Time Is a Blind Guide, fronted by Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen, has made striking advancements in acoustic chamber jazz. Comprised of a traditional jazz piano trio augmented by violin and cello, the quintet blurs the genre lines between classical and jazz by exploring the limits of structure and freedom. Lucus, their second release on ECM, is a reference to the "light" Strønen wanted to let into the group, more precisely a sense of liberation and flexibility between written composition and free improvisation. The album is a polished exploration of textures and space that reflects the unity and cohesion of their ensemble dynamics. Featuring an excellent new pianist in Ayumi Tanaka, Lucus demonstrates how Time Is a Blind Guide have evolved as a strong modern ensemble.
The most substantial moments on Lucus reflect the group's unity and communication skills. Despite adjusting to a new member following the departure of prior keyboardist Kit Downes (who just recently issued Obsidian, his own excellent ECM debut) the ensemble communicates with one another almost as if they're of one hive mind. The energy of "Release" ebbs and flows with Tanaka's gestures, artfully answered by violinist Håkon Aase and cellist Lucy Railton. "Fugitive Places" works like a conversation: the melodies of a unified violin, cello, and bass trio are stated simply yet beautifully before the piano responds with unadorned, haunting harmonies. The hypnotic staircase vibe "Friday" is an awe-inspiring experience built upon trading ascending riffs from musician to musician.
A common criticism of ECM Records is their tendency to live in the abstract. Most releases from the label tend to be forward-thinking affairs, yet an abundance of these focus heavily on impressionistic qualities, thriving perhaps a bit too much in an arrhythmic, somewhat self-indulgently free dreamscape. While improvisation takes priority on Lucus, Time Is a Blind Guide isn't one to abandon focus and structure. The abstraction is contrasted with plenty of rhythmic propulsion and direction, providing enough grounding and variety for the album. "Wednesday", in many ways, feels like a typical modern jazz standard, balancing ambiguous textures with a strong melody and forward movement.
In promotional material, Strønen relates how the compositions on Lucus were primarily conduits for improvisation, loose structures that allowed each member to communicate their personality and conceptual ideas. It's a record that unquestionably comes from a jazz lineage, yet there are too many elements of modern classical composition to pigeonhole the album into one genre. The group dialogues with the bass with a follow-the-leader vibe on "Tension" in a fashion that feels more like a musical game than a vehicle for jazz-focused improv. "Truth Grows Gradually" develops counterpoint between strings and piano, shifting into a grooving, haunting number.
Like most European modern jazz groups, Time Is a Blind Guide build their sound with a healthy influence of contemporary classical music. More so than simply referencing the inclusion of violin and cello, there's an artful abstraction to tracks like "Islay" and "Baka" that recalls the lasting influence of post-minimalism. It's jazz distilled through the universal spectrum of "art music" (as troublesome as that term may be), a constellation of sounds and styles that prize timbre, silence, and harmonic evolution in a variety of ways. Introspective yet not indulgent, Lucus reflects the development of a spectacular group of improvisers.