One of the most imaginative and unique albums to reach the front page here in recent months is the Berlin Mallet Group‘s debut album Sogni D’oro, streaming at Spotify. It rings, and pings, and whirs, and whooshes and bubbles in ways few other groups ever have, no surprise considering the instrumentation. Bandleaders David Friedman and Taiko Saito play vibraphone and marimba, respectively, along with Julius Heise and Hauke Renken, who alternate between those two instruments, and Raphael Meinhart, who sticks with the marimba here. The world is full of percussion ensembles and vibraphone jazz groups, but this crew sound like no other band in the world, part precise orchestra, part outside-the-box jazz ensemble. This is very lively, colorful music.
The opening number, Friedman’s Penta e Uno, is a mini-suite full of playful twists and turns, from a rapturous, minimalist ballad, to tantalizingly brief, bouncy swing and bossa themes and fleeting moments of Lynchian suspense. What’s most fascinating about it is the group’s meticulously orchestral intertwine. There’s a thicket of tremolo and ripples, but also a steady bassline, and circling low midrange.
The second number, by Saito, is Komodo No Kodomo, a vampy, distantly Asian, cleverly polyrhythmic web anchoring a series of terse vibraphone solos that finally mingle down into hypnotic rivulets. The group reinvent Kenny Wheeler’s Sea Lady as an epic bell choir: Saito’s evocative arrangement gets the group bowing oceanic ambience, right down to coy shorebirds and waves leisurely washing onshore. From there they take turns drifting and ringing out a summery tropical tableau.
Carousel, another Friedman tune, shifts from warmly hypnotic to emphatically assertive, with both motorik and west African balafon flavors and catchy solos from the vibes. The group dedicate this album to the late composer and percussionist Rupert Stamm and follow with two of his compositions. Friedman’s spare phrases resonate broodingly over suspenseful marimbas as Xylon 1 gets underway, the group maintaining a tight but mysterious pulse as a more tropical rhythm picks up. Xylon 4 is the album’s most anthemic track, with some breathtaking interplay in the highs as it peaks out.
Friedman’s title track shifts between summery atmosphere, a puffing pulse and a casual, shuffling bounce, with lushly expanding textures as it goes on. Scharfenberg, a fond ballad by Heise, concludes the album, the ensemble’s keening, pinging layers rising to a cheery series of waves that underscore the song’s sly resemblance to an old Elvis hit.