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AZILUT! *****

Wardrobe Leeds UK


In jazz, it is rare to find a band whose music is entirely free of cliches. Azilut! are such a group, yet their commitment to being idiosyncratic doesn't detract from their listenability. The trio comprise UK pianist Julie Sassoon, German reeds-player Lothar Ohlmeier and Dutch drummer Bart van Helsdingen. A solo performance by any of these exceptional musicians would have an audience spellbound; together in Leeds, they seemed capable of miracles.

The exact source of the magic was difficult to pin down. The band's publicity material draws attention to the fact that there is no bass player, and on stage this resulted in a fascinatingly democratic rhythmical approach. Also significant were the slow-burning beauty of the group's compositions, the constantly surprising arrangements, and the wit and imagination that each player brought to the whole.

Ohlmeier's bass clarinet - a lovely instrument rarely heard in contemporary jazz - ranged from warm round tones to comedy squaws and grunts, and provided most of the band's improvisatory muscle. Van Helsdingen, meanwhile, is an exceptionally fine artist whose canvas happens to be a drumkit. Potential gimmicks such as a triangle, a dinner gong and a foot-operated cowbell were integrated seamlessly into a mesmerising tapestry of cross-rhythms, all executed with a jaw-dropping level of dynamic control.
Sassoon's playing pulsed with drama, her fondness for the keyboard's lower registers providing a reminder of just how loud and scary a piano can be. The ghosts of Debussy and Bartok jostled for prominence during many of her flights of fancy; elsewhere her cyclical themes and clinical precision recalled Steve Reich and any number of digital music computer programmes.

But perhaps the real stars of this gig were the pieces themselves. Possessing all the intricacy and variety of mini symphonies, they were soulful, vividly intelligent and innovative without ever becoming abstruse. Indeed, Azilut's achievement is to make something that sounds entirely their own without sacrificing one jot of accessibility. In doing so they have thrown down the gauntlet to young jazz musicians everywhere.

James Griffiths

At times it sounds as if there are more than three people on this sizzling trio record. Azilut! are proof that small cannot only be beautiful but extremely powerful when the chemistry and collective imagination is up to speed. Drummer Bart van Helsdingen, pianist Julie Sassoon and reed man Lothar Ohlmeier are all strong enough as individuals to compensate for any shortfalls that their limited instrumentation allows; the absence of a bassist goes unnoticed on 10 pieces that continually change shape, signature and texture but never runs out of ideas. Although this record is stylistically a long way from Elvin Jones/Cecil Taylor/Dewey Redman's Moment Space, another drums/piano/sax record of note, it nevertheless hits similar levels of energy and creativity. As with the aforementioned date, the key here is the flexibility of the players, particularly drummer Van Helsdingen whose ability to shore up the rhythm section and embellish the leads with fine detail is startling. His snare sound in particular has that tough drum machine-like muscle which gives the music   unbreakable backbone. Ultimate proof thereof comes in Pumpkin's Delight, a strident piece of drum & bass... with no bass. This is one of the best examples I've heard of the much-botched jazz jungle hybrid and it works for two reasons. First, the rhythm section pulsates as one; Sassoon's quasi-boogie woogie style basslines blend seamlessly into Van Helsdingen's rocket snare while Ohlmeier's steam powered sax chops into the main theme like a human chainsaw. Secondly, in a similar way to Ben Allison's Riding the Nuclear Tiger, the players have realised that breaking the energy of the A section to an almost bluesy dub interlude reconnects the idiom to its Jamaican roots; it's such a powerful narrative device. And elsewhere on the disc, there are many other flourishes to keep the listener guessing as to where the trio will go next, the cheekily twisted Latin groove of Finger Funk, the Perfect Houseplantsy folkism of Neigha and the spiritually charged Tranian surge of Metamorphosis. All of which makes for an album where the whole really is greater than the sum of the  parts.
​Kevin Legendre

There are no jazz contenders for the Mercury this year, but if the judges wanted to find an example of British jazz at its creative best, they need look no further than To the Power of Three. This album mingles lyrical rapture with driving intensity, often at the same time. The music is characterised by flux, and is as fresh as water issuing from a rock.
Julie Sassoon, a pianist of astonishing resources, applies a concentrated beam of intelligence to everything she does. Her playing is restless, always searching for ways to make the music move, or to heighten the rapture still further. By comparison, Lothar Ohlmeier's saxophone is sober and austere, telepathically attuned to the quicksilver moods of his partner. Bart van Helsdingen has an inventive approach to the drums, and facilitates the flow and dynamic range of the music. All three contribute vibrant originals to the album.
Exciting and alive, Azilut! have a way of engaging with the emotions that gives them potentially universal appeal. If the Mercury judges fail to appreciate that, it's all our loss.
Mike Butler

Stirring stuff from a trio comprising pianist Julie Sassoon, drummer Bart van Helsdingen and saxophonist Lothar Ohlmeier. Sassoon was previously a member of the contemporary classical group Piano Circus, and there are chamber and minimal to both her playing and compositions. When Ohlmeier switches to bass clarinet the chamber music feel is even stronger. Some tracks sound like they could have wandered in from an ECM record, others have a quirky humour characteristic of a lot of modern British jazz;
all are played with a marvellous combination of head and heart, with the interaction between all three both eloquent and direct.
Martin Longley

English pianist Julie Sassoon (no relation either to Vidal or Siegfried, as she patiently explains) is a new name and one to remember. Her music is difficult to classify, but if you like originality, intelligence, good taste and craftsmanship, chances are you'll enjoy it. The general ambit is free-improv, but with the big difference that it has a healthy heartbeat.  Julie prefers her free-improv to swing. So, for that matter, did the earliest American free-jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman, who, while wildly unbounded in their own solos, always hired deep-grooving drummers like Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell to keep the express-train on the rails.
The first thing you notice about Azilut!, the European trio with Sassoon, Dutch drummer Bart van Helsdingen and German reedman Lothar Ohlmeier, is the novel way they  keep a jazz pulse beating without rhythmic or melodic cliches. They manage this with interplay as slick as a champion basketball team's best moves. The lead is constantly changing, so everybody has a chance to carry the ball. Some of the most enjoyable moments come when the drums take the "melody" while Sassoon, her crisp keyboard articulation suggesting classical training, supplies the beat. Ohlmeier is probably classically trained too. His skilful tonal control and all-round experience in this sort of music is invaluable. Van Heldingen, another nifty team-player with fast hands and sharp ears, adds some steel-pan counterpoint here and there.

Their music is full of witty improvisation and brilliant writing. It's

fresh as tomorrow's paper yet firmly in the jazz tradition.​
Jack Massarik

Point Well Made!
AZILUT! Certainly merited the exclamation point in its name. Billed as contemplative and subtle, the descriptions left out the fantastically swinging and wonderfully musical drumming of Bart van Helsdingen.
Julie Sassoon's piano playing, too, differed from expectation, with a style concerned with sonic texture and time more than harmonic complexity and space.
Drawing overtones through volume, repetition and stacking chords, she deftly and musically explored the microtonal possibilities of the fine piano. Her rhythmic sense was elegant and faultless.

Also elegant, was Lothar Ohlmeier's judicious, melodic sax playing. He maintained a beautiful tone on all saxes and clarinets, blending seamlessly with the other two instruments. 

The group was completely at ease in a vast variety of time signatures, moving smoothly from 3:4 to 13:8 with no loss of swing.
​Charlie Dunlap


Azilut? Not a typo for Azimuth but a vehicle for compositions by the trio members. Friends at Esoterics Anonymous tell me Azilut is a plane of existence without time or space, a realm of pure will and perfect balance. Whatever, the music is nicely balanced with a good sense of time, whether or not there is a clearly stated beat, and a spacious, airy feel.
As far as I know, Sassoon and Ohlmeier debuted on record as a duo with the well received 1998 limited-edition CD Inside Colours , principally a showcase for Sassoon's tunes. The new album also foregrounds the writing. This trend to putting scores on a par with improvisations, largely attributable to ECM's influence, I guess, frequently produces flaccid results, with compositions too vapid to hold the attention and failing to inspire anything of note from the players, who are often exposed as capable only of decoration rather than full-on jazz improvisation. Azilut! largely dodges this trap.

"Long Time", Ohlmeier's one compositional contribution, usefully summarises the trio's approach. A vivid example of their care with instrumental colour, it opens with light brushwork in a Latin rhythm, a vaguely ominous loping piano ostinato voiced in a way that momentarily fools you into hearing a shadowing bassist, and soprano lines that alternate between a cool but keen hovering melody, and ebullient but edgy main theme, and some crisp elaborations of both. As a player, Ohlmeier is lyrical with a pleasing tartness.
Of Sassoon's pieces, "Coming Home" is founded on another ostinato, this one almost pastoral, a disrupted shuffle-beat which falls away at various points, and a robust melody which the tenor sometimes sings, sometimes declaims, sometimes mumbles. The lonesome, atmospheric "Baghdad Cafe" almost cheers itself up, whilst the random-sounding meandering chords of "Out Of Sync" nudge the tenor into the most left-field playing of the session. Its steel-pan coda segues into rippling piano on the more gregarious "Metamorphosis", which spotlights Van Helsdingen's tuneful drumming. "Wedding" is suitably celebratory with interludes for sober reflection. Van Helsdingen's compositions also rest on repetitive rhythmic ostinati, though his, usually more extended harmonically, are funk-inflected as distinct from Sassoon's more minimalistically-modular patterns, and prompt Ohlmeier into some of his grittiest playing.
​Barry Witherden

BBC Review
This music is always aurally compelling...
Martin Longley 2008-03-20
The bass clarinettist and saxophonist, Lothar Ohlmeier, has for several years beeen a lynchpin in the modern jazz and classical fringes of Holland, moving to the UK in 2000 after forming Azilut with Julie Sassoon. Here he's paired with the software acrobat Isambard Khroustaliov (AKA Sam Britton), who's half of the mighty Icarus, those electronic shapers of massive ability, if not fame. Ohlmeier and Khroustaliov's music is as complex and challenging as their names!
At just over 33 minutes, this album is short. That's the only retro-looking aspect in evidence. The pair's collaboration is part of an increasing body of work that addresses the interface between live instrumentalists (often improvising) and sound processors, either subsequent, or in real time. Both approaches are used here. On the opening Haze, the bass clarinet is completely hidden, to begin, obscured by sonic transformation, frosted twists and clinging gauze-tones, with reed-matter gradually peeking through as the piece progresses. It's a slow motion growth, with clicks and breath-wheezes magnified for a massive sound-stage. After Sunrise sounds closer to mainline free improvisation, using sampled piano as its raw material, crumpled into orchid clusters. The scale is even grander for The Vague Terrain, with Khroustaliov shooting violently warped sonics across a vast wingspan, combining a feeling of intimacy and grandeur within the same piece. During Monkey Puzzle, part of the clarinet sound is kept intact, playing along with subsequent transformations, in a clucking, brutal rupturing. This music is always aurally compelling, but also has bonus aspects within the realms of tactile sensation and visual fantasy.

Album of the Month, The Milk Factory


Not Applicable 2008
05 Tracks. 33mins48secs

Nowhere is the first collaboration between Dutch jazz bass clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Lothar Ohlmeier and Isambard Khroustaliov, the alter ego of British experimental musician Sam Britton, who is more commonly known as one half of electronic entity Icarus. Ohlmeier studied music in Hannover and Amsterdam before establishing himself at the forefront of the Dutch improvised music scene. He has since collaborated with a wide range of jazz artists, including pianist Julia Sassoon and drummer Bart van Helsdinger, with whom he formed Azilut! in 2000. Now living in England, Ohlmeier continues to perform all over Europe. Meanwhile, beside his regular stint with Icarus, Sam Britton has been working on solo projects under his Isambard Khroustaliov guise, releasing a first limited CDR, entitled 8 Minutes, on the band’s imprint, Not Applicable, in 2002, followed by a collaborative effort with Italian-born percussionist Maurizio Ravalico, Five Loose Plans, in 2006.

The fruit of three years of work, the five tracks presented here, culled from recordings made during a residency at the IRCAM in Paris and at various music festivals across Europe, demonstrate the increasing connections between traditional improvised music and modern forms. While similar collaborations have been flourishing in recent years, that of Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden and jazz drummer and percussionist Steve Reid being the most high profile, Ohlmeier and Britton create here a rich and vibrant sonic space within which they freely feed from each other. Ohlmeier’s clarinet is the main focal element throughout, in turn floating high above the sonic backdrop or simple source component for Britton’s intricate constructions. It is as if every possible sound had been extracted from the instrument, from its most common to its most visceral. The clickety-clicks of the keys, the surplus air escaping through the tone holes, the breathing of the wood become as many structural elements for Britton, who creates here a tapestry as finely detailed and diaphanous as the wind chime-like drapes crafted with Icarus in their wonderfully poetic I Tweet The Birdy Electric album.

Here though, it is the organic nature of the instrument that commends attention. Both through Ohlmeier’s elegant flourishes and variations and Britton’s infinitesimal renderings, the clarinet comes to life, erupts in multiple forms, circles above and lingers below, lives deep within and far out, with only occasional external sounds (a prepared piano, most notably, on After Sunrise and Dusk as well as furtive found sounds) to widen the core soundscapes. The level of symbiosis between the two musicians is such that the boundaries of their respective interactions is at times blurred, but even when the roles are clearly defined, the work remains dense, coherent, and of very high standard, making this record an unmissable experience.


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