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The Chamber Music Effect


by Ian Mann

April 26, 2017


This is vigorous, contemporary piano jazz at its best, full of energy, wit and invention.


“The Chamber Music Effect”

(Unit Records UTR 4716)

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.

Vein’s range of influences is broad, ranging from conventional jazz swing to M- Base, but this, their tenth album overall, draws upon their classical heritage. All three musicians have studied and performed classical music and “The Chamber Music Effect” consists of eight original compositions that utilise the structures of classical music and deploy them as the basis for jazz improvisation.

The concept may appear to be rather dry and academic, but fear not, “The Chamber Music Effect” is far from being the kind of insipid jazz/classical crossover that its title might suggest. Instead the trio subject those classical structures to a rigorous cross- examination, using them as the framework for some mercurial jazz improvising. This is vigorous, contemporary piano jazz at its best, full of energy, wit and invention.

Paradoxically the classical structures seem to have a kind of liberating effect - some of Vein’s earlier trio releases have been too self-consciously wide ranging and eclectic. The self imposed structural restrictions help to give their music greater discipline, vitality and focus. There’s less overt whimsy but nevertheless a palpable sense of fun and daring remains.

As Florian Arbenz explains;
“This chamber music influence makes our interplay even more varied, compact, innovative and sharpens our musical profile. It complements and extends the very heart and soul of Vein’s playing philosophy – interplay and the greatest possible equality for all members”. 

Writing duties are shared around the group with Michael Arbenz contributing four tunes, Florian three and Lahns just the one.

The album commences with Florian’s “Boarding The Beat” which plays on the rhythmic variations of the bass line to great effect. And as Florian has intimated after more than a decade of performing together Vein’s sense of collaborative interplay is finely tuned and the ear motif (by Romissa Mofidi) depicted on the album artwork is particularly apposite to this particular trio. It’s a similar quality to that exhibited by the great Swedish trio E.S.T. and there’s something of their influence on this punchy, energetic opener with the Arbenz brothers delivering both percussive and pianistic fireworks.

Michael’s “Prelude” starts in gently melodic fashion with Lahns’ bass assuming the lead accompanied by Michael’s economic chording and the soft patter of Florian’s brushes. Later the piece develops greater layers of complexity as the piano gains ascendancy but this is balanced by a corresponding sense of swing. In time the piece comes full circle via a gently lyrical coda.

Also by Michael the impressionistic “Poeme De Nuit” has a suitably nocturnal feel, its fragile beauty expressed by the shimmering of cymbals and the ethereal tinkling of small percussive devices alongside the minimalist sparseness of the piano chording and the sound of dampened strings.

By way of contrast Florian’s “In Medias Res” offers another example of the drummer’s rhythmically based writing style, an energetic outpouring of ideas with the piano weaving its way in and out of the muscular and vigorous bass and drum grooves. Again there’s a tightly focussed energy with each trio member sounding totally ‘in the moment’. There’s a busy solo drum episode from the composer that would arguably be better appreciated at a gig but there’s no denying the sheer momentum and energy of the piece. Nice, polite ‘chamber jazz’ it isn’t.

However with “Ode To The Sentimental Knowledge” Florian proves that he can also compose gentler, more impressionistic pieces. This abstract ballad features his sensitive brushwork in conjunction with brother Michael’s flowingly lyrical piano and the melodic, rounded tones of Lahn’s bass.

Michael’s “Sheherazade” perhaps strays the furthest from the chamber jazz template with an extended introduction featuring Florian playing unaccompanied on a Nigerian variation on the udu or clay pot / drum. The instrument later returns in a spirited dialogue with Lahns’ bass. Michael’s piano adds a degree of classical structure to the piece but essentially this piece is an exquisite jazz/classical/world music hybrid.

Thomas Lahns’ “Pastorale” borrows from the structures of choral music but is most notable for the other-worldly sound of his dramatically bowed bass as the composer explores the full frequency range of his instrument from the highest to the lower registers while simultaneously imbuing his sound with a cello like sense of melancholy. In the overall context of the album it’s a stunning miniature.

The album closes with Michael’s “Ballet Of The Monkeys”, the title a perfect encapsulation of the group’s playful and energetic approach to up-tempo numbers such as this. Bravura piano meets busy, idiosyncratic drumming as the Arbenz twins spark off each other with Lahns somehow holding the bottom end together. There’s an exuberant drum feature from Florian on a piece that surely must also constitute a stunning conclusion to the trio’s live shows.

Despite the apparent restrictions of the concept “The Chamber Music Effect” is actually a very wide ranging album that embraces a variety of musical genres and highlights the contrasting writing styles of the members of the group. The standard of the individual musicianship is extraordinarily high throughout but it’s the group dynamic and the resultant interplay that helps to make the album such an unqualified success. Engineer Hannes Kumke also plays his part with a similarly well balanced mix.

Vein are currently on tour in the UK with appearances scheduled at;

28/04/17 – Wakefield Jazz

29/04/17 – Huddersfield Jazz

18/05/17 - Colchester Jazz Club

22/05/17 – Pizza Express Jazz Club, Soho, London with guest Greg Osby

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