Pianist Mara Rosenbloom picked the most politically-charged possible title for her new album: Respiration. From George Floyd to the average corporate employee struggling for oxygen through his or her muzzle, that’s the one thing – other than basic human rights – that the world didn’t get enough of in 2020. To be clear, Rosenbloom made this record with her trio, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor, just prior to the lockdown. She got her start as an elegantly tuneful composer and bandleader, has very eclectic credits as a sidewoman and has drifted further into the more adventurous reaches of pure improvisation in the last couple of years.
The album – streaming at Bandcamp – doesn’t have the raw, feral intensity of what’s been her career-defining release so far, 2016’s Prairie Burn. It’s more somber and concise than viscerally crushing, if just as tuneful – as you would expect, with an intro based on a theme by the iconic Amina Claudine Myers. That turns out to be a loopy little latin-tinged thing with subtle accents from the bass.
Things pick up quickly from there with The Choo, which is just plain gorgeous. Rosenbloom’s warmly insistent, gospel-tinged lefthand anchors an increasingly anthemic soul song without words set to a muted shuffle beat, which she takes it down to a long, spare, summery, mostly solo outro.
The group improvise a lingering yet rhythmic transition aptly titled Daydream into a duskily otherworldly, rubato take of Caravan mashed up with Connie’s Groove, a similarly enigmatic, dancing Connie Crothers homage.
She keeps the uneasy modaliaties going in Uncertain Bird, veering in and out of purist, darkly ambered blues as the rhythm section kick things around, down to a tantalizingly fleeting, ghostly interlude and then back as an altered waltz. In The Ballad for Carolyn Trousers (Carol in Trousers), Rosenbloom skirts a famous Chopin theme and makes it vastly more lighthearted, once again blending in the blues over an allusive 3/4 groove.
Conly breaks out his bow and Taylor tumbles mutedly while the bandleader builds haunting, spacious minor-key lustre in their take of the spiritual Have Mercy Upon Us: her relentless, minimalist mantra of an outro is arguably the high point of the album.
She returns to the album’s opening circularity in Ramblin’ on Her Mind, inspired by the Lightnin’ Hopkins version of the blues standard. To close the record, Rosenbloom draws the band back into Caravan as a saturnine march out. You are going to see this on a lot of best-of-2020 pages this year.