This trio didn’t know how lucky they had it. They were certainly happy to perform again when this concert was recorded at the ArtActs Festival in St Johan Austria in early March 2020. Although their first outing was back in 2013 in Harnik’s hometown of Graz - a live concert broadcast through the Austrian National Radio/ORF, the band has had a sporadic performance history. So the opportunity to reunite for this festival performance was already special. Little did they know what lay ahead though, with a pandemic that was actually breaking out right around them in the Alpine ski areas of Tirol, Austria, an epicenter that would soon be tied to COVID’s spread around Europe by international vacationers. This opening night of ArtActs ‘20 would be one of those last care-free times, when one could sit until the wee hours at the bar with friends, celebrating a night of music-making with laughter and cheer, and with no concern for a shared breath.
Thankfully, these three took advantage of the opportunity to produce a stellar document of their performance. Astragaloi is the third release by this trio formation, after the digital-only “Wistfully” which came out in 2016 on Aerophonic, and 2020’s "Triple Tube" issued on cd by Not Two. While some of those records have flown under the radar because of the trio’s sparse performance schedule, that doesn’t diminish the musical simpatico that these three have enjoyed for years. Ever since Harnik’s introduction to the Chicago scene at the 2008 Umbrella Music Festival when she was a featured visiting artist, she’s actively maintained the relationships she built there, including with Rempis and Zerang. Aside from their work as a trio, all three have worked together in duo contexts since that first meeting.
On Astragaloi, it may be Harnik’s wide-ranging abilities that tie things together in such an astounding way. At one moment her preparations inside the piano turn the instrument into a quietly percussive zither, while at another her full-throated insistence at the keyboard draws out the resonance of a full orchestra. Skittering, plucking, pounding, caressing. And while she has the sheer energy to keep up with Rempis’ firebreathing tendencies, she also knows how to rein him in to quieter, more abstract spaces that explore breathy nuance and pinpoint texture. Zerang meanwhile displays the singular approach that he’s developed on the drum kit, rooted in his Middle Eastern upbringing and the significant abilities as a hand percussionist that he developed early on. That approach frees him as an improviser from so many of the tropes common to “drummers,” as he pushes the instrument beyond groove to focus on color, density, articulation, dynamics, and drive, in a way that creates an uncommon unity within the group. There are no specialized duties here, all three of these improvisers roll up their sleeves to keep the narrative momentum moving forward using every tool at their disposal.
Astragaloi is a joint release between Aerophonic and Idyllic Noise in Austria, which releases the same material on vinyl later this spring!!