Joe Lovano: Trio Tapestry (ECM 2615)

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Joe Lovano
Trio Tapestry

Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato, gongs
Marilyn Crispell piano
Carmen Castaldi drums, percussion
Recorded March 2018 at Sear Sound, New York
Engineer: Chris Allen
Mixing: July 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Gérard de Haro (engineer), Manfred Eicher, and Joe Lovano
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 25, 2019

After decades of appearing on ECM as sideman, Joe Lovano makes his leader debut for the label. Bearing the gift of 11 original compositions built around 12-tone processes, the saxophonist celebrates life and creativity with a new trio, welcoming pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi into New York’s Sear Sound studio. The result is one of the most intimate jazz experiences to come out from the label in years.

The gongs on “One Time In” process as if grieving for silence, itself so rare a commodity in today’s world that it’s all we can do to seek out a musical experience as enmeshed in stillness as this. The effect is such that when the piano rains down on “Seeds Of Change,” we’ve already become accustomed to melody as a reflection of what quivers between the notes. So much of what follows reminds us that, in art, form and function need not ever be the same. For if the breathy poetry of “Sparkle Lights” and “Tarrassa” are indicative of something tangible, they’re equally aligned to something diffuse.

At times, as in “Piano/Drum Episode” and “Gong Episode,” gestures are as literal as can be, and yet also ineffable. At others, as in “Mystic,” the feeling is so mysterious as to be undeniably immediate. The latter tune features Lovano on the Hungarian tarogato, a mournful woodwind that blows aside the curtains of the future like gusts from the past. Crispell and Castaldi are in finest form in “Rare Beauty” and “Spirit Lake,” either of which might aptly describe the mood of what we’re hearing. The pianist understands that every note has the potential to become a sutra, while the drummer fills the air with diacritical markings. How glorious, then, that all of this should culminate in “The Smiling Dog,” a freely explosive romp through streets paved in grainy night.

Trio Tapestry is the essence of atmosphere as substance and the soundtrack of things unseen, singing in honor of those without songs.

Jakob Bro: Bay Of Rainbows (ECM 2618)

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Jakob Bro
Bay Of Rainbows

Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded lived July 2017 at Jazz Standard, New York
Recording engineers: James A. Farber and Paul Zinman
Assistant: Jeanne Velonis
SoundByte Productions Inc., NY
Mixed July 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Jakob Bro, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 5, 2018

Recorded live over two nights of performances at New York City’s Jazz Standard in July of 2017, Bay Of Rainbows presents the trio of guitarist Jakob Bro, bassist Thomas Morgan, and drummer Joey Baron in a state of deep communication. Although the album’s title refers to Sinus Iridum (i.e., Bay of Rainbows), an impact crater on the moon for which a land deed was jokingly gifted to the bandleader’s daughter, the music is as terrestrial as it does lunar. The contemplative tone for which Bro always strives is thus something of a philosophical paradox, reaching beyond home while being grounded in its streets. “Red Hook,” for example, refers to the section of Brooklyn where he lived with Ben Street and Mark Turner while cutting his teeth on the New York jazz scene, but has taken on much of the travels that have washed over him between then and now. In it the trio works in gossamer tandem, leaving behind a trail of fond associations so as to keep all the heartaches away from vulnerable hands.

“Copenhagen,” too, is a dream of home. Its slightly urban surface is reflective enough to see ourselves across an ocean of possibility in places we might never know firsthand. The cohesive delicacy with which Bro threads this vision, in combination with the lag-free responsiveness of his rhythm section, weaves a romantic tapestry indeed. “Dug” splits the guitar in two, layering a starry background with meteor showers of melody. Morgan and Baron make audible every tremor of dark matter between them as Bro crashes into dust in slow motion. Then, “Evening Song.” Despite being a tune this trio has played hundreds of times, it burns like coals, embedded in the moment, with promises of dawn. Bro’s echoing waves are enough to propel Morgan’s vessel forward, hollowed out to make room for one more song.

The album is embraced by two different versions of “Mild.” In both, although to slightly offset effect, a touching arpeggio works its flesh around the bone of a memory. To this, Morgan and Baron add land for that emerging body to walk along, tracking with the precision of a movie camera between lessons learned on the way to those yet to come. From that core is unraveled a sound so complete that it’s a wonder the listener finds any room to be present within it. But find that room the listener does, welcomed as an honored guest for the story being told.

Jakob Bro: Returnings (ECM 2546)

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Jakob Bro
Returnings

Jakob Bro guitar
Palle Mikkelborg trumpet, flugelhorn
Thomas Morgan bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded July 2016 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peter Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug (mixing)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 23, 2018

Danish guitarist Jakob Bro was born for ECM. Not only because he shares a certain balance of sound and space, but also because he isn’t afraid to let the music travel wherever it may until a destination becomes clear to everyone involved. In this album, perhaps more than any other he has recorded for the label, he unwraps a gift so cosmic it’s a wonder anything so secular as a CD could contain it.

If the opening bleed of “Oktober” is any indication (and it is), we should prepare ourselves for a practically weightless journey, so that when the tesseract of “Strands” seeks purchase in our floating minds, we are ready to be tethered to something otherworldly. This feeling of spirit over flesh prevails throughout the set, especially in two pieces written for the dead: “Song For Nicolai” (dedicated to late Danish bassist Nicolai Munch-Hansen) and “Lyskaster” (in memory of Bro’s father). In both of these, we feel the redolence of Palle Mikkelborg’s flugelhorn, the chalky substance of Jon Christensen’s drumming, and the close-eyed pointillism of bassist Thomas Morgan. Bro generally keeps himself aligned to the background, content in listening as layer upon layer is applied by his sensitive bandmates, taking gentle initiative only in the transcendent “Hamsun.”

Mikkelborg offers two tunes of his own design. Where “View” finds Morgan and Christensen offering a protracted introduction before the composer and Bro separate each melodic line into its filament components, “Youth” pairs guitar and trumpet in a chemically separating farewell. Mikkelborg also cowrote the nebular title track with Bro, constructing a theme around the letters ECM and Manfred Eicher’s name. A fitting tribute to one who is indeed music itself.

Michel Benita Ethics: River Silver (ECM 2483)

River Silver

Michel Benita Ethics
River Silver

Michel Benita double bass
Matthieu Michel flugelhorn
Mieko Miyazaki koto
Eivind Aarset guitar, electronics
Philippe Garcia drums
Recorded April 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 15, 2016

On River Silver, Paris-based bassist Michel Benita makes his ECM leader debut with the borderless Ethics ensemble. Joined by Swiss flugelhorn player Matthieu Michel, koto player Mieko Miyazaki, Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset (with whom he plays in Andy Sheppard’s quartet), and French drummer Philippe Garcia, Benita architects a veritable museum of mostly original creations. Even before a single note is heard, as Benita tells me in a recent email interview, the very name of the project is resonant in a way that caught the attention of producer Manfred Eicher:

“The world needs more ethics: understanding, empathy, and sharing. That’s how I hear this word. And the idea of sharing between different cultures is very important for me. Hence, our lineup. The band functions collectively, without ego. ECM, too, represents a certain kind of musical ethics. The band was almost made for the label, though not consciously, and I was very happy when Manfred recognized our familial relationship upon hearing the first album.”

In contrast to said first album, released in 2009 as Ethics on Outhere Records, for which Benita worked more laboriously in the post-production phase to craft a decidedly studio-oriented sound, River Silver followed ECM’s usual three-day regimen in Lugano’s Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, under the watchful ear of engineer Stefanio Amerio. Because the album was recorded without overdubs, Benita found himself approaching it differently from its predecessor:

“I had rehearsed mostly with Eivind in his home in Norway, to get the forms and sound directions right. But Manfred made his own very interesting suggestions and very soon in the process, as always with him, he developed an idea of sequencing. His overall conception is pretty much summed up by the expression ‘Less is more,’ both in the playing and exposition of a theme.One thing I learned from him this time (as when working with Andy Sheppard) is that you can record any band live, even with loud guitar amps, all together in the same room, and without wearing headphones. That’s a big relief and gives you a lot of freedom and concentration.”

Sure enough, the relationship between freedom and concentration is evident throughout River Silver as its philosophical and compositional foundation. And while the instrumentation is atypical for welcoming the koto’s plucked soul into a jazz context, the decision feels inevitable when in service of such intuitive music, honed over five years of collaboration.

“The whole Ethics project was actually born following my encounter with Mieko. I first saw her play with guitarist Nguyên Lê and I was very impressed with her charisma on stage and her sound, which blended perfectly into jazz-oriented music. So we met a few times and decided to start rehearsing tunes that I wrote along the way. Each rehearsal gave me new ideas, as I was starting to hear what could work best with my bass. Then, while listening back to our duo recordings, I thought of the other musicians whose textures would become part of this quintet.”

The set’s opener, “Back From The Moon” (a title lifted from a Joni Mitchell lyric) lays down a carpet so tessellated that it’s impossible to disagree with Benita’s democratic self-characterization. It’s easy to trace individual threads—from the rhythm section’s relaxed traction to the thematic unity of flugelhorn and koto, and Aarset’s reflections echoing through them all—but each feels as much supportive of the other four as the other way around. Miyazaki’s koto, for example, is a natural force in this configuration, not so much weaving as acting the loom for the others’ lyrical shuttles. Her evolution from single notes to resplendent strums reveals a narrative patience that would be absent without the band working as a whole. Despite this scope of vision, the music’s genesis emerged in relatively intimate quarters:

“I locked myself up for 10 days, alone in a friend’s apartment in Paris, where I wrote and demoed all the music with my bass, a guitar, and keyboards. This was a very nice experience. ‘River Silver’ is an illustration of the Seine, visible outside my window every day during the writing process. On some evenings, it really did look like silver. I like the abstract and organic collective improvisation of that tune.”

In the wake of this progressive introduction, the title track floats into urban slumber, and speaks even more deeply to the inwardness of what we encounter therein. “I See Altitudes” relegates the koto to a more backgrounded role and finds Michel soaring over Benita’s cartographic wanderings, while Aarset writes across the sky in starlit script. Furthering the metaphor, “Off The Coast” launches its intimate fleet into uncharted waters, wielding its navigational instruments with archival purpose. Aarset’s comet tails are the visual language of this introspective theme, held together by the ether of Miyazaki’s arpeggios and Garcia’s cymbals.

“Toonari” is the most cinematic of the tracks, yet leaves us in suspended animation, prepared to be “Snowed In” by a tender memory. For good measure, Benita welcomes three tunes not composed by him. Where both “Yeavering,” by Northumbrian folk musician Kathryn Tickell, and “Lykken,” a ballad by Norwegian songwriter Eyvind Alnæs (1872-1932), are swaths of lushest monochrome, Miyazaki’s “Hacihi Gatsu” (a misprint of “Hachi Gatsu,” Japanese for “August”) draws from a greener palette.

Ethics is a dream group in the truest sense, because everything it plays is of a dream. As such, it reflects Benita’s increasingly open approach to space and making music within it. All the more appropriate that he should have found a new home in ECM territory. On that note, even as I post this review Benita is in the studio again with Michel, Garcia, and new Flemish recruit Jozef Dumoulin on Fender Rhodes. Our hearts are open and waiting.

Steve Tibbetts: Life Of (ECM 2599)

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Steve Tibbetts
Life Of

Steve Tibbetts guitar, piano
Marc Anderson percussion, handpan
Michell Kinney cello, drones
Recorded in St. Paul
Engineers: Steve Tibbetts and Greg Reierson
Mastered by Greg Reierson at Rare Form Mastering
An ECM Production
Release date: May 18, 2018

Physically speaking, guitars are solids. In the hands of Steve Tibbetts, they turn into liquids. For his ninth ECM outing, the Minnesotan guitarist puts on his most intimate pair of interpretive glasses yet, pouring said liquids into 13 dedicatory vessels. Tibbetts again holds close to his Martin D-12-20, a 50-year-old 12-string acoustic that has become as much a part of him as he of it. To that trusted palette he adds streaks of piano and field recordings of Balinese gongs. As ever, percussionist Marc Anderson serves as copilot for the journey, while cellist Michelle Kinney (last heard on Big Map Idea) provides underlying circulation.

As if in service of the latter metaphor, “Bloodwork” openly introduces the album in response to a procedure underwent by his ill sister. In it one can hear, as suggested in the album’s press release, the clinical precision with which this music materializes. And yet from that attention to detail emerges an entirely organic sound, replete with human variations and misalignments. All of which is reflected in the fact that Tibbetts plays his guitar with nearly-worn frets and old strings, giving it, in his own words, “a mellow, aged sound, with its own peculiar internal resonance.”

Those familiar with his body of work will have come to expect arrangements that transcend borders while embracing a sometimes-gargantuan sound. Here, however, he zeroes in on seeds beneath the fields he has been tending all these years. Indeed, the baseline beauty of “Life Of Mir”—one of 10 eponymously themed tracks named for loved ones or those Tibbetts has simply observed—teems with life as would the ripest soil. “Life Of Emily” also feels very much alive, trading earth for flesh in a prism of fatherhood, sunlight, and hints of oncoming rain.

The percussion is attuned to every moment in which it is employed, never mere decoration but siphoning its energy from an internal chemistry. Take in the occasional footstep in “Life Of Lowell” or the whispering cymbal in “Life Of Dot,” and you’ll surely feel it, too. At rare moments, as in “Life Of Joan” and “Life Of El,” these forces combine in a mosaic, fitting together shapes and colors in honor of memory. Like the album as a whole, “Life Of Someone” holds the past as an archive for the future—a time capsule already aged before it reaches the ear.

Life Of culminates, appropriately enough, with “Start Again,” a nine-minute swirl of mental images and other formless pigments made audible through the care of an artist who treats every note as ground on which to walk.

Masabumi Kikuchi: Black Orpheus (ECM 2459)

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Masabumi Kikuchi
Black Orpheus

Masabumi Kikuchi piano
Recorded live October 26, 2012 at Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall
Recording director: Satoshi Takahashi
Recording engineer: Masatoshi Muto
System engineer: Shinya Tanaka (SCI)
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo by Manfred Eicher and Jan Erik Kongshaug (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 1, 2016

Recorded live on October 26, 2012 at the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan Recital Hall, Black Orpheus presents the late Japanese pianist Masabumi Kikuchi (1939-2015) in a solo improvised concert. While some players, when given this much room to roam, travel ever inward, Kikuchi is that rare exception who builds monuments ever outward, and it’s all we can do to grab a railing or window for the ride. Having played with many greats across as many eras of jazz history—including Elvin Jones, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, and Paul Motian—Kikuchi was sufficiently prepared to strike his own match. And while his fire may have burned slowly but surely in an unassuming corner, its smoke infused the entire structure surrounding it. Such is the possessive effect of his music, which in Part III especially plays hooks to our loops in spiritual Velcro. Even before that, as Part I unspools its dreams into reality, thus revealing what Ethan Iverson in his liner notes calls Kikuchi’s “extraordinary vulnerability and corresponding extraordinary magic,” the truth of his hands is already obvious.

Kikuchi 1

Kikuchi’s sense of space is more about the space of sense. In Part IV, for instance, his ability to shape the resonance of a single note is like that of a master sitar player in his treatment of decay. His fingers feel connected to the key long after the hammer hits, indeed working that extraordinary magic into sounds otherwise thought of as liberated. And while there are more convoluted strains to be found here, as cultivated in Parts VI, VIII, and IX, there’s nothing remiss about their breathing patterns. That they share the same lungs as Part VII, a deeply affective sandwich of cloud-soft bread and raw meat, is all the more remarkable. Each mode nourishes the other, so that whether painting a moving image one frame at a time in Luiz Bonfá and Antônio Maria’s “Black Orpheus” or evoking the quiet joys of “Little Abi,” a tune written for his daughter, he understands that human bone is both the most resilient and weakest architecture, capable of bearing more weight than anything the body housing them can create before it collapses.

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Carla Bley Trio: Andando el Tiempo (ECM 2487)

Andando el Tiempo

Carla Bley Trio
Andando el Tiempo

Carla Bley piano
Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Steve Swallow bass
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 6, 2016

Andando el Tiempo, like any Carla Bley record, is more than a document; it’s a living testament to a genius whose relevance is as lasting as her need to express it. And express it she has for over two decades with the trio presented here. With saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow she has forged a triangle of almost-divine equality. Like its predecessor, Trios, the present session distills enormous ideas with natural assurance, but unlike that 2013 masterpiece does so through a program of entirely new material.

The title suite consists of three pieces, each dealing with the subject of addiction, as inspired by watching a friend go through the transformation of recovery and the great sacrifices required to grab hold of light when darkness is closing in from every side. “Sin Fin” represents that first step of self-awareness required to start on the path to freedom from substance abuse. The measured assessments woven into its melodic denouement are deeply illustrative of this process. Bley’s pianism evokes a vicious cycle of medication while Swallow offers glimpses of hope. But it’s the brush of Sheppard’s visceral tenor that absorbs most of Bley’s compositional ink, shedding its allegiance to demons for want of heavenly understanding. “Potación de Guaya” waters those seeds of faith with Sheppard’s life-giving soprano and Swallow’s yielding affirmations. After all this inwardness, “Camino al Volver” breaks the shell of dependence in favor of a brighter day. Its realism shows through in controlled exuberance.

Bley Trio

“Saints Alive!” is a more conversational piece that treats each instrument as a voice with something to say. Its free and easy atmosphere goes down like a tall glass of peach iced tea on a summer’s evening. In closing, “Naked Bridges/Diving Brides” takes its inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn and the poem “Peking Widow” by Paul Haines, who wrote the libretto for Bley’s Escalator Over The Hill. Written as a wedding gift for Sheppard and his wife Sara, it ties the final bow on a gift that no other coming together of musicians could have produced, making for one of the most honest and personal experiences to grace ECM’s catalog in years.

Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith: a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM 2486)

 

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a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016

Labyrinths, lines among lines – A mesh
Difficult to destroy
Yet one must
Walk
Nothing more
Out of chaos, form – silence
–Nasreen Mohamedi, diary entry, 1968

That pianist Vijay Iyer looks up to Wadada Leo Smith as a “hero, friend, and teacher” is nowhere so beautifully obvious as on this, their first duo record. He recalls his five years spent with the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet, in which he and Smith “became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” Said balance of spontaneity and form accurately describes an artistic process that adds as many layers as it peels away.

The seven-part a cosmic rhythm with each stroke came about in response to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), whose diary yields every title therein. “All becomes alive” introduces electronic augury as spinal tap, while Smith’s castings reveal a divination that feels simultaneously digital and analog. There’s tension here, but it has no teeth to masticate Iyer’s block chords. Instead, it marvels at its own narrative unfolding, one word at a time. These dynamics fluctuate all the way to “Notes on water,” in which synthesized elements bring the suite to its origami conclusion. Along every crease in between—whether through the muted proclamations of “The empty mind receives,” the frenetic grammars of “Labyrinths” and “A cold fire,” or the ambient depths of “A divine courage”—we encounter a biographical fingerprint. The forensic tools required to piece these together into a coherent identity are as much drawn from the listeners as the performers.

Iyer Smith
(Photo credit: John Rogers)

Their investigation is bookended by two outlying compositions. Iyer’s “Passage” refuses to see either palette or canvas as flat surfaces, emphasizing instead their three-dimensionality and capacity for absorption. What begins as a delicate, John Cagean landscape morphs into a bolder ode to time and space. If Iyer’s pianism speaks in acrylics, then Smith’s trumpeting revels in the split tails of calligraphic brushstrokes, reading between their lines a language of metonymic potency. Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” dedicated to the contralto and civil rights activist of the same name, fits together broader temporal scaffolding upon a likeminded foundation. The end effect rolls itself into a seed of origins, ready to sprout at the slightest contact of our listening water.

Ferenc Snétberger: In Concert (ECM 2458)

Ferenc Snétberger In Concert

Ferenc Snétberger
In Concert

Ferenc Snétberger guitar
Concert recording December 2013, Liszt Academy, Grand Hall, Budapest
Engineers: Stefano Amerio, Giulio Gallo
Mixed at Artesuono Recording Studios, Udine by Stefano Amerio, Manfred Eicher, and Ferenc Snétberger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016

Recorded live in December of 2013 at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, In Concert archives a deeply personal performance by Hungarian guitarist Ferenc Snétberger. As his ECM debut, it instantly calls to mind Ralph Towner’s Solo Concert in format, sharing further affinity with Keith Jarrett for including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as encore. The ECM comparisons are more than cursory, as Snétberger grew up inspired by the label’s stalwarts, including Egberto Gismonti and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Much of the eight-part suite, entitled “Budapest,” that comprises the program is improvised, though built around heartfelt melodies of Snétberger’s design. Amid a spiraling association of history and spontaneous creation, an original voice emerges. “Part 1,” for instance, builds its castle on a faraway hill yet makes it feel as if it overlooks our own back yard. The cleanliness of tone, coated in just the right amount of varnish, resonates with a depth matched only by the recording. “Part 2” is meant to evoke Bach’s tonal voicings, and beyond that embraces a certain intimacy unique to the German composer. With a lyrical assurance that’s never cloying, Snétberger taps into something essential, as also in the Astor Piazzolla-inspired “Part 3,” wherein every sway of the curtain reveals a biographical whiff of the breeze that moved it. The samba sandwich of “Part 4” contains a monophonous passage of astonishingly vocal quality. The freely improvised “Part 5” serves as a virtuosic segue into “Part 6,” which treats the surface tension of a pond as canvas for photorealistic sound painting. If “Part 7” is the sunlight, then “Part 8” is the tree intercepting it for shade: an ideal vantage point from which to ponder the concluding rainbow in all its quiet glory.

Ferenc Snétberger

Having mentioned Towner and Jarrett at the start, it’s only fitting to end with them in mind, as much to say that Snétberger’s ECM debut belongs rightly alongside those giants of solo improvisation.