A Mirror to Machaut isn’t Samuel Blaser doing a quick follow-up to As The Sea issued a mere five months ago. Rather, it’s the successor to his 2011 Third Stream collaboration with the late, great Paul Motian, Consort In Motion, a fusion jazz record of an entirely different kind: instead of melding jazz improvisation and swing with rock or some other sort of modern form, Blaser ventures back in music history — way back — as in the late Medieval period to mine the melodies conceived then to come up with something that looks way forward. Motian’s eminently pliable drums was perfectly suited for the strange brew and Consort opened up a new chapter in the rapidly blooming artistry of Blaser (while writing a fitting late chapter for one of jazz’s renowned drummers).
A Mirror to Machaut builds on that, focusing on the works of two French composers, Guillaume Machaut and Guillaume Dufay, from the 14th and 15th centuries, respectively. As the Swiss trombonist explains in his liner notes to this album, some of the pieces were adapted to progressive jazz by modifying them beyond recognition, while other selections lent themselves better for straighter adaptations.
For this newer project, obviously, a new drummer was needed, and Gerry Hemingway was called in to fill those big shoes. Drew Gress became the new double bass player, and Joachim Badenhorst added a second horn, through his clarinet, bass clarinet or tenor sax. Only pianist Russ Lossing was retained, but now, he also plays a Wurlitzer and Rhodes.
The progression from his Motian encounter don’t just hinge on those change-ups; “Hymn,” a slowly simmering chamber-jazz piece of careful development, progresses in a more deliberate way than anything you’d hear on the earlier project. “Douce dame jolie” ports a short Machaut figure over to Gress’ bass, and “Saltarello” keeps the harmony intact while inverting the key and rejiggering the rhythmic pattern. “Bohemia,” on the other hand, strips out some of the complexity in a Machaut ballad, to amplify its beauty. “Dame, se vous m’estes lointeinne,” meanwhile, applies the Ornette Coleman treatment to Machaut amidst lively druming by Hemingway.
“Color,” based on a Dufay motif, finds a coincidental (or not) intersection with late 60s Miles, emphasized by Lossing’s Corea styled Rhodes. A melody is chopped up into short pieces for “Linea,” and integrated with interesting rhythmic patterns to create tension and mood; Gress, Blaser, Badenhorst and Lossing all participate in building something new from these shards.
A Mirror to Machaut, therefore, isn’t really about a single strategy, but using vastly different tactics in achieving the goal of recycling melodies more than half a millennia old as the basis for late twentieth century modern jazz. The best part about that is, you don’t have to understand late Middle Ages European music to appreciate what Samuel Blaser has done here. If it all comes off as advanced, cutting-edge jazz to you, that would probably suit Mr. Blaser just fine.
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A Mirror to Machaut is due out August 13, by Songlines Recordings. Visit Samuel Blaser’s website for more info.