This past June, Berlin-based pianist Julia Hülsmann brought her trio to Ironworks as part of the always-excellent Jazz Festival line up. She’s released several discs on the venerable Munich-based ECM label. Several of these recordings have recently become favourites of mine and sit well in the current purple patch the label is enjoying. Her 2011 Imprint CD was the first I’d come across. I was immediately struck by the cover’s similarity to an image of mine from the same year. While merely a coincidence, it did compel me to seek out a copy because up until that point I’d thought I’d had enough ECM piano trio recordings to last a lifetime!
ECM has been the home of most of my favourite piano trios: Stefano Bollani, Marylin Crispell, Marcin Wasilewski, Paul Bley, John Taylor, Bobo Stenson and on an on. It was a format I found I couldn’t get enough of seeing as it came to represent a kind of equivalent to the classical string quartet for me; the proving format for displaying the character and strength of a piece, where each voice is essential to the whole and very exposed. In a live setting, both configurations are very exciting when the music and performers both alight!
I like the more joyous and romantic players as well as those whose approach is more elliptical and darkly shaded. Julia Hülsmann falls somewhere in between. She’s as likely to suspend a melody and take a more lean and percussive approach as present exquisite covers of popular tunes by the likes of Seal and Feist. Two recent recordings add trumpet/flugelhorn player Tom Arthurs to the mix (In Full View) and the latest, A Clear Midnight, adds Theo Bleckmann to the new quartet to perform Kurt Weill’s songs of America.
At Ironworks she kept her set focused largely on the two trio recordings, Imprint and End of a Summer. With Robert Landfermann subbing for regular bassist/husband Marc Muellbauer (who remained back in Berlin on family duty), the spotlight fell primarily to Julia and percussionist Heinrich Köbberling for some wonderfully restrained soloing. I say percussionist rather than drummer because his touch with the (very spare) kit was frequently a deft, hands-on affair. Brilliant! The atmosphere was perfect overall and the audience connection was palpable. And while Europe may regularly see these players in larger halls, Ironworks continues to prove its mettle as a versatile and ideally intimate venue.
Additionally, she took time to tell the curious story of Jutta Hipp, a German jazz pianist who managed to escape the circumstances of a chaotic post-war existence to release several recordings on Blue Note in the 50s. She suddenly stopped performing at the height of her powers and finished her working life at a clothing manufacturing company. Her story is worth looking up and there are some academics and historians well on the case.
Hülsmann is a welcome addition to the ECM firmament and, for me, is going to be a perennial favourite in an already substantial and distinguished field.