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Anat Fort Trio - "And If"

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OVERVIEW:

When it comes to music, I'm all about the mood. Thankfully, the career I have allows me to listen to music almost all day long—and not softly from computer speakers or a radio; I use a set of Shure SRH840 professional studio monitoring headphones which provide great detail, instrument separation, and a level of isolation that allow me to turn up the volume. Although I write my reviews at home after a critical listening session, I do spend a significant amount of time listening and analyzing music at work (an article on how I actually write reviews, time spent, and the systems I use will be posted on the main page shortly). That being said, let me return to my opening comment about the relationship between mood and music. Since I arrive at work at 6:30am most days, I usually start my mornings with mellow jazz or piano recitals. As the day wears on, the tempo and rhythm of music pumped into my ears gains momentum, and by the late morning/early afternoon I am enjoying a romp which keeps my legs and feet bouncing like a Red Bull infused teenager.

With that in mind, onto the task at hand: the Anat Fort Trio. For the past six months, one of the albums I have consistently turned to in those morning hours is And If. The fact it has been a staple in my morning rotation that long beckons a review. A recording like And If, which carries not only a theme, but a style from beginning to end, is both a blessing and a headache for a reviewer (at least for this reviewer). It's a blessing for the simple fact that it's a complete album and if you're in the mood for it, your thirsty ears will be quenched. It's a headache because in order to keep that theme, mood, and feeling throughout, many of the descriptions describing one song could easily be applied to others; that doesn't mean there isn't differences, just that the differences aren't quite as pronounced. First up, let's take a quick look at the Anat Fort Trio.

Born and raised in Israel, Anat Fort has been playing and composing longer than her credits as leader suggest. In fact, And If is only her third album as leader and follows her 2004 recording A Long Story (her first release, titled Peel, was self-produced). Before moving to New York, Fort studied jazz and was active in the Israeli jazz scene. Although some critics cite a Middle Eastern influence in her work, And If lacks any noticeable regional characteristics with the exception of “Something 'Bout Camels," which I will address in more detail below. Instead, Fort credits Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, and Keith Jarrett amongst those who made an impression on her (also to note is the recently deceased Paul Motian who played drums on her second recording).

If And If doesn't have a recognizable Middle Eastern influence, then what does it resemble? It's impressionistic; a dream-like journey that is soft, cultured and introspective. The tone and softness speak of Fred Hersch's Live at the Village Vanguard or Brad Mehldua's Live in Marciac. In fact, the first four tracks of And If feel like they could be dedicated piano recitals as double-bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider truly subvert to an accompaniment role. During the second half of the album, Wang's bass playing takes front stage on a few numbers and Schneider does some fantastic brush work. Yet, the trio maintains the light, airy feel throughout. Those looking for the quick, fast paced work of Coltrane or the avant-garde tendencies of Matthew Shipp need not apply. The music is easily approachable by anyone looking for a relaxing, gentle sound....say, something your non-jazz fan mother might enjoy in the background. However, the real brilliance is the reward offered to the dedicated and analytical listener; this is the one who will pick up on the emotion and sentiment this trio expertly creates. If you want to look inward and be moved, take a sojourn with And If.

DETAILS:

The opening track, “Paul Motian (1)," is eerily reminiscent of the soft, single note piano playing which sets the mood in many of the dramatic scenes of HBO's series Six Feet Under. Being a huge fan of that show, I was immediately hooked by the emotion Anat Fort conveys with her introduction. Her piano work is delicate and she lets each note linger in the air. As the slow, reverberating bass notes kick in, they float up in harmony with the piano and create an atmosphere of open space, but with a feeling of mass. It's a delicate opening which sets the tone of introspection.

The trio changes the mood, albeit just slightly, with the second song, “Clouds Moving." Fort opens with warmth from the piano as if to reassure the listener following the somewhat detached feeling created in the opening track. That warmth is confirmed and heightened when the deep tones of the bass enter. Fort's fingers are constantly creating, using soft trills expertly, but focusing more on extended legato runs which are intensive, but never congested—a theme which is carried throughout the album. Schneider's work on the cymbals is creative and engaging; a second listen focusing on his drum work is well worth the investment in time.

“En If" is not only one of the most beautiful tracks on the album, but one built around a simple idea. The opening piano solo, which will serve as the base melody, best displays Fort's virtuosity and inventiveness. The pattern uses only three notes; her left-hand works two notes in the middle register and her right hand replies with a single answer. Together her hands slowly work their way up the piano demonstrating Fort's proficient use of timbre and dynamics. Although only three notes, they hang in the air and give the impression of more complex phrasing. As the bass and drums enter, the trio uses timing and space to allow the notes to resonate and mingle, carrying the light atmosphere forward. Fort continues with the three note melody, adding layers and elaborating on it throughout the rest of the track.

As mentioned above, “Something 'Bout Camels" is the one track which displays a Middle Eastern feeling. The name seems appropriate as the rhythm brings to mind images of a camel as it ambles across a long, dry desert and Schneider's use of finger cymbals heightens this effect. Just past the midway point, Fort and Wang engage in a conversation where Wang's phrasing on the bass is picked up by, and expanded on by Fort. After Fort drops out, Wang picks up the reigns with a soulful solo where spacing and note selection take precedence, not speed. The solo work of Gary Wang on the double-bass during “Something 'Bout Camels" is indicative of the second half of And If. Wang is given ample room to come to the forefront and display his skills. He does so admirably in each case with well-paced, thoughtful solos—always remaining focused on maintaining the atmosphere.

The closes thing to a romp or anything remotely up-tempo is “Nu." It's not fast paced by any means—just a bit quicker than the previous tracks. Fort works a low register melody that reminds me of some of the dark phrasing that Vijay Iyer creates.

In retrospect, I'm glad I decided to write about this album—and I didn't choose to write on it until this morning. Nor did I realize until today that the opening and closing tracks are named after the late Paul Motian (not paying attention to song names after throwing a CD in or selecting the album from my mp3 player is a habit I'm trying to break). The reflective nature of this recording seems fitting given the fact the world has recently lost one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. Although Motian did not play on this recording, he is at least partially responsible for Anat Forts success as he not only played on her second album, but brought their project to the attention of the record label which eventually release it, as well as And if. This album sets the mood perfectly to reflect on his life, as well as your own.

RECOMMENDATION:

4 out of 5, If you're into slower jazz that is reflective and will take you on a journey, And If is for you. Non-jazz fans will appreciate this recording and may see it as perfect background music. However, those willing to sit down and really listen will gain the biggest reward. I once read a piece by Gary Giddins in which he said that free jazz didn't make good casual listening—that to truly enjoy and appreciate it, you needed to really focus on it. Although And If could be used as background music, it will shine even more if you pay attention to it.

Anat Fort—piano
Gary Wang—double-bass
Roland Schneider—drums

Release date: September 14, 2010 (ECM)

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