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Review of Selenographia from

Destination: Out’s 2012: 5+5 Overlooked Gems

1. NATHAN HANSON & BRIAN ROESSLER | SELENOGRAPHIA 
It’s a crime these guys aren’t on the map of more adventurous jazz fans. Maybe the fact they hail from Minneapolis has left them below the radar. Their quartet Fantastic Merlins remains little known stateside but has a significant following in France and even scored a number one album there with beguiling reinterpretations of Leonard Cohen tunes. This remarkable duo album may be these musicians’ most accomplished work yet – a concise collection of mysterioso tunes that’s immediately accessible without sacrificing musical smarts. With just saxophone and bass,  Hanson and Roessler consistently generate surprisingly lush and melodic textures that don’t stint on dynamic interplay. The bright orange vinyl edition is a physical marvel. If you only buy one album on the list, make it this one.

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Review of Selenographia
by Clifford Allen — Ni Kantu

Selenographia is the second album to feature the Minnesota-based duo of soprano saxophonist Nathan Hanson and contrabassist Brian Roessler, who have performed together for a decade and a half as part of the vibrant Twin Cities creative music scene. As with quite a number of the Cities’ musicians, Roessler and Hanson have developed a connection to Paris’ improvisers through the curatorial efforts of Nato Records founder Jean Rochard (Paris/St. Paul) and performances at the Sons d’ Hiver festival. The duo’s longstanding collaborative relationship has resulted in a completely natural language, to the point that across these thirteen pieces, one ceases to think of them as saxophonist and bassist, rather as inseparable siblings or two inflections of the same voice. To be sure, Roessler’s throaty arco and sinewy attack are in keeping with preceding travelers like Jean-Jacques Avenel and Béb Guerin, while Hanson departs from the obvious lineage of Steve Lacy for a rounder phraseology (a la later Lol Coxhill) and occasional Arabic inflections (cue the Theo Loevendie-esque solo “Sea of Crisis”). So there are external reference points for this music, but among equally peerless players. The program is diverse, running the gamut from stark and incisive improvisations to deceptively simple and dusky tunes, such as the gorgeous “Life on its Way” ramble of “The Moonbeam Song.” Hanson and Roessler may be localized in their work to the extent that the larger improvised music world hasn’t caught on, but that being said, they bring copious technique, individuality and a healthy dose of “heart” to the creative music table. Furthermore, housed in a hand-screened jacket with translucent orange wax, Selenographia is as beautiful to look at as it is to listen to.

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Review of Selenographia
by Sergio Piccirilli — El Intruso

Cuando el sabio señala a la luna, el necio mira el dedo (Confucio)

La selenografía es una rama de la astronomía que estudia la superficie y las características físicas de la luna y se encarga de mapear los mares, los cráteres, las montañas y los desniveles de la superficie lunar. La selenografía (palabra que unifica los vocablos griegos selene –en referencia a la diosa Luna- y grafía, que significa “escritura”) es una ciencia que empezó a tomar cuerpo a partir del año 450 A.C. junto con la aparición de la idea de que la luna no tenía una superficie completamente lisa. Si bien algunos incipientes estudios selenográficos datan de fines del XV, los primeros atlas lunares no aparecerían sino hasta mediados de siglo XVII con la presentación del “mapa grabado” de Michel van Langren en 1645 y el tratado Selenographiarealizado por Johannes Hevelius en 1647. Desde ese momento el mapeo sistemático de la luna fue evolucionando a la par de los avances científicos y conforme la calidad de la óptica iba avanzando. Así fue que la selenografía pasó, de las iniciales observaciones a simple vista, al telescopio reflector; de allí a las tomas fotográficas realizadas por la sonda soviética Luna 3 en 1959 y el satélite estadounidense Ranger en 1961, hasta llegar a las imágenes multi-espectrales obtenidas en los noventa por la NASA con la misión Clementine que permitieron elaborar el primer mapa global de la topografía lunar.

Todo esto viene a cuento de la nueva producción discográfica –sólo disponible en vinilo y formato digital- del dúo integrado por el saxofonista Nathan Hanson y el contrabajista Brian Roessler y cuyo título es, justamente, Selenographia.

La consolidada sociedad musical entre Roessler Hanson se ha extendido por casi dos décadas y no sólo se circunscribe al dúo que los congrega –cuyo debut discográfico tuvo lugar en 2009 con el álbum Bellfounding- sino que también abarca las participaciones de ambos en los ensambles de Didier Petit, Pablo Cueco, Mirtha Pozzi, Douglas Ewart, Erik Fratzke, Carei Thomas, Pete Hennig, Alden Ikeda, Peter Leggett y, muy especialmente, a Fantastic Merlins, banda con la que han editado el EP Live de 2005 y los álbumes Look Around en 2007, A Handful of Earth de 2009, How the Light Gets In y Song-of-the Month en 2010.

El dúo de saxo y contrabajo tiene una rica historia en el campo del jazz y la libre improvisación; e incluso, en tiempos recientes, nos ha ofrecido magníficos precedentes. A modo de ejemplo resulta ineludible mencionar aquí a los álbumes Falais de Pedro Sousa y Hernani Faustino de 2012, Kaleidoscope and Collage en 2011 con Stephan Crump y Steve Lehman, Live at Lotus de 2010 de Vinny Golia y Mark Dresser, Soul to Soul en 2010 a cargo de Remi Álvarez y Mark Dresser, Improwizie de Rafal Mazur y Keir Neuringer en 2010, Windfall de 2010 con Ab Baars y Meinrad Kneer, Repercussions de Paul Dunmall y Paul Rogers en 2009, Live at the Yippie en 2009 de Lorenzo Sanguedolce y Michael Bissio, los álbumes de la contrabajista Joelle Leandre con Anthony Braxton en Duo de 2009 y junto a Akosh S. en Kor de 2008, Sinner en 2009 con Barry Guy y Mats Gustafsson, los trabajos del saxofonista Joe McPhee con Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten en Blue Chicago Blues de 2010 y con el contrabajista Dominic Duval en The Open Doorde 2008 y los de este último en compañía de los saxofonistas Ivo Perelman en Nowhere to Hidede 2009 y Jimmy Halperin en Monk Dreams de 2009, Brooklyn Calling de Ad Pelinengurg y William Parker en 2004 y los sucesivos dúos entre el saxo de Ken Vandermark y los contrabajos de Kent Kessler, Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten, Nate McBride y Wilbert De Joode contenidos en el álbum de 2008 Collected Fiction.

Sin lugar a dudas, a esta lista de obras imprescindibles con epicentro en el formato a dúo de saxo y contrabajo debe agregarse ahora –y por varios motivos- el álbum Selenographia que aquí nos ocupa.

En la simbiótica ligazón sonora que exhibe el dúo integrado por Nathan Hanson y Brian Roessler se da cita un temperamento etéreo, expansivo y de insondable lirismo que, a pesar de su implícita complejidad armónica y minucioso desarrollo melódico, termina proporcionando una experiencia auditiva llamativamente accesible.

En Selenographia, el tácito imaginario lunar que involucra al nombre de la obra se prolonga además en la utilización de las denominaciones topográficas de nuestro satélite natural para titular los temas contenidos en ella y, también, como medio programático para establecer una arquitectura sonora que guarda analogía con los nombres adjudicadas por los científicos a esos lugares del relieve selenita.

El lado A del vinilo da inicio con una aterciopelada recreación del tema de George Liferman y Jackques Mareuil popularizado por el afamado cuarteto vocal Les Frères Jacques (una de las pocas piezas incluidas en Selenographia que no alude directamente a la topografía lunar) en donde se van concatenando las ascéticas intervenciones del contrabajo de Roessler y los fraseos de impronta barroca que dibuja el saxo soprano de Hanson.

El espacioso e introspectivo Sea of Tranquility alude al Mare Tranquillitatis, lugar en donde el 20 de julio de 1969 alunizó la misión Apollo 11 y en el que el hombre –representado por los astronautas Edwin Aldrin y Neil Armstrong- pisó suelo lunar por primera vez. En Lake of Forgetfulness (título que refiere a un mar de la superficie lunar al que se conoce como Lacus Oblivionis), el dúo se aposenta en los códigos de libre improvisación para ofrecer un alegato sonoro signado por la originalidad de sus resoluciones armónicas y su equilibrada interpretación.

Sea of Vapors alude a un mar ubicado en la cara visible de la luna llamado Mare Vaporum y eso se traduce apropiadamente en un clima vaporoso e intimista donde sobresalen las aquilatadas líneas melódicas que imparte el saxo soprano de Nathan Hanson y la encomiable técnica desplegada por Brian Roessler en contrabajo que, en ciertos pasajes, parece continuar los métodos pergeñados por quien fuera su maestro: el legendario contrabajista francés François Rabbath.

Tras una deliciosa versión del clásico de Harry Nilsson The Moongbeam Song (en origen incluido en el álbum Nilsson Schmilsson de 1971), se suceden los constantes cambios de Marsh of Sleep(en clara analogía con la accidentada topografía de ese área lunar a la que también se conoce por su nombre en latín Palus Somni), la pieza para solo de contrabajo Lake of Solitude (en selenografía denominada como Lacus Solitudinis) con un notable juego de armónicos a cargo deBrian Roessler, los difusos contornos en blues que afloran en Bay of Trust, el mesurado uso de técnicas extendidas exhibido en Seething Bay y la descollante exposición de Nathan Hanson en el tema para solo de saxo soprano Sea of Crisis. Las breves abstracciones de Marsh of Decayofician como recordatorio del primer suelo no terrestre alcanzado por un objeto humano ya que en ese punto –científicamente llamado Palus Putredinis- fue en donde la sonda soviética Luna 2 impactó sobre la superficie lunar el 13 de septiembre de 1959. En Lake of Fear (en latín Lacus Timoris) vuelven a aflorar las técnicas ampliadas y la gran variedad de recursos desplegados por el dúo; y en Sea of Dreams –tema que da cierre al lado B del vinilo- ofrenda una delicada introspección de temperamento onírico.

Selenographia es una obra inteligente, depurada y disfrutable de principio a fin pero que además nos invita a recordar que la luna sigue siendo una fuente interminable de inspiración para la creatividad humana.

En el majestuoso conjunto de la creación nada hay que me conmueva tan hondamente, que acaricie mi espíritu y de vuelo desusado a mi fantasía como la luz apacible y desmayada de la luna (Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

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Review of Bellfounding
by Don Berryman — Jazz Police

Bellfounding is a CD of exceptionally beautiful improvised music by saxophonist Nathan Hanson and bassist Brian Roessler that is being offered in a limited release of only 50 numbered copies with hand printed packaging that makes each copy unique. The title refers to the casting of bells in a foundry from molten bronze and and their fine tuning, which is achieved on a lathe to remove a precise amount of material from the inside of the bell to produce a true tone with correct harmonics. Nathan compared the casting/foundry process to improvisation with heated molten material taking new shape, and ringing when it’s done right. Brian added that “Bellfounding was the idea of creating something that resonates. In our improvisation one goal is to make sounds that are resonant and lush. Also, we want to create music that people relate to, that is meaningful in some way. In other words, music that resonates with them.” The fact that I found myself returning to this recording again and again makes me believe that they have achieved that goal.

Bellfounding contains all original music by Roessler and Hanson except for a performance of Albert Ayler’s “Bells”. Roessler says that Ayler, in particular Spiritual Unity, was seminal for his thinking about improvising and music in general. When I first read the track listing I thought that the titles read like a poem, and I found out later that they are lines from a poem by Brian Roessler with the exception of Ayler’s “Bells” by Ayler and “Strickle, core, cope and drag” which are terms used in bellfounding.

I had imagined that this recording with only saxophone and bass would be stark and spare, and upon listening there are places where it is, but mostly the music is expansive and the two instruments lack nothing as they completely provide all the rhythm, melody and harmony in interesting ways. I wasn’t expecting the variety of sound – both the depth and breadth used to produce this music, which now I believe that a duo can reveal even more than solo because of the contrast provided by the two distinct voices. By and large, Hanson uses the conventional sound of the saxophones to produce captivating melody, but occasionally he employs the percussive sound of the keys, the movement of breath through the horn without the vibration of the reed, and multi-frequency harmonics. The bass is simply enormous in this recording and was a revelation to me with the masterful use of plucked, bowed, strummed and thumped methods of creating sound allowing great variety of expression. The quality of the recording helps reveal this beauty and made listening to it a sensual delight – the haunting wails of the saxophone, the friction of the bow against the strings and the resonating wood was a palpable sensation.

Bellfounding opens with “Closing The Door”, which begins spare with a simple melodic motif, but then tension builds and the interplay between the artists intensifies as the melody repeats and mutates and draws the listener in.

“Early Spring Is Still Cold” uses the underpinning of Brian’s percussive bass to provide a foundation as Nathan’s tenor expands a melody opening up into a raspier tone and adding eerie harmonics to the mix.

One of my favorites, “Let the Sea Pass Through”, begins with a slow bowed bass. The tone is somber, mournful, plaintive and reveals the depth of tone in both the bass and saxophone opening up to strange harmonics on bass like the songs of whales.

The opening sound of “Shadowing Grass” starts in a dramatic long and low plucked bass note that drops lower as it fades. This tune is primordial and brooding. Nathan’s breathy tenor sounds like wind, then he uses the saxophone’s keys for a percussive effect.

The duo’s performance of “Bells” by Albert Ayler is a slow deliberate dance between bass and sax. The saxophone becomes very strong and full as Brian opens up more space.

The short track, “Strickle, core, cope and drag”, is a brief interlude played with resonator bells, hand chimes, a Nepalese singing bowl, and a hint of piano. It serves to divide the work in half.

“Take Steps and Walk” opens with an aggressive urban gate while Brian establishes the rhythmic underpinning Nathan explores with film-noirish flourishes on the tenor.

“Sweep Away The Tracks” opens with percussive bass staccato strums punctuated with deep tones while Nathan plays expository runs. Then the bass begins an abstract uneven vamp while Nathan blows simple themes over the top. Brian slowly modifies the vamp bending and explores while never letting go of the rhythm.

“In the Middle of the Stream” is a slow mournful tune with extreme contrast between high note on the sax and the low bottom of the bass.

“Circle About Beneath Trees” features the saxophone with pan-like wandering, then the the bass gives chase. The saxophone runs are ever higher as the bass plumbs the depths to become a throbbing heartbeat as Nathan returns to a pan-like ancient theme – then the bass attacks with big woody strums and launches into a solo prominently featuring harmonics.

In “Rain’s Stopped But Drops Go On Dripping” Nathan on tenor joins Brian in a complex, but steady syncopated rhythmic structure that then breaks down into a slower and uneven rhythmic tenor deep and full repeats and fades.

All in all, Bellfounding is a well crafted and surprisingly accessible musical expression that expands boundaries. There will be electronic versions available, but the special limited release of only 50 hand-printed numbered copies, makes each one a treasure you’ll want to have.


Denise Giard - Culture Jazz (Oct 31, 2011)
Sous le chapiteau, jeudi 20 octobre à 18 heures, pendant le concert des Fantastics Merlins, l’ambiance est "bon enfant" : les galettes de blé noir croustillent, répandant un délicieux parfum, des bruits de bouchon les accompagnent. Entre le bar et les trois rangées de bancs réservés aux spectateurs assis, il y a de la vie : les copines qui causent, les enfants qui vont et viennent en papotant et tous ceux qui discutent le bout de gras et que les musiciens ne dérangent pas. 

Il faut vraiment que ces Merlins soient fantastiques pour réussir à captiver "les auditeurs voulant les auditer" malgré le fond sonore qui règne dans les lieux.

Leur musique, loin d’une musique d’ambiance, tour à tour puissante et toute en finesse, élaborée et sensible nécessite, me semble t-il, une attention pleine et entière du public. J’aime que les silences soient silencieux et que les solos remplissent à eux seuls l’espace. 

Craignant aussi le « zapping » (décidément bien délicate !), je rive mes yeux sur la scène, m’efforçant de ne pas me laisser distraire par les photos de l’édition précédente du festival projetées en boucle sur le côté des gradins, les oreilles en mode unidirectionnel, je plonge dans la musique des Fantastics Merlins et c’est un régal.

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Daniel Levin (violoncelle) et Brian Rossler (contrebasse) à Brest.
© CultureJazz.fr

Leur musique... ils sont à fond dedans, ils la vivent intensément et ça se voit sur leurs visages. 
A la contrebasse, Brian ROSSLER accorde magnifiquement ses cordes avec celles, non moins magnifiques de Daniel LEVIN au violoncelle. Leurs regards de ré-jouissance en disent long sur le plaisir musical partagé. 
Nathan HANSON au saxophone, nous balade à travers des paysages sonores en nous suspendant à son souffle énergique sans nous essouffler. On repart à chaque nouveau morceau avec l’envie de découverte. 
Le batteur Peter HENNING, totalement concentré, inspiré, crée le lien entre ses complices sans se projeter en avant et tout cela crée une musique "évidente".

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Nathan Hanson (Fantastic Merlins) à Brest.
© CultureJazz

La ballade Dance of Evergreens est une portion de bonheur parmi les autres. 
Je craque enfin pour le dernier morceau avant le rappel : Sung in vain, chanson de Léonard Cohen et seul titre du concert extrait de l’album How the ligts gets in qui, même sans la voix de Kid Dakota dont l’avion n’a pas encore atterri ( lire la carte postale...), me fait l’effet du "tube" qu’on ne peut pas s’enlever de la tête.

Même si les bruits de la salle ont parfois parasité le champ d’écoute, le public ne s’y est pas trompé, des applaudissements chaleureux ont répondu à ce cadeau musical qui venait de nous être fait et ça, c’est un bruit doux aux oreilles ! 
Ces Merlins sont vraiment enchanteurs !

Thierry Giard - Culture Jazz - cartes postales (Oct 21, 2011)
Très chers tous,
Sur les terres légendaires de la pointe bretonne, les Fantastic Merlins ont enchanté le public brestois de l’Atlantique Jazz Festival. On les attendait avec le folk-pop-singer Kid Dakota pour chanter Leonard Cohen mais les aléas de transports transatlantiques ont contraint cette formation étatsunienne à jouer son propre répertoire en l’absence du cinquième homme... Une occasion inespérée pour mettre en évidence les qualités d’un magnifique quartet trop méconnu qui cultive un jazz aux teintes diffuses en combinant savamment l’improvisation maîtrisée et des compositions à l’esthétique singulière. On y remarque la présence du violoncelliste Daniel Levin, un des champions de l’archet contemporain. Une formation qui mériterait de figurer au progamme des lieux de jazz un peu curieux. Qu’on se le dise !


Thierry Lepin - Jazzman (Jul, 2009)
FANTASTIC MERLINS A Handful of Earth *** Decouverte Les Fantastic Merlins ne viennent pas tout droit de la cour du roi Arthur mais de Minneapolis, et tirent leur nom d’un poeme de Garcia Lorca. Ce second album temoigne d’une personnalite plutot originale dans le jazz contemporain. “Look Around” (Innova, 2005) melait une eloquence melodique proche de Paul Motian (periode “Le Voyage”) et une energie offensive propice aux coups de griffes collectifs. Avec une certaine melancolie, un gout pour les climates nebuleux lentement courtises. On retrouve cet univers avec “A Handful of Earth” mais dans une direction plus affirmee. Les quatre membres se partagent le repertoire pour une dizaine de compositions qui sont autant d’invitations a le deambulation. Entre musique de chambre et jazz minimaliste, c’est autour du theme que se jouent les improvisations, deploiement d’un tenor au son noueux et langeur du violoncelle en parallele d’une rythmique a la fois solide et digressive. Sur des tempos lents, presque detendus, dont ils aiment aussi se derouter. A suivre.

Jean Rochard - Disques Nato
Dans le triple album de Mike Westbrook, The Cortege, suite ambitieuse sortie en 1982, s'appuyant sur les poésies de Federico Garcia Lorca, Arthur Rimbaud, Hermann Hesse, William Blake, John Clare, Giuseppe Gioachino Raimondo Belli, et Pentti Saarikoski, la voix de Phil Minton lançait une sorte d'appel à partir d'un poème de Lorca qui portait loin, comme une Saeta andalouse. La poésie reste le meilleur exutoire à la procuration et la mère porteuse la plus sûre de nos unités. 

C'est dans les lignes de "Poema de la Saeta" que les Fantastic Merlins ont trouvé leur nom, sans rapport apparent, dans un autre temps, une autre contrée. Ils auraient donc pu s'appeler The dark archers, The perfection of Dionysus, Orlando Furioso, Crinoline Virgin ou the Green night. On sentira plutôt que le nom semble s'être apposé à eux. C'est la force de la poésie de se rejoindre partout où elle se trouve. Ainsi va l'exigence de la vie. 

Les Fantastic Merlins se distinguent d'abord comme des sortes d'orfèvres de la cantilène musicale moderne. Leur second album se nomme A Handful of earth du titre éponyme et numéroté 7. "A Handful of earth" (la chanson) bat du coeur impétueux de tous les attributs qui composent A Handful of earth (l'album). Il s'agit d'hydrater le tonnerre, permettre la semence, propager "plus que l'eau" par un jeu de vastes courbes en dénichant, "face à la fenêtre", pour mieux les chasser, toutes exclusives. 

Sens du chant, swing, groove, soin des arrangements, douceurs, énigmes, articulation par le "texte" musical de quatre imaginaires lumineux, la musique des Fantastic Merlins dévoile la pétulante transcendance de nos multiples impuissances, l'art des possibles en un temps court jamais millimétré et riche de toutes les équations, une illumination amoureuse, pétrie d'énergie et de confidences, qui porte loin.


David Steinberg - Albuquerque Journal (Apr 2, 2009)
The music that the Fantastic Merlins play is somewhere in that muddy territory between avant-garde jazz and new music. Nathan Hanson, the Merlins' tenor saxophonist, said the band has found that audiences with a limited jazz background are more receptive to its music. "That generally works in our favor," Hanson said in a phone interview from his home in St. Paul, Minn. "We found that most jazz clubs don't work very well for us because people come with a pretty specific set of expectations about what we do. 

"For people wanting to hear mid-tempo swing from the Great American Songbook, we are a big disappointment. ... But for people who want to hear improvisation and exploration, we tend to find they're receptive to us." Similarly, Hanson said, those who enjoy new music, including pieces played by adventurous string quartet, should like the Fantastic Merlins. The band is a quartet of its own making. Besides saxophone, it has a bassist, a drummer and a cellist. The band's cellist is Jacqueline Ultan, twin sister of Alicia Ultan, one half of the Albuquerque duo Charmed. The Fantastic Merlins — with Charmed as the opener — will be in concert Sunday, April 5, at the Outpost Performance Space. The band will make the most of its road trip to Albuquerque. On the way here, the band will give concerts in Burlington, Iowa, St. Louis, Mo., Lawrence, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. On the return trip, it will play in Wichita, Kan. 

Hanson said the band tries to play compositions that have some melodic and harmonic content that identifies the pieces. But still a piece may sound one way one night and change on another evening. "We do our best when the audience is prepared to be surprised and prepared to really listen deeply," Hanson said. He said the band's name comes from a phrase that Jacqueline Ultan found when she was translating the poem "Procession" by Federico Garcia Lorca. "The poem," Hanson said, "talks about a field from which these unicorns have come. We liked the whole feel of that and mostly we liked the way those two words sounded together." 

Chris Kosky - Bass World (Mar, 2008)
Have you been looking around for something a little different to load into your iPod or keep you company as you drive? Well, stop looking around and get Look Around by the Fantastic Merlins. With the many eyes covering the CD package, this product may see you before you see it! With a quartet lineup of sax, cello, bass, and drums, there is, as one might expect, an emphasis on linear sounds and construction. Often working independently of one another, each player contributes an important voice to the group sound; solo and accompaniment roles are blurred or combined. Stylistically, the Merlins’ music is perhaps closest to jazz, as the music features much improvisation, as well as grooves (overt or implied) that are definitely swinging (for example, I Was Behind the Couch All The Time and Lenny). However, there are also classical overtones, as on Nathan Hanson’s A Very Small Animal. Here the first half of the track has bowed bass and cello, along with the saxophone, playing long sustained tones and haunting melodies, and could be heard as a modern classical piece in a “drop the needle” test. Additionally, on this track, as on many of the others, the tenor sax and the cello are “timbre twins” – what a wonderful instrumental pairing!

Without seeing the music, it is sometimes difficult to tell which parts of the pieces are written, and which are improvised, but it sounds as if much is improvised – often free. To create music such as this and to present four equal voices coming together to form a unified whole, there must be a very high level of musicianship, and that is certainly in evidence here. The drums are sometimes used traditionally (time/groove), but more often as another color; this is wonderful, particularly in the hands of Federico Ughi, who (incidentally) contributes two compositions, including the title track. Hanson and cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan are also quite accomplished; of course it’s fantastic to hear a cellist playing “outside the Bachs,” and Ferrier-Ultan really tears it up.

Bassist Brian Roessler more than holds his own as one-fourth of a free-improvising group. He is strong technically (time, pitch, chops), but also delightfully creative, and bestows a big, warm sound on the listener. Mature playing throughout, interesting compositions (with contributions from all bandmembers), more moods than tunes, freely improvised counterpoint, and musical conversations worth listening to more than one or twice – with multiple listenings, one’s reward will be a deeper (and deserved) understanding and appreciation. Give Look Around a listen.
Aaron Shaul - Ink 19
Very much akin to their Midwest brethren that populate Chicago's Thrill Jockey label, Fantastic Merlins are well-versed in jazz-influenced trips into the avant-garde. Think more Isotope 217's fractured fusion or Town and Country's deft manipulation of drones instead of Tortoise's overarching post-rock fascination. The disc's liner notes draw a parallel between jazz and cinema as being both "art-forms masquerading as entertainment" and it's an interesting assertion since Look Around plays like a long forgotten soundtrack from a very bizarre genre film. Compositions like the title track and "A Very Small Animal" are pure odes to noir, with luminous brass melodies shining off cello-slicked drones. It's the sound of a humid August night in the city with the latter track becoming imbued with some piquant Middle Eastern melodies as it closes out.

In contrast to these languid numbers, the abstract funk of "I Was Behind the Couch All the Time" and the mind-bending psychedelic science fiction climax "It Would Seem" get the blood flowing fairly quickly. The Merlins are adept at steering their sound between quirky and sophisticated, pensive and manic when changing their sonic moods. It might be impressionistic and wholly light on structure, but it's still much more accessible than most other acts carrying the "free jazz" label.
Jedd Beudoin - ROKICT (Apr 6, 2009)
A Handful of Earth-Fantastic Merlins, Independent, 2009 Hailing from the great state of Minnesota, this chamber jazz outfit has delivered, in A Handful of Earth a dense and deserving slab of intellectually stimulating and emotionally stirring pieces. Reminiscent of 20th Century composer Morton Feldman’s penchant for the genuinely sedate rather than the furiously superficial, pieces such as the title cut and “Purple Orange,” penned by cellist Jacqueline Ultan, exhibit an exhilarating beauty that belies the quartet’s market designation of “adventurous jazz.” Elsewhere, the material turns to the hauntingly beautiful (tenor saxophonist Nathan Hanson’s “Face in the Window,” bassist Brian Roessler’s “Short Time”) and at least one amalgamation of all possibilities inherent within the outfit (drummer Pete Henning’s “Inversion is the Condition”).

A Handful of Earth is a soundtrack to the contemporary American soul, one that daily witnesses abandoned tenements, crack houses, poverty and superfund sites, yet finds time to appreciate the beauty and promise still left in our weary hearts and troubled minds. But A Handful of Earth is also much more––it’s an affirmative statement about American music and the present day composer who, as Edgar Varese once said, refuses to die.
Steven Loewy - Cadence (Jan, 2008)
Make no mistake about it: The Fantastic Merlins' Look Around is a fantastic album that stands aside from the pack in almost every way. It is infused with a gorgeous milieu tempered by chamber sounds although it is not chamber music, and it is often thrilling, and worthy of making at least some "top ten" lists for 07 releases.

Produced by tenor saxophonist Nathan Hanson, the Fantastic Merlins is an unusual group. In addition to Hanson on tenor sax, it is comprised of Jacqueline Ultan on cello, Brian Roessler on bass, and Federico Ughi on drums, with Hanson and Ultan doubling on electronics. ...the group seems much larger than it is, and it offers a plethora of pleasures. Hanson is an extraordinary performer on sax, with a beautiful tone and concept. He has a full, rich sound that is highlighted on "It Would Seem". But it is the interrelationship of the sax, cello, acoustic bass, and drums that produces such a special sound. This is clearly a group effort, with collective improvisation the norm.

The results are not chaotic but appear carefully orchestrated with extraordinary blowing. Federico Ughi is characteristically splendid, his drums serving as much more than a rhythmic undercurrent, as he participates as a full member of the quartet. Swirling interconnectedness, lush carpet-like sonorities, and heavy emphasis on the strings combine to create continual moments of incendiary momentum. Tim Duroche's detailed liner notes add to the understanding of the music. (example: "the elegiac sea-to shining-sea momentum and narrative quality is worthy of classic Morricone.")
Massimo Ricci - Touching Extremes (Oct, 2007)
This is a group that seems to be growing with each new step. My second encounter with the quartet, “Look around” doesn’t want to assail the senses with futile rage or drooling melancholy, neither is strictly classifiable in a category. It obviously shows jazz roots, but possesses the qualities of an enviable stylistic maturity explicated through the soundtrack-like features of several of the tracks. Curiously enough, cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan, probably the most prominent voice of the ensemble, is also the only member who didn’t author a piece (except being credited in the final improvisation). Yet her heartfelt lines are the ones blurring the border between harmonic consciousness and desire to evade the canonic aspects of composition. Drummer Federico Ughi and bassist Brian Roessler don’t strive to capture a place in the sun, focusing instead on their capacities of generating the right tonalities for the music to evolve, while Nathan Hanson’s tenor sax is the “complementary alternative” to Ferrier-Ultan in the band’s choice of thematic delivery. Atmospheres are quite differentiated from a section to another, with predilection for a gradually opening staticity revealing a multitude of facets that the ears welcome as a reminiscence of situations that we used to enjoy, and that now are no more. There’s even a riff-based, pseudo funk song (“Lenny”) that demonstrates Fantastic Merlins’ versatility and will to change the cards on the table throughout the game. Forget all the names and comparisons (hey, did anyone realize that Bill Frisell hasn’t been playing something meaningful for a decade?) which render no justice to this ensemble’s determination in finding a unique language. They’re doing pretty good in that respect.
Marc Medwin - Signal to Noise (Sep, 2007)
A whisper of brushed snares, two metallic taps, a snatch of the faintest human voice, and then strings open onto a vast plain of reverberant sound and slowly evolving drone. The opening moments of Look Around evoke multiple landscapes, layers of sonic possibility that are then realized throughout this superb and surprisingly adventurous disc. How many groups claim use of electronics only to disappoint? Here, they shape perspective, providing subtlety and adding delicate shades, never trumpeting their existence as anything but symbiotic. Even when obvious, as in the transition between Line and Bright and Wide, or at the opening of It Would Seem, the loops only enhance, or reassert, saxophonist Nathan Hanson’s seductively pithy motives. Usually though, the group aesthetic, free jazz with a rock edge, is rendered refreshingly cinematic with electronic aid. It Would Seem finds cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan and bassist Brian Roessler in frenzied dialogue, increasing reverb giving the impression that Ferrier-Ultan is gradually leaving the jazz-inflected environment for some distant place. Only when Hanson swoops in does the jump-cut transformation reveal itself in full, Federico Ughi’s drumming sealing the rhetorical deal with hard-edged funk precision. Likewise, A Very Small Animals mysterious opening sounds anything but diminutive as vast reverberant chasms are sculpted and traversed in gorgeous counterpoint, the texture slowly building to Ughi’s increasingly dense but translucent interjections. Ughi really shows astonishing versatility here, able to match any group gesture with well-placed support or a gentle nudge in another direction. The others are no less inventive, transcending post-modern superficiality to create a convincing stylistic blend. Innova is the perfect label for the Merlins, who bring just a touch of Musique Concret to the core of this fine production, yet another layer of reference adding equal interest. It will be fascinating to see down which avenue of discovery the quartet chooses to lope, jump or run.
Jim Meyer - Minnesota Monthly (Sep, 2007)
Not only are today's local jazz groups often ignored by our young music bloggers, but the artists' who stray outside bebop's boundaries are generally neglected by the older fans as well. Creative musician's can't win, but listeners can't lose with this enjoyably innovative quartet. In Fantastic Merlins, cellist Jacqueline Ultan (Jelloslave) and bassist Brian Roessler lay down an abundance of low-end that's cinematic and spooky. Over that, saxophonist Nathan Hanson and percussionist Federico Ughi gently weave and moan. But throughout this smoldering 10-song program, the melodic instruments veer in and out of each other's tonal range for a bewildering exploration that's often solemn, and organically psychedelic.
Bruce Lee Gallanter - Downtown Music Gallery
Featuring Nathan Hanson on tenor sax & electronics, Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan on cello & electronics, Brian Roessler on bass and Federico Ughi on drums. Over the past couple of years the Minnesota-based Innova label has sent me thirty-plus promos. That is pretty prolific for a small label that specializes in more experimental, modern classical and electronic music. I try to listen to each disc they send, but I am a bit overwhelmed at times. In the past few months, they seem to have hit their stride with a half dozen great discs from Henry Brant, Virgil Moorefield, Mary Ellen Childs and the truly Fantastic Merlins. Although the Fantastic Merlins are mostly based in Minnesota, they do include former downtown saxist, Nathan Hanson, and current downtown drum wiz & label-head Federico Ughi. Although I am not familiar with the other two members of this quartet, each time I've played this disc, I've been blown away, as have the half dozen customers who have grabbed copies in the store. What is so fantastic about them?!? This is not just another swell improv disc, you can tell that a good deal of preparation and writing has gone into this gem. Commencing with the title track, Jacqueline's majestic cello sounds grand and rich with some superb cymbal-work from Federico, haunting tenor from Nathan and eerie bowed bass as well. "I Was Behind the Couch All the Time" sounds like early Curlew, who had similar instrumentation with cello and tenor sax in the frontline. The cello and sax both solo around one another as the rhythm team play some inspired jazz/rock grooves underneath. Nathan's tenor and Jacqueline's cello sound superb together as they play rich, warm, wooden harmonies on many of these pieces. I dig the way they start spaciously on "It Would Seem", before they erupt into a great rockin' groove, starting and stopping and then dropping back into bowed string space again. Both strings often sound marvelous and magical when they are bowing together and creating incredible harmonies with the sax. They is certainly the best Curlew disc we've heard in a long while, although this band is not actually called...
Steve McPherson - Reveille
Fantastic Merlins don't consider themselves a jazz group, exactly, but it's hard not to hear them as such, mostly due to the cumulative effect of tenor saxophone, upright bass and drums. That Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan's cello often blends almost seamlessly with the sonority of Nathan Hanson's sax doesn't help, nor does the fact that they're brilliant, loose-limbed improvisers who respond to each other's musical suggestions with all the grace and fluidity of seasoned dancers. But that's where it starts to get interesting, because it's not just Ferrier-Ultan and Hanson who are spontaneously generating musical ideas- the entire band ebbs and flows together. For instance, bowed upright bass makes occasional cameo appearances in traditional jazz, but it often makes for an ill fit. Here, however, when Brian Roessler begins to draw sustained notes from his instrument, Ferrier-Ultan is there to respond in kind, and so the sound of opener "Look Around" is not "jazz with strings," but something more formless and almost Middle Eastern. The cello serves as a bridge between the sax and the bass, with the tone of the sax, but the attack of the bowed bass. The instruments drop in and out of focus, creating a lush and drowsy haze full of languorous and unresolved melodic fragments. As the album progresses, patterns emerge. The sharp right angles and abstractions of "Dance Partner" are followed by the meditative strains of "Runoff Water," which is in turn followed by the swagger of "Lenny," The standout track from their debut live EP, "Lenny" is still their most accessible tune, a groove that could soundtrack a lazy, late-night shot of a slow-rolling Cadillac winding its way through a black and white city. And thusly the album proceeds: for every barbed and boisterous stab, there's a slowly building and gospel-tinged lament. So no, you can't throw it on at a cocktail party and look classy, and you could try to nod along and snap your fingers, but you're more likely going to just sit and soak it in. The compositions sprawl out organically from simple starting points, as on standout "It Would Seem," which was recorded live at the Clown Lounge in Saint Paul. Hanson repeats a simple motif, then stretches and comments on it, the rest of the group percolating in the background. Hanson disappears, then resurfaces just as the fabric of the track is about to rip, drummer Federico Ughi dropping in powerfully and driving the melody back to the front with straight-ahead urgency. It's the album's most chameleonic and furthest-ranging track, and also its most compelling. Even if they're not "jazz" in the traditional sense, Fantastic Merlins make music imbued with one of jazz's greatest strengths: a complex but naturally woven and interdependent improvisational spirit.
Mike Wood - Foxy Digitalis
A band with vision that is literally part NYC, part Minneapolis, and spiritually part free jazz and part string quartet, the Merlins make magic with a power and precision that is at times awesome, at other times inspirational. Their blend of cello, bass, drums and sax is wide enough to give each member a chance to inhale the melody and take it to varying heights, but to always return to the heated center. Majestic and exhilarating, "I Was Behind The Couch All The Time" and "A Very Small Animal" are the key tracks, with "Runoff Water" also a standout gem. But this whole set is infused with the raw goals beyond of Ayler and Garzone, a "Bright and Wide" reaching for the sublime, as another of their songs imply. Confident and not afraid to risk failure, Fantastic Merlins rise above even their own high expectations on this mighty release.
Glen Hall - Exclaim! Canada’s Music Authority
This 31-minute EP (“Live”) is a promising first release from this Minneapolis/NYC unit. The tenor/cello/bass/drums configuration gives the five pieces on the disc a rich palette from which to paint a diverse sonic canvas. The funky bite of saxophonist Nathan Hanson’s “Lenny” opens the set. Insistent drums from Rome-born Federico Ughi propel the strong tenor line, while the pitch-bending cello melody by Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan takes an exotic path leading to a striking solo culmination. The next three compositions, two by Ughi and one by bassist Brian Roessler, produce a triple view of thematic chamber improvisation, freely stated unison or harmonised melodies slowly unfolding with tinges of Jan Garbarek and Albert Ayler filling out the moody similar themes. Hanson’s “I Was Behind the Couch All the Time” brings the disc to a muscular close. The resonant blend of tenor sax, cello and arco bass imbue the group’s sound with a meaty, full-bodied presence that rewards repeated listening.
Massimo Ricci - Touching Extremes
Debut EP for a quartet playing an exquisite assortment of contemporary styles and whose lineup comprises Nathan Hanson (tenor sax), Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan (cello), Brian Roessler (bass) and Federico Ughi (drums). Although some incontrovertible influences are caught here and there - Curlew circa Tom Cora, to name one - these people know what they're doing; desolate themes, vigorous lines and engaging improvisations are intertwined with delicate concentration and a masterful pacing of every section, the tension/release ratio remaining at a constantly balanced grade. On top of everything, the musicians look for a collective coherence rather than straining themselves to put their excellent technical value in front of the listener, which is a major plus in this 30-minute CD anticipating a full-length album that I'll be very curious to listen to.
Steve McPherson - Pulse (Aug 17, 2005)
“It’s interesting to me that you’re calling it jazz because I have some sort of freaky time with that word just because it’s this feeling of being pigeonholed,” says Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan. “Because to me I don’t hear it as jazz: I hear it as chamber music, I hear it as choral or gospel music. It’s this really organic thing within itself that has its own life.” And I grudgingly have to admit she’s right, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Fantastic Merlins make improvised music with the spirit that’s the impetus behind the best jazz. They might not have chord progressions, they may not “blow” the way that Charlie Parker did, but they capture the intensity, freedom and flat-out beauty of some of John Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler.

“There are people who are real jazz players,” adds Brian Roessler, “and I’m not one of them. Those guys are amazing and I wish I could do that.” Roessler plays bass for the group alongside drummer Federico Ughi and saxophonist Nathan Hanson. The unique piece is Ferrier-Ultan’s cello, which can blend in either with Hanson’s saxophone, or dip down into Roessler’s territory. “It’s totally crucial,” Roessler says of the cello. “It creates this thing where I do a lot of things that are less like a bass player and more like a string player. And so, there’s a whole other thing happening there and without the cello it just wouldn’t be possible. Like sometimes the way that you can’t distinguish the tones of the cello and the tenor saxophone. I mean, without Jacqueline it wouldn’t be possible.”

Indeed, the cello is what makes the group unique, and their debut live EP—recorded at the Clown Lounge in St. Paul and the Acadia Café in Minnepolis—demonstrates how the cello’s tonality helps blur the line between jazz and something else in the group’s sound. “It’s doing something different with free improvisation than is typically done,” explains Roessler. “It can be really hard to do free improvisation that has a really really positive, non-aggressive feeling to it, and I think that’s one thing that we strive for. Not that we don’t ever do that, but I think that’s a priority: we want it to be beautiful, we want it to be accessible.”

The group’s approach is to take a composition like Hanson’s “Lenny” and build out from its melodic and harmonic core. If you’re down with such terminology, it’s modal improvisation reminiscent of tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders’ The Creator has a Master Plan. “There’s never anything like ‘Cello Solo’ or ‘Saxophone Solo,’” says Roessler, and Ferrier-Ultan interjects, “No ‘we’re gonna do this here, we’re gonna do that there.’ It’s just: ‘You start the song.’ It’s very organic. It’s just listening to each other and having a conversation.” Conversation is really what it sounds like, when you listen with an ear for it. The aforementioned “Lenny” begins with a repeating riff from Hanson, and as the group falls in, the cello forms a counterpoint “om” before falling into off-beat echoes. The drums nudge it forward, the bass sometimes doubling the melody, sometimes expanding the harmony. On “Line” the group begins more amorphously, finding each other in the harmonic space before pulling together into an ascending chorus. The songs don’t crest and fall in the manner of traditional improvised music that’s built towards crescendoing virtuosity, but instead ride swells up and down, finding commonality and expanding the core of each tune. Via e-mail, Hanson adds, “The music this group makes goes in a variety of directions. We each bring different disciplines and experiences in a pretty big variety of genres. I’m most engaged by music that communicates something about the quality of being alive. So that’s what I’m setting out to do. I hope our music can be enjoyed by anyone who listens. Whether they are jazz fans, or rock fans, or whatever.”

So where a group like Happy Apple might sound like free jazz, but are actually playing carefully structured music that’s very much in time, the Fantastic Merlins play more open-ended music that sounds more structured. As it turns out, that kind of freedom is practically a necessity since Hanson and Ughi both call New York City home and the band rarely gets to rehearse. After Ughi joined the group last March, in the space of a week they played the two shows the live EP is culled from and recorded their upcoming CD Look Around at the Terrarium with Jason Orris. Alex Oana has just finished mixing it in Los Angeles. “The beauty of it is that we come together so easily, musically and personally,” says Ferrier-Ultan. “Initially we wanted to play together every week, you know rehearse every week, but when we get together it’s so easy.”

“And it’s for intensive periods,” elaborates Roessler. “It’s hard to plan stuff with people spread out so far, you know; it’s a lot of e-mailing and phone-calling.” Nonetheless, they’ve put together a short tour which will take them around the Midwest and Northeast and they hope to eventually make it across the big pond. “Federico has his own group that he brings to Europe pretty much every year so we’re kind of hoping we can make that happen.,” explains Roessler. The group also has some designs on festivals here in the states where other adventurous yet accessible improvisatory groups have done a brisk trade.

Roessler continues, “I think there are a lot of festivals in the states that’d be great for us to play, you know the jam band sort of festivals would be potentially really interesting places to play. The thing about those people who are into the jamband scene is that, unlike almost any other crowd, this is one of the most rabid music-fan crowds. They are so into the music, they’re so wide open. They’ll listen to things ranging from some bluegrass band to Medeski, Martin & Wood. There’s no group of music fans that have that wide a taste, so I think it’s a really amazing thing.”

So they eschew the standards repetoire of trad jazz, but have they ever considered something like the Bad Plus’ approach to covering pop favorites? “I love what the Bad Plus does; I think they’re incredible,” says Ferrier-Ultan. “They’re one of my favorite bands that I’ve heard in a long time. And I think what they do is so smart and grabs you in a great way. So I guess I’m all for it if it works, if it’s sincere, if it’s coming from a place where you’re really expressing something. If it’s trying too hard to be something, if it can be perceived as trying too hard or pretentious, I guess I don’t.” Reinforcing this utilitarian/experimental viewpoint that seems to underlie the band’s aesthetic, Roessler jumps in, saying, “If we would do anything like that, well, I have no idea. Come see us next week.”
Andrea Myers - howwastheshow.com
All too often, music that even remotely resembles the genre of “jazz” is lumped together, branded with an all-purpose label, and written off in one fell swoop. It’s refreshing when a band like the Fantastic Merlins comes along and is able to truly push the limits of jazz improvisation, pulling in a variety of genre-bending elements while maintaining enough familiarity and melodic substance to captivate the listener.

It’s no surprise, really, that the Fantastic Merlins are groundbreaking; after all, cellist Jacqueline Ferrier-Ultan and upright bass player Brian Roessler are members of the Twin Cities’ “pushing the envelope of sound” family which includes their other experimental, non-jazz local bands Jello Slave and Electropolis. They are joined by acclaimed improvisational musicians Nathan Hanson on saxophone and Federico Ughi on drums, who are both from New York. The group plays mostly original compositions that float between classical and jazz, familiar and out-there, melodic and dissonant. They are a band for bored ears.

At the beginning of their first set, the Fantastic Merlins kept things fairly slow with a few covers of what sounded like old jazz standards. With Hanson and Ferrier-Ultan sharing melodic duties, it was like an experiment to see what happens when the trumpet or second saxophone of a jazz combo is swapped out for a cello; which resulted in some breathtaking improvised moments. As the quartet wound into more of their original material, Ferrier-Ultan began playing off of Roessler’s bass movements, and Roessler responded by trading in the more traditional walking bassline for bowed, swooping moans. At times, Roessler and Ferrier-Ultan blended together so seamlessly that it was hard to tell who was playing which notes, allowing the group to forge ahead into uncharted symphonic territory.

Highlights from the first portion of the show included the slow moving, beautiful “Inana,” composed by Ferrier-Ultan, and the cleverly-titled “I Was Behind the Couch All the Time,” a composition by Hanson in which the melody peeked out from time to time from behind the swell of the saxophone and cello wanderings and mini-solos. Prior to playing another of his tunes, Hanson announced that an untitled piece was to be dedicated to “a good friend lost last night,” and the group played a pensive, rolling tune that resembled a jazz combo variation on “O, Holy Night” at times.

During the second set, the modest crowd thinned out to a group of less than 30 people and the band began taking even more liberties with their sound. Every song sounded like it could be a different band, and there were traces of everything from Coltrane to Celtic melodies to tribal drumming. As they neared their fourth hour of playing, I was amazed by the amount of intensity and pure energy being pummeled into every piece, and by the time the night was over I was surprised that it passed so quickly. I got the impression that each Fantastic Merlins show might produce a different result, and I intend to see them every chance I can get.

The Fantastic Merlins are wrapping up a brief tour of the Midwest on Saturday, April 22 at the Acadia, which will be the last chance to see them for a while as two of the members will be returning to New York.
Milwaukee Shepherd-Express
“Bringing together an unconventional mix of instruments and a shared penchant for experimentation, New York and Minneapolis based combo the Fantastic Merlins make music that's unpredictable and steeped in emotion. Alternately upbeat and meditative, the cello, bass, sax and drum interplay make for a sound that's part avant-garde jazz, part chamber music, part boundary-breaking sonic journey.”