The live music scene here at Lawrence has been quiet, and in an effort to shed some light on music I have been listening to — besides Lawrence-related releases — here are two instrumental albums that I strongly feel will end up in my list of 2018 favorites. And yes, I know it is only early February.
Nils Frahm’s “All Melody”
Wanting to get to know the contemporary ambient electro-acoustic genre better, I turned to Frahm, from whom I had only heard one album prior to “All Melody.” And that album was not even one of his electronic albums; it was a completely acoustic collection of piano improvisations, an atypical pick from his catalogue (it is titled “The Bells,” and I highly suggest it). His latest release is also atypical, but after reading about the processes and inspirations for his other albums, I found that they all seem to be built around extremely specific circumstances and settings. For “All Melody,” Frahm constructed Saal 3, his own large studio in what was once a studio for chamber ensembles, rich with natural acoustics unique to the ’50s Funkhaus. In it, Frahm housed his complex setup of vintage synths, pianos and a whole slew of keyboard instruments that he had collected throughout his life. He views the studio and its collection of sound sources as one huge instrument, and after hearing the album, I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with him.
Frahm uses the studio beautifully, creating a musical world that feels very tied to where it originated while also feeling epochs and universes beyond. The different voices on the album blend together in unexpected ways, bonding to each other no matter the timbre or tone. During my first listen, in the peaceful early morning, I never once thought about the source of a sound or how Frahm created it. Before listening, I knew that he was an expert at manipulating conventional instruments, subtly affecting how they are recorded or played but often changing the output just enough to make its source harder to determine. But listening was an even more remarkable experience, something a notion prior-to could not convey. Even without the knowledge of how he created the studio and the plethora of instruments he used within it, I found myself moved by the album’s quiet hugeness. It is as vast and unfathomable as it is personal and intimate. To look at it in the face is to see the process and product of creating sound in which gut feelings and tranquility play large roles.
Quin Kirchner’s “The Other Side of Time”
Chicago drummer Kirchner has been playing with jazz, rock, folk groups — you name it — even backing several shows from stand-up comedian John Mulaney recently, and if that versatility and prolificacy did not set him apart, his debut as a leader and composer undoubtedly has. This ambitious work, one-and-a-half hours long, has the capability of gripping the listener for the entirety of its duration, exploring many original compositions as well as fresh arrangements from the likes of Mingus, Sun Ra and other out-there jazz greats. I must admit that at first, its duration was a bit daunting, but within just the first several seconds, I was hooked. Rolling and full drums meshed with watery Wurlitzer pads and arco bass, creating a spiritual yet foreboding soundscape. From there on out, time went quickly, with either Kirchner’s compositions and arrangements keeping things chugging along or hypnotizing moments such as “Drums & Tines” warping my sense of time completely. This album is a poem, every sound purposeful and placed so well—whether in-the-moment or planned beforehand. Despite its long running time, “The Other Side of Time” feels succinct.
It is also difficult to get past just how many unique voices make up this release. From its leader, whose voice permeates the work multi-dimensionally; to Jason Stein, a bass-clarinet giant; to the busy Nick Broste on trombone and engineering; to the solid tenor sax sound of Nate Lepine; to the Third Stream staple bassist Matt Ulery — this album is in extremely good hands. Even its artwork, created by visual artist and electronic musician Damon Locks, played into my listening experience greatly. While Kirchner leads and composes, the album is very much a collaboration between and celebration of several of the strongest and most distinct voices in Chicago today. The common ground the group (plus its various other collaborators, including the composers of the non-Kirchner tunes) finds is stellar and unexpected in a way only contemporary Chicago jazz can be; they create a certain kind of atmosphere with their desire to explore, their kindness and authenticity. But this album, specifically, has something more — it put me into a world that few other works of its kind have, making living and listening feel as effortless as the sound the musicians created.