Very Sad begins with a melancholy moment, as Wanja Slavin unfurls these lengthy, enveloping lines on the alto over a stark figure from pianist Rainer Bohm. Slowly, “Hippie Song” builds into something more turbulent, then something boasting a determined, fiery focus.
The same could be said for this studio project, which took some five years to come into focus as Slavin — featured on both alto and clarinet — sorted through differing approaches to the music and different sidemen. As these things often will, however, once Slavin found the right mix, the six-song For Very Sad and Very Tired Lotus Eaters was completed with a stunning ease. In all some 20 players contributed to the process, yet once things started flowing, Slavin completed the record in just two days.
The anthemic, propulsive “Hippie Song” underscores how completely Slavin, who studied under jazz great Lee Konitz, has come to grips with his own soaring vision, and how completely he’s meshed with his able bandmates, as well. That said, Very Sad is so very much more than a blowing session, as the subsequent “Hommage” — which allows for a more reflective turn from Slavin and Company — so ably conveys. Slavin works in counterpoint to the active but never overbearing Tobias Backhaus, playing with a twilit reminiscence even as his drummer draws a parenthetical around him. Bohm’s solo, filled with trickling joy, then opens the door for a return by Slavin that’s more contemplative still.
The lone cover on Slavin’s new project is its Billy Strayhorn-penned title track, which downshifts into something even more confidential. Slavin is as emotionally engaging as ever, but the song’s essential quietude offers a new spotlight to bassist Andreas Lang — illustrating why everything fell into place on Very Sad with the arrival of this particular set of collaborators. Lang adds just the right coloring, drawing out oaken new ideas from a jazz classic.
“Odense” begins with a conversational opening statement from Bohm and Backhaus, who is joined by Lang and then Slavin, who offers a swirling circle of intrigue. Bohm answers in kind during his trickling, sweepingly inventive solo. They meet again for a thrilling final reading of the theme, flowing together as one. “Paf” returns to the soft magic of “Hommage,” as Lang and Bohm frame one of Slavin’s prettiest assertions with one impishly inventive interjection after another.
Finally, there’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” which begins with a stark cadence from Backhaus. Slowly, incessantly, he builds towards Bohm’s mathematical entrance — setting the stage for what may be Very Sad’s most challenging moment, as Slavin tangles with the brilliant Philipp Gropper on tenor. Together, they move outside, then further out, coupling and uncoupling, feeling for a serrated edge, and then latching onto a furious algorithm. It’s a stunning conclusion, so full of depth and enchantment, to an EP that rewards repeated listenings.