Manu Katché: Touchstone For Manu (ECM 2419)

Touchstone for Manu

Manu Katché
Touchstone For Manu

Recorded 2004-2012
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 7, 2014

Whenever we say artists have “left their mark,” we tend to mean they’ve taken something away from the surface of the context in question and left something of themselves in its place. In the case of drummer Manu Katché, however, it’s as if he has left a shadow behind—a melodic spirit, if you will—through which one might come to appreciate the glow of his music. The fact that ECM already had a fixed set of 40-album “Touchstones” series yet determined that Katché was deserving of his own outlying nod confirms this status: fully a part of the ECM canon yet always catching a thermal to the next horizon.

Touchstone For Manu is not only significant for Katché’s subtle grooves and intimate hooks, but also for attracting an all-star cast of musicians to join him in the journey. Trumpeters as diverse as Mathias Eick, Tomasz Stanko, and Nils Petter Molvær variously grace his jet streams, while equally diverse saxophonists Jan Garbarek, Trygve Seim, and Tore Brunborg underscore the former’s silver with streaks of gold. Guitarist Jacob Young casts his quiet nets of influence, while pianists Marcin Wasilewski, Jason Rebello, and Jim Watson bring their distinctive touches to bear on the improvisational quotient. Bassists Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Pino Palladino round out the guest list, with Katché as maître d’.

Katché portrait
(Photo credit: Gildas Bouclé)

The starter is “Song For Her,” one of three tracks off his second ECM leader date, 2007’s Playground. For one who’s composing is prone to aerial atmospheres, this is an ideal place to start. Eick’s trumpet is a fine vehicle both here and in “So Groovy,” which in title and realization might as well be Katché’s mission statement. Proof also that, while these may sound to some like nothing more than simple exercises, a closer listen reveals the depth of talent needed to express their simplicity. The tonal purity of the musicians involved is no small feat, and to give this music the attention it deserves requires of the would-be Katché interpreter total commitment to feel and structure. Just listen to the synchronicity of Kurkiewicz and Katché as they navigate the changes, and Wasilewski with them as he dabs his spontaneous commentary during a stretch of downtime. Such decisions require a tactile, careful ear. In “Morning Joy,” too, we feel that artfulness of participation, and find evidence of Katche’s diversity. He can linger with languor, laugh in slow motion, and soar on wings of memory rather than of matter.

Before the first and second tunes of this playground, however, we zoom out to reveal the 2005 ECM debut, Neighbourhood. As my first encounter with the drummer, it has always been a personal favorite, but regardless of your album affiliations it’s difficult to deny “Number One” as one of his most exquisite tracks on record. For starters, it boasts the finery of a dream band, fronting Stanko and Garbarek over two thirds of the Wasilewski trio and Katché’s metronome. The set-up to its piano-driven groove shows patience, tracing rims and cymbals in preparation for “Take Off And Land.” The pianism is top-flight, as are contributions all around, each playing an equal role in a macramé of forces.

From Katché’s 2010 Third Round we get the uninterrupted triptych of “Keep On Trippin,’” “Senses,” and “Swing Piece.” These represent the more upbeat of Katché’s albums, and one brimming with happiness. Palladino’s electric bass is a welcome color change next to that organic kit, and has a more focused sound in trio with Rebello’s piano. Young’s guitar and Brunborg’s soprano add water and light, respectively, in the first tune, while the second and third, smooth as an ice skater’s blade, take the leader’s egalitarian aesthetic to new depths.

When Katché gave an interview to NPR about his 2012 self-titled album, he discussed, among other things, the importance of tuning his drums throughout the recording process. I’ll never forget reading an online comment by someone who balked at this idea, claiming it as the mark of a “musical imposter.” Trolls will be trolls, but it bears elaboration to say that many drummers across genres, cultures, and time periods have relied on the benefits of tuning to match their instruments with others in an ensemble. Where, for example, would an entire tradition of Indian tabla playing be without it? Or, for that matter, the western classical orchestra, in which the timpani—which Katché studied at the Paris Conservatory—must be precisely tuned to suit the needs of the score. The tuning is obvious from the three selections of that album here. Just listen to the way in which his snare and cymbals seem to sing in “Running After Years,” a track that further shows Katché at the height of his compositional powers, blending all the characteristics of his previous efforts into a fresh and all-inclusive sound. Molvær is an ideal addition to the drummer’s evolving nexus, his resonant horn careening through the clouds with an attunement all his own, as Brunborg’s tenor traces parabolas alongside Molvær’s plane trails and Watson’s pianism reminds us of the earth we’ve left behind.

In “Slowing The Tides,” Molvær employs a technique made famous by Jon Hassell, adding harmonies by singing through his trumpet. Watson’s Hammond organ, here and on the final track, “Bliss,” adds simmering heat. Katche’s robust beat engenders wry twists from Watson, playing us out from a program of shape and shift. So are we reminded that no fireworks are needed to create wonderment in rhythm. Sometimes, a groove just needs room to grow.

Suite for Sampler – Selected Signs, II (ECM 1750)

Selected Signs II

Suite for Sampler – Selected Signs, II

This second ECM anthology was released in the spring of 2000, three years after the first, and shows the broadening of the label’s ocean in that short yet productive span. This album’s predecessor sustained itself on breath, featuring as it did a generous helping of Tomasz Stanko, and here too we encounter the clarinet of Gianluigi Trovesi and accordion of Gianni Coscia in the title track from from In cerca di cibo, which opens new contexts still. The tune was originally composed by Fiorenzo Carpi for a 1971 TV mini-series about Pinocchio, and perhaps one can read the stirrings of life in dormant wood passing over Trovesi’s reed. A leafy introduction from pianist Bobo Stenson then draws us into the forested “Polska of Despair (I),” off his trio album Serenity. As bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Christensen fall into frame, the evolution of ECM’s sound practice discloses a yearning for space in jazz structures. The distance applied to Christensen’s drums is especially evident against the foregrounded cymbals and makes for effective contrast within a single instrument.

“Vilderness 2” significantly changes up the palette with Nils Petter Molvær’s electronics-heavy assembly, flowing into a blinding sun with every mechanism shining. The enhancements of guitarist Eivind Aarset add crosswind to the flight, while drum ‘n’ bass thermals puff their sporadic dragons into being. This one is off Molvær’s second ECM leader date, Solid Ether, the title of which produces as much as it describes.

Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos, a classically trained musician turned jazz architect, made an intensely melodic splash with Achirana, on which he debuted a trio with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer John Marshall. The smoothness of his improvising on the selected sign “Mystic,” which demonstrates the ECM ethos of melody having a life of its own, turns the program in yet another direction. And just when we are about to slip along an atmospheric slope into misty uncertainty, Trovesi and Coscia bring us back to where we started, extolling the virtues of “Django,” by jazz pianist John Lewis. It’s a subdued romp, but one of assertive whimsy.

Epigraphs was the second duo album from pianist Ketil Bjørnstad and cellist David Darling, and from it we encounter a fresh pairing of tracks. The aching “Upland” carries the flow of this compilation even deeper into the rock, while “Song for TKJD” drifts along the currents of Darling’s electric cello and Bjørnstad’s poetic commentary. Lest we get too attached to reverie, the first two movements of Heiner Goebbels’s Suite for Sampler and Orchestra (from the album Surrogate Cities) fragments all expectation with an electro-acoustic blend of cantorial sampling and string swells that recalls John Zorn’s Kristallnacht, ending this album with a reminder that beauty sometimes comes at the price of senseless destruction, and vice versa.

Anouar Brahem: Vague (ECM 1881)

Vague

Anouar Brahem
Vague

Anouar Brahem oud
Béchir Selmi violin
Lassad Hosni bendir, darbouka
John Surman bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Dave Holland bass
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
François Couturier piano, synthesizer
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Kudsi Erguner ney
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Barbaros Erköse clarinet
Richard Gálliano accordion
Recorded 1990-2001
Produced by Manfred EIcher

This conspectus of Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, exclusively released in France and Belgium in 2003, might have flown under most radars, but considering that its tracks are taken from pre-existing ECM albums, there’s nothing lost in skipping this one. For those new to Brahem, however, this is a worthy place to begin the journey. Spanning a decade of work for the label, the program builds off two selections from Brahem’s 1991 debut, Barzakh, beginning with the solo “Ronda.” Being an early piece, it is more overtly expressive of the verve that moves him (compare, for example, the restraint of more recent ensemble pieces like Souvenance). And yet, even at his most animated he is sensitive to silence. He carves his themes like the rosette of his very instrument, leaving behind a design of grand yet intimate beauty through which the timelessness of his music flows.

AB

This album is as much a portrait of Brahem’s supremely gifted associates as of their prodigious leader. In “Parfume de gitane” he is joined by violinist Béchir Selmi and Lassad Hosni on the frame drum, longtime friends whose points and lines magnify one of ECM’s most original voices. There is even “Bou Naouara,” a goblet drum solo by Hosni, to cleanse the palette along the way. “La nuit des yeux” finishes the compilation proper with another solo, in which one can almost feel the night opening its palm and inviting us to dance into places not even the moon can reach.

Before getting to that ending, we are treated to a shuffled assortment of projects, including one of his most outstanding in the form of 1998’s Thimar. In that trio with multi-reedist John Surman and bassist Dave Holland, he created something unforgettable. On “Houdouth,” Surman’s bass clarinet is the rough to Holland’s smooth, and together with Brahem’s lilting undercurrent contributes to three most evocative dimensions. For “Mazad” Surman switches to soprano in a classically shaped tune, played with such intuition by this unprecedented (and unrepeated) combination. Although Brahem composes nearly everything on Vague, “Hulmu Rabia” reveals yet another motivation behind its assemblage: Brahem as composer. For here the oudist is nowhere in sight, but everywhere in sound as Surman and Holland navigate a mournful tune on their own.

From Conte de l’incroyable amour we get two tunes. Brahem’s second ECM album, released a year after his first, furthers his relationship with Hosni and introduces ney virtuoso Kudsi Erguner for “Diversion.” Erguner’s playing is so genuinely sandy that you might as well give up on trying to knock every last grain from your shoes. With a tone that could charm the charmer, he lifts the curtain of exoticism and floods the stage with life, patient and serene. “Le chien sur les genoux de la devineresse” is a third oud solo, which sounds for all like troubadour’s lute before a fluttering plectrum announces more distant roots.

“Sebika” is the only track to make it from 1994’s Madar, pairing him here with Jan Garbarek, in whose presence the oudist becomes a tactile springboard for the Norwegian saxophonist’s parabolic improvisations. There has always been something of the shawm in Garbarek’s tone, and it finds a natural place in such a context. My only minor disappointment is that a personal favorite, Le pas du chat noir, only gets one nod as well. Thankfully, it is such a well-cut gem in Brahem’s discography that any facet of it will do, and “Leïla au pays du caroussel, variation” is a suitably nuanced ambassador. It is the second of his magical combinations: oud, piano (François Couturier), and accordion (Jean-Louis Matinier).

The latter combination was somewhat foreshadowed in “E la nave va,” in which bassist Palle Danielsson, Couturier on piano, and accordionist Richard Gálliano, who barely whispers over the field abandoned by Brahem, introduce a handful of selections from Khomsa. This 1995 album was a major turning point in Brahem’s compositional output, mining old connections while also building new ones. “Comme une absence” is uniquely scored for synthesizer (played by Couturier), Selmi’s violin, and Jean-Marc Larché’s soprano saxophone, with Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen caressing the horizons on either side of their passage. This compilation’s title track also comes from the same album, a duet between Gálliano and Couturier that works a cinematic, Philip Glass-like progression by splicing DNA into discernible scenes. “Claquent les voiles” is also a duet, this time between Brahem and Danielsson, and features strummed chords for a more rustic sound. This one even hints at the atmospheres of Thimar.

Astrakan café, released in 2000, places the oud among Barbaros Erköse’s clarinet and Hosni’s goblet drum on both of the chosen tracks. “Nihawend lunga” is composed by Jamil Bey and arranged by Brahem. Its balancing of light and dark elicits likeminded virtuosity from Brahem. An alternate version of the album’s title track, on the other hand, fronts the two melodizers while the drum barely taps its way beneath.

Brahem is a non-invasive force whose former music has equal footing in our world and another of its own making, whereas now he has abandoned the dreamlike cast of his net and settled into the wonders (and bafflements) of reality. If anything, Vague chronicles the awakening of an artist whose vision has become greater than the sum of its parts and has yet countless paths to cross.

Alternate Vague
Alternate cover

Selected Signs, I – An ECM Anthology (ECM 1650)

Selected Signs Ia

Selected Signs, I – An ECM Anthology

The essential, as the cover of ECM’s first true compilation so quietly proclaims, may no longer be visible, but it sure is audible. Unlike the classical New Series Anthology, which took an unexpected dip into ECM proper, here the label’s formative mining of (mostly) European jazz idioms (and idiom-breakers) fills in the clothing it was born to wear. Although one might expect a collection from a catalogue already so vast to span its then-28-year history, amazingly all of its tracks come from albums released in 1997, a critical year for all involved.

The disproportionate amount of material from Tomasz Stanko indicates his importance to the label (the Polish trumpeter has left one of the deepest genetic impacts on ECM’s evolution), if not also the label’s importance to him, for producer Manfred Eicher has extended such loving welcome to his formidable talent. It sparks no wonder, then, that the brooding, sweeping gestures of “Svantetic” (from Litania) should heave their weight from the start. Despite being played by a septet, the feel of it is characteristically hermetic. Like an eyelid weighted with sleep, “Morning Heavy Song” (from his quartet’s Leosia) plunges us into a thick pianistic fog. Another private sketch in charcoal, it places notes where footprints might otherwise have been and lifts us from the shadowy lullaby of “Sleep Safe And Warm” (also from Litania) like the final corner of a jigsaw puzzle destined to be incomplete.

Significantly or not, many of the anthology selections come from early on in their respective albums. As such, they breathe with storytelling power, and nowhere more so than in the bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi’s touching “Gorrión” (from his trio effort Cité de la Musique). This biological excursion was written for Jean-Luc Godard, who has in the past drawn from Saluzzi, among other ECM artists, for his intuitive soundtracks. It is not only air that courses through Saluzzi’s bellows, but also soil, family, and time. Guitarist Ralph Towner, another artist of inward renown, gives the only other solo performance in “Tale Of Saverio” (ANA). It is also cinematic, for like a Bergman film it clicks along at a ghostly pace and finds in its own reflection the arrival of memory, naked and fractured.

Ukraine-born pianist Misha Alperin’s “Morning” (North Story) cages a chamber jazz aesthetic, though its textures become rather dense as the other instruments join him, applied like foundation to give those splashes of color a surface on which to ruminate. In the humid atmosphere he creates, stillness becomes a fairytale. “Hyperborean / Patch Of Light” (Hyperborean) is a classic from Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen’s archive, one of ECM’s strongest. For all its classical associations and wandering lines, it puts a truth to heart. Like a bird with eyes closed, Andersen’s bass knows where it’s going long before wind touches feather. Percussionist and longtime Jan Garbarek collaborator Marilyn Mazur gets a brief nod in “Creature Talk” (Small Labyrinths), a twittering flyby of rainforest that lands us at the feet of the totem carved in “Desolation Sound” (Canto), a deep introduction to American tenorist Charles Lloyd’s moving art. His twilight is strong, his breath dancing from satellite to satellite. “Siegfried And Roy,” by the Michael Cain Trio (from the overlooked Circa), is another fleeting piece of chamber jazz. It is a slow pounce, a leaning of the head, a nocturne that never makes its way into recall.

Next are the keening wonders of the Joe Maneri Quartet in a haunting take on “Motherless Child” (In Full Cry), which turns the familiar spiritual into a DNA helix of healed bones. An illness surrounds these masters, for which Maneri’s reed is the cure. Kenny Wheeler’s drum-less Angel Song project gets due attention with “Past Present.” Threaded by the delicate metronome of bass and strung by hand through guitar, its memorable theme speaks in a language only it can, its breath a sunset turned into wine and poured down the throat of a dream. Jack DeJohnette’s vital contributions take shape in “Free Above Sea” (Oneness). This richly detailed piece showcases the drummer’s melodic brilliance, enhanced here by piano and icy guitar. The anthology concludes (or does it begin?) with the title track from Nothing Ever Was, Anyway, an all-Annette Peacock program featuring pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Gary Peacock, and late drummer Paul Motian. This is jazz flung into a wormhole and re-spun as it emerges, a body so unaware of itself that it soars.

Selected Signs creates its own sound story, the story of a label and its heartbeat, of a producer and his vision—a vision that sees as it hears. This being but a cross-section of a single year in ECM’s 40+ history, imagine what the others hold in store…

Selected Signs Ib
Alternate cover

ECM New Series Anthology (ECM New Series 1405)

ECM New Series Anthology

Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies
conductor
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.