Atmospheres (TrackList Follows] – Tigran Hamasyan/ Arve Henriksen/ Eivind Aarset/ Jan Bang – ECM (2 CDs) 2097442724 (9/9/16) ****:

(Tigran Hamasyan – piano/ Arve Henriksen – trumpet/ Eivind Aarset – guitar/ Jan Bang – live sampling)

An airy journey with ECM.

The cover photos and titles of ECM records are chosen with deliberation. They are a reliable entry point into the music of this legendary label. Here we are treated to Atmospheres, by Tigran Hamasyan, Arve Henrickson, Eivind Aarsat, and Jan Bang. In this image, we are high over an indistinct mountain range. Light falls away below to the West. Mist shrouds an endless range of ridges with nothing more than a river to break the monotony. If we are in a balloon, we are quite cold by now; but a plane seems out of place for a trip that seems to have a  meteorological purpose.

We can guess that this might be music of heights, air, and clouds, and so it is.  In fact, from the first measures, we doubt whether we shall ever descend. It may be necessary to suspend for the duration the memory of a place where life happens and people act for good or evil.

Piano, guitar, and electronics establish the meteorological conditions by means of layers of sound on the opening, “Traces I”. We accordingly adjust our expectations to the obvious framework of the work. It will be music of elements rather than organisms, of mental and mood- states rather than of everyday sayings and doing. In short, it will be rarified.

Across this longish two-disc set, through “Traces I” through “Traces X” and a half dozen pieces not called Traces, but which differ from each other as dusk differs from nightfall, we begin to be on intimate terms with the expressive range of these cool and spare textures. Set against them, and perhaps the best chance we have of meeting something cheering  up at this altitude, is the trumpet of Arve Henriksen. It first greets us a few minutes in, just when we are starting to despair. After all, it is something rather than nothing. But what kind of something?

It seems that this trumpet has been crossed with that most mournful instrument of the Caucasus, the duduk, a double-reed instrument famously capable of producing great sobs from the audience the moment it is set to lips. (There an Armenian folk music slant to all this.) Thus, our best hope for something humanly affirming is dashed. We are deeply impressed by the mimicry but eventually the laments and ululations elicit not sobs, but sighs of boredom. This trumpet is heavily featured on the first eight tracks, while the guitar drones and hums in the background.

Several of the pieces are compositions by Komitas. One of these, “Shushiki,” is genuinely arresting as an original achievement of musical texture. Arve Henriksen has amazingly switched his duduk out for what sounds like a shakuhachi, an instrument more consonant with Zen-like state of this static piece. Unlike most of the session, it seems rather too short than too long.

It should be noted that the piano playing of Tigran Hamaysan is capable of expressing a static and shimmering beauty even as it stands still in posture of self-regard. This can be seen best  in “Hoy, Nazan.”  But just when we thought we might be in for a change of scene, “Traces IX” brings us back to the purely contemplative space in which a sinister accordion effect vexes the musing of the piano and trumpet.

Finally, one admits that this music is not meant to be listened to in this way. It is adjacent perhaps to the genre of down-tempo, or chill-hop music which has specific uses. Of course long-time ECM listeners know that there is no sort of genre breaking/mixing music that Manfred Eicher won’t try.  In the end, it will still bear the unmistakable imprint of the ECM aesthetic.

However, setting aside these hypothetical uses for say, resurfacing after general anesthesia or taste-testing varieties of Peyote, we must conclude that this music can disappoint even as an aesthetic artifact inspired by the airy regions. As I look out the window, even now, the gloomy finale “Qeler tsoler” by Komitas does no justice to the achingly beautiful high cirrus clouds and a thin line of birds migrating South.

Disc 1:Traces I; Tsirani Tsar; Traces II-VI; Garun A (Variation)
Disc 2: Traces VII-VIII; Shushiki; Hoy Nazan; Traces IX-X; Angel Of Girona/ Qeler Tsoler (Medley)

—Fritz Balwit