Lotte Anker, Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver – Floating Islands

Lotte anker floating islands [This review was first published in Jazz Journal in 2010.]

Lotte Anker (ss, as, ts)
Craig Taborn (p)
Gerald Cleaver (d)

Floating
Ritual
Transitory Blossom
Backwards River
Even Today I am still Arriving
(54.28)

Copenhagen July 2008.
ILK 162CD

Lotte Anker is, like Jacob Anderskov, a member of the Danish collective ILK, working here with American collaborators. The music presented here was recorded live at the 2008 Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

The first four tracks represent a continuous 48-minute piece which sounds completely improvised, although these three musicians clearly have a familiarity with each other’s playing which creates a structure of its own. Things begin quite delicately with sparse piano and subdued drums accompanying Anker’s almost nervous-sounding sax. It’s light but the music never quite disappears; there is an insistent pull that never allows the listener to forget it. Repetitive, insistent patterns then increase the intensity; free sax playing over a jagged piano and drums backdrop. Not easy – or even, at times, pleasant – but it forces a reaction and, as part of the live performance, it must have been quite hypnotic to witness. The third section includes moments of reflective quiet, with some dainty work from Taborn and finally a busy, scurrying conclusion: each of the three instruments circling each other in an escalating quest.

The fifth and separate piece is more sculptural by contrast. There is a sense of sketching out broad, bold strokes but what the picture is the listener is never allowed to be sure; an interesting album closer.

In the end, like all recordings of live performances – which are, for some reason, more obviously a snapshot of a single, past moment than are studio recordings – one is left with the question: “What do they sound like now?”

UPDATE 2015

I’ve not listened to this too regularly since that first review although it has been ‘spun’ sufficiently often that it’s become familiar. So what does familiarity breed in this case, contempt or affection? Well, given that I don’t tend to spend my time writing about stuff I don’t like (why would I do that?) it’s fair to say that the verdict five years on is still favourable…

From the oscillating opening Floating as Anker’s strong tone bobs and weaves and flutters, alone and searching, this is an album in search of something. Meaning? Transcendence? A good time? All of the above? As Taborn’s piano joins the quest over Cleaver’s muffled percussion, there’s a definite sense of initiation.

After the exploratory character of Floating, we then slip straight into Ritual, one of the two extended pieces featured here. Sixteen minutes of incantatory magic. Taborn’s insistent two-note repetition provides the rhythm, freeing Cleaver’s percussion to ebb and flow around the listener’s awareness as Anker throws her horn in a number of directions as if looking for the right combination of phrasing and in doing so creates a haunting and at times semi-violent spell. This piece pounds at the perceptions, gradually and inexorably increasing in power (and volume) as Anker seeks to snake-charm the gods. About half-way through the frenzy steps up a notch with splashes of cymbal and small explosions of sound from Cleaver, Taborn practically drowns his on (still present) rhythm with free stabs and flurries. And Anker whirls dervish-like before settling to a series of textural drawn-out tones. Finally, we get a long fade with Taborn gently bringing us back to our original dimension and segue-ing into the more contemplative – even pretty – Transitory Blossom.

After this respite, Anker starts out the second extended piece, Backwards River with more angular lines and exclamations. Cleaver remains subtle – possibly a little too subtle as he seems a little buried here – while Taborn begins to add complementary fragments which soon join up into prolonged and rapid torrents of notes. In fact, as Anker lays out and Cleaver’s contributions become more prominent, the middle section sounds like two pianos, such is the separation between Taborn’s left and right hands. Once the adrenaline is well and truly amped up, Anker steps back in with a series of mainly lower register splashes, broadening the sound picture and even, in an odd way, adding structure while playing quite free. The playing often soars and is sometimes even joyous, but there’s a constant dark edge to it – a sort of smile-but-don’t-forget-to-look-over-your-shoulder feel. Finally, Cleaver gets some long overdue exposure with a hypnotically stimulating drum solo to finish the track.

The last piece, Even Today I Am Still Arriving is a more minimalist affair. Cleaver’s solo spot continues initially but after an overlapping transitional duet, Anker’s soprano takes a soliloquy of her own, slowing the pace and evoking everything from traffic to birdcalls, before a final delicate trio outro.

The list of albums out there that could be ‘classics’ if only they had a wider exposure is probably as long as both of my arms. But. If I were to draw up that long, long list, “Floating Islands” might very well find itself near the top.

(BTW, for a taste of Anker directing a much larger ensemble, check out her recent album “What River is This” – also reviewed for Jazz Journal so I’m sure it’ll turn up on these pages sometime soon-ish…)

http://www.lotteanker.com/