Album review: The Sweetness of Things Half Remembered (Rafael Karlen)

The Sweetness of Things Half Remembered (Pinnacles Music)
Rafael Karlen, October 2014

rafael_karlen_the_sweetness_of_things_half_rememberedBrisbane-based saxophonist Rafael Karlen established his reputation as a composer and arranger of note on Driving Hat (Pinnacles Records, 2008), the second release of trumpeter Laura Kahle and pianist Steve Newcomb’s long-standing ten-piece, The West End Composers Collective. These qualities are to the fore on The Sweetness of Things Half Remembered where Karlen combines jazz-inflected improvisation with through-composed music written for a contemporary string quartet. As the title suggests a vaguely nostalgic lyricism runs through these original compositions, conferring an elegant, suite-like continuity to the work as a whole.

The absence of a drummer and bassist may distance Karlen’s vision from more orthodox jazz idioms but that’s not to say that rhythm is unimportant. Cellist Danielle Bentley’s plucked ostinatos, riffing figures and arco lines provide a bass-like bottom end, while Newcomb’s nuanced comping lends intermittent pulse. The tremolo strings of violinists Rebecca Karlen and Eugenie Costello-Shaw and viola player Alice Buckingham likewise conjure undulating rhythmic contours. However, perhaps the most significant rhythms – and yet the most subtle – are provided by the strings rising and falling like great inhalations and exhalations throughout the recording’s fifty seductive minutes.

The melodically satisfying ‘If Not Now, When?’ blurs the lines between tango and waltz. A delightfully buoyant cello motif and lightly dancing piano provide the rhythmic tow over which viola sings. When the strings merge it’s the signal for Karlen to unfurl a gently meandering tenor solo. Newcomb duly follows suit but it’s the striking head played by the ensemble that lingers in the memory.

A more somber air fills the sparse architecture of ‘Outlines’, one of several impressionistic miniatures clocking in at under two minutes; restless piano contrasts with drawn-out string phrasing on a tune that displays an invernal melancholy. ‘I Leave This’ – inspired by Scottish poet W.S. Graham’s poem ‘I Leave This At Your Ear’ – is a haunting vignette for piano and violin. Newcomb sits out the moody ‘Inlines’, where arco drone and austere strings accompany Karlen’s tenor ruminations.

Where notes are few the emotive impact of the music is still undeniable, as on ‘Intro to the Sweetness of Things Half Remembered’, whose edgy abstraction paves the way for the plaintive lyricism of the title track. Here, the leader’s warm tenor tone is foregrounded over lush string accompaniment. Karlen also carries the melody on the aptly titled ‘Bouncing Nicely’, where riffing piano and strings in unison and pizzicato grooves provide the ballast.

Viola and cello intertwine as gracefully as necking swans on the intro to the balladic ‘Clutch’; Karlen’s most expansive tenor solo of the set on this vaguely baroques tune is framed by close-knit ensemble play. ‘Fade Slowly’ and the dreamlike ‘Stark Colors’ plot altogether more contemporary courses, with Karlen improvising over impressionistic piano and strings. Greater melodic definition defines ‘Daily List’ with saxophone and piano swapping the lead over layered string motifs. Aching lyricism colors ‘Bloom’, where delicate pianism and soothing strings contrast with Karlen’s searching tenor lines.

Bold by design yet simple and uncluttered in its execution, Karlen’s music is both cerebral and emotive. It’s music that’s difficult to box and therein lies a great part of its undoubted appeal.


Rafael Karlen (tenor saxophone)
Steve Newcomb (piano)
Rebecca Karlen (violin)
Eugenie Costello-Shaw (violin)
Alice Buckingham (viola)
Danielle Bentley (cello)

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Rafael Karlen on the internet