The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered

Rafael Karlen, tenor saxophone; Steve Newcomb, piano; Rebecca Karlen, violin; Eugenie Costello-Shaw, violin; Alice Buckingham, viola; Danielle Bentley, cello
Classical, Jazz, New Music
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Reviewed by , February 1st, 2016

I faintly recall a time, which might be called the Ignorant Ages, in which some champions of composed music looked upon improvised music with disdain, and deemed it devoid of the nuance and complexity of composed music. At the same time, some devotees of improvised music derided composed music, declaring it uncreative, unimaginative and unadventurous. Thankfully such adolescent perspectives are all but dead, and we now exist in a world in which the skill-set of performers of contemporary composed music and contemporary improvisers are becoming more aligned. The result is the emergence of what some call the twenty-first century musician, in whom the previously distinct roles of improviser, composer and interpreter of notated music can be found in the one enlightened artist. Rafael Karlen is such a musician, and his album The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered is a wonderful example of the kind of music that can happen when restrictive labels of genre are dispensed with.

Karlen’s website informs us that The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered draws together elements from jazz and Western art music. On reading this, a listener may expect to hear some of the challenging brusqueness of the mid- late-twentieth century orchestral/ chamber composers. While Karlen’s music here (all of the compositions on the album are his) reverently draws influence from the Western art music canon, it is rarely angular, seldom confronting and overwhelmingly… beautiful. This is not to say that it is at all bland or tepid, but rather to emphasise that beauty appears to be Karlen’s goal and achievement here.

Karlen’s writing is mature, detailed and intelligent, and it is clear that he has a keen understanding of what does and does not work in this setting. He has kept the ensemble drumless, for instance, to allow for the sonic space required of a string quartet utilising its complete dynamic range and timbral spectrum. He writes idiomatically for the strings, and asks them to do the sorts of things that strings are very good at doing.

And the quartet excels at doing these things; its sounds are always warm and woody, never shrill, and its sense of time is demonstrative of my opening statement – we are, for instance, moving toward a time in which tempo and pulse are felt in the same way by improvisers and performers of composed music alike.

Woody is also the term that springs to mind upon hearing Karlen’s tenor saxophone sound: Though it is somewhat unorthodox, in that is so divergent from the classic ‘big’ jazz tenor sound, it is dark and enticing all the same. While at times when listening to this album I found myself wanting to hear more adventurous/ dexterous statements from the saxophone, there is a humility in Karlen’s playing that is both refreshing and beguiling.

Overall this is a really stunning contribution from Karlen, of which I imagine he is proud. Certainly the detail in and quality of the presentation of the disc suggests this. Stand out for me are track two, Outlines, featuring pianist Steve Newcomb (who is a superb addition to the personnel on this recording – his playing pins down the ensemble while always remaining lithe and liquid), and the polyphonic, glassy harmonics on track four, Introduction to The Sweetness of Things Half-Remembered.


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