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Zachary Gvirtzman

Father Tongues


by Ian Mann

May 19, 2017


A highly personal work, but it’s this quality that helps to give the album an emotional and musical coherence that I personally found very appealing.

Zachary Gvirtzman

“Father Tongues”

(F-ire Presents F-IRECD 94)

Zachary Gvirtzman is a London based multi-instrumentalist, sound designer composer and improviser who is an active presence on the capital’s music scene.

The versatile Gvirtzman is a genre straddling musician with afoot in various musical camps ranging from contemporary classical music through jazz, folk and world music to free improvisation. He has composed the contemporary classical work “Sonata for Two Violins” and also written extensively for dance and theatre.

Gvirtzman has collaborated with musicians such as saxophonist Evan Parker, drummer Seb Rochford, cellist Ben Davis, bassists Fred Thomas, Jiri Slavik and Ruth Goller, vocalists Fumi Okiji and Brooke Sharkey, pianist Kit Downes and guitarist Adam Beattie.  He has appeared on previous F-ire recordings featuring Sharkey, Slavic, Thomas and the band Fly Agaric.

Gvirtzman plays piano, accordion, saxophone and clarinet but “Father Tongues” features him in the role of solo pianist. Musically the record draws inspiration from earlier solo piano recordings including Thelonious Monk’s “Thelonious Himself”, Keith Jarrett’s “Facing You” and, more recently, Craig Taborn’s “Avenging Angel”.

But the influences behind this highly personal work run far deeper. Gvirtzman describes his solo piano pieces as “meditations on the themes of responsibility, authority and familial love”. The title track is also the name of a poem written by Gvirtzman that was published in the literary magazine Different Skies. The recent “Father Tongues” album launch event at Iklectik Art Lab in London was a multi-media affair including contributions from dancers, artists and authors.

The multiple influences behind “Father Tongues” help to give the album considerable emotional depth. It’s a work that has been a long time in preparation with the original recordings having been made at Greenway Studios in London in September 2012. The music was then edited over the course of a four year period prior to the final mixing and mastering by Gvirtzman and engineer Alex Bonney.

The content of the album is essentially improvised with only two of the nine pieces pre-conceived compositions. Gvirtzman regards the remainder of the record as “exploring the concept of spontaneous composition” and, indeed, the album does have a kind of conceptual feel to it with those themes of “responsibility, authority and familial love” bestowing a unifying quality upon the work.

The album commences with one of the pre-composed pieces, the ballad “2 Blind Elephants” which emerges out of ominous low end rumblings and interior scrapings to embrace a gentle melodicism. It’s interesting that two of Gvirtzman’s pianistic inspirations, Jarrett and Taborn, should have recorded their solo piano albums for ECM as Gvirtzman himself also makes effective use of space in a manner similar to that for which the German label is justly famed. 

The brief “Nonaganerian Flowers” is a homage to the generation of Gvirtzman’s grandparents and the album as whole is dedicated both to Gvirtzman’s father (also a pianist) and to his two grandfathers, Herschel and Moishe. Although entirely improvised the music has a melodic, wistful, ruminative quality. It is also intended as “an elegy to the faded but still discernible beauty of the past”. Throughout the album Gvirtzman is more concerned in creating moods and emotions than he is in displays of mere technique.

In keeping with the underlying emotional theme of the album “Atticus”, the second of the pre-composed pieces is dedication to Gvirtzman’s son and as such is a natural successor to the previous “Nonagenarian Flowers”. Similarly brief, and sparsely but tenderly played it possesses an appropriate air of charming, child like innocence.

“entropy” , with its short, staccato clusters and phrases sounds more obviously ‘improvised’ while “Brother Thelonious” pays tribute to Monk. Although improvised there is a conscious decision from Gvirtzman to play in Monk’s style and to imitate the flat-fingered technique, blues intonations and chromatic bass lines while alluding to Monk’s performances of the pieces “Tea For Two” and “Thelonious”. It’s an enjoyable and highly convincing homage.

The real emotional heart of the album is the three part improvisation “Father Tongues” which is presented as three separate tracks. The press release accompanying this album includes extracts from Gvirtzman’s poem of the same name with its reflections on father/son and wider family relationships and individual, national and religious identity. Drawing on Gvirtzman’s own London- Jewish background it describes a visit to Israel to meet those relatives left behind and examines the differences and similarities between the two now very different strands of the same family. In the troubled 21st century it’s something that’s set to become an increasingly universal theme.
Musically the piece explores the full dynamic range of the piano with the sombre “Part I” deploying spaciously solemn, occasionally dramatic, low end chords. Again the pianist makes effective use of space.
Described as a “long form improvisation” the piece segues almost seamlessly into “Part II” but there’s little let up in the overall downbeat mood even when the music becomes more florid and expansive.
“Part III” deploys a repeated motif to give forward motion as Gvirtzman improvises in an increasingly busy and dramatic manner around it, now truly making full use of the instrument’s range. A more subdued coda returns us to something of the mood of “Part I”.
Taken as a whole “Father Tongues” is an intense and emotive piece of work, improvised but with a strong sense of structure and an overall mood that, while sometimes sombre and forbidding, makes for compulsive listening.

The album concludes with another homage, this time to another of Gvirtzman’s key influences, the 20th century contemporary classical composer Morton Feldman whose “Palais de Mari” was among the inspirations for this album. Simply titled “M” this final improvisation is minimal and at times barely audible, a piece that Gvirtzman describes as “an extended Feldman-like poem that drifts in and out of audibility as if on the edge of consciousness itself”.

“Father Tongues”, the album, is a highly personal work but it’s this quality that helps to give the album an emotional and musical coherence that I personally found very appealing. As a solo piano album it’s highly successful and although it may not have the mainstream appeal of a Jarrett release its focus on mood and emotion ensures that it is far from inaccessible. This is music that is likely to appeal to the Late Junction audience.   

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