VEIN: VEIN Plays Ravel
Challenge Records

If the playing of Swiss trio VEIN sounds especially telepathic, there are good reasons for it. Brothers Michael (piano) and Florian Arbenz (drums) formed the group with bassist Thomas Lähns more than a decade ago, and in the years since the three have played more than 450 shows and issued thirteen albums, the latest being this superb homage to French composer Maurice Ravel. VEIN is the rare trio able to meet the challenges of playing with American saxophonists Greg Osby and Dave Liebman and tackle the classical repertoire, and as finessed as the group's performances are, they're not lacking for passion or drive.

The three approach the eight pieces respectfully, the integrity of Ravel's originals unsullied by their interpretations; at the same time, they treat the material with the sensibility of the improvising jazz musician, as malleable material amenable to re-invention. The impression established is of an outfit that has so thoroughly assimilated Ravel's compositions it's able to extemporize upon them like it's the most natural thing in the world. It also doesn't hurt that the French composer's pieces lend themselves so readily to jazz treatments, and even when one at first glance might not appear to (Bolero, for instance) the group finds a way to recast it as a jazz piece in totally convincing manner.

The album opens with three interpretations from the six-part Le Tombeau de Couperin, the grandly majestic “Prelude” taken at a brisk pace by Michael at the start before his partners flesh out the arrangement and elasticize the material with ever-evolving, jazz-inflected invention—a remarkable scene-setter that never loses the romantic essence of Ravel's original; considerably less feverish is the trio's subdued, introspective rendering of “Forlane,” its haunting melodies voiced by Michael with elegance and grace. Any thought that Lähns and Florian are supporting players is dispelled by the democratic distribution of solos on the album; the bassist takes a prominent turn in “Forlane,” for example, while the drummer does much the same throughout the third part “Toccata,” initially trading bars with his brother before indulging in a longer solo.

The trio's playful rendering of “Blues” (the central movement in Ravel's second Violin Sonata) is distinguished by skittering percussion and cello-like arco playing, while Michael imaginatively introduces Pavane pour une infante défunte with a thumb piano rendering of its gentle melodies before moving to a graceful presentation of same on acoustic. At album's end, "Mouvement de Menuet," with saxophonist Andy Sheppard smoothly guesting on tenor, intensifies the album's improvised jazz feel, and “5 o'clock Foxtrot” (from the opera L'enfant et les sortilèges) exits the set on a whimsical note with an inspired re-imagining that's equal parts funk, rock, jazz, and even, believe it or not, drum'n'bass.

As commendable as the aforementioned performances are, the album peak is the expanded ensemble version of Bolero, which maximizes the talents of all involved. A sixteen-minute live take featuring the trio augmented by Sheppard (tenor and soprano sax), Martial In Al-bon (trumpet, flugelhorn), Florian Weiss (trombone), Nils Fischer (soprano and alto saxes, bass clarinet) and Noah Arnold (alto and tenor saxes), the performance is a veritable tour-de-force that never ceases to dazzle as it powers through its many episodes. The repeated statement of the theme in the original composition lends itself magnificently to the octet treatment in allowing multiple players to step forth with a rendering, saxophone first, piano second, sax again, then bass, and so on. As per the original the music incrementally escalates in volume and intensity, with Florian replicating the familiar snare pattern for the first seven minutes before shifting into a less restrictive mode better suited to the full-ensemble roar the piece eventually grows into, and background horn and woodwind textures are subtly integrated until the music takes on the dynamism of a big band. Elements of funk, R&B, and free jazz work their way into the group's swing, and in one final surprise the performance is capped by a furiously paced double-time coda. As dramatic a reinvention as it is, one imagines Ravel would enthusiastically approve.

September 2017