Sokratis SINOPOULOS (Σωκράτης Σινόπουλος) : Metamodal – ECM 770-2553 – 62:00, [5/19] : *****:
(Sokratis Sinopoulos; lyra, Yann Keerim; piano, Dimitris Tsekouras; bass, Dimitris Emmanouil; drums)
The audition of an ECM piano trio recording involves a moderate trimming of expectations one way or another. This iconic label maintains its core aesthetic most reliably when featuring these three instruments. The sonic spaciousness, the shunning of the post-bop vocabulary, the penchant for a middle-tempo, lyrically-cool vibe; these are instantly recognizable and enduring characteristics of the ECM legacy. But add another instrument, and all bets are off. Producer Manfred Eicher is one of the best at moving outside of “his sound” by means of bold fusions of musical traditions and unlikely instruments.
In this recording we have a second installment of a quartet in which the piano trio is configured around the central voice of the Lyra–an instrument that exudes the ‘coolness’ of the ECM landscape while sounding utterly fresh and original.
Our readers might be forgiven a bit of confusion about the nature of the Lyra. The first thing that might come to mind is a harp shaped instrument. Is this not the instrument that Orpheus played in the underworld to great advantage? Did not King David placate the mood-disordered King Saul, only to have a spear thrown in his direction for his troubles? There is indeed an ancient instrument the Lyre ( λύρα) long associated with gods, minstrels, storytellers and the mysteries of harmony itself.
However, sometime in the 9th century, this term was applied to an instrument of a very different character, a pear-shaped, bowed instrument which arrived from the East. Its ancestors are the Iranian kamanche and perhaps even the Arabian rabab. How could this be? If a horseman rode into a town that had hitherto known only cows, you would expect the introduction to yield a distinct lexical entity “horse,” which would henceforth not be confused with “cow.” However, these completely different instruments twine through Byzantine history with some referential ambiguity. In this recording, it is with the lyra “viol” rather than the archaic harp that we are concerned.
Those with a passing acquaintance of Greek or Cretan music may have witnessed this instrument in a traditional musical performance, supporting spirited and percussion-driven dancing. It is the very same undersized but potent instrument that takes the stage here, yet stylistically, we are in a different world. Eicher, has once again fiddled with the knobs to yield a sound that is visceral, icily vibrato-less, weirdly exotic as an erhu, but somehow also legato and lyrically compelling, and above all, whispering as if not to offend the sensitive ear.
The first two tracks stay within a recognizable modal framework. Lament is just that. It seems to call to the other instruments from afar. There is some puzzling deliberation over a minor third. A double stop lets us know that this is no fiddle. Metamodal I – Liquid starts out as a slow, dirge-like working over of a traditional maqam but livens up to the pattering of drums and some tight interplay of piano, bass and a more animated lyra. By now, we guess that the traditional forms are the starting point for experiments to come.
Sinopolous reflects on the advantages of his roots. “I play an instrument associated with a specific tradition and live in a place where the tradition is really strong. There are many advantages to a strong tradition. It’s like having a time machine, almost, which can take you back to the medieval era or on journeys through the history of Greece, the Balkans, many countries. And I have loved all the years I have spent supporting the traditions, including the folk music traditions of the Eastern Mediterranean. But recently something else has been developing, bringing together all of my background with something, let’s say, ‘universal’.” (It is worth mentioning that this adventurous musician collaborated memorably with the Irananian Chemirani brothers and cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras on a roots oriented session called Thrace: the Sunday Morning Sessions, Harmonia Mundi 2016)
On Transition, we enter a truly ECM space, with shimmering keyboards played by Yann Keerim. Absent are all references to jazz, classical and folk music; the language is pared down to the essential melodic minimum. In reference to his recordings with this group, Sinopolous explained his approach “Each of us has acquired and internalized a lot of knowledge and experience of different styles, [therefore during the recording session the goal was to ]…especially in the solos, if you find yourself playing something that could be easily described as ‘jazz’ or ‘folk’ or ‘classical’, then try and avoid it. Without censoring ourselves, let’s find instead the common roots of our improvising.” This is also well within the long established practice of ECM: not jazz, not pop but always something simultaneous self-referential and polymorphous.
Yann Keerim is a superb pianist. His accompanying recalls the excellent textural work of Shai Maestro, but in his melodic right hand, there are connections to some of the great pianist on the label, including countryman Vassilis Tsabropoulos, whose Achirana remains a point of reference for exquisite ECM piano trios. There is also something of the simplicity of Tord Gustavsen–the trio is comfortable with that ensemble’s muted and slow tempos.
The seventh track, Dawn, possesses as much musical pathos as I have heard in a long time. Somehow, it suggests the refinement of the Baroque viol tradition; there is even some subtle ornamentation worthy of Marin Marais. The melody, though, is pure folk music, true and strong with the instruments finding each other in unison. Yann Keerim’s solo is a splash of colors with harp-like arpeggios which leave open spaces for a melodic interplay of percussion and bass. I have not heard anything finer on this label in awhile. The subsequent Red Thread is nearly as fine. Even slower, the tune rocks between two minor chords with an uplift in the release section. How few notes Sinopolous plays! Here they achieve a great simplicity, communicating powerfully a shape which seems to work on a deep emotional level to illuminate lived experience.
This session works very well, and upon several hearings, I discern a coherence to the project, a movement through modal territory, a brooding within the collective memory of ECM, and then, finally, towards the end of the record, a still center of musical beauty and simplicity. This is a great achievement by both the musicians and the label.
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