Thank you…

I began this blog two years ago on a whim and out of a desire to share my love for a label and its music that have shaped me since that first fateful encounter in my teens. My goal, as will be familiar to you, is to review every ECM album there is. I am now proud to say that, with over 600 reviews complete (300,000 words and counting!), I am at the halfway point to getting there. I couldn’t have done this without constant support from all of you who have been reading faithfully and sharing your enlightening comments, anecdotes, and stimulating debates. This has been one of the most fulfilling learning experiences of my writing and listening life, and I look forward to bringing you the second half and beyond as ECM continues to chart new paths on this quest between sound and space in which we all share. I thank you all, and stay tuned…

Spring 2012

Edward Vesala: Ode To The Death Of Jazz (ECM 1413)

Edward Vesala
Ode To The Death Of Jazz

Matti Riikonen trumpet
Jorma Tapio alto saxophone, bass clarinet, flute
Jouni Kannisto tenor saxophone, flute
Pepa Päivinen soprano, tenor and baritone saxophones, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet
Tim Ferchen marimba, tubular bells
Taito Vainio accordion
Iro Haarla piano, harp, keyboards
Jimi Sumen guitar
Uffe Krokfors bass
Edward Vesala drums
Recorded April/May 1989 at Sound and Fury Studio, Helsinki
Engineer: Jimi Sumen
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Vesala

If jazz is a body, then Edward Vesala is its ligament of fascination. Flexing and creaking with the passage of emotion into life and life into silence, the drummer’s disarming soundscapes never fail to intrigue, to say something potent and new. In spite of its tongue-in-cheek title (I cannot imagine Vesala trying to make a grand statement here), Ode To The Death Of Jazz is, strangely, one of his more uplifting exercises in sonic production.

The title of “Sylvan Swizzle” sets the bar in both tone and sentiment, opening in a smooth and winding road of flute, woodwinds, percussion, and harp. Textural possibilities bear the fruit of the ensemble’s explorations in somatic sound: an exercise in pathos, to be sure, if only through the eyes of something not human. The space here is dark yet flecked with iridescence, sporting yet bogged down by infirmity, vivacious yet weak in the eyes. With every change of title comes a change of scenery. “Infinite Express” thus moves us out of those caves and onto an evening dance floor populated by the demimonde of the upper crust. As the big band plays, each socialite shares with the other what it does not have in itself. The pliant reed work and watery splash (the album’s greatest moment) make for an unexpected give and take. “Time To Think” is both a question and its answer. Vesala constantly redefines its brooding atmosphere with subtle commentary. A mystical solo piano works its way through these tides, giving us pause for reflection. The bizarre call and response that opens “Winds Of Sahara” gives way to a distorted train ride through landscapes both electronic and acoustic, its Elliott Sharp vibe on point. The metallic drones and throated horns of “Watching For The Signal” thread tree branches whose leaves rustle like detuned guitars in the forest’s harp music. This beautiful track is one of Vesala’s finest and should reward the listener who has struggled thus far. “A Glimmer Of Sepal” is another fascinating detour. Featuring an accordion wrapped in the embrace of a tango dipped in the consequence of regret, it harbors in its nest of shadows not eggs but glimmers of light in a time when desperation calls for sanity. “Mop Mop” is the set’s requisite dose of whimsy and comes off like an Art Ensemble of Chicago outing, replete with percussive asides and an electronic seasoning packet thrown in for good measure. Last is “What? Where? Hum Hum,” which drops us headfirst into an old jazz scene, where lace and bowties shed their skins as the night presses on. The sax solo wrenches out its emotional hang-ups and throws them to the dance floor to bleed, wither, and go still.

Whether or not Ode signals the death of jazz or any other genre is moot, for it has been speaking its own language the entire time. That being said, and despite the evocative associations the album has inspired in me, it does seem somewhat restrained as Vesala efforts go (and maybe this is the point). The real strength here, though, is the fine interweaving of electronics in a relatively large group setting. Vesala newbies will want to start with the masterful tides of Nan Madol before holding this conch shell to their ears.

John Abercrombie: Animato (ECM 1411)

John Abercrombie

John Abercrombie guitar, guitar synthesizer
Jon Christensen drums, percussion
Vince Mendoza synthesizers
Recorded October 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Despite the fact of John Abercrombie headlining this curious little album called Animato, the finished product is a real showcase for drummer Jon Christensen and synthesizer virtuoso Vince Mendoza. The latter, who wrote the bulk of the album’s music (the only exceptions being the group improv that begins the set and the Jon Hassell-esque strains of Abercrombie’s “Bright Reign”), fleshes out some of the strokes Abercrombie was already beginning to paint with his synth augmentations in years past. Still, the guitarist is a major melodic force on this date. Where “Right Now” rises from the depths with the torch in his hands, swirling around a fiery center, self-contained yet extroverted, “Single Moon” floats his tenderness over a bass of electronic goodness. Like a skilled R&B singer, he plumbs the ballad to new depths, each new stratum accentuated by the warmth and timeless energy of Mendoza’s tasteful atmospheres. In this vein, the sequencer qualities of “Agitato” make for a bed of ashes from which the guitar rises like a phoenix and duets with drums in powerful conversation amid gorgeous synth lines and a classically inflected refrain. After the swelling interlude of “First Light” we come into the bubbling abstractions of “Last Light,” in which Abercrombie dances like fire on water. The darkly anthemic “For Hope Of Hope” is an audible mirage throughout which Christensen proves a fantastic painter of colors, even as Mendoza deepens them in a continuous pall of time and narrative experience. We end with a lullaby in “Ollie Mention.” This is perhaps Abercrombie at his most sensitive yet somehow spirited as he tumbles over comforting waves into the final recession of the tide.

The inclusion of Mendoza on this album was a stroke of genius. On the one hand he is an extension of what Abercrombie already implies, while on the other he emotes with such distinctness that one feels the session pushed to new territories with every touch. Together these musicians bring a storyteller’s art to wordless songs, hollowing a vein of shadow through which the blood of dreams runs bright.

Dave Holland Quartet: Extensions (ECM 1410)


Dave Holland Quartet

Dave Holland bass
Steve Coleman alto saxophone
Kevin Eubanks guitar
Marvin “Smitty” Smith drums
Recorded September 1989, Power Station, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you’re like me, then you’re most familiar with this album’s rhythm section from The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. From 1995 to 2006, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith were the anchors for said program’s house band. I always knew that Eubanks was a talented musician but felt that his insights were often lost in the muddled acoustics of the NBC studio in which they were situated. These conditions also boded ill, in most cases, for the show’s musical acts. In addition, for the most part Eubanks had his distortion turned high in order to achieve a certain brand of punctuation in his bantering with Leno, but I sometimes noticed that when returning from a commercial break he would be finishing a smooth jazz number, the brilliance of which I could only guess at. It wasn’t until I heard Extensions that I realized just how deep that brilliance goes.

Eubanks astounds at every turn of Extensions. Having penned the opening and closing tracks, he has the first and last word on things and brings to the in-between a certain majesty to the scope of his improvisatory paths. His “Nemesis” starts things off just right, giving way from barely plucked stirrings to the controlled vigor of altoist Steve Coleman’s left side drive. Not to be outdone, of course, are Smith and the album’s leader (though you wouldn’t know it from Holland’s many gracious nods to these younger trailblazers), whose interactions give Coleman just the lift he needs to soar with a blistering yet somehow nonabrasive sound. A toffee crisp solo from Eubanks paints here in leaps and somersaults, each a tight circle of deftly contained energy.

Holland himself gives us two tracks, of which “Processional” is the most sumptuous. This arid groove finds the bassist stepping lightly, making way for a starlit solo from Eubanks. Holland opens “The Oracle” with a line so delicate, it almost sounds like a classical guitar. The subtlety of Smith’s stylings at the kit and Eubanks’s bird-like calls work themselves through the curling plumes of windswept dunes, leaving a sonorous trail of footsteps that is redrawn as quickly as it is buried. This nearly 15-minute cut is the highlight of the album and should make a Eubanks believer out of anyone. Holland’s almost spiritually minded solo, detailed like a prayer, still conveys an unparalleled wanderlust before Coleman draws a trail of fire into the refrain. His two tunes, “Black Hole” and “101° Fahrenheit (Slow Meltdown),” are respectively funky and sultry, the latter unveiling fan-chopped smoke and alleys littered with wasted opportunities, singing of a time when one could forget them all in an amber bottle.

The closer, “Color Of Mind,” sports one of Holland’s catchiest bass lines and another astonishing dialogue from Eubanks. It also gives us some downtime with Holland along with Smith, who turns up the heat a notch or two into a sparkling close.

This album is a coming of age in an age of becoming. If ECM’s Touchstones series, of which this is a part, had its own Touchstones, this would be one of them.

Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra: s/t (ECM 1409)


Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra

Benny Bailey trumpet
Thomas Heberer trumpet
Henry Lowther trumpet
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Paul van Kemenade alto saxophone
Felix Wahnschaffe alto saxophone
Gerd Dudek soprano and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute
Walter Gauchel tenor saxophone
E. L. Petrowsky baritone saxophone
Willem Breuker baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Henning Berg trombone
Hermann Breuer trombone
Hubert Katzenbeier trombone
Utz Zimmermann bass trombone
Aki Takase piano
Günter Lenz bass
Ed Thigpen drums
Misha Mengelberg piano
Alexander von Schlippenbach conductor
Recorded May 1989 at Studio 10, RIAS Berlin
Engineer: Sören Pehrs
Produced by RIAS Berlin and ECM

The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra was begun in 1988 as the brainchild of Alexander von Schlippenbach. A decorated composer and student of B. A. Zimmermann, Schlippenbach is perhaps best known as the founder of the Globe Unity Orchestra, which spurred the 1960s jazz scene into the first of many influential phases. This self-titled album is the BCJO’s group’s debut, recorded when the outfit was all of a year old, and features a stunning array of musicians, including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, reed man and flutist Gerd Dudek, baritone saxophonist E. L. Petrowsky, bass clarinetist Willem Breuker, and pianist Misha Mengelberg.

The set is a triptych of moods and configurations, of which the first, Ana, comes to us from the mind of Kenny Wheeler. From the somber piano intro, one might think a Keith Jarrett solo concert was in store. This illusion is quickly banished by the wealth of instrumental forces at hand. With horns taking the upper range and arco bass the lower, drums ride the outer circle while a hefty trombone strings along some rounded hits from the band. Between the deftly woven brass tapestry and beautiful solo turn from pianist (and wife of Schlippenbach) Aki Takase, Wheeler dominates the solo-sphere —that is, until Petrowsky’s tenor throws some much-needed fuel into the fire. This slides into an upbeat bridge before ending on a free-for-all and a sparkling piano flourish.

The album’s remainder was penned by Misha Mengelberg, whose keys can be found poking their thoughts here and there. The conventional horn intro of Salz wipes the blackboard clean for the frantic bass clarinet lessons of Willem Breuker—who, along with Petrowsky, is one of the group’s shining stars—and the composer’s own frolicking pianism. Another of the album’s best solos resides herein, this time from the tenor of Dudek, who also threads in a few lines of flute.

The lightly syncopated vertigo that welcomes us into Reef und Kneebus promises the album’s best engagements, but instead turns into an over-long meander between a few stellar points. Wheeler, though, is as engaging as always, and the swing comes back into the picture toward the end. This final piece plays more like a series of unrelated vignettes and feels a touch out of place.

This is a full recording, one that accentuates the breezy rhythm section and keeps the brass well separated. The band blows free and easy and tries its best to keep us out of the compositional rut with some freer gesticulations. A respectable outing that could have stood to be spun blindfolded a few times and loosed unaided, but which nevertheless balances its conscious progressions well.

Alexander Knaifel: BLAZHENSTVA (ECM New Series 1957)


Alexander Knaifel

Ivan Monighetti violoncello
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Piotr Migunov bass
State Hermitage Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis Principal conductor
Lege Artis Choir
Boris Abalian Artistic director
Recorded March 2006 at St. Catherine Lutheran Church and Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Boris Isaev
Recording supervision: Alexander Knaifel
An ECM Production

Just when we ECM listeners had become lulled in the embraces of Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, thinking no others might widen that door further, suddenly we encountered a new visionary: Alexander Knaifel. Although Knaifel shares the spotlight with other such stars of the Soviet avant-garde, his ability to paint with sound is arguably unrivaled among them. To experience his music is to experience the pathos of life itself: sometimes bumpy, even hurtful, but always rewarding with the tranquility of learning. In it one feels the weight of the world balanced like a feather on the breath.

Lamento (1967, rev. 1987) for cello solo is dedicated to the memory of choreographer Leonid Jakobson. And indeed, one can feel the shapely movements of the stage working their way into every facet of this sometimes-challenging work. From the opening series of attacks, chained by silence, to the heart-stopping double stop that carries us into prayer, we hear in it a promissory refrain. With youthful caution it spins from agitation a thread of such transcendent light that one feels blinded by its tonality. What follows skirts the line of harmony and dissonance, finding the divine without need of the Word. Knaifel’s attentive scoring allows us to hear the true interior of the cello. To accomplish this, he externalizes its full dynamic range. This is not a piece that answers its own question, but one that becomes the question itself.

Blazhenstva (1996) for soloists, orchestra, and choir also bears dedication, in this instance to mentor Mstislav Rostropovich in honor of his 70th birthday. It’s astonishing that such a meditative piece can harbor so much conflict, and yet here it is speaking to us in the sonic equivalent of Psalmnody. The voice of soprano Tatiana Melentieva proves to be one of the most heavenly on land, and one Knaifel does not exploit but rather bows to through his music, such that with the entrance of bass Piotr Migunov it reveals cardinal avenues of possibility. As a sustained piano intones, it flows like the text it engenders (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:3-12). This overlaps in unexpected ways while maintaining an antiphonal feeling. Men’s voices make way for altos as a constant sheet of strings forms like ice beneath. Vocal lines stretch before fraying into a holy triad, unwound like Creation returning to its firmament. A cello solo lends finality and grace, as if passing along the wisdom of the Beatitudes through a more terrestrial channel before crossing their vertical transmission.

“Both compositions form a united way,” says Knaifel, and this we can hear without question. If one is death, the other is life, and together they complete a circle that touches us all. The sheer amount of space articulated therein (and on this note one must praise engineer Boris Isaev) envelops the darkness and the light, traveling a way of gray that walks as it breathes.

Igor Stravinsky: Orchestral Works (ECM New Series 1826)



Igor Stravinsky
Orchestral Works

Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded October 2002 at Liederhalle Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This reference recording of conductor Dennis Russell Davies’s account of Igor Stravinsky is proof that a conductor can make all the difference. Davies sprinkles the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester with life at every turn and in the process reintroduces us to a composer whose music is all too often neglected in spite of his fame. He’s either the Russian provocateur whose ballet The Rite of Spring caused a riot during its 1913 premier or the poster child for a now passé neoclassicism. We can be thankful for having recordings such as this to educate.

In light of this, Davies has assembled a program that brings together the known and the not so known, opening in the latter persuasion with the 1960 Monumentum pro Gesualdo di Venosa ad CD annum. Stravinsky’s magisterial humility shines like light through the stained glass of his sources. As one might expect, brass figures heavily in these Baroque arrangements and recalls the matrix of Bach’s first Brandenberg Concerto. It is the thrill of the hunt and divine peace all rolled into one and paints Stravinsky as a skillful pastiche artist.

Davies and his musicians soften the neoclassical category by approaching the music as it presents itself to be. Consequently, a piece like the Danses Concertantes (1942) for chamber orchestra comes across as neither a reimagining nor a recycling of fashionable moods, but rather the exuberance of its own soundness. The halting rhythms and skillful wind writing—note, for instance, the bassoon in Variation IV—make for an enchanting experience all around.

Next is the Concerto in D (1946) for string orchestra, which here finds itself reborn in time. Its vivacious interior shows in the attention paid to dynamics and syncopation. The meat of its second movement sits comfortably between the two more strained slices above and below. The latter follows a line of agitation from which the rest is blended, leaving a cello to fade out of sight…

…only to resurface in the Apollon musagète of 1927/28. This ballet, written for Georges Ballanchine in two tableaux, finds the cello running through its half-waking dreams like remembrance. Its counterpart, the violin, makes similar orchestral encroachments, only to pull at the intertextual weave therein until a somber but spirited finish is all that remains.

Stravinsky’s is a macramé of inspiring proportions. Yet it is always surrounded by modesty, as if the very world might crumble were too many of its resources funneled into one place.

Anja Lechner and Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Chants, Hymns and Dances (ECM New Series 1888)


Chants, Hymns and Dances

Anja Lechner cello
Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Recorded December 2003, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt am Main
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The enigmatic sound-world of G. I. Gurdjieff (c.1877-1948) made its first appearance on ECM via the spirited renditions of pianist Keith Jarrett. Now another wizard at the keyboard, Vassilis Tsabropoulos, joins kindred spirit cellist Anja Lechner for a redrawing of old maps alongside the newly discovered continents of Tsabropoulos’s own stilling compositions around Byzantine hymns. The result is less a hybrid and more of a conversation across (and of) time. Harmonically a simple world, it elides the trappings of the social, forging its own divine concept in the grip of ideological binds. Some, like Chant from a Holy Book, build up in intensity as might a raga, spinning from humble beginnings a sustained lyricism that speaks with the language of afterlife. Others maintain that humility throughout, as in Prayer. Tsabrapolous’s approach to these free-floating motives is gently improvisational, and yet the star of every note seems to hold its place in the music’s nightfall. In Duduki, for one, we hear in the pianism a potency of such fragile proportions that Lechner’s cello seems to weep with the passion of a last dance.

The album’s heart also renders a portrait of Tsabrapolous’s, as he gives us his own bridging melodies in the wilting graces of Trois Morceaux après des hymnes byzantinshas. In these Lechner’s exquisite tone glows, threading an emotional line as one might find in an Eleni Karaindrou soundtrack. The playful undertones of Dance then give way to Chant, which is closest to its surroundings in mood. Although elegiac, it is bright with textless voices. More Gurdjieff rounds out program, of which the highlights are the evocative Assyrian Women Mourners and its sister piece, Woman’s Prayer.

Anyone who enjoyed Jarrett’s earlier take on the shape of things will find plenty to open the mind further on Chants. I can hardly imagine an album better suited for ECM’s pioneering programming. It is a quiet, unassuming space that takes nothing for granted, granting as it does all that it has ever received.

ECM New Series Anthology (ECM New Series 1405)

ECM New Series Anthology

Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gidon Kremer violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Meredith Monk voice, piano
Heinz Holliger oboe
Kim Kashkashian viola
Tamia voice
Pierre Favre percussion
Shankar double violin
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone, flute
Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute
Erin Headley vielle
Thomas Demenga cello
Paul Giger violin

ECM made history in 1984 with the release of Tabula rasa, the first of the jazz label’s equally influential New Series. Not only did this beloved recording introduce many to the music of Arvo Pärt, but it also clarified producer Manfred Eicher’s classical roots and fed into the likeminded sensibilities Eicher was then bringing with increasing confidence to his groundbreaking approach to jazz. It is therefore appropriate that Pärt, the imprint’s shining star, should be represented here more than any other composer or performer. His Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, a haunting secular homage to a composer he would never meet, is the disc’s open door. Its quiet sweeps and intoning tubular bell resemble little in all recorded music. Pärt comes to us further through his spiraling Arbos for brass and percussion and through Fratres, a touchstone in his compositional career. Existing in many treatments, here it is given one of its most powerful through the greatness of violinist Gidon Kremer. Accompanied by Keith Jarrett at the piano, his simple yet burrowing progressions capture (and release) the essence of something so physiological that one cannot but help feel it in the veins.

If Pärt is the New Series’ mainstay composer, then the phenomenal singers of the Hilliard Ensemble are its star performers. Since making their label debut with a flavorful rendition of Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah, of which the Incipit is given here, they have redefined the art of the chamber vocal ensemble.

Meredith Monk shifts the light considerably in a selection from her Vessel: An Opera Epic. The New York-based composer and performer has established a loyal group of vocal artists, all of whom find in her voice a depth of inspiration all too rarely encountered. One would feel tempted to call her world mysterious, were it not for the fact that it sounds undeniably familiar. “Do You Be” is a representative work in this regard, an aria of sorts that blows her ululations through the branches of a faraway tree.

Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger is another major compositional force in the New Series catalogue, and his Studie Über Mehrklänge for solo oboe is as good a place as any to start for those adventurous enough to wander his musical paths. As the title (A Study in Multiphonics) already informs us, Holliger wrings a wealth of sounds and colors from the single woodwind. Whether unsettling or ethereal, they never fail to enchant and reinvent with every listen.

The peerless Kim Kashkashian gives us the final movement of Paul Hindemith’s fifth Viola Sonata. This 11-minute masterpiece is the first of a smattering of solo pieces on the album, the others being Thomas Demenga’s astonishing Sarabande from the fourth Cello Suite of J. S. Bach and an all-too-short excerpt (only three of its original twenty-two minutes) from “Crossing” by Swiss violinist Paul Giger. The album, Chartres, from which the latter was taken is one of the finest violin recordings ever released and is a must-have for those interested in exploring more of what the New Series has to offer.

Singer, scholar, and early music specialist Paul Hillier gives us “Can Vei La Lauzeta,” a haunting lilt of troubadour stylings by Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180). It is a fitting inclusion in a program that is but a thread in an ongoing tapestry—more than I can say about the album’s filler. Why, for example, do we find not one but two selections from saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams? A fantastic album, to be sure, but not a New Series release. The same goes for “Ballade” by singer Tamia and percussionist Pierre Favre and “Adagio” by Carnatic violinist L. Shankar. Both are lovely sonic constructions yet neither appears under the New Series title. I realize that perhaps these were an attempt to show that the music of ECM proper can sometimes carry over into fuzzier areas of genre, but isn’t that what the far more numerous anthologies from the very same are for?

Another addition—that of actor Bruno Ganz’s recitation of “Vom Abgrund Nämlich” by Friedrich Hölderlein—may also seem curious, if only for its politics, but its opening lines at least ring to the tune of the ECM spirit, which has cast its sonic lessons into the widening sea of listening in which we are all embedded:

We began of course at the abyss
And have gone forth like lions

By and large, this is an adequate introduction to a side of ECM that some may feel hesitant to explore. Yet rather than pay for a well-chosen, if sometimes puzzling, collection, I would instead encourage the curious to get their hands on any one of the above recordings in full.