by Ian Mann
April 10, 2019
An excellent debut offering from Scopes. The music combines accessibility with adventurousness, the strong focus on melody enhanced by rhythmic inventiveness and imaginative soloing.
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4736)
Scopes is a truly international quartet, comprised of European musicians from four different countries and initially forged in the jazz crucible that is New York City. As such the band is a perfect fit for Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings imprint, a label that has always sought to foster healthy border crossing collaborations between British, European and American musicians.
Austrian drummer Mathias Ruppnig and German bassist Tom Berkmann first met in New York where they began playing gigs with French pianist / keyboard player Tony Tixier and adopted the name Scopes in 2018 with the addition of Dutch alto saxophonist Ben van Gelder.
Now based in Europe in once more the quartet have toured widely in Spain, France, Austria and Switzerland. Although van Gelder’s playing has attracted a good deal of attention Scopes is actually co-led by the rhythm team of Ruppnig and Berkmann and this début release features their compositions exclusively, with the writing duties being split pretty much equally.
Tixier is arguably the highest profile name of the four, having released his own album, “Life of Sensitive Creatures” on Whirlwind in 2018, his fifth recording as a leader. “Sensitive Creatures” found him concentrating on acoustic piano in the company of bassist Karl McComas Reichl and drummer Tommy Crane. Tixier has also worked as a sideman with saxophonist Seamus Blake and trumpeter Wallace Roney and also enjoyed a stint, playing multiple keyboards, in Christian Scott’s band, appearing with the trumpeter at the 2016 Cheltenham and London jazz festivals.
Scopes’ début kicks off with Ruppnig’s composition “Echo of Their Own Prejudices” which combines a flowing melodicism with a subtly propulsive odd meter groove that encourages solos from van Gelder and Tixier. The saxophonist adopts a pure, clean tone on alto and plays with grace, imagination and fluency. Meanwhile Tixier alternates deftly between piano and synthesiser, skilfully deploying both instruments during the course of his feature and displaying similar qualities to van Gelder. Indeed the pair dovetail superbly throughout as co-leaders Ruppnig and Berkmann keep things moving with their inventive and always evolving rhythms. An impressive start.
Berkmann takes up the compositional reins for “Chamberlain” which is named neither for the arcane musical instrument sometimes deployed by Tom Waits ( which is actually spelt Chamberlin, after its inventor Henry Chamberlin), nor for the Birmingham political dynasty. Instead it draws joint inspiration from the harmonies of composer Maurice Ravel and from US sculptor John Chamberlain’s remarkable automobile scrap metal art. Tixier introduces the piece solo at the piano, his playing spacious, impressionistic and evocative - very much reminiscent of Ravel. The attractive main melodic theme is stated by van Gelder on alto as the rest of the band join the proceedings. At the heart of the piece is a melodic bass solo from the composer who subsequently hands over to van Gelder’s subtly probing alto and Tixier’s flowingly lyrical piano. Ruppnig also turns in an accomplished performance behind the kit, keeping things moving while providing a wealth of interesting detail and never resorting to the obvious rhythms.
Also by Berkmann “Aquaponies” is inspired by a short story by the author Michael Ende, the title representing a playful alternative name for seahorses. The music has a suitably aquatic quality about it with Tixier’s rippling piano arpeggios and Ruppnig’s cymbal splashes approximating the rhythms of waves as van Gelder plays beguiling melodies on alto sax. Tixier also features as a soloist with a concise, lyrical feature bookending van Gelder’s wistful sax ruminations.
“Balance” represents the second compositional offering from Ruppnig and again demonstrates his more rhythmically based style of writing. His drumming subtly shapes the arrangement but there’s no lack of melodic content thanks to van Gelder’s lithe playing on alto sax. Tixier gravitates between acoustic and electric keyboards, the latter a Yamaha Reface CS. He contributes a sparkling solo on acoustic piano and also combines with van Gelder to create a synth/sax pairing that has invited comparisons with Weather Report.
Ruppnig’s drums introduce Berkmann’s composition “Whistle”, another piece inspired by the natural world, specifically the swan. The drummer continues to provide a busy, brightly detailed undertow above which Tixier floats serenely, again deploying a combination of acoustic and electric keyboard sounds. Van Gelder stretches out in typically melodious fashion on alto before handing over to Tixier on acoustic piano, the pair subsequently exchanging ideas.
The Ruppnig composition “Alter Ego” has more of a conventional jazz feel with van Gelder’s alto sax dancing lithely above a relatively orthodox swing groove. The saxophonist’s sound is consistently clean and pure, rarely sounding angry or overly animated, yet there’s no doubting his intelligence and improvisational fluency, at times he reminds me of Paul Desmond playing in a 21st century context. Tixier adds his customary dash and sparkle with a typically stylish and elegant acoustic piano solo
Berkmann’s “Lakeview” is named for an apartment block in Brooklyn where he once lived, a location apparently much favoured by musicians. Despite its NYC setting the music is surprisingly pastoral and lyrical, reflective of Berkmann’s melodic writing style. There’s a delightful acoustic piano solo from Tixier that again highlights his sublime touch at this version of the instrument. Meanwhile van Gelder probes effectively on alto while Ruppnig’s subtle but assertive drumming provides the necessary momentum.
The ballad “Nostalgia” represents another side to Ruppnig’s writing the composer initially wielding brushes as Berkmann delivers the first solo on bass, an effective combination of melody, dexterity and resonance. He’s followed by Tixier at the piano and van Gelder on alto with Ruppnig switching to sticks as the piece gathers momentum, but without ever totally losing the air of fragility and wistfulness that gives it its title.
The album concludes with Berkmann’s “Mode”, a piece inspired by the guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, with whom Berkmann and Ruppnig have both worked. Rosenwinkel would advise players entering new musical situations to “just get into the mode”. Introduced by Ruppnig at the drums the piece continues to place a strong emphasis on melody with solos coming from van Gelder on alto, Tixier on acoustic piano and Berkmann himself at the bass.
This self titled début represents an excellent first offering from Scopes. The music combines accessibility with adventurousness, the strong focus on melody enhanced by rhythmic inventiveness and imaginative soloing. The contrasting writing styles of Berkmann and Ruppnig are a consistent source of fascination and the album running order, which largely sees them alternating, ensures that listeners are consistently kept on their toes. The pair are also a highly accomplished and compatible rhythm section who have worked together previously and it’s Ruppnig’s colourful, inventive and subtly assertive drumming that provides a constant source of rhythmic interest and dispels any allegations of bloodlessness.
Van Gelder and Tixier are also hugely impressive and overall Scopes is a very well balanced group, the choice of a collective band moniker serving to emphasise this point.
29th April - Kemptener Jazz Frühling, Kemptener, (DE)
30th April - Jazz Club A-Trane, Berlin (DE)
03/05/19 Scopes Paris Le Caveau des Oubliettes
04/05/19 Scopes Paris Le Caveau des Oubliettes
21st August - Grazjazz, Graz (AT)