Lucus, the second recording from Norwegian drummer/composer Thomas Strønen’s Time Is A Blind Guide, marks a bold step forward from the critically acclaimed debut (described by All About Jazz as “a stunning record that stands out as one of Stronen’s most expansive, cinematic and flat-out lyrical albums”). With the group currently trimmed to quintet size, and a new pianist in Wakayama-born Ayumi Tanaka, there is a heightened emphasis on improvisation.
“We’ve played much more,” says Strønen, “and built up a trust in the ensemble. All the players have more confidence in the shared expression of the group and, in a positive sense, less dependency on the compositions, which are offered, really, as guidelines. To me it’s important that the players should feel connected to the music and play what’s right for them.
When I wrote the music for the first album the sound of the group existed only in my imagination at that point, and there were a lot more notes on paper. But with the repertoire of Lucus, things are opened up. And there is more than one way to interpret these pieces: in concert, something played as a ballad one night might be a piece that simply explodes on the next night.”
The music Strønen has written for the ensemble is more space-conscious than last time around, letting in more light, in line with the connotations of the album title, “Lucus” signifying a sacred grove, or a clearing in the forest. The radiant strings seem particularly to bring out this idea. (As it happens, the music was composed in view of the forest, too – Thomas lives out in the Norwegian woodlands).
Strønen first heard Ayumi Tanaka a few years ago while teaching at Oslo’s Royal Academy, where he also organised a concert series. “I liked to set challenges for the students and I asked Ayumi to give a solo concert, something she’d never done before. Her performance was just amazing, and I thought immediately that I have to play with her in some setting.” Tanaka substituted for Kit Downes at few concerts with the first edition of Time Is a Blind Guide. “When she arrived for the first rehearsal she already knew all the material, having learned a dozen complex pieces with tricky time changes and so on by ear, and didn’t need any scores at all.” She was clearly a logical choice to take over the piano chair in the ensemble. Strønen: “I feel a connection between European contemporary music and jazz and Japanese music in the way that she manoeuvres inside the group sound… She can be very abstract in her playing, with a sparse quality I like a lot, and then the next moment full of temperament.” One can perhaps also sense a connection to early Paul Bley in some of Ayumi’s phrases, paraphrases and ellipses. And a further connection to the dawn of new jazz might also be felt in Ole Morten Vågan’s Haden-like bass intro to the piece called “Tension”.
But Time Is A Blind Guided is a flexible, mutating ensemble and the quintet effectively contains both a string trio and a piano trio. With Lucus a further dynamic adjustment has taken place, in which cellist Lucy Railton, bassist Ole Morten Vågan and the drummer-leader have drawn closer in the engine room of the ensemble while Tanaka and violinist Håkon Aase, says Strønen, “are fulfilling more of a soloist’s function, on top of what we are doing – at least some of the time.”
As on the group’s debut album there are excellent contributions from the string players. The group name Time Is A Blind Guide is taken from Anne Michael’s novel Fugitive Pieces, a connection Strønen underlines with the track of the same title here. The strings here seem to reference both folk music and baroque playing before the piano enters to gently lead the music elsewhere. Manfred Eicher’s production brings out all the fine detail in the grain of the collective sound and the halo of its overtones, captured in the famously-responsive acoustic of Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo in March 2017.
Ole Morten Vågan and Håkon Aase have appeared on other ECM recordings recently. Bassist Vågan has been a member of Maciej Obara’s quartet for five years and can be heard on the Polish saxophonist’s ECM debut Unloved. Violinist Håkon Aase plays regularly with trumpeter Mathias Eick’s touring band and is featured on Eick’s new album Ravensburg (release date: March 2018).
Thomas Strønen has been an ECM recording artist since 2005 when the label released his album Parish, with Bobo Stenson, Fredrik Ljungkvist and Mats Eilertsen. It was followed by recordings with Food, Strønen’s duo-plus-guests project with Iain Ballamy. Food’s discs include Quiet Inlet, Mercurial Balm and This Is Not A Miracle.