Hearth is a quartet featuring trumpeter Susana Santos Silva, alto saxophonist Mette Rasmussen, tenor saxophonist Ada Rave (who doubles on clarinet), and pianist Kaja Draksler. I saw them perform in Bergen, Norway as part of the Nattjazz festival in May 2018. I knew nothing about them when I walked into the small room where they were to perform, but by the end of their one-hour set I was completely enraptured. When I got back to the US after my week-long trip, I took a while to process everything I’d seen and heard, and in mid-June, I emailed Pedro Costa, head of the Portuguese label Clean Feed Records, with the subject line, “Hearth Album! Make It Happen!” I wrote, “I know you have a good relationship with Susana Santos Silva, so I’m putting this in your hands — convince her to make an album for your label with the quartet Hearth. I saw them play in Norway last month and thought they were fantastic.”

Now, I’m not taking all the credit, but I will say that it’s now April 2021, and here is an album by Hearth, on Clean Feed Records. It’s called Melt, and it’s every bit as beautiful as the show I witnessed three years ago.

A lot of the track titles have watery themes. The album begins with “Fading Icebergs” and continues with “Tidal Phase,” “Diving Bells,” and “Turbulent Flow”; only “At Daybreak” and “In Oscillation” break the pattern. On the opening track, Rasmussen and Rave’s saxophones have a foghorn-like quality, not attempting to blow the listener off their feet as Mats Gustafsson might, but instead calling out like they just want you to come in from the next room and hear what they have to say. Silva tiptoes between them, emitting single notes or very short phrases, as Draksler strikes isolated keys, letting the notes take as long as they want to decay. “Tidal Phase” is more active, the horns whirling around each other like tiny creatures dwelling in a pool at the shoreline. After a minute or two, though, the players shift toward long upper-register tones, keening and harmonizing in patterns that rise and fall like ocean swells. Very occasionally, Draksler will strike a pinging note from within the piano, or scrape a string, but for the most part it’s the horns’ show.

“Diving Bells” is the longest track on the album, at 14 minutes. It’s also the loudest, verging on conventional free jazz at times. The saxophonists bleat and roar, and Draksler pounds the keys with great force, particularly in the first half. But after a while, a sense of silliness begins to deflate the balloon; tootling whistles come in, bringing to mind the Art Ensemble of Chicago‘s more theatrically goofy moments, and at the nine-minute mark, things get much more quiet. Most of the players put down horns in favor of small bells which tinkle and rattle, and gentle puffs of air are heard barely touching the surface of microphones. After two minutes or so of this, it seems like the spell has been thoroughly broken and the room is calm once more, so the horns return. Rave emits low, valve-clapping rumbles from the tenor, coughing out a single note or a short phrase before moving on; Silva harmonizes with her in a rough-voiced way, squawking and blatting and occasionally sputtering into the mouthpiece. Rasmussen makes the occasional comment, but mostly stays quiet.

The album concludes with its second-longest track, the nearly 13-minute “Turbulent Flow.” Its title is an accurate reflection of the sounds; Draksler is dominant early on, rolling across the keyboard in patterns that are minimal but loud, as the horns chirp and squabble around her, alternating between clacking flurries of notes and almost orchestral long tones. Before long, though, it settles into a gentle, conversational mode like a piece of modern chamber music that goes on whether you’re paying attention or not. At the piece’s midpoint, it gets quieter still, dark piano chords and barely-there whispers from the horns demanding focused attention.

These women have been performing together off and on since 2016, and have developed a language all their own. There are plenty of references for music like this, but nothing that sounds exactly like it. When I saw them perform in 2018, I was left speechless, my own mind quieted by the thoughtfulness and focus of their interactions. Hearing them again three years later, the impact of their work is undiminished.

Phil Freeman

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