Stefan Aeby Trio’s Fairy Circus

cover art for Fairy CircusFrom the first bar of Fairy Circus‘s opening track “Marea Alta” you know this is the Stefan Aeby Trio, if you’ve ever listened to them before. The unique piano voicing and technique, the production and placement of bass and drums and the colors and blends of sounds created by each and all three together are diagnostic, as are Aeby’s assured left hand and the sudden dropping out of that left hand at small climactic moments. The interplay of bassist André Pousaz and drummer Michael “Michi” Stulz with Aeby’s melody on this tune is one of the more mainstream jazz sounds I’ve heard from them.

Fairy Circus is the fifth album of this longtime trio, starting with 2010’s Are You…?. Their sophomore release Utopia was one of my favorite albums of 2014, and as I said in my review of 2016’s To the Light:

The Trio’s Utopia was one of my favorite recordings of a couple of years ago, and stamped Aeby’s style firmly in my consciousness. “Graceful sonic art” is the way Florian Keller describes that style in this album’s liner notes, and it’s an apt choice of words. The music is atmospheric and yet focused, often weighty in theme but light in execution.

They put out a live album The London Concert in 2018 and since then, like just about everybody else, they took a long break during the pandemic before workshopping some new tunes at a weeklong residence at Vevey, Switzerland’s ‘Live in Vevey’ festival in spring 2021. After playing a few more concerts, they recorded the album live in a piano tuning workshop in Liestal, Switzerland in August.

The album has 14 tracks, seven of which are full-length tunes and six of which are numbered “miniatures.” The brief miniatures, most lasting a minute or less, seem to get progressively more abstract as the album goes along. All seem to be more or less on the fly improvisations, and all are credited to the full trio.

The “graceful sonic art” of the trio seems to have become at times a bit less graceful, as is appropriate for these times, particularly in the miniatures but also in some of the longer tunes themselves, all of which are credited to Aeby with one exception. The third track, for instance, is called ” The Wolves Are Waiting” and it can’t help but remind me of the unsettled feeling I live with constantly due to the war currently going on in this German and Swiss trio’s back yard, as it were. Stultz plays a continual frenetic drum part mostly on toms while Pousaz bows long lines on the bass and Aeby plays a hesitant melodic line over melancholy chording. The bottom drops out of the tune about midway through its six minute run and Aeby plays a dreamlike rubato for a while until drowned out by a pounding climax on the drums.

“Metamorphose” does just that: Its quiet minimalism metamorphoses into chamber jazz then freestyle improv that resolves into something like equilibrium. Elsewhere minimalism reins, especially in “L’Alchemiste” which Aeby plays on prepared piano – it’s really a longer version of the miniatures. “And Now…” is a nearly rhythmless, languid exploration of texture and color in which Pousaz seamlessly moves between bowing and plucking the bass from one moment to the next. The title track “Fairy Circus” especially feels like it was built from a deeply rehearsed improvization; Pousaz bows deep notes on his bass like distant whale song under Aeby’s blue piano melody. The last of the full-length tunes “Annam” is the album’s most jazz-like, with a recognizable almost-blues structure and sound, the drums and bass improvizing thoughtfully around this lovely little almost sunny tune like a more traditional piano trio. I just love its nice little piano-bass duet section where Aeby and Pousaz toss fragments of the tune back and forth.

For something a little bit different there is “Ah Lalo Bacha Lalo,” which Aeby arranged from a traditional Pashto lullaby from Afghanistan. It’s a fairly short excursion into a pentatonic melody that might have originally been played on the oud. This one never quite resolves the frisson of tension between the lightness of the melody and the tight control of Aeby’s playing. I’d love to hear them stretch out on this one in concert. And concerts seem to be happening again. You can find a schedule of spring European dates on Aeby’s website.

Fairy Circus is available to purchase and stream in most of the usual places including Bandcamp.

(Music Today, 2022)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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