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Land of Shadows CD Reviews



The sounds rise up from silence, from a far away place, from a different time, until they land in the present where they begin to glow. Watching Julie Sassoon play, one has the impression that the piano will consume her completely. From hidden depths she unearths the sounds, one by one, she threads them into chains, bundles them up into sound clusters, and lets them slide gently back into silence.


Often Julie Sassoon accompanies the lead notes of the piano with her voice, following them in a semitone interval. A faint shadow cast by the prevailing moment. A descending veil. Julie Sassoon listens to the probing questions of these dark intervals; she hears them begin to wail and strive for resolution. "Land Of Shadows" addresses her own experience. Repetitions lead her down into the realms of the unconscious and subconscious. Deeper and deeper, she meditates the world of sounds, layer by layer. She gives the sounds free rein. When roaming the colourful nuances of impressionism, indulging in minimalistic patterns and creating piano music that feels as natural as singing, she has a single goal: to tell a story, her own story.


It was during a "Jazzwerkstatt" concert in Berlin, Julie Sassoon says, that she spoke about her Jewish roots in public for the very first time. It was unplanned. She rose from the piano and began speaking and as she did it became clear to her that this is what her music is all about. Julie Sassoon was classically trained but gradually moved into freer realms, experimenting with jazz and improvisational music. Born and raised in Manchester, she studied classical music and art at the University of Lancaster and did post-graduate studies in jazz piano and Indian violin at Leeds College of Music. She had success in England with the trio "Azilut!" and several other bands, with an ensemble of six pianists performing works by contemporary composers, and also with solo recitals.


In 2009, Julie Sassoon moved from London to Berlin – for her this was not an ordinary decision, it was a challenge. Each and every Jew in Berlin has a different story to tell. By striking the keys of the piano, she tells a part of her story and that of her ancestors. The Wertheimers, natives of the small village of Kippenheim in the Black Forest, fled to England in 1939, after Julie’s grandfather was released from Dachau, where he had been deported in the wake of the November pogroms. Her grandmother’s parents died in Auschwitz. When Julie was growing up, the burden of this past was still so overwhelming that the family was unable to talk about it. Germany was taboo. And still, when she was eighteen, Julie Sassoon traveled to Kippenheim, only to find coldness and a synagogue that was used as a storeroom. A few years later, Julie Sassoon visited Berlin for the first time, and fell in love with the city. She married a German and gave birth to a daughter.


This background sheds light on what it might mean for Julie Sassoon to speak about her family history at a concert in Berlin. Her concert at the "Neue Synagoge" in Berlin was like delving into a continuum, re-enduring the past and cleansing it at the same time. That night, Julie Sassoon confides, she was playing with her grandmother in mind.


Jewish life in Berlin can be an affirmation of religious and cultural identity without being rooted in faith. Moods and sensitivities are more complex than a color scale reflects. Yet there are still emotions that are easier to leave unexpressed. And there is a silence, too, that is best broken up by sounds. Sounds of reflection, sounds of lament and sounds of hope. When she walks through the city, echoes, shadows, doubts and questions are Julie Sassoon’s companions. At the same time, while breathing deeply, she begins to free herself from them. When she wrote “New Life” she was pregnant with her daughter.



Translation: Miriamne Fields



Since moving to Berlin in 2009, pianist Julie Sassoon has, in Jazz Festival Director Bert Noglik’s words, confronted the fact that ‘Each and every Jew in Berlin has a different story to tell. [...] echoes, shadows, doubts and questions are [her] companions.’

The six solo-piano pieces on this album (which comes with a 20-minute DVD filmed at the city’s Neue Synagoge) derive much of their considerable emotional power from what Noglik refers to as ‘delving into a continuum, re-enduring the past and cleansing it at the same time’, but they also document, particularly in ‘New Life’(written when Sassoon was pregnant with her daughter), the hope and optimism that have sprung from the courage required for this confrontational process.

Sassoon’s approach to solo piano – rather like Keith Jarrett’s in Cologne nearly 40 years ago – is to spin mesmerising improvisations from repeated – often relatively simple, even minimalist – note clusters or motifs, ‘directions where the tires press’ (as in Thom Gunn’s ‘On the Move’), but – like the poem’s Hell’s Angels – readily exploring diversions as they reveal themselves to her along the way.

Accordingly, thunderous bass notes, ringing churchbell-like passages, the subtlest of ethereal sounds highlighted by her light singing, are all incorporated, entirely naturally, in an improvisational method neatly described thus by Noglik: ‘... from hidden depths she unearths the sounds, one by one, she threads them into chains, bundles them up into sound clusters, and lets them slide back gently into silence’.

Immersion in her unique soundworld is an affecting experience that will be available to London Jazz Festival goers at Sassoon’s 15 November appearance with Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi.


Chris Parker - London Jazz News





Seit 2009 lebt die Britin Julie Sassoon in Berlin. Sie ist klassisch ausgebildete Pianistin und Geigerin. Dieses im Bauhaus Dessau, im Kölner Loft und in der Berliner Neuen Synagoge mitgeschnittene PianoSoloalbum ist von flirrender Schönheit. Die Stücke beginnen mit leisen Tönen, die sich langsam verdichten, konkreter und gegenwärtiger werden, bis sie sich zu insistierenden Mustern ballen und damit eine Suggestivkraft entfallen, die nicht aufdrängt, sich aber in sich schlüssig überträgt, bis sich der Kreis wieder schliesst hin zum Verstummen. Die Stille danach aber ist eine, die mit der eben gehörten Musik aufgeladen ist, weil sie magisch nachschwingt. Julie Sassoons Pianogeschichten sind gründiert von den tragischen Schicksalen ihrer jüdischen Vorfahren.


Ulli Steinmetzger - Leipziger Volkszeitung


Tom Fuchs - Piano News Magazine

New Life - CD reviews


This is a lovely record that takes inspiration from both jazz and classical music but does so in a genuinely personal way. Sassoon was the pianist-composer with the remarkable Azilut! trio and this is her first solo record. Recorded during the time she was pregnant with her first child, the twin themes of womanhood and motherhood permeate the music in a way that almost gives the album a programmatic aspect. Yet such thoughts merely add to its sense of wonder. Improvisation here arises from the compositional elements quite seamlessly and her influences from Scriabin, Ravel, Debussy, Steve Reich and Egberto Gismonti have all dissolved into her own vision. True you can hear Scriabin in her occasionally dramatic climactic chords, as you can Gismonti in the restless shifting melodies of the title track. Yet there’s no hint of pastiche, post-modernism or plagiarism. Those moments where you glimpse an influence or hear something just familiar are more like meeting an old friend.
Sassoon’s capacity to sustain interest without resorting to licks, tricks or slickness of any kind is remarkable. Its more as if an essence has been distilled to the point where sound becomes a sensory trigger for all kinds of memories, thoughts and feelings. Beautifully produced, played and executed and most of all, music of rare beauty.
Duncan Heining



With Matthew Shipp’s One and Charles Gayles’s Timezones already in the bag 2006 is turning into a very good year for solo jazz piano.  This album by the lady known for her work with Azilut! just makes it better. There’s a rhythm thing at the centre of Sassoon’s creative engine with passage upon passage of rolling, at times metrically complex groove, such as the 11/4 slide of Forty Four, catching the ear from start to finish. Yet Sassoon, inspired by the birth of her daughter here, taps as much into classical and serial music as jazz and a wide range of influences from Scriabin to Gismonti to Reich all surface in some shape or form as the pianist toys with harmonies, voicings and thematic narrative to pleasing affect. A couple of inventive sonic touches – Sassoon’s use of her own voice to create eerie effects and percussive patter on the piano to conjure up the soundof the baby’s heartbeat – also serve notice of her ability to think outside of the box.
Kevin Le Gendre



Recorded when she was pregnant, this solo-piano album works beautifully. A classically trained pianist and violinist whose influences range from Vivaldi to Egberto Gismonti, Sassoon appeals to both jazz and classical music lovers. Apart from a brief piano sample and some wordless vocals, all she calls upon to develop these five beautiful original pieces is an unusually firm sense of structure, rhythm and harmony, a keyboard technique good enough to articulate any passing idea and the wit to disguise an occasional mistake by reshaping it instantly before moving on. Joyous free-jazz for tidy minds.
Jack Massarik


Here’s a solo piano album made by an artist who was six months pregnant at the time of recording, over two days in May, 2004. It’s tempting to make the connection between Julie’s condition and the music. It’s a connection she herself makes: the five extended improvisations have the titles ‘Indecisive Madness’, ‘PM Song’, ‘New Life’, ‘Forty Four’ and ‘Safe Passage’. And the inlay photo in the CD case is as arresting as the Demi Moore pregnant Vanity Fair shot.

The music is just as vulnerable. ‘Indecisive Madness’ is not, as the title suggests, the incoherent ramblings of a woman awash with hormones, but a model of harmonic logic and elegance that recalls Debussy. The pulsing rhythms of ‘New Life’ have a questing obsessiveness, but there is a precedent in the work of Sassoon’s obvious jazz role model, Keith Jarrett. Koln Concert might have been made under trying conditions, but at least he wasn’t pregnant.

What is unquestionable is the emotional commitment of Sassoon’s performance, in which raw instinct and trained musicality combine to create something new, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world. Julie’s daughter, Mia, was born on September 2, 2004, which means that the album had a longer gestation than the baby. The hidden track consists of reassuring gurgles.
Mike Butler


Ex-Piano Circus pianist Sassoon presents five solo compositions/ improvisations, recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk whilewhe was pregnant. The effect is rather Keith Jarrett-meets minimalism, full of swooning rhapsodies grounded by hardedged repetitions. Beautiful as it all often is, the repetitions can become a problem, as a limited number of patterns are modulated endlessly. The ballads "PMSong" and "Forty Four" are particularly pliant, while Sassoon sings wordlessly on the epic title track and the dramatic closer, "Safe Passage" (followed by the new babba's cry).
Phil Johnson


The ‘new life’ in question is Julie Sassoon’s daughter, Mia, with whom the pianist was pregnant during the making of this album, and to whom it is dedicated. Appropriately enough, the tone of the five solo pieces the recording contains is alternately contemplative and celebratory, gently insistent musings expressed through often hypnotically repetitive figures slowly gaining vigour and power until they reach rollicking climaxes, or jauntily uplifting themes infused with positive energy.
As anyone who’s witnessed a performance by Sassoon will know, she proceeds by setting up a repeated phrase, becoming fascinated by a certain rhythmic or melodic possibility contained within it, then exploring that possibility via the small, subtle displacements of rhythm and changes of texture that are frequently associated with minimalism; she also occasionally sets up a repeated motif and then solos over it in relatively conventional jazz mode, or croons along, humming a single sustained note.
Although occupying the ‘classical’ end of the solo-piano spectrum, and owing more to, say, Scriabin than to Keith Tippett (as opposed to the free-jazz end occupied by Tippett himself or Howard Riley), Sassoon’s absorbing album will intrigue anyone interested in the process of jazz improvisation.
Chris Parker

Azilut! reviews

AZILUT! *****

Wardrobe, Leeds

In jazz, it is rare to find a band whose music is entirely free of cliches. Azilut! are such a group, yet their commitment to being idiosyncratic doesn't detract from their listenability. The trio comprise UK pianist Julie Sassoon, German reeds-player Lothar Ohlmeier and Dutch drummer Bart van Helsdingen. A solo performance by any of these exceptional musicians would have an audience spellbound; together in Leeds, they seemed capable of miracles.

The exact source of the magic was difficult to pin down. The band's publicity material draws attention to the fact that there is no bass player, and on stage this resulted in a fascinatingly democratic rhythmical approach. Also significant were the slow-burning beauty of the group's compositions, the constantly surprising arrangements, and the wit and imagination that each player brought to the whole.

Ohlmeier's bass clarinet - a lovely instrument rarely heard in contemporary jazz - ranged from warm round tones to comedy squaws and grunts, and provided most of the band's improvisatory muscle. Van Helsdingen, meanwhile, is an exceptionally fine artist whose canvas happens to be a drumkit. Potential gimmicks such as a triangle, a dinner gong and a foot-operated cowbell were integrated seamlessly into a mesmerising tapestry of cross-rhythms, all executed with a jaw-dropping level of dynamic control.

Sassoon's playing pulsed with drama, her fondness for the keyboard's lower registers providing a reminder of just how loud and scary a piano can be. The ghosts of Debussy and Bartok jostled for prominence during many of her flights of fancy; elsewhere her cyclical themes and clinical precision recalled Steve Reich and any number of digital music computer programmes.

But perhaps the real stars of this gig were the pieces themselves. Possessing all the intricacy and variety of mini symphonies, they were soulful, vividly intelligent and innovative without ever becoming abstruse. Indeed, Azilut's achievement is to make something that sounds entirely their own without sacrificing one jot of accessibility. In doing so they have thrown down the gauntlet to young jazz musicians everywhere.

James Griffiths


At times it sounds as if there are more than three people on this sizzling trio record. Azilut! are proof that small cannot only be beautiful but extremely powerful when the chemistry and collective imagination is up to speed. Drummer Bart van Helsdingen, pianist Julie Sassoon and reed man Lothar Ohlmeier are all strong enough as individuals to compensate for any shortfalls that their limited instrumentation allows; the absence of a bassist goes unnoticed on 10 pieces that continually change shape, signature and texture but never runs out of ideas. Although this record is stylistically a long way from Elvin Jones/Cecil Taylor/Dewey Redman's Moment Space, another drums/piano/sax record of note, it nevertheless hits similar levels of energy and creativity. As with the aforementioned date, the key here is the flexibility of the players, particularly drummer Van Helsdingen whose ability to shore up the rhythm section and embellish the leads with fine detail is startling. His snare sound in particular has that tough drum machine-like muscle which gives the music   unbreakable backbone. Ultimate proof thereof comes in Pumpkin's Delight, a strident piece of drum & bass... with no bass. This is one of the best examples I've heard of the much-botched jazz jungle hybrid and it works for two reasons. First, the rhythm section pulsates as one; Sassoon's quasi-boogie woogie style basslines blend seamlessly into Van Helsdingen's rocket snare while Ohlmeier's steam powered sax chops into the main theme like a human chainsaw. Secondly, in a similar way to Ben Allison's Riding the Nuclear Tiger, the players have realised that breaking the energy of the A section to an almost bluesy dub interlude reconnects the idiom to its Jamaican roots; it's such a powerful narrative device. And elsewhere on the disc, there are many other flourishes to keep the listener guessing as to where the trio will go next, the cheekily twisted Latin groove of Finger Funk, the Perfect Houseplantsy folkism of Neigha and the spiritually charged Tranian surge of Metamorphosis. All of which makes for an album where the whole really is greater than the sum of the  parts.

Kevin Legendre


There are no jazz contenders for the Mercury this year, but if the judges wanted to find an example of British jazz at its creative best, they need look no further than To the Power of Three. This album mingles lyrical rapture with driving intensity, often at the same time. The music is characterised by flux, and is as fresh as water issuing from a rock.

Julie Sassoon, a pianist of astonishing resources, applies a concentrated beam of intelligence to everything she does. Her playing is restless, always searching for ways to make the music move, or to heighten the rapture still further. By comparison, Lothar Ohlmeier's saxophone is sober and austere, telepathically attuned to the quicksilver moods of his partner. Bart van Helsdingen has an inventive approach to the drums, and facilitates the flow and dynamic range of the music. All three contribute vibrant originals to the album.
Exciting and alive, Azilut! have a way of engaging with the emotions that gives them potentially universal appeal. If the Mercury judges fail to appreciate that, it's all our loss.

Mike Butler


Stirring stuff from a trio comprising pianist Julie Sassoon, drummer Bart van Helsdingen and saxophonist Lothar Ohlmeier.
Sassoon was previously a member of the contemporary classical group Piano Circus, and there are chamber and minimal to both her playing and compositions. When Ohlmeier switches to bass clarinet the chamber music feel is even stronger.
Some tracks sound like they could have wandered in from an ECM record, others have a quirky humour characteristic of a lot of modern British jazz; all are played with a marvellous combination of head and heart, with the interaction between all three both eloquent and direct.

Martin Longley



English pianist Julie Sassoon (no relation either to Vidal or Siegfried, as she patiently explains) is a new name and one to remember. Her music is difficult to classify, but if you like originality, intelligence, good taste and craftsmanship, chances are you'll enjoy it. The general ambit is free-improv, but with the big difference that it has a healthy heartbeat.  Julie prefers her free-improv to swing. So, for that matter, did the earliest American free-jazz pioneers like Ornette Coleman, who, while wildly unbounded in their own solos, always hired deep-grooving drummers like Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell to keep the express-train on the rails.
   The first thing you notice about Azilut!, the European trio with Sassoon, Dutch drummer Bart van Helsdingen and German reedman Lothar Ohlmeier, is the novel way they  keep a jazz pulse beating without rhythmic or melodic cliches. They manage this with interplay as slick as a champion basketball team's best moves. The lead is constantly changing, so everybody has a chance to carry the ball. Some of the most enjoyable moments come when the drums take the "melody" while Sassoon, her crisp keyboard articulation suggesting classical training, supplies the beat. Ohlmeier is probably classically trained too. His skilful tonal control and all-round experience in this sort of music is invaluable. Van Heldingen, another nifty team-player with fast hands and sharp ears, adds some steel-pan counterpoint here and there.
Their music is full of witty improvisation and brilliant writing. It's fresh as tomorrow's paper yet firmly in the jazz tradition.

Jack Massarik


Point Well Made!


AZILUT! Certainly merited the exclamation point in its name. Billed as contemplative and subtle, the descriptions left out the fantastically swinging and wonderfully musical drumming of Bart van Helsdingen.
   Julie Sassoon's piano playing, too, differed from expectation, with a style concerned with sonic texture and time more than harmonic complexity and space.
Drawing overtones through volume, repetition and stacking chords, she deftly and musically explored the microtonal possibilities of the fine piano. Her rhythmic sense was elegant and faultless.
   Also elegant, was Lothar Ohlmeier's judicious, melodic sax playing. He maintained a beautiful tone on all saxes and clarinets, blending seamlessly with the other two instruments.
    The group was completely at ease in a vast variety of time signatures, moving smoothly from 3:4 to 13:8 with no loss of swing.

Charlie Dunlap


Azilut? Not a typo for Azimuth but a vehicle for compositions by the trio members. Friends at Esoterics Anonymous tell me Azilut is a plane of existence without time or space, a realm of pure will and perfect balance. Whatever, the music is nicely balanced with a good sense of time, whether or not there is a clearly stated beat, and a spacious, airy feel.
   As far as I know, Sassoon and Ohlmeier debuted on record as a duo with the well received 1998 limited-edition CD Inside Colours , principally a showcase for Sassoon's tunes. The new album also foregrounds the writing. This trend to putting scores on a par with improvisations, largely attributable to ECM's influence, I guess, frequently produces flaccid results, with compositions too vapid to hold the attention and failing to inspire anything of note from the players, who are often exposed as capable only of decoration rather than full-on jazz improvisation. Azilut! largely dodges this trap.
   "Long Time", Ohlmeier's one compositional contribution, usefully summarises the trio's approach. A vivid example of their care with instrumental colour, it opens with light brushwork in a Latin rhythm, a vaguely ominous loping piano ostinato voiced in a way that momentarily fools you into hearing a shadowing bassist, and soprano lines that alternate between a cool but keen hovering melody, and ebullient but edgy main theme, and some crisp elaborations of both. As a player, Ohlmeier is lyrical with a pleasing tartness.
   Of Sassoon's pieces, "Coming Home" is founded on another ostinato, this one almost pastoral, a disrupted shuffle-beat which falls away at various points, and a robust melody which the tenor sometimes sings, sometimes declaims, sometimes mumbles. The lonesome, atmospheric "Baghdad Cafe" almost cheers itself up, whilst the random-sounding meandering chords of "Out Of Sync" nudge the tenor into the most left-field playing of the session. Its steel-pan coda segues into rippling piano on the more gregarious "Metamorphosis", which spotlights Van Helsdingen's tuneful drumming. "Wedding" is suitably celebratory with interludes for sober reflection. Van Helsdingen's compositions also rest on repetitive rhythmic ostinati, though his, usually more extended harmonically, are funk-inflected as distinct from Sassoon's more minimalistically-modular patterns, and prompt Ohlmeier into some of his grittiest playing.

Barry Witherden

Live reviews

Oregon and Julie Sassoon

THIS Sunday-section of the London Jazz Festival was reserved for sophisticates who like their jazz long on intelligence, sensuality and melody.
Sassoon, whose solo-piano album, New Life, recently received rave reviews, opened it in confident style.
Though classically trained and not imbued with jazz traditions (she lists her favourites as Scriabin, Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich and Egberto Gismonti), she showed a fine ear for chord voicings and a left hand rhythmically strong enough to sustain her right-hand ideas. The title track from her album was the pick of well-judged set of sensitive improvisations…



'In one of the most inspired pairings of the festival, Julie Sassoon opened the gig, drawing on her 2006 album 'New Life'. `Sassoon provided a beautifully balanced set that complemented what followed (Oregon) but also made new friends and converts…'


'…A riveting duo featuring Arthurs and pianist Julie Sassoon was followed by a 'time' piece centred on a simple repeated figure, in which Sassoon and Jendreiko in particular hit sparks off each other's playing in a wonderfully rumbustious piece of spontaneous interplay in which Sassoon (like Keith Tippett) proved that freely improvised (albeit in this case within a structure) piano playing can be imbued with all the delicacy and finesse that you'd expect from a classical sonata.

"Last month Julie Sassoon played a blinder with the band Freefall, proving herself a superb, hard-edged, vigorous improviser as well as a mesmeric solo performer (listen to her Babel album New Life for evidence of the latter talent)...."

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