A Pasha’s Abstinence by Sebastian Spanache Trio – an energetic and comprehensive display of musical storytelling

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The Music and Myth “Review Season” opens with a record I had been planning to write about since autumn of last year. Because I had to dedicate my time to launching and promoting Mindguard (which, incidentally has been chosen Book of the Year 2014 by SciFi365.net, so perhaps you’d like to take a look) the backlog got a bit crowded and some records fell behind. That’s not a problem though, as I can’t think of a better first review for 2015 than Sebastian Spanache Trio’s sophomore release, A Pasha’s Abstinence. I had heard a lot about this band from my own hometown; last year the hype around them was unremitting. As it turns out, the hype was well-deserved.

The record features pianist Sebastian Spanache, bass player Csaba Sánta and drummer Radu Pieloiu, alongside a number of very carefully chosen guest musicians, whose contributions are – for the most part – extremely well employed.

The record opens with the title track, an atmospheric piece in a style somewhat reminiscent of Nik Bärtsch. The song succeeds in introducing the listener to the band’s distinctive and complex compositions, with haunting themes that create a perceivable tension. In this particular song, the tension is achieved through the use of a string quartet, creating an energy that carries over to the rest of the album. My only gripe with this track is that the percussion by legendary musician Berti Barbera sounds a bit subdued and ends up getting lost in the shuffle, through no fault of his own. However, Berti is the only guest musician whose input isn’t flawlessly accentuated, as all the others absolutely shine in their parts.

The first proof of this is the second track, “Sixty Five” where the addition of Joanna Kucharczyk’s soft, warm vocals is tasteful and absolutely spot on. The interplay on this track is exceptional and the dramatic finish, with Pieloiu’s unhinged energy over Spanache’s mantra-like repetition is a thing of beauty, especially when coupled with the soft guitar intro to “Smoke and Mirrors”, courtesy of George Dumitriu. The guitarist has perhaps the strongest showing of the guest musicians. His solo towards the midpoint of “Smoke and Mirrors” – sprinkled with just a pinch of Pieloiu’s drums – is splendid and proves a deep understanding of timing and atmosphere, bringing to mind memories of John McLean’s work with Kurt Elling.

“Brown” is a beautiful tune that starts off softly and blossoms into an energetic and comprehensive display of musical storytelling, my personal favorite. By this point in the record, Spanache has already established himself as a pianist with a great feel for timing and the narrative quality of the instrument. Nowhere is this better highlighted than in “Brown”, where bassist Sánta also has his standout moment. At fourteen minutes, it’s also the longest track on a record which in total spans a generous seventy five minutes. The length of the songs helps the listeners immerse themselves into the environment the band is trying to create, rather than just assimilate the individual songs. Length doesn’t always work in music, but this is a perfect example of skilled musical worldbuilding .

“Park” continues in the same vein of exploration and experimentation, with a dynamic often lacking in piano-trio compositions. Another strong showing by Spanache, who comes off as entirely comfortable with his harmonic identity, a balance many musicians achieve only much later in their careers.“Bizzare Mode” has a little bit of a Bitches-Brew-without-the-trumpet vibe and some clever drums by Pieloiu, but is otherwise not particularly remarkable.

Things pick up again with “Resolution”, an outstanding short piece that expands the creative breadth instead of feeling like a filler, an accomplishment even ECM records often don’t achieve (off the top of my head I can name Jan Garbarek’s “If You Go Far Enough” and “A Tale Begun” from my all-time favorite record, In Praise of Dreams as well as “Liezen” from Eberhard Weber’s “Résumé”).  “Resolution” offers the same example of duration used for optimal effect found in “Brown”, only this time it takes a minimalist direction.

Another one of the record’s highlights, “Meditation”, starts by taking a  page out of Neil Cowley’s “loud, louder… stop” book, and then expertly introduces a splendid tenor clarinet by Alex Simu in an example of outstanding interplay. In contrast with the Byzantine complexity of the opening track, the short epilogue “End of a Lifetime” provides a gentle and subdued final chapter to the ambitious story of A Pasha’s Abstinence.

With complex compositions where every note seems in “place”, Sebastian Spanache Trio have produced a work that feels very comfortable in its own skin. Listening to this record made me remember something Terri Lyne Carrington once told me:

The idea is to try be able to tell stories with instrumental music too. And it’s hard. It’s easy to tell stories with words. Without the words it’s hard but you still want to tell a story, you know?

I’m sure the seasoned composer would herself be more than satisfied with A Pasha’s Abstinence.

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