June 20, 2016

Of Mystery and Beauty

On their seventh collaborative work, alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer and drummer Drori Mondlak enlist pianist Rainer Böhm and bassist John Goldsby to round out their KLARO! quartet.

Mondlak’s sensitive cymbal-and-mallet work embellishes Strassmayer’s mournful lines on the opening “From Her Pale Blue Home.” As Böhm and Goldsby make their presence known, Strassmayer’s lines become fluid and plaintive. The minor melody, as well as the saxophonist’s tone and phrasing, convey a profound yearning and wistfulness. Although these hues are prominent throughout, they aren’t the only ones with which she paints. Strassmayer’s playing is bey turns dreamy and introspective, swinging and forceful.

Sensitive and precise, Mondlak is more colorist than timekeeper. In fact, he’s frequently compared to his former instructor, Joe Morello, and also brings to mind Paul Motian. On “Gently Spoke the Mermaid,” Mondlak dissolves into the tune, laying down soft patterns with brushes. And “Cascades” is that rarest of musical commodities – a drum solo that maintains listeners’ interest without resorting to bombast. Strassmayer can be frantic and exploratory, as on the group improvisation “Four Us All,” or nuanced, as on “Gently Spoke the Mermaid.” Not the title track, Goldsby’s melodic opening solo states the theme, which is then picked up thy his bandmates. Strassmayer’s lines float atop the rhythmic bed, lending a breezy feel. Meanwhile, Böhm contributes a delightful solo, his seemingly offhand riffs descending the keyboard just before Strassmayer re-enters.

The album displays not only the promises of its title, but also a wonderful sense of cohesion among its participants. – Ross Boissoneau


“Over the past decade and a half Austrian saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer has established herself as a superbly consummate musician. Her multifaceted compositions are always subtly, engagingly inventive and brim with brilliant wit and lyricism. As an improviser she plays with a reserved intensity and a captivating and suave spontaneity. Her seventh release Of Mystery and Beauty showcases again her unique style that has matured and ripened without losing any of its vibrant energy. 

Like all of Strassmayer’s previous albums this one is also in collaboration with American drummer Drori Mondlak. An undisputed master percussionist Mondlak, with his virtuosity and bold, explorative spirit, is the indispensable driving force behind the pair’s music. Case in point; his unaccompanied solo “Cascades” is breathtakingly spirited and unexpectedly tuneful. 

Together with their quartet KLARO! Strassmayer and Mondlak interpret the ten originals with a sublime mix of magical ethereality and visceral earthiness. The title track for instance opens with bassist John Goldsby’s contemplative reverberating strings. Pianist Rainer Böhm’s resonant chiming keys and Mondlak’s softly propulsive beats create an expectant ambience for Strassmayer’s yearning poetry. Heavily tinged with mysticism. Strassmayer lets loose intricate meandering alto lines that build an intriguing and passionate melody. After Böhm’s shimmering, incandescent deluge of notes tense sonic fragments usher in the darkly hued conclusion. 

The dramatic and provocative “Four Us All” has an otherworldly mood and lilting cadence. Mondlak’s primal rumble and rustling sticks together with Goldsby’s thumping vamps and Böhm’s sparse, haunting chords form a loose and angular rhythmic framework. Strassmayer fills this gripping harmonic shell with her free flowing and open-ended extemporization making the piece one of the most innovative on the record. 

Elsewhere on the funky and emotive “Side by Side” Strassmayer’s blues-drenched saxophone dances seductively and with muscular phrases around the main theme. Böhm’s buoyant piano echoes and expands on the altoist’s mordant and acerbic tones and stirring wail. 

The vigorous “Fanfare From Another World,” meanwhile, features Böhm’s lithe pianism. His breathtaking acrobatics are equal parts technical prowess and elegant artistry. Strassmayer blows with fiery gusto the bubbling head over her band-mates hard swinging refrains. Mondlak bisects the tune with his thunderous thumps and complex, overlapping polyrhythms. 

This captivating record closes with the hypnotic and gorgeous ballad “Still In Her Ears.” This Strassmayer and Böhm duet spotlights the former’s thick breathy flute as it undulates gracefully over the latter’s introspective and classically influenced performance. 

Simultaneously unconventional and accessible Of Mystery and Beauty is an imaginative work. With charm and intelligence it eschews both abstruseness and banality. It engrosses with its diversity yet remains conceptually cohesive. It stimulates and moves with its ingenious complexity and fascinating fluidity. In short it is, to date, Strassmayer and Mondlak’s finest disc and one that surely will stand the test of time.
Track Listing: From Her Pale Blue Home; Of Mystery and Beauty; Postcard From a Quiet Place; Fanfare From Another World; Wandering; Gently Spoke The Mermaid; Four Us All; Of Space And Rest; Side To Side; Cascades; Still In Her Ears.”

– Hrayr Attarian


“Altsaxophonistin Karolina Strassmayer und Schlagzeuger Drori Mondlak sind schon seit etwa 15 Jahren ein Paar – musikalisch und privat. Die Österreicherin und der in Mexiko geborene New Yorker zogen von New York nach Köln, nachdem Karolina Strassmayer 2004 Mitglied der WDR Big Band wurde. Seitdem haben sie mit ihrer Band KLARO! eine Reihe von beachtlichen CDs veröffentlicht, doch die jetzt vorliegende „Of Mystery and Beauty“ stellt einen (vorläufigen) Höhepunkt ihrer künstlerischen Entwicklung dar. Drori Mondlak besticht als feinfühliger Begleiter, etwa mit eleganter Besenarbeit in „Gently Spoke the Mermaid“, der jederzeit präsent ist, ohne sich in den Vordergrund zu stellen. Karolina Strassmayer überzeugt mit ihrem prägnanten, kultivierten Sound auf dem Altsaxofon und beherrscht die schwierige Kunst, in Balladen melodische Geschichten zu erzählen, etwa im Titelstück. Sie zeichnet auch verantwortlich für neun der elf Kompositionen der CD, die ihre Fähigkeit demonstrieren, schöne abwechslungsreiche Melodien wie „Postcard From a Quiet Place“ oder „Fanfare From Another World“ in Erinnerung an ihr Jazz-„Erweckungserlebnis“ durch die Musik von Cannonball Adderley zu schreiben. Mit John Goldsby ist Strassmayers Kollege aus der WDR Big Band und erklärter Lieblingsbassist erneut dabei, der seine Töne mit viel Geschmack setzt, die Musik erdet und Mondlak Freiräume eröffnet. Nach Gitarre und Vibraphon hat KLARO! auf dieser CD erstmalig das Klavier als viertes Instrument dabei und mit Rainer Böhm exzellent besetzt. Böhm erweist sich als musikalisch Gleichgesinnter sowohl als Begleiter als auch in seinen Solos, etwa in „Wandering“. Die CD endet höchst romantisch mit „Still In Her Ears“, einem wunderschönen Duett von Böhm und Karolina Strassmayer an der Flöte. „Of Mystery and Beauty“ lässt das neue Jahr sogleich mit einem Highlight beginnen.”


“In their third album together, their second as co-leaders, the spaciousness and delicacy of Karolina Strassmayer’s alto saxophone meld with the understated power of her husband Drori Mondlak’s drumming. The results are creative tension and whirling currents of surprise beneath the often-placid surface of music made by the spare combination of saxophone, drums, guitar and bass. Strassmayer is Austrian. Mondlak is an American of Polish parentage, born in Mexico City. In Strassmayer’s soloing, without quoting or making direct reference to John Coltrane, she nonetheless makes clear that the example of his boldness and lyricism helped to shape her concept. Her Coltrane tinge is apparent throughout, dramatically so in harmonic intervals and the shape of her phrasing in “Call of the Forefathers.” Nowhere in the album does Strassmayer’s own personality shine more radiantly than in her unaccompanied cadenza near the end of “Seven Minutes in Heaven;” a full minute of melodic invention and subtle dynamics.

The precision, speed and reserved strength of Mondlak’s drumming are reminiscent of Joe Morello in his early years with Dave Brubeck. Although his uses of brushes and cymbals to color the music are major strengths in this quartet, he leaves no doubt that he is a full-service sticks drummer. In “Last One Standing” his technique is apparent in the tempo changes, breaks, and interplay with the veteran German bassist Ingmar Heller. With Heller, Mondlak’s longtime American guitar colleague Cary DeNigris provides not only harmonic support but also imaginative soloing that ranges from delicate single-line improvisations to the energy and slightly acerbic distortions of his tone on “Last One Standing.” This international quartet’s blend of consistent quality and adventurousness gives it staying power. It is one of the most interesting small groups at work today.” – Doug Ramsey



“Altoist Karolina Strassmayer and drummer Drori Mondlak’s second release as co-leaders Small Moments is a collection of lean and gripping original compositions that the superlative quartet embellishes with their sophisticated and inventive spontaneity…Prior to them joining forces both Strassmayer and Mondlak were well known as creative and intelligent improvisers and instrumentalists in their own right. Together they have refined their art to achieve a bold elegance that is both delightful and provocative, eschewing both abstruseness and platitude.” – Hrayr Attarian



On this passionately swinging affair, the husband-wife team of alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer (featured with the WDR Big Band Cologne) and drummer Drori Mondlak is joined by bassist John Goldsby and the sensational guitarist Cary DeNigris. They come out of the gate blowing with intensity on the Trane-inspired “Calling All Shadows,” a cut featuring a powerful sax-drums breakdown midway through. Strassmayer’s “Promise to Myself” and her sublime “You’re Either a Goddess or a Doormat,” along with a beautiful rendition of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now,” highlight her bold alto tones ina more serene setting, while DeNigris’ chops-busting “See You Later (On the Other Side)” and funky “What Was That” have her digging deep into a blues-tinged Cannonball bag. Mondlak’s “After All” and his solo drum piece, “Overtime,” showcase his melodic sensibility. – Bill Milkowski, JazzTimes March 2012



“On Strassmayer’s third release as a leader, her sound has matured and she’s more distinctive as both a player and a composer. She builds compositions around intricate themes that are instantly engaging and memorable. For example, on “The Tragic Lives of Maximilian and Carlota,” a bittersweet, yearning ballad, Strassmayer expresses the melancholy theme with deep, bluesy conviction. Her far-reaching and complex improvisations are always mellifluous. On the serpentine sonata “You’re Either a Goddess or a Doormat,” her bandmates create a sparse, Zen-like atmosphere that only enhances its emotional reach.”


“From the first notes of “Calling All Shadows” we’re in for something special. As the saxophone of Karolina Strassmayer prays for rain, the dark, rolling toms provide thunder and the cymbals blow like the wind. The group KLARO! has put out remarkable recordings before but there is more animal energy on this one, with soloists prowling the tunes like hungry cats: restrained but deadly serious. This is the kind of record jazz fans will want, one in which the group sustains shared responsibility for every note and every tune. Plus, Strassmayer is an inspired soloist.Great passion. Great intelligence.”


“Karolina Strassmayer, geboren 1971 in Bad Mitterndorf, Österreich, spielt Altsaxofon in der WDR Bigband und wurde vom amerikanischen Downbeat Readers Poll als eine der fünf besten Altsaxophonisten des Jahres gelistet…Eine vielschichtige Musikerin, die sich auch gern selber überrascht: Karolina Strassmayer soliert mit allen Mitteln der Kunst, aber offensichtlich getrieben von einer feurigen Imagination. Ungebremst schraubt sie sich hoch, schwingt sich ohne Netz und doppelten Boden ins Ungewisse, wo sie dann doch elegant landet. Wenn ihr die Pferde durchgehen, entstehen oft die stärksten Momente, von denen aus sie weitersurft: wilde Fantasie statt eintrainierter Phrasen. Die Försterstochter aus der Steiermark, ausgebildet an der Musikhochschule in Graz, hat es bereits in jungen Jahren geschafft, das Kultivierte und das Ungezähmte in einem Strom zu verbinden.” – Mauretta Heinzelmann