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An album that warmed up winter

Krists Saržants

«Lathyrus» in the world of fantasies — 10 stories on the brink of light

The album «On the Brink of Light» by the band called «Lathyrus» is like an absolutely unexpected warmth of sunlight after a long winter. With a little echo of «Alice in Wonderland», this fairy-tale-like work takes over with its tenderness and frailty, encompassed by mystery and thoughts, with a little bit of dreamy romance and light.

The supple polyphony of it makes the album similar to the flower Lathyrus which blooms for the length of ten compositions, from sunrise to sundown.

«Lathyrus» is a chamber jazz music quartet founded in Germany, with its leader, Latvian singer and composer Monta Tupčijenko, German cellist Conrad Noll, trumpetist Ruven Weithöner, who also plays flugelhorn in this album, as well as German pianist Max Brackmann. The quartet was founded in May 2018, and they describe their music as a symbiosis of jazz and classical — polyphonic melodies with a room for improvisation that makes the band overcome the borders of their instruments and sound.

The band’s debut album contains singing vocalizations and compositions in Latvian and English with lyrics by the American author E.E.Cummings, Latvian poets Jānis Poruks and Dzintra Žuravska, and the soloist Monta Tupčijenko herself.

«On the Brink of Light» begins with spring birds singing and atmospheric cello ambiance, tenderly accompanied by the piano, with the voice and flugelhorn joining in the composition called «Sunrise». The name of the composition creates an association with Baltasar Kormákur’s movie «Everest», released in 2015, and the music composed for it by Dario Marianelli. The second part of it blooms in the lighter transition from winter to spring, with the earth still covered by the memories of the snow, through which green grass reaches the sunlight along with impatient flower buds. In this very first composition, the quartet invites the listener to its fairy-tale world, preparing us for the story that we’re waiting for, which continues with a lyrical poetry reading accompanied by the piano in the next piece.

The composition «Pavasara Vēsmas» (Spring Breezes), beginning with the lyrics by Jānis Poruks and Monta Tupčijenko, slowly turns into vocalizations, the up-growing melody of which has the vocalist talking to Max Brackmann by the piano. Once the melody went down by the glass staircase, both musicians have cello and trumpet sounds joining them, developing the composition into a less used-to 7/4 pulse. My attention was grabbed by creating a waltz-like feeling with this meter which is probably more often met in a quadratic sound. The musicians have created this feeling, putting the ¾ meter to the foreground with 4/4 following it instead of the other way around, which was more often met by myself. In this part of the composition, we can also hear a more extended solo of the cellist Conrad Noll, which along with the piano accompaniment, made me remember the long-forgotten Brad Mehldau and Chris Thile’s album and its folk music mood. Unnoticed, the composition returns to the initial pulsation and vocalization that makes both these elements intertwine, with the story that continues in singing, with the voice solo in between, which with a little glimpse of a smile reminded me of a Tammy Scheffer’s performance of the beginning of her composition «I Can’t See You Now» if only it were a step slower. «Pavasara Vēsmas» ends up with a melodic uplift and bright outro soothing the soul.

The third composition of the album «Flowers», being the first composition of the album in English, continues the characteristic polyphonic interplay of the quartet in the introduction, which brings new colors to the melody. It can be heard that the altered phrases aren’t anything strange to Monta, she quite organically sings them as a duo with Conrad’s cello, creating a sour, sweet, a bit surreally playful mood associated with someone Tim Burton could create. It continues to develop until a more romantic and consonant uplift before returning to the «fairy-tale world». In this competition, we can hear the fantasy of the trumpet player Ruven Weithöner during his improvisation, which begins to intertwine with the fragments of the story Monta sings, returning them back to the consonating resolving. However, in contrast to «Pavasara Vēsmas» this work leaves us with a more surreal ending, bringing us further to the fantasy world of «Lathyrus».

The beginning of «Sunlight» made me remember one of the compositions of Taylor Eigsti’s album «Daylight at Midnight», the one called «Between the Bars», although playing around with minor and major moods created a feeling that really soon the voice of Gordon Sumner or Sting’s voice will be heard soon, nostalgically returning to his albums «If On A Winter’s Night» and «The Last Ship». Although even with the expectations like these and taking into consideration that there’s really little connection to Eigsti here and most probably I won’t hear Sting’s voice here, this composition happened to surprise me, becoming an expanded continuation of the first composition, «Sunrise», with lyrics by Dzintra Žuravska, which becomes a whirlpool of «too much of everything». Although even in this darkness, Monta holds in her hand the light brought by the poet and, with all her essence, breaks through this whirlpool until she stands on the brink of light.

With a glimpse of bittersweet humor, the fifth composition of the album «Rutīna» (Routine) gets performed, where we listen to the lyrics written by Monta Tupčijenko. The composition definitely puts trumpetist Ruven Weithöner and cellist Conrad Noll in the spotlight with their solos before returning to thoughts on routine, which are musically put as heavy, towing steps, getting more and more stuck with every step.

The quartet undoubtedly grabs the listener’s attention with an eternal wandering around, dense harmony, and its direction, and «2 Little Whos» is no exception. The poetry of the famous E.E.Cummings with the same name continues the dreamy fairy-tale path of «Lathyrus». Lyrical, darker moods hold this composition together with its polyphonic melodies, flugelhorn solo, although while keeping the lyrics, the piano solo as a little ray of sunshine between the clouds refreshes the play of the consonants/dissonants of this composition before the darker colors return. Monta’s voice here also has a darker tone from time to time, creating brighter contrasts between lower notes and sequencing polyphonic melody resolving into higher registers and all the way back.

«On The Brink» is one of the two compositions of the album, the author of which isn’t the owner of the band’s voice. The seventh composition of the album is an artistic input of the band’s trumpet player Ruven Weithöner, which from an atmospheric intro turns into a sound a little typical for the Kurt Rosenwinkel and OJM jazz orchestra’s album «Our Secret World». With a more orchestral harmonization, «Lathyrus» steps a little bit back from its characteristic polyphonic melodies and turns to more harmonized melodic lines, with one not exactly accompanying another but completing each other with their colors and timbres. In the middle of this composition, we can hear the cello solo of Noll, brightened by Monta and Ruven’s accompaniment lines, as well as the piano solo by Brackmann and his duo interplay with the cellist, which is potentially my favorite part of Brackmann’s play of this album.

During almost four years of this quartet’s existence, the musicians obviously feel free when playing with each other, and we can hear it quite well in the following composition, «No Words (Leaf and Rock)», the author of which is a Norwegian composer Arve Henriksen. This probably is the most emotional Monta’s piece of the album. The melody of her voice and its phrasing remind of the works created by David Lang a little bit and make the listener carefully listen to every word and sentence. Atmospheric, free accompaniment with contrasting elements between the cello and the piano brightens it all up even note.

«No Words (Leaf and Rock)» brings us yet closer to the end of the album — the composition «Saule riet (The Sun is Setting)» and existential reflections about the life of the author of the lyrics, Monta. The composition begins with the reading in the polyphonic accompaniment with quite a light mood, which sharply takes another turn when the singing begins and the cello solo starts, enclosed by a relatively rhythmically edgy, anxious accompaniment with a contrastingly static harmony, leaving a much wider melodic room for the soloist. On the contrary to the beginning of the composition, with the voice returning at the end of it, here we can hear much bigger tension and windiness.

Just like after the wind, everything becomes calm and clear. The last composition, «Sunset», just a minute and 39 seconds long, brings us back to the main motifs of the album in a little bit more serious mood, echoing the words by Dzintra Žuravska we’ve already heard in the «Sunlight» and strengthening this aching for light, stating that not all lyrical things are sad indeed.

The quartet «Lathyrus» is like a breath of fresh air on a spring morning. Monta’s voice is among the ones which you hear for the first time and feel that you’ve heard it before and known for quite some time. Accompanied by amazing musicians, it creates a fairy-tale, bringing us on the journey from the sunset to sundown. Robert Browning once said, «My sun sets to rise again», and I cannot wait when the sun of this quartet will rise anew — yet brighter and shining further.