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Austrian pianist Elisabeth Harnik celebrated in August 2020 her 50th birthday and planned for that special event a tour with three of her longtime comrades from Chicago – sax hero Dave Rempis, cellist Fred Lonberg-holm and drummer-percussionist Tim Daisy, with whom she’d connected at the Umbrella Music Festival back in 2008, on her first visit to Chicago. The new quartet, Earscratcher, was primed to celebrate Harnik’s milestone with a May 2020 European tour. For obvious reasons, the tour was postponed until October 2020, then until May 2021, and finally was realized in May 2022. The quartet recorded its self-titled, live album on the first concert of that tour, at Alte Gerberei, St. Johan in Tirol, Austria.

From this recording, you can bet that the fourth time is a charm. The four experienced and strong-minded improvisers are in top form, each one suggests his idiosyncratic language, and together they form a powerful unit. Harnik can draw unimaginable sounds from her grand piano. Lonberg-Holm is a sonic alchemist who consistently transforms his cello into a sound generator. Daisy can pivot logically from momentum and drive to texture and touch, giving the band a similarly panoramic vista from which to explore. Rempis focus on this performance on his alto sax, thinking of Jimmy Lyons playing in the small bands led by Cecil Taylor in the ‘60s and ’70s, whose fleet and angular lines are undoubtedly a touchstone for Rempis.

Earscratcher offers three extended, free improvised pieces «Ohrenkratzer» (earscratcher in German) demonstrates the immediate and organic dynamics of this quartet, alternating between a series of swirling spirals of sound that in their turn twist up ribbons of tension into an ecstatic cyclone, but morph instantly into a centered calm or chaotic interplay that encourages individual and inventive, sound-oriented solos, all in a commanding flow, without losing its focus and infectious power. The second piece «Mimikaki» (earscratcher in Japanese) is introduced by the ritualist percussive sounds of Daisy. Rempis, Harnik and Lonberg-Holm intensify its mysterious and exotic vibe that sometimes sounds like an uplifting free jazz transformation of gamelan-like dynamics, and ends in a surprising lyrical, meditative tone. The third and last and piece «Penggaruk Telinga» (earscratcher in Indonesian) makes sure that the listener’s ears are perfectly scratched and ready for another generous, life-affirming free jazz dose by this burning quartet with a playful and provocative, open improvisation that highlights the unpredictable, sonic imagination of this four musicians, individually and as a collective.

Keep your ears open (and clean) for this treat.

Eyal Hareuveni

Dave Rempis (as), Elisabeth Harnik (p), Fred Lonberg-Holm (c), Tim Daisy (dr, perc)

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