Milestone and four-week hiatus

As of my last post (Sinikka Langeland’s Starflowers), I’ve reviewed ECM’s first 1000 releases. Add to this the scattered others from later on in the catalogue, and that leaves only 144 albums before I “catch up” with the label’s unflinching rate of release. On July 17, I’ll be leaving for a four-week trip to Japan, during which time I will abstain from reviewing, immersed as I’ll be in linguistic and academic research in Kyoto. I’m sure you’ll find enough to mull over in the interim ;)

I’m beyond grateful to all of my readers, transient and constant alike, who’ve given me the resolve to keep this project going. Synchronicity is within reach!

Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (ECM 1996)

Starflowers

Sinikka Langeland
Starflowers

Sinikka Langeland vocal, kantele
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Anders Jormin double-bass
Markku Ounaskari percussion
Recorded May 2006 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It is one of those nights
when loneliness stands with its back turned to everything
and its face frozen fast in the western sky.

“Starflowers” is both an apt name for Sinikka Langeland’s ECM debut and for the cast assembled beneath its canopy. The Norwegian vocalist and kantele (Finnish table harp) player welcomes trumpeter Arve Henriksen, saxophonist Trygve Seim, bassist Anders Jormin, and percussionist Markku Ounaskari for her original settings of verses by lumberjack-poet Hans Børli (1918-1989). Although classically trained, Langeland has nurtured a longstanding interest in folk music. This disc takes that interest into crucible, concentrating it into a melodic cosmology all her own. That Jan Garbarek was an early influence should come as no surprise, for the same mystical undercurrents that inform his own music are undeniably present in hers (refer especially to Mari Boine’s appearances with the saxophonist’s eponymous Group).

Sinikka
(Photo by Dag Alveng)

That said, Langeland is possessed of a voice and touch like no other. The latter, as fed through her five-octave concert kantele (different from the one pictured above) is striking enough to preclude the need for voice. Like the Japanese shō or Constantinople lyra, it’s one of those instruments that seems handed down from on high, left to sing of a homeland to which it can never return. It spins an earthy web as well, shimmering with the pliancy of water but the strength of trees. So preaches the album’s first song, “Høstnatt på Fjellskogen” (Autumn Night in the Mountain Woods), in which Langeland paints entire scenes with a caress of the strings, warping their sound to suit a dreamlike cast. It’s as if the words pull at her, and we hear their pull in every pitch-bent note. The forest is palpable.

Although Børli may rightly be considered a naturalist poet, he was not entirely unaware of the workaday world:

The earth seems to climb and climb,
Lifting into the sky.
Then suddenly there’s calm.
As when the elevator halts
Somewhere on the higher floors and
you take instinctively a backward step
to keep your balance.

Such analogizing only serves his commitment to the outdoors, where his imagery finds common home. Whether chipped away in “Saltstein” (Rock Salt) or emerging from the brushed snare and ghostly bassing of “Sus i myrull” (Whispers in the Cotton Grass) in Meredith Monk-like song-speech, a feeling of rootedness reigns. And in “Langt innpå skoga” (Deep in the Woods), a scrim of frost clings to Langeland’s raw voice, reflecting jazzier denouements from Seim and Ounaskari that speak of urban climes far in the distance.


(A solo version of “Langt innpå skoga”)

“Stjernestund” (A Moment of Stars) and “Treet som vekser opp-ned” (The Tree That Grows Upside Down) take on a decidedly mystical air. Cosmic percussion in the one gives life through primal contact, while the other indulges in the power of progression. Both grow in tangled vines, fanciful yet sure as sun and sky. The scintillating quality never weakens. Like the titular instrument of “Den lille fløyten” (The Little Flute), its potential waits for the right person to come along and share it. Even stronger album highlights include “Det er ei slik natt” (It Is One of Those Nights), which features Langeland’s lone voice against the aurora borealis of Jormin’s harmonics, and “Elghjertet” (The Moose Heart), which tells of the same thrown steaming into the snow after a hunt. The heart is covered before the cutting of the carcass is done, left forgotten, cooling to crimson ice.

The album’s three instrumentals are sacred in their own light. “Sølv” (Silver) and “Støv” (Dust) explore likeminded ostinatos, glistening and true. The jazzier “Vindtreet” finds Langeland contributing wordless vocals as the band ventures into its freest territories settling into the quiet sheen and shimmer of strings. All roads, then, lead to “Har du lyttet til elvene om natta?” (Have You Listened to the Rivers in the Night?), where Seim’s soprano and Jormin’s bass embrace a rift of kantele in the rock. The river between them is at once artery and vein. The music builds with urgency, but looses every fish caught back into current. In the wake of their sudden departure, a heat distortion breathes like a church organ fading into sleep.

If you listen long to the rivers in the night,
listen long,
it is at last as if your soul
is mysteriously remembering its future.

François Couturier: Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky (ECM 1979)

Nostalghia

François Couturier
Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded December 2005, Auditorium Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What kind of world is this if a madman tells you you must be ashamed of yourselves? Music now!”

So espouses Erland Josephson as Domenico in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 masterpiece Nostalghia, of which this album by pianist François Couturier takes the name. Domenico is, in many ways, himself a musical figure. As the very madman he admonishes, one who shackled his family in their own home for seven years as protection against an imperfect world, he is constantly refolding his own psyche in a leitmotif of fixation, building reality from blocks of fanciful impulses, each more poetic than the last. Yet as Tarkovsky himself once averred, art exists only because the world is imperfect. Music thrives on insanity.

That said, the even keel of Nostalghia presents the listener with such an expressive compass that even the most elemental sound becomes a northward tug. Anyone who has followed Couturier’s ECM travels will know that he is a musician of many directions. From the taut classical forays of Poros to the border-crossing trio recordings with Anouar Brahem (see Le pas du chat noir and Le voyage de sahar), he is anything but predictable. Counting cellist Anja Lechner, accordionist Jean Louis Matinier, and saxophonist Jean Marc Larché among the present company, he darkens Tarkovsky’s blueprints with the press of every key until they are ashen with wayfaring.

The album’s outer circle is inscribed by way of “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which seeds the opening and closing tracks by way of profound lament. In the absence of words, “Le Sacrifice” (Bach’s aria appears in the Tarkovsky film of the same name) holds on to the text of the moment. In the absence of the cross, one feels the intersection of piano and accordion as a sacrifice in and of itself. The feeling of decay is palpable—surely, if imperceptibly, approaching disappearance—as was Tarkovsky’s play of color and shadow. The concluding “L’éternel retour” unravels by way of piano alone. Like a lost entry from Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s The Promise), its hand closes the lid of a box that houses creative spirit. That the song bears dedication to Erland Josephson indicates Couturier’s attention to detail in paying tribute not only to the artist of interest, but also his brilliant actors and collaborators.

“Crépusculaire,” for instance, honors Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s right-hand cinematographer (who also filmed The Sacrifice) and moves accordingly by the touch of Lechner’s picturesque bowing. Her feel for notecraft and harmony is matched only by her attention to atmosphere. Couturier blends pigments with charcoal-stained fingers, each a pontiff reduced to a smudge across gray sky as the accordion finds its peace in the waters below. The combination aches with dew, trembling on grass stems when the three instruments at last share the same breath in focus.

“Nostalghia” is for screenwriter Tonino Guerra, with whom Tarkovsky co-wrote the screenplay for that very film. It opens us to the affectations of the full quartet and takes its inspiration from Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1 for violoncello and piano. This gentle music is a wish turned into stone and laid in stagnant water. The most obvious dedication, “Andreï,” also incorporates the Schnittke. A steady pulse in the left hand frees the right to orbit the keyboard, while the accordion fits like wind to wing over barren plains of consciousness.

“Stalker” gives proper attention to Eduard Artemyev, who wrote the soundtracks for that film and Solaris, and meshes bucolic and hypermodern impulses in kind. Its impactful pianism gives up many relics, each more sacred than the last. Anatoly Solonitsyn, lead actor of Andrei Rublev, is the final dedicatee. With its allusions to the “Amen” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, “Toliu” multiplies shades of night.

Although Couturier consciously avoided the evocation of specific Tarkovsky scenery (this is more than a concept album), the feeling of pathos is so visual that one might as well be watching a film by the great director. The pianism shines like the water so prevalent in Tarkovsky’s cinema, if not swimming among many artifacts strewn below the surface. And in any sense, Couturier is very much the director of all that one hears throughout the program, as borne out most directly in the freely improvised “Solaris I” and “Solaris II.” In these the soprano saxophone turns the sun into a pilot light, and the world its oven, even as the rest of the ensemble hangs icicles from the eaves. Still, the overall effect is more literary than filmic, picking up words and turning them into actions that grow with listening.

“Ivan” references Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s first feature. Its declamatory beginning spawns an almost theatrical feeling in distorted fairytale gestures before the quartet rejoins to finish off strong. In the wake of such confluence, Couturier’s solo “Miroir” wipes the slate clean, leaving superbly engineered ambience as the only evidence of an inner world to be discovered. Each step taken on this Escherian staircase walks a path of light.

Perfection may be an impossible ideal, but this album almost touches it. It’s a sheet of paper curling into its own insecurity for want of inscription. Don’t let it slip through your fingers, no matter what kind of quill you wield.

Ralph Towner: Time Line (ECM 1968)

Time Line

Ralph Towner
Time Line

Ralph Towner guitar
Recorded September 2005 at Propstei St. Gerold, Austria
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ralph Towner has left many indelible fingerprints along his trail of solo guitar albums, yet none so transcendent as by the acoustics of St. Gerold. The Austrian monastery has long served as recording venue of choice for the Hilliard Ensemble and other ECM New Series acts. The magnification engendered by its architecture serves only to bring out the expanse of Towner’s jazzier vocabulary, which somehow comes across all the more intimately. Exhibit A: “The Pendant.” Its lilting chromatism patterns itself like breathing, dripping just as involuntarily from Towner’s hands. Its reflective classical guitar evokes a veritable photo album of places and faces. Towner traces the flurry of sunlit arpeggios that make up his “Oleander Etude,” for instance, back to memories of Sicily, where oleanders grow in plenitude by the roadside, recreated here by the piece’s traveling speed. Other Sicily-inspired pieces are “Anniversary Song” (written for his wife, actress Mariella Lo Sardo), “Turning Of The Leaves” (written in collaboration with singer Maria Pia De Vito), and “The Lizards Of Eraclea,” which despite its evocative title has little at all to do with lizards. In contrast, “Always By Your Side” takes direct inspiration from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, for a production of which Towner once wrote it as incidental music—although, as he recalls, it feels more like Broadway than Elizabethan theatre. Like so much of the disc, it takes on its own life, dripping sweetness into the ear even as the heart proclaims it within. Whatever the original associations might have been, the truth of these pieces begins here.

Whereas Towner often allows for improvisation, “The Hollows” is through-composed. Its warped harmonies cohere by a strange geometry, which by the end reveals itself to be balanced and assured. “Five Glimpses,” on the other hand, is a collection of entirely improvised vignettes that arose during the recording process. Each is a window into Towner’s mind at work and switches from diaristic meditation to tense poetry at the drop of a pin. The final glimpse is all of 25 seconds of finger tapping, as magical as it is fleeting. Somewhere between the two is “If.” Towner interprets it as a self-contained call and response, whereby the language of the piece emerges through melodic parthenogenesis. Indeed, its shape is almost helical, a strand of DNA floating through its own dream on a cloud. Even as one of the busier pieces of the set, it wants not for breathing room.

“Come Rain Or Come Shine” is one of two standards on the album once favored by Bill Evans, an early influence on Towner. This one, by Harold Arlen (most famous for “Over the Rainbow”), is another nimble turn from Towner, who carves through it a maze with many solutions. The other standard is George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which, like Towner’s chromatic “Freeze Frame” that precedes it, is played on the 12-string guitar. Both pieces employ a nonstandard tuning that inks the waters. From the Gershwin especially, it teases out a shade of blue hitherto absent.

With his usual solitary, tactile quality, Towner has created a real artifact in sound. Meticulously designed and played, its arching motifs and rhythms come across with photographic assurance, so that one may return to them time and again, knowing they will never change.

The Source: s/t (ECM 1966)

The Source

The Source

Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Øyvind Brække trombone
Mats Eilertsen double-bass
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Recorded July 2005 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Trygve Seim offers a second helping of his eponymous group. True to form, the egalitarian collective redefines parameters, shedding the string quartet from 2002’s The Source and Different Cikadas and focusing instead on the Norwegian saxophonist’s core quartet with trombonist Øyvind Brække, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and drummer Per Oddvar Johansen.

The lion’s share of the writing comes from Brække, who embraces extremes of mood and register. Approaching the set list from the outside in, one encounters the slow burn of midnight oil in “Caballero” (the title, of course, a reference to Don Quixote) and, one layer in, “Water Glass Rhapsody.” Both tracks go down like cold coffee, Eilertsen either flying high or growling, tiger-like, in the depths of abstraction as the horns ready their wings. Deeper mining reveals more upbeat ends of the spectrum, as in the Johansen-centered “Alle Blå De Er.” The drummer, too, shows range in his “Tamboura Rasa.” Through misty cymbals, singing bass, and the crackling kindling of horns, this highly descriptive track paints itself one stroke at a time. Although Seim contributes a single tune (the kinetically astute “Un Fingo Andalou,” a play on Buñuel and Dalí’s 1929 masterpiece Un Chien Andalou), he often carries the full weight of the band in his bell, particularly in Brække’s “Prelude To A Boy.”

The Source furthermore pays tribute to the label it calls home. ECM’s output has been of lasting influence among the band members, and it shows. “Libanera” gives props to its composer, drummer Edward Vesala, in whose last group Seim played. To that fortunate collaboration he gives soulful deference, digging some of his strongest trenches yet. The rhythm section is aptly attuned to his stubborn prosody all the while. The trombonist’s other themes cross even more hatches. “Life So Far” means to evoke Keith Jarrett’s Belonging lineup and comes as a welcome surprise after the quicksand of the album’s first half (it’s also where Seim takes a match to his tenor and reveals the fire behind the smoke). The funkier “Mail Me Or Leave Me” might easily be mistaken for a Dave Holland joint, while the concluding “A Surrender Triptych” is an homage to the golden age of Triptykon. The band even references itself with the Johansen-penned “Mmball,” reprised from its appearance on Cikadas. The resolution of Seim and Brække’s slight dissonances into smooth becomings, in combination with the rhythm section’s lyrical sway, makes for some quintessential soundings.

This is music in primary colors that looks to light and shadow for variation, and crafts along the way a warm welcome for any who might chance to sit down for a spell and listen.

Marilyn Mazur/Jan Garbarek: Elixir (ECM 1962)

Elixir

Elixir

Marilyn Mazur marimba, bowed vibraphone and waterphone, hang, bells, gongs, cymbals, magic drum, log drum, sheep bells, Indian cowbells, udu drum, various drums and metal utensils
Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, flute
Recorded June 2005 at Sun Studio, Copenhagen
Engineer: Bjarne Hansen
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As resident percussionist of the Jan Garbarek Group for 14 years, Marilyn Mazur enlivened every path set before her with dynamism and panache. On Elixir, she delineates her own compass and invites Garbarek on a journey of organic play, thus yielding a composite sketchbook of improvised solos, duos, and multitracked collages.

Each of the album’s 21 tracks is an iceberg’s tip. Only the penultimate “Winter Wish” exceeds four minutes, and with it the waterline. This and other such evocative titles as “The Siren In The Well,” “Mountain Breath” (which sounds for all like an eagle dreaming of a whale), and “Bell-Painting” afford imaginings for the wayward listener fortunate to wander into these territories. The latter title is especially appropriate, for Mazur is very much a painter whose palette is her instrument. From a kit that spans the globe, she chooses only the most appropriate pigment for each image. Be it the splash of a Chinese gong (cf. “Creature Walk” and “Talking Wind”), the pulse of hand on taut skin (“Mother Drum”), or the resonant metals of “Pathway,” she reverse engineers gold into its base components and treats each as if it were just as precious. Her solos speak to the heart because they speak to the earth: the two are one in the same.

Her duets with Garbarek both open (“Clear”) and close (“Clear Recycle”) the program. The Norwegian saxophonist’s rasp brings out the light of Mazur’s subterranean designs and with it illuminates their innermost dances. Colors reveal themselves accordingly in the sheer variety of instruments. Whether by hang drum or waterphone, cymbals or flute, their groove magnifies the great within: foot to earth as soul to sky. Through them run the ley lines of the plains, singing and free. Like the track from which the album gets its name, they feed an incantation of which verses come and go like clouds, if only to remind us that the sky above never goes away, for that is where we will go when our bodies bend over in silence.

Miroslav Vitous Group w/Michel Portal: Remembering Weather Report (ECM 2073)

Remembering Weather Report

Miroslav Vitous Group
Remembering Weather Report

Miroslav Vitous double-bass
Franco Ambrosetti trumpet
Gary Campbell tenor saxophone
Gerald Cleaver drums
Michel Portal bass clarinet
Recorded fall 2006 and spring 2007 at Universal Syncopation Studios
Recording producer and engineer: Miroslav Vitous
Assistant engineer: Andrea Luciano
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

After the challenging yet ultimately rewarding experimentalism of Universal Syncopations II, Remembering Weather Report comes as a breath of fresh air for bassist Miroslav Vitous, who preens previously undetected feathers in this warped look back. Indeed, similarities to the titular fusion band with which Vitous once played (and which he co-founded with Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul) are glancing at best. Here that original band’s fiercely democratic approach takes on new hues as individual instruments click through the front line like a roulette of alter egos in the form of Americans Gerald Cleaver on drums and Gary Campbell on tenor, and Swiss trumpeter Franco Ambrosetti.

In addition, French clarinetist and new music advocate Michel Porter joins the quartet on half of the album’s six hefty tunes. His involvement unleashes the firmest successes thereof, as in an aching set of variations on Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” (the only track not from the bandleader’s pen) and “Surfing With Michel,” a spirited duet between Vitous and Porter that is the missing capstone to the core quartet’s great pyramid. Another set of variations on Wayne Shorter material finds the bassist shuffling between arco and pizzicato modes, all the while navigating a flurry of drums with a papercutter’s feel for negative space. A surreal and frenetic sense of control reigns, skipping with assurance.

The tripartite “Semina” is Vitous at his most honest, although this time Cleaver divulges heart and soul, inciting as he does calligraphic brilliance from Campbell and, in the concluding “Blues Report,” a swift kick to the stratosphere, where soars the album’s pièce de résistance, “When Dvořák Meets Miles.” Fine arco playing connects blats of muted trumpet, and all with a percussive finish that lingers sweetly on the palate. As ever, the interactions are subtle yet naked, each element brimming with snap, crackle, and pop.

Remembering Weather Report is not for the jazz tourist. Its highly evolved messages comprise a raw manifesto on what it means to be progressive in a regressive climate. Motifs run the gamut from static to ballistic, but quickly dissolve in favor of broader improvisational paths, each a vein to some distant thematic artery. The album is further notable for being recorded in Vitous’s own Italian studio. His direct involvement in not only the elicitation but also the rendering of these sounds lends remarkable immediacy to the space in which they unfold.