Gianluigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: La misteriosa musica della Regina Loana (ECM 2652)

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Gianluigi Trovesi
Gianni Coscia
La misteriosa musical della Regina Loana

Gianluigi Trovesi piccolo and alto clarinets
Gianni Coscia accordion
Recorded January 2018, Night And Day Studio, Cascinagrossa
Engineer: Paolo Facco
Mixed and mastered by Guido Gorna and Stefano Amerio
An ECM Production
Release date: June 21, 2019

Umberto Eco (1932-2016) once said of Gianluigi Trovesi and Gianni Coscia, “On a street corner or in a concert hall, they would feel at home just the same.” For their fourth ECM installment, the clarinetist and accordionist prove that statement in a tribute to their departed friend, taking listeners on a sonic journey through Eco’s semi-autobiographical novel La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana). Along the way, they riffle through the archives of a bygone era and recreate it with loving attention to detail and personal association. Most of the songs are mentioned in the novel itself, the centerpiece being the five-part “EIAR.” Titled in homage to Italy’s first radio station, the suite drips with nostalgia of the 1930s and 40s.

Despite being of literary genesis, the album carries a tender cinematic charge, evident already in Coscia’s opening solo “Interludio.” More overt connections to the silver screen abound on “As Time Goes By,” from Casablanca, which spreads across the ears like butter over warm bread, and the mysterious yet emotionally transparent “Bel Ami,” from the 1939 German film of the same name. Other perennial favorites, such as “Basin Street Blues” and Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” evoke pure delight yet are infused with enough beauty to court the glint of a tear.

Three originals called “Nebjana” take their inspiration from Leoš Janáček’s In the Mists, while “Umberto” and “Eco” are improvised around Trovesi’s gematria of the honored name. Their masterstroke comes in the form of “Gragnola” (Hail of Bullets). Moving from tragedy to triumph, it’s a film in and of itself, casting in its leading role the unabashed love that defines a grander story.

(This article originally appeared, in truncated form, in the December 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles (ECM 2630)

AEC Boxed Set

The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
Recorded 1978-2015

As the peoples of the Earth move into the
21st century, where hi-tech moves them deeper
and deeper into realms of the unknown, visions
of the ancient chime and bell remind us of
the lyrical power that remains at the heart
of mankind’s quest for fulfillment.

–Joseph Jarman

If ever there was a boxed edition that needs your attention, it’s The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles. If ever there was a boxed set that doesn’t need your attention, it’s also The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles, because the music it contains exists on a level so far beyond us that the very universe is already listening to it in infinite regression. What we have in this 21-disc treasure trove is something as metaphysical as it is satisfying in the hands: a legacy made wieldable in crisp lines of typography and cardboard.

ECM Records and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were both founded in 1969, and so it seems inevitable that their kinship should extend beyond numerological coincidence into the realm of audio. In the words of multi-reedist and founding member Roscoe Mitchell, “It has been amazing to have taken this journey together,” and make no mistake: This journey can be savored however one wishes to approach it, inserting life experiences into the music’s nooks and crannies, just as the music leaves its traces in those experiences in return.

The recordings gathered here span from 1978 to 2015, and are accompanied by a 300-page book that contains all of the original album materials along with newly unarchived photographs, paratexts, and essays written specifically for the occasion. In a preface by Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder and lead producer speaks of his first encounters with this “polystylistic” collective as both sonically and visually unforgettable experiences. Having wanted to record them for some time, it wasn’t until 1978 when, in a six-month flurry of activity, he recorded the AEC’s Nice Guys, Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, all of which revolved around the genius of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Vijay Iyer describes in a liner note the “disruptive vocality” of Bowie’s trumpet as “discursive, declamatory, mischievous, and yet welcoming, as though he were somehow speaking to and for everyone.” As such, it marks this collection’s topography with the itinerant precision of a cartographer whose only dream is to show and never tell.

Producer Steve Lake, in a heartfelt tribute of his own to this roving constellation, calls Bowie and Mitchell “two of the most strikingly individual players in creative music of the post-Coltrane era.” To make good on that statement, one could spin this set like a globe and land a finger anywhere. Lake discusses the significance of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and of what began as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (with Bowie, reedman Joseph Jarman, and bassist Malachi Favors) in particular to reveal its compositional acuity and vivid individualism. As the first AACM project to sink its teeth into Europe (by that time acquiring percussionist Don Moye), the AEC had a lot to say. As Lake so delectably puts it: “On any given night, a set’s components might include gong-splashed ancestral meditations and go-for-broke collective improvising, throbbing drum choirs, parodic parade marches, fiery post-bop, vertiginous silences, classical paraphrases, prayer meeting invocations, hints of Chicago blues and country blues and old timey folk song, down-home funk and radical urban sound-collage with impatient bike horns and sirens, all underlining the ‘ancient to the future’ claim which mighty bassist Malachi Favors, in a moment of inspiration, had appended to the Great Black Music slogan.” All the while, labels were trying to capture the uncapturable, but it wasn’t until ECM came along that the AEC’s sonic panorama could be set free.

Nice Guys, being the ECM debut of the AEC, is lacquered in legend. A Rolling Stone Guide capsule review describes it as follows: “A Miles Davis tribute, a hint of reggae, percussion labyrinths, formidable saxophone solos and incredibly sensitive group dynamics are some of the ingredients that make Nice Guys essential.” The keywords are “some” and “essential.” The first because the album is a mélange of old influences and new creations alike; the second because no one who appreciates jazz as a living history should be without this watershed record. In Moye’s words, “In the ancient tradition of art and black music, a musical presentation was not just about music. It was about all the different elements of life.” Indeed, what the AEC achieves, whether in the studio or on stage, is nothing short of life itself. As pianist Craig Taborn, heard as part of Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side, likewise says of Nice Guys: “The melodies moved through actual environments that seemed palpable and teeming with life and energy.”

While Nice Guys is certainly a keystone in the AEC’s discography, I cradle it as a compass through some personal favorites. Highest among those is Full Force, a ball of fire and ice wrapped in one engaging package. From the ephemeral to the everlasting, its moods span the gamut of human experience and etch the soul with its contrasts. Without hesitation, I would direct any and all newcomers to this album as a point of initiation. Another immutable entry into this canon is Smith’s Divine Love, which matches the trumpeter’s depth and breadth with a formidable lineup that includes Bowie, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and bassist Charlie Haden. There is a muted quality to this album—both literally and figuratively—that hints at veils beyond veils to the emotional vibrations beyond them still. It is music as language, turned inward until it binds itself as a book of heartbeats.

A hop and skip bring us to Bowie’s All The Magic!, which blends tributes and the tribute-worthy, culminating in a fascinating solo session that approaches resonance and whimsy with equal sanctity. Peter Kemper characterizes this unusual album as a space in which “[c]areful movements must be made, with small steps forward and a watchful eye to the rear. The investigation of the path being taken appears more important than the goal at the end of the path.” In light of this apt description, and because Bowie is such a primary force, I bow to the dedicatory charisma of the AEC’s Tribute to Lester, which unfurls from every strike of the gong a spirit of undying breath.

Among the Mitchell outings included, I would uphold Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 as a vivid example of what he is capable of in his element. Like a strand of DNA broken and regrown into a widening family, every note births another by grand experimental design. That Mitchell makes it all sound so intuitive is testament to his ability to reign forces as a precondition for liberating them.

The self-titled effort from DeJohnette’s New Directions receives a welcome reissue among these other gems. Featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Eddie Gomez, and a perennial Bowie, it frames the trumpeter as lyrical griot and takes full advantage of the afforded space. All of this and more funnel into Made In Chicago, in which DeJohnette joins saxophonist Henry Threadgill, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray, and Mitchell. Jack DeJohnette was never part of the AACM proper, but his introduction of Abrams to Mitchell was the first sneeze in a creative avalanche unlike any other. Like old friends turning the same page, this live document rejoices in the very act of rejoicing and yields one of ECM’s most masterful turns in recent memory.

Music is, as Thomas Staudter phrases it, “the human experience in its full glory.” In the hands of the AEC, music means also a dance between the symbiosis of structure and freedom. In absence of said dance, we can make no truth claims about the AEC and its offshoots, for we are nothing more than the wind shaking the boughs of a tree whose fruit is forever ripe.

Tell of the rustling. Speak of horizons. Practice, practice the strength of beautiful telling from one generation to another so that the beautiful does not pass again into oblivion. Tell each other of life’s scenes. What was good shall be. Slow down to enjoy with the help of colors—and discover. See the greenness and hear the droning and transform your spontaneous sighs into a powerful song.
–Peter Handke, “Über die Dörfer” (“On Villages”)

AEC Boxed 3D

Below is a list of all 18 albums contained in this essential collection, linked to my full review of each. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how many words I and others have spilled in honor of this hallowed assembly and its tandem galaxies, there’s nothing so cosmically rewarding as opening your ears and letting these lightyears of creative spirit flow where they will.

ECM 1126 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (May 1978)
ECM 1167 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (January 1980)
ECM 1211/12 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (May 1980)
ECM 1273 Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (June 1984)

ECM 1143 Leo Smith: Divine Love  (September 1978)

ECM 1209 Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (June 1981)
ECM 1246/47 Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (June 1982)
ECM 1296 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (February 1985)
ECM 1326 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (March 1986)

ECM 1808 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (September 2001)

ECM 1651 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Nine To Get Ready (May 1997)
ECM 1872 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Mitchell: Composition/Improvisation 1, 2 & 3 (September 2004)
ECM 1873 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Parker: Boustrophedon (September 2004)
ECM 2087 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Far Side (March 2007)
ECM 2494/95 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (September 2015)

ECM 1128 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): New Directions (June 1978)
ECM 1157 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): In Europe (June 1979)
ECM 2392 Jack DeJohnette (w/Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill): Made In Chicago (August 2013)

Larry Grenadier: The Gleaners (ECM 2560)

2560 X

Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Larry Grenadier double bass
Recorded December 2016, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Mixed February 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Larry Grenadier, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 15, 2019

With The Gleaners, Larry Grenadier joins a line of double bass virtuosos—including Miroslav Vitous, Barre Phillips and Dave Holland—that have released a solitary program on ECM. What distinguishes his from those predecessors is as much a matter of musicality and energy as of tone and texture. For while the prospect of a solo bass recording may conjure images of hermetic ponderousness, Grenadier cuts against the grain of expectation with a vast cartography. In the three-dimensional plucking of “Pettiford,” as also in the arco beauties of “Oceanic” and “The Gleaner” that surround it, he walks the line between comping and melodizing with such ease that he seems to emerge with a new category in hand. In the evocative “Woebegone,” one of only two tracks to feature minimal overdubs, he combines those elements richly. Another highlight of his originals is “Vineland,” which tips its hat to Phillips.

Grenadier includes a smattering of lovingly chosen material by others. Chief among them is “Gone Like the Season Does.” Written by his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, it feels like watching a teardrop fall in slow motion. Also noteworthy are his fusion of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” with Paul Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston,” which is about as full a statement as one could imagine from the instrument, and a dramatic reimagining of George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which begins with urgent bowing before settling into a lilt of robust, down-home pizzicato.

Rounding out this cabinet of curios are two bagatelles written for Grenadier by musical compatriot Wolfgang Muthspiel. The second of these is a thing of staggering beauty and points to The Gleaners as more than an album of bracing insight and invention, but one of the finest solo bass efforts ever produced.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Louis Sclavis: Characters on a Wall (ECM 2645)

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Louis Sclavis
Characters on a Wall

Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet
Benjamin Moussay piano
Sarah Murcia double bass
Christophe Lavergne drums
Recorded October 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019

This 13th ECM leader date from Louis Sclavis takes its inspiration from pioneering urban artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, with whom the reed virtuoso and composer has been friends since the early 1980s. Although similar in theory to Napoli’s Walls, the album could hardly be more different in practice. And while Sclavis isn’t usually one to compose with images in mind, for this project he did just that, referencing paintings on walls from as close to home as Paris to as far away from it as Palestine.

For this, Sclavis trusted the talents of pianist Benjamin Moussay, bassist Sara Murcia, and drummer Christophe Lavergne. Despite having played with Moussay for a decade and with Lavergne some years back, he first convened this particular quartet in the context of another project called “Loin dans les Terres” (Far Inland) in 2017. The present effort strikes me, for lack of a better word, as one of Sclavis’s “jazziest” to date, although Moussay gives it his own classical touch. Much of it feels balladic, elegiac, and nocturnal. As Sclavis tells me by email, “When I compose I don’t think ‘jazz,’ but try to find the best way to express my inspiration, so sometimes the world of classical music feels appropriate.”

The tune “L’heure Pasolini” blends these signatures and more into a savory mélange. Like a wall crumbling from neglect, bass clarinet, piano, and bass suggest the remnants of a border. Moussay is downright gorgeous, while Murcia digs deep but also flies when thermals reveal themselves. Between this shadowy piece and the concluding brightness of “Darwich dans la ville,” the situation of every image is taken into account. The piano intro of “La dame de Martigues” stirs a kindred heart before bass clarinet moves like a figure in sheer clothing. Sclavis notes his affinity for this low reed, which sounds more soulful than ever: “I’ve been playing bass clarinet since 1972. It’s my go-to instrument. More and more, it has become my natural voice, to the point where I can now say exactly what I feel through it.” That said, the standard clarinet in “Extases” yields some of his most alluring textures on record, singing with fortitude and emotional release. Just as visceral is Murcia’s bassing in the groovier “Prison.”

In consideration of its strong conceptual foundation, I wondered how the music changed on its way to the studio. “In concert,” Sclavis responds, “we played more compositions. The record, however, is a strong collaboration between us and [ECM producer] Manfred [Eicher]. He knows what we want and how to achieve it, and by his suggestion we kept only my original music of our repertoire.” The sole exception to that model is Moussay’s own “Shadows and Lines,” in which bass clarinet returns like a specter in stone-laden scenes. The band ramps up its energy, just as quickly devolving into a pianistic unraveling that leaves Sclavis to roam unbound by idiom. His improvisations showcase a master at work. Then again, technical flourish takes a back seat to emotional acuity, especially in two group improvisations that came out of Eicher’s suggestion. As Sclavis tells it, “I decided to call these ‘Esquisse’ [French for “sketch”], in the manner of Ernest preparing for a painting.” All of which leave the walls of our minds as listeners bare and primed to receive images of vivid imagination and political relevance.

Enrico Rava/Joe Lovano: Roma (ECM 2654)

Roma.jpg

Enrico Rava
Joe Lovano
Roma

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato
Giovanni Guidi piano
Dezron Douglas double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Concert recording, November 10, 2018
Sala Sinopoli, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
Engineer: Giampiero Armino
Editing: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 6, 2019

Recorded at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica during a pop-up tour in November 2018, this album preserves a formidable group led by Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava (heard on flugelhorn throughout) and American saxophonist Joe Lovano. Alongside pianist Gianni Guidi, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, they take us through a set of originals, classics, and original classics in the making.

Rava opens the set with two tunes of his own. The delicate swing of “Interiors” unfurls a scenic backdrop as the frontmen stretch firmament over fundament. It’s incredible to hear just how organically Rava and Lovano—each a master in his own right—avoid stepping on each other’s toes. The moment they occupy the same space, theirs feels like an inevitable collaboration. Like two shooting stars crossing in the night, they seem to be a once-in-a-generation coincidence, yet in the process yield an even brighter star that careens beyond the asteroid belt of expectation. Neither is foreign to the healing power of poetry. “Secrets” elicits a more itinerant sound with Rava as primary storyteller. Despite their titles, this and the opener are reveal their love of creation like a morning glory drenched in the rising sun. Cleaver reaps a gorgeous harvest of cymbals, adding splashes of color amid the monochrome, and through those actions works up a lather of protection against the march of time. Lovano, for his part, shows his ability to immerse himself in the ever-evolving soul of things.

“Fort Worth” initiates a Lovano-penned sequence with upbeat inflections, by which memories of the past and predictions of the future are adhered. Lovano is the winding spirit of the rhythm section’s uncanny swing. When he gives the floor to Rava, the warmth of the venue feels more palpable than ever. Guidi’s solo is particularly superb, unpacking two gifts for each one wrapped, and holds light in its hands. “Divine Timing” is a more free-wheeling vehicle for Cleaver, who primes the canvas for some unbridled color schemes. Douglas, meanwhile, understands the need to give as much space as he occupies.

The quintet ends with a powerful triptych, kicking off with Lovano’s “Drum Song,” which takes an anciently leaning bass solo as its seed and finds the composer on tarogato before morphing into John Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” of which Rava is the shining galaxy. All of this funnels into the dream of Guidi alone playing “Over The Rainbow” a nod to the cosmos to which we must all one day return.

Ethan Iverson Quartet with Tom Harrell: Common Practice (ECM 2643)

Common Practice.jpg

Ethan Iverson Quartet
with Tom Harrell
Common Practice

Tom Harrell trumpet
Ethan Iverson piano
Ben Street double bass
Eric McPherson drums
Recorded live in January 2017 at The Village Vanguard, NY
Recording engineers: Andreas K. Meyer, Geoff Countryman, and Tyler McDiarmid
Mixing: Andreas K. Meyer at Swan Studios, NYC
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019

From the first breaths of trumpeter Tom Harrell in George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” it’s clear that Common Practice will betray its title’s coy humility from start to finish. Though known as an improviser of far-reaching originality and fortitude, Harrell accepted the challenge of pianist Ethan Iverson to play it straight, casting off shackles of virtuosity in favor of something far deeper and more difficult to achieve: bare emotion. The result was a weeklong residency in 2017 at The Village Vanguard in New York City, where bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric McPherson joined for this heartfelt journey through the Great American Songbook and beyond.

Denzil Best’s “Wee” showcases an exuberant McPherson. Locking step with Street, he and the bassist form a dyad of forward drive that makes no attempt to hide its secrets because we’re too slow to catch up with them anyway. Iverson is on fire but dances enough to avoid getting burned. Says the bandleader of his rhythm section: “None of us is approaching straight-ahead jazz like we want it to sound like 1955 or 1945 or 1965. We’re playing in the 21st century. But what I hope gives it depth is a commitment to the tradition, and when it comes to Ben and Eric, it’s about esoteric aspects of that tradition, nothing academic.” True to concept, whether in Vernon Duke’s balladic “I Can’t Get Started” or the band’s smile-inducing take on “Sentimental Journey,” fresh synapses of intuition coil themselves into being at every turn. The latter tune’s microtonal harmonies stay crunchy even in the milk of expectation. “I Remember You” gets an equally whimsical facelift, sporting attractive glissandi from Street and Harrell’s allusive brilliance to boot, while “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and other gems train one eye on the future, another on the past, and an invisible third on the here and now.

Two Iverson originals put the final pieces into this tantalizing puzzle. Of these, the bluesy “Philadelphia Creamer” cycles through its motifs as if they were a renewable energy source, while Harrell moves lithely through the changes like hard-won philosophy incarnate. Iverson himself digs deep into the keyboard, while McPherson gives us classic cymbalism throughout.

As fresh as the performances are, to say there’s no nostalgia within them is like saying there’s no paint in a Picasso. To be sure, they channel modern blood, but the veins are as aged as they come, tempered by experience and primed for transfusion.

Bley/Peacock/Motian: When Will The Blues Leave (ECM 2642)

When Will The Blues Leave

When Will The Blues Leave

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock double bass
Paul Motian drums
Concert recording by RSI, March 1999
Aula Magna STS, Lugano
RSI concert and recording producer: Paolo Keller
Engineer: Werner Walter
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 31, 2019

A surprise from the ECM archives from this rarely recorded trio, who made first blush with the label on Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and reunited in 1998 for Not Two, Not One. In 1999, a year after the latter recording, they went on tour. This album documents one of those performances from Lugano’s Aula Magna. To be sure, it’s a welcome return for drummer Paul Motian, who seems to hover from the great beyond with his usual sagaciousness. Still, to these ears it’s the intuitive relationship of pianist Paul Bley and bassist Gary Peacock that make this date a worthwhile addition to your collection.

Bley Trio
(Photo credit: W. Patrick Hinely)

Most of the tunes are Bley’s own, including the delightfully skittish “Mazatlan,” which challenges any listener to slide even a sheet of paper between the interlocking piano and bass. From this bubbling cauldron of ideas wafts a most savory aroma, which carries over all the way to “Dialogue Amour,” a masterstroke that finds the musicians finishing each other’s sentences. Whether unpacking a forest fire’s worth of heat from “Flame” or turning the balladic “Longer” into a dance of joy, fierce communication abounds amid Motian’s luscious soloing. Bley’s unaccompanied “Told You So” is his wheelhouse: a nostalgic sweep of Americana rendered as a rollicking and flowing cinema of the mind. Just as full is his solo rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” tenderized by Bley’s underlying humming. This lullaby for the soul ends with a harp-like strum on the strings.

Pianist and drummer do wonders with Peacock’s evergreen “Moor,” listening as much as speaking through their instruments around the core of its composer’s flexing tendons, and Ornette Coleman’s title tune takes even deeper precedence with its charm. Peacock and Motian swing hard, leaving Bley free to uncork his finest improvisational vintage for the occasion. All three, however, are as much drawn to abstraction and untethered signatures, which by the end leave us with a bittersweet taste of having been there while knowing that such a possibility, unlike the blues, has indeed left us.

50 for the 50th: ECM’s Anniversary Touchstones

Anniversary Touchstones I

The word touchstone dates from the late 15th century, denoting a special black quartz used to test the quality of gold alloys by the streaks left behind on its surface. While it has retained its metaphorical usage as a criterion by which the quality of something—in this case, music—is measured, it feels especially apt in the context of ECM Records. The German label has always been about the object as art, if not also art as object, and through its associative chain of cover imagery, recording technology, and curated musicianship has honed a finely grained stone in its own right across which any other discography might be drawn across to judge its efficacy.

ECM released the first series of Touchstones in 2008. Numbering 40 in total, each album was a world unto itself. It only feels appropriate that ECM should revisit the idea this year in celebration of half a century’s creative operation with a series called “50 for the 50th.” Like its predecessor, this new collection gives opportunities for veteran listeners to revisit old friends and newcomers to make new ones. Label stalwarts Keith Jarrett and Arild Andersen rest comfortably alongside such legendary outliers as Mike Nock and Bill Connors. This alone relegates the choice of banner titles to the realm of near-impossibility.

One thing we can reliably measure is the cartography of cultural, instrumental, and regional depth in these 50 artful selections. Like the cardboard gatefolds in which they are now packaged, each is a streamlined presentation of otherwise uncontainable forces. Some of the farthest reaching of those forces can be found on Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus. Already the subject of a much-needed reissue when it found its way onto CD for the first time in 2008, this 1974 masterpiece marked the only ECM appearance of pianist Herbie Hancock and introduced drummer Billy Hart to the label’s nexus. Alongside drummer Frederick Waits, Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers, Mwandishi bassist Buster Williams, and trumpeter Charles Sullivan, the latter just two months away from Carlos Garnett’s Black Love, Maupin’s reed playing spans the gamut from romantic to extraterrestrial.

Another unmissable album is David Darling’s Cello (1992), which features the titular instrument in both its acoustic and custom 8-string electric forms. The set is entirely improvised, built around deceptively simple arpeggios and motifs from which he unravels some of the most beautiful music to be found anywhere. Floating blissfully between jazz and classical, Cello further treats the border around either category as permeable, as so many other artists under producer Manfred Eicher’s purview have.

Primary among the genre-defiers is Louis Sclavis, whose quintet effort Rouge is graciously included in the new Touchstones. Released the same year as Cello, it finds the reed player and composer in the company of violinist Dominique Pifarély, bassist Bruno Chevillon, pianist François Raulin, and drummer Christian Ville. Rouge is significant for being Sclavis’s first for ECM. “It was my doorway into this very famous label,” Sclavis tells me by phone, “and the beginning of a very long story. Over the years it has become more and moreimportant for Manfred and I to work together and I record almost every one of my projects with him. It’s vital for an artist to have a label that follows you and all your iterations. In addition to helping me and so many other artists find their musical paths, recording for ECM has the added advantage of placing your music into hands all around the world. He fights to keep as many CDs in circulation as possible, so something you recorded thirty years ago is still available. This means the world to me, as I would consider every album I’ve done to be equally important on a personal level.” The inclusion of Rouge and all its wonders is proof positive of this philosophy and speaks to the vitality of ECM as an archive in recorded sound. It also reminds us that neither these nor any other 50 albums plucked from a catalog of over 1600 no more represent ECM than ECM represents them. The circularity of that relationship is the key to their longevity and more than justifies their trajectory into every fortunate ear.

Anniversary Touchstones II

(This article originally appeared in condensed form in the November 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)