Sixty years ago, “third stream” music was supposed to be the next big thing in jazz. At the time, Gunther Schuller defined it as “a new genre … located about halfway between jazz and classical music.” Critics quickly deemed it a failure.
But the third stream did not die. It went dormant for about 30 years until the right musicians came along and made it viable—conservatory-trained classical artists, almost all European, who discovered jazz while still young enough to internalize both languages. A disproportionate number of them record for ECM.
Lontano is quintessentially representative. François Couturier of France and Anja Lechner of Germany entered the classical world in childhood, but they are improvisers now. Their piano/cello collaborations are like nothing you have heard before, unless you know their only other album, Moderato Cantabile (ECM, 2013). Lontano is inner-directed jazz, meticulous as chamber music. It is classical music released to float free in the moment. Joint improvisations like the title track and “Postludium” feel exploratory, open to possibility, yet sustain the album’s stately atmosphere. On composed pieces like Henri Dutilleux’s “Prélude en berceuse,” transitions between notation and improvisation are mysterious.
Above all, Lontano is hauntingly beautiful. Couturier writes rapt, crystalline melodies like “Flow” and sets them into motion so that he and Lechner can discover the unsuspected emotions they contain. He is a piano minimalist whose every note has meaning. But for the jazz audience, the revelation will be Lechner. She employs her technical mastery and her instrument’s yearning sonorities in the service of her bold imagination. Jazz people don’t get enough cello. “Alfonsina y el mar,” by the Argentinian composer Ariel Ramirez, is unalloyed poignance. In the hands of an artist like Lechner, the cello, like few other instruments, can tug directly at the human heart.
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