Alfred Harth tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Maggie Nicols voice
Barre Phillips bass
Recorded May 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
This Earth! represents Alfred Harth’s second ECM appearance, supporting a stellar cast of musicians that includes Barre Phillips on bass, Paul Bley at the keys, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and the inimitable Maggie Nicols doing what she loves. The words are by Vicky Scrivener, which could easily be a pen name for Nicols herself—such is the immediacy with which the words seem to pour from her lungs.
“Female Is The Sun” is the album’s anthem. Structured around a counterpoint of bass clarinet and pianistic asides, its skeleton comes to life through Nicols’s animations. Each verse hoists us deeper into the sky, until we begin to feel the heat of that “old gold woman” who oversees our every waking moment:
The earth’s hot eye reels
and groans before
The piano and bass in “Relation To Light, Colour and Feeling” are like two adjacent houses. Between them, a sagging clothesline, from which wordless songs, doubled by sax, hang in the breeze of a balmy afternoon. Words await us at the end, each a folded cloth, a swaying branch, a chirping bird.
Luxurious mezzotints and shades
glowing wash of tones
A percussive introduction opens us to the fabulous spoken word performance of “Studying Walk, A Landscape.” Nicols carries us along with her unpretentious tugs, inscribing the scenery with tightened, almost saxophonic squeals. There is an urban whimsy to be found here, refreshing but also tinged by world-weary bitterness. Phillips also has a lovely solo in this whimsical track with heft and shape.
A wish, relief from a circle
In “Body & Mentation,” piano and bowed bass engage Harth’s tenor with bright energy. Gurtu spreads his palms wide through these aural veins, Harth tracing with a palmist’s care. Their interplay vacillates: a few steps from Gurtu, a few expulsions from Harth. Each move forward italicizes the piece’s sentence structure, closing on an elegiac statement from Bley.
Love’s tug –
sweet clamorous tidings
on the unique
“Energy: Blood/Air” reveals the album’s most porous textures. Over a tightly knit ostinato, Harth breathes life into Nicols, who skims a poem’s surface before slipping into protracted improvisation. Bley floats a light solo over our heads, gathered up amid a handful of bass.
Today she sits
in the angled skies…
at the blushing
The “Three Acts Of Recognition” that follow slip a contemplative card into this highly charged deck as Harth’s tender yet robust tenor ladles sound into our silence. Some well-chosen reverb lends a throated quality his song. Overtones mingle as piano chords lay down new ground for every self-aware step. A pause. Bley reaches into his instrument, plucking and strumming strings directly, while Harth spins molecules in the air. Another pause. We return to the keyboard, flowing through to the end.
Between the clean
and tender sheets
we’ll hear us out.
“Come Oekotopia” crackles in rain sticks and cymbals, drawing bass from the soil. Harth improvises over Phillips’s nimble strumming. His long-held note midway through is one of the album’s highlights. Percussive bells diffuse this energy. Nicols makes a phonemic cameo at the end.
The mind streams
Her subsequent recitative in “Waves Of Being” offsets a gorgeous solo from Bley, who cannot help but raise his own voice in the flare of the moment. Phillips’s bass is bright and bleeds into Gurtu’s string of metal (gongs), wood (sticks), and exoskeletons (shells). Harth’s bass clarinet bubbles with finality, fading into a sustained pluck of piano strings.
“Transformate, Transcend Tones and Images” shows Nicols in fine melodic form. As the album’s last image, seems to thrive at its center. Nicols adlibs the remainder, as if to dissolve these impressions just enough so that no one can claim them. “Woman in a violet tail-coat,” she sings, “blows her soul-blue sax on south bank.” But we never hear that sax. Instead, we get a string of unrecorded words:
leading us into the unknown discoveries of the journey ahead.
Harth is an attentive player who writes without erasing, sings without opening his mouth, exhales without hypocrisy. His notes are often shared on This Earth!, but he is never the mimic. Among this session’s band mates, Gurtu proves to be a particularly interesting choice. His cymbal-focused work adds the illusion of a full kit without the overbearing weight thereof. Bley and Phillips, on the other hand, are unmistakably present. Yet Nicols’s voice is the real poetry of the album. She transcends the words she sings even as she inhabits them, bringing genuine physicality to their contours.
Another out-of-print gem, its elusiveness makes it all the more visceral an experience once it finds its way to your turntable.
From left: Maggie Nicols, Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu
(photo by Ralph Quinke)