Nils Frahm: The Bells

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Nils Frahm 

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David Morris

04th September 2009
At 19:44 GMT

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This record became a part of Kning Disk’s solo piano series at the behest of Peter Broderick, who first heard Frahm’s exceptionally lucid and beautiful piano improvisations in much the same way I did; lying down and looking up. I thank him for having done so, Nils Frahm is a welcome addition to my life, reminding me of the first meeting I had with Gonzales’ phenomenal record Solo Piano.

Those who don’t find Broderick’s music annoying after the first listen (unlike myself) might well find themselves sharing the slither of the venn diagram where the two meet. Coincidentally Broderick was present at the recording of the album, which must have been a real treat. In his own words they “hired a beautiful old church in the heart of Berlin for two nights, with a wonderful old grand piano and the most amazing natural reverb I've ever heard.” Lucky for some eh?

Though fans of iconic improvising pianists like Keith Jarrett might enjoy The Bells, it should be noted that Frahm is devoted to the same kind of prettiness that drives contemporary classical/indie/folk crossover players like James Blackshaw, fans of whom should apply (and it even outswirls that good lads latest piano forays… review here). In other words: There’s no jazzmatazz. But don’t dismiss it just yet jazzficionados! Because Frahm is capable of playing with an immense, guttural power and when he does alight on the prettiest lillies he does so softly and moves on before sinking them with overemphasis and heavy handed repetition; the twee technique which has become the norm in much of that very indie/folk/classical genre that Broderick is perhaps an unwitting figurehead for.

When I began this review I had no idea that I would have so many cross-references to play with. Dude clearly digs Satie, but who doesn’t? It’s not ECM material (a Very Influential Label), but is that just marketing/who your mates are? In the record shop where I work this would end up in the indie/folk bed with quack piano doctor Hauschka (don’t get me wrong, he’s good too!) and the ever wonderful William Basinski (reviewed here), separated from the Chick Corea’s and the Gary Burtons (who you can have a little taste of here and here) by all manner of soul, gospel and electronica.

And this divide makes some sense, because they are growing from very different earth and being picked up by younger antennae (plural of antennae? Not so easy is it!). The improvisatory technique was wrenched from the hands of the jazzers and the Steve Reichers, or at least duplicated/borrowed/stolen, a long time ago. So fans of the what’s-gonna-happen-next chemistry can go looking all over the genre spectrum and find good results, be it Pocahaunted, Chris Corsano & Paul Flaherty or some punk band you’ve never heard of making up their songs on the spot. This has been going on a long time too. So a pianist like Frahm is not only absorbing all manner of non-improvised ear candy, he’s hearing the technique pioneered by his instruments forebears echoing out through the Devil’s music, and Buddha’s too.

But that’s getting a little too far out, and as soon as I let one of The Bells’ longer tracks loose again, in this case the melancholic ‘It was really, really grey’, my senses and my emotions are re-engaged, and the ideas of “why” fall by the wayside. The piano is not a dying instrument, but there is something of antiquity about it. It is an immensely articulate conjurer of images, but that goes for nearly all music, except for pale abominations like Mr Scruff.

So instead of using all manner of untranslatable images to explain my deep and sentimental interaction with this music I’m inclined to call the grand piano a unique kind of lens; it delivers the images with it’s own character, rather than devising them. The basic parameters of its sound can be replicated, but its inimitable soul is embedded in all those ever changing hammers and strings. Nils Frahm can speak to that soul, and The Bells is a beautifully captured conversation between two friends. Pieces like the truly striking ‘Said and Done’ embody something in music that can’t be achieved on other instruments, it is enlivening and uplifting. ‘Down down’ explores deep resonance and attracts a magnificent force without sounding like an “experiment”, ‘Over there it’s raining’ and ‘Somewhere nearby’ are both full of light, lyrical and at times painfully wistful.  

The Bells achieves a depth by its contrast of fragility and strength, applied to welcome emotions as well as those of a more challenging nature. The record’s explorative nature flows well, these forty minutes were culled from five and a half hours of recordings. I’m intending to seek out more records by Mr Frahm.

Rating:  7 / 10

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