also embarks on his own solo, his tone still fragile and almost flute like, one could almost mistake his tenor sax for a soprano. Indeed his former mentor Chaurasia has said of Tzur’s playing; “If a curtain were to be drawn in front of him, no one could tell which instrument was being played”.
The intensely personal “20 Years” was written on the twentieth anniversary of Tzur’s father’s death. Judging by the photographs in the album booklet (excellent work here from Caterina di Perri) Tzur Senior must have passed away when Oded was quite young. The music has a suitably reverential feel about it, and despite being based on a self created raga to these Western European ears there’s an almost hymnal quality – perhaps the more general ‘devotional’ would be a better word. In addition to this Hershkovits’ lyrical piano solo and Blake’s delicate brush work speak in the language of the great jazz ballads.
Tzur has said of Hershkovits “he’s an alchemist, I can present the seed of a musical idea to Nitai, and the next day he has grown something glowing and amazing from it”.
Tzur himself plays with great feeling and delicacy, his solo gradually growing in intensity, before gently subsiding once more. The piece represents an emotional and heartfelt tribute with Tzur commenting;
“We recorded this piece right at the end of the session, and from the very beginning of the take I could feel that my father was somehow present in the room, and it was as if I was having a conversation with him – a conversation I’d waited twenty years to have”.
The three brief “Miniatures 1,2 and 3” are features for individual members of the group. All three are credited to Tzur, suggesting that they may have been composed by the leader as opposed to spontaneously improvised by the musicians concerned.
“Miniature 1” is a gently contemplative solo piano episode from Hershkovits, reminiscent perhaps of Debussy or Chopin.
“Miniature 2” features Klampanis on unaccompanied double bass. The quietly spoken Greek is very much the backbone of the quartet and has been with the group since its inception. Tzur has said of him;
“Petros never fills up a silence with any unnecessary words, and that’s how he plays the bass as well. In fact the way that Petros plays the bass allows all of us to everything else that is done in this band”.
The third “Miniature” features Tzur himself in a solo tenor sax performance that sounds more flute like than ever and throws into even sharper relief the distinctive timbres and unusual techniques that he brings to this ensemble.
“Miniature 3” also sees Tzur outlining, in skeletal fashion, the form of the raga that forms the basis of the next group performance, “The Dream”. Building from Hershkovits’ single note piano phrase this piece unveils a more energetic and forceful side of the band’s playing with Blake’s colourful, polyrhythmic flow providing the basis for inventive solos from Hershkovits and Tzur.
At first glance the album’s final track, an interpretation of the old Elvis Presley hit “Can’t Help Falling In Love” might seem to be a strange choice for this ensemble. But it ain’t necessarily so, as Tzur explains;
“It’s a marvellous challenge for any band to take material that is as far away as possible from what it usually does and see if it can make it still sound like itself. That is the attempt made here.”
And, of course, it’s an attempt that succeeds brilliantly as Tzur and his colleagues rise to that challenge. Their sparse, slowed down arrangement of the familiar melody fits superbly into the spirit and aesthetic of the album as a whole. It’s a genuine ensemble performance with the lead alternating between Tzur and Hershkovits. Apparently the song has an added personal significance for Tzur who once serenaded his future wife with a solo saxophone version via Skype while the quartet were away on tour.
A word here too for Jonathan Blake, a veritable mountain of a man who plays here with great grace and delicacy, as he does throughout the entire album. Blake can exert considerable power behind a drum kit as he has demonstrated in bands led by saxophonists Ravi Coltrane, Patrick Cornelius, Chris Potter, Pharaoh Sanders and Oliver Lake and trumpeters Dave Douglas and Tom Harrell. On “Here Be Dragons” he excels in the role of colourist and adds greatly to the success of an album recorded by a perfectly balanced ensemble.
Recorded in Italy by engineer Stefano Amerio and with Manfred Eicher producing the music on “Here Be Dragons” represents a perfect fit for ECM and should help to bring Tzur’s remarkable music to an even wider international audience.
Despite its sometimes esoteric concepts this is music that is eminently melodic and accessible. Its sense of calm, space and stillness, and generally ‘devotional’ feel is likely to hold appeal to fans of ECM music in general, and of Tord Gustavsen in particular.
Reviewing the album for Jazzwise magazine Stuart Nicholson suggested that “Here Be Dragons” will come to be regarded as an “ECM classic”. Based on the recorded evidence he may well be right.
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