If “Anamnesis” has been played by an acoustic bass, saxophone and piano, it could be appropriate to consider it a new strain of free jazz. However the track – number four on the latest from upright bassist Hugo Carvalhais – features the leader’s instrument together with violin and a pipe organ, or at the very least a type of organ that sounds very close to the type heard in churches and classical recital halls. Under the hands of Gabriel Pinto, the instrument isn’t weighed down. On this track, it plays a short unison line worthy of an AACM composer, before all three musicians start a three-way conversation, violinist Dominique Pifarely doing most of the talking. A bit of static pops up quickly, sounding like the disc is skipping. We have been tricked again. It’s the fourth member of the group, Jeremiah Cymerman, who receives credit for “electronic manipulation,” which frequently gives the music the dimension implied by the image on the front cover.
This sound epitomizes Grand Valis, which affects a midnight dream sequence in a cathedral or the wild experiments of a chamber group cutting loose while their director is out of the room. Pinto’s instruments frame the mood of the music since they sound so odd in a setting where tempos run free. But they also provide a tranquil backdrop that feels relaxing and ultimately makes you shift your focus to the playing of Carvalhais and Pifarely. Pinto’s rapid opening salvo on “Logos” is one of the most intriguing blends of timbre and melody that I’ve heard this year, especially in light of what follows: spastic violin bowing and a bass that walks rapidly – in elliptical patterns. But Carvalhais isn’t done yet. For the final two minutes he slows down to a steady four-to-the-bar progression, like some mutant prog-like idea that frames an organ solo.
As Pifarely wildly leads the way in “Decoding Maya,” Pinto eventually settles into a odd-metered but steady line. “Amigdala Waves” features chimes that sound like mutant music boxes or marimba playing in reverse (Carvalhais is credited with “electronics” on this track, which are likely the source). Carvalhais uses his bow in a few places, but he plays arco most of the time, producing a rich wooden tone that links the music back to jazz. One particular lick, where plucks all four strings, evokes Charlie Haden. Although sounds move amorphously, all but one of the 10 tracks are less than six minutes long, which gives everything a sense of direction.
The album’s title comes from Philip K. Dick’s Valis and the album supposedly serves as a “meditation suite upon the world.” In keeping with that, the elements that come together in the music can make one contemplate the vast expanse of the universe.