Egberto Gismonti: Meeting Point (ECM 1586)

Egberto Gismonti
Meeting Point

Egberto Gismonti piano
Gintaras Rinkevicius conductor
Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra
Recorded June 1995, Vilnius
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If any title could sum up the ECM aesthetic in two words, it is Meeting Point. This disc features the Lithuanian State Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Gintaras Rinkevicius, playing the music of Egberto Gismonti, who also acts as soloist. Having studied under Jean Barraqué and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, the multitalented Brazilian musician and composer puts his conservatory training into effect on this program of seven pieces. Of these, the diptych “Strawa no Sertão” is the shortest, making for a rollicking introduction that bustles like a market square, threading between fruit stands and children’s laughter. The nocturnal dances of “Música para Cordas” provide much-needed contrast to its surroundings, setting up a lively arrangement of “Frevo” (first heard on Sanfona). Gismonti now appears at the keyboard, adding urgency to this orchestral milieu. Interjections from horns burst onto the page like punctuation marks, while the flutes draw erasable underlines. The piano’s function as percussion instrument is further emphasized in the romping “A Pedrinha Cai.” It runs through that same market with stall prize clutched in hand, ending with that first sweet bite. Yet the most personal voice emerges in “Eterna,” for which a romantic solo violin blows like a summer breeze and breaks the orchestra down into the intimacy of a string quartet. Thus prepared for the roiling sea of a re-imagined “Música de Sobrevivencia,” we puzzle our way through brine and wisps of cloud, each blind to the other except through Gismonti’s overwhelming desire to communicate.

Though I wouldn’t recommend Meeting Point as your first Gismonti experience, one should never bypass the lungs on the way to the heart, for here is a breath of ineluctable brilliance, teaching, and careful thought.

Jan Garbarek: Visible World (ECM 1585)

Jan Garbarek
Visible World

Jan Garbarek soprano & tenor saxophone, keyboards, percussion
Rainer Brüninghaus piano, synthesizer
Eberhard Weber bass
Marilyn Mazur percussion, drums
Manu Katché drums
Trilok Gurtu tabla
Mari Boine vocals
Recorded June 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As one who started out with ECM’s New Series and only years later began branching out into ECM proper, how can I ever forget my first parent label experience: Visible World. Having heard Jan Garbarek only on Officium, I was curious to see what the saxophonist had to offer and was lucky enough to spot this disc in a used CD bin. The cover photograph pulled me in…yet how much more so when I pressed PLAY and let the waterwheel flow of “Red Wind” wash over me. Here was an artist, I now knew, who felt the deserts in the rains and vice versa, one who turned every lilting ornament into a ritual gesture. From the quiet strength of his themes and non-invasive synthesizer touches to the feathered synergy of his band mates, songs like “The Creek” gifted experiences from another life. And songs is exactly what these are, for in their precious adlibbing form crystals of hope, catching the drum-shocked catharsis of “The Survivor” on bassist Eberhard Weber’s thrumming comet tails like sunbeams in a prism. While Garbarek’s tribalism may ring a touch ingenuous to some folks, the maps of his travels come cased in loving care, so that no creases ever turn into tears. Take, for instance, the vivid skin Garbarek stretches over the skeleton of “The Healing Smoke.” By turns robust and willowy, it never backs down from its convictions, lays them bare for our scrutiny, if not also for the blindness of our souls. Pianist Rainer Brüninghaus makes a welcome return to the Garbarek fold, bringing his trademark touch to journeys over three “Desolate Mountains” and the moving portrait of one “Giulietta,” even as percussionists Marilyn Mazur and Manu Katché lay runes along the way. The cinematic bliss of the two-part title track, one scuro to the other’s chiaro, reminds us that much of the music featured on Visible World was written for video or film. Other moving pictures include a gorgeous, I daresay funky, rendition of “Pygmy Lullaby” (which I, like many I’m sure, first encountered through Deep Forest’s classic unearthing) and “The Arrow,” an evocative landscape of melodic steles and natural wonder. Yet all of this is just the smoke to the fire of “Evening Land.” Said saga of sound and sentiment blows like the exhalations of feature vocalist Mari Boine, who pulls up the calls leading up to this point on threads spun from Garbarek’s crescent-moon commentary, culminating in a seesawing of chords around which tumble the children of tomorrow.

This is the quintessential Garbarek album, the perfect synthesis of everything he and producer Manfred Eicher ever set out to achieve together from the start. Being the sculptors that they are, both artists saw the finished form in the slab, leaving us with a masterpiece we would never have known without their intervention.

Pierre Favre: Window Steps (ECM 1584)

Pierre Favre
Window Steps

Kenny Wheeler trumpet and fluegelhorn
Roberto Ottaviano soprano saxophone
David Darling cello
Steve Swallow bass
Pierre Favre drums, percussion
Recorded April 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Yet another inspired coming together, as could only have occurred under ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s purview, Window Steps plants percussionist Pierre Favre among a crop of wonderful musicians, casting us into an altered state from note one and holding us there until the last. Cellist David Darling makes a welcome appearance, exuding aquatic songs alongside soprano saxophonist Robert Ottaviano over tender ostinatos from bassist Steve Swallow. Trumpeter Kenny Wheeler gilds this mosaic with surprisingly warm strains in “Snow.” Favre’s presence is limited in this opening piece to an undulating current of cymbals, bringing more forthright drumming only in “Cold Nose,” which after a resounding call unleashes guitar-like storytelling from Swallow. Metal is the reigning element of “Lea,” which cuts a winding path of breath through a soft and sultry theme. Wheeler and Ottaviano are notably bonded here, spinning around Darling’s filamented core. What begins as a reverie in “Girimella” turns into a jazzy ride, adding a twinge of excitement to an otherwise sustained program. Stepping through a droning neap tide of beauty, we come to the final “Passage,” carrying us out like a wooden boat on dark waters, across which we drift into the land of nod.

A quiet album for quiet days, relic from some forgotten shore, washed up to our feet in hopes that we might reach down and touch the dreams we’ve missing.

Egberto Gismonti Trio: ZigZag (ECM 1582)

Egberto Gismonti

Egberto Gismonti 10 & 14-string guitars, piano
Nando Carneiro guitar, synthesizer
Zeca Assumpção double-bass
Recorded April 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Six original compositions from Egberto Gismonti comprise this, his 14th effort for ECM. Having already honed a broader sound in recordings like Música de Sobrevivência and Infância, for ZigZag the Brazilian virtuoso set his fingers dancing in the company of fellow guitarist Nando Carneiro (retained from the above two sessions) and bassist Zeca Assumpção. The absence of Jacques Morelenbaum changes the sound colors significantly. One might very well miss the cellist’s fluid presence were it not for the distinct quality of the music presented here, which is of such a different stripe that it elides comparison. The trio meshes so well that it becomes one large stringed instrument, such that by the second track, “Mestiço & Caboclo,” we are convinced of something profoundly shared. A kiss of whimsy deepens it that much more. Here, as in “Orixás,” Assumpção is the emotional maypole around which Gismonti and Carneiro twine their ribbons, the pen of a love letter in a hand familiar to anyone who’s ever taken a moment’s quiet contemplation. After the jagged defenestration of “Carta De Amor,” perhaps best expressing the album’s title, the group leader moves from fretboard to keyboard for “Um Anjo” in an arresting duet with bass. The nostalgia here is palpable, with enough left over for “Forrobodó,” in which orchestral accents from synthesizer add italics to an already bold text.

The beauty of this spirited recording is that, though it may not evoke the sights and sounds of our home, it welcomes us as if they were.

Keith Jarrett Trio: At The Blue Note – The Complete Recordings (ECM 1575-80)

Keith Jarrett Trio
At The Blue Note – The Complete Recordings

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded June 3–5, 1994, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When Keith Jarrett opens Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” the first off this monumental document of a weekend’s Blue Note concerts in June of 1994, we feel right at home. Sharing the stage with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, he epitomizes balance of fire and grace in the famed jazz club’s intimate and hallowed confines. But there is, of course, nothing confining about the 7-hour journey on which the listener has just embarked, for as Peacock spreads his fingers wide, fanning the flames over DeJohnette’s never-hackneyed rat-a-tat-tat, we understand that this is something more than music. It’s art, pure and simple.

So begins the first of three glorious nights of (mostly) standards from the trio that rewrote them all. What follows is a veritable train of the tried and true, which lets off the Gershwins at one station with “How Long Has This Been Going On,” Charlie Parker at another (“Now’s The Time”), and J. J. Johnson at still another (“Lament”). Peacock’s improvisational arc is their running spine, binding page after page of archival paper with insoluble glue. Jarrett manages to float throughout the livelier locks of “While We’re Young,” “Oleo,” and “If I Were A Bell,” the latter of which requires a pair of binoculars to spot DeJohnette, so high does he soar. The second Friday set also proves fertile ballad ground, tugging at the heartstrings “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning.” Here Peacock eases in almost unawares—a gradation of sunset from pink to orange—and turns drums into whispers. “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is another highlight, closing out the night with a gospel edge.

“Autumn Leaves,” which for my money no one plays better, kicks off Saturday’s tour de force at the astronomical length of nearly 27 minutes. But make no mistake: not a single note is wasted. Between Peacock’s beautifully ascending lines and Jarrett’s open O of ecstatic communication with the gods of improvisation, to say nothing of the fine swinging of the sticks from DeJohnette, there is always something to admire with each new listen. “Days of Wine and Roses” spreads one royal jazz flush across the poker table, giving us some of the set’s most unified moments, while a likeminded rendition of “When I Fall in Love” underscores Peacock, who is every bit as deft as Jarrett at unpacking the motives at hand for all they’re worth. “How Deep Is The Ocean” is a perfect example of Jarrett’s skills as an introducer, bringing us as he does into the atmosphere of the piece before the vamp rears its familiar head. Fresher moments abound in “I’ll Close My Eyes.” A crisp joint that snaps like a snow pea, its affirming energies feed Jarrett’s most phenomenal solo of the entire package. Spinning his chromatic staircases as if he were a lighthouse builder in a parallel night, he adds flesh to every bone. As Friday ended in Pentacost, so Saturday ends in the blues with “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.”

Which leads us into the dynamic visions of Sunday’s closing sets. The first takes the smooth (“My Romance”) with the tempestuous (“La Valse Bleue”), the flustered (“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”) with the thrilling (“Straight, No Chaser”). The second adopts a more meditative approach, melting in Jarrett’s own “Desert Sun.” One of a smattering of originals, it unfolds like a solo concert piece, made all the richer for the presence of his incomparable sidemen. Like “Partners” (appearing twice on the album) and “Bop-Be,” it is a standalone story, a new chapter in a book that may never be finished. “No Lonely Nights” is another personal trip and finds its composer pouring on the starlight like syrup over pancakes. The remaining half of his tunes grow out of shorter standards, turning, for example, “On Green Dolphin Street” into a 21-minute jam with the addition of “Joy Ride.” So, too, with “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (augmented by Jarrett’s “Muezzin”) and “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” which submits to “The Fire Within.” And where else could such sustained brilliance come from?

Just when you think you’ve picked a favorite guide out of this trio for these sentimental journeys, another swoops in to take his place. In spite of their seemingly unstoppable flow, they always know when to take pause, to let the air breathe with the heads and tails of something new. And while I’d never recommend limiting oneself to a single recording by this groundbreaking group, for deep-end swimmers you can’t go wrong with this dive. As a live document alone, it will stand the test of time. The only downside is that you may feel sad at not having been there when all of this went down. Thankfully, through this treasure of a recording, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we were. The only standards worth sharing, says Jarrett in his liner notes, are the highest ones, and at the Blue Note you’ll find nothing but. This is where it’s at.

Steve Kuhn: Remembering Tomorrow (ECM 1573)

Steve Kuhn
Remembering Tomorrow

Steve Kuhn piano
David Finck double-bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded March 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Fans of Steve Kuhn are sure to recognize many of the tunes on Remembering Tomorrow, but don’t let that fool you into thinking this intimate date with bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron is a mere retread of the past, for in the present trio setting the music shines afresh, fertile as fields after summer rain. And despite what the somber cover photograph would have you believe, the results are dynamic, intense, and uplifting. Sure, we get the lustrous, dreamy wash of “The Rain Forest” and “Lullaby,” kisses on the forehead to sooth our agitation. And there is the rather sober version of “Trance,” morphed from its optimistic progressions into Baron’s splashes through murky waters. Another tender reconsideration: “Life’s Backward Glance,” which blossoms with the full crystalline breadth of the assembled forces. But then there are groovier excursions like “Oceans In The Sky” and “All The Rest Is The Same.” Baron, in his second ECM appearance, tickles these and more with astute wit. Finck, for his part, remains happy to spin the fuselage to which Kuhn attaches his wings. The title track does indeed throb with the power of recollection, casting nets into a complicated past and pulling from them one spiritual thread that sings. Kuhn’s exchanges with Finck in “The Feeling Within” are the hallmark of this set’s most touching moments, while “Bittersweet Passages” finds the pianist uniting with Baron in a delicate crucible. The product is an eye of “Silver” that closes under the sands of sleep.

Kuhn’s magic is his touch, his feeling for stories warm as breath. He inhales with the lungpower of a choir, exhales with the veiled subtlety of an orchestra hanging on a pianissimo chord. Let these dandelion seeds fly and follow wherever they lead.

Dave Holland Quartet: Dream Of The Elders (ECM 1572)


Dave Holland Quartet
Dream of the Elders

Dave Holland double-bass
Steve Nelson vibraphone, marimba
Eric Person alto, soprano saxophones
Gene Jackson drums
Cassandra Wilson vocal
Recorded March 1995, Power Station, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This incarnation of the Dave Holland Quartet finds the double bassist in the excellent company of mallet man Steve Nelson, saxophonist Eric Person, and drummer Gene Jackson. The combination is a fortuitous one and glistens under the ECM heat lamp. A characteristic bass line sets us on “The Winding Way,” the theme of which Person’s soprano rides like sunlight on the fin of a dolphin, followed not far behind by a string of underwater acrobatics from vibes. So begins a set of eight immodest Holland originals, averaging over nine minutes apiece. The length is never for its own sake, due only to the sheer amount of stories these musicians have to convey. Take “Lazy Snake,” for example, which begins with a gritty bass solo before swaying, dressed to the nines, like a debutante onto an empty dance floor. A marvelous joint that truly showcases the interlocking imaginations of these fearless four. At the marimba, Nelson moves from solo to vamp as the sky from dusk to midnight, dimming a meditative alto to finish. After a few sprightly turns in “Claressence,” vocalist Cassandra Wilson makes a guest appearance on “Equality.” Said attribute defines not only this tune but also the band as a whole. Hers is a voice that yearns for freedom, sliding lovers like beads off a string until the hummingbird of her resolve is left hovering. “Ebb & Flow” does much more of the latter than the former, proving once again why Nelson is the star on this date, further enlivening the spidery altoism of the title track and setting off a spate of cathartic drumming. Of the rhythm section we must also take note in “Second Thoughts.” Its blink-of-an-eye precision invigorates fabulous solos from vibes and alto for a telltale journey of the heart, ending with an instrumental reprise of “Equality,” sultry and debonair.

Dream Of The Elders lives up to its title. Just listen to Person soloing on “Ebb & Flow” and you’ll understand the lengths to which these souls will travel to translate the language of their genealogies into a vernacular we can all feel and understand. Easy as pie, sans sugar crash.

Terje Rypdal: Double Concerto / 5th Symphony (ECM 1567)

Terje Rypdal
Double Concerto / 5th Symphony

Terje Rypdal guitar
Ronni Le Tekro guitar
Riga Festival Orchestra
Normunds Šnē
Recorded June 1998, Riga, and August 1998, Nyhagen
Engineers: Audun Strype and Dag Stokke
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ever the slippery idiomatic eel, Terje Rypdal holds his own as composer in two massive works, the Double Concerto for two electric guitars and symphony orchestra and the 5th Symphony, totaling eight movements of classical brilliance. While the influences are as maverick as he, the overall consistency of texture is refreshing and clean. Rypdal and fellow guitarist Ronni Le Tekro build on a mutual appreciation as soloists for the opus 58 Concerto. Erkki-Sven Tüür fans will find much to admire here in the adroit incorporation of percussion and brass against a Baroque-flavored counterpoint in the leading motives of the first movement. After these pyrotechnic swoops, the meditations of the second movement are a welcome reprieve. Yet the torch still burns all the way to the fourth, braving a storm of Glenn Branca proportion toward cinematic resolution.

If the concerto is about closure, then Rypdal’s opus 50 is about openness. The 5th Symphony reveals a detailed aesthetic that builds with molecules of descriptive energy, as what at one moment may evoke the sway of windblown trees may trade places the next with a waterfall’s shimmering veil. From this cascade emerges a faunal English horn, poking its head through the foliage like a curious deer whose need for caution pales in the light of the comfort that surrounds it. From a dissonant rumbling from below, a wayfaring piano anoints us with slumber, pulling threads of pathos to harp-gilded crests and falls. A thorough and pervasive atmosphere wins out, hurling us into oblivion.

Rypdal swings from innocence to fortitude at the flick of a pick (or pen, as the case might be). Like the oceans of Solaris, his music is ethereal even as it feeds on our darkest fears.

Gateway: Homecoming (ECM 1562) / In The Moment (ECM 1574)

Guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette made history with the release of Gateway in 1975. The name stuck, as did the accolades, which followed them to a 1978 sequel that bolstered their sound to new heights. Only after a 17-year hiatus, during which time each member played with the other (but never as a trio) in varying forms, did they push their already stuffed envelope with a reunion at New York’s Power Station studio, by then a familiar launch pad for DeJohnette and his work with the Keith Jarrett Trio. The session spawned two albums, though only one was planned, starting with:

Recorded December 1994, Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title track reunited more than one of the finest groups of the seventies, bringing together also the many emotional souvenirs each performer had gathered along the way. The joy in every lick and tumble is in full evidence. DeJohnette is aflame, Abercrombie following his trail of embers with laser precision and shaving off an twist of lime for his solo, while Holland (who penned this and three other of the album’s nine tunes) is at his buoyant best. His montuno-flavored “Modern Times” and “How’s Never” throw open the doors for both of his bandmates, but especially for DeJohnette in the latter. Abercrombie counters with three gems of his own, of which “Calypso Falto” is noteworthy for its conjuration of faraway islands and intimate shores. Not be left out, DeJohnette rounds out the set with a diptych, swapping sticks for ivory on “Oneness” and presaging his album of the same name by two years.

If only we could get a taste of this alchemy in our drink, we might all live beyond our time. Invigorating and fine, Homecoming is a joy to explore time and again. Which is, I imagine, exactly what was on ECM producer Manfred Eicher’s mind when he asked the trio to keep playing:

In The Moment
Recorded December 1994, Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Thus, In The Moment, a 46-minute set of group improvisations that simply must be heard in conjunction. DeJohnette chants through a Turkish frame drum for the start, Abercrombie working his microtonal magic with an ess-curved twang. This formula persists because it works, finding new purpose in “Cinuçen.” Pregnant like a Saharan sky, it lets down its golden hair and lumbers through “The Enchanted Forest” to catch up to its own jangling caravan. The interaction between bass and drums make tracks like “Shrubberies” the beautiful things that they are. As far a cry as possible from the Monty Python images its title may evoke, this is an honest excursion that lowers us like a sleeping child into “Soft.” For this, Holland draws his bow like the Loch Ness monster beneath Abercrombie’s wavering reflections as a pianistic fog assures the sighting will never be captured. Magic and pure to the last, this one is.

Both Homecoming and In The Moment are of a piece, each the shadow of the other in the light of our listening. We may, and with good reason, marvel at three-dimensionality of their mesh…but in the end it’s all about letting go and taking the music for what it is: a language we all can translate.