A lemur with a life ring, a mock political campaign poster and a picture of the band dressed as pastry chefs – cast your eye over VEIN’s album covers and you might think the Swiss trio were playing it for laughs. But their music is no joke. On the contrary, their appearance at the Vortex alongside American sax great Dave Liebman was strictly no-nonsense. The quartet played just nine tunes in total, the majority drawn from Jazz Talks, their first studio album as a four-piece, yet their set was steely, focused and thrilling in its variety.
First up came an impressionist take on ‘All The Things You Are’ with a lubricious opening salvo from Liebman, full of slurpy bends and mangled harmonics. From there they shifted between ferociously swinging post bop, balladic melancholy and edgy collective improvisation, blurring the lines between freedom and through-composition to the extent that is was impossible to tell one from the other.
‘Negative Space’ peaked with high-pitched soprano wails before melting into a piano feature for Michael Arbenz, which brought sudden shifts from the rhythm section – surging dynamics that broke like waves and landed with a waterlogged thud. Duke Ellington’s ‘Reflections in D’ was all smudgy tenor lines and arpeggiated whirls, while ‘No Change is Strange’ built to fever pitch as the band returned to give the melody a final kicking in the cadenza.
In the second set, Monk’s ‘Evidence’ showed the core trio at their most rhythmically elastic; ‘Black Tortoise’ was undulating and unpredictable, the musical equivalent of walking on a waterbed; while ‘Jammin’ in the Childrens Corner’ was rough-edged and bordering on funky, with fiercely articulated drum rolls from Florian Arbenz.
‘Clear Light’ varied the pace once again, with an extended feature for Liebman on wooden recorder that incorporated chittering, bird-like volleys and haunting melodies with a Native American lilt. ‘Everything for Everybody’ from 2014’s Vote for Vein came with a slip and slide bass solo from Thomas Lähns and saw the swing return, and then it was over. No encore, minimal chit chat and no mention of lemurs or life rings, but more than enough to confirm VEIN as one of Europe’s most exciting jazz trios, and this collaboration with Liebman as one of the most fruitful of their career.
– Thomas Rees