Review roundup - The best new jazz prog releases

Ben Monder Amorphae album artwork

Guitarist Ben Monder’s work on David Bowie’s Blackstar turned heads last year, and his latest album Amorphae (ECM) deserves to turn a few more.

Creating vast landscapes wreathed in chilly harmonic fog, his luminous tones feel out yearning melodies and dreamy motifs. Journeying to darker spaces, he traces echoes of pulsing ghost machinery invoked occasional manifestations from drummers Andrew Cyrille and Paul Motian. Ruminative and absorbing, Monder’s painterly vision is nevertheless intensely dramatic.

On Continuum (ECM), Swiss pianist and zen funk pioneer Nik Bärtsch extends his metronomically charged compositions to include a string quintet. Unlike Ronin, Bärtsch’s regular group, this acoustic ensemble is far more intimate. As violins and cello unfurl, terse melodies flutter and swirl, distributed across breathy bass clarinet counterpoint and chattering percussion, while dolorous piano hovers over the tidal ebb of brushed snare. As ever with Bärtsch, the brilliance of the big picture stems from the attention lavished upon small, intricate details. Mesmeric and stunning.

Recorded in 2012, Mujician Solo IV (Live in Piancenza) (Dark Companion) captures Keith Tippett on his very best form. The pianist made decisive contributions to King Crimson’s early 70s albums, and so his solo gigs are always welcome. Augmenting the keys with stones, sticks, musical boxes, metal, and other bric-a-brac, he produces microtonal swarms and layers. Encompassing touching lyricism, tottering playfulness, and swarming, ground-shaking chords, Tippett doesn’t just go deep into the piano, one senses he goes deep inside himself, digging into rich emotional seams and personal resonance. This one’s highly recommended.

Ex-E.S.T. drummer Magnus Öström continues his development as a composer on his third solo release, Parachute (Diesel Music). Driven by his trademark motorik shuffle, Öström says this is a celebration of music itself and of the energy it carries. Between the racing quick-turns and insistent themes, guitarist Andreas Hourdakis shines with nimble runs occasionally reminiscent of Pat Metheny’s sun-dappled lyricism. Seeded with tender passages, it’s a joyous, animated run.

Black Light (Cuneiform) stands as the best album yet by Zurich-based Sonar. This minimalist rock quartet fashion throbbing, hypnotic pieces though the gradual accretion of picked notes, plucked harmonics and spiky beats, and their dogged pointillism produces sparkling results. Rather than being robotic, the cyclical discipline underpinning the band oozes with a remarkable fluidity. As outer-space surf guitars splash down into deep pools of reverb, smart sound-design adds another immersive trance state to get lost in. Though sometimes languid or nebulous at the start, tracks quickly acquire a precipitous velocity that’s as ominous as it is exhilarating. If all that sounds a touch cerebral or mechanistic, don’t worry. David Bottrill’s production brings a terrific physicality to it all.

Sid Smith

Sid's feature articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications including Prog, Classic Rock, Record Collector, Q, Mojo and Uncut. A full-time freelance writer with hundreds of sleevenotes and essays for both indie and major record labels to his credit, his book, In The Court Of King Crimson, an acclaimed biography of King Crimson, was substantially revised and expanded in 2019 to coincide with the band’s 50th Anniversary. Alongside appearances on radio and TV, he has lectured on jazz and progressive music in the UK and Europe.  

A resident of Whitley Bay in north-east England, he spends far too much time posting photographs of LPs he's listening to on Twitter and Facebook.