Listening to: Myriam Alter, Where Is There

Myriam Alter Where Is There

A review of Myriam Alter’s ‘Where Is There’ (2007)

Myriam Alter is one of those musicians about whom the Internet seems to know very little. What Google manages to dig up more or less tells the same story: Alter hails from a Belgian family of Sephardic Jews. She started piano lessons at age 8 but abandoned the instrument at 15 for other preoccupations. After studying psychology at university, she worked for an advertising agency and later ran a dance studio. When she was 36, she rediscovered the piano and slowly but determinedly built a career for herself as a jazz performer and composer. She has made a number of well-reviewed records — with carefully hand-picked band members and frequently someone else at the piano — that are little-known but quite beautiful.

Alter’s music — like that of Enrico Rava, for example, or Stefano Bollani — reflects a typically European jazz sensibility pointing back all the way to Django Reinhardt. Unlike American jazz, it incorporates a myriad of influences that aren’t based in the blues, such as Italian folk songs, the oddly dichotomous happy/melancholic melody lines of the Klezmer tradition of Eastern Europe and a sense of (melo)drama that may stem from French chanson or cabaret.

Adding to this eclectic mix is the cello of Jaques Morelenbaum, an increasingly well-known Brazilian instrumentalist who regularly appears with his own ensembles and the big luminaries of Brazilian popular music, like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. Apparently an integral part of the Brazilian musical establishment by birth (he’s married to a well-known singer, his sister plays clarinet for the Brazilian Symphony Orchestra, etc.), Morelenbaum has unique musical abilities as a classically trained cellist who’s worked in popular world music and jazz all his career. More rhythmically oriented and less stiff than Yo-Yo Ma (whose efforts in playing Brazilian music always left me cold — similarly to a lot of the rest of his recorded work), Morelenbaum has an innate empathy for Myriam Alter’s melancholy flirtations with the strong Sephardic/Moroccan percussions she offers in ‘Was It There’ and other tracks. These rhythms may, in the end, not be that different from what centuries of the slave trade brought from Africa to Bahia (musicologists, I imagine, may have definitive ideas about the migratory patterns of rhythms and instruments through the various diasporas, intersecting in North Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Iberian Peninsula).

For music that is essentially through-composed (possibly with room for improvisation/cadenzas for some of the solo instruments such as the clarinet and solo saxophone, both excellently played here), Alter’s pieces have a spontaneous character and remind us of many different musical traditions at the same time. In general, they have a “old world” sensibility and — unlike other experimental world music and much jazz — do not require an ‘open mind.’ One reviewer perceptively notes that “[i]t’s the kind of music that for once will not chase the family members out of the room, it may even attract them.”

Myriam Alter’s ‘trick,’ of course, is her ability to pack musical interest, complexity and challenge into deceptively light-sounding fare — something she does with unfailing certainty on Where Is There. At the surface, this music is only fleetingly ‘sad’ or ‘melancholy.’ In fact, it’s packed with the same kind of minor-key joyful abandon that we know and love from Django Reinhardt’s gypsy jazz from the 1930s which also disregarded all the rules of the blues and in so-doing established an authentically European and unique voice in popular music.

The recorded sound is of the highest order and reminds me of recent ECM records of a similarly acoustic nature. Highly recommended.

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