Anouar Brahem: Khomsa (ECM 1561)

Anouar Brahem

Anouar Brahem oud
Richard Galliano accordion
François Couturier piano, synthesizer
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Béchir Selmi violin
Palle Danielsson double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded September 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Anouar Brahem’s third leader date for ECM explores the oud player’s incidental music for Tunisian film and theatre as interpreted by a shifting nexus of musicians, new and old alike. His compositional side takes precedence this time around, for it is accordionist Richard Galliano who lights the foreground with “Comme un depart” and hardly recedes until “Des rayons et des ombres,” the latter a superbly jazzy romp with Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen. Bassist and drummer, respectively, add buoyancy to “E la nave va” and “Aïn ghazel,” culminating in the shadow of Jean-Marc Larché’s soprano for the title track. Galliano continues to somersault through the airspace of “Souffle un vent de sable.” Only here does the oud awaken, as if from long hibernation, its lips dry and puckered for the quench of a distant rain. Brahem deepens the sincerity of his instrument in “L’infini jour” with a twang that aches from the power of re-creation. He and Galliano flirt with the same watery surface in “Sur l’infini bleu,” the first of a handful of duets that also includes the animated “Claquent les voiles” (Brahem/Danielsson). “Vague” and its “Nouvelle” counterpart blossom with a piano that recalls the opening section of Philip Glass’s Glassworks, carrying over into the ensemble-oriented folktale of “Seule.” Larché questions the night in “Un sentier d’alliance,” where he is answered by the sparkling reflections of François Couturier’s pianism, only to be picked up by violin in “Comme une absence” before sliding into blissful self-awareness.

Khomsa is an inspired meeting, each musician highlighting a different curl of Brahem’s calligraphic art. This may not be his most consistent effort, but I discourage you from passing it up.

Nils Petter Molvær: Khmer (ECM 1560)

Nils Petter Molvær

Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, electric guitar, bass guitar, percussion, samples
Eivind Aarset electric guitar, effects, ambient treatments
Ulf W. Ø. Holand samples
Morten Mølster electric guitar
Roger Ludvigsen acoustic guitar, percussion, dulcimer
Rune Arnesen drums
Reidar Skår samples, keyboards
Recorded 1996/97 at Lydlab A/S, Oslo
Engineer: Ulf W. Ø. Holand
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Ulf W. Ø. Holand

Khmer marks a monumental occasion: namely, the debut leader date of Nils Petter Molvær. Fresh off the boat of Small Labyrinths, the Norwegian trumpet player came out of left field with one of those rare albums that becomes second nature after only one listen. NPM, as he is also known, epitomizes ECM’s transcendental spirit with a collage of unbridled passion and integrity. Combining influences as diverse, if not also as intimately connected, as rock, ambient, dub, techno, and jazz, he deploys his mercurial fleet in a sea of samples, breakbeats, and smooth dives. Also carrying over from the Small Labyrinths session is hard rocker Eivind Aarset, who bookends the album with his e-bow guitar treatments and foils the delicate additions of free improviser Morten Mølster along the way. Mari Boine band regular Roger Ludvigsen adds six strings and more, playing prepared guitar and dulcimer, and along with drummer Rune Arnesen fleshes out the band’s acoustic signature. Yet it is keyboardist Reidar Skår and co-producer Ulf W. Ø. Holand who give the music just the kick it needs to hit the ground running. Holand, whose Lydlab is two floors above Oslo’s hallowed Rainbow Studio, provided samples and enough studio time to help shape the album into what it has become, while Skår brought his magic touch to said samples and others, manipulating them into an organic whole. The result is a classic that fits snugly alongside ECM’s all-time best.

Despite what from the above may seem like a grandiose experiment, the flow of Khmer is built around cells of rhythmic and melodic delicacy. It is only through the skill of the musicians, producers, and engineer that over a modest 43 minutes these cells build into fully fledged organisms. We hear this in the berimbau taps and snaking guitar lines that open the title track, giving plenty of net for Molvær’s distinct lobs. This feeling of pulse, sere and crystalline, burgeons in “Tløn,” which gives our first taste of the album’s electronic spread. A descending trumpet line hooks on to one of the catchiest samples you’ll ever hear (courtesy of Coldcut’s cult dance sampler, Kleptomania!). The mounting drums and talk-boxed vocals send this brew into active fermentation. NPM’s presence is intermittent, offering the occasional fluid monologue (enhanced to an electric guitar’s sheen), thereby allowing the group’s emergence to swing forth. Shawm-like cries throw up their hands to the rhythm of windblown leaves, ending on that same solo line, recycled and returned. The sediment-rich waterway of “Access” chains us to the digital ablution of “Song Of Sand I.” Funk reigns supreme, meshing with orchestral swells suggestive of Cypher 7’s “Message Important,” while also bearing Manfred Eicher’s stamp of focused communication. “On Stream” allows NPM to stretch his muscles more humbly. We hear the preparatory rhythms of his breathing against a subliminal caravan beat. “Platonic Years” continues down this percussive road. If the Bill Laswell influences were already felt in the low-end execution, here they blossom in a sample from his classic Axiom double album, Lost In The Translation, melding with breath and drum. “Phum” gives us a bubble of air to suck on in the rising waters before “Song Of Sand II” unleashes the selfsame track’s grittier side. Thus do we “Exit,” shifting, dreaming of doing it all over again.

Khmer was, for its time, a culmination of everything ECM had striven for in bridging styles, times, and places. An album with a sound, if there ever was one…

Khmer: The Remixes (ECM 1560/M)

…but the journey didn’t end there, for Eicher and company went a step farther when the following year they released ECM’s first remix albums, allowing for even greater expansion into fresh idiomatic territories. The Remixes offers up three re-interpretations, starting with The Herbaliser’s DJ Fjørd Mix of “Platonic Years,” which against heavy beats and filtered pizzicato touches stretches its trip-hop legs. Another twist of the prism gives us Mental Overdrive’s Dance Mix of “Tløn.” What seems like a meditative introduction washes into half the remix before the promised dance begins, rendered all the more cathartic for coming out of such a viscous carriage. “Song Of Sand” also goes under the knife, appearing in a “Single Edit” but finding greater traction in Rockers Hi-Fi’s Coastal Warning Mix. All of this makes for some head-nodding goodness.

Ligotage (ECM 1560/L)

Ligotage is a single in the truest sense, its cloudy title track straight off NPM’s follow-up, Solid Ether. This thought-provoking track is couched by an unedited version of “On Stream” and Mother Nature’s Cloud & Shower Show Mix of “Song Of Sand,” which sounds like Boards of Canada doing funk (this cut also appeared on a special promo remix edition, ECM 1560/S).

When I first bought this album in college, I played it for anyone who would listen. I brought it with me wherever I went and fed it into every stereo I encountered. On one such occasion, a friend smiled when I asked what he thought and said, “Groovy.”

Right on.

Marilyn Mazur’s Future Song: Small Labyrinths (ECM 1559)

Marilyn Mazur
Small Labyrinths

Aina Kemanis voice
Hans Ulrik saxophones
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet
Eivind Aarset guitar
Elvira Plenar piano, keyboards
Klavs Hovman basses
Audun Kleive drums
Marilyn Mazur percussion
Recorded August 1994 at Sun Studio, Copenhagen
Engineer: Bjarne Hansen
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Percussionist Marilyn Mazur, best known for keeping the beat with the Jan Garbarek Group, came into her own with Small Labyrinths, her first for ECM as frontwoman—in this case, of the Future Song project. With characteristic wit and commitment to seeing every gesture through, Mazur leads us on a trek of visions and fantasies. True to the dynamic nature of her art, she begins softly in “A World Of Gates,” caressing the periphery of her assembly and working her way to center with diligence. She blends into “Drum Tunnel,” clicking the tongues of her inner fire on the one hand, on the other adding a touch of icy whimsy via sleigh bells. In “The Electric Cave” a talk box hangs stalactites in code, while in the web of “The Dreamcatcher” we encounter the soothing voice of Aina Kemanis (in a different mode from her experiments with Barre Phillips), who gives fuzzy warmth to “Visions In The Wood” and prays for rain and thunder in “Castle Of Air.” Trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær adds backbone wherever he travels, shrouding the already supernal gamelan drone of “Back To Dreamfog Mountain” with a breath from below. After an interlude of “Creature Talk,” we stumble through the anthemic strains of “See There” into a “Valley Of Fragments.” This explosive aside casts us into an “Enchanted Place,” shattering windows into grains of sand, and those further into molecules, each indeed a small labyrinth harboring the promise of music. “The Holey” is where we end, lost in a book of cries and whispers, out of reach and out of time.

Small Labyrinths is no self-enclosed ritual, but rather a diary of open and spirited play. It seeks us out, asks us to stay, and hopes we may join in.

Jack DeJohnette: Dancing With Nature Spirits (ECM 1558)

Jack DeJohnette
Dancing With Nature Spirits

Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Michael Cain piano, keyboards
Steve Gorn bansuri flute, soprano saxophone, clarinet
Recorded May 1995 at Dreamland Studios, West Hurley, New York
Engineer: Tom Mark
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s astonishing to think—given the intensity of his collaboration with Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and others for whom his talents were in demand as he rode a wave of worldwide prominence in the 1990s—that drummer Jack DeJohnette still found the time on shore to free such thoughtful beauty as that on Dancing With Nature Spirits. Pianist Michael Cain, in his ECM debut, makes noteworthy contributions to a deeply felt studio session, given three dimensions by Steve Gorn, here playing a variety of winds. The latter’s bansuri flute and kestrel soprano finger-paint rich undercoats to Cain’s sparkling pianism in the title track, all the while playing off tender bubbling from toms and cymbals. This low-grade fever pales into the mournful incantations of “Anatolia.” So the desert lures us, moths to candle, smudging us into the ashen backdrop. Breath becomes virtue incarnate, a doll Gorn fashions from dried reeds and lullabies. Tracings from piano and tabla push from the earth like kangaroos in slow motion, hovering above the ground for a split second before the lights are cut. “Healing Song For Mother Earth” stamps those feet back down, like hands to drum, from a wellspring of light. In those delicate freefalls we feel the vestiges of time wafting through us with all the comfort of a breeze through mosquito netting. DeJohnette scours the villages for cloth with which to dry the tears of elders who’ve relinquished hope, reaching blood-worthy sacrament in “Emanations.” The secrets of this garden stream are to be found in the waterfall that bore it unto the land like a vein in a field of muscle, where only “Time Warps” touch those reflections with silver in ecstatic storytelling.

A profound album to be savored for its simplicity, heart, and message.

Terje Rypdal: If Mountains Could Sing (ECM 1554)

Terje Rypdal
If Mountains Could Sing

Terje Rypdal electric guitars
Bjørn Kjellemyr basses
Audun Kleive drums
Terje Tønnesen violin
Lars Anders Tomter viola
Øystein Birkeland cello
Christian Eggen conductor
Recorded January and June 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I start this review where I might end it, by marking If Mountains Could Sing as one of Terje Rypdal’s finest achievements. Marrying the Norwegian guitarist’s penchant for magnesium fire with his comparable passion for classical textures, this record gives us the clearest intersection of his split idiomatic personality since Descendre. “The Return Of Per Ulv” kicks off a journey that is modest in length—just shy of 48 minutes—yet anything but in scope and palette. Despite the odd title (“Per Ulv” being the Norwegian moniker for Wile E. Coyote), the smoothness of its melodic line, downright edible phrasing, and fluid bass playing (courtesy of Bjørn Kjellemyr) at once evoke snow and thaw, a landscape of discovery stretching beneath steel gray skies. If ECM were to make a single Best Of album for the label as a whole, omitting this one would be tantamount to crime. Running a close second is “Dancing Without Reindeers,” which after a pizzicato burst walks the violin off the plank into an ocean schooled by drummer Audun Kleive, who chronological ECM followers would have last heard with Jon Balke on Further. Kleive, in fact, shows incredible dynamic sensitivity throughout, supplying whispers of cymbal and snare in “It’s In The Air” and “Foran Peisen” as Rypdal awakens like some giant dragon from hibernation, splashing through the puddles of “But On The Other Hand” after a cosmic storm, and anchoring “Private Eye” with depth of experience. As for the composer behind all this, he breeds lifetimes of haze against tidal strings in the arresting title track and conjures up the object of Per Ulv’s ever-unrequited chase in “One For The Roadrunner” to gut-wrenching effect. The rhythm section gets its last gasp in “Genie” before he signs this love letter on a note of “Lonesome Guitar.”

Here we have a pinpoint of dawn stretched into a canvas large enough to fit any and all listeners. We can walk and admire, lounge or run as we please through its many moods, always knowing that the music is here for us and us alone. Open this door and don’t listen back.

Surman/Krog/Rypdal/Storaas: Nordic Quartet (ECM 1553)

Nordic Quartet

John Surman soprano saxophone, baritone saxophone, alto clarinet, bass clarinet
Karin Krog voice
Terje Rypdal guitar
Vigleik Storaas piano
Recorded August 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nordic Quartet bonds an unconventional roster of musicians and conceptual approaches. John Surman reaches into his usual toolkit, favoring the lower range, while vocalist Karin Krog sews her Sheila Jordan-like vibrato into Terje Rypdal’s electric swoons and pianist Vigleik Storaas’s intimate embraces. One can expect Surman to shine above any group he might be a part of, but in “Traces” it is Rypdal and Krog who slink like the wolves of our interest through abandoned factories, such that piano and reeds seem to drop from the ceiling, each a spider invisibly tethered. And indeed, the album is about nothing if not traces, smeared on the windowpanes of childhood homes, one-bedroom apartments, and coffee shops. We hear this most in Surman’s duets: “Unwritten Letter” (w/Krog), “The Illusion” (w/Storaas), and “Double Tripper” (w/Rypdal), the latter a battle-scarred stumble into post-traumatic memory. Rypdal steps up the mood in “Gone To The Dogs,” where his softly rocking chording anchors us in a hammock knotted by soprano (like floss through silver teeth) and lit by a kiss of pianistic sun. It is in these instrumental tracks that the album takes off in more exciting directions—surprising in light of the healthy pathos Krog wove into Such Winters Of Memory. Her most intuitive contributions to this session are wordless, as in the ghostly overtones of “Ved Svørevatn,” which blisters like an underwater volcano. Lost to its own philosophies, it is a voice guided only by (and into) itself. “Wild Bird” is the last breath, a quiet account of dark thoughts and darker thinkers. A heat rash of organ spreads across Krog’s lyrical skin, itself a half-remembered cry, windy and chopped beyond recognition. This is our solitude realized in sound, naked as the moment we are born.

Jazzensemble des Hessischen Rundfunks: Atmospheric Conditions Permitting (ECM 1549)

Jazzensemble des Hessischen Rundfunks
Atmospheric Conditions Permitting

Lee Konitz
Bill Frisell
Eberhard Weber
Tony Scott
Albert Mangelsdorff
Heinz Sauer
Wilhelm Liefland
Rainer Brüninghaus
Jaime Torres
Joki Freund
Paul Lovens
Bob Degen
Ralf Hübner
et al.
Recorded 1967-93, Hessischer Rundfunk, Frankfurt
Engineers: Peter Michael Erler, Holger Mees, Fritz Moehrke, Helmut Schick, Rainer Schulz, and Erich Wemheuer
Remixed 1994 at Gasteig Studio, München by Steve Lake
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Ulrich Olshausen

Formed in 1958 by late trombone innovator Albert Mangelsdorff, the Frankfurt Jazz Ensemble had by the time of this recording produced one of the genre’s most sprawling archives, numbering some 2000 recorded pieces. Over the years, it has welcomed guest artists from abroad, including many of the ECM regulars featured in this tip-of-the-iceberg collection. Awarded the prestigious Hesse Jazz Award in 2009 for its invaluable contributions to the art, the Ensemble lives on for the home listener through the selections catalogued here. Drummer Ralf Hübner and saxophonist Heinz Sauer are the main compositional talents, and their passion shows in the ample room they leave for distinct soloing and other interpretive twists. The result is a 2.3-hour tour de force of gastronomic proportions spanning over a quarter century of activity.

Given the feast before us, one can only nosh on the wily clarinets of “Bagpipe Song” and the John Surman-esque touches of “Aud in den Wald” (with its palatable flavors of Rhapsody in Blue and big band pall) before getting our soup on with the rubber-banded bass and cascading pianism of “Niemandsland.” Bill Frisell lights up the air with his fluid wonders, cross-talking beautifully with Eberhard Weber’s fretless. From this we work our way up to such delectable starters as the harpsichord-inflected “Out Of June” and the chromatic “Stomp blasé.” What with the meditative spice of drummer Paul Lovens’s solo “Krötenbalz” and the contrasting sauciness of “Blues, Eternal Turn On,” there are plenty of main courses to choose from. Jazz critic Wilhelm Liefland’s poetry begins to unravel the meal’s moral and philosophical center in “Oben” and continues in “Schattenlehre,” thereby setting up the chewier textures of “Repepetitititive.” A veritable Ferris wheel in sound replete with spacey glitter and gold, it refills our wine glasses with “Fährmann Charon,” ending the first disc with children’s games and a jester’s twisting lips in the night.

Argentine master Jaime Torres smoothes us into the second with an epic pool of reflection in “Concierto de Charangojazz” amid the soulful caramel of Heinz Sauer’s reed. A pied piper’s parade awaits us, buoyed by the harrumph of tuba, in “Waltzer für Sabinchen,” leading us through the streets into “Für den Vater,” which along with “Von der gewöhnlichen Traurigkeit” blasts Sauer’s progressive talents into the stratosphere. Between a smattering of shorter pieces, the swinging celesta and dimly lit trumpet of “Kauf dir einen bunten Luftballon” and dramaturgical edge of “Manipulation” provide plenty to masticate before desert comes in the powered sugar of “Käuze und Käuzchen” and closes out this banquet with a bang and a nod in “Nachwort.”

Atmospheric Conditions Permitting is a solid take on this most influential collective, whose shifting vignettes and configurations do nothing to hide the fascinations behind them. Eclectic, professional, and not a trace of unpleasant aftertaste.

Bjørnstad/Darling/Rypdal/Christensen: The Sea (ECM 1545)

The Sea

Ketil Bjørnstad piano
David Darling cello
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded September 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The twelve parts that comprise The Sea are of a proportion far beyond aquatic, for their magic lies in the hands and hearts of four musicians who came together for a session as ever-changing as its namesake. The number would seem to be significant: months in a year, hours in a day, each a cycle rendered timeless through a story that bleeds and weeps. David Darling’s trembling cello lets out the first cry, eddying with all the force of nature at the edge of a bow. Pianist Ketil Bjørnstad therefrom unfurls a theme for the ages, drifting as might a reader’s eyes pass over the words of a favorite letter. As the hearts of the session, his keys drip glitter and shadow in equal, sometimes comingling, measure. Drummer Jon Christensen knocks at a ghostly door suspended above the horizon, leaving guitarist Terje Rypdal to complete the picture, breaching vapor and phosphorous. Such is the first ray of light to spoke from this sonic hub, spinning to the pulse of Bjørnstad’s heart-tugging ostinatos in a pregnant and billowing unity. Somehow, the stars feel closer, each a solar flare arcing into rebirth. But the breath is always damp, the air even more so, while the language falters to hold its shape in the presence of something so free. Of note is Part VIII, a duet between Bjørnstad and Darling that presages The River and a beautiful lead-in to an enchanting closing of the triangle. The spectrum of Christensen’s palette grows richly and organically as threads wind together, each color a drop into the inky cascade of its rapture. Part XII closes the album with Bjørnstad at his solemn best, far from shore.

The power of this music is its ability to adapt to whatever mood you bring to it. The listener is its vessel. The Sea is also a remarkable feat of engineering, fully expressing ECM’s commitment not only to the evocation but also embodiment of concept. But though it might very well flourish in the flesh and machines that produced it, it ultimately flows from, and returns to, the currents of which it is composed.

Tomasz Stanko Quartet: Matka Joanna (ECM 1544)

Tomasz Stanko Quartet
Matka Joanna

Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin bass
Tony Oxley drums
Recorded May 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With a nearly two decades separating Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s ECM debut, Balladyna, and Matka Joanna, his label follow-up as leader, it’s no wonder the two are so different. Taking Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 1961 film Matka Joanna od Aniołów as its inspiration, the second draws from a palette of possession and temptation as grittily as its namesake’s B&W canvas.

Still from Matka Joanna od Aniołów

Backed by pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Tony Oxley (in a decidedly Christensenian mode), Stanko brings his pungent lyricism to bear across a swath of mountains and shadows that inhales cobwebs from a “Monastery In The Dark” and exhales the mummified sermons of its “Klostergeist.” Within those lungs mingle forgotten bells, vibrating between prayer and dreams, and chains of latent virtues. Jormin’s bass squeaks like a family of mice in the walls, Stenson the cat stalking them from every alcove. Stanko, meanwhile, lights votive candles with the tip of his every winded tongue, trailing mystery into the drowsy flower of a “Green Sky.” A complex track in spite of its recessive nature (the pianism alone is a maze of nuance), it sets bass adrift on a current of icy cymbals until the swinging “Maldoror’s War Song” sticks some feathers to Stanko’s skeletal wings. Amid this rosette of fire, Stenson connects the constellatory dots and hugs Jormin’s nebular blurs. Further highlights include the continuity of heaven and earth as heard through Stanko and Jormin’s relay in “Matka Joanna From The Angels” and the likeminded meditations of the superbly punned “Nun’s Mood.” Though but a brief excursion for trumpet and drums, the latter leaves us open to the cerebral fog of “Celina,” a sleeping face in sound whose eyes enchant before they ever open.

While Stanko’s economy of abandon (listen especially to “Cain’s Brand” in this regard) is something to marvel at, to these ears Jormin stands out from the rest in this soundtrack within a soundtrack. The depth of his grain holds the knots together, even as it dissolves that glue that keeps them from falling out. The result is a balance of style and effect that never wanes. Ironically enough, this album seems to recall another stark narrative of spiritual challenges: namely, Anchoress (1993, dir. Chris Newby). Ironic, because said film is utterly devoid of music, save for a passage of retribution at the end. So, too, with Stanko’s paean to an underrated picture, staring at us from beyond the celluloid in a straight line to our souls.

Still from Anchoress