Sarah Bernstein: VEER Quartet

, composer

About

Violinist/composer Sarah Bernstein presents the debut release from her new ensemble, VEER Quartet. Chamber jazz string quartets represent a fascinating sub-genre, a small cross section of string players who are improvisers and have absorbed a diversity of stylistic feels with those inclined to apply those skills to this venerated instrumentation. Bernstein's approach to leading and composing for the group is fresh and unique, eschewing the more overt populism of forebears like Turtle Island String Quartet in favor of an exploration of more progressive spaces,  grounded in transparent harmonies, contrapuntal textures, and swung grooves. Her writing is front and center on this self titled album, balancing textural explorations with forward directed impulses.

Audio

# Audio Title/Composer(s) Time
Total Time 42:41
01Frames No.1
Frames No.1
7:45
02News Cycle Progression
News Cycle Progression
3:39
03Clay Myth
Clay Myth
12:42
04World Warrior
World Warrior
3:56
05Nightmorning
Nightmorning
10:26
06Hidden
Hidden
4:13

Every genre descriptor eventually reaches a juncture when it is no longer entirely sufficient to describe the music that evolves within its boundaries. On the surface, the debut release of Sarah Bernstein’s VEER Quartet positions itself within an expanding context of chamber jazz. The term roughly encapsulates music on a fairly broad continuum from groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Uptown and Turtle Island String Quartets, and genre collage projects like Bill Frisell’s The Intercontinentals. In broad terms, chamber jazz refers both to chamber ensemble instrumentations and a classical sensibility underlying the arrangements as well as to the absence of the functioning of a traditional rhythm section. But as more musicians have explored this fertile territory, the common links give way to a myriad of distinct approaches to through composed and improvised material, and music that references a variety of different traditions within the histories of jazz and chamber music. Bernstein’s contribution to this evolution casts a fairly wide net. The tracks on VEER Quartet flow easily between composed and improvised material, with each player bringing a different palette to their improvisations.

The opening track, Frames No. 1 is anchored by a simple monothematic motive that is presented in the opening bars and subsequently returns as a refrain in a kind of rondo form. Within seconds of the beginning of the piece, cellist Nick Jozwiak lays down a walking bass line under a Bernstein violin solo, supported by unison comping in the second violin and viola. After hearing the opening theme again, we are ushered into a different improvising context, with an insistent ostinato played by violins and cello underneath a muscular, angular viola solo by Leonor Falcon. Another short refrain leads to pointillistic pizzicato backgrounds under a Sana Nagano violin solo, and yet another into Jozwiak’s charged cello solo, this time returning to the backgrounds that laid the foundation for Falcon. Finally Bernstein leads the group into a final section that reprises the earlier feels, before angular, swooping gestures drive towards a surprise resolved ending. This oscillation between rhythmic feels, improvisational contexts, all framed by written material that clarifies the structure is at the core of Bernstein’s eclectic approach with the VEER Quartet.

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Three of the tracks are less oriented towards solo improvisations, instead focusing on collective soundscapes, both through composed and improvised. News Cycle Progression opens with a lush, chorale texture before opening up into responsive and animated group improvisation. A stately line opening World Warrior undergoes brief contrapuntal imitation before the strict handling of material is shattered with effect driven, collective interlocking gestures. The piece similarly alternates between taut pre-determined material and deconstructive sections. Hidden features a shrouded ensemble texture with oscillating inner voices framing a poignant melody. Intensity grows gradually, as denser chord voicings drive steadily towards a climax.

The two longest tracks on the album offer the four soloists more room to spread out. In Clay Myth, Bernstein expands the form through shifting background textures. Pizzicatos percolate under Jozwiak’s cello and Falcon’s rich viola while bowed material drawn from the pensive opening establishes a pad under Nagano’s agile violin. The track finishes off with a brooding modal texture for Bernstein’s pathos laden solo turn. Nightmorning explores sparser textures that are liberated from a constant pulse, featuring each instrument playing alone and out of time. The other instruments join to accompany with varying, irregular material. The soliloquy moments lend a direct immediacy to Nightmorning that stands in contrast to the rhythmically grounded moments in the other pieces. Sana Nagano explores a mix of timbres and gestures including non-pitched sounds in her solo, which are subsequently echoed in the disjunct accompaniment that joins her.

The surface sonority of the string quartet exerts a powerful influence on how a listener perceives any music played by that instrumentation, and immediately places the VEER Quartet within a chamber associated context. Bernstein then walks an interesting stylistic tightrope walk with this project, preserving that sonic frame and association while “veering” in different directions, both in the written material and the spaces she creates for the players to improvise.

– Dan Lippel

Recorded October 27-28, 2019 by Michael Perez-Cisneros at Big Orange Sheep Studio, Brooklyn, NY

Mixed and Mastered by Ryan Streber at Oktaven Audio

Design by Alex Merto

VEER Quartet

VEER Quartet presents violinist Sarah Bernstein's compositions for improvising string quartet. Joined by Sana Nagano (violin), Leonor Falcon (viola) and Nick Jozwiak (cello), the dynamic ensemble introduces a new jazz chamber music with intricate solos and a powerful group sound.

Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein is a New York-based violinist/composer whose work blurs the lines between innovative jazz, new chamber music, experimental pop and noise music. Over the course of ten albums as a leader and countless collaborations, she has garnered international acclaim for her multi-disciplinary performances and distinctive recordings. She leads the improvising string ensemble VEER Quartet, the avant-jazz Sarah Bernstein Quartet, the poetic minimalist duo Unearthish, and performs solo with heavily-processed voice/violin as Exolinger. Ongoing collaborations include her noise-electronic duo with drummer Kid Millions, the experimental synth-pop band Day So Far, and ensemble work with trumpeter Dave Scott, cellist Tomeka Reid, thereminist Pamelia Stickney and others. She has placed in the DownBeat Magazine Critics Poll annually since 2015, winning “Rising Star Violinist” in 2020. She is originally from San Francisco, CA.

Sana Nagano

Sana Nagano has a highly distinctive approach to violin playing, grounding chaotic improvisations with restrained precision. Formally trained in both jazz and classical traditions, she rips up the rulebook with projects such as the avant-bluegrass trio Astroturf Noise and 2021's Smashing Humans, which bears the name of her explosive prog-jazz quintet. Sana Nagano was born in Tokyo, where she began playing violin as a child, and moved to the United States as an exchange student. She earned performance and composition degrees from the Berklee College of Music and the Aaron Copland School of Music of Queens College. Living in New York City since 2010, she is highly active as both a collaborator and bandleader. She has played as part of Karl Berger's Improvisers Orchestra and Adam Rudolph's Go: Organic Orchestra, in addition to working with artists such as William Parker, Daniel Carter, Harvey Valdes, and numerous others. Her debut album, Inside the Rainbow, was released in 2014, featuring Berger on vibraphone and John Ehlis on guitar. Nagano formed several ensembles during the decade, including avant-rock quartet Atomic Pigeons and experimental pop duo Peach and Tomato (with Leonor Falcon).

Leonor Falcon

Violinist and violist Leonor Falcon’s collaborations and performances include Willie Colon’s band, Akua Dixon’s Quartette Indigo, Sirius Quartet, Camila Meza and the Nectar Orchestra, Arturo O’Farrill Latin Jazz Orchestra and BronxBanda, Maelo and the Latinoexperimental Project, Karl Berger Improvisers Orchestra, OKwarteto, Mimi Jones and the Black Madonna, Linda Oh’s Aventurine, Pablo Vergara, Michael Leonhart, Sarah Bernstein’s Veer Quartet, among others. Recent projects are Peach and Tomato, releasing a debut album “The Ultimate Pairing” in 2019, her solo debut album “Imaga Mondo” in 2017, released on March 11th, 2022 “Imaga Mondo Vol. II”, and CHAMA, a trio of jazz and avant-rock with an album released on 2016, 2017 and three singles released throughout 2020 (all of these on her label FalconGumba Records.)

Nicholas Jozwiak

Nicholas Jozwiak is a multi-instrumentalist, DJ and producer based in Brooklyn, NY. His energetic performances are informed by jazz, classical, experimental, and electronic musics. He releases original dance and ambient music as Nick Joz.


Reviews

5

Downbeat Magazine

The days of complete separation between written classical music and improvised jazz are long gone, at least as far as violinist Sarah Bernstein and some of her contemporaries are concerned. Having explored a variety of music using many different types of instrumentation on her 10 previous albums as a leader and in collaborations with the likes of Anthony Braxton, Tomeka Reid, Adam Rudolph and Vinny Golia, in recent years Bernstein has been writing her originals for a traditional string quartet. However the only thing traditional about her Veer Quartet is the instrumentation.

Joined by like-minded and technically skilled string players (violinist Sana Nagano, Leonor Falcon on viola and cellist Nick Jozwiak) who have no difficulty playing the most complex arrangements while also being adventurous improvisers, Bernstein performs six of her diverse compositions. “Frames No. 1,” which often utilizes a walking cello, swings in its own way with riffs and dissonance interacting before a surprisingly peaceful ending. “News Cycle Progression” pairs together a through-composed ballad and improvised sections while making it difficult to tell which is which.

“Clay Myth” is accurately described as “softly unsettling.” The episodic performance, the most colorful and lengthiest piece of the program, has Jozwiak’s cello carrying the melody or playing patterns much of the time while the other strings improvise all around it.

“World Warrior” features some free improvising by the ensemble. “Nightmorning” fits its title with a dreamlike melody and unaccompanied solos by each of the musicians. Closing the thought-provoking set is the intriguing “Hidden,” which has a melody by the violin purposely buried by the dense ensemble, a concept that one could imagine the Veer Quartet exploring more in depth in the future.

— Scott Yanow, 10.17.2022

5

The WholeNote

Sarah Bernstein is a violinist and composer exploring the boundaries of genres, mixing elements of jazz, the avant-garde, electronica and improvisation. On this album, she explores the more traditional sounds of a string quartet but not with a result that is at all traditional. Her six compositions range from the hectic and angular News Cycle Progression to the more lyrical Clay Myth with its broad, elegiac head, to Hidden where she flirts with minimalist arpeggiation and an unpredictable ending.

My favourite track is the first one, Frames No.1: clear jazz references with a walking bass in the cello, solid grooves, and a simple form that gives soloing time to each of the four players. The string playing throughout is excellent though particular improv kudos go to Bernstein and cellist Nick Jozwiak who throws some surprisingly dense material into his solos. Bernstein often has the group accompany the solos with pizzicato: a nice device that sounds great.

Four string players of this quality have to be classically trained so you won’t hear the sort of language you might expect from jazzers. What you do hear is a group of excellent musicians searching for something new. Bravo to that.

— Fraser Jackson, 11.17.2022

5

The New York City Jazz Record

There have been a few well-known jazz violinists over the years and jazz recordings "with strings" have been around forever. But historically, string sections have been used mostly in backgrounds for soloists, as 'sweetening'. In the last 10 or 15 years, many jazz musicians have become interested in writing for strings, integrating violins and violas and cellos into their ensembles as full foreground participants. Sarah Bernstein takes this development to its next logical step. VEER Quartet is not an album that incorporates strings into an existing jazz band. The jazz band is a string quartet. To be sure, it is a jazz band equally capable of executing erudite classical chamber music, should the moment — or a Bernstein arrangement — call for it. Violinists Bernstein and Sana Nagano, violist Leonor Falcon and cellist Nick Jozwiak represent a new generation enabling new roles for their instruments in jazz. They can read like classical experts and wail like badass jazz improvisers. Bernstein's six meticulously detailed compositions demonstrate uncommon skill in manipulating four instruments. She treats her quartet like an orchestra. Two players may split off and become a plucked rhythm section. Two duos may exchange calls and responses. Three players may weave intricate counterpoint while a fourth solos. Bernstein's sophistication in managing all the moving parts is not an end in itself. It serves a larger purpose. She writes intriguing melodies. Then her band takes them through elaborate permutations. The centerpiece, at almost 13 minutes, is "Clay Myth". Each member of the quartet is given space to reflect spontaneously on the stately, resonant melody while the remaining three provide provocative accompaniment. Those not ready to relinquish familiar jazz instrumentation and dynamics may find this album a bridge too far. But for those open to the stylistic relativity now blurring the borders of the jazz art form, VEER Quartet will be technically impressive and imaginatively liberating.

— Thomas Conrad, 8.28.2022

5

The Wire

Led by New York composer and violinist Sarah Bernstein, Veer Quartet sit between contemporary chamber music and avant garde jazz. "Frames No. 1" is the most recognisably jazzy piece, with Bernstein, violinist Sana Nagano and violist Leonor Falcon playing folky, almost swinging lines over Nick Jozwiak's walking cello. Yet as soon as we get comfortable, Veer lock into a jagged vamp. A further left turn finds the quartet hinting towards stately Baroque dance, before a reprise of the opening theme and some freely improvised passages. "Nightmorning" evokes a liminal state before dawn, as violin glissandi sigh over icy shards. There's a vivid sense of the world coming to life in a largely unaccompanied violin passage, where arco phrases end in bright pizzicato, darkened by Jozwiak's vigorous cello rhythms.

— Stewart Smith, 9.06.2022

5

Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Sarah Bernstein is one of those New York originals, a genuine voice, a special straddlemaster between Avant Jazz and Modern Classical, and just herself in there as part of the mix, a violinist of accomplished yet personal, Jazz-related delivery. So if you check my other blogs, if you search for her on the Gapplegate Music Review and on the Gapplegate Guitar and Bass Blog you will see that I have covered a bunch of her CDs over the years. And that naturally has to do with how I appreciate her music.

So now there is a new one, a recording of her Veer Quartet (Panoramic Records New Focus Recordings). It is a string quartet made up of Sarah on violin, Sana Nagano, violin, Leonor Falcon, viola, and Nick Jozwiak on cello. All four improvise well, solo singularly or collectively depending on the passage at hand, as well as realize Sarah's compositional frameworks and thematic refrains, some so very much put together in a Modern New Music way, a few others functioning as elaborate near-head motives. The juxtapositions work in the best ways. These are truly Third Stream if you want to resurrect an old name. The music lingers hypnotically at times and sometimes hovers somewhat darkly, which is one of Sarah's ways, happily and very aptly so. The six separate pieces stand each on their own yet segue in ways that make for a marked flow.

This is an outstanding venture if you but give it a chance with repeated listens. Sarah Bernstein burns quietly but warmly as a sometimes hidden but luminous talent in today's adventurous music realm. Kudos!

— Grego Applegate Edwards, 9.07.2022

5

The Big Takeover

Though she’s a first call violinist and composer and leads a typical string quartet lineup on VEER Quartet, don’t assume Sarah Bernstein is a classical musician. Or, more precisely, that she’s only a classical musician, as her experience has taken her from classical to jazz to experimental noise to synth pop. On this record she leans more towards her formally trained roots, but even then, this is hardly your father’s Bach.

Joined by co-violinist Saga Nagano (herself an adventurous genre-crossing musician), violist Leonor Falcon and cellist Nick Jozwiak, Bernstein kicks off VEER Quartert with “Frame No. 1,” a rollicking piece that dances around and across several rhythmic and melodic lines. Sometimes sounding like outtakes of the Fantasia soundtrack, others like the Kronos Quartet after a particularly volatile burrito, the song rarely sits still long enough for easy identification. Bernstein focuses more precisely on the shorter tracks, including the luminous “News Cycle Progression” and the brooding “Hidden.” But she really shows off her compositional and arranging chops on the extended pieces. “Nightmorning” cleverly conflates rounds and drone, with sweeping, swirling string riffs and a relentless aura of deliberate menace. More accessible but still challenging, “Clay Myth” is a stunning tour-de-force, an epic carefully arranged to maximize its melodies, while leaving room for swathes of free improvisation.

Pulling from multiple traditions, Bernstein’s music stays a moving target, playfully defying any attempt to pin it down in one exhibit case. That gives VEER Quartet dozens of layers to peel back, and new things to discover and delight in every time you do.

— Michael Toland, 9.01.2022

5

Jazz Weekly

Violinist Sarah Bernstein leads a quartet of Sana Nagano/vln, Leonor Falcon/va and Nick Joozwiak/cel through a handful of originals that mix concise soloing with rich ensemble textures. There is a Bartokian sustained tension on “News Cycle Progression” , while the strings do a clever call and response to “World Warrior”, bowing a hovering atmosphere on “Hidden”. Mixed withing the pulse of “Clay Myth” are rich and swinging solos by each member, with Joozwiak supplying a bluesy line on the swinging “Fames No. 1”. Singing strings.

— George Harris, 9.29.2022

5

Vital Weekly

Panoramic is a sort of sub-label of New Focus, independent in nature, but managed by the same Daniel Lippel, who is also one of the masterminds behind NFR - though, by definition, this is an artist-run, collective enterprise. The difference between Panoramic Recordings and NFR is not quite clear, and the web pages give no hints. PR is definitely more open to Jazz recordings but does not limit itself to this, including chamber music and electronics.
Sarah Bernstein is a violinist and composer and presents the first recordings of her new quartet, VEER. It is strange to see her listed as the main artist and the ensemble as the release title. However, she will have her reasons. The CD contains six tracks, all presented in the traditional classical string quartet fashion but definitely
challenging the line between jazz and classical music.


The first track, 'Frames No.1', starts with a few folk-ish notes, then adds a plucking jazz bass, and quickly morphs into a gipsy swing-ish melody. 'ish' because the piece never takes one or the other approach, mixing all three elements with some contemporary classical phrases. 'Veering', as the name says. 'News Cycle Progression' sounds more like the modern classical style, taking more from modern composers than jazz - actually not jazz at all and a slower pace. 'Clay Myth' takes it even slower and presents a ballad-like piece sounding like a eulogy. At 12+ minutes, though, it can't help but change the style to more agitated music towards the second half, adding a bit of jazz violin. 'World Warrior', 'Nightmorning' and 'Hidden' all remain more on the modern classical side of things, exploring dissonance and harmony (actually some very nice ones in places, esp. in 'Nightmorning'). The jazz element remains relatively
underdeveloped, which disappointed me a little given how the CD is marketed as 'contemporary improvisation' and 'jazz string quartet'. Nevertheless, forgetting the marketing flyer and my false expectations a delightful release indeed.

— Robert Steinberger, 10.18.2022

5

Fanfare

The VEER Quartet formed around composer/violinist Sarah Bernstein might not be unique, but it must come close. As the publicity material on the New Focus website says, quite rightly, “Chamber jazz string quartets represent a fascinating sub-genre, a small cross section of string players who are improvisers.” Needless to add, improvisation is the soul of jazz but a rarity in classical music (more or less unknown until the advent of aleatory music on the contemporary scene). Apparently “chamber jazz” is a fluid concept, best known by listing its practitioners rather than any strict definition. As the online program notes tell us, “The term roughly encapsulates music on a fairly broad continuum from groups like the Modern Jazz Quartet, the Uptown and Turtle Island String Quartets, and genre collage projects like Bill Frisell’s [album] The Intercontinentals.”

I sampled the Turtle Island Quartet, whose style qualifies as easy-listening jazz, but that’s not what Bernstein intends for her music, which is about “an exploration of more progressive spaces, grounded in transparent harmonies, contrapuntal textures, and swung grooves.” (I’m quoting liberally from online notes because the physical album includes no information at all beyond the track listing and a few production details, not even a link to the New Focus webpage where the notes are located.) Yet it’s safe to say, without a fixed definition, that you’ll know what chamber jazz is when you hear it.

But those of us who are not in a swung groove are likely to be somewhat at sea. Clearly some sections of each piece are written out, and there are definitely moments when the performance feels improvised, although not boldly. A general sense of method is supplied by a capsule description in the notes: “This oscillation between rhythmic feels, improvisational contexts, all framed by written material that clarifies the structure, is at the core of Bernstein’s eclectic approach.” Good enough—taking the music as it comes, I found this a very enjoyable listen. Bernstein notates the opening moments of each piece in a tonal style that is easily accessible (the elegiac chords at the beginning of News Cycle Progression could be by Dvořák).

To keep things straight, Bernstein has written out refrains of the main motif and other undisclosed road signs. There is a feeling of bewildering dissonance very occasionally, as in Frames No. 1. But in a longer piece like Clay Myth, its 12 minutes spin out episodes that wend their way through leisurely solos and conventional harmonies. The members of the VEER Quartet know how to improvise, without a doubt, but they tend to keep close to conservative classical style reminiscent of the Romantic era; the ventures into music that isn’t notated tend to sound somewhat aimless. If this is meant to be progressive jazz, it has a soft touch. For example, there are pizzicatos and some use of sul ponticello and glissandos, but nothing approaching noises like scratching, tapping, and scraping.

The titles of each piece aren’t useful for indicating what the music will be like, and on the whole this album can be played as a single continuous track lasting 43 minutes. The improvisations don’t differ so much that individual works acquire a distinct personality. Yet the whole has personality enough. Improvised string-quartet playing will be totally new territory for most listeners, with or without a jazz idiom, and it’s a pleasure to report that Sarah Bernstein’s contribution is so enticing and entertaining. Huntley Dent

— Huntley Dent, 12.03.2022