Album review…Mara Rosenbloom Quartet, “Songs from the Ground” (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2013)

Pianist Mara Rosenbloom suffuses artistic vision into each musical gesture—each corner and crevice—of her recent release, Songs from the Ground. The album’s cover art shows her audience in simple and poignant terms the foundation for her music—roots. More specifically, the cover art shows the roots of an orchid, photographed by childhood friend and long-time collaborator Ariel Horrall, so that, instead of the flowering bud, we see the irregularly shaped, free-form arrangement  of the plant’s root structure. We are confronted with the inversion of an art object; that which usually lies out-of-sight but on which the flowers and plant rely is now the central focus. Similarly Rosenbloom informs us, in the album’s poetic liner notes, that the music of Songs from the Ground comes from “the moonflowers I mistook for weeds, pieces of myself I almost forgot.” On the reverse of the album’s back card—visible only when you remove the CD from the case—there’s a collage of broken ephemera, that, though separated from their original use and context, form new and compelling art through Horrall’s lens. In this way Rosenbloom encourages her audience to find new art in her music, a commemoration and celebration of early influences, reconsidered and re-arranged in this highly successful and rewarding album.

Songs from the Ground, Fresh Sound New Talent 418, 2013. Personnel: Mara Rosenbloom, piano and compositions; Darius Jones, alto saxophone; Sean Conly, bass; Nick Anderson, drums. Tracks: Relief; Whistle Stop; Small Finds; Unison; Common Language; To Be Alone; Songs from the Ground. Recorded March 20, 2011, in Union City, NJ, at Kaleidoscope Sound Studios.

Rosenbloom opens her second release as leader with an improvisation: “Relief” features welcoming, warm arpeggios in a piece reminiscent of Impressionist solo piano  compositions. A simple and surprising downward diatonic run leads to a more insistent rhythmic accompaniment, while the emergent melody weaves through the registers of piano, punctuated with rhythmic displacement and more dissonant chordal clusters. A slowly arpeggiated tonal cluster spread over several octaves vanishes in a long sonic decay that melts into the album’s second track. “Whistle Stop” introduces the rest of Rosenbloom’s ensemble, featuring a simple melody that is altered, re-positioned, and displaced over the composition’s  harmonic progression. These slight variations invite listeners to focus in on the small elemental motives of the song’s melody as they arise. Alto saxophonist Darius Jones’s solo is insistent and harmonically adventurous, while his tone is individualistic, sometimes jarring, but always compelling. Rosenbloom’s solo that follows provides a stark contrast. Understated, her improvisation mirrors the music and aesthetic of the composed melody—a few ideas repeated and developed over time. Bassist Sean Conly uses double-stop chording in his solo to great effect, navigating a tastefully developed, unaccompanied passage before reintroducing the composition’s groove. Underneath Jones’s plaintive soloistic repetitions, Rosenbloom plays out the song’s melody, slightly displaced.

“Small Finds” is a lilting composition in 6/8 with an off-kilter bridge. In his extended solo, Jones displays a high level of sensitivity and internalization of Rosenbloom’s composition, who lingers just beside him, adding composed and improvised lines of support, showing an equally empathetic understanding of his playing. Conly and drummer Nick Anderson tend to filling out Rosenbloom’s arrangement, driving the subtle changes in feel built into the tune’s form that constantly reinfuse compelling energy and drive to the simply stated melody. Rosenbloom’s skills as an arranger are also on display in “Unison,” driven by a more intense energy which is heightened by repetitive figures and Rosenbloom’s tremolos. Her solo builds nicely and constantly introduces and works through new thematic material. This improvisation has a searching quality to it—the development of a few key ideas, altered and adapted to the unfolding harmonic and percussive formal elements. With a refreshing and enlightened approach, Rosenbloom revels in the beauty of consonance. As he does throughout the album, Darius Jones provide strong and complementary contrast to Rosenbloom. The saxophonist’s timbral experimentation as well as his more adventurous and elaborating treatment of tonality enrich and expand on Rosenbloom’s playing and composition. In the middle of his solo, Jones pushes the time and energy to new heights, and the band responds strongly and positively. Ending an aggressive, insistent coda, Jones overblows the tune’s last note, adding yet another element of honesty, grit, and earthiness.

“Common Language” is a slow, rocking, blues-inflected swing with a dotted quarter-eighth note vamp figure that propels the arrangement’s movement. Here Jones and Rosenbloom demonstrate further responsive empathy, swapping sections of the melody and then solos. At the end of the tune, Jones restates the melody with even more warmth and reassurance than its first iteration, while the bands builds to one final climax. Rosenbloom ushers the band out, taking the listener to a more reflexive and self-effaced place at the tune’s end. Here, as in many other places on Songs from the Ground, Rosenbloom plays in a very personal and exposed way, but always with lyricism and confidence. Appropriately, she follows “Common Language” with another solo improvisation, “To Be Alone.” A rhapsodic piece with a bit of whimsy, her playing features repeated figures over cyclic harmonic forms, altered with chordal substitutions and re-voicings. This piece reinforces the strong conceptual links between her improvisation and her composition as she explores the relationship between consonance and dissonance, dynamic interplay, and the constant emergence of new melodic material.

The album concludes with the title track, which begins with a reflective, almost melancholic, solo introduction by Rosenbloom. Jones enters quietly with a plaintive melody amid Anderson’s mallet rolls and a wash of cymbal crashes that builds into a more resolute, affirming tone. Rosenbloom picks up the melody, continuing the tune’s vamp in her left hand. Significant harmonic changes act as sign-posts in the composition as it unfolds, with a fresh push from band at each arrival. Jones’s solo exudes confidence: his artistry lies in the manipulation of timbre and pitch—bending, re-directing, compelling his instrument’s tone in different directions while stretching harmonies to their limits with daring pitch selections. Jones never sacrifices lyricism, but he never capitulates to it, either. Rosenbloom’s improvisation is quiet and derives its richness through small gestures, building through the repetition-with-variation of germinal ideas that develop and wind through chord progressions. The confluences between and high degree of harmonic and melodic consonance in her improvisations and compositions—and the seamlessness between them—demonstrate a unified, cohesive, and confident artistic vision. The stronger backbeat at the recapitulation of tune’s melody re-emphasizes how solid and strong Anderson has been in driving Rosenbloom’s arrangements but also in complementing the soloists and melodic voices. A slight (composed?) change in Conly’s bass notes at the end of the track bring about movement out of the cyclic harmonic progression toward a final cadence. However, the record ends without resolution—open-ended. Rosenbloom leaves the final notes of the melody unstated, continuing with the sound and the music left open. There’s no final barline, the music continues, no doubt to cycle back again…

*      *      *

Just after turning 20 years old, I suffered a performance injury that continues to impact my playing every day. The physical and emotional trauma associated with not being able to practice and work at one’s instrument can be depressing—that which comes as naturally and is seemingly as fundamental as breathing is suddenly riddled with pain and severely, if not completely, restricted. But this kind of trauma can also be productive: without access to an instrument, the study, creation, and nurturing of music doesn’t stop, it just takes different forms. Songs from the Ground represents Mara Rosenbloom’s re-emergence as an artist after recovering from such a trauma—a shattered elbow due to a car accident—and in the record I hear an appreciation for the flowers, roots…and weeds of her early life and burgeoning career, but also the deliberate and concentrated gestures of a recovered pianist similar to those I know from my own experiences at the keyboard. In Rosenbloom’s music, these gestures don’t present themselves as needlessly ostentatious displays of individual, virtuosic dexterity, but rather as an accumulated sum of highly musical moments that suggests the absolute clarity of an artistic aesthetic—the focus and direction of her musical voice are undeniable here. This clarity is refined further through the rest of her quartet who have internalized her music and strike a compelling balance between amplifying Rosenbloom’s artistic sense and augmenting it through their own individual musicalities.

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