One of two new albums by Nicolas Meier released this month (the other, also reviewed, being Breeze), Journey (or Yolculuk in Turkish) is another long-awaited album with his regular Meier Group. Released on MGP Records, Journey proves that, even in the age of the single-track digital download, the concept album is very much alive and kicking. Indeed, guitar wizard Meier takes us on a fantastical journey by means of his very personal brand of Turkish-inflected and flamenco and Latin influenced jazz.
Meier should hardly need any introduction. This young fire-brand guitarist is often described as "one of the rising stars" of the British jazz scene. Rising? He's been up there with the best of them for quite a while. The British jazz scene has always had more than its fair share of brilliant guitarists, and Nicolas Meier fits squarely into the top rank of not only the British but indeed the international scene. On Journey, Meier can be heard on guitars as well as on the fabulous glissentar - a fretless, 11 nylon-string guitar with all but the low E string doubled, produced by Godin to mimic the Middle Eastern oud and thus be particularly suited to Turkish and Arabic influenced music - and on the Turkish baglama (also called saz).
His regular Meier Group stalwarts provide a perfect complement to Meier's musical style. Reed supremo Gilad Atzmon, here on clarinet, soprano and alto sax, is right at home in this setting which has many parallels with his own Orient House Ensemble's cultural hybrid. Drummer genius Asaf Sirkis likewise is on home turf with Meier's guitar-driven fusion and Middle Eastern influences. Bassist and harmonica player Patrick Bettison, a one-time member of Acoustic Alchemy who plays with many leading artists and is one of the very few jazz harmonica exponents, and acclaimed Uruguayan pianist Jose Reinoso also sound as if they couldn't be more at home. A more perfect side for Journey could hardly be imagined.
The material consists entirely of Meier originals, with the exception of Sunrise and Sunset which were co-written with his wife Songül. All arrangements are credited collectively to the Meier Group. And what material this proves to be! Journey is at once highly evocative, atmospheric and often almost achingly beautiful, as well as hard-driven, often bop-ish improvisation that simply takes your breath away. The tracks, although separate, neatly segue one into the next.
The opening Sunrise of Nicolas Meier's Journey sets the scene for the rest of the album. Gently starting off with Meier's flamenco-tinged acoustic guitar, soon supported by gentle piano chords, it soon moves on to Atzmon's beautiful, uncannily Turkish-sounding clarinet in chalumeau at first, with Sirkis' subtle traps coming in softly, the whole thing building up with Bettison's superb harmonica also - sometimes lending an almost eerie quality to the sound when combined with Atzmon's clarinet - before returning to Meier's at first subtle, restrained guitar. A gradual build-up to the full ensemble closes Sunrise as if the sun had finally risen above the horizon. The improvs are subtle and outstanding.
The title track brings some sparkling fireworks from Meier and more of Atzmon's usually neglected and so under-rated clarinet. Sirkis' trap work is a joy as always with its atomic clock-precision time-keeping and perfect timing, as well as his glorious cymbal use. The excitement keeps mounting as the journey gets under way, with exquisite soloing all round. Mountain Baba is a beefy ten minutes and brings out Bettison's harmonica to its full glory. Occasionally, as on some of the other tracks, the harmonica, especially in this Middle Eastern influenced context, might recall some of oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil's recordings of about a decade or so ago, but there is no mistaking that this is distinctly Meier's own style and vision of fusion. Atzmon's clarinet has to be heard to be believed while Meier's own string work is dreamy yet precise and articulate. Sirkis' drumming is a dream and as Middle Eastern sounding as a trap set can get. Reinoso's ivories are often delicate and sensitively sparse.
As we reach the Silent Lands, Atzmon's elegant soprano and Reinoso's equally elegant ivories dominate along with Sirkis' incomparable traps, supported finely by Bettison's sensitive bass. The Journey then takes us to the Summit, at nearly twelve and a half minutes the longest track. Meier is on fine form with his ever more climactic solo. Atzmon then briefly sprints further towards the summit before slowing down, with vocal interjections to his solo, eventually building up the pace again to a frenetic dash to the top. Sirkis then takes up the final sprint to the summit with a sublime pyrotechnics display.
After such exertion, a more leisurely Promenade in the Lantern Garden is appropriate and welcome. Meier and the harmonica of Bettison dominate here with particularly fine, dreamy soloing, subtly assisted here and there by Atzmon's rich alto. Marble Dance is in many respects the most obviously Middle Eastern sounding melody. Here, Meier offers some of his most extensive soloing on this album with some breathtaking virtuosic displays.
You wish the Journey didn't have to end, but alas, like all journeys it must, and we reach the closing Sunset, at a mere 1 minute 50 seconds by far the shortest track. Meier elegantly takes the sun below the horizon with his delicate strings after a few last bright sunbeams warm us from Atzmon's clarinet and Bettison's harmonica.
Nicolas Meier is clearly not only a prodigious guitar talent but also a formidable and imaginative composer as evidenced here. He is also extremely generous - indeed, possibly almost over-generous! - in affording his co-conspirators ample space to shine as well.
When you get three experienced leaders of the calibre of Nicolas Meier, Gilad Atzmon, and Asaf Sirkis together, along with such outstanding musicians as Pat Bettison and Jose Reinoso, you have the jazz equivalent of a 'supergroup' in the Meier Group. And in Journey, we have the finest Meier Group album yet. Sheer magic. Without doubt, some of this magic is due to a certain degree of shared creative vision between Meier, Atzmon and Sirkis (and a wonderful instinctive empathy with that vision on the part of Bettison and Reinoso). But nonetheless, the Meier Group and Journey very much bear the individual creative, distinct stamp of Meier.
The cardboard sleeve (in place of the dreaded 'jewel case') is beautifully illustrated with paintings by artist Songül Yilmaz Meier, Meier's Turkish born wife, that match the concept and dreamy feel of Journey to perfection.
Nicolas Meier's Journey is an enchanting, entrancing delight that should not be missing from any good music collection and is past essential for any contemporary jazz or world music collection.
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