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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

CD Review: Julia Hülsmann Quartet - Not Far From Here

Julia Hülsman (piano), Uli Kempendorff   (tenor sax), Marc Muellbauer  (double bass),  Heinrich Köbberling   (drums)
(Review by Chris K)

The second of three piano led albums marking ECM's 50th birthday.  Hülsmann is a leading contemporary composer and performer in her native Germany, and although not as well known to UK audiences as Jarrett (companion release reviewed on BSH herethis latest of her six ECM ventures as leader is well worth the effort of getting to know. Already acclaimed by John Fordham as his pick of the month, I decided to put some time in - what a good investment!

Hülsmann's long standing trio is augmented here by tenor player Uli Kempendorff, who for me, rather steals the show.   The trio are known for their tight telepathy, and Kempendorff profits by superb playing over and through their wondrous ocean of sounds, recorded as usual with clarity and space.  Boy does he have "tone", but he can also wring emotion and anguish from his sax. In places I thought I was listening to the late Michael Brecker in his more sideways moments.

Eleven of the thirteen - mostly short - pieces are originals, all the band contributings, with Hülsmann providing five.   The exception is the outstanding This is Not America, covered first by the band and later closing with a piano variation. The original was written by the Pat Metheny Group, with lyrics by David Bowie for the 1985 film The Falcon and the Snowman. The haunting melancholy of the original is retained and amplified here, with the bass offering up the theme for some remarkable re-working - the latter period Bowie would surely have approved. Although there are no lyrics here, the despairing vibe of lines like "Blossom fails to bloom this season" is surely apposite to current times in America and elsewhere.

While a sombre mood is found in many tracks, the overall feel has abundant life, wit and intelligence in both the playing and writing. The balance and melodic invention recalls  Tori Freestone's acclaimed last album (El Mar de Nubes -  reviewed here).

A few highlights: the first track The Art Of Failing emerges from a swirling fog of Surman sax, while on Streiflicht Kempendorff runs the whole gamut from tender melody through to free, avoiding ugly on the way! The drummer's composition Colibri is more driven, while the title track Not far from home features a meandering and elusive melody. Hülsmann  rarely emerges from the understated and poised trio format, but she cuts loose on No Game with a powerful and angular solo.

Altogether, a poised and modern delight, with wit, grace and urgency in abundance. I'll certainly be checking out their earlier works.  Sadly, unless you are visiting the Fatherland, you'll have to wait till October to see them, in Nottingham or Cardiff.
Chris Kilsby

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