German pianist Hoefner offers up an interesting set of originals on this excellent quartet outing. From the first flurry of notes over the rubato intro to "Cross Hill," you get the feeling that this isn?t going to be a typical straight ahead affair. The album is full of beautiful compositions like this.
"Uncertain Times" is an arresting, note-filled Kurt Rosenwinkle- esque jaunt in 5/4, and while there's a whole lot going on during the melody, the listener doesn't feel stifled. Both Hoefner and saxophonist Mike Ruby craft understated solos, a trait amongst the musicians through most of the album. Ruby has obviously checked out [saxophonist] Mark Turner. He is strong and consistent throughout, although perhaps he has yet to find his own voice on the instrument, since, at times, his sound and approach are a little too close to Turner's. At other times, bits and pieces of [saxophonists] Joshua Redman and Seamus Blake also poke through. At any rate, he is a young and gifted saxophonist who I wouldn't mind hearing again.
"Somtimes" is a solemn ballad with a slow, straight 8th's feel. Both Hoefener and Ruby play nicely-crafted, if somewhat introverted solos. On "Song of The Past," a pleasant, minor-key, Latin-tinged number in 6/4 time, Hoefner breaks the mold a bit, playing some interesting contrapuntal lines during an energetic solo reminiscent of Brad Mehldau. "Distraction" is also in 6/4: Ruby takes an energetic solo on soprano; Hoefner cranks things up another notch, revealing some vocabulary in the style of Chick and Herbie that we haven't yet heard; and finally we hear a little from drummer Peter Kronreif, as he plays an inventive solo over the ending vamp.
The next tune, "Ivory," is a pretty, seemingly straight-ahead waltz. The melody is often phrased in non-four bar phrases, a nice departure from a typical jazz waltz. There's also a nice ostinato bass-line that happens near the end of the melody that gives the tune an unexpected flavor. Hoefner takes an inventive solo, playing lines simultaneously with both hands. Ruby follows with a freewheeling solo, perhaps his best of the set, short and sweet with a nice peak near the end. Once again, particularly in the upper register of the saxophone, we hear the Turner influence. The tune finishes with an ostinato vamp, and Ruby blows some nice lines over the top.
"Ankuft" is perhaps the most abstract of the tunes, and starts by featuring bassist Sam Anning for a while before piano and bass play a unison melody. Ruby enters and the tune takes on a more refined sound, while still maintaining an air of mystery with some wide leaps in the melody, which create some nice dissonance.
Anning and Kronreif, while probably the least "featured" musicians on this recording, are the most responsible for keeping the music moving forward. I enjoyed listening to the way they interacted with one another underneath the piano and saxophone solos more than any other aspect of this album. Both are quite obviously virtuoso players who have the discipline and maturity to not overplay. Both know when to take some chances, but mostly spend their time being supportive of the other players.
The last tune, "Behind The Sun," is a nice Neil Young- Tom Petty-ish rock number, with a nod towards some of Brad Mehldau's recordings, most notably the album "Largo." Both Hoefner and Ruby play some nice blues-inflected solos, with Hoefner really reaching into his Mehldau bag at times. Overall, "Songs Without Words" provides a pleasant listening experience, full of nicely crafted songs and restrained, refined improvisations.