Manfred Eicher of ECM is known for discovering pianists, but he finds saxophonists too. In 2017 it was Maciej Obara from Poland, with Unloved, followed by Three Crowns in 2019. Now there is Oded Tzur from Israel.
The rapt atmospheric domain of Here Be Dragons’ opening title track is familiar for an ECM recording, but the way Tzur gets there is not. Individual tenor saxophone notes are consumed into one long sonorous flowing. Tzur’s progress feels unbroken yet undergoes myriad subtle modulations, like undulations in a rolling river. The quietude contains undercurrents of intense energy. Tzur’s exceptional rhythm section is Israeli pianist Nitai Hershkovits (a name to remember), Greek bassist Petros Klampanis, and American drummer Johnathan Blake.
Atypically for ECM, there are liner notes that provide insights into Tzur’s methods. Steve Lake explains that Tzur has studied Indian classical music and that most pieces “set out to develop a ‘miniature raga’ over a moving bass.” The raga, a scalar motif of at least five notes, is central to India’s musical culture, but Tzur has said, “Raga is, for me, a universal concept. I hear its connection to synagogue prayers, or to the blues.”
Ravi Shankar long ago proved that ragas can provide useful melodic frameworks for jazz improvisation. The veering lyricism of Tzur pieces like “20 Years” and “The Dream” is mesmerizing. Small variations in his ethereal yet human saxophone tone create distinct shifts in the character of the emotional moment. Three brief solo interludes provide contrast: crystalline piano; dark, solemn bass; meditative tenor saxophone, whispered.
Then something extraordinary happens. Tzur’s journey arrives at … Elvis Presley. The aching melody of “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” unadorned, fits perfectly into the spiritual landscape of this album and beautifully concludes it. Tzur is right. Ragas are universal.