hellmüller trio magnolia
By Bill Milkowski
In the post-Kurt Rosenwinkel guitar landscape, several new voices have emerged in recent years to make their own unique statements on the instrument while standing on the shoulders of giants who came before them. One who has been quietly going about the business of making his very personal six-string art while earning acclaim throughout Europe is Swiss guitarist Franz Hellmüller. An accomplished player of impeccable technique — his cleanly-picked single note lines rank with the likes of jazz guitar greats Johnny Smith and Pat Martino — Hellmüller has been exploring the trio format in recent years and pushing the harmonic envelope in refreshing ways that recall the innovative approaches of Pat Metheny with his Bright Size Life Trio featuring Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses or John Abercrombie with the Gateway Trio featuring Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette.
The key to his winning approach, whether it has been with bassist Stefano Risso and drummer Marcel Papaux on 2012’s Waiting For You, Risso and drummer Marco Zanoli on 2014’s Norsten, or fellow Swiss musicians Patrick Sommer on bass and Martin Perret on drums from his current Unit Records release, Magnolia, is understanding that music works best when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Musical conversation is one of my main interests,” says the guitarist. “Therefore, I do not consider the musicians in the band as sidemen but as equal humans communicating together with our instruments, discussing things together and finding the flow together and forming a real unity of purpose. We’re trying to create a common story together.”
One can easily hear the evolution of Hellmüller’s trio work from Norsten to Magnolia. The conversations are deeper, the harmonies are richer, the improvisations more adventurous. And the crackling interplay that he strikes with Sommer and Perret in this intimate setting is stellar. Their shared aesthetic and heavy-listening approach throughout Magnolia is particularly evident on the freer rubato sections of pieces like “augen-blick-verloren,” “Orb” and “Schwarzes Loch.” “Patrick and Martin are very interested in the way this trio plays structures and free parts mixed up,” says Franz, “and we have very quickly developed a common language together. I like the feeling of rhythm and time, as well of odd meters and complicated harmonic song structures, in this trio.”
He adds, “I am looking for a balance in the trio that lets everybody express themselves. Patrick and Martin are both strong personalities and yet they are modest, part of the trio. No one has to stand out. The interactivity is always very present in this trio so I consider it more as being in a common dialog/conversation.”
Those qualities are present on the dynamic opener “Ginepra” and the more subdued “augen-blick-verloren,” a moody ballad which has Hellmüller exploring with the melodic delicacy of a Jim Hall trio. Switching the dynamic radically, the guitarist dials up some distortion on “Orb,” introducing a new color to the trio. “I am happy that we have this color,” says Hellmüller. “I believe it gives more life and variation to the band.”
Hellmüller explores the harmonic richness of the darkly appointed “Schwarzes Loch,” a compelling piece that opens up to some rhapsodic exploration by the guitarist in the rubato section that has him bursting forth in song, not unlike Keith Jarrett being swept up in the moment of one of his solo piano improvisations. “Minimaxbum” carries a chamber-like quality that showcases Hellmüller’s skilled picking technique on a challenging bit of pointillism that has him making audacious but disciplined intervallic leaps, while “dadada” has him alternating between fingerstyle chordal melodies and razor-sharp single note lines.
The energetic and uplifting 6/8 vehicle “Flying Fish,” dedicated to Hellmüller’s late father-in-law Xaver, who was a passionate fishing enthusiast, carries the kind of jangly open string strumming that may recall early Pat Metheny, circa Watercolor and Pat Metheny Group. The delicate title track “Magnolia”, by comparison, has a more subdued, relaxed feeling and features a nice extended bass solo by Sommer, who also carries the melody on the beautiful ballad “Wieso?” which is underscored by Perret’s sensitive brushwork and is further highlighted by Hellmüller’s unhurried, harmonically lush approach to his axe. The collection closes on an introspective note with the hushed “Fall Is Not the End,” which again opens with a Sommer bass solo and has Hellmüller exercising zen-like restraint.
Listening to these very potent ten tracks, it is clear that Franz Hellmüller is coming out of a very different school, a new school, not defined by or obliged to bebop or the blues, as many of his own significant role models — Metheny, Abercrombie, John Scofield, Jim Hall — used as touchstones in developing their own personal vocabularies. One can also hear the very un-guitarist influences of Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans and Lee Konitz in his loose and highly interactive approach to the trio format. “I love standards and, of course, I also studied blues and bebop,” says Franz. “I love free improvisations as much as I love playing on structures. And while an artist probably always tries to do new things, this does not mean that you need to reinvent the wheel, or that the music should get always more and more complicated or looking for extremes. For me, the idea is to bring together different influences, sounds, concepts and attitudes in a way that the repertoire still has a strong direction. So, in that sense, Magnolia is nearer to a new school than bebop. But maybe it is just a normal evolution of things.”
Indeed. From Charlie Christian to Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, Jim Hall and Tal Farlow and Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino and George Benson, John Abercrombie and John Scofield, Pat Methey and Bill Frisell, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ben Monder, the music has always moved forward. Hellmüller is doing his own part to push it forward, offering something very personal and fresh for these times. — Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contribute to Down Beat in the United States and Jazzthing in Germany. He is also the author of “JACO The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” and co-author of “Here And Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino”.