Jan Garbarek Group: Dresden – In Concert (ECM 2100/01)


Jan Garbarek Group
Dresden – In Concert

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophone
Rainer Brüninghaus piano, keyboards
Yuri Daniel bass
Manu Katché drums
Recorded live October 20, 2007 at Alter Schlachthof, Dresden
Engineers: Gert Rickmann-Wunderlich and Rüdiger Nürnberg
Mixed by Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer), Jan Garbarek, and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Jan Garbarek and Manfred Eicher

Dresden is monumental for being Jan Garbarek’s first live album. Monumental because, even as his crafted studio creations were capturing the hearts of countless listeners, so too were his performances across Europe and abroad. With his own group, the Norwegian saxophonist had crafted something special, and it was only a matter of time before its fire came through in the form of a less mitigated recording. Although it is unfortunate that Garbarek’s regular bassist, Eberhard Weber, was by this point too ill to join him on stage, he was formidably replaced by Yuri Daniel, interlocking with pianist Rainer Brüninghaus and drummer Manu Katché as if he’d always been among them.

With such an inventory of songs and experience from which to choose, Garbarek might have started in any number of places, but opens this concert with the lovely, free-flowing gem “Paper Nut.” First heard on Song for Everyone, one of two ECM collaborations with Indian violinist L. Shankar, it moves with all the synergy and assurance the present quartet has to offer. In addition to the unforgettable melody, sure to find a place in you the first time you hear it, it showcases some of Garbarek’s purest intonation on record. Clarion and unfalteringly naked, it cuts veins of mineral through the bedrock of jazz into the primal core beyond it.

The next point of reference is 1993’s Twelve Moons, from which the group renews three tunes: “The Tall Tear Trees,” “There Were Swallows,” and “Twelve Moons.” In each, the musicians interlock as listeners as much as players, Daniel’s bass laddering roots while Katché paints in a ritual filigree. The title tune is quintessential Garbarek, who finds himself lifted to new heights by Brüninghaus’s colorations as before riding an unaccompanied solo to finish. Legend of the Seven Dreams, from 1988, also gets a nod with the smoothly executed “Voy Cantando.”

The handful of new material introduced in this double-disc album is cause for celebration. From the forested pianism of “Heitor” to the beat-driven flights of “Nu Bein” (featuring Garbarek on the seljefløyte, or Norwegian overtone flute), there’s much to savor from everyone. Among these tunes is “The Reluctant Saxophonist,” which despite its tongue-in-cheek title (Garbarek’s playing is anything but reluctant) attains the most ambitious heights of the concert.

Non-Garbarek tunes include the pastoral “Rondo Amoroso,” arranged from the piece by Norwegian composer Harald Sæverud (1897-1992), and “Milagre Dos Peixes” (Miracle of the Fishes), written by Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimento and made famous by Wayne Shorter. Brüninghaus is again outstanding, pushing Garbarek to stronger depths, as also in “Transformations,” one of two remarkable solo interludes that rounds out the set. The other is “Tao,” Daniel’s moment in the sun. Balancing technical flourish with emotional flexibility, it proves him a worthy successor to the Weber legacy.

Dresden is, quite simply, the kind of album that makes one feel good to be alive. A classic before it was even recorded.

Dawn Upshaw: A Beautiful Child of Song

Dawn Upshaw and Gilbert Kalish
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
September 27, 2014

Listening to Dawn Upshaw sing is like reading the work of a great novelist: She stands behind every word she produces. Along with pianist Gilbert Kalish, the legendary soprano graced Cornell’s Barnes Hall stage on Saturday as if it were the page of a book, across which she inscribed a characteristically eclectic program centered on songs by Franz Schubert, Béla Bartók, and Maurice Ravel. Bookending these were selections by Charles Ives and William Bolcom—the former one of modern American music’s original mavericks, the latter a Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning composer whose popular “Cabaret Songs” yielded three of the concert’s most memorable tunes. Memorable not only for their melodic and lyric panache, but also for the apparent ease with which Ms. Upshaw delivered them. Although just as comfortable singing German, French, or Hungarian, she was in her element when immersed in these tongue-in-cheek hat-tips to Americana. Whether in the silky, sauntering contours of “Song of Black Max” or the delectable diction of “George,” she did it all with charm and wit.


(Photo credit: Brooke Irish)

Upshaw opened the concert with Ives’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” injecting its chromatic lifts with her soulful best. The songs that followed ranged from fleeting social commentary (“The Cage”) to haunting impression (“The Housatonic at Stockbridge”). At their heart was a diptych entitled “Memories”—one marked “Very Pleasant,” the other “Rather Sad.” These juxtaposed a delightful recollection of waiting for the curtain to rise at an opera house—and here Upshaw drew a laugh from the audience when she confessed, “I can’t whistle,” during the few bars of the score that require it—with one of a lost relative, albeit a fictitious one, whose memory weighs heavy on a young man’s mind. In addition to being a narrative master, his melodies resting somewhere between aria and recitative, Ives was also a great allusionist, as evidenced in the song “Tom Sails Away,” in which the words “over there” repeat themselves, echoing the war song popularized that same year (1917).

Schubert’s reckonings of texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe pulled us from the streets of small-town New England into love’s darkest shadows. In these songs the atmosphere was murkier, with only occasional rays of light spearing through. Each song was a wholly romantic indulgence, rendered all the more so by the duo’s exemplary musicianship. None was so magical, however, as “Gretchen at the Spinning-wheel” and “Song of Mignon,” both of flawless intonation and dynamic control, leaving only “Restless Love” running like a horse through the night toward some unattainable comfort. Even without the lyrics at hand in the program notes, the effect was downright cinematic.


(Photo credit: Lilian Finckel)

Lest our dear accompanist be forgotten, Mr. Kalish bisected the Schubert songs with the Austrian composer’s solo piano Impromptu No. 4 in A-flat Major. Penned in 1827, its waterfall arpeggios and stormy center made for a gorgeous interlude. Kalish brought likeminded fire to Bartók’s Hungarian folksong settings, weaving a fibrous net through “Black Earth” and evoking dissonant footsteps in “‘Six-Forints’ Song” with tactile spirit.

Yet neither musician was so focused as in the songs of Ravel, whose Natural Histories, based on texts by Jules Renard, comprised the evening’s centerpiece. These carried through much of the same thematic material—loves, lamentations, and liveries—but with an especially adaptive ear for the music of language. Per Renard’s clever brand of satire, animals acted as stand-ins for humans, their actions more readily displayed and critiqued in a series of clever metaphorical punctuations. Shocking at the time of its composition in 1906, it was an affront, as much for its musical arrhythmia as for its textual sting, to the proper salons in which such music was often performed. As such, it was hailed by French critic Émile Vuillermoz as representing a “true prosodic reform.” From the cruel ritual of “The Peacock” to a rare encounter with “The Kingfisher,” Ravel’s settings spanned a delightful bestiary of moods. Through it all, Kalish matched Upshaw’s descriptive prowess note for note, letting the currents take them where they may.

Upshaw encored with her rendition of Stephen Foster’s 1860 “Beautiful Child of Song,” which against the piano’s ballerina steps brought the program to a fulsome conclusion. From mother to child, it closed the circle by opening another and proved the commitment of a singer who clearly loves what she is doing as much as we do.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun.)

Steve Kuhn Trio w/Joe Lovano: Mostly Coltrane (ECM 2099)

Mostly Coltrane

Steve Kuhn Trio w/Joe Lovano
Mostly Coltrane

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato
Steve Kuhn piano
David Finck double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded December 2008, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As John Coltrane’s original quartet pianist for eight weeks in the early months of 1960, Steve Kuhn is as qualified as anyone to assemble a fitting tribute to one of jazz’s eternal gurus. Despite his monumental significance in the field, ECM has reckoned with the Trane only sporadically—first on Dave Liebman’s Drum Ode and, most recently before this record, on Trio Beyond’s Saudades. Mostly Coltrane is, however, more than homage. It’s just as importantly a full-fledged portrait of the musicians bringing this music to renewed life. Saxophonist Joe Lovano has no pretensions of mimicking the man by whom 10 of the album’s 12 tunes were written or made famous. Bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron—the other sides of the Steve Kuhn Trio’s equilateral triangle—complete the group’s finely interwoven sound.

Kuhn, in that way he does, unpacks his solos one breath at a time, so that the considerations of “Welcome” offer a soft mapping of the road that lies ahead. Lovano is at the peak of his sentimentality, while Baron dances around the beat—Paul Motian in disguise. Lovano further threads the needle of “Song of Praise,” in which he tightens his grip on the higher notes, for all like a dancing bird, touching wind one feather at a time until both wings sing in concert.

Kuhn may be the emotional center of the record, but his special sense of ebb and flow allows the crests of his bandmates to glint in the moonlight just as vividly. Lovano is irresistible in his luxuriant, chromatically infused takes on “Central Park West” and “Like Sonny,” while Baron provides gentlest uplift to his tarogato (a nod to Charles Lloyd?) in “Spiritual.” Other highpoints include two of Coltrane’s posthumous tunes: “Jimmy’s Mode” and “Configuration,” the former of which boasts an introspective solo from Finck, while the latter staircases its way into brilliance.

The two made-famous tunes—“I Want To Talk About You” and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes”—are another remarkable pair. One traces its theme in retrograde, exuding sensuality in a trio-only setting. The other is a brisker tune in which the rhythmic section works a gorgeous telepathy, Finck the heartbeat of it all. Into this fray swoops Lovano like a bird who flies for sheer enjoyment, giant yet light on his feet. Marvelous.

Two more of a distant pair, this by Kuhn, rounds out the set. “With Gratitude” finds the composer solo, singing a song of dedication through his fingers. “Trance,” also solo, brings us full circle to his first ECM release of the same name, looking back in a rolling wave of light, thus signing off on a statement as timeless as the music it embodies.

Toshio Hosokawa: Landscapes (ECM New Series 2095)


Toshio Hosokawa

Mayumi Miyata shō
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded October 2009, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Toshio Hosokawa, born 1955 in Hiroshima, is a fisher of multiple ponds. On the one hand, he carries the torch of European modernism, having studied in Germany under Isang Yun and Klaus Huber. On the other, he professes a deep affinity for traditional Japanese music and Zen Buddhism.


Landscapes is ECM’s only disc dedicated to the composer, who in three of the album’s four pieces employs the shō, or Japanese mouth organ. Here it is played by Mayumi Miyata. A pioneer in introducing the shō as a solo instrument in contemporary classical music, she plays a “concert” shō with a pitch range broader than its standard counterpart. It requires expert control of the lungs, including circular breathing and steady changes in dynamic intensity. In Miyata’s hands it sings like the very phoenix it was originally intended to mimic.

Mayumi Miyata

As for Hosokawa’s music, it all too easily falls into an interpretive trap like so many characterizations of Japan in general, which tend to paint the culture as a uniquely enigmatic blend of the ancient and the modern. Yet such an image fails to acknowledge the immediacy of its creative arts, and in particular of Hosokawa’s sound-world, which for all intents and purposes seeks not a bridging of spaces and eras but a reckoning of their aesthetic and (sometimes) political intersections. In the latter vein, he has created massive works in memory of the victims of Hiroshima and the tragic tsunami/earthquake of 3.11. In the former we have this program of meticulous dreamscapes to whet our appetite for beauty. It is, however, a tainted sort of beauty, one not destined for the painter’s canvas but rather for the videographer’s resignation. In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths likens Hosokawa’s constructions to the amorphousness of clouds, and certainly we can feel that stretch of variation, play of sun and spectrum, and stormy grays manifesting throughout the program.

Landscape V, originally composed for string quartet in 1993 and later expanded to the current version for shō and orchestra, unfurls a veil as thin as an insect’s wing that conforms itself to the shō’s summery spirals. One might not expect breath through bamboo to mesh so well with the feel of horsehair drawn across strings, but in Hosokawa’s renderings at least they become harmony incarnate, the shō illuminating the flow of air through an orchestra’s sound holes. In this pairing one may hear voices, shifts of wind, the flow of water, the meeting of stones, and even the light of moon taking sonic shape. The music is, at the same time, crystal clear. It wears no pretension, puts on no airs. It is, rather, the full breadth of its titular landscape pulled through a wormhole of consistency, so that even the more explosive moments take form not as catharses but as opportunities for deeper contemplation.

The Ceremonial Dance (2000) that follows is for string orchestra only, but loses no texture in the shō’s elision. Its heart would seem to lie in the comportment of gagaku (traditional Japanese court music), which turns illusions of a floating world into hyper-articulate bodies. That being said, the “dance” is implied through effect rather than movement, hiding in the absent drum. There is a liminal quality to this piece, performing an indeterminable ritual of which the score is but a simulacrum.

Sakura (2008), for shō solo, acts as a prelude to a choral setting of Japan’s most ubiquitous folk song. Bearing dedication to the former music director of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Otto Tomek (who also commissioned the setting), it is intimate and drifting, more postlude than prelude, the afterimage of a fallen blossom’s path toward water. As luminescent as its chords are, they are also dappled by the shadows of an unbroken gaze.

Last is Cloud and Light (2008), which pairs the shō with a full orchestra, including some light yet impactful percussion. Like its predecessors, it never overwhelms with its style, but unpacks itself in real time with self-awareness and tactility. It enacts a sharing of spirit between water and air, between the shapeless and the shaping. Large brushstrokes of brass pull their hairs through ink, soaking up as much of the universe as they can before falling along with the rain into the pond where Hosokawa’s bob and lure continue their meditation, content in knowing that no fish need ever bite to bring meaning to their dangle.

(To hear samples of Landscapes, click here.)

Egberto Gismonti: Saudações (ECM 2082/83)


Egberto Gismonti

Camerata Romeu
Zenaida Romeu conductor
Alexandre Gismonti guitar
Egberto Gismonti guitar
“Sertões Veredas”
Recorded August 2006, Teatro Amadeo Roldán, Havana
Engineer: Jerzy Belc
Assistant:  Argeo Roque Bernabeu
“Duetos De Violões”
Recorded April and May 2007, Mega Studio and Cecília Meireles Hall, Rio de Janeiro
Engineer: Márcio Gama
Assistant: Guthemberg Pereira
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Saudações, of which the title means “salutations,” marks the welcome end of a 12-year ECM hiatus for Egberto Gismonti since 1997’s Meeting Point. Whereas on that record he explored his conservatory training in a set of lively orchestral compositions with Gismonti as piano soloist, the first of this two-disc follow-up consists of Sertões Veredas, a suite in seven parts for strings alone, while the second disc features guitar duets and solos with the composer’s son Alexandre.

Seasoned Gismonti listeners will know what to expect from the program’s latter half. In addition to renditions of classic tunes, including “Lundú,” “Dança Dos Escravos,” and “Zig Zag”—each a bouquet of nimble, sparkling exposition—the duo soars through a veritable résumé of Father Gismonti’s uniquely tender ferocity. From subdued (“Mestiço & Caboclo”) to slipstream (“Dois Violões”), the performances emit a veritable brocade of fire. Alexandre contributes two solos to the program: the gentle, cyclical “Palhaço” (by Egberto) and the original “Chora Antônio.” Alexandre’s animations make them both album must-hears. After a few jagged turns, notably in “Dança,” Egberto ends by his lonesome with the title track, an adroit little bee of a tune that settles in a flower of harmonics.

Gismonti & Son play with freedom of detail, all the while holding fast to an underlying pulse that distinguishes so much of Egberto’s writing. Concentrated as they are, any one of these pieces might expand to an album’s length without loss of potency. In a sense, this is the feeling behind the orchestral suite that begins the album. As always, Gismonti paints a world proper, a landscape of vivid memories, childhood impressions, and mature reflections—all tied together by a love for his homeland and its peoples. Subtitled as a “Tribute to Miscegenation” (Tributo à miscigenação) and played with vivaciousness by Cuba’s Camerata Romeu, it is a heartfelt tribute to—and preservation of—times and places clearly dear to him, all intermingling in a new continent.

The cornucopia of influences from which he has drawn is already apparent in the first movement, of which the spirit remains very much rooted in the composer’s guitaristic panache (even his pianism, heard elsewhere, turns the keyboard into an enormous, fretted instrument). More than the instrument’s mechanics, its immediate tactility carries over into the scores, which sound for all like magnified string quartets. Gismonti’s attention to the orchestra’s lower end is especially robust, the double basses providing pulse, melodic undertow, and soil for botanical riches above ground. The occasional cello line acts as a link between dynamic extremes, leaving the violins to pollinate, as they will. Each movement is a suite of its own, moving from high to low, slow to fast, loud to soft in a heartbeat. The most obvious references are to Stravinsky (Part IV), John Adams’s Shaker Loops (Part V), and even the romantic touch of a Mendelssohn (Part VI), leaving the final part, an ode to folk traditions and dances, to bask in the resolution of camaraderie.

Speaking of attention, Saudações is recorded with just the right balance of intimacy and mountainous space. Peak slope into a valley of riches, each more scintillating than the last. A treasure trove for Gismonti fans. Even more so for newcomers. Either way: leave your shoes at the perimeter and step into the circle as you are.

Marc Sinan/Julia Hülsmann: Fasıl (ECM 2076)


Marc Sinan
Julia Hülsmann

Marc Sinan guitar
Yelena Kuljic vocals
Lena Thies viola
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double-bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums, percussion
Recorded March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Guitarist and composer Marc Sinan, recently of the (sadly) European-only release Hasretim, made his ECM debut with Fasıl, an album of enduring originality and refinement. The title refers to a suite form used in both classical and modern Ottoman ensemble music, and which here would seem to nod in both directions. It’s almost unfortunate that the Turkish word should so closely resemble the English “facile,” for the music here is anything but superficial. By way of comparison, one might pair it with Jon Balke’s SIWAN, as Balke illuminates and draws out likeminded ethnomusical connections with care.

Siwan’s own fasıl tells the story of ‘Ā’ishah bint Abī Bakr (613/14-678), youngest and favorite wife of the Prophet Muhammad. In this fresh musical context, her sentiments twirl and float by turns along a river’s current of rhythmic libations. Librettist Marc Schiffer weaves into those sentiments influences ranging from the Qur’an to ancient Persian poetry in search of common ground. Pianist Julia Hülsmann’s trio with bassist Marc Muellbauer and drummer Heinrich Köbberling—the subject of such later albums as The End of a Summer and Imprint—flexes the project’s instrumental spine. They are joined by violist Lena Thies, Sinan on guitar, and the Serbian-born, Berlin-based singer Yelena Kuljic in the role of ‘Ā’ishah.

The album begins, as does any fasıl performance, with an instrumental “Peshrev,” which lowers us gently into the waters of this emotionally dynamic world. It is a world of comfort and challenge, a quilt of geographical distances made immediate by design. Other traditional movements include iterations of the taksim, an improvisational interlude which unspools purple braids from Hülsmann’s interpretive fingers. Through these run the finer threads of Sinan’s flamenco-esque strumming and Thies’s spirited bowing. Sinan augments these with two movements based on transcriptions of an imam (Islamic cantor) he recorded while conducting research for this project in Turkey. “Sure 6/51” and “Sure 81 Taksimi” revolve around Hülsmann’s rhythm section, guitar and viola taking respective turns in the lead.

Yet it is by virtue of Kuljic’s portrayal of ‘Ā’ishah that the album comes into its own. Beginning with the drawing of desire that is “This Bloody Day” and ending with the affirmative “You Open My Eyes,” her voice sheds light by which to see. She explores themes as wide-ranging as agency and politics (“Taking Leave”), the body as landscape (“The Last Night”), and, couched in the album’s most entrancing melody, the intertwining of lives under Heaven (“The Dream”). Sinan rocks a lovely fulcrum in the latter through a smooth, jazzy core, and lends his flexible architecture to “The Struggle Is Over,” carving a sliver of moon into the sky.

All in all, these are songs of holdings on and lettings go. The instrumental elaborations are thoughtful (and thought-provoking), unraveling richly dyed sacraments in sound. At their heart is a song entitled “The Necklace.” It is a pivotal moment, both in the lives of its characters and of this cycle as a whole. It refers to story recounted in the Qur’an, in which ‘Ā’ishah, during one of Muhammad’s desert raids, is mistakenly left behind when she goes looking for a lost necklace and returns to camp to discover that her caravan has departed without her. She is found by a nomad under Muhammad’s employ named Sufwan and taken to the next campsite, only to be met with gossip of infidelity. Unbelieving of these rumors, Muhammad takes his wife’s word on faith (albeit after a revelation from Allah confirms her innocence), and her accusers are summarily punished. It speaks volumes about a woman whose strength thrived in her resolve, in her resistance to a world of men, and in her refusal to let her integrity fade into the dunes.

Stefano Scodanibbio: Reinventions (ECM New Series 2072)


Stefano Scodanibbio

Quartetto Prometeo
Giulio Rovighi violin
Aldo Campagnari violin
Massimo Piva viola
Francesco Dillon violoncello
Recorded January 2011, Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, Pollenza
Engineer: Gianluca Gentili
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012), best known for his collaborations with Terry Riley and as an improviser and extended technique innovator on the double bass, was also a prolific composer, writing more than 50 works for strings. His sole album for ECM owes its existence to Irvine Arditti, lead violinist of the Arditti Quartet and a longtime friend, and actualizes a dream that occupied the composer’s final years to the point of obsession.

Stefano Scodanibbio
(Photo credit: Alfredo Tabocchini)

The “reinventions” of the album’s title refer to his string quartet reworking of Bach, Spanish guitar music, and Mexican songs in a long-form suite of seamless, expressive character. Although, on the surface, three iterations of the Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of the Fugue seem little more than slight deviations of their source material, they actually brim with harmonic ornaments and slow tempi that allow the listener to better scrutinize their pathos through Scodanibbio’s idiosyncratic lens. Rather than simply “re-imagine” the works of his interest, Scodanibbio turns them slowly in the hands, studying them as might a diviner a crystal ball, until they sing of their own accord.

The Bach references are the massive vertebrae of the suite, each cushioned by the Spanish and Mexican disks between them. The former take the name of Quattro Pezzi Spagnoli, but breathe as one unit. The pizzicato ornaments of “Lágrima” begin a stroll through elegant gardens, which with every step elicits new aspects from each melody in turn. There is already so much life in this music that Scodanibbio’s filtering would feel intrusive, were it not for his sensitivity, so that by “Studio” we may feel every detail as a song unto itself.

The five Canzoniere Messicano, on the other hand, come across more urgently with the opening “Cuando sale la luna.” Their life force swirls in the night, disturbing the reflection of a waning moon and etching out a dance along the water. Even the evergreen “Bésame mucho” (the most beautiful song ever written, in the composer’s estimation) leaves ripples in the mirror of its timelessness. “Canzone popolare: La llorona” ends this portion as if thrown in a bottle out to sea, a beacon for ghosts whose love of life keeps them haunting the pitch.

The performances by Italy’s Quartetto Prometeo are quiet, assured, and strangely uplifting—as much a quality of the music as of their playing. The cyclicity of both underscores the depth of Scodanibbio’s craft: no mere homage but a profound exercise in empathy.