Special Announcement!

I am thrilled to announce that my book, Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer, is at last available on Amazon! Those of you who have followed me for any portion of this journey know how much love, time, and care I’ve put into this project, and I hope the book, like the blog after which it was named, will lead listeners to many discoveries and hidden gems in the label’s ever-deepening catalogue. Click on the cover below to order yours while they last, and thank you, as always, for reading.

Maacha Deubner: Bessonnitsa

Soprano Maacha Deubner, whose voice has graced such masterpieces as Giya Kancheli’s Exil, folds her operatic pleats into the tapestry of the KAPmodern-Ensemble in a program of latter-day chamber music. Bessonnitsa is Russian for “insomnia” and points both to an overarching theme and to Valentin Silvestrov’s eponymous piece for soprano and piano. Reminiscent of Francis Poulenc’s songs, it is the album’s crown jewel. Its flowing sense of time and evocation is like a storm turning into ocean and touching the shore with its final breath. One can also trace a line of continuity between this and Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point for soprano and piano (1979), a set of temporally brief yet spiritually far-reaching evocations of flesh and word in a self-shadowing mode. Deubner navigates them as one might tell the story of their life.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos for soprano and violoncello (1985) begins with the solo voice, floating yet carrying the weight of a monument carved in time. “My soul is a Sphinx,” she sings as if to give that monument a name, setting the immaterial self upon an altar of ruins and unfinished verses. The words come from writer Rimma Dalos, whose texts have also been lovingly set by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Gubaidulina’s approach, however, is never so compact, as proven by the solo cello commentary that follows.

Most of the pieces here belong to the mind and heart of Elena Firsova, for whom the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is a touchstone. Sorrows (Tristia II), op. 145 (2013) carries over the same scoring from Gubaudulina’s contribution and bears a dedication to Deubner. The music is at once a reflection of and counterpoint to the poetry, which looks deep into the night to uncover its many layers of shadow:

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand.

Such words point not to dialogue but to prayers walking parallel paths. They can see but not hear each other, ever caught in cycles of pain and healing.

In Towards the Starlight for soprano and string quartet (2017), receiving its world premiere recording, we have a different side of Mandelstam. Whereas in Sorrows he praised the uninterrupted life, now we get:

I hate the starlight’s
monotonous spectrum.

Such is the duality of consciousness. In the second movement, “How slow the horses go,” we encounter a more sorrowful glow. The poet sees things he cannot see, speaks of things that have no voice. Cello and soprano engage in subliminal communication as delicate pizzicato and high strains give way to flowers of darkness. In the final movement, lyrical self-deprecation:

To read only children’s books,
To cherish only children’s thoughts.

Yet another facet of Mandelstam catches the light of From the Voronezh Notebooks, op. 121 (2009). This cantata, also for soprano and string quartet, moves into organic textures following a nervous prelude. From the raindrops dripping from leaves in “Greens” and the pouncing delicacy of “A Cat” to the frantic trajectories of “In the Sky” and the final “Madness,” fear is never far behind. Deubner expresses these states of mind with lucid projection.

Peppered among Firsova’s more substantial assemblies are three monologues, of which Starry Flute, op. 56 (1992) is the most intimate. Dedicated to the late Aurèle Nicolet, it captures the brilliant flutist’s penchant for extended techniques, each of which naturally extends the breath. Sustained notes float as if made of vapor (and indeed, that is what our life can only be), so that by the end, we are left in stasis with memories of those enchantments now wilting in the hot sun of reality.

Taking account of these works in the aggregate, I am inclined to treat them as a face seen from different angles of light. It smiles and frowns, sleeps and awakes, screams and whispers, showing us that the continuity between states of mind is where our existence is defined.

Johannes Luley: Follow Your Heart

Guitarist-producer Johannes Luley was born and grew up in Germany before relocating to California, where he honed his craft as an in-demand touring musician and began recording other artists in his Los Angeles studio. When said studio had to close at the start of the pandemic, Luley found himself facing a professional and personal crisis that kept him from the guitar for months. In August of 2020, he resolved himself to break free from that spell and move his creative muscles again. The result is Follow Your Heart.

As the title suggests, Luley examined what moved him from within, and this led him to dip into the ECM songbook, arranging tunes by some of the label’s key figures. His band includes reed player Max Kaplan, bassist David Hughes, drummer Dicki Fliszar, and percussionist Simon Carroll. Trumpeter and flugelhornist Jonas Lindeborg plays from afar, having laid down his parts in Stockholm, though one would hardly know it by the integration of his artistry.

Luley has a fluid ability to shift between styles and influences without missing a beat, adapting instruments and treatments to suit each track. The set opens with “Yellow Fields,” from Eberhard Weber’s 1976 album of the same name. Hughes evokes the German bassist via fretless before he and Fliszar put feet to ground with gentle traction. Kaplan’s soprano lends further credence to the revival, while Lindeborg’s flugelhorn adds reflective light. Next, Luley’s 12-string pivots into Ralph Towner territory on “Brujo.” Despite hailing from 1973’s Trios/Solos with Glen Moore, the expansiveness of this version points more toward Solstice from two years later. The Bill Evans/Miles Davis classic “Blue in Green” (which has appeared on two of Towner’s albums) glows in Luley’s fireside recreation. His restraint exudes warmth at every turn. This and Kenny Wheeler’s “Heyoke” (see 1976’s Gnu High) are standouts for their free and easy spirit, drawing magic from Lindeborg and propelling Luley to skim the proverbial waters with purpose. The latter tune’s seeking qualities match the composer’s perfectly, as do the far-reaching tones of “Ostinato” from Manfred Schoof’s Scales (a 1976 rarity from ECM’s onetime sister label, JAPO). Swells from electric guitar provide the foundation for a roving gallery of impressions, ranging from Kaplan’s bass clarinet to Lindeborg’s emotional flights.

The title track cites John McLaughlin’s My Goals Beyond (released in 1982 on the Elektra label) and features a crunchier sound from Luley and artful sopranism from Kaplan, while “One Melody” references Belo Horizonte (1981, Warner Bros. Records) to stratospheric effect. John Abercrombie also gets two musical mentions. “Telegram” time-travels from 1978’s Charactersand elicits the most cohesive dynamics from Luley’s group. Its nostalgic energy is only heightened by the rhythm section’s articulate drive. “Greenstreet” points to 2013’s 39 Steps and sits flush with its brethren in gentle resolve, ending the record with an embrace.

Follow Your Heart makes a welcome addition to any ECM lover’s shelf and should inspire listeners to explore Luley’s back catalog in kind. The album is available from his website here.

Interview with Phil Freeman

I recently conducted an interview with music critic and author Phil Freeman for All About Jazz. Freeman has some of the sharpest ears out there—and a way with words to hone them. Interested readers shouldn’t hesitate to pick up his latest book, Ugly Beauty, which hit shelves last year. Click on the cover below to read some of my thoughts on the book and our conversation about it.

Dine Doneff: Lost Anthropology (neRED/3)

Dine Doneff
Lost Anthropology

Mathis Mayr cello
Antonis Anissegos piano, prepared piano
Stamatis Passopoulos bayan
Dine Doneff double bass, guitar, percussion
Recorded live July 2, 2015
Einstein Kultur Munich
Engineer: Hans R. Weiss
Remix: Pande Noushin
Mastering: Tome Rapovina
Cover artwork: Fotini Potamia

For the third full installment of his neRED label series, multi-instrumentalist Dine Doneff presents a live set of seven original pieces. Playing bass, guitar, and percussion, he leads a quartet completed by cellist Mathis Mayr, pianist Antonis Anissegos, and bayan player Stamatis Passopoulos. This combination yields a fascinating gallery of scenes painted in various mediums, often within the same track. The opening “Pripapindoll,” for example, introduces us to a faintly abstract sound, a pencil sketch for the paint yet to be applied. When the melody makes itself known, it leaves a trail of pigment in search of evergreen hills beyond. The range of sonorities these instruments achieve is as varied as the topography they describe, culminating in a folk-like flourish. “Endekapalmos” follows a parallel path of development from less ordered dreams to smooth awakening, opening its vista for the bayan’s welcome entrance, sunlit and free as the wind. Doneff’s bass is the anchor for “The Fallen,” in which a groovier aesthetic prevails, the cello adding a fluid overlay, riding a wave of emotional transference from one peak to another. Mayr and Doneff carry over their traction into “Meglen,” setting up an evocative vehicle for Passopoulos and Anissegos, who trade words and memories to climactic ends. After the bayan interlude of “Exile,” a cinematic nostalgia bleeds into “Rite of Passage,” the initial flow of which clots in the improvised plasma of a prepared piano. At last, we reach the turning point of “Prolet.” Building from guitar arpeggios, it shifts into higher gear through percussive color changes, driving toward the horizon without once looking back because the only thing that matters is catching the last glimpse of sun before it dies.

Music Hotel: ECM Musiktage Römerbad Badenweiler 1997 (VHS)

John Surman saxophones, clarinets
Anders Jormin double bass
Bobo Stenson piano
Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Michelle Makarski violin
Jon Christensen drums
Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner
 violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Filmed at Hotel Römerbad, Badenweiler, May 16-18, 1997
Edited by Pierre-Yves Borgeaud and Cyrille Nakache
Post-production: ARRI Studios, Munich
Executive producer: Fredrik Gunnarsson

Continuing in my coverage of ECM rarities, I was fortunate enough to be sent a copy of an obscure VHS tape documenting the 1997 Römerbad-Musiktage, where an eclectic group of ECM musicians gathered to perform as part of this annual musical event. The clamshell case insert provides the following description:

The Römerbad-Musiktage has been an important event in the contemporary music calendar since 1973, when impresario Klaus Lauer first began to present concerts in the Kuppelsaal of the hotel he owns in the South German resort town of Badenweiler. Although a wide range of music has been presented at the Hotel Römderbad, the emphasis has been on modern composition, and a close working relationship has been established with composers including Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, György Kurtág, György Ligeti and Wolfgang Rihm. In 1993, Lauer and music producer Manfred Eicher instigated another annual series, with performances by improvisors and interpreters associated with the ECM label. More than a mere festival, the Badenweiler meeting allows an informed public to witness ECM recording artists in the process of shared musical discovery. Spontaneity is the watchword as the musicians play together, in both proven and untested combinations. “The ECM Whitsun Concert Series at the Römerbad have become an enduring artistic experience,” wrote the Frankfurter Rundschau of the 1997 event. “The aesthetics of Eicher’s equally stringent and open agenda has acquired international renown. Listeners from 16 countries had the opportunity to enrich and modify their musical worldview and to perceive things unavailable at conventional music events.”

Sadly enough, the 50-minute video is not a document of the performances themselves. What we do get, however, is an intimate glimpse into ECM’s “behind-the-scenes” presence in the world of live music as Eicher brings together musicians that have rarely (if ever) shared a stage to create something as enduring in the minds of listeners as it is spontaneous in its coalescence. Filmmaker and friend of the label Pierre-Yves Borgeaud, along with coeditor Cyril Nakache, go to great lengths to clue us in not only on the logistics of putting together such an event but also on the everyday imperfections that must be ironed out to pull it off with elegance.

The split curtain that introduces us to the concert space, backgrounded by the unmistakable sound of John Surman’s bass clarinet, offers a sliver of orientation before we see the reed virtuoso in the flesh, along with bassist Anders Jormin, engaging in a measured dance as shots of the hotel’s interior and attentive staff are revealed in leisurely succession.

What follows is a series of rehearsal footage as Eicher molds the air with his hands, visually imagining what he hopes will take place when the room is populated with seasoned ears. Surman talks afterward about how easy it is to play with musicians who listen so deeply to each other before melodizing on soprano saxophone with Bobo Stenson and Jon Christensen joining on piano and drums, respectively.

The film moves on to Dino Saluzzi, who fills the room with the resonance of his bandoneón as the other musicians decide on their configurations with Eicher’s input. They then augment Saluzzi with Jormin and trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Violinist Michelle Makarski is also interviewed, expressing her love of improvisation despite her classical training and her gratitude for being among these jazz greats. She recalls being asked to perform the works of Keith Jarrett in New York City, which caught the attention of Eicher and resulted in the 1994 album Bridge Of Light, followed by her solo album Caoine one month before this film was made. Her sound meshes soulfully with Saluzzi and Stanko, the latter of whom talks about the beauty of the space, the dry acoustics of which allow for the cultivation of a fuller sound among such artfully curated musicians.

Saluzzi is the focal point of the most alluring ensembles, especially when he combines his sound with that of the phenomenal Rosamunde Quartett. Anchored by the robust cello of Anja Lechner, the strings pair wonderfully with Saluzzi’s generous spirit. In the interview that follows, he talks about pitching this formal music crossover as a blurring of divisions toward social harmony. His tangos uphold that ethos with utmost love, imprinting the film’s final moments with a message for all.

Peter Brötzmann: Nipples

Peter Brötzmann tenor saxophone
Evan Parker tenor saxophone
Derek Bailey guitar
Fred Van Hove piano
Buschi Niebergall bass
Han Bennink drums
Recorded April 18, 1969 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg (Track 1)and April 24, 1969 at Rhenus Studio, Godorf (Track 2)
Engineers: Kurt Rapp (Track 1) and Conny Plank (Track 2)
Cover design: Peter Brötzmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher + Jazz By Post

To my knowledge, Nipples is the only album produced by Manfred Eicher to not appear on the ECM label. This curious throwback was recorded in April of 1969, months before ECM’s first proper release would go down that same year in the famed Tonstudio Bauer, which yields the first track here. Of that track, which gives this album its name, we are given no warning, jumping instead into a blazing cacophony of sound. Even though it feels like waking up out of a coma in the middle of Shinjuku crossing, a bizarre sense of comfort begins to emerge the more one basks in its unrelenting glow. The one-two punch of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker on tenor saxophones bleeds on the proverbial page across which guitarist Derek Bailey, pianist Fred Van Hove, bassist Buschi Niebergall, and drummer Han Bennink add all sorts of diacritics, punctuation, and editorial asides. The result is like the chaos of peer review controlled in a single moving portrait wherein the listener’s visage gets split like Michelle Yeoh’s in Everything Everywhere All at Once. Despite (if not because of) this whirlwind approach, moments for solos abound, such as Van Hove’s flight of fancy about six minutes in. Against aggressive bowing and frontline drum work, his pianism kicks us in the shins and leaves us crawling for more. To that fray, Brötzmann and Bailey add uncompromising grit, all the while building up the ensemble to an ascorbic cohesion. A fantastic arco spasm from Niebergall in the third act yields equally favorable outcomes in this chameleonic chain reaction. All of this ends in a congregation of tails, each wispier and more meteoric than the last.

For the B-side, “Tell A Green Man” sheds Parker and Bailey to no less engaging effect. While the preamble from the rhythm section provides anything but discernible rhythm, its foundational qualities provide plenty of clay for Brötzmann and Van Hove to mold to their whim. Indeed, whim is the name of the game as irreverence ensues, dividing its equation until it bursts with the desire for recalibration. Niebergall’s scraping rears its tactile head for the listener to run a comb through, while Brötzmann gives himself over to less subtle temptations of vivacity.

Nipples first appeared on the Calig Records (Munich) in 1969 and was remastered by John McCortney in February 2000 at AirWave Studios (Chicago) for Atavistic. Three years later, Atavistic released a follow-up with outtakes from the same studio sessions. The result, called—what else?—More Nipples, offers up three tracks of invigorating mayhem. The title track gives up its ghost from the first moment, tracing its ephemeral paths with more delicate abandon. Despite a few ebb tides here and there, it focuses more on the inner than the outer. “Fiddle Faddle” is a reedy wonder dragged kicking and screaming through the fires of Niebergall and Bennink and may be my favorite of the collection for its control of free spirit. Finally, we have “Fat Man Walks,” which concedes to a groovier blues aesthetic, gut-wrenching and sincere in its devolvement into atonalism.

A much-needed call to attention in these dark times.

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity: Elastic Wave (ECM 2724)

Gard Nilssen Acoustic Unity
Elastic Wave

André Roligheten tenor, soprano and bass saxophones, clarinet
Petter Eldh double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded June 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover: Fotini Potamia
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: July 15, 2022

André Roligheten is one of the most exciting young saxophonists in the Norwegian jazz scene. I had the pleasure of seeing him in various guises under the auspices of the 2018 Nutshell jazz festival (see my writeup and photos here), and I always hoped to see his name on an ECM roster one day. I am happy to say that day has come, and I can hardly imagine finer company than Swedish bassist Petter Eldh (who made his first label appearance as part of Django Bates’ Belovèd on The Study Of Touch) and Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen, whose highly sought-after name emblazons Elastic Wave as bandleader. Nilssen has played with almost anyone of note in the European circuit you can think of, from veterans like Audun Kleive (under whom he studied) and Arild Andersen to fresher talents like Maciej Obara (see Unloved and Three Crowns) and Roligheten himself. His paths have also intersected with major figures from across the pond, including Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny.

With such a title and album cover to go with it, we might expect a frenzy of activity. Instead, we are introduced to Acoustic Unity’s fluid identity via “Altaret,” one of two more relaxed tunes from Eldh’s pen. In silver-tinted monochrome, it lays an ante of trust on the proverbial card table. Later in the set, the bassist’s “Dreignau” allows the chips to fall where they may, tapping into an ethos that animates everything the band touches. “Influx Delight” breaks form with a tenor-led romp of post-bop energy that sparks the senses and, along with “Acoustic Dance Music” (both were co-written by Nilssen and Roligheten), puts its unique brand of introspective extroversion on full display. On the flip side, we find extroverted introspection in Roligheten’s “Cercle 85” and “Til Liv.” Whereas the first is a clarinet-led stroll through streets at night, the second is an ode to the composer’s daughter, the abstractions of which capture that delightful complexity daughters so uniquely hold. Nilssen’s “Spending Time With Ludvig” counters with a tribute to the drummer’s son, while “Boogie” flows with Eldh in intuitive confluence. Its free and easy style never forces its hand, puffing out old clouds into a new sky.

Nilssen cites many influences, from Jack DeJohnette to Jon Christensen (one of whose cymbals, in fact, takes pride of place in this session’s kit), among others. The tune “Lokket til Jon, og skjerfet til Paul,” notes this album’s press release, “also alludes to a scarf once left at the La Buissonne studio by Paul Motian, used here to take the edge off the bass drum’s ringing overtones.” Brushed drums and softly splashing cymbals show an artist at the kit, painting in everything from watercolor and acrylics to thickly applied oils. Roligheten’s sensitivities retake the helm, revealing the same depth of character I experienced in live settings. The saxophonist further contributes “The Other Village,” in which he plays tenor and soprano simultaneously, surprising us with bagpipe sonorities before riding Nilssen’s rolling thunder into oblivion. The latter’s “The Room Next To Her” closes the set with the guttural wonders of Roligheten on bass saxophone. Such feet-to-flame playing enacts a slow-motion punch to the gut that leaves us stronger for it. I can’t wait for Round 2.

Avishai Cohen: Naked Truth (ECM 2737)

Avishai Cohen
Naked Truth

Avishai Cohen trumpet
Yonathan Avishai piano
Barak Mori double bass
Ziv Ravitz drums
Recorded September 2021
Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Cover photo: Juan Hitters
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 25, 2022

It is necessary to begin the
departure from the splendour
of the skies and the colours

of earth, to stand alone and
face the silence of death…

The first eight notes of Naked Truth planted themselves in the soil of trumpeter Avishai Cohen’s mind at the beginning of the pandemic. Thus sprouted the present suite in as many parts. Every question it poses can only be answered by listening.

Cohen and his faithful bandmates—pianist Yonathan Avishai, bassist Barak Mori, and drummer Ziv Ravitz—craft a story that has been told before, but rarely with such transparency. Part I opens with a duet between Cohen and Mori that looks through holes in the fence of life to glimpse what hopes might exist beyond. Part II introduces the sparks of Avishai at the keys, floating from the small fires of Ravitz at the kit. Cohen and Mori close with a prayer as much for the journey ahead as for the rubble left behind.

The pianism of Part III reaches vastly, setting up a bass-doubled motif that circles in search of song. From these threads, Cohen spins a fibrous sound, muted yet strong enough to suspend the very earth before revealing a heart of light. Past the softer carpet of Part IV, Parts V and VI offer respective interludes for piano and drums, before the introspective Part VII rises in intimate grandeur. Part VIII adopts a backward glance, grooving subtly into the receding horizon.

The set closes with Cohen’s reading of “Departure,” a poem by Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky (1914-1984), in a translation from the Hebrew by Sharon Mohar and Cohen himself. Cohen recited this poem during his ECM 50th anniversary appearance at Lincoln Center. Its opening lines, which make up this review’s epigraph, have lived with me ever since. Mishkovsky reminds us that even when our elders hand us the truths of their experience, we tend to ignore them until we know them firsthand. We must live separated yet ever in the world, holding certainty like the candle it is, knowing its flame will one day sputter out. The music beneath the verses frames Cohen as a traveler whose journey has graciously intersected with ours for the exact duration of this album. I thank him for the honor of sharing the road with us.