Skimming the Lake: A Conversation with ECM’s Undercover Producer

Put on an Evan Parker record. Now, put on a Hilliard Ensemble record. The difference is huge. Or is it? Such a question is both arbitrary and fascinating to consider. On the one hand, our fetishistic relationship with genre already precludes the possibility of approaching such disparate streams as anything else, while on the other we may just as easily ignore the perlocutionary category as a means of liberating ourselves into some universal sonic experience. The truth is far simpler than this quandary would suggest: The impulse that moves them is one and the same.

Such philosophy should feel like old hat to the veteran ECM listener, a listener who presumably understands the value of softening boundaries, if not sidestepping them altogether—surely a characterization befitting of a label that has forever changed the modern soundscape with its seriousness, integrity, and artfulness. At the same time, through the heart of it all has run an electric, vivacious, and at times whimsical thread. In the latter vein we have musicians like the late Hal Russell, whose latter-day documents are particularly enjoyable flings with a life-affirming timelessness. It is for these and more that we can thank Steve Lake. Having been a public voice of ECM for decades, the prolific wordsmith and former journalist has also moonlighted as a producer of striking vision and taste. Would we know the Maneris or the Russells of this world without him? I dare say some of us would not. From the Trevor Watts/Moiré Music Drum Orchestra collaboration A Wider Embrace to, most recently, Judith Berkson’s Oylam, the depth of his interests can be matched only by the label on which his productions have found a stable home.

My first encounter with Lake the producer was by way of the Joe Maneri Quartet’s In Full Cry. A perplexing yet mesmerizing experience, and one that took some years of investigative listening to worthily parse. Yet once I had learned to diagram the peerless language it was espousing, there was no turning back: by then I was caught in its web. It is in this vein of shared appreciation for hermetic talent that I began a conversation with Mr. Lake as a means of unfolding the hidden contributions he has over the years so selflessly brought to light.

Tyran Grillo: How would you describe artists such as Hal Russell, Joe/Mat Maneri, and the Bley/Parker/Phillips trio (personal favorites among those you’ve produced) to those who have never heard them?

Steve Lake: Independent spirits. Mad inventors. Geniuses.

What were your gut reactions when you first encountered these visionaries?

I have to go back a very long way to try and recall. The Bley/Parker/Phillips trio was formed in the studio to record Time Will Tell in 1994, but I’d known the three participants much longer. I’ve been listening to Evan Parker’s music, for instance, for 45 years, and bought his first recording, Karyobin with the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, while still a school kid. I was hungry for the strangest stuff available and luckily there was no shortage of it in the late 1960s. This meant, however, that I heard a lot of free jazz before listening closely to the unfree variety, which I found harder to follow at first. To naive and inexperienced ears, bebop could seem more cryptic than the collective sound-and-texture explorations of the free players.

I can sympathize with this. I also entered jazz through the back door, so to speak: starting out with John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, and Peter Brötzmann, not to mention the wealth of European artists introduced to me via ECM—Barre Phillips comes to mind—before ever stepping foot into a Duke Ellington joint. By no means a regression, of course, but certainly a new direction for me with its own learning curve.

Barre Phillips’s solo bass album Unaccompanied Barre on the Music Man label amazed me with its inventiveness…I used to listen to it on my little Dansette LP player until practically hypnotized by it. I loved Barre also in The Trio with John Surman and Stu Martin, one of the greatest groups of the late 60s/early 70s. Their double-disc white album was better than the Beatles’.

Evan Parker I checked out every chance I could. I’ve heard him play so often that I’m no longer sure what the first occasion was—I think probably in duo with John Stevens, around 1968. When I lived in London I’d see him play several times each month in contexts from the joyfully leaping African jazz of Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath to the confrontationally experimental duo with Paul Lytton—like two dervishes whirling in a junkyard—to a casual ad hoc gig in a pub somewhere, usually with John Stevens involved. Evan made artistic decisions to focus on specific sound areas in his own work, but he can play anything.

Paul Bley I first heard on his most uncharacteristic recordings, the ones where he’s doing battle with early analog synthesizers while Annette Peacock purrs suggestively through a ring modulator. Who wouldn’t appreciate that? John Stevens insisted I listen to specific Bley trio albums, and bought me a secondhand copy of Footloose with Steve Swallow and Pete La Rocca at the Record & Tape Exchange shop in Notting Hill. And Evan made me aware of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Bley and Swallow. I remember listening to Free Fall for the first time in his house in Twickenham in the early 70s. This gentler end of the free spectrum which the Bley and Giuffre trios represented was scarcely talked about in the music press at that time, but Footloose and Free Fall were key records for a number of London musicians. Big influences on Manfred Eicher and ECM, also, as I later found out.

When the Jimmy Giuffre Trio was revived and played some gigs in Germany in 1992, I went to a few of them, and spent some time talking to Paul Bley. Or the other way around—Paul is the master talker, a man of few notes and many words. Turn on your tape recorder and Paul can effortlessly talk you a book (several such available already on Amazon). In the course of his soliloquies he said several times that the only genuinely new music he’d heard in decades was being made in Boston by an elderly sax-playing professor whose son accompanied him on electric violin. Of course this made me curious. Did they have any records out? “No.” After some months I was able to get a tape from Radio Canada of a Bley concert in Montreal where Joe and Mat Maneri had joined Paul for a set. It was a very odd performance and obviously polarized the audience. Boos amongst the cheers on the tape, always a sign that something lively is happening. But it took me a while to make up my mind about it. The Bley/Maneri team-up wasn’t entirely compatible musically and the Maneris were so unlike anything else in improvisation it was as if they’d beamed themselves down from the moon. I breathed the air of another planet, and was puzzled.

The Three Men Walking trio was born out of email exchanges with guitarist Joe Morris. Morris and Mat Maneri had been playing together and father Joe jammed occasionally. I said make it a band and maybe it could be an ECM album. Morris sent some really promising rehearsal tapes which completely convinced me and helped persuade Albert Mangelsdorff to bring the trio to the Berlin Jazz Festival, where they made their debut. That was a fantastic break, and gave us the opportunity to take the group into the studio while they were in Europe. Live, Joe Maneri’s personal charisma overrode the superficial “difficulties” of the music: he sort of charmed and loved the audience into submission, irrespective of their views on microtonal improvising. A beaming Buddha with a saxophone.

Hal Russell caught me by surprise. I didn’t know him or the NRG Ensemble until their Moers Festival appearance in 1990, where they played before Einstürzende Neubauten. My first thought, looking at Hal in his business suit and Mars Williams in his psychedelic cowboy regalia, was: “This can’t possibly be a band,” but they were terrific. I hadn’t encountered a comparable combination of anarchy and humour and tightness and typhoon-strength free blowing since the heyday of the Willem Breuker Kollektief.

What do we lose sight of by shelving them under “avant-garde” or some such category?

I don’t know. What do you think? My favourite musicians don’t always fit too neatly into the genres yet we need I suppose some kind of approximate shorthand terminology to be able to talk about the stuff at all.

Yes, practicality typically wins out over idealism. As I see it, the term “avant-garde” is a double-edged sword. It pigeonholes its referent as being on the outside, and therefore “abnormal.” As such, it becomes at worst an annoyance, better a guilty pleasure, and at best a way of life. “Experimental” doesn’t seem to do the trick, either. Both terms fall flat for their inability to magnify the physical process of, in this case, fringe music. An avant-garde art is an embodied art, and at its best one can feel that presence as if the listener (or viewer, reader, etc.) were a network of sympathetic strings. In any case, how has such music pushed and/or enhanced ECM’s evolution as a label?

I haven’t given it much thought. In my first period of work at ECM, 1978-1980, Manfred Eicher encouraged me to do some production for JAPO, ECM’s sister label. So I did, inviting artists including Howard Riley/Trevor Watts/Barry Guy/John Stevens, Takashi Kako, Elton Dean, Eddie Prévost/Keith Rowe, etc., and at that time I was concerned that ECM’s beginnings in free improvising should have a continuation. Early ECM records like the Music Improvisation Company album, Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, and Circle’s Paris Concert were important to me as a young listener. And I liked the idea of careful recordings of improvisation rather than rough and ready recordings which were and are the norm elsewhere. Somewhere along the line, though, I stopped worrying about it. ECM has always maintained an experimental component as part of the whole picture, with or without my particular efforts.

How would you characterize your role as a producer?

Mostly it’s been about helping a project towards a result, helping a musician get heard. It feels to me like a natural extension of my job as journalist. A step forward from writing “you have to listen to this artist” by doing something concrete to make his or her work available. But writing/producing/promoting all seems part of the same impetus—an expression of enthusiasm. I hope that the character of the musicians comes through on the albums; I’m interested in them as individuals, as well in their ideas about music-making—the two things are interwoven. I don’t have any overriding sound ideal. And although I have learned also by watching Manfred Eicher in action, I wouldn’t presume to try and imitate his work. As you know, he’s perpetually producing recordings. I can cheerfully go for years without any studio work. But then I’ll hear something special or unique and think, Oh this should really be documented. And off we go again.

When do you get involved, and when do you step back?

It differs. Generally, I get involved early, and step back late. Some projects have felt like campaigning for a cause. The Hal Russell and Joe Maneri projects, the Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic projects, and also the Robin Williamson projects all had this flavour for me. In the 1990s I had a little tour-booking agency with my then-wife Caroline Mähl, and we found gigs around Europe for Hal and NRG, the Maneris, Trevor Watts, Krakatau and others, just trying to put the word out there—this also was an extension of “production,” at least in my mind. For sure, the work doesn’t stop when the studio door closes.

In terms of involvement in the individual projects there’s been no pattern. There might be no preparation for a given session, while sometimes a production begins a year before we get to the recording. Or there might be a mixture of preparation and risk-taking. I think for instance of Robin Williamson’s Skirting The River Road, which is a particular favourite of mine. We’d already made the solo album based on Dylan Thomas texts (The Seed-at-Zero) and were looking towards another poetry-related project. Over a period of many months Robin was developing the idea of “poetry of visions” as a theme and we were both researching this. I was mailing big packages to Cardiff of poetry which I thought he might like to sing. Then it was narrowed down to three poets—William Blake, Walt Whitman and Henry Vaughan—inspiring and enjoyable reading, of course, and we made a pre-selection of text material. I assembled the band for the project—with Mat Maneri, Paul Dunmall, Mick Hutton and Ale Möller. Robin knew none of the musicians previously, and they didn’t know each other, and we all went to the Gateway Studio in Kingston in England, with Steve Lowe as engineer, and improvised. Everything fell into place. The whole process unfolded like a dream. There was instant rapport between the players, and top-flight creativity from the first moment.

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2 thoughts on “Skimming the Lake: A Conversation with ECM’s Undercover Producer

  1. “avant-garde” means more than just being an “outsider”. Originally, the term meant, “one in the forefront”, that is, “one ahead of the guard”, “one LEADING the army/group in the war against mediocrity”, as the term was initially applied to the arts at the turn of the 20th century. For me, “avant-garde”, was glorious nomenclature overflowing with the potential for change and evolution. Has the term “avant-garde”, in truth, deteriorated to the sludge level of “experimental” these days?

  2. Fascinating to hear some of the background to these albums, especially the Robin Williamson! I must say I have never been one for any single genre, but it does get difficult when trying to describe music to others.

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