While improvisation may be the defining characteristic of jazz, powerful compositions can elevate a record to rarefied heights. Such is the case with Resilience, the latest album by pianist Sebastien Ammann’s group Color Wheel, out on Skirl Records this week.

In some ways, the compositional prowess of the album is obscured by the free and amorphous opening moments of “Yayoi.” But soon drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell takes off on his own and the pace quickens. The rest of the band soon joins him on a unison melodic head. They quickly launch into solos, but the music never consists of just chord changes. Saxophonist Michaël Attias is up first, and deftly maneuvers through the shifting and changing landscape beneath him. He is followed by trombonist Samuel Blaser, a new addition to the ensemble since their 2017 debut, who proves equally adept. By this point, Ammann is interjecting more challenging chords and the harmonic waters continue to grow choppier. This growing complexity pushes the tension higher with each soloist pressing on in their tightrope walk of chaos and control. The band comes together in short unison passages and spreads back apart for more short solo sections. This is followed by a quieter, more minimal passage in which Amman takes his own solo. Bassist Noah Garabedian anchors the softer passage, while injecting his own personality in tasteful ways.

The second song, “Untangled,” begins at a more measured pace. The group begins by riding a slightly off-kilter Latin groove, yet the piece contains a strange turnaround that destroys that groove only to rebuild it again. Once again, Ammann will play conventionally beneath the solos, but then sneak in more complex chord structures to keep the playing from becoming to rote. This is followed by the track “Castello di Traliccio.” With Ammann now on Rhodes and a head-nodding groove by Garabedian, this piece hints at In a Silent Way-era Miles Davis, but also offers the same sense of surprise the group has already demonstrated.

While it is a consistent listen throughout, other highlights of Resilience include a version of Carla Bley‘s “King Korn Revisited” with fascinating saxophone and trombone duets, and “Aylan Kurdi,” which features some particularly pointillistic piano work from Ammann.

The album closes with the pairing of “Afterthoughts” and “Pedestrian Space.” The former begins with some excellent piano work and then slides into a meditative track that still possesses the twists and turns of the leader’s signature compositional style. Here though, these complexities are deployed subtly and with great restraint. “Pedestrian Space” closes the album with a jaunty rhythm, yet the song is far from straightforward. Tricky stick work from Ellman-Bell is used as a foundation, while the players move in and out of the song, layering on their own harmonies and syncopations on top. There is a sense that the song is more accessible than it actually is. The challenging aspects of melody and harmony provide intrigue which draws listeners in rather than pushing them away.

It must be said that everyone solos wonderfully throughout. Ammann himself is an excellent player, yet exercises great restraint in service of the songs. And it is the songs that come first. The music is quite advanced but accessible, pulling listeners in immediately but rewarding those who choose to examine Resilience on a deeper level. One can only hope to hear more music from Sebastien Ammann in the near future. His work as both a player and a composer is quite compelling, and deserves greater attention.

Todd Manning

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