CD Review: “Nocturnes” by Anna Bignami Sextet

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Composer and arranger Anna Bignami released her latest album, “Nocturnes,” featuring her current Sextet last Friday. This collection of five tracks includes three original compositions by Bignami and an arrangement of Frederic Chopin’s first nocturne “Op. 9 no. 1,” which was pre-released on May 17. Joining her on the album are Jacob Rønne Danielsen: Alto saxophone and bass clarinet, Tobias Stavngaard: Trombone, Vincent Hahn: Trumpet and flugelhorn, Sebastian Zawadzki: Piano, Otso Kasperi Mielonen: Bass and Fiach O’ Briain on Drums

“Nocturnes” delves into the complex symbolism of night, exploring the contrast between the world’s tranquility and the mind’s inner turmoil. Bignami uses the night as a metaphor for the soul’s refuge, where it confronts the depths of the subconscious and grapples with existential questions. The album draws inspiration from the Romantic era’s ideals as typified by the “Western Classical Music” style associated with the period of the 19th century, particularly the concept of human insignificance in the face of nature’s uncontrollable forces and the vastness of the universe. This theme resonates with contemporary concerns, as Bignami reflects on the feeling of powerlessness many experience in relation to larger societal structures and global issues.

By choosing the nocturne as her central theme, Bignami places her work within a rich musical tradition. The nocturne, a genre associated with night music, has been explored by numerous composers in Western classical music, including Chopin, Ravel, Debussy, Erik Satie, and Béla Bartók. Traditionally characterized by lyrical melodies and arpeggiated chord accompaniments, Bignami reinterprets this genre through a contemporary jazz lens.

In my opinion, the centerpiece of the album is Bignami’s arrangement of Chopin’s iconic Nocturne in B-flat minor, Op. 9 No. 1. This arrangement demonstrates Bignami’s skill in preserving the essence of the original piece while infusing it with contemporary jazz elements. I was grateful to Anna for sending a detailed explanation of her vision in creating this arrangement. Without getting two technical but for those readers who may be interested, Bignami maintains the piece’s original two-part structure. The first section, in B-flat minor, follows an ABAC form, while the second shifts to a D-flat Mixolydian modal key. This adherence to the original structure shows respect for Chopin’s composition while allowing room for jazz interpretation.

In the first part, Bignami creates a soft, melancholic atmosphere reminiscent of modal jazz from the late 1950s. The piano theme is given prominence, with subtle background elements that enhance rather than overshadow the original melody. This approach creates a dark, introspective mood that aligns with the nocturne’s traditional character. The second part introduces a contrasting atmosphere. The melody, interpreted by alto saxophone, is accompanied by atmospheric drums and arco double bass. This section brings a sense of hope, described by Bignami as a “small beam of light in the darkness.” The harmonic palette is expanded here, with Bignami adding a touch of dissonance to the original D-flat major tonality, gradually transitioning back to the darker mood of the first part.

The arrangement features two significant improvisational sections. The first, a piano improvisation by Sebastian Zawadzki, occurs after the initial statement of the theme. The second, an alto saxophone feature, follows the introduction of the second part. These improvisations allow for individual expression within the framework of Chopin’s composition.

Notably, all tracks on the album, including this arrangement, were performed and recorded without any form of amplification. This choice aimed to recreate the intimate atmosphere of the small rooms and a sense of the 19th centaury chamber music ambience.

Regarding Bignami’s original compositions, the album opens with “Lullaby to Self”. This opening track sets the tone for the album with its haunting and dissonant qualities. Bignami uses this piece to prepare listeners for the album’s exploration of darkness and introspection. The composition reflects on the process of decompressing at the end of the day, with musical elements representing the cluttered thoughts and feelings that often persist as one tries to find peace.

 

“Seeking Refuge (Parts 1 and 2)”: addresses contemporary issues that resonate with Bignami’s generation, such as feelings of helplessness in the face of global problems like war, world hunger, the climate crisis, and rising living costs. The piece juxtaposes a serene but sinister harmonic environment with a strong rhythmic and melodic statement, symbolizing inner struggle and anxiety. This contrast mirrors the disconnect between personal turmoil and the apparent tranquility of the night world. The composition features trumpet and drum solos, adding depth to its emotional landscape.

The final original piece on the album, “To Slumber, I Surrender” presents a dark atmosphere with a sluggish, melancholic melody performed by the trombone. This composition represents the feeling of exhaustion and resignation that comes after struggling against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The music portrays the cyclical nature of this struggle – the nightly surrender to sleep, followed by renewed determination to fight again the next day.

Bignami’s approach to “Nocturnes” demonstrates a thoughtful blend of jazz and classical influences. Her arrangements and compositions show a deep understanding of both traditions, allowing her to create a unique sound that respects historical precedents while pushing into new territory. The decision to perform without amplification adds an intimate quality to the recordings, aligning with the introspective nature of nocturnes. This choice also demonstrates Bignami’s attention to historical performance practices, bridging the gap between Chopin’s era and contemporary jazz.

The album’s thematic coherence is noteworthy. Each piece contributes to the overall exploration of night as both a physical state and a metaphor for internal struggles. This conceptual approach gives the album a depth that goes beyond mere musical exploration. Bignami’s writing for the sextet shows a keen ear for instrumental colors and textures and her use of various combinations of instruments – from the full ensemble to smaller groupings – creates a diverse sonic palette that maintains interest throughout the album.

The arrangement of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1 is particularly successful. Bignami manages to honor the original composition while infusing it with new life through jazz harmonies, rhythms, and improvisational sections. The balance between composed and improvised elements is well-judged, allowing both aspects to shine without overshadowing each other.

The original compositions demonstrate Bignami’s skill in creating evocative musical landscapes. Each piece effectively conveys its intended mood and thematic content, from the unsettling dissonance of “Lullaby to Self” to the resigned melancholy of “To Slumber, I Surrender.” The album’s conceptual focus on night and its associated themes provides a strong framework for the music. This thematic consistency helps to unify the diverse musical elements, creating a cohesive listening experience.

Bignami’s writing for the sextet is sophisticated and nuanced. The arrangements make effective use of the ensemble’s instrumental capabilities, creating rich textures and interesting interplay between the musicians.

From a critical standpoint, some listeners might find the album’s consistently introspective mood challenging. The focus on darker, more contemplative themes, while thematically appropriate, could potentially limit the album’s appeal to those seeking more varied emotional terrain. Additionally, while Bignami’s integration of classical and jazz elements is generally successful, there may be moments where the balance between these influences feels uneven. Some jazz listeners might desire more extended improvisational sections, while those more inclined towards classical music might find certain jazz elements disruptive to the nocturne’s traditional serenity.

In conclusion, “Nocturnes” is a thoughtful and well-crafted album that successfully explores the musical and thematic possibilities of the nocturne in a contemporary jazz context. Bignami’s arrangements and compositions demonstrate a deep understanding of both jazz and classical traditions, resulting in music that is both respectful of its influences and forward-looking in its approach.

Finally I believe that “Nocturnes” positions Anna Bignami as a composer and arranger with a unique voice in the contemporary jazz landscape. Her ability to bridge classical and jazz traditions, coupled with her exploration of relevant contemporary themes, results in an album that is both musically satisfying and intellectually stimulating. Highly recommended.

Line-Up:
Jacob Rønne Danielsen, Alto sax and Bass clarinet | Tobias Stavngaard, trombone | Vincent Hahn, trumpet and Flugelhorn | Sebastian Zawadzki, piano | Otso Kasperi Mielonen, bass | Fiach O’ Briain, drums

Track Listing:
1 Lullaby to self | 2. Seeking Refuge (part 1) | 3. Seeking Refuge (part 2) | 4. To Slumber, I Surrender | 5. Nocturne “Op. 9 no. 1

Release Date: 21 June 2024
Format: Download | Streaming
Label: Self Release

Last modified: June 24, 2024