Rafael Karlen: Equally True

The music led by Australian saxophonist Karlen features words, but the greater expression comes in the vocalese and instrumental passages


If illustration were needed of how music so often speaks more eloquently than words, it would be hard to beat Australian saxophonist and composer Rafael Karlen’s new album: the words sung by Kristin Berardi often segue into expressive vocalese that tells the listener as much if not more than the narrative.

It’s a device that sums up the whole approach of Karlen’s new quintet to the charts he’s written for it. Mild existential angst is addressed by unforced, often limpid playing, with a strong improvisational feel.

This is true of the four-part Arrival And Prospects Suite. Berardi, having explored sinuous and wordless lines on the album’s first three tracks, opens the suite’s first movement, Blueprint Of Possibilities, with an almost urgent message, and after Karlen’s tenor saxophone has hinted at a more troubled feeling, comes back at the end with not so much a postscript as a continuation of the opening.

A nocturnal stasis is achieved on Evening Corridors as each member blots the canvas to keep the fragile melody afloat with sounds that are almost ad hoc, and again the voice returns with the saxophone line behaving almost like its guardian.

The Promise Of Postcards is a meditation on loneliness in which “darkness displaces the horizon”, a state that seems good reason for Simon Barker’s drums to lift the spirits. On My Own Quiet Library, bassist Brett Hirst steps forward as if into temporal space, as does Karlen, both with much to say.

Karlen and the quintet know it would be out of place to get too worked up. The album’s prime virtue lies in having sharpened the focus of a lyrical mood. Berardi is not even primus inter pares – she’s an equal player in a band of equals, her voice in an often entwining or unison relationship with the saxophone while Barker with nuanced inventiveness, pianist Matt McMahon achieving delicacy of aim and execution and Hirst exerting midfield control underscore the common temperament. The album might have included the lyrics as an insert, but that’s a mere quibble.

Again, As Always; Equally True; Foucault’s Pendulum; Arrival And Prospects Suite: Blueprint Of Possibilities, Evening Corridors, The Promise Of Postcards, My Own Quiet Library; Seven Seconds After Sleep; Rich Hours; Before The Day (64.47)
Kristin Berardi (v); Karlen (ts); Matt McMahon (p); Brett Hirst (b); Simon Barker (d). Camperdown, Australia, 20-21 October 2018.
Earshift Music EAR059