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Vein plays Ravel


by Ian Mann

September 26, 2017


Vein tackle Ravel’s music with panache, invention and a great deal of musical skill and sophistication.


“Vein plays Ravel”

(Challenge Records DMCHR 71179)

Vein are a collaborative piano trio from Switzerland featuring twin brothers Michael Arbenz (piano) and Florian Arbenz (drums,) plus bassist Thomas Lahns.

Formed in 2006 Vein is a group with an international reputation and the trio have enjoyed fruitful collaborations with leading American musicians such as trombonist Glenn Ferris and saxophonists Greg Osby and Dave Liebman. The liaison with Liebman has been particularly productive as documented by the live album “Lemuria” (2012) and the studio session “Jazz Talks” (2015).

In 2015 Vein touted the UK with Liebman and I was fortunate enough to review the quartet’s hugely enjoyable performance at the Recital Hall at Birmingham Conservatoire.

Including this latest release the Vein have recorded a total of twelve albums, eight of them in the classic piano trio format plus the collaborations with Liebman, Ferris and Osby.  The recordings have seen them tackling a mixture of jazz standards and original compositions and include the album “Vein plays Porgy and Bess”, the trio’s first “themed” release which presents their interpretations of a set of George Gershwin compositions.

All three of the musicians in Vein have studied and performed classical music and earlier in 2017 the trio released “The Chamber Music Effect”, a collection of original jazz compositions that drew upon the structures of chamber music. This turned out to be one of the group’s most successful releases to date with the Jazzmann commenting “This is vigorous, contemporary piano jazz at its best, full of energy, wit and invention”. My full review of that album can be read here;

With this latest effort the trio are clearly trying to build upon the success of “The Chamber Music Effect” by again returning to their classical roots. This time round they have decided to concentrate on the work of a single composer as they interpret the music of the French composer Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937). The album is their first for a new label, Challenge Records, based in The Netherlands.

“Vein plays Ravel” seeing the trio taking eight of Ravel’s compositions and arranging them for the group. Tellingly the album cover includes a quote from Ravel stating; “No one can deny the rhythms of today. My recent music is filled with the influence of jazz”. Significantly Ravel also met Gershwin during a visit to the United States.

The British saxophonist Andy Sheppard guests on two pieces, “Bolero” and “Mouvement de Menuet”, playing both tenor and soprano saxophones. “Bolero” also includes a horn section featuring Martial In Al-bon (trumpet & flugelhorn), Florian Weiss (trombone), Nils Fischer (soprano & alto saxes, bass clarinet) and Noah Arnold (alto & tenor sax).

The album commences with the three part suite “Le Tombeau de Couperin” in which Ravel explored the influence of the baroque.
“Prelude” begins with a passage of solo piano which sees Michael Arbenz demonstrating his classically honed technique. The addition of Lahns’ melodic but muscular bass and the energetic swish of Florian’s cymbal work then steers the sound into more obvious jazz territory with the bass almost assuming the lead at times as the music ebbs and flows.
“Forlane” is gentler, more lyrical and reflective with Florian deploying brushes and with Lahns’ bass again a vital melodic component, and particularly so on his first real solo of the album.
“Toccata” begins with a Morse code like piano motif which leads into a brisk dialogue between piano and drums. Florian Arbenz is an arresting performer in the live environment and proves to be so here with an energetic solo drum feature that eventually heralds a busy, climactic three way exchange performed with the kind of bustling, bristling energy and sense of purpose that some have compared to Phronesis at their best.

“Blues” is a feature for bassist Thomas Lahns whose extraordinary playing, initially pizzicato but predominately arco, is paced by Michael’s sparse piano chording and Florian’s quirky percussion, including castanet like clicks that suggest the influence of both flamenco and tango.  The piece started out as the second movement of Ravel’s Second Violin Sonata and was given its current title by the composer himself.

“Bolero” is Ravel’s most famous composition, forever associated in the UK with Torville and Dean and THAT ice dancing routine. Vein’s sixteen minute exploration of the piece is a tour de force featuring Sheppard plus the horn section. Sheppard delicately picks out the melody on soprano as the trio play the rhythms fairly straight. Later the melodic baton passes to Lahns who sketches the tune on plucked double bass. Michael Arbenz’s horn arrangement then enters the equation with Al-Bon’s warm toned trumpet. As the piece begins to build relentlessly the interplay between the horn section becomes more complex with the arrangement making effective use of counterpoint. Michael Arbenz adds prepared piano to the rich panoply of sounds before the arrangement loosens up and gathers momentum, moving further away from the strictures of Ravel’s composition and allowing Michael Arbenz, Sheppard and the other horns greater scope in which to express themselves. It’s a fascinating struggle between structure and improvisational freedom as the music develops through a thrilling series of horn exchanges, accelerating Ravel’s theme almost to the point of parody at one juncture, almost descending into free jazz cacophony at another, as the piece reaches a final climax. “Bolero” may be almost too familiar, but surely it’s never previously been performed in such an exciting and inventive a manner as here, at least not in a jazz context.

Prepared piano sounds approximating the timbres of the African kalimba or mbira introduce the trio’s arrangement of “Pavane pour une infante defunte”. Michael Arbenz then adopts a more conventional piano sound for a gently limpid and lyrical reading of the piece that also features Lahn’s bass melodicism and the sparing, sympathetic brush work of Florian Arbenz. The music box like sounds of the prepared piano then appear again very briefly at the close.

Florian Arbenz’s drums introduce “Mouvement de Menuet” as he and Lahn’s create a gently propulsive groove which frames Sheppard’s softly melodic and effortlessly fluent tenor sax improvisations, his tone light and airy throughout. Michael Arbenz’s flowing piano lyricism also features with Lahns again providing a melodic foil on double bass.

The closing “Five o’clock Foxtrot” finds the trio in playful mood, an element of humour is often present in their recordings and concert appearances. Lahn’s meaty bass introduces the piece which includes some spirited three way interchanges and incorporates some rocky riffing reminiscent of {em}, Neil Cowley or The Bad Plus. The interplay between the Arbenz brothers is particularly invigorating with Florian in irrepressibly ebullient form behind the kit. The piece was inspired by Ravel’s love of jazz and salon music and forms part of his opera “L’Enfant et les Sortileges”

“Vein plays Ravel” is a worthy follow up to the excellent “The Chamber Music Effect” and once more is far removed from the kind of tepid jazz-classical ‘crossover’ that can give this sort of project a bad name. Instead Vein tackle Ravel’s music with panache, invention and a great deal of musical skill and sophistication. The vitality of the performances and the imagination of the arrangements breathe fresh life into the music and help to give it relevance in the 21st century.

It’s another strong showing from Vein but for me the album just falls short of “The Chamber Music Effect” with its all original programme. For all the qualities on offer the decision to focus the attention on the work of just one composer ultimately feels just a little bit too restrictive. It’s still a damn fine album though.


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