The most significant thing about Tempo is that it was recorded live in concert at the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. This octagonal space (pictured on the album cover, right) opened in 1971, a year after Mark Rothko's death. It is sparsely furnished and painted white, with fourteen of Rothko's late works—large black canvasses—displayed around its walls. All of this gives the chapel a unique ambience that is conducive to quiet contemplation, if not prayer. It has inspired musicians ranging from Morton Feldman to Peter Gabriel («Fourteen Black Paintings» from Us). As well as a stream of visitors and pilgrims, the chapel frequently hosts music concerts and several live albums have been recorded there, including Keith Rowe's Concentration of the Stare (Bottrop-Boy, 2011). Rowe has said that «the room» can be as important as the musicians in shaping a performance. In this case, it deserves equal billing...
The history of Mural is bound up with that of the Rothko Chapel. The trio consists of Australian saxophonist and flautist Jim Denley plus two Norwegians, guitarist Kim Myhr and Spanish-resident percussionist Ingar Zach. The three first performed together in Madrid, in 2007, and have played around the world since then, releasing three previous albums. They have played live in the chapel on three separate occasions, the first and third of those resulting in the recordings Live at the Rothko Chapel (Rothko Chapel Publications, 2011), a single CD recorded in March 2010, and Tempo, recorded in April 2013. So, of four Mural album releases to date, two were recorded in the chapel.
The 2013 concert, preserved on Tempo, lasted for four hours and so the album is on a grander scale than its predecessor. Although it is a triple-CD set, as its track titles indicate, it does not document the entire concert just the last three hours, beginning with the track «Second Hour.» While the album as a whole makes three hours of enthralling listening, the tracks do not present a continuous record of the concert and each can be appreciated in its own right, in isolation from the others. As always with Mural, the contributions of the players fit together well, creating a full and varied sound with each of them clearly distinguishable. At opposite ends of the frequency spectrum, Myhr's strummed zither or 12-string guitar and Zach's gran cassa (bass drum) fill out the soundscape to good effect.
The duration of the concert, no doubt coupled with the chapel's atmosphere, had a noticeable effect on the trio's music. In most improvised music, the musicians can be heard responding to one another, resulting in rapid evolution. By comparison, the music here seems to work on a different timescale and to evolve far more slowly. All three players sound patient and relaxed, happy to take time over their explorations without undue haste. No-one is under any pressure because no-one is applying pressure. So, for instance, Denley frequently holds long notes, seeming to savour their sound in the space, while Myhr's strumming and Zach's percussion both serve to sustain and colour the ensemble sound. From the cohesive nature of their music, it is obvious that all three are aware of the others' contributions, but they all seem content to let things develop naturally with no-one obvious goading. The music does have clear peaks and troughs but they happen steadily over time, never sounding forced. The musicians deserve credit not only for fine musicianship but also for their powers of concentration and endurance. Bravo!
This music cannot be rushed but is best savoured at length. Despite lasting nearly three hours, when heard in its entirety it can make time feel irrelevant—in much the same way that time spent in the Rothko Chapel does. Listening to the album, it is easy to feel envious of the audience who were fortunate enough to be there in person on the night in question. For the rest of us, the recorded version feels as good as having been there.