After two well-received ECM albums in the cooperative trio Third Reel, leading Swiss reedman Nicolas Masson now presents his own quartet, with Colin Vallon, Patrice Moret and Lionel Friedli. The group has existed for twelve years already, touring as Nicolas Masson’s Parallels, with unchanged personnel and metamorphosing musical influences and priorities. It’s a group of friends, firstly, Masson emphasises. All compositions are by the leader but, as he says, “what’s special about the band, I believe, is the alchemy between the four of us, what happens when we play together.”
Masson’s thoughtful writing for the group does not seek to draw attention to itself, but it continues to encourage fresh responses from the players: “For the quartet I like to have the possibility of writing the simplest melody as a unique starting point for improvisations or more complex rhythmic, harmonic and contrapuntal structures to play on.” Characteristically, at least two of the quartet members adhere to the compositional structure at any given time while the others are free to roam around it or to go exploring. Pianist Colin Vallon and bassist Patrice Moret, play differently here. ECM listeners will know these musicians from Vallon’s own trio and from Elina Duni’s group. Masson’s concept prompts more soloistic activity, and there is a special pleasure in the interplay between piano and saxophone here, as on the title track. In the mutating landscapes which these travellers negotiate you will also find some of Vallon’s prettiest ballad playing (see “Almost Forty”, for instance), richly melodic bass from Moret, and always alert and detailed drumming from Lionel Friedli, whose tom-toms, gongs and metals get a powerful feature on “The Deep.” Constant factors through the album – and throughout the history of the band – are Masson’s lean-toned saxophone and elegant clarinet.
Nonetheless, twelve years is a long time in the life of an improvising group and much has changed along the way. When Nicolas Masson started the band he was inspired, he says, by Tim Berne’s writing, and juxtaposing that influence with ideas from rock, while also looking to Miles Davis’s sixties quintet as an optimum model for a balance of improvisation and composition. In the early days, when the group’s music was more groove and ostinato-driven, Vallon played just Fender Rhodes in the line-up, and textures were thicker and heavier (the 2009 album Thirty Six Ghosts documents the period). Masson subsequently fine-tuned his writing in concurrent projects, including a quartet with Ben Monder, Patrice Moret and Ted Poor, and the aforementioned Third Reel: “Recording the two ECM albums with Third Reel inspired me to think a lot about musical expression and aesthetics. I was trying to find a way to simplify or clarify the written material to communicate on a deeper level.”
Contemporary composition had long been an interest; now, Masson also listened to earlier music of the classical tradition, including baroque music, for lyrical inspiration and formal concepts. “I wanted a more singing, melodic approach and operas and arias by Händel, Telemann and Purcell helped me to renew my approach to saxophone playing and offered new inspirations in writing, too. I was also hearing something more organic and natural.” Hence the drift to acoustic instruments.
Masson’s artistic growth has been stimulated by some important encounters. At the age of 20 he met Cecil Taylor, J.R. Mitchell and Fred Hopkins in New York, which led to studies with Frank Lowe and Makanda Ken McIntyre. At the end of the 1990s, he returned to the US to study with Chris Potter and Rich Perry. He has played with Ben Monder, Kenny Wheeler, Josh Roseman, Otomo Yoshihide, Clarence Penn, Kris Davis, Thomas Morgan, Scott DuBois, Gerald Cleaver, Tom Arthurs, Samuel Blaser, Manuel Mengis, Susanne Abbuehl, and many others. Of his tunes on Travelers, Masson says, “I wrote each song in relation to someone I’ve known. These pieces are not musical portraits of these people, but a reaction to their specific energy…”
Music is paralleled in significance in Masson’s life by photography and the two arts have had a kind of symbiotic relationship for him. Working at the opera house in Geneva as a stage photographer was once a means to pay for studies at the city’s Conservatoire Populaire de Musique (where master-class teachers included Lee Konitz, Dave Douglas and Misha Mengelberg). Today he feels that his photography and music “feed off each other. Taking pictures helps me to understand what I react to, what inspires me, what energies I’m drawn to…The pieces that I write for the quartet are related to the experiences, impressions and moods I try to channel using music and photography.” A number of ECM covers and booklets have featured Masson’s images in recent years, in styles from landscapes and abstract pictures to musician portraits. Examples include Heinz Holliger’s Aschenmusik, the Colin Vallon Trio’s Le Vent and Danse, Elina Duni’s Dallëndyshe, Third Reel’s Many More Days, and now Travelers.
Travelers was recorded at Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano in April 2017, and produced by Manfred Eicher.