A NEW QUARTET, LED BY POET/PIANIST ELIOT CARDINAUX BRINGS HIS PAST INTO THE PRESENT, ASKING WHAT IT MEANS TO LIVE BEYOND THIS MOMENT OF HISTORICAL CRISIS
Eliot Cardinaux: piano, voice
Jonas Engel: alto saxophone
Asger Thomsen: bass
Simon Forchhammer: drums
A Living Past is the fourth album produced by poet and pianist Eliot Cardinaux for his label The Bodily Press on which he appears, featuring a quartet of European musicians, including his long-time Danish collaborator Asger Thomsen on bass (Magpie, Our Hearts as Thieves), his now multi-fruitful German musical relation Jonas Engel on alto sax (Our Hearts as Thieves), and a newcomer to the fold of Cardinaux’s community, the tasteful German drummer Simon Forchhammer. The American poet and composer leads the band on piano, vocals, & recitation.
With this album, Cardinaux and his quartet call into question the ways in which history can be revealed from within the present in a work of art, and what it means to live beyond a moment of historical crisis. The quartet treats Cardinaux’s compositions deftly & warmly, & improvises around his poetry & lyrics, openly revealing much beyond the surface layers of their material presence.
The opening piece “Ion” recalls Cardinaux’s early experiences working on the downtown New York scene in bands led by saxophonists Pete Robbins and David Binney. It is a piece of origin, a focal point in the pianist’s aesthetic ruptured by the intervening years. The improvisation quickly falls into a tragicomic sphere, with Cardinaux trailing along, helping to weave together the disparate elements, fragments of material that stray in a meaningful way from the form and content of the composition. Thomsen’s enormously generous solo helps lead the band back home.
“Age Old Tale,” is an abrasive poetic & lyrical take on a culture of addiction and fetishization in which even the most sacred of ideals are consumed as commodities. Engel’s brash mirroring of the rage latent in Cardinaux’s voice through these imagistic musings is egged on by the bombast of the rhythm section, while Cardinaux’s questioning sentimentality probes the piano for new and surprising meanings.
The following “Little Waltz” is a round in which the melody is repeated with branchlike, fugitive mischief by Cardinaux & Engel, while Forchhammer provides the rhythmic foliage, drumming around Thomsen’s strongly grounded rootwork.
“Invitation to a Dream,” an older composition by Cardinaux, written in 2009, shortly after his departure from New York, is an ironic take on the American tradition of cultural and capital gain. In its promise lies the gut punctuation of each blissful error in the quartet’s freewheeling, cataclysmic approach, Cardinaux weaving his accompaniment directly out of an opening solo and into Engel’s belly laughter of mock approval in response.
“SIDE B” of the CD settles into the rife and spacious soundworld of a short tone poem, titled “Coming of Age,” another free-improvisation centered around Cardinaux’s verse. Here, the quartet creates an atmosphere where words and their meanings are lit to great effect by the skilled, pointalistic counterpoint of the quartet. This particular piece draws on memories of 9/11 and its cultural aftermath, climate anxiety, the rise of open white supremacy in the U.S., corporate feudalism, and Cardinaux’s own experience coming of age in a world where even ideals necessitate humility.
The poems on this album, with the exception of the otherwise uncollected lyrics to “Disillusionment” appear in Cardinaux’s recent full-length poetry collection, Around the Faded Sun (The Bodily Press, 2020). “Disillusionment” itself is the only composition on this album on which the pianist relies on his singing voice to bring out the haunting lyricism of his poetry. The lyrics to “Disillusionment” originally appeared in the Dartmouth College blog White Heat, published by poet & professor Ivy Schweitzer, which follows Emily Dickinson’s movements throughout the year 1862.
The album settles here, and is brought gently, by way of Thomsen’s opening solo on “Theme,” to a raging climax, in which the New York Downtown vampy edginess of Cardinaux’s early years is brought unquestionably into the unrest of the present, and leads directly into the closing “Dark Chorale,” a lush, harmonic progression fueled by an intermittent vamp that provides an expressive warning for the times.
It is a versatile album, not only showcasing the breadth of what this quartet can do when given material so diverse in form, but also Cardinaux’s skilled production in programming an album that flows restlessly from start to finish.
Eliot Cardinaux, born in Dayton, Ohio in 1984, is an American pianist, poet, and composer currently living in Northampton, MA. He studied jazz piano at the Manhattan School of Music from 2003-2006, finishing his undergraduate degree in contemporary improvisation at the New England Conservatory in Boston in 2016. He is the founder of The Bodily Press through which he has released the work of other poets and musicians (Sean Ali, Asger Thomsen, and others), as well as several of his own projects, including, most recently, the poetry chapbook, Becoming Stranger. He is also the editor of the online journal Partitions, published through The Bodily Press. Cardinaux’s first album as a leader, American Thicket, was released in 2016 on Loyal Label (Brooklyn, NY), and features Mat Maneri, Thomas Morgan, and Flin van Hemmen. He has since been involved in projects such as a trio with bassist Will McEvoy and drummer Max Goldman (take me by the hand of darkness, Bodily Press, 2019), the Danish-American trio Magpie, featuring Asger Thomsen, & percussionist Jeppe Høi Justesen (Six Feet on Solid Ground, BP, 2018), the international ensemble Our Hearts as Thieves, featuring Asger Thomsen, Jonas Engel, and percussionist Etienne Nillesen (What the Wildflower Witnessed, forthcoming, BP), as well as his own solo project (Sweet Beyond Witness, BP, 2018). His poetry has been published in Caliban Online, Trestle Ties, Big Big Wednesday, Bloodroot Literary Journal, White Heat, Hollow, and Dispatches from the Poetry Wars. Eliot is a current candidate for an MFA in Poetry at UMass Amherst, under Peter Gizzi, Dara Wier, and Ocean Vuong, where he also teaches writing, and was recently awarded the Deborah Slosberg Memorial Award for poetry, judged by Fanny Howe. He tours when he can, in the Northeast U.S. & Europe. He lives with his partner, the poet Jade Wollin.