Tom Arthurs and Richard Fairhurst – Postcards from Pushkin

Trumpeter Tom Arthurs and his collaborator, pianist Richard Fairhurst, recorded this beautiful album for flugelhorn and piano, now released on the Babel label, for the BBC in 2009. It is inspired by poems written by the Russian author Alexandr Pushkin (1799-1837).

The fragments of Pushkin’s poetry that inspired the work are included in the booklet. The tone of the album doesn’t always draw on the full range of emotions that Pushkin’s work evokes, but Arthurs, who composed all of the material, does capture the essence of each one.

Arthurs’ unaccompanied feature, “Solo”, is an eloquent riposte to Pushkin’s line: “The trumpet solo has no poetry”, since he tempers the trumpet’s brassy sound with tremulous humanity. Sometimes he sounds out assertively, sometimes probingly, as if testing a hypothesis, but his music has the characteristic aspect of an interior monologue, where Fairhurst is cast in the role of Arthurs’ ‘second voice’. However that voice often finds its own expression, as on “The Judge”, a meticulous dissection of a jewel-like melodic fragment, for unaccompanied piano.

Arthurs’ Pushkin music may take its inspiration from the literary canon, but its tone is utterly contemporary. He recently collaborated with Lothar Ohlmeier (clarinets), Isambard Khroustaliov (electronics) and Ollie Bown (of laptop duo Icarus) on Long Division, melding improvisation with computer-generated music. The two projects are ostensibly quite different, but actually mine a similar aesthetic. Although he deploys a softer, more rounded tone here, Arthurs’ playing is equally sharp in each context. Though the Postcards set has a haunting delicacy, there’s nothing staid about it. The tone is sometimes reserved, but always inquiring and incisive.

Fairhurst formerly led the band Hungry Ants, with Iain Ballamy as saxophonist, but now leads a more conservative chamber jazz trio, Triptych. A Steinway-sponsored artist, he plays with the stately, classicist reserve one might expect. Yet he effortlessly matches Arthurs’ improviser’s impulses.

The duo’s interaction is often austere, particularly so on “Darkness”, which situates their voices in cold, hard silence, but it is also acutely eloquent. It seems to me expressive of a postmodernist scepticism, turning a cold eye on Pushkin’s romanticism. But I could be wrong. In any case, the duo’s notes by turns resonate and hang suspended in the acoustic ambience captured at St. Giles’ Cripplegate, where the session was recorded, making Postcards as absorbing and stimulating as a good poetry collection.

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