This entire album presents a picture of the night that appears solemn on the outside but subtly energetic and playful on the inside.
Mikkel Ploug (guitar); Mark Turner (tenor saxophone); Jeppe Skovbakke (bass); Sean Carpio (drums)
Nocturnes is the third album that Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug has recorded with ECM label tenor saxophonist Mark Turner, and it sounds like the pair were born to play together.
This is also the first album to reunite all four members of his original quartet since recording The Mikkel Ploug Group, also featuring Mark Turner in 2006. Ploug and Turner’s album Faro earned a Best Instrumental Jazz Grammy nomination in 2018.
As on his recordings, Mark Turner’s saxophone is beautiful, fluid, and warm throughout, even on notes where it yearns for the farthest reaches of its expression. Turner and Ploug’s approach seems so well paired as if they look for the same thing in their music and take different interpretations of the same road to get there. They provide a counterpoint for each other throughout the album that is equally subtle and quietly dramatic. This is jazz that is both cerebral and soulful at once.
Songs on Nocturnes sound written/arranged explicitly for the guitar’s voice, and the main melodies come out of that voice, allowing other band members to build on each song’s central thesis. Ploug’s guitar tone differs from traditional jazz guitarists, operating in its own space as the other instruments swirl around it. Ploug’s playing is reminiscent of Bill Frisell’s tone and outside-in approach to each composition on the album.
After a lovely guitar etude opening on Sænk kun dit hoved, dublomst, Ploug’s guitar tone is smooth and confident against Carpio’s drum brush undercurrents. Mark Turner’s saxophone takes the mood and elongates it against Ploug’s subtle under melodies. It’s the quiet that meets the bright of the night.
Lacrimosa begins with Jeppe Skovbakke’s angular bass rhythm followed by Ploug’s guitar, carried by its reverb and chorus effects. Turner’s sax solos are full of searching and delight in the search as Ploug’s guitar answers in kind. The vocalese behind the guitar adds to the expressionist nature of the song. Sean Carpio’s drums seem to sing a song of their own and mesh so well with the other instruments.
On Matternach Mit Mignon, guitar and saxophone start to wander as the guitar adds beautiful harmonic support to Turner’s sax in a beautiful middle ground between rhythmic support and its outright melody.
Sigrid’s Wiegenlied is a solo guitar piece, and Ploug employs the harmonics on his guitar to sound like bells on top of the expressive melody. This beautiful and delicate song borders on classical guitar with jazz tonalities.
Monet – Guitar weaves a spell around the other instruments, with bass and drums adding necessary color depth as Turner’s sax plays its soulful melody over the top but still somehow manages to slip under the guitar. It’s a treat as both lead instruments weave around each other as they move into a combined crescendo toward the last part of the song.
Further guitar and saxophone excursions in Peace Chant move forward with the band providing nimble backup. This song is lilting and introspective while carrying pulsing energy at the same time. The guitar solo descends like shimmering water out of the graceful sax opening, falling right back into the saxophone.
Ploug’s composition Nocturnal (along with Monet and Lacrimosa) set the template for the entire album. Quiet but not quiet, the instruments weave around each other in a tapestry; guitar and tenor saxophone take turns, each making brief forays into the moonlight before as the stars shine and cast mystery from above. This entire album presents a picture of the night that appears solemn on the outside but subtly energetic and playful on the inside.
Song Can Tend the Ailing Spirit, written by Ukrainian composer Valentyn Sylvestrov, is a fitting closing to the album. It summarizes everything that’s gone before, led by Turner’s deeply expressive saxophone.
Nocturnes combines Ploug originals (Stockholm Night Lights, Lacrimosa, Peace Chant, and Nocturnal) with works by Danish composers Bent Sorenson and Carl Nielsen. There is no boundary between the two genres. This is nighttime chamber music jazz; every song is a different facet of that kaleidoscope.
Reviewed by Ben Miller