Having performed together as Aufgang since 2005, drummer Aymeric Westrich and pianists Francesco Tristano and Rami Khalifé have developed a powerful telepathic relationship that's well-documented on the trio's second full-length Istiklaliya, which arrives four years after the self-titled debut. It's an extroverted and stylistically wide-ranging set whose track titles (e.g., “African Geisha” and “Diego Maradona”) immediately hint at some of the directions the music pursues. Aufgang isn't a piano-and-drums outfit only, as the group has expanded its sound by adding synthesizer textures to many of the album's nine pieces (one wonders if Tristano's recent work with Carl Craig might have had something to do with it). In fact, the synthesizer dimension is so prominent that there are moments (such as during “Vertige”) when the pianos disappear altogether and Aufgang turns into a raging synths-and-drums outfit.
The album starts strongly with “Kyrie,” a dramatic, schaffel-styled raver that sees the trio augmenting its core sound with synths and even a vocal choir—a high-energy opening whose epic charge bodes well for the ride to come. Up next, “Balkanik” overlays rollicking, Eastern European rhythms with trills and clusters that suggest some loose connection to barrelhouse jazz playing of the early-20th century. But Aufgang isn't done: having set the mood, the group then adds a blazing synthesizer part that makes the material feel even more dizzying. The intensity doesn't let up until the sixth track, “African Geisha,” where a slow tempo invites the trio to bring a more elegant and restrained approach to the delicate, folk-styled setting. The closing “Rachael's Run” likewise slows the pace during its funereal intro before swelling dramatically and then abruptly lunging into uptempo mode with ferocity. A brief Pat Metheny-esque segment featuring wordless vocals and percussion follows until Aufgang's core sound reasserts itself to take the music home.
Every one of the nine tracks plays like a journey into different geographical and stylistic territory, and the playing hardly lacks for exuberance and passion. Not surprisingly, “Diego Maradona” is characterized by a spirit of free-wheeling abandon very much like the once-wild soccer player it's named after. Like the album in general, it's anything but polite concert hall music. On the basis of Istiklaliya, it would seem that a much more natural home for Aufgang is an outdoors festival stage where its music can be really let loose.