Album review: Liminal (Jex Saarelaht Trio) by John Clare

Liminal (Jazzhead)
Jex Saarelaht Trio
Release date: 6 June 2014

liminal-coverWe’ll stick to the most basic meaning. A liminal phase is a transitional one. It may contain elements of a previous stage and implications of something in the future. It could lie between the conscious and the unconscious – hence subliminal. Indeed between life and death. It could contain fully formed elements and those that are tentative. As most of the Jex music I have heard over the years seems both strong and exploratory it is difficult to decide why it should be applied to this disc specifically. The notes (by Deborah Jowitt?) give this explanation: ‘Jex was thinking of the idea in terms of transformation, musically in relation to ambiguity and disorientation, and the development of the written piece through the input/improvisation of the musicians involved, not just in one performance but over time. The choice of (title) was also prompted by the situation of drummer and friend Peter Jones after his diagnosis with brain cancer in early 2011, when he entered a liminal state for quite a while…’ A characteristic here is the use of relaxed and hypnotic ostinati patterns that nevertheless develop an ominous tread, and for all that are often very danceable. Here the underlying repeating, or riff, figure is sometimes distributed between Philip Rex’s powerful double bass and the lower end of the piano; sometimes the two move in unison. Niko Schauble’s drums create chunky, sometimes briefly violent snare and bass drum punctuations and often expand the music laterally with a range of soft or clanging or sharply hissing, chinking textures. At one point there is a kind of rolling woosh that is almost vocalised.

The piano trio (that is piano, bass and drums) is often the essence of jazz and jazz-related music, even if it is not separate but part of a larger ensemble with horns, guitar, vibraphone, violin etc. The piano trio is the most deeply involved with rhythmic and harmonic structure. Though at certain times other instruments may be more important melodically, The piano itself can assume the dominant role there too. The piano is often a bridge between the melodic and percussive elements, and this is one of Jex Saarelaht’s most signifigant talents. All three instruments are capable of expanding the trio’s music vertically horizontally and texturally and this is the source of very deep satisfaction when a trio plays at this level.

Your mind runs with the music and looks down through it and out to the margins where sounds briefly materialise. Such as that fleeting moment when the tip of a stick tapping on the central hub of a cymbal creates dissonant and delicate overtones with the piano’s treble, somewhat like Morse code probing through a troubled black sky.

We are fortunate to have a number of trios that create intrigue, subtlety and power in distinctive ways. We’ll just rattle off Mike Nock, Allan Browne, Sam Bates, Ted Vining, Paul Grabowsky, Matt McMahon, Sam Keevers, Steve Barry, Marc Hannaford, Alister Spence. Browne, Bates and Vining are drummer/leaders. The piano is usually the leader and that is the case with Jex, whom I first heard in Melbourne around about the same time as I heard Paul Grabowsky. They are part of my life, and they have figured in cultural situations of which younger readers may not be aware, yet which have helped shape the nature of the perhaps more esoteric music of our culture today. For instance, a Melbourne interaction whereby many of the city’s abundant comics came regularly to Jex and company, sensing a parallel to the freewheeling nature of stand-up. Has this left a trace in the fabric of time? Or even a warp in the space-time continuum. Hmm. The music itself seems to ask such questions.

Now, sometimes the abovementioned rhythmic tread is just above marching pace. Sometimes it is lifted into a brisk and exhilirating Latinate or Cuban clatter, as on the final track – on which you hear the audience burst out (until then they have treated the music as a continuum rather than as separate pieces). Actually there is a lot going on in that final track, which is called Ivory Cutlery in honour of Ivan Cutler no less, before it begins to rumble. The piano begins in tranquility, stepping up a note ladder, whose starting note shifts upward and downward (climb, start again but from a higher or lower place), while the pianist’s other hand punctuates and sometimes moves in contra-direction. This hypnotic motion is broken in various ways, including sudden treble flares that are fierce, hot and transparent as runs of ground fire through dry grass and leaves.

This is a disc you should perhaps listen to casually at first, (perhaps while ironing your sheets or perhaps just your shirts) then return and take your place in this remarkably silent audience.

Over the dark pedal progressions on some tracks are brilliant Debussyesque cascades – Bartokian echoes also on a track dedicated to Andrea Keller (after belandrea bartokellar oh dear!), joyful little boiling blues patterns and Latinate shouts. There is some specially lovely bass playing on Ivory Cutlery (dedicated to Ivan Cutler) and beautiful pianist tranquility. Listen in conjunction, if you please, with the Sam Bates trio we reviewed here recently.

If I may be permitted, given a recent event in my life, I will recall a brilliant day at Wangaratta when I carried drummer Niko Schauble’s then-baby son around and held him up into the lower branches of trees outside the old Town Hall. At the time I was also thinking of my grandfather lifting me up into leaf-filtered sunlight in Centennial Park in Sydney during the Second World War at the limits of my memory. He was on a horse. He had ridden in the Light Horse.

This disc, so full of allusions and immediacy, was recorded in real time and performed order at the Esto-Cubist Festival, Bennett’s lane in October 2013. The trio was formed over 20 years ago.


Jex Saarelaht – piano
Philip Rex – double bass
Niko Schauble – drums

Listen and purchase


Liminal on Jazzhead records

Jex Saarelaht on Bandcamp

From the media release

liminal /ˈlɪmɪn(ə)l/ 1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold 3. of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition : in-between, transitional < in the liminal state between life and death – Deborah Jowitt >

In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word limen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes… The term has also passed into popular usage, where it is applied much more broadly, undermining its significance to some extent. – Wikipedia

At the risk of undermining its significance, Jex was thinking of the idea in terms of transition, musically in relation to ambiguity and disorientation, and the development of the written piece through the input/improvisation of the musicians involved, not just in one performance, but over time. The choice of title for the piece in particular was also prompted by friend and drummer Peter Jones’ situation after his diagnosis with brain cancer in early 2011, when he entered a liminal state for quite a while. Ultimately the music here is a snapshot of the trio in a transitional moment, in between everything that has come before in their twenty-years-plus together, and whatever may transpire and develop into the future.