Areni Agbabian is a California-born singer, songwriter, pianist, and storyteller of Armenian descent. Bloom is her debut offering for ECM and her sophomore long-player. She has recorded and toured with Tigran Hamasyan, Dhafer Youssef, Lars Danielsson, and Jan Bang, among others. Her accompanist on this set is Nicolas Stocker, a percussionist and member of Nik Bartsch's Mobile. This set is as sparse as can be, with just Agbabian's quietly probing voice, her lithe piano, and Stocker's expert use of organic percussion instruments. To describe Bloom as "sparse" is an understatement. It is skeletal. Silences and natural reverb are as important as the piano and percussion, creating a gauzy framework for the stark, spiritual resonance in Agbabian's lyrics and voice. Bloom draws inspiration from the singer's Armenian heritage with folk songs, stories, and ancient sacred hymns complementing her originals. There are two solo percussion pieces among these 17 works, both of which offer points of respite and focus to the listener. Agbabian's songs are gently startling. Opener "Patience" is at once a love song and a spiritual meditation as it reflects on a transition from action to perseverance, reflecting on the many hearts that make up "the one." With its triad of introductory chords, "Mother" introduces the singer: "I have seen and lived those ways/But now I stand, cleansed in the Mother…" -- it's a song of redemption and revelation whose single lines are drawn out in the breath so that each one is audible. The listener is not so much enveloped as welcomed inside. "The Water Bride" is adapted from an Armenian folk tale, a spoken word piece where the piano's pedals, muted keys, Tibetan bowls, and various percussion instruments frame a narrative allegory of tragedy and transformation disguised as a morality play. Several of the artist's short pieces are spaced as interludes throughout; on "Petal One," she delivers a minor-key melody as her wordless vocal opens another spatial dimension. The Armenian sacred hymn "Anganim Arachi Ko" is performed wordlessly with only the piano's upper register as accompaniment. "Garun A" is a dark folk melody preserved by Komitas, performed with foreboding tom-toms and deep drums by Stocker, with Agbabian illustrating its verse in wordless utterances. "The River" offers minimal percussive effects that create a swift, multi-dimensional tempo that Agbabian responds to in freely improvised singing, moaning, and chanting. "Full Bloom" uses a quote from the Song of Solomon to juxtapose perception and transformation of the self through the lens of the natural world with piano hovering on the margins before culminating in a realization of Divine love. Bloom is unlike any album in ECM’s vast catalog; its starkness and simplicity gently prompt listeners to lean into these expressions of spiritual and emotional longing -- not to comprehend them, but to be magically absorbed by them.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek