Simon Nabatov’s “Loves”

03 - Nabatov cover

NABATOV: Loves: Georgia; Amour Fou; Anaïs; Sylvia; Ella; Clara; Lili; Frida – Platotudes / Udo Moll, tpt; Janning Trumann, tb; Leonhard Huhn, a-sax/s-sax/cl; Sebastian Gille, t-sax/a-cl; Axel Porath, vla; Nathan Bontrager, cel; Simon Nabatov, pno; Stefan Schönegg, bs; Dominik Mahnig, dm; Rebekka Ziegler, Tobias Christi, voc / Leo Records CD LR 918

After having praised avant-garde pianist Simon Nabatov’s playing in his last Leo CD, Brooklyn Mischiefs, I wasn’t sure what to expect in this eight-movement jazz suite, written for a surprisingly large group of musicians (nine, plus two vocalists), The liner notes by Stuart Broomer tell us that Nabatov “has developed a rich relationship between music and language, exploring Russian writing in multiple musical dimensions…As this suite developed, Nabatov’s setting expanded, coming to illustrate a range of perspectives brought to bear on his subject, creating music that evokes the complexity, chaos, anarchy and liberation of love as it is individually experienced in myriad ways.”

Several of the pieces are based on historic relationships. Georgia reflects on that of painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Anaïs on the notes of writer Henry Miller and poet Anaïs Nin, Sylvia on Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes. Ella juxtaposes the letters of German painter Gabriele Münter and Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky while Clara is based on the relationship between Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms. Frida, the finale, is obviously based on the relationship between Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and muralist Diego Rivera.

All of which would mean little if the music was not up to the challenge that Nabatov set for himself, but happily it is. Here the music has more form than is usual for him, using soft orchestral textures into which he weaves the wordless voice of Rebekka Ziegler. Much of the scoring reminded me of several cool jazz composers of the 1950s and early ‘60s despite the use of more amorphic rhythms and somewhat more advanced harmonies. The only real problem I had with the ensemble is that I felt that the violist and cellist played with a somewhat “choked” timbre, but this may have been purposeful. Their atonal duet in the opening number is also interrupted at times by Ziegler’s  wordless singing; later, some of the winds come in over them, creating a strange musical mixture that leans towards outside jazz despite the fact that much of it is undoubtedly scored. Both Ziegler and Tobias Christi break into the music to read excepts from the letters between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz as the music increases in tempo, reflecting the mixed-up and conflicting emotions reflected in the words.

Amour Fou is aptly described in the notes as being “distinguished by its tempo and its sudden leaps in pitch and jerky, kinetic rhythms.” Ziegler’s voice is, if anything, even more prominently recorded in the mixture of brass, strings and winds than in the previous piece. A very strange piece, yet somehow attractive despite its anomalies. There are no solos in this one.

By contrast with the first two pieces, Anaïs is rather formless, at least to the naked ear; a number of fast, jerky, atonal figures are flying all over the place here, primarily from Nabatov’s piano but also from the viola and clarinet. Things eventually become slower and quieter, but no less congested harmonically. Christi has, however, a very tonal vocal quoting excerpts from Miller’s letters to Nin. One thread that one notice in common between Stieglitz’ writing to O’Keeffe and Miller’s writing to Nin is their desire to completely “own” them. Romantic, or somewhat creepy? One does not “own” another person, even a person one loves deeply. At around the 4:40 mark, the music sounds somewhat abrasive, even choked, before Ziegler enters singing lines from Nin’s letters. Then suddenly, all hell breaks loose, though it eventually calms down.

The opening music of Sylvia sounds disconnected, even a bit psychotic, probably reflecting that troubled poet’s general frame of mind. Everything is edgy and unsettled, melodically, rhythmically and harmonically; there is no peace in this music, and nothing that one would normally associate with “love” music. In the middle section, there are strange and unaccountable pauses in the music before it resumes, just as neurotic as before. Ella also sounds a bit confused, with fluttering clarinet figures and strange string and brass music, but the tempo slows down in places here, allowing the listener to get deeper into the mood. Both Christi and Ziegler softly speak to each other over and under the music in German. Eventually her lines almost sound like stutters as the music becomes ever slower; then a pause, a little explosion of sound, and then rapid musical flutters invade the tranquil mood. It’s almost as if the musicians were eavesdropping in on the conversation and reacting, not always to the words but primarily to the moods being expressed.

Things mellow out considerably in Clara, and why not? The relationship between Brahms and the former Mrs. Schumann was a lovely one; he, who refused to marry because he felt it would interfere with his creative life, still needed a feminine muse in his life, and she provided that. The two singers are accompanied mostly by Nabatov on piano with the occasional use of the strings. There are short, stormy interludes here and there—no relationship is entirely without conflict—but they always resolve fairly quickly until the middle section, which slowly but surely becomes busier in tempo, harmony and the clash of instruments (to be honest, I’m not sure why), but this too passes and calm returns.

Lili, which apparently has no literary or love connection, is just a crazy atonal romp for the band (and a fairly long one, too). Our two vocalists exchange some wordless scat singing, one of the most attractive passages in this piece. Nabatov plays a strange, stabbing piano solo in this one, full of pauses and almost completely atonal.

I would have thought that Frida would also be an edgy piece, considering the volatile relationship between her and Rivera, but surprisingly it opens up slowly and quietly, and Ziegler sings in English, not Spanish. One of the lines I could make out the clearest was, “I’m writing to let you know I’m releasing you,” so perhaps this was Kahlo’s moment of resignation, recognizing that Rivera was polyamorous, something she didn’t want any part of.

All in all, an excellent suite of pieces despite a few moments that I questioned as being musically or dramatically appropriate. This is truly an original and creative album that defies categorization, one that you really need to hear.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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