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Julia Hülsmann Quartet - Not Far From Here (ECM)

12 December 2019

For her tenth album Not Far From Here, German pianist Julia Hülsmann expands her working trio (herself, bassist Marc Muellbauer, drummer Henrich Köbberling) to a quartet with the addition of tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff. Though, as leader of the band, Hülsmann sets the agenda, this group is a true collective, with each member bringing tunes to the table.

That approach allows for some contrast, even as the band’s collective will creates a signature stamp. The playfulness of Hülsmann’s “No Game,” for example, balances the smoky atmosphere of Muellbauer’s “Le Mistral,” while Kempendorff’s exploratory “Einschub” works as a foil to Köbberling’s swinging “Colibri 65.” These are also musicians who can improvise with the best of them without showboating. Hülsmann’s piano solos tend to be melodic and concise, much like her tunes and arrangements, while Muellbauer puts his own spin on Charlie Haden’s ultra-tuneful improv style, and Kempendorff holds back the fire until he simply can’t anymore – cf. Muellbauer’s “Wrong Song” and Hülsmann’s title track.

The Quartet also takes on “This is Not America,” a collaborative single from David Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group from the soundtrack to 1985’s The Falcon and the Snowman. While not intended as a statement, it’s hard not to read political intent in the group’s punchy take on this piece – especially when Hülsmann reiterates its importance to the album by adding a second, solo piano version. But social commentary isn’t the mission of the Julia Hülsmann Quartet – making good music is, and that mission is definitely accomplished on Not Far From Here.