Another milestone

As of today, I have reviewed every compilation album put out by ECM, including the “Works” and :rarum series. You can check them all out here. Thank you all for reading, as always. Stay tuned for a few more special reviews and other ECM-related surprises.

Jon Christensen: Selected Recordings (:rarum 20)

Christensen

Jon Christensen
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

It is through a lingering veil of mourning that I regard this final :rarum compilation, bearing dedication to Jon Christensen. As of this writing, the seemingly omnipresent Norwegian drummer, backbone of more ECM sessions than I can count, passed away only three months ago. Thankfully, he left a literal lifetime’s worth of material to revisit, some of the best of which is included here. Once again, we are immersed in the era-defining sound of 1975’s Solstice. Having heard its opening “Oceanus” on preceding compilations, encouraged to focus on guitarist Ralph Towner and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, we are now reminded of how much of its expansiveness was due to Christensen’s drumming. From that same album we are also treated to “Piscean Dance,” a funkier duet with Towner on 12-string that showcases his ability to set and maintain a tone.

And what a tone he sets in “Glacial Reconstruction” from 1993’s Water Stories. Beneath pianist Ketil Bjørnstad, guitarist Terje Rypdal, and bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr he splashes with childlike wonder. And in Rypdal’s “Per Ulv” (Waves, 1978) he renders an unnecessary drum computer obsolete by the fullness of his groove. Even fuller are his contributions to pianist Keith Jarrett’s European Quartet, of which three exemplars are offered. The title tracks of 1989’s Personal Mountains and 1978’s My Song bear especial testament to his depth of color and evocation. His cymbals are themselves instruments of revelry and never let go until the music stops. From lyrical float to gravitational romp, as in “The Windup” (Belonging, 1974), his pacing is unforcedly appropriate.

Christensen was also a master of detailing, as evidenced in the quieter turns of “Tutte” from bassist Arild Andersen’s 1986 Bande À Part, as well as Bobo Stenson’s 1998 War Orphans, of which the title tune by Ornette Coleman turns his delicate restlessness into a language with its own grammar, syntax, and idioms. A language that only he could speak and which others may only hope to translate with fidelity.

As this is the final stop on the :rarum journey, you may also find it as part of a boxed set containing Volumes IX-XX, released in 2004. And while I do have my top picks from the series (this one included), it’s worth having all of them if you’re relatively new to ECM. Each is its own portal into the living and the dead, and a reminder that neither state of being means anything without the infinity between our ears to give meaning.

Rarum IX-XX

Arild Andersen: Selected Recordings (:rarum 19)

Andersen

Arild Andersen
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

What can one say about Arild Andersen that hasn’t already been articulated by the bass that defines his significance in the world of jazz? Perhaps this worthily compiled foray answers that question better than any other album could. Not only because it offers the grandest possible conspectus of his recorded odyssey in a single disc, but also because like the most cohesive :rarum entries it emerges from the past with a new and futureward narrative.

The furthest back we travel is to his early quartet days, when “305 W 18 St” (a personal favorite from 1975’s Clouds In My Head) and “Sole” (Green Shading Into Blue, 1978) captured the young bassist at his most sunlit. This particular phase in his musical development is unique for its recasting of urban cool as something beyond careless glamor but rather as an openness to possibility. In combination with the nostalgic flute and tenor saxophone of Juhani Aaltonen, as well as the drums of Pal Thowsen, Andersen’s bass stands as a lightning rod of intuition.

If we were to continue chronologically, our next stop would be the two tracks courtesy of Andersen’s Masqualero outfit. In “Vanilje” (Bande À Part, 1986) and “Printer” (Aero, 1988), his dialoguing with drummer Jon Christensen and saxophonist Tore Brunborg balances ice and fire, respectively, without ever letting go beneath it all. A few clicks forward, and we end up in 1991’s Sagn. Two excursions from that proper leader date signal an evolutionary leap in Andersen’s sound, as he began weaving more drones and electronics into the tapestries at hand. It’s a dynamic most beautifully fleshed out on 1997’s Hyperborean, from which “The Island” finds its way here like a message-bearer of great importance, but not before shining through the prism of 1993’s If You Look Far Enough, a special onetime collaboration with guitarist Ralph Towner and percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. In the absence of a larger ensemble, his creativity blossoms with astonishing liveliness, treating the solo as a form of storytelling in “Svev” and, in duet with Towner’s classical guitar on “For All We Know,” flipping through the soul as a lyrical diary. (On that note, don’t miss this collection’s other duet with guitarist Bill Frisell, “Shorts,” from 1983’s In Line.) Beyond that open clasp we also find “She’s Gone” and “A Song I Used To Play” from 2000’s Achirana. In these profound triangulations with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and drummer John Marshall, he sings as if loosed from a large improvisational egg, cracked over a pan of inspiration and cooked low and slow to omelet consistency. Yet this isn’t music to be eaten, but rather absorbed through the lungs as air inhaled for survival.

Eberhard Weber: Selected Recordings (:rarum 18)

Weber

Eberhard Weber
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

While Eberhard Weber was as fine a composer as he was a bassist, his entry into :rarumterritory pays tribute to his latter capacity in some of ECM’s most significant productions. It all begins with 1975’s Solstice, which may just be the most frequently referenced album in all of the label’s compilations. Throughout “Nimbus,” in combination with Jon Christensen on drums and Ralph Towner on 12-string guitar, he gives saxophonist Jan Garbarek more than enough thermals to glide without so much as a momentary fear of falling. It’s equally comforting to hear him as an interpreter of Pat Metheny, whose “Oasis” (Watercolors, 1977) and “The Whopper” (Passengers, 1977) benefit from the synovial fluid of his bassing. Here, as in almost any context in which we might encounter him, Weber’s tone is never merely supportive but rather a foregrounded actor. This is particularly true of his collaborations with Garbarek. Whether in the traveling song of “Gesture” (Wayfarer, 1983) or the scrolled landscapes of “Her Wild Ways” (RITES, 1998), his presence is felt even when he isn’t playing.

We do, of course, get plenty of Weber’s composing to chew on, working our way from the title track of 1978’s Silent Feet to “French Diary” from 2001’s Endless Days. In either bookend, the pianism of Rainer Brüninghaus is like that of Lyle Mays to Metheny: which is to say, the cloud to every drop of rain. The second tune is especially wide in scope and a personal favorite for feeling like Weber despite its lack of bass. On the road between, he rideshares with guitarist Bill Frisell and vibraphonist Gary Burton on 1979’s Fluid Rustle, as well as with Paul McCandless (soprano saxophone) and Michael DiPasqua (drums) on “Maurizius” from 1982’s Later That Evening. In these contexts, arpeggios are life itself and allow him to exhale with assurance in “Closing Scene” from 1993’s Pendulum. This raga-like meditation for multitracked basses is a morning glory opening and closing to the rhythm of the day—for if anything, Weber’s is a circadian sound, attuned to shifts of light beneath the sky of a grander order.

Tomasz Stanko: Selected Recordings (:rarum 17)

Stanko

Tomasz Stanko
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

As wonderful as they are, not every :rarum release is designed to show an artist’s evolution per se, but in the case of Tomasz Stanko I would be hesitant to regard it as anything but a shuffled timeline of progress. It’s as if the Polish trumpeter held on to the same physical instrument since his ECM debut, 1976’s Balladyna, of which “Tale” reveals a bandleader already committed to quality over quantity, all the way to this collection’s most recent intersections with 1998’s From The Green Hill. Such bands of vessels only could have been made visible by virtue of the lighthouse kept burning by label producer Manfred Eicher. If Balladyna’s title cut was his thesis statement, then Hill’s “Pantronic” is a substantial body paragraph drawn from the vocabularies of violinist Michelle Makarski, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Jon Christensen. Makarski’s fluid charm, in combination with Jormin’s thick bassing, hangs a backdrop for Stanko’s liminal explorations, while in “Quintet’s Time,” which replaces violin with the bandoneon of Dino Saluzzi and bass clarinet of John Surman, he renders a crisp interlocking of voices. In this context, his tone takes on a more rounded quality, as incisive as it ever was yet somehow tempered by maturity’s waning interest in the vagaries of the world. Instead, he retools the sharper edges of youth into a weapon of expression without words.

Jumping back in time to “Together,” an original tune off 1977’s Satu, we find that flutist Juhani Aaltonen, bassist Palle Danielsson, and drummer Edward Vesala are happy to write a letter to the cosmos for which the composer does barely more than sign off. On bassist Gary Peacock’s “Moor” (Voice From The Past – PARADIGM, 1982), he matches the rawness of Jan Garbarek’s soprano saxophone with a fortitude that would also develop its own patina over time. Hints of such character spot the surface of 1995’s Matka Joanna, a masterpiece from his quartet with pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Jormin, and drummer Tony Oxley. Stenson’s fearless lyricism proved to be a most suitable partner for Stanko’s own, which allows grief to stir the soul in “Tales For A Girl, 12” and “Cain’s Brand.” In the second of those two, Oxley falls down a dark stairway, making sense of things along the way, while Stanko barely breathes. His quartet unravels further wonders in 1997’s Leosia, wherein flashes of brightness come to the fore through the lenses of “Die Weisheit Von Le Comte Lautréamont” and “Morning Heavy Song.”

To my ears, however, “Sleep Safe And Warm” (Litania, 1997) will always be a touchstone in my regard of Stanko’s output. Not only was it my introduction to Stanko; it was also my introduction to Krzysztof Komeda and the formative influence the Polish composer had on the young trumpeter. I’ll never forget finding the album at a used CD shop in Burlington, Vermont not long after its release and listening to it on my Discman while riding a bus home as the city resolved into summer greenery. Its subliminal melodies will forever be the soundtrack to that sequence of memory, linking up to my present self as I write this, unknowing of what the future will sound like.

Paul Motian: Selected Recordings (:rarum 16)

Motian

Paul Motian
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

People writing about Paul Motian (myself included) are quite fond of saying that the drummer liked to “play around the beat.” But after revisiting the material he chose for his own :rarum compilation, I have begun to rethink that assessment. For one thing, it implies a Platonic beat hidden in the music to begin with, as if it were (even in the absence of its overt articulation) always there to be served. But might it not also be possible that Motian redefined what the beat meant to begin with? For another, it risks pigeonholing him as a sketch artist. But might not his organisms be mature by the time they reach us? Listening, for example, to “One In Four” (from the Paul Bley Quartet’s 1988 self-titled album), one can hardly deny that his brushes explore the kit as anything less than a painter’s own brushes would a canvas, such that every portion of the emerging image—from background to foreground—requires its own rhythm. Otherwise, the heavily reverbed soprano saxophone of John Surman might not feel so sentient, nor the piano of Bley himself so grounded in self-reflection. Such seeds were already sown in the soil of 1973’s Conception Vessel, the title of which defines itself as an instrument of adaptive truth. So, too, in verses fished from the waters of the Paul Motian Band’s 1982 Psalm. In both “Fantasm” and “Mandeville,” he plays flowing string games with the guitar of Bill Frisell as if it were a tangle of synapses just waiting to complete a thought or action.

Yet the deepest end into which we are granted diving rights is compassed by the Paul Motian Trio in its various iterations. On 1978’s Dance, he uses the title track as a means of filling in the mosaic of bandmates David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Brackeen (soprano saxophone). And while it may seem that he is deconstructing the very idea of a dance—or, in its companion track “Asia,” the very idea of geography—if anything he is showing us that ceremony is improvisational at heart and that without listening before speaking, the sacred would never catch us in its net. Further selections from 1979’s Le Voyage, replacing Izenzon with Jean-François Jenny-Clark (another bassist who would leave us too soon), “Folk Song For Rosie” and “Abacus,” are masterful examples of Motian’s ability to uncover the plasticity of configuration. Brackeen’s soprano flows through the former tune’s landscape like a spontaneously formed rivulet in search of an end, whereas his tenor revels in the latter tune’s flora, which grows faster than he can cut it. In light of all this, it makes sense that in “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago,” Motian’s 1985 masterpiece with Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the drummer is barely there, for if we dare characterize his sound as reaching us from another dimension, where everything comes into being through music, then it is only logical that he should return to that same realm, leaving us to parse his echoes with fallen words.

Carla Bley: Selected Recordings (:rarum 15)

Bley

Carla Bley
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Color me overjoyed to see a :rarum compilation dedicated to Carla Bley, especially because most of its material does not appear on ECM proper but rather on Bley’s own WATT sublabel. And while the scope of her talents as composer and pianist can hardly be confined to a single disc, the fact that Bley herself (as every :rarum artist) chose the tracks presently collected means we can trace her fingerprints back to origin.

It seems there is little disagreement when it comes to shortlisting Bley’s most enduring works, and we can be sure that 1971’s Escalator Over The Hill would be one of them. From that epic amalgamation of poetry, jazz, and theater comes “Why,” a masterstroke (in an album replete with them) sung with solid charisma by Linda Ronstadt. The following decade unwraps the gift of “Silence” on 1983’s The Ballad Of The Fallen, an ECM production from bassist Charlie Haden’s Music Liberation Orchestra that reads some of Bley’s most mournful writing with depth and passion. Satellite touchstones from the WATT universe include the headstrong radicalism of “Walking Batteriewoman” (Social Studies, 1981), the gospel warmth of “More Brahms” (Sextet, 1987), and the sensual “Fleur Carnivore.” The latter, from her 1989 album of the same name, glistens with sweat and tears, turning solos inside out until their grit becomes palpable.

The 1990s pull out a more whimsical backdrop streaked with the hot pinks of “On The Stage In Cages” (Big Band Theory, 1993), the oranges of “Chicken” (Songs With Legs, 1995) in her phenomenal trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, and the classical tans of “End Of Vienna” (Fancy Chamber Music, 1998). The most joyful palette of this era is arrayed in “Major” from 1999’s Are we there yet? This live duet between Bley and Swallow works its jigsaw magic without fear of being misunderstood.

In the most recent selection, “Baseball” (4×4, 2000), we find her humorous take on Americana in full effect. From the windup and pitch to a grand slam of a denouement, its organ, horns, and piano loose not a single wasted note. As in the oldest selection, her classic “Ictus,” as interpreted by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (1961, reissued by ECM in 1992), we see her approach of life as music should be: in the moment, of the moment, and for the moment. We can feel these performances because they feel us back.

John Abercrombie: Selected Recordings (:rarum 14)

Abercrombie

John Abercrombie
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Late guitarist and composer John Abercrombie: a talent of talents whose artistry was as genuine as his personality. Unlike a fiction writer playing the role of a narrator who may or may not be reliable, he could always be counted on to tell an honest story. Like all the :rarum collections, but especially in this case, Abercrombie’s self-selection is as widely ranging as his career. Unlike many in the series, it proceeds fairly chronologically, starting in the only place one should—the title track of 1975’s appropriately named Timeless—and ending with “Convolution” from 2002’s Cat ‘n’ Mouse with Mark Feldman on violin, Marc Johnson on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. In what at first seems like an unexpected way to sign off, after its groove sets in halfway through, discovers in Feldman and Abercrombie a fruitful cross-pollination. Another comes in the form of his trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Abercrombie’s performances on “Sorcery I” (Gateway, 1975) and “Homecoming” (from the 1995 album of the same name) are equally incendiary. On the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum, we may find ourselves chatting fireside with a more subdued though no less soul-stirring conversation partner in such acoustic spaces as “Avenue” (with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner) on the shores of 1976’s Sargasso Sea and the multitracked “Memoir” from 1978’s Characters.

Other standouts among his own tunes include the joyful “Big Music” (November, 1993), as rendered with Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine, and “Ma Belle Hélène” (The Widow In The Window, 1990), as heard through the collective filter of Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, John Taylor on piano, and a Holland/Erskine rhythm section. Abercrombie is golden in tone, the arc to Wheeler’s straighter lines. Even when playing the melody of another, be it Richie Beirach’s “Stray” (from the John Abercrombie Quartet’s 1980 self-titled debut) or “Carol’s Carols” by organist Dan Wall (While We’re Young, 1993), Abercrombie opens each motif like a capsule for us to savor and, through the act of listening alone, contribute to before returning to the ground.

John Surman: Selected Recordings (:rarum 13)

Surman

John Surman
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

John Surman is to the saxophone as a tuned mass damper is to a skyscraper. No matter the intensity of seismic activity at hand, he regulates balance, security, and stability through counteractive force. It’s an ability uncannily realized in “Druid’s Circle” (A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe, 1995), for which baritones provide rhythm and harmony beneath a dancing soprano, and “Portrait Of A Romantic” (Private City, 1988), a tender gathering of bass clarinet, recorder, and synth that tingles with fairytale magic. Such solo spaces are his métier, created through patient multitracking in studio and refined through an aging process that gives it a patina. Employing a sequencer in “Edges Of Illusion” (Upon Reflection, 1979) and using keyboards as a means of keeping time in “Piperspool” (Road To Saint Ives, 1990), he emits signals from universes within to those without.

Surman has also widened the scope of his own music in cyclical “The Returning Exile” (The Brass Project, 1993), “The Buccaneers” (The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, 1981) in duet with drummer Jack DeJohnette, and “Stone Flower” (Coruscating, 2000), which pairs his baritone with an inkwell string section. Other collaborative endeavors mark his discography in cardinal directions. Where “Gone To The Dogs” takes us northward to 1995’s Nordic Quartet and “Figfoot” southward to 1992’s Adventure Playground, the latter alongside pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Tony Oxley, “Number Six” from the Miroslav Vitous Group’s 1981 self-titled debut heads west with its circular breathing and dug-in heels, while “Ogeda” looks eastward to 1993’s November with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskine. Abercrombie’s tender chorus effect contrasts pleasingly with Surman’s blade over the fluid rhythm section.

And in the freely improvised “Mountainscape VIII” (Mountainscapes, 1976), Surman’s baritone and the bass of Barre Phillips, along with Stu Martin on drums and Abercrombie on guitar, render some physically demanding terrain. Yet Surman always knows where to place his steps, defining his path even as the path defines him.