There’s something to be said for truth in advertising. Take Atmospheres (CD, digital), the new double album from pianist Tigran Hamasyan, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, guitarist Eivind Aarset, and sampler Jan Bang. While that kind of configuration could’ve produced all kinds of noisy instrumentals, or even rock-infused jazz, this foursome have instead made a beautiful collection of jazzy, moody, and, yes, atmospheric tone poems.
Photo © Dániel Vass / ECM Records
Recorded in June of 2014, Atmospheres is an hour and a half of dark and moody instrumentals, but with a distinct influx of jazz tones. In such songs as “Traces I,” which kicks off the first disc, Hamasyan plays some careful piano in the vein of Keith Jarrett, while Bang and Aarset provide some slowly morphing sonic textures and Henriksen adds in some long held notes.
It’s this approach that permeates Atmospheres. Throughout the collection, Henriksen doesn’t play his horn like he’s the leader of a peppy band, or even in the mid-range way Miles Davis did on such electric albums In A Silent Way. Instead, he often plays slowly and carefully, holding his notes until they become like someone wailing over a lost love, much like how Mat Walerian plays his clarinet on the similarly moody Live At Okuden and how Claudio Puntin plays his with the Wolfert Brederode Quartet on Currents and Post Scriptum. Meanwhile, Hamasyan plays like he’s contemplating every mode, often just hitting one note and then waiting, sometimes for a few seconds. Finally, Aarset doesn’t play like John McLaughlin did on Miles’ Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson, like a jazzy Jimi Hendrix, or even like the typical acoustic-sounding electric so many jazz guitarist play. Instead, he’s much more reserved and, well, atmospheric. So much so that if no one told you there was a guitarist on this album, you might say, “Where? Oh, there it is.”
The same mood repeats again in such slow, moody instrumentals as “Traces III,” and indeed many of the ten songs called “Traces” and then a number, which comprise ten of the album’s fifteen tracks and 68 minutes of its 90-minute runtime. “Traces X” even reinforces the album’s title by being a slow moving sonic texture that may remind some of the Gone Girl, Social Network, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtracks by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And it’s not the only time this album gets contemplative, as the song “Tsirani Tsar” has Henriksen playing his trumpet with mournful tone, like he’s standing on a rain soaked bridge in the middle of the night.
But while much of Atmospheres is dark, moody, and, yes, atmospheric, some of the songs mix things up, including some of the “Traces” tracks. While the album does have a coherence — thanks to all of the songs sharing both the same instrumentation and style in which those instruments are played — there are times when the things are still atmospheric, just not as darkly so.
For instance, “Traces II” has Hamasyan tickling the ivories quickly and frantically, like he really is tickling them, while his bandmates match him in approach, especially Henriksen, who pushes his trumpet to the borders of free jazz. Then there’s “Traces VII,” which kicks off the second disc with a playful, almost skittish sounding mix of trumpet and piano, though it does calm down after a bit.
Then there’s “Traces V / Garun A,” which starts off like all the “Traces” tunes in that it’s a slowly moving bit of sonic texture, but it eventually picks up and gets really echoey and spacey — like something out of an artsy ’60s sci-fi movie, just without any “bleeps” and “bloops” — only to go back to being sad and lonely, though even more echoey, by the end. Similarly, “Traces VIII” also has a sci-fi vibe, though mostly because Hamasyan employs a percussive piano sound that, in conjunction with the song’s echoey tone, makes it sound like an homage to the music Jerry Goldsmith did for the original Planet Of The Apes. There are even little moments when Atmospheres oddly recalls the early days of Pink Floyd, especially some of the instrumental bits on the albums Ummagumma and Meddle.
More often than not, though, Atmospheres recalls the jazzy, moody, and world music-infused instrumentals of Anouar Brahem on his albums Thimar, Astrakan Café, and The Astounding Eyes Of Rita, though without Brahem’s Middle Eastern tones and percussion. Not only is it hauntingly beautiful, like Brahem’s best work, but it’s also unique in its approach and choice of instrumentation. Altogether, it’s an impressive collection that, yes, really does live up to its name.