Pianist Anat Fort's ECM debut, A Long Story (2007) may have featured her "dream team"—and was all the better for it—but there's something to be said for the comfort and chemistry of longtime collaborators. Bassist Gary Wang and drummer Roland Schneider may not have the cachet of Ed Schuller or Paul Motian, but having worked with the Israeli expat since 2004, they clearly get what she's about, making And If a fine follow-up to A Long Story that, in many ways, is even more indicative of Fort's intrinsic strengths and undeniable charm.
Motian's spirit continues to loom large. As on A Long Story, Fort uses two readings of the same song—in this case, the aptly titled "Paul Motian"—to bookend another set of original compositions. The drum icon's textural breadth and suggestive temporal elasticity imbue both takes, though Schneider's softly rolling toms lend a more orchestral feel to the opening version—his sticks foreshadowing the stronger trio performance to come—in contrast to his brushes on "Paul Motian (2)," which help close the album on a more gently conclusive note.
And If could only come from a group that has spent time together rehearsing and gigging. The neoclassical leaning of the buoyantly beautiful "Clouds Moving"—with stops and starts, shifting meters, and harmonic changes—transcends mere interpretation, placing greater demands with its more complex construction. Wang plays a purely supportive role, as Fort moves gradually towards greater extrapolation, always keeping her eye on the thematic ball and working in and around its relative confines. Some comparisons could be drawn to ECM label mate Ketil Bjørnstad, but Fort largely eschews the Norwegian pianist's rubato predilections for a more direct approach and different kind of freedom.
And If may possess more structural immediacy, but the album's longest track and positional centerpiece revisits A Long Story's "Something 'Bout Camels," proving Fort's working trio capable of looser, more open-ended contexts, albeit with less jagged angularity. Beginning in near-silence with Wang's delicate arco harmonics, a Middle Eastern-inflected modal vamp insistently builds to a soft climax, and a rare bass solo that ultimately comes full circle, as Wang returns to his bowed harmonics and a gradual fade to black. "If" follows; a miniature where Fort's thematic structures are bolstered by Schneider's firmly defined yet strangely sideways pulse to pianist's implicit emphasis.
The back-to-back "Lanesboro" and "Minnesota" turn from Mid-East to Midwest; a hauntingly beautiful ballad followed by a tune of greater insistence, as Wang becomes an economical, folkloric foil for Fort's profound melodism. With a set that runs the gamut from delicate balladry ("En If") to more assertive, idiosyncratic stance ("Nu"), Fort doesn't completely desert A Long Story's more intrinsic structural freedom. But with the empathic interplay of her longstanding working unit, she's able to explore more detailed writing, more direct rhythm, and a more satisfying confluence of her cultural upbringing and relatively newfound American home.
01. Paul Motian (1) (4:04)
02. Clouds Moving (5:39)
03. En If (5:56)
04. Some (5:41)
05. Something Bout Camels (9:52)
06. If (1:19)
07. Lanesboro (5:17)
08. Minnesota (7:37)
09. Nu (2:54)
10. Paul Motian (2) (4:01)
Personnel: Anat Fort: piano; Gary Wang: double-bass; Roland Schneider: drums