Charles Lloyd: Quartets (ECM 2316-20)

Charles Lloyd Quartets

Charles Lloyd
Quartets

Not only is saxophonist Charles Lloyd a gentle warrior; he is a fierce dancer. By “fierce” I mean not in the manner of a predator but of sunlight: which is to say, all the more life-giving for his quiet grace. With Lloyd, at the time of this writing, in his 77th year, the critics will tell you he has never sounded better. But the simple fact is: he never sounded worse, either, as attested by the refined levels of meditation achieved on the five albums collected for this essential Old & New Masters boxed set from ECM. Indeed, meditation is an unavoidable flower in the field of his biography, as he famously walked away from the stage in the early 1970s, only to return to the horn a decade later with formidable selflessness. This period also saw his association with producer Manfred Eicher take first flight. Listening to these albums as a set, however, one realizes that his comeback was not the most important celebration. His truest essence as a musician remained cupped like a pocket of air in a lotus in which was contained a universe of song. And so, to assert that Lloyd was at last going forward is to do his spirit a disservice. If anything, he was going inward.

Fish Out Of Water

Fish Out Of Water (ECM 1398)

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, flute
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded July 1989 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As Thomas Conrad notes of Lloyd in his accompanying reflections, “With eight notes, he can put you in the presence of his immortal soul.” And from the opening breaths of this ECM debut, the truth of Conrad’s statement becomes crystal. Here Lloyd is joined by pianist Bobo Stenson, with whom he would forge a significant working relationship, and Keith Jarrett’s European rhythm section: bassist Palle Danielsson and drummer Jon Christensen. Lloyd’s signature tenor, smoky of flavor and viscous of texture, floats through Stenson’s smooth action at the keys in the nine-minute title cut, which opens a program of seven originals. The delicacy of these two melody makers is the album’s bread and butter, as intensely apparent between notes as in them. Stenson draws freshly honed memories from Lloyd’s comforts, while the reedman takes pause and feeds back into the loop with darker nuances. The unwrapping of lyrical presents continues under the Christmas tree of “Mirror,” throughout which brushed drums and a resonant bass provide a landscape of fulcrums on which Lloyd balances smooth hits and fluttering asides alike, only to diversify the climate with flute in the contemplative “Haghia Sophia.” Again, from this Stenson manages to emote so complementarily that we almost get lost in the swirling oceanic foam from which arises a tenored Aphrodite. “The Dirge” is another drop into a limpid pool of soul that is reason enough to ingest this album’s nourishing vibes.

Two grooves await us in “Bharati” and “Eyes Of Love.” The former is seek, refined, and oh so moving. Lloyd speaks mostly in half-whispers, never louder than a private declaration, while the latter unfolds some of his softest playing on record. A buoyant yet introspective solo from Danielsson trips us into the rejoinder, which keeps the cool, blue fires stoked well into the flute-driven “Tellaro.” Lloyd releases Stenson adrift as if a flower upon a river, swimming as a fish beneath him into a forest where we cannot follow.

Mythology would like paint Lloyd’s hiatus prior to this album as a period of soul searching, during which he is said to have nearly abandoned music, only to return refreshed and pouring his all into the art form that so defines him (if not the other way around). And yet we clearly see that in the recordings since his soul searching has never stopped, for it continues to inhabit every breath that passes his reed. Even when Lloyd isn’t playing, there always seems to be a thin line connecting every stretch of silence. In this respect, we find here a spiritual level of jazz from artists all the more prodigious for their humility. In spite of their incendiary potential, they choose to cook rather than flare, each bringing his sensitivity to bear upon these insightful forays into melody and surrender. Tender to the utmost.

Notes From Big Sur

Notes From Big Sur (ECM 1465)

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin bass
Ralph Peterson drums
Recorded November 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When listening to these albums in chronological order, one’s appreciation for Lloyd’s notecraft can only increase. On Notes From Big Sur he finds himself in fine company: Bobo Stenson remains at the keys, but this time bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Ralph Peterson (in his only ECM appearance) take up a coveted rhythmic role. The feeling of afterlife offered in the opener, “Requiem,” is immeasurable. Arcing into a gorgeous cradle of sound, set off by Lloyd’s unerring climb into tuneful bliss, this is one of his most profound statements on record. Smooth-as-caramel pianism widens the doors into a vista of reflection, even as Lloyd pins a tail to this comet with a ribbon of his own. Were the band to stop here, the album would already be a masterpiece.

Gratefully they press on into the more free-flowing “Sister,” in which Lloyd takes occasional punctuations in the backing as prompts for chromatic essays. Stenson has his moments in the sun, as in his spiky solo for “Monk In Paris,” cascading runs in “Takur,” and buoyant commentary of “Sam Song.” Lloyd’s pointillism comes to the fore in the latter for a formidable rendering. Jormin, too, makes a notable statement here. “When Miss Jessye Sings” (dedicated, one imagines, to Norman) is another achingly soulful track, with enough dynamics to spread over the entire album’s surface and then some. The glue that binds comes in “Pilgrimage To The Mountain.” This two-part prayer draws us into the session’s core intentions. Peterson has just the right touch in both. He traces that same mountain with footprints, leaving Lloyd to paint a sunset, and us to reckon with the secrets of its pyramidal shadow.

The Call

The Call (ECM 1522; also included as part of ECM’s Touchstones series)

Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded July 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With The Call, Lloyd hit his ECM stride. Having pianist Bobo Stenson, bassist Anders Jormin, and drummer Billy Hart didn’t hurt. “It’s a full-service orchestra of love,” Lloyd once said in reference to this lineup. I decline to come up with a more fitting slogan, for the tender ode of “Nocturne” that opens this set of nine originals is bursting with it—that love which bears the weight of dreams on its shoulders and sews itself into the quilt of history. Stenson rings true, here and throughout, blending us into “Song” with a mélange of pointillism and legato undercurrents as Jormin’s buoyant solo carries us deeper into this moonlit cave. That Lloyd only joins in three quarters of the way through a nearly 13-minute odyssey reveals but one facet of his humility. His expression uncurls like the fist of a pacifist in “Dwija” while holding in its relief the possibility of defense. “Glimpse” has its own story to tell, painting a lakeside soiree under hanging lights, each wrapped in fragile paper and lending purpose to a slow dance one wishes might never end. Such bittersweet softness is the album’s emotional eigentone, fashioning a double-edged sword between the urgency of “Imke” and the blissful “Amarma,” the thoughtfulness of which shows Lloyd at his barest. Our leader is also irresistible in the celebratory “Figure In Blue, Memories Of Duke” (note also Stenson’s complementary touches) and the audio kiss of “The Blessing,” but saves the best for last with “Brother On The Rooftop,” an ululating duet with drums that might very well have planted the seed for his duo album with Billy Higgins, Which Way is East.

Lloyd knows not only how to tell a story, as any great jazz musician should, but also binds it in soft leather and tools it into a one-of-a-kind symmetry. He needn’t even inscribe it, for his spirit is in the details. Never one afraid to think out loud, he lets us in on everything.

All My Relations

All My Relations (ECM 1557)
Charles Lloyd saxophone, flute, chinese oboe
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded July 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Lloyd was positively soaring by the 1990s, during which time ECM’s microphones were there to catch every glorious note before it disappeared beyond the clodus. The Coltrane comparisons so often made in regard to his playing are more than justified on this especially bright, sometimes boppish, session, which like its cover speaks in bold contrasts of red, white, and gray. Lloyd blasts his colorful invention in cuts like “Piercing The Veil,” “Evanstide, Where Lotus Bloom,” and the anthemic title track with the conviction of a prophet, finding himself bonded along the way by superb kinship. Jormin always manages to find room where there seems to be none, painting his lines as he does into an intimate canvas, as if by the tip of Dali’s moustache, thereby rendering the darkened waters into which Lloyd prefers to deploy his vessels. Stenson is equally present. His gorgeous spate of calypso magic in “Thelonious Theonlyus” and luscious soloing in “Cape To Cairo Suite (Hommage To Mandela)” are the water to Lloyd’s arid valley. In both Lloyd shoulders stories of unerring ingenuity, stringing chants of hope on their way toward rapture. This leaves only Hart, who brings a ceremonial edge to the proceedings. In those two tracks for which Lloyd swaps his brass for flute (“Little Peace”) and Chinese oboe (“Milarepa”), Hart flickers, a tranquil flame of justice, spreading decks of cards to reveal an unpretentious flush, luring shadows and breathing energy into a gunmetal sky. So does this quartet begin on earth and end in heaven.

Even more powerful than the execution is the content: themes and interpretations spun from a well-pollinated mind. And so, it is Lloyd to whom we return. He catches every tiger by the tail, playing with a willingness to look beyond his licks and into the sun that grows them. From the way his sound circles the center, one can feel his horn swaying, loving, speaking. All My Relations is a celebration not only of roots, but also of the branches and leaves that would be nothing without them. This is what mastery feels like.

Canto

Canto (ECM 1635)
Charles Lloyd tenor saxophone, Tibetan Oboe
Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Billy Hart drums
Recorded December 1996 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the cover photo of Charles Lloyd’s Canto shows a man who takes comfort in one: solitude. In that lingering, outward gaze into the light we see the immensity of his art more clearly than any number of words might ever hope to achieve. Which makes all the more incredible his acclimation to the talents of Stenson, Jormin, Billy Hart, with whom he again shares a bond (and a studio) for his fifth ECM outing. As if any proof were needed, Lloyd confirms that he has yet to fully chart the shadows cast some seven years earlier on Fish Out Of Water. If we have Eicher to thank for rescuing his music from the obscure corner into which it had been so carelessly painted by the media, we must also acknowledge the many inspirations that make their way into this book of seven chapters.

We might as well expand the title of the opening “Tales of Rumi” to “Tales of Rumination,” for such is the nature of the ancient Sufi mystic’s presence as Stenson tickles the piano’s oft-neglected lungs. A needle of thought appears and recedes, pinholing the night’s canvas with stars, each a camera obscura of time. As the trio steps into the foreground, giving blossom to this fragrance, Lloyd filters the spotlight with his rusted tenor, peaking above clouds of golden tenure. He would sooner slow down this train than ride it to the last station, content as he is to linger in patient refraction. We hear this also in the chromatic disc that tiddlywinks us into “How Can I Tell You.” He rolls and bakes this and every theme into a perfectly layered filo, never afraid to favor certain notes over others. It is his way of defining a center from which all other centers grow. Each is of equal weight. If anything, the balance of fadeout and all-out burn in “Desolation Sound” emboldens us to accept that weight as if it were our own. A Satie-like descriptiveness welcomes us into the title track. Built of air and memory, it features the rhythm section’s most attuned work of the set and epitomizes the tender robustness at which Lloyd is so adept. “Nachiketa’s Lament” draws its name from a tale in the Upanishads and the selfsame boy who frees himself from saṃsāra in his rejection of material things. Lloyd finds solace for this retelling in the Tibetan oboe, in combination with drums, for a portrait of fruitless plains and empty bodies. Jormin and Stenson reveal their signatures only as the sun sets into the hills of “M,” of which the mineral-rich bass provides a solid perch for the tenorist’s heavy wing beats. Hart shakes off his fair share of stardust in a solo to remember before the grand sweep of “Durga Durga” disturbs the mandala in the immediate wake of its completion.

Listening to Lloyd, especially as part of the quartet with which this set ends, is a multisensory experience. By the filament of his restraint he spins earth-shattering hymns. Opting always for a restorative edge, Lloyd finishes his tunes like someone who never wants to. He practices what he preaches and passes through criticism like a ghost through walls.

“Do not look at my outward form, but take what is in my hand.”
–Rumi

Advertisements

Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM 2296-99)

Special Edition

This treasure trove among treasure troves from the Old & New Masters series is the definitive archive of Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition. The Chicago-born drummer, notes Bradley Bambarger in the set’s informative booklet, has appeared on more ECM albums than any other session musician. But it’s as a leader that his most enduring marks were made, and we can be sure that this re-release will both revive positive associations in anyone who remembers the albums on vinyl and inspire pristine ones for the digital newcomer. Like the project’s leader, Special Edition was about the joy of energy and the energy of joy, spreading love and music in overlapping measure.

Special Edition

Special Edition (ECM 1152; also included as part of ECM’s Touchstones series)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, melodica
David Murray tenor saxophone, bass clarinet
Arthur Blythe alto saxophone
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded March 1979 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

There could hardly be a more apt title for the inaugural effort of Jack DeJohnette’s most influential project. As in his formidable collaborations with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, DeJohnette kneaded enough preservatives into this album to keep it as fresh as the day it was baked. Special Edition also served as a launching pad for reedmen David Murray and Arthur Blythe, both onetime members of the World Saxophone Quartet and poster children for the post-bop generation. Their edgy expositions nest seamlessly into the present company. “One For Eric” kicks off the set with a swinging bang as alto sax and bass clarinet inhabit the right and left channels, bass and drums dancing between them with the Neo-Classical ebullience for which the track’s namesake, Mr. Dolphy, was so well known. Jumping from one visceral solo to another (Murray on a notable roll here), the group traces the fine edge between groove and abstraction with the skill of Philippe Petit on a wire. This tasty appetizer prepares us for the largest course in “Zoot Suite,” an instant classic that has since become a touchstone of DeJohnette’s repertoire. A masterful weave of raw horn vamps and somber asides, it is equal parts jubilee and dirge. Peter Warren keeps the beat throughout and makes sure his bandmates never hibernate for too long. “Journey To The Twin Planet” applies heavy mystique to this musical visage, grinding across the skin like the detuned bass at its foundation. DeJohnette introduces a dazzling free-for-all that works its way into mind and body with equal alacrity. The album rounds out with two Coltrane covers. “Central Park West” is a beautiful ode strung along by arco bass and detailed by liquid reeds, while “India” opens pianistically and runs through a stellar turn from Blythe before settling into a smooth rejoinder.

Were I to classify this album, I would unhesitatingly file it under “Zombie Jazz,” for it walks like the living dead, enchanting us with its embodied blend of natural and unnatural movements. There is something hard won about this music that makes it all the more engaging. Agitation has rarely sounded so fantastic.

Tin Can Alley

Tin Can Alley (ECM 1189)

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, organ, congas, timpani, vocal
Chico Freeman tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flute
Peter Warren bass, cello
Recorded live at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg, September 1980
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“One, two, you know what to do.”

Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition came up with another winner in this second ECM joint. Most of the blood of Tin Can Alley flows through the work of reedmen Chico Freeman (on tenor sax and bass clarinet) and John Purcell (on alto and baritone). Their voices—one rich with soul, the other provocative—define the title track. With the machine-gunned obbligato of DeJohnette and Warren covering their backs, they unhinge themselves. An epic baritone solo from Purcell drops the heaviest weight on the scale. These dialogues continue down the ramp of “Riff Raff,” even as Warren drops a heavy dose or two of his own. DeJohnette keeps tabs on every shift, all the way to his lusty swing in “I Know,” where a simulated crowd embraces his unbounded vocals. He also has a solo track, “The Gri Gri Man,” a veritable smoothie of congas, cymbals, toms, and organ. The occasional boom of timpani adds chunkiness to the texture.

Our journey through Tin Can Alley would be far from complete without “Pastel Rhapsody.” Another dialogue, this time between flutes, blends into a piano solo, which in its quiet manner paints the darkness with a meteor shower. From this sprouts a brassy stem, unfurling leaves and petals to the tune of something beyond our ken. Downright cosmic, and one of the most direct-to-heart ballads of the entire ECM catalog.

As with each of DeJohnette’s Special Editions, the cover photo is emblematic of the band’s free spirit, making music for the sake of its rewards. So if you happen to find yourself in this alley, they would much rather you stick around and feel what they’re doing than simply drop a dollar and move on.

Inflation Blues

Inflation Blues (ECM 1244)

John Purcell alto and baritone saxophones, flutes, alto clarinet
Rufus Reid bass, electric Bass
Chico Freeman bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxophones
Baikida Carroll trumpet
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, vocals
Recorded September 1982 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its third ECM outing, Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition incorporates the robust sound of Baikida Carroll, who lends his trumpet to four out of five tunes, all composed by our gracious frontman. “Starburst” drops us from the sky into Freeman’s didgeridoo-like bass clarinet of Freeman as Rufus Reid stretches his bass like a tectonic rubber band through a steady drum riff. Intriguing crosshatching of tenor (Freeman) and alto (Purcell) saxes makes for a lively combination. Purcell also provides excellent baritone traction in the album’s closer, “Slowdown,” which capitalizes on its promise only in the last stretch and ends in noteless clarinet breath. An infectious twang-and-slide pattern locks us into its groove from the start. “The Islands” is an amalgamation of influences and impressions, the glare of sun and sands healed through the surgery of improvisation. Its abstract couplings of winds and horns lead to a delicate but enraptured drum solo. The title track gives us more of what we might have expected from the last: a smooth Reggae flavor. DeJohnette provides the requisite staccato of a clavinet while singing this timely lament:

A dollar’s worth about thirty cents
You’re working your behind off and you still can’t pay the rent
The more money you make, the more Uncle Sam takes
And the unions still cry for more dues
Poor people stay poor; they’re defenseless and sore
They cry out of frustration against a sad situation
Breeds hunger and strife, and a miserable life
And you know the politicians aren’t even bruised
But they won’t find the solutions to win this confusion
That’s why I sing these inflation blues

Tenor and alto add diffusive commentary to the repeat before playing us out bittersweetly. The absence of trumpet is keenly felt in the ornamental “Ebony,” which lands us in the album’s plushest diversions. Freeman’s gorgeous soprano provides the first solo over DeJohnette’s rims and piano. A rubato structure molds each melodic cell like a bead on a wire, Purcell and Reid turning out a fine solo apiece before closing in the fluted and jaunty fade.

The cover is another classic one and expresses the band’s humility and commitment to its roots. Like the single dollar bill being dropped into Carroll’s hat, the least compensation we can offer is our undivided attention to this consistently engaging set of down-to-earth music. Then again, if the last album taught us anything, our least isn’t worthy enough.

Album Album

Album Album (ECM 1280)

John Purcell alto and soprano saxophones
David Murray tenor saxophone
Howard Johnson tuba, saxophone
Rufus Reid bass
Jack DeJohnette drums, keyboards
Recorded June 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Jack DeJohnette

An exercise in exuberance in memory of his late mother, Album Album opens with one of DeJohnette’s most sophisticated compositions ever committed to disc: “Ahmad The Terrible.” With an engaging klezmer-like joie de vivre and fantastic sopranism from Purcell, it delights from start to finish. The first of five originals, it leaps from the speakers like a body in motion. As if that weren’t jubilant enough, “Festival” stirs up a crowd’s worth of enthusiasm, made all the more inspiring through spirited drumming. “New Orleans Strut” makes tongue-in-cheek use of drum machine as DeJohnette plays a synth lead (his pianism in the opener is also worth noting). Over this bubbly layer the punchy stylings of both reedmen work their way from the groove in most visible fashion. Such is the case in “Third World Anthem,” another sophisticated peak. Playful whoops from horns add a strong emotional undercurrent toward the elegant, staccato finish. “Zoot Suite” makes a welcome cameo, cut in half from its first appearance on Special Edition. Here it is delicate, but with no loss of groove to show for it. The one compositional outlier is “Monk’s Mood,” in which horns and bass dance cheek-to-cheek as if in an old Hollywood black-and-white. It also engenders the album’s only blatant lapse into unrequited joy through the baritone of Howard Johnson.

The verve of DeJohnette and his bandmates keeps us anchored amid a flurry of glorious activity and, alongside Reid’s tight bassing, allows little time for sadness. Here is a space in which mourning must wear a smile, where the self is always secondary to those one loves.

Inflation Blues
(Photo credit: Karen Schoonmaker)

This is primetime creation with late-night attitude, fantasies turned realities by musicians who care about everything they touch through their refusal of false appearances. By looking into this mirror, we might just see more of ourselves than we know, because the freedom of DeJohnette’s networks far predates the social ones in which we are now so deeply mired. Herein lies a lesson in art: those who laugh only at others know too little, those who laugh only at themselves know too much, and those who laugh along with others know all they need to know. There’s too much badness in the world to ignore the possibilities found in what’s left behind. In this regard, few releases stress the virtue of reissuing as much as this one. A special edition indeed.

Paul Motian (ECM 2260-65)

Paul Motian ONM

As ECM producer Manfred Eicher tells Ethan Iverson in the booklet that accompanies this timely Old & New Masters edition, Paul Motian (1931-2011) was more than a drummer. He was also a poet. Motian had a sense about the pen which, like his impulses at the kit, never bothered to obsess over the whole picture. He was more concerned with the bare minimum pieces to indicate the theme of any puzzle on which he laid hands. That was enough for him. The six albums collected here are therefore to be taken not as a grand narrative or musical résumé, but as four border pieces and two middles. That should be enough for us.

It is significant that the cover art for this set—part of ECM’s coveted Old & New Masters series—should break the trend of previous releases, all of which are clothed in minimal text against white backgrounds. The image originally jacketed Conception Vessel, an album conceived at the express behest of Eicher, who encouraged Motian to lead his debut album as composer and leader in 1972. So began a four-decade relationship, of which only a fraction is represented in the present collection. Its radial design may be read as a sigil for the man himself: a creative sun whose light abandons center for periphery.

Conception Vessel

Conception Vessel (ECM 1028; also included as part of ECM’s Touchstones series)

Paul Motian percussion
Keith Jarrett piano, flute
Charlie Haden bass
Sam Brown guitar
Leroy Jenkins violin
Becky Friend flute
Recorded November 25/26, 1972 at Butterfly and Sound Ideas Studios, New York
Engineers: Kurt Rapp and George Klabin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Considering that Paul Motian was 41 when he recorded Conception Vessel, it’s clear to see why his disposition was so amenable to the dawn. As a human being, his voice had already come into its own and needed only the blessing of the score to give it shape without words. Then again, there are the titles, which for all their naked evocativeness retain an enigmatic patina. “Georgian Bay” congeals with the steady plucking of guitarist Sam Brown, who cuts a striking, if subtle, figure across the album’s filmic canvas. Supported only by a smattering of cymbals and Charlie Haden’s crab-walking bass lines, the tune betrays little of Motian’s prowess, saving it instead for “Ch’i Energy,” a flurried solo through which his centrality blossoms in non-confrontational power. This makes the looser affair of “Rebica” all the more lyrical. Haden is in peak form in this guitar-bass-drums setting. One moment finds him providing ground support, while in the next he has already ventured off into more airborne ruminations. Brown returns after a pensive resistance, flirting with the music’s surface like a drowsy Derek Bailey. The title track raises the curtain for Keith Jarrett’s spotlight, which strangely does little to change the album’s surface texture. Despite a lack of (discernible) melody, the interplay between piano and drums yields talented ramifications. Though not the easiest piece of music to put one’s finger on, Jarrett’s fiery exuberance as he whoops his way along makes it one of the most intriguing cuts on the bill. The flute and percussion of “American Indian: Song Of Sitting Bull” draw up a suitable contract for the pianist’s wind-work in combination with Motian’s rattlesnake maracas. “Inspiration From a Vietnamese Lullaby” adds bass and the violin of Leroy Jenkins to the same in the interest of new improvisatory heights. These are exactly the kind of rituals that Jarrett lived for in the 70s (see his recently unearthed Hamburg ’72, also with Haden and Motian), and the oracle-like qualities of their architecture hold up well beneath the weight of time.

Despite being headed by a drummer, Conception Vessel eschews the trappings of mundane grooves as indication of Motian’s lifelong mapping of branches over roots. The jacket art again proves instructive, describing a sound oriented toward invisible directions yet which is also mothered by the soil. It is furthermore a worthy example of ECM’s early sound and openness to those at the head of the line who share the label’s ongoing passion for pushing, if not defining, boundaries.

Tribute

Tribute (ECM 1048)

Carlos Ward alto saxophone
Sam Brown acoustic and electric guitars
Paul Metzke electric guitar
Charlie Haden bass
Paul Motian percussion
Recorded May 1974, Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineers: Tony May and Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Motian’s second ECM project finds the multitalented drummer-composer in comforting repose. Transcending the pianistic sound that mystified his earlier efforts, Motian pulls in the loose strands of guitarists Sam Brown and Paul Metzke to his ever-expanding loom. Bookending the set are two Brown/Haden/Motian trios. The flowering classical guitar and tenderly applied drumming of “Victoria” provide a magnetic backdrop for Carlos Ward’s smoldering alto, all the while developing into a snapshot of urban night. One imagines Brown sitting on a balcony ledge, drawing from the squalor below (where Ward plays on a streetlit corner) a most soulful evocation of the dark’s hidden messages. Clouds part, but reveal no stars. Haden’s “Song For Ché” is even more somber. Ward’s absence makes room for the composer’s gorgeous solo as maracas slither by with the grace of a rattlesnake in a rather distanced version of this major tune. Ornette Coleman’s “War Orphans” is the nucleus of the album. Soulfully rendered and lovingly arranged, it drifts in on a tide of history. Our frontman shines in “Tuesday Ends Saturday,” a more blatantly post-bop affair that slides briefly into brighter days. Amplified guitars converge like a doubled Marc Ribot before careening their separate ways, even as heavy cymbal crashes from Motian threaten to drown out the other instruments (clear separation in the recording, however, ensures this never happens). Which leaves us with “Sod House,” a crepuscular and blurrily moving image in which guitars ride a crest of bass and drums.

Original Tribute
Original cover

Astute extemporization and feel for melody make this one of ECM’s most evocative first-decade releases. Motian finds songs in every instrument. He gives us little indication as to who or what the album is a tribute to, but I suspect it need be nothing more than a tribute to the journey of making music, and to the indomitable spirit of an art form that is forever unpacking itself along the way.

Dance

Dance (ECM 1108)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
David Izenzon bass
Charles Brackeen soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded September 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 1977, Motian set a new precedent when, with this first trio album, he loosed his brand of chamber jazz into the world. The late David Izenzon on bass and fellow Coleman cohort Charles Brackeen on reeds completed the package, tied up nicely with six of Motian’s engaging compositions. The titles thereof seem only loosely linked to their denouement, assuming they were ever meant to be descriptive in the first place. Either way, the results are so visceral that headings need not apply.

Brackeen is primarily known as a tenor player, but on Dance he employs the soprano almost exclusively. The only exception is in the penultimate “Prelude,” where at last we get a blast of his guttural métier for a marked change in diction. It writhes with the power to deepen the trio’s abandoned sound from sweeping agitation to smoky elegy in a single change of embouchure. Contrast this with the Garbarek-like salutations of “Kalypso” or the relaxed sopranism of “Asia,” which walks a trail of meandering beauty that is the album’s calling card. As can be expected, there are intenser moments to be had, as in the tight squeals of the opening “Waltz Song” and the wilder forays of the title cut. The latter also offers some fine duo-ship with Izenzon as well as with Motian, who seems to drop his sticks in great number from varying heights. Through the glitter of “Lullaby” we hear the stars of our slumber turned into song. The bass hints at a long-dead groove in which we can only grasp a sliver of faded glory. We revel instead in its ruins, where the dance really takes place. There, it is the bass that lulls us, pulling its feet under the covers in a frigid evening, curled like a child hoping to awaken from a bad dream.

Dance is a wayfarer’s song. Yet the trio is passionately disinterested in the wandering itself and has eyes instead for the geographies it has yet to tread. Like a spring that winds itself tighter but never snaps, every melody is packed with lethal energy. The music relies on this tension, compressed like continental plates beneath unfathomable oceans. As land grows scarcer, the musical remainder becomes our vegetations, our lifeways, our civilizations, and we are left standing in the middle, watching as history takes its first steps.

Le Voyage

Le Voyage (ECM 1138)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark double bass
Charles Brackeen tenor and soprano saxophones
Recorded March 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Le Voyage is dear to my heart for opening with one of ECM’s crowning achievements in production, musicianship, and song. As Brackeen’s bluesy soprano in “Folk Song For Rosie” sweeps across that sandy backdrop of bass—courtesy of the late J.F. Jenny-Clark, replacing David Izenson in the trio’s previous lineup—and Motian’s brushed drums, one can be sure that more beautiful landscapes will be few and far between. The sax fades into the mystical silence from which it arose, making way for gelatinous bassing before a mournful return. A careful selection of gongs and drums awaits in “Abacus,” in which Brackeen dazzles with an enlivening tenor solo. After this detour, Motian breaks into his own erratic asides. The studio miking distances his voice, making it seem as if he were a barely visible conjurer stretching his arms across time and space to produce an impossible array of statements before our very eyes. The arco intro of “Cabala/Drum Music” glides into Motian’s fluttering hands, which bid bass and tenor to speak in themes. Brackeen and Jenny-Clark shine again in “The Sunflower,” pouring a vast oasis of energy into which the final, and title, track dips its feet with measured grace.

Though the title of Motian’s fourth ECM album is in the singular, its results are undeniably in the plural. The unspoken virtuosity required here humbly defers itself to three credos: Melody, Moment, and Mood. Its sounds come to life only behind the closed eyes of a relaxed mind and body. Each solo feels connected to the others, as if by tendon, lighting our inner landscapes with signifiers that over eons blur into one soft and silent flame. This album epitomizes the “ECM sound,” even as it transcends all such arbitrary categories in favor of a more immediate form of communication that looks beyond the physical self and into the translucent thread that connects it to all else.

Those looking for a groove may want to move on, but do so at their own peril, for they will be missing out on one of Motian’s finest.

Psalm

Psalm (ECM 1222)

Paul Motian drums
Bill Frisell guitar
Ed Schuller bass
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Billy Drewes tenor and alto saxophones
Recorded December 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Paul Motian Band, short-lived in the incarnation captured here, enables a curious experience with Psalm. “Motian” may as well mean “mystical,” for such are the turns that await the curious listener. It’s not that he has access to some hidden pocket in the ether, from which he pulls a wallet of compositional currency. He simply trusts in his fellow musicians enough to follow wherever they might lead. And what a group to be led by. Between Joe Lovano’s singing tenor and the serpentine licks of guitarist Bill Frisell, not to mention an infusion of supremely warm engineering, even critical listeners are sure to find something of intrigue.

Some of the album’s landscapes, like those of the lush title track and “Fantasm,” cultivate a heat-distorted crop of pliant reeds and guitars. One is tempted to read dreams into them, when in fact nothing can be so fleeting as those enigmas that already make life even less graspable. Such would seem to be the meaning behind titles like “White Magic,” which, despite their serrated edges and deep thematic scouting missions, are nebulous constructions at heart. Other diversions, such as “Boomerang” and “Mandeville,” have Frisell written all over them, to say nothing of his solo “Etude,” a liquid font of melodic wisdom that stretches like an acrobat during warm-up. Motian does occasionally step into the foreground (“Second Hand”), but would rather bask in the viscosity of his own skeletal tunes, and in the tenderness of his band mates’ refractions of them—Ed Schuller’s rosy bass work in “Yahllah” being one example.

Though Psalm may be rightly considered a classic, it doesn’t aspire to be. It is instead an altogether metaphorical experience to enjoy uninterrupted and in total acceptance. These musicians have surely seen more lucid days, but may remember few so enchanting as this.

it should've happened a long time ago

it should’ve happened a long time ago (ECM 1283)

Paul Motian drums, percussion
Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone
Recorded July 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was by sheer coincidence that I first heard it should’ve happened a long time ago on the very day I later learned of its leader’s death. The title, therefore, will always be a poignant one for me, as if to say: You should’ve seen him while you still had the chance. And while it saddens me to have to add Paul Motian to the ever-growing list of uncompromising artists I will never experience firsthand (Montserrat Figueras would die one day later), I also feel fortunate to have encountered this awe-inspiring album so late in the game. New music has tended to come into my life only at such times as I’ve been prepared for it, and this album is no exception, for had I heard it even a few years ago I might never have given it a second listen. Suffice it to say when I heard it on 22 November 2011, it left an indelible mark, rendered for all like an emotional tattoo by the sad news that followed it.

The cast of should’ve is rounded out by guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano, both truly coming into their own at the time of this recording (1984). Lovano’s fluid tenor proves a superb complement to Frisell’s briny swells, positively singing with a dark amethyst tone in the opening title cut. “Fiasco,” on the other hand, foregrounds Frisell, who sounds like a synth in its death throes (all the while making it sing). Meanwhile, Lovano stills this discomfort with heavy inoculations of medical wisdom. This is followed by a gorgeous reprise of “Conception Vessel” that depicts the changes Motian had undergone since the selfsame masterwork had been laid down twelve years prior. One now finds a more internal evocation, brought to the consistency of bubbling lava by Frisell’s quiet heat and Lovano’s pockets of air.

Like the album as a whole, “Introduction” is another dip inward. This somber solo from Frisell primes us for the resplendent territories of “India.” Motian paints an awesome picture, which with each sparkling step brings us closer to its thematic core, traced in relief by Lovano’s lilting horn. “In The Year Of The Dragon” indeed slinks and curls like the long, scaled creature of myth, cutting rhythms across the sky with every whip of its tail. The licks of Lovano’s sax are like the glint of an eye trained curiously ahead, even as its energy radiates through the fields and villages below. Frisell’s picking is at once straight-edged and ess-curved. We end with “Two Women From Padua,” which lays Lovano over Frisell’s breaking circuits—this a mere preamble for gossamer unraveling. Lovano crawls like a spider along Frisell’s webs, strung between those raspy branches of Motian’s drums.

Despite the occasional burst of abstraction, this is a thoroughly relaxing album and one easy to get lost in. The musicians’ talents are affirmed in their restraint. While this may not be the frontman’s most brilliant album, the Motian experience was never about “brilliance,” but rather about openness to the darker corners of the ever-evolving psyche known as jazz. Now that he is gone, may that darkness welcome him into peaceful rest.

Jan Garbarek: Dansere (ECM 2146-48)

Dansere

Jan Garbarek
Dansere

The Dansere box continues ECM’s Old & New Masters series with four landmark achievements, the first three being the albums gathered within its matte packaging and the fourth being producer Manfred Eicher’s decision to reissue them as a set. None of the musicians need introduction here, least of all Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who spearheads classic concoctions of extracts new and old. These early albums were key developments in the sounds of the musicians and a label with the wherewithal to pave their launching pad into the stratosphere of music history.

Garbarek is said to have forged Norwegian jazz from diverse elements of his homeland, but something elemental in the very earth must also have forged his endlessly creative mind as a receptor to those elements. His career has of course splintered in so many directions since then, but a genuine commitment to the music has remained constant in everything he plays and is only magnified by the company he has chosen to keep.

Sart

Sart (ECM 1015)

Jan Garbarek tenor and bass saxophones, flute
Bobo Stenson piano, electric piano
Terje Rypdal guitar
Arild Andersen bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded on April 14/15, 1971, at the Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

One could hardly ask for a more dynamic super group than that assembled on Sart. Garbarek’s first album of this boxed set is also his second for ECM and throbs with these young musicians’ intense desire to lay down new paths. Four of the album’s six compositions are by Garbarek. The first of these is the title cut, which takes up more than one third of the album’s total length. After an eclectic swirl of wah-pedaled guitar riffs from Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson’s sweeping pianism, the fluttering drums of Jon Christensen, and erratic bass lines of Arild Andersen, Garbarek’s entrance alerts us with all the import of an emergency siren. It’s an arresting beginning to an arresting album, evoking at one moment a 70s action film soundtrack and the next a clandestinely recorded late-night jam session. “Fountain Of Tears ­ Parts I & II” forges a harsher sound before swapping reed for flute. With the support of Stenson’s electric piano, Garbarek slathers on the sonority for a striking change of atmosphere. In “Song Of Space,” sax and guitar double one another almost mockingly before Rypdal hops a more intense train of thought, in the process mapping the album’s most epic terrain. Garbarek is only too happy to lend his compass. “Irr” turns Andersen’s nimble opening statement into a full-fledged narrative, along with some enjoyable adlibbing from Garbarek and Stenson. Andersen and Rypdal round out the set with respective tunes of their own. “Close Enough For Jazz” is a brief interlude for bass and reed full of unrequited desire, while “Lontano” finishes with Rypdal’s meditative, twang-ridden charm.

More expressive than melodic, per se, this is engaging free jazz that’s constantly looking for debate. Such is the sense of play through which it thrives. At times the music is so spread out that one has difficulty knowing if and when a “solo” even occurs. Regardless, Garbarek’s playing is knotted, but also carefully thought out. As in so much of his output during this period, he tends toward a sobbing, wailing quality that adds gravity to relatively airy backdrops. This is music with patience that demands just as much from the listener. It lives on the edge of its own demise, always managing to muster one final declaration before it expires.

Witchi-Tai-To

Witchi-Tai-To (ECM 1041)

Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded November 27/28, 1973 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Regarding jazz, Louis Armstrong once famously quipped: “Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.” For those still feeling lost, let Witchi-Tai-To provide one possible answer. As Jan Garbarek’s oft-touted masterpiece, this is not an album to shake a stick at. If anything, it is one to be shaken by.

Carla Bley’s “A.I.R.” (All India Radio) summons this classic soundscape with a ceremonial thumping of bass, working toward saxophonic flights of fancy. Before long, Garbarek descends from his cloud with a pentatonic flavor before again riding the thermals of his generative spirit. This segues into a rousing piano exposition from Stenson, running with the adamancy of a child who thinks he can fly. The avian soprano sax returns as if to espouse the wonders of the air while also warning of its hidden hazards, catapulting itself into the vanishing point. “Kukka,” by bassist Palle Danielsson, is a relatively somber, though no less effective, conversation. It gives ample room for piano and bass alike to make their voices known and ends with another ascendant line of reed. Carlos Puebla’s politically charged “Hasta Siempre” seethes like radical folk music in search of an outlet. Drums and piano enable a boisterous towering of improvisatory bliss. Garbarek is a wonder, grinding out the most soulful sound he can muster, while Stenson’s frolicking runs practically stumble over their own momentum. In the title track by Jim Pepper, the rhythm section’s windup pitches more soulful solos from Garbarek, who can do no wrong here. His clarity of tone and conviction are sonically visionary and ideally suited to his cadre of fellow soundsmiths. Last but not least is “Desireless.” This Don Cherry tune is given a 20-minute treatment that surpasses all expectations. It’s a mournful closer, a song of parting, an unrequited wish. It tries to hold on to a rope that is slipping through its fingers, even as it struggles with all the strength at its disposal to keep the music alive. Garbarek refuses to go down without an incendiary swan song, however, and by the end it is all we have left.

Much has been said in praise of the Danielsson/Christensen support in this outfit, and one would be hard-pressed not to feel the intense drive the duo invokes at almost every moment. To be sure, this is a team of musicians whose independent visions work flawlessly together, and whose end result is an essential specimen in any jazz collection. Witchi-Tai-To is a struggle against time from which time emerges victorious. Thankfully, we can always start the record over again.

dansere1

Dansere (ECM 1075)

Jan Garbarek saxophones
Bobo Stenson piano
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded November 1975 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There is a tendency in ECM’s formative jazz releases toward immersive beginnings. Dansere is no exception, with its introductory flutter of sax and glittering piano runs. Comparing this album to Belonging, which features Keith Jarrett in the same company as Bobo Stenson is here, it’s amazing to consider the differences with another pianist at the fulcrum. One musician’s worth of difference may not seem like much on the back of an album jacket, but here it translates into essentially ten new voices with their own sensibility of time and space. Stenson’s abstractions throughout bleed into the listener’s mind like a smearing of watercolor across absorbent paper.

This is music that has woken up after a long slumber—so long, in fact, that now it struggles to face the morning glare. The musicians seem to play with their eyes closed, grasping at fading tendrils of memory so close in dreamtime yet otherwise so distant. Whereas some of us might grab a note pad and try to capture as many of those fleeting moments before they escape us upon waking, each member of this quartet finds an instrument and sets his recollections to music. The album finds the time to stretch its vocal cords, to take in the air, to look outside and judge the weather from the clouds and the moisture it inhales.

The title track is the most demanding journey here, carrying us through a gallery of moods and locales, and fades out beautifully with Christensen’s rim shot clicking like a metronome into the heavy silence. In “Svevende” Stenson emotes a laid-back aesthetic, finding joy in quieter moments. Though we are by now fully awake, we still find ourselves regressing to the darkness of sleep and its promise of vision. Every moment leaves its own echo, so that each new note carries with it a remnant of all those it has left behind. “Bris” picks up the pace a little and showcases Garbarek in a heptatonic mode. Stenson also has some memorable soloing here, working wonderfully against Christensen’s drums and Danielsson’s steady thump. Somehow the motives remain melancholy, speaking as they do in languages they have yet to understand. “Skrik & Hyl” features a sax/bass duet of piercing incantations before Stenson brings us back down to terra firma in “Lokk.” The title here means “herding song” and feels like a call home. It unfolds like the dotted plain on the album’s cover, a desert under a hanging moon or an ocean swept by a lighthouse. “Til Vennene” is the end of a long and fruitful day. Yet in spite of the album’s pastoral flair, I find this final track to be rather urban. It shifts and settles like a drained glass of scotch, leaving only that diluted rim of sepia at the bottom: a mixture of melted ice and solitude. You feel just a little tipsy, straggling home through the rainy streets. Memory and sorrow swirl without blending, like every rainbow-filmed puddle you pass in gutters and potholes. You wander as if you are walking these streets for the first time, knowing that your legs will get you home regardless of your inebriation. Your only footholds are those brief moments of bliss shared among friends; the only times when trust was never absent. Your world becomes blurry…or is it you who blurs?

Terje Rypdal: Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert (ECM 2136-38)

Terje Rypdal
Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert

Terje Rypdal electric guitar, synthesizer, soprano saxophone
Torbjørn Sunde trombone
Brynjulf Blix organ
Sveinung Hovensjø bass guitar
Svein Christiansen drums
Swedish Radio Jazz Group

Odyssey (ECM 1067/68)
Recorded August 1975 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

My first encounter with Odyssey came in the late nineties. Still young in my ECM explorations and having just barely crossed over into Jan Garbarek’s Visible World, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the journey that label stalwart Terje Rypdal (a name as yet unfamiliar) had just taken me on. The CD fell out of rotation quickly, I’m afraid to say, buried under the pile of New Series albums then dominating my attention. Years later, and well into my own listening odyssey, I returned to it, only to find that it had never left me.

Rypdal has, of course, been under the ECM umbrella since almost the very beginning. The release of his self-titled debut in 1971 sparked an intrepid flame that continues to burn through a wide spectrum of colors. As the informative liner notes from John Kelman tell us, the band that was to define Odyssey was the product of circumstance. Drawing on a pool of musicians from previous sessions, including bassist Sveinung Hovensjø from 1973’s What Comes After, he also welcomed unexpected talents into the fold, such as drummer Svein Christiansen and organist Brynjulf Blix, the latter of whom contributed heavily to the album’s well-aged luster. The resulting sound proved a defining one, as inescapable bass lines danced touch-and-go with the guitarist’s unbridled narratives. We hear this most in the solid underpinnings of “Midnite.” Hovensjø lays down the rules for all of its 17 minutes, leaving Rypdal to stretch them to the pathos of his progressive solitude. Those carefully pedaled strings and alluring soprano sax (played by Rypdal himself) careen through its nocturnal billows with humble ferocity as Torbjørn Sunde brings comparable light to the sky with muted trombone. If the plangent cry of “Darkness Falls” that precedes this and opens the album tells us anything, it is that here is a terrain of emotional clarity and immediacy. The magic of this rendering lies in its continual flux, in its refusal to settle into one topographic pattern. The following “Adagio” plunges the album to new depths, even as it raises the bar from which it hangs. Solina strings owe their thickness to the charcoal yet discernible picture into which Rypdal’s guitar spills ether: a shout of autonomy in its coolest disguise. “Better Off Without You” walks in organic circles, occasionally poking its head above the watery depths of Blix’s ostinato haze, keeping an eye trained “Over Birkerot.” In this punchier setting, Rypdal keeps his feet planted amid a chain of horn blasts (think Hans Zimmer’s Inception soundtrack on a smaller scale). His cathartic rock-out midway through is a chance to let hair fly and pulls open the ribbon of “Fare Well.” Along with the final “Ballade,” it finds the musicians in languid suspension, crossing vibraphone-like paths toward elegiac destinations. It may feel blinding, but we can be sure this light comes to us by the force of a distant hope.

Rypdal has an incisive way of building anticipation, of dropping his solos at the most carefully thought-out points, his guitar an endless book of codas. Like the photo that graces its cover, Odyssey captures the life of a nomadic musician in candid monochrome. And while the album had been reissued on CD prior to this New & Old Masters set, the 24-minute “Rolling Stone” sadly did not survive that first digital makeover. An organ-infused underwater symphony of legendary status, its primal bass line and whammy bar ornaments flow like a meeting between Bill Laswell and Robin Guthrie before bringing on the album’s most rock-oriented developments. It also charts Rypdal in a pivotal moment of self-discovery where his tone began to coalesce into the sound for which he has come to be known. What a treasure to have in restored form.

As if this weren’t already enough to celebrate, ECM has gone above and beyond with another gem from the archives:

Unfinished Highballs
Recorded June 1976 by Swedish Radio, Estrad, Södertälje
Recording producer: Bosse Broberg
Engineer: Ola Kejving

This commissioned radio performance from 1976 features a streamlined Odyssey band (sans Sunde) fronting the 15-piece Swedish Radio Jazz Group. At under four minutes, the title track might blow by like the foreword to a novel were it not for its sheer theatricality. Rypdal’s vision cuts the darkness with a film projector’s eye, and blends into the Matterhorn bass of “The Golden Eye.” Icy synths challenge the thaw of Blix’s electric piano as fiery horns uncurl their tongues from the firmament and lick the snowcapped mountains of an unbridled story. Rypdal lifts this image skyward on waxen wings, which, unlike those of Icarus, are impervious to the light on which they feed. Next on this spacy ride is “Scarlet Mistress.” At once sharpened by muted trumpet and rounded by swinging textures, it gives wide relief to Rypdal’s laser etchings. One feels in its background the kick of eras when music’s enervation thrived in proportion to the harshness of its sociopolitical climate, so that the clubs of the 20s and 30s resurrect themselves and dance their ghostly dance. The soprano returns for a spell, for all a moonbeam peeking out from the clouds into a well of chords that pull us into “Dawn.” Melodies unwind, each a snake wrapped around the wrist of a god who whips it free into the glittering sky. Some enticing bass work dances amid Rypdal’s shimmers of water-harp enchantment, lowering us on a fishhook into the depths of “Dine And Dance To The Music Of The Waves,” in which sitar-like sounds pave a Nazca runway for the soprano’s grand coverage of worldly joy. Christiansen is the contortionist’s backbone of “Talking Back.” Sporting also high-flying reeds from Lennart Åberg and Ulf Andersson, its attunement is downright symbiotic. A real highlight. And speaking of which, where else to end but in “Bright Lights – Big City,” closing out the set on a signature dronescape.

With such a full sense of architecture to explore, it’s no wonder this newly unearthed companion has held its shape. In elevating the big band to a level of orchestral aliveness so rarely achieved, Rypdal has left a mark that is not only indelible, but also inimitable. With a nostalgic sound that distinguishes so much of ECM’s output from the decade, Odyssey – In Studio & In Concert shares the pedestal with Keith Jarrett’s Sleeper as release event of the year.

Gidon Kremer: Edition Lockenhaus (ECM New Series 2190-94)

Gidon Kremer
Edition Lockenhaus

The Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival is the brainchild of violinist Gidon Kremer. Once called an “anti-festival,” it is more a gathering of friends bound by a love of all things chamber and a certain haphazard brilliance: its constant cancellations, rescheduling, and daunting thematic choices somehow coalesce into a coherent yearly event. And an event, it most certainly is. As Peter Cossé writes in his liner notes: “In Lockenhaus, awareness, the casualness of a holiday atmosphere, a creative commitment bordering on musical revolution, and even instrumental mishaps that result from nightly round-the-clock socializing induce a shimmering acoustic ‘painting’ that the totally immersed chamber music fan views in alternating states of torpor and enlightenment.” This potent energy and the communal spirit that animates it abound in every note. For this five-disc Lockenhaus Edition, Kremer and coproducer Manfred Eicher have chosen from out of literally hundreds of recordings these highlights from the festival’s 30-year history.

Disc 1

Shedryk Children’s Choir, Kiev
Markus Bellheim 
piano
Christine Rohan 
ondes Martenot
Khatia Buniatishvili 
celesta
Andrei Pushkarev 
vibraphone
Dmytro Marchenko
Igor Krasovsky 
percussion
Kremerata Baltica
Simon Rattle 
conductor
Roman Kofman 
conductor
Recorded 2001 and 2008 at Lockenhaus Festival
Engineer: Peter Laenger

The Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) make for a formidable opener. This study in strings was dedicated to the great Paul Sacher and penned as the doors of the Second World War were closing. In light of its circumstances, one can hardly resist reading an almost Wagnerian shade of grey into its opening gestures, tinged as they are with a certain disillusionment with reality. The music is constantly finding itself through a blurring of conflict and resolution. It is a hall of mirrors where self-awareness is an understatement, in which every vague pizzicato turns the mirrors to new angles. The solo instruments don’t so much arise out of this swirling mass as glint off them. The double bass lines are especially overwhelming, while the violin becomes a looping sentiment curled ever so gently around the throat of trauma. It is as if a single molten thread were running through it, our vision of it but one of countless beads strung along its path. It finds its peace in little dissonances, casting a critical eye on platitudes, and in that way one finds perhaps only in Schubert recedes into the foreground. It is the flow not of water, but of the algae that visualizes the current’s direction. Lovingly played by the Kremerata Baltica and conducted by Simon Rattle, this performance shows Rattle’s eclectic talents in the raw, turning over as he does the sweltering underbelly of this piece. He is an ideal choice, for he knows how to make the lush feel like a drop in the bucket. He sees what the music nests itself in and works his baton around and through every twig. One of ECM’s finest live recordings.

Although Olivier Messiaen (1909-1992) composed his Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine not long before Strauss’s Metamorphosen, its register could hardly be more different. Where the latter is a meditation on memorial, Messiaen’s aural triptych is an unfolding flower of light. The synaesthetic Frenchman has brought a profound imagination into palpable dimensions here. A wistful combination of piano, strings, and women’s voices opens the first liturgy, each the side to a nebulous triangle of forces. The agitations at the keyboard are like a broken crystal, drawing its light from vocal lamentations. The violin seems to rise with a spindly charm that is as alluring as it is self-destructive. We get the internal musings of an ondes Martenot, as well as various percussive accents falling like stardust in the religious imagination. In the second liturgy, jubilation quickly turns into a discomforting beauty, the piano jumping from a subterranean crawl to unmarked flight in but a fluttering of the keys. The third unravels a chant into its constituent lines, each an iridescent tether to sentiments performed rather than spoken. Passages of transcendence sit somehow comfortably alongside dips into magma, ending in a brushstroke of heavenly choirs.

Discs 2/3 (originally Edition Lockenhaus Vols. 1 & 2, ECM New Series 1304/05)

Gidon Kremer violin
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Oleg Maisenberg piano
Irena Grafenauer harp
Christine Whittlesey soprano
Ursula Holliger harp
Hagen Quartett
Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded 1984, 1981, and 1982 by Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF)
Engineers: Roland Pulzer and Martin Frobeen
Remix and editing: Martin Wieland

If the first disc was an introduction, then the Quintet in f minor for piano and strings by César Franck (1822-1890) is a rich first chapter. From the opening violin proclamation we are plunged headfirst into the depths of Romanticism proper: the piano as heartbeat, the strings as lifeblood. It is a plaintive world, at once cloudy and broken by light, unnamable except through sound. The piano vies for constant resolution, knowingly situated at the center of an unsolvable debate, sometimes leaping and sometimes falling back into the despair that first gave it meaning. As we tread softly into the distance of the second movement, the young Lukas Hagen displays profound versatility with his clarity of tone and burrowing vibrato. As the central melody emerges into arid light, our ears come into focus as might a pair of eyes. The piano’s high note phrases are like droplets laddering down leaves on a solitary tree. The third movement lays down an almost Philip Glassean ostinato in the strings develops with fractured intensity. The piano promises hope, but settles altruistically into shadow, where pizzicati lurk like a guitar in Death’s hands.

So begins a lush pairing of French and Slavonic works, which offers dramaturgical insight into the festival’s vibrant mentality. The former side of things continues with a curious piece by André Caplet (1878-1925), a composer whose orchestrations of the works of Claude Debussy outshone his own musical visibility. Based on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Conte phantastique sounds like Maurice Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé turned into an opera, stripped of voices, and condensed into a string quartet. Add to this the aquatic brilliance of Ursula Holliger on harp, and you get a truly distinct experience. Holliger plays pianistically and extracts a profound power from her instrument. The music vacillates between the programmatic and the omniscient. Strings jumble together as the masquerade intensifies, the harp descending like Prospero in gracious intervention. A knock interrupts the action, prompting glassine whispers from the violins. Agitation mounts, only to flutter its eyelids for the last time.

Two songs from “Fiançailles pour rire” make for a fine entry from Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). These somber settings grab our attention with their potency. With empathetic effect, soprano Christine Whittlesey shapes every note with locative color. Her dynamics fall like ripe fruit from a tree of implication, caught in the capable hands of pianist Robert Levin. Every last shred of hope is laced with painterly melancholy, leaving only scars to show for its passing.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was an intensely confessional composer, and nowhere more so than in his string quartets, of which we get his first. From the urgent suggestions and biting interjections of the opening movement to the enigmatic veil of the fourth, we are pulled through a diorama of illusory scenery. Clemens Hagen is especially brilliant here, his cello lighting the way through a fog of folk tales, while second violinist Annette Bik provides moments of rhythmic brilliance. The Quartet No. 1 is a blind spot in the Janáček oeuvre. We accept its disorienting illusions without fear of what lies behind them. We hear carriages drawn by spooked horses, the cries of a forlorn father, the hunting calls of an aristocracy in decline. Thus populated by our imaginations, the music brings us closer to our own internal dramas.

After such inescapable opacities, the neoclassical clarity of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) comes as a pleasant surprise. Scored for violin, clarinet and piano, these three dances from L’Histoire de Soldat show the composer at an evocative peak. Kremer brings characteristic fire to every nuance. His sonorous gypsy acrobatics are a joy to behold. Clarinetist Eduard Brunner peeks in for the opening Tango, offering constructive support. The beautifully syncopated Waltz holds to its core with enthusiasm, Aloys Kontarsky’s occasional high notes adding confectionary flavor. The final Ragtime brings a mounting complexity to these brief but vivacious utterances.

An enthralling performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D follows. Under the passionate direction of Heinz Holliger, the Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie springs to life with the opening pizzicato. Noticeable idiosyncrasies abound, such as a strikingly textured moment when the inside of piano is plucked for added effect during the Vivace. The flexibility of the second movement is intensified in hands of such bright young musicians, dancing lithely between pathos and fleeting awareness. Plunked double bass accents punctuate every moment of this graceful interlude. The final movement displays an astute sense of division, especially in the solo cello and its immediate refraction. These musicians bring an almost manic sense of multiplicity to music that is already beyond alive.

Who better to end this portion with than Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)? A far cry from the monochromatic intensities of his quartets, the wonderfully Mozartean waltzes for flute, clarinet, and piano glisten with salon-like ebullience. The interplay between Brunner and flutist Irena Grafenauer makes for a clever listening experience. The second waltz is especially alluring in its ascending harmonies, its last flutters eliciting audible smiles from the audience.

The Two pieces for String Octet op. 11 comprise a more complicated diptych. After a dense opening statement in the Prelude, the lower strings spread out as violins dissolve like mist in the dawn. We get a hint of later Shostakovich in the Più mosso. Its mature balance of aggression and delicacy betrays a forward-looking mind. The final passages writhe in agitated beauty. A solo cello draws a long energetic line, accompanied by pizzicati and distant calls. More dissonant pairings and threats of a fall that never materializes draw us into a tensely mystical finish.

I prefer the old vinyl edition of this particular recording, if only for the candid photos of its participants, for they show us so much of the festival spirit:


Original cover

Edition Lockenhaus Vol. 3 is strangely excluded from this set (you can see my full review of it here).

Discs 4/5 (originally Vols. 4 & 5, ECM New Series 1347/48)

Gidon Kremer violin
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Yuzuko Horigome violin
Philip Hirschhorn violin
Kim Kashkashian viola
Nobuko Imai viola
Veronika Hagen viola
Boris Pergamentschikow violoncello
David Geringas violoncello
Julius Berger violoncello
Thomas Demenga violoncello
James Tocco piano
Recorded Lockenhaus Festival 1985 and 1986
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Andreas Neubronner, and Stephan Schellmann

Although one is wont to paint a morose picture of Shostakovich, continues our melodic bridge into the final portion of the set, I think we can hear in these late string quartets especially that within him beat a vibrant heart of passion. Music cannot have been for him so much of an escape as it was simply a voice. We need only cast a careful ear toward the String Quartet No. 14 op. 142 to hear its vibrancy. The distorted jig that works out of the opening crawl is something of an achievement on paper and at the bow. David Geringas at the cello proves to be the ever-present anchor, guiding the quartet as a whole through a variety of registers—from gentle to ecstatic and back again. In the Adagio, his strings throb like ventricles. The more we listen to its words, the less we know of their origins. It is as if they have reached us only light years later, like a star long dead yet still visible. The cello cuts these shadows into a string of glassy shards in the final Allegretto, of which the violins are ecstatic reflections. This movement is more porous and waves its gossamer threads as might a plant to attract insects. Its intimate yet vast cross-pollination achieves something close to transcendence before taking its unnoticed leap into fantasies.

The String Quartet No. 13 op. 138, on the other hand, is a single-movement opus in twenty-two and a half minutes. Its gorgeous beginning unrolls a flat landscape along which a violin comes hopping, not unlike a creature from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Others take up the call in a widening circle of light, launching into a spiral of percussive attacks (which in this performance never come across as declamatory but as clarity incarnate). The congregation disperses as quickly as it came together, leaving solitary voices, though distant, to unknowingly harmonize. And the landscape of mourning through which we have slogged opens itself to a beam of light in the violins,  reminding us that sometimes music matters only where it ends.

The Two Movements for String Quartet add yet another hue. These are more majestic and deftly spun through a slow-motion slalom course of light and dark. The higher and lower strings achieve delicate mutuality, seesawing on a fulcrum of potent stillness.

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a forgotten ideologue-in-arms of Shostokovich, was an intensely dynamic composer. His music lies somewhere between the Russian and Górecki, and provides a fitting cap to an altogether fascinating Lockenhaus portrait. After an exultant introduction, his opus 45 Sextet wanders varicose paths with trembling caution. The violins shimmer like the surface of a moonlit pond in the second movement, under which glide the cello and viola, each an electric eel that lights up the night. In the chambers of this heart, the only blood is a silence that hangs from the trees, gripped like a branch beneath an owl’s talons. Some stellar pizzicato passages in the third movement add hope to our dreams, puncturing the backdrop until it resembles an artificial sky. The final movement is a fractured look back on the first three, a heavy and romantic flower whose weight barely bends the stem, its desires never spoken louder than a whisper.

A high energy and passionate execution make the Duo for Violin and Cello a true highlight of the entire set. Philip Hirschhorn, along with Geringas, navigates a landscape of varying tensions, moving from the snaking opening lines to crunchier motives for a broad, almost orchestral palette. The piece is always flowing in spite of its sometimes-abrupt movements, and is a testament to Schulhoff’s effervescent spirit. Yet it is in the slower passages where we most hear Shostakovich, lingering like a spirit overcoming limitations of time and space.

Pianist James Tocco turns out another star performance the Cinq Études de Jazz op. 58. These inventive pieces draw more upon the rhythmic than melodic colors of the genre. The result is an exposition that is not only delightful fun, but also one that provides foiled insight (especially in the second etude) into composers like Satie and Poulenc who were keyed into popular music idioms. The third etude has the majesty of a Gershwin yet the bleeding colors of the French impressionists, while the fourth is a romp and a cascade rolled into one, leaving the fifth to return full circle with the verve of the first, drawing a lively signature on which to end.


Original cover

In an interview, Kremer remarks on the difficulties that inevitably arise in putting together such a festival. Quintessential are the tense circumstances surrounding the Franck Quintet, which apparently failed to come together to the musicians’ satisfaction during rehearsals. In spite of this, they managed to pull off one of the most lauded performances of that year (1984). Such is the spontaneity that Lockenhaus creates, encourages, and promotes. This is an exciting limited edition for reasons too numerous to list in full. Not least among them is the fact that the original recordings marked the debut of New Series stars Eduard Brunner, Thomas Zehetmair, Heinz Holliger, and Robert Levin. It is a stream-of-consciousness narrative linked in the fluidity of real-time recollection, the immediacy of which is only heightened by the superb musicianship and live recording. This treasure trove belongs on your shelf.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Setting Standards – New York Sessions (ECM 2030-32)

 

Keith Jarrett Trio
Setting Standards – New York Sessions

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock double-bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded January 1983 at Power Station, New York City
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I feel we are an underground band that has, just by accident, a large public.”
–Keith Jarrett, on his trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette

The piano is considered by some to be a “complete” instrument. On it, one can compose anything from a simple etude to the grandest of symphonies, and its most adored practitioners may be said to be whole at the keyboard. The beauty of a player like Keith Jarrett is that he makes the piano sound so gorgeously incomplete, emphasizing as he does the unfathomable volume of sentiments he would convey through it if given the time. As it is, we get the barest taste of immortality. Jarrett carries the entire weight of any composition in even the most linear of melodic lines. In doing so, he opens doors that few could step through unharmed.

And yet, step through them the rare soul has, and perhaps none so ingenious as bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. When listening to the bliss that rolls off Jazz’s proverbial tongue throughout Setting Standards, however, we must constantly remind ourselves that the three albums collected therein represent the first time Jarrett, Peacock, and DeJohnette had ever stepped into the studio as a bona fide trio. The three men were, of course, far from strangers, but produced such unreal synergy in these unrehearsed sessions that they might as well have been cut from the same cloth. The trio would also prove in a way cathartic for Jarrett, who was already beginning to buckle under the pressures of an increasingly demanding listenership. For this, he turned to the tried and true, if not to the plied and blue, for solace.

With Standards, Vol. 1 (ECM 1255) Jarrett and company set things straight from the get-go by showing us the “Meaning Of The Blues.” This swath of melodious rain is the trio form at its best and never lets up until the very end. DeJohnette’s charcoal sketches in background add a quiet boldness. “All The Things You Are” is a more lighthearted, though no less intense, construction, and haunts Peacock’s nimble fingerwork with a visceral chord progression. Smoothness abounds in “It Never Entered My Mind,” a gentle tune that puts a new twist on the pessimism of balladry by resolving itself at moments into a hopeful groove. A hefty splash of freedom awaits us in “The Masquerade Is Over.” Peacock is on fire here, giving just the sort of fuel that Jarrett sets to such glorious conflagration. The latter’s soloing proves that not only is the masquerade over, but also that these musicians never hid behind masks in the first place. If any single facet of this jewel can be singled out, it is the stunning fifteen-and-a-half-minute rendition of “God Bless The Child” that concludes it. Peacock excels, taking the swing around the bar and back again.


Original cover

Standards, Vol. 2 (ECM 1289) is a shaded glen in Volume One’s verdant forest. Its mood is summed up perfectly in the title of the opening “So Tender,” which after a slow intro falls into the unity that so distinguishes this trio. Jarrett dances not on air but on fire in his pointillist lines, while Peacock and DeJohnette both captivate with their subtle, popping sound. “Moon And Sand” is an equally smooth ride through less traveled territories and finds Jarrett in a gentler mood. DeJohnette is also at his most delicate here, drawing circles in the sand with his brush. For “In Love In Vain” Jarrett spins from thematic threads a twin self, who for all his similarities breathes a different sort of politics in one of the set’s finest tunes. With every grunt, Jarrett voices only the tip of his creative iceberg. Peacock delights with a very elastic solo, which no matter how far it stretches stays locked to its theme as if by finger trap. Jarrett is at his lyrical best in “Never Let Me Go,” and skips to his Lou in “If I Should Lose You” before laying down the poetry of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” with a thick, tangible power.


Original cover

Prior to the release of Setting Standards, I hadn’t yet encountered the free play session that is Changes (ECM 1276) and what a joyful surprise it turned out to be, for never has the trio emoted in such a blissful mode. “Flying” is a heavenly diptych honed in delicacy and abandon. Here the band describes a decidedly aquatic territory, each tattered thread of melody flowing like the tendrils of a throbbing deep-sea creature whose eyes are its hearts. Jarrett spreads and shoots straight like an octopus, every pad suctioning to a new and exciting motif. Peacock, meanwhile, threads his fingers through a vast oceanic harp, stretching his emotive capacity to its limits. DeJohnette surfaces with a deeply digging solo before we end with Jarrett alone in a quiet, dissipating reflection. Peacock trails his starfish of a bass line through the pianistic coral reef of Part 2, he and DeJohnette inking their solos before hollering their way into an inescapable passion. The set ends in the refractions of “Prism.” And indeed the trio as a unit is not unlike a prism, separating every ray of light into its composite colors, likewise every ray of darkness into its whispered secrets. Jarrett’s expulsions heighten every inarticulable word that he writes, the breath of an energy that cannot be contained. The farther these reveries drift, the more life experience they carry back into the fold when they return.


Original cover

In a society gone astray from musical immediacy, it’s safe to point out Jarrett’s nexus as one of the more reliable vestiges where melody still blooms. With an average track length of nine minutes, these are quiet and endlessly interesting epics. Say what you will about Jarrett’s singing, which has sadly turned not a few off from these recordings, but I believe Peter Rüedi puts it best in his insightful liner notes when he says, “His groans and vocal outbursts, considered by many to be a quirk, are in fact nothing but a form of suffering at the thought that the abyss between the piano and sung melody can ultimately never be bridged, not even by Jarrett himself.” To these ears, Jarrett’s voice welcomes us into the intimacy of his creative spirit, so unfathomably expanded in the company of two fine musicians (and even finer spirits) whose talents can’t help but sing in their own complementary registers. And on that note, we mustn’t forget the contributions of Jarrett’s band mates, who constitute far more than anything the mere rubric of “rhythm section” might ever imply. How can we, for example, not shake our heads in wonder at DeJohnette’s consistent inventiveness, which singlehandedly reshaped the idioms at hand. And then there is Peacock, who for me is the bread and butter of the first two sessions. So carefully negotiating his path through various leaps and bounds, he seems to anticipate everything Jarrett throws his way. Just listen to his soloing on “It Never Entered My Mind” and “God Bless The Child,” and these words will mean nothing.

Through the two standards albums, Jarrett put the “Song” back into the Great American Songbook, and in Changes enlarged it with “Prism.” Now given the proper archival treatment in this 3-disc Old & New Masters edition commemorating 25 years of music-making, this unassuming surge of sonic bliss is now ours to cherish at will.

The camaraderie expressed in the booklet’s final session photo speaks for itself:

The CODONA Trilogy (ECM 2033-35)

The Codona Trilogy

Don Cherry
Nana Vasconcelos
Collin Walcott
The CODONA Trilogy

Don Cherry trumpet, doussn’gouni, flutes, organ, melodica, voice
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, cuica, talking drum, percussion, voice
Collin Walcott sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer, sanza, timpani, voice

When my mother had gone to Canton market to shop, her wallet had unfolded like wings…. She had hunted out the seed shops to taste their lichees, various as wines…. She had dug to the bottom of fabric piles and explored the shadows underneath awnings. She gave beggars rice and letter-writers coins so that they would talk-story (“Sometimes what I gave was all they had, and stories.”)
–Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior

The music of CODONA, ECM’s most emblematic creation, invariably puts me in mind of the above passage from Kingston’s classic “memoir.” It describes the author’s mother as, having just received her diploma, she celebrates by spreading what little monetary resources she has. The word that always stands out for me, and which is a theme of the book as a whole, is “talk-story,” for it describes with no uncertain brevity exactly what CODONA enacted in the studio (and on the stage) throughout the four-year span represented on this Old & New Masters trilogy. CODONA’s name—a portmanteau derived from its members’ firsts: COllin Walcott, DOn Cherry, NAna Vasconcelos—melds minds and hearts in the deepest crucible of music-making.

With their unique brand of pan-culturalism, CODONA developed an entire sonic landscape without needing to throw itself under the next promising classification to come along. These self-titled gems each plot a unique transition in ECM’s graphic and sonic development, reaching both beyond jazz and more deeply into it for hints of origins and possible futures. The improvisational spirit is very much alive at every turn, while also recognizing the pulse of its own maudlin journeys. There is always a sense that one has arrived at a truth, which through CODONA’s collective spirit(ualism) has transcended the misnomer of “universal” into a far more nuanced and selfless understanding of the relationship of sound to all creation.

Whenever we speak of “universal truths,” we delineate quite the opposite. Rather than tapping into a concept, an energy, or state of being that binds all life in however arbitrary a way, the only purpose of universalism is in fact to make us feel better about ourselves. It treats the human experience as primary target, the standard by which all else comes to be measured. The base concept of universalism implies, through its very anthropocentrism, self-obsession as the only path to connectivity. The music of CODONA remains an invaluable corrective to this assumptive attitude toward human experience. Rather than hide, it transcends its own sense of self into a disembodied sonority.

CODONA (ECM 1132)
Recorded September 1978 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

CODONA’s first album is particularly dear to my heart, for it is the only in the ECM catalog to have been recorded during the month and year of my birth. As such, it lends itself well to my imagination, where it plays as soundtrack to my emergence into this mortal coil. Careful arrangements, spontaneous though they may be, flavor our first taste of CODONA blood in “Like That Of Sky.” From the opening gong, this album enchants with its dramaturgy, in which time and space are one and the same. Against clicks and whistles, a subterranean sitar appears. In it, we hear the grumbling of voices. Cherry fills the vast emptiness with his sung trumpeting, so that the emptiness can only weep in return. Walcott’s sitar is respectfully articulated, ever so subtle in its reverberant twang, providing a gelatinous backbone, such as it is, for Cherry’s more immediate interpretations. From this, we get the tinny call of a clay drum and a flute hooked into every loophole, pulled to expose a more regular core. [This track reminds me very much of the work of the enigmatic duo known as Voice of Eye (especially their 1994 album Vespers), who achieve similarly evocative density from purely acoustic means.] Walcott’s tabla signals the phenomenological urgency with which divine creation takes form, as if finding amid the contact of fluttering fingers along pulled skin the key to unspeakable life. The second track takes the group’s name, and further slackens the threads that keep them bound to this mortal coil. Through an intriguing blend of wooden flute, hammered dulcimer, and some scattered percussive footsteps, the musicians manage to evoke a wide range of special effects from clear and present means. And as the rhythmic rope ladder unrolls itself step by step, we are enticed by its gentle sway into the enlightened space it has drawn for us of wood, metal, and touch. “Colemanwonder” deftly combines Ornette Coleman’s “Race Face” and “Sortie” with Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” in an auditory hodgepodge that is as delightful as it is singular. Given Cherry’s formative history with Coleman back in the late 1950s, this is an important swath of light to note in the album’s otherwise stark shade, made all the more vivid by the grunts, barks, poundings, and knocks issuing from Vasconcelos’s Brazilian cuica drum. “Mumakata” (apparently a favorite of the group’s live shows) features Vasconcelos on berimbau, Walcott on sanza, and Cherry on doussn’gouni. Voices sing, as if evoking the past for past’s sake. Against this tapestry, Cherry breaks out his trumpet for some gorgeous legato phrasings. “New Light” begins with the tinkling of bells and an awakening sitar. We arise from a gentle coma even as we settle into another: from the beauty of awareness to the awareness of beauty. Cherry launches higher flights of virtuosity, underscoring all the more the humility that has led him to this point in the album. Shells hiss like the raspy leaves of a giant palm thrashing in the wind. The dulcimer returns with maraca as Cherry spreads thicker melodies with clarity of tone and posture. A track so nocturnal that it almost glows. Every telepathic moment sparkles before Cherry cracks open a box of blissful high notes and fluttering half-sung hymns, leading us out as dulcimer strings are brushed like a harp by breath without source.


Original cover

CODONA 2 (ECM 1177)
Recorded May 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

CODONA 2 drops us immediately into a groovier pool with “Que Faser.” Over tabla and sitar, Vasconcelos exchanges tender thoughts with Cherry’s trumpet, traveling from the majestic to the falsettic in one fell swoop. This leads into “Godumaduma,” the briefest track of the collection, and also its most enchanting. What sounds like three overdubbed sitars in a gorgeous transitory interlude configure something akin to Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint had it been written for Walcott and not electric guitar. Switching colors from the sandy and windblown to the gravid and architectural, “Malinye” features Cherry on melodica and Walcott on timpani. As the latter tumble over a highly cinematic terrain, a ring of spirits whispers, cackles, and wails. This haunting piece ends in a sanza-led chorus that stretches far beyond the final vibration and into another state of mind. At the halfway point, we find ourselves feeling “Drip-Dry.” Sitar and voice creep around our circle of light, reaching with shadowy hands to grasp the trumpet’s song within. The buoyant “Walking On Eggs” that follows sounds, like all of CODONA’s work, simultaneously composed and improvised. A buoyant piece, it is also as tentative as its title suggests. “Again and Again, Again,” on which we end, might as well be our listening instructions for this most underrated album of the set. Sitar and trumpet provide some vivid runes, of which Vasconcelos makes a sonic rubbing with a string of sounds not unlike a tape in fast forward, if not a dreaming bird. Add to this the plurivocity of a melodica, and one begins to see subtle density and “vocal” qualities that make this one of the group’s most inward-looking statements.


Original cover

CODONA 3 (ECM 1243)
Recorded September 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The traditional Japanese “Goshakabuchi” that begins the final leg of this triumvirate turns the mirror just so, flashing a glint into our eyes from a distance. Cherry’s brassy ether drips with sympathetic effect; hammered dulcimer hurls its delicate, insectile hiccups; untold lives tease us with their possibilities. This is perhaps the most haunting and coalescent track in the collection and shows the trio at the height of its signature synergy. Sanza and doussn’gouni back the chant-heavy “Hey Da Ba Boom,” which will adhere to your mind far more than any words I might use to describe it here. “Travel By Night” trailmarks its path with berimbau, sitar, and muted trumpet. Walcott’s arcing tones make for quiet narration. Hooded by the darkened firmament, it practically floats with the practiced steps of a modest caravan fleeing from its own histories. A trio of shorter rest stops follows, of which “Lullaby,” the only moment with Walcott alone, gives us a heartening glimpse into the mind of group’s creative nerve center. “Clicky Clacky” provides a dash of whimsy, a bluesy gem from the mind and mouth of Cherry, complete with train whistle. The final gasp comes from the “Inner Organs,” where the echoes of trumpet and, not surprisingly, organ move in concert like a jellyfish and its tendrils toward open closure.


Original cover

The music world lost one of its most innovative figures when Collin Walcott perished in a car accident while on a European tour with Oregon in 1984, and the CODONA trilogy is but a flash of what this inimitable project might have further accomplished had he lived on. As rooted as the music is, the edge of time has severed its earthly ties. If jazz had developed from one mystical seed (and who’s to say it didn’t?), then certainly its originary tales would sound very much like the elder’s musings preserved here. Through their own brand of talk-story, these attuned sages brought forth truths of fragmentation, permeability of mind and body, and of the knowledge that nothing matters anymore once sound opens your ears.

Want to see ECM at its finest hour? Then set your clocks to CODONA time.

Steve Kuhn: Life’s Backward Glances – Solo and Quartet (ECM 2090-92)

 

Steve Kuhn
Life’s Backward Glances: Solo and Quartet

Steve Kuhn piano
Sheila Jordan voice
Steve Slagle soprano and alto saxophones, flute
Harvie Swartz double-bass
Michael Smith drums
Bob Moses drums

In an open boat at sea,
lights are darkened by a tree.
All the world is all I see.

Brooklyn-born pianist Steve Kuhn is one of the savviest interpreters of our time. On ECM, we have also been fortunate enough to know him as an equally engaging composer. For this entry in its Old & New Masters series, the label gathers another fine trio of out-of-print treasures, of which Motility and Playground make their digital debuts (ECSTASY having been made limitedly available in Japan).

Motility (ECM 1094)
Recorded January 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Entering Kuhn’s world is indeed like stepping into “The Rain Forest,” the first track on this phenomenal quartet recording. Not only is it visually resplendent and rich with life, but it also boasts distinct melodic qualities. Every last molecule has its role to play in the symphonic superstructure. Kuhn’s fingers navigate the forest’s ever-changing paths, arching lithely through overgrowth while Steve Slagle’s flute sings like an avian guide flitting from branch to branch: a thread of cognitive continuity between listener and the listened. The band’s sound really opens up in “Oceans In The Sky.” Like a waterfall in reverse, it returns to the cloud from which it was born, closing its eyes in a promise of clearer days. The private trajectories of “Catherine” intersect only briefly with our own, even as Harvie S.’s tenderest of bass solos pulls at the heart in muted song. “Bittersweet Passages” is a two-part journey, beginning in a swell of anticipation before fading into solemnity. The slightest movement becomes infinitely magnified, so that when the quartet returns in tutti, it bustles like a crowd of zealots flocking to their monument of worship. “Deep Tango” is driven by a braid of martial snare, bass, and soprano sax, beneath which Kuhn spreads carpet of fallen leaves. “Motility/The Child Is Gone” changes from elegy to ode in a blink. Kuhn lays on the expressivity, at once van Gogh and Monet, before delighting us with “A Danse For One,” in which one can almost hear his band mates lingering like a ghostly presence. Lastly is “Places I’ve Never Been,” another exciting tune replete with infectious grooves. Superb soloing from all, particularly in the diving flute, make this one a winner.

 


Original cover

Playground (ECM 1159)
Recorded July 1979 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Robert Hurwitz

In this album, we get an enlivening dose of Kuhn’s other brand of lyricism in the form of actual words. We had a taste of these in “Life’s Backward Glance” on 1974’s Trance. That selfsame tune makes a cameo here, also as a closer, only this time transformed by the throaty contralto of Sheila Jordan Kuhn, who turns everything she touches to melancholic gold. This is a markedly different album, not least because it is the latest of the three, and one that seems to have been consciously sandwiched between the others.

As Jordan turns verses in her lips in “Tomorrow’s Son,” she traces the undulations of bass and brushed drums, setting off the piano into a string of footnotes. Two adjacent pieces, “Gentle Thoughts” and “Poem For No. 15,” appear as the diptych “Thoughts of a Gentleman – The Sage of Harrison Crabfeathers” on ECSTASY. In their present incarnations, Kuhn’s pianism scintillates, his right hand so full that when his left hand comes in it sounds like another instrument entirely. The rhythm section is never enough to weigh him down. Rather, it seems to inspire him to ever-ecstatic heights. A personal favorite on this disc is “The Zoo,” a fantastic little slice of whimsy about communication, self-sufficiency, and delight in discovery. And one can hardly escape the allure of “Deep Tango,” which in this vocal version unfolds with even greater narrative potency.

Jordan’s voice strolls down memory lane as if it actually were a physical path to be strolled upon. Her constant vibrato lends a vulnerable sadness to the proceedings. The musicians feed off her presence tenfold, as evidenced in Kuhn’s transformation throughout from intimacy to fantasy.

 


Original cover

ECSTASY (ECM 1058)
Recorded November 1974 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album was recorded one day following the Trance session, and revisits some of that same material in a solo setting. In spite of the density in which his playing often clothes itself, here he adopts a decidedly porous sound, breathing in and out like an organism that finds its invisible nourishment in notecraft alone. The present rendition of “Silver” is three times its original length on Trance, honed in reflections rather than shadows. An unexpected roll from the piano’s nether regions rises like oil from the ground, but never materializes into a full-blown breach, lapsing instead into a gentle trickle into the valley of resolution. Unique entries on this album include the entirely improvised “Prelude in G,” in which an increasingly frantic lead runs over a brooding ostinato, and “Ulla,” an emotional journey marked by careful pauses. Some insistent statements in the right hand lead one to believe there is far more to be said than what is being articulated in both. Kuhn ends again with “Life’s Backward Glance,” something of an iconic piece for him, here more erratic than its vocal counterpart. It reads like a critical self-assessment, born from years of improvisatory living, finding in the moment those truths with which we build an ever-changing concept of the self.

This is the darkest of the three albums, gilded in dissonant color schemes and more visceral reflections.

 


Original cover

Kuhn thinks in voices, but speaks in images. His story is a book without pages. Oftentimes, he looks away, but always acknowledges us through its colors. One moment finds him courting Vince Guaraldi on steroids, while the next recalls Bill Evans on a rainy afternoon. With such a full sound, one wonders how other musicians could add anything, but add they do, and beautifully so. The only thing missing now is you, the constant listener.