Review: John Law’s Congregation – Three Leaps of the Gazelle

John Law decided to use this evocative title because he liked the image of a constellation called Three Leaps of the Gazelle and he used it for the cover.  It is a striking cover – a far cry, and literally eons, from the contemplative cloisters of his last album (reviewed by me here ).  The origin of the phrase three leaps of the gazelle is from astronomy, three pairs of stars marking the hoof prints of a startled gazelle as it tried to escape a lion.   More interestingly, the Arabic root of Gazelle means to display amorous behavior; to court, to woo.   A ghazal is a particular type of Persian poem which most often expresses the pain of loss or separation and the beauty of love in spite of that pain. The gazelle is an appropriate image with its delicacy and limpid eyes.

OK so what has this to do with this very striking album? Well more than I realised on first listening.  There is an Arabic feel to this album and it’s not just Asaf’s darbuka which gives it this flavour.  Track five, Insistence, starts with the sound of crickets, you are in the desert, it is dusk, maybe there is a fire, fireflies flit around, the piano meanders in circles like a dance, a slightly sinister one with muffled piano, the drums are Arabic sounding, and then more crickets and it is dark – maybe you will see the constellation?

What I really love about John Law’s compositions is their subtlety. Effects are used sparingly, gently introduced on an ipod for live performance – the crickets in Insistence, the sound of New York traffic and chatting in a jazz club at the start of Swazz,  the delicate fall of snowflakes (what else but a glockenspiel and some very high notes?).    No danger of electronics adding stress to a performance.

He is joined on this album by Asaf Sirkis on drums and Yuri Goloubev on bass, both extraordinary.  I love Asaf’s understated performance on this album, the exception to quiet being his solo in Three Part Invention ( I know he can  play loud!) but most of the time his playing is delicate and shimmering, like a breath of wind.   And Yuri brings Russian passion and Italian flare to the trio – his own website is in English and Italian. His bowing is exquisite and is given full rein in the title track.   It goes without saying that John’s playing is awe-inspiring – a combination of heart and mind which I find irresistible.

With John you are never too far from classical music – his choice of Schumann’s Traumerei  which creeps into Finger on the Pulse has also been used by Robert Mitchell on The Embrace. His tribute to Baroque is Three Part Invention, which he started on his album Congregation, taking it to another level here. The nimbleness of Yuri’s fingering  (or is it bowing?) is breathtaking.

My favourite composition is Triadic Ballet – it’s a gentle tango with angular movements and undercurrents of passion and leaving – that ghazal poem again.

There are glorious tunes galore on this album, it will stay in my listening pile for a very long time.  There is indeed a sense of loss when you get to the end of this album, like a ghazal poem, you have been held by its spell for 78 mins.  One day I hope to see John again, so I can thank him for his magical music which touches me so deeply.


John Law, piano, keyboard, ipod

Yuri Goloubev, double bass

Asaf Sirkis, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, darbuka

All compositions by John Law

Three Leaps of the Gazelle, John Law’s Congregation featuring Yuri Goloubev and Asaf Sirkis, 2012  (33 Records 33JAZZ228) available from

Review: John Law’s Congregation – the art of sound vol 4

There are several tracks on this exquisite album which remind me of the subtle, calm world of a Vermeer painting.  Much of this album is understated, from the ghostly cathedral on the cover, the limited pallet of colours on the sleeve, the carefully chosen photograph of the artists wearing toning shades of grey.   Much of the joy of a Vermeer is standing as close to it as the gallery attendants will let you stand, and entering its gentle world of reflection, quiet study, order and shared secrets and then drifting away from it, the colours and atmosphere engrained in your memory to be enjoyed long afterwards.

And so it is with John Law’s Congregation the art of sound volume 4.  Unlike Vermeer whose paintings are few, John has a large discography of piano trio works and solo albums.  Perhaps the title ” the art of sound ” is a tribute to Brad Mehldau whose Art of the Trio albums marked his development over several years?    But John is more than an English Brad Mehldau, he has a very distinctive voice and you can hear it most clearly in volume 4 of this series. He has created an exceptional trio in Sam Burgess on bass and Asaf Sirkis in drums.

When you first listen to this album you will notice the extrovert tracks, most notably the title track Congregation. I defy you not to want to leap around the room during this one.  This is not a trio of three separate musicians, no, they work as one. Even when one player has the limelight you are aware of the others, right there, just a millisecond behind, they pass the tunes around as skillfully as footballers, never let it falter for a moment. Trap Clap is a witty piece with subtle effects (clapping, fuzzy piano).

All the tracks stand alone. Three Part Invention is a homage to Bach and a perfect one at that..  But for me the real joy of this album are the works that remind me of Vermeer – The Ghost in the Oak and Watching, Waiting (for Tom Cawley). These are works of the heart as well as the brain.  John is not just a clever pianist, he creates works which move you. They repay close scrutiny with your mind but also with your heart.   The Ghost in the Oak is heartbreakingly beautiful.   The bass sounds like a cello, the percussion ticks, the piano mesmerises you like the ebb and flow of the sea. You are in a quiet room and you never want to leave.

Watching, Waiting ( for Tom Cawley) is a gem.   There are many layers of delicate sound,  from the ripple of the piano, the lovely melody on bass to the magical, fairytale tinkle of glockenspiel. Then these delicate strata come crashing up against piano and percussion then just as quickly subside – it’s a masterpiece, giving you more to listen to each time.

John Law, piano, clapping

Sam Burgess, double bass

Asaf Sirkis, drums, percussion, glockenspiel, darbuka

Congregation – The Art of Sound, Volume 4, John Law, Sam Burgess, Asaf Sirkis, 2009 (33 Records 33JAZZ193)

Thoughts on listening and sound…

This week I’ve been thinking about how I experience and respond to music when I listen to it live and when I hear the same piece as a recording.  What prompted this train of thought was listening to Jazz on 3’s broadcast of Phronesis’ second set from their album launch at Kings Place on 26th May 2012.   I was at the gig, it was a joyous evening, the kind you want to go on for ever. Then I heard the recording and my first thought was “It sounds different, what did I actually hear live, was I really listening?”

Anyone who has ever been to a Brad Mehldau concert will know it’s an intense, exhausting experience because of the act of concentration and the spell he casts.  The same goes for a live Keith Jarrett experience.  I suspect musicians must listen at a deeper level  – once I sat behind Marcus Stockhausen at a concert and I could sense from his body language that his listening was of a different order to mine  – it was as if his whole body was a satellite dish where he picked up absolutely everything, was able to absorb and enjoy it, to see beauty where I was struggling (it was Schoenberg).  And then reflect it back to the musicians.  It was a two way process. I wonder if we ordinary mortals do the same thing?

I also wonder if recording quality is now so good that it enhances what we hear and that’s the standard we now expect to hear live, with coughs, rustling and traffic noise removed? Or is it simply that the visual experience always overrides the aural one?     So in attending Phronesis’ Pitch Black gigs we listened deeper to compensate for the dimension that was missing.  The visual experience is not really about what a band looks like or the lighting/effects, it’s is about the jokes and smiles that musicians exchange, how they stand at their instruments or sit at a piano.  A friend commented that the way Jasper holds his bass is very sensual, as if it were a person. You note the way Anton sets up his drums all on a level, hope you don’t get hit by the occasional escaped drumstick, wonder if Ivo is asleep at the piano.  You’d miss all that if you never saw the band live. It’s the humanity you go for in a live gig, the physical effort of making music, the visible joy when it’s working for the musicians and then, by extension, for us too.

And then there’s sound quality.  Take my favourite pianist, Brad Mehldau  – maybe this is a slightly unfair example – a snippet recorded on a phone and one in 24bit/192khz.

Compare this:


Sound quality is the difference. One is akin to a live performance heard in your living room.

And you can hear even higher, HD, quality here:

So sound quality may be better in a recording than your experience of live music, even in the classiest venues like Wigmore Hall.  It does add to your enjoyment.  But it wasn’t that I’d actually missed anything in the live experience when compared to the edited, smoothed out broadcast, it was just different and I’m glad to have experienced both.