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 Recording of the Week, TRIO IVOIRE XX - Enchanted Forest

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For their twentieth anniversary, German-Ivorian group Trio Ivoire wanted to celebrate the occasion by making their latest release a significant one. With the trio itself consisting of pianist Hans Lüdemann and drummer Christian Thomé from Germany, and balafon player Aly Keïta from Ivory Coast, the group have spent two decades of music exploring a fusion of European music, Western jazz tradition and the folk music of West Africa. Lüdemann’s background in German conservatoires as both a classical and jazz pianist has seen him become a celebrated player in European jazz circles. Keïta grew up in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, to a family of practicing ‘griots’, traditional singers and musicians similar to the Celtic bard, which led to Keïta learning to play the balafon, a West African pentatonic mallet instrument. From the 1980s onwards he began to apply his knowledge of the balafon to jazz music, becoming known in Africa, Europe and the USA for his novel use of the instrument in jazz. Thomé also comes from a European conservatoire background, studying in Amsterdam while playing gigs on the local circuit. A meeting in the Ivory Coast between Lüdemann and Keïta eventually followed, ultimately leading to the formation of Trio Ivoire as they exist today.

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The trio’s latest record is a self-described ‘ode to the forest’, celebrating their affinity with the natural world; as such, there’s little in the way of the electronic textures found in their previous work, sticking mostly to acoustic sounds. Some of the arrangements on Enchanted Forest take inspiration from the polyphonic vocal music of the central African Aka tribe. To realise this the group took on board a trio of jazz vocalists: Simin Tander, Tamara Lukasheva and Amanda Becker. Trio Ivoire also invited former collaborator Lisa Wulff on double bass, as well as Alexandra Grimal on tenor sax, to complete the line-up for the record, calling themselves ‘TRIO IVOIRE XX’. The opening track ‘Zwickmühlen’ captures the band’s sound the most succinctly - opening with the three vocalists employing these polyphonic vocal melodies, before the band comes in with a syncopated groove. These a capella arrangements aren’t overused, such that it always feels like a tasteful addition when it does happen, and the three vocalists often make an appearance offering their own solo performances throughout the record.

Besides the novelty of the stylistic melding, the key strength of Enchanted Forest is the tightness of the group as a whole; the original trio themselves feel very much at the helm, but the odd time Grimal pops up to take a solo or head melody, her full tone asserts her presence in the mix, while Wulff’s contributions to the low end would no doubt be missed if they weren’t there. The trio and their ensemble keep the melodies low-key; there’s little in the way of free-jazzing, instead sticking to their guns with the atmospheric tone befitting of its title, save for the energetic middle-point of the record ‘Run XX’. Even with the clearly varied influences of the group, the tunes don’t do much zig-zagging between styles, opting instead to subtly weave in the additional textures, namely Keïta’s balafon.

With Enchanted Forest’s focus on the synthesis of multiple cultures, Trio Ivoire had initially planned an extensive international tour for the record, now sadly but unsurprisingly pushed back until next year. Rather than simply feeling like a jazz record with some non-European instrumentation thrown in on top, the implementation of outside influences feels natural - no doubt the group’s twenty years of existence means they have this style nicely refined by now. Though it sits firmly in jazz territory, even with its novelties, there’s plenty of forest to get lost in.

Hans Lüdemann TRIO IVOIRE XX

Available Formats: CD, MP3, FLAC

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