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.

 


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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.

 


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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.

 


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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.

Arild Andersen: Green In Blue – Early Quartets (ECM 2143-45)

Green In Blue

Arild Andersen
Green In Blue: Early Quartets

Arild Andersen double-bass
Jon Balke piano
Knut Riisnaes tenor and soprano saxophones, flute
Pål Thowsen drums
Juhani Aaltonen tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes, percussion
Lars Jansson piano, Moog-synthesizer, string ensemble

I used to hear jazz through a diurnal lens: it was either night or day. I saw this reflected in many album covers, which could be bright (Milt Jackson’s Sunflower comes to mind) or deeply nocturnal (which pegs a good portion of the Blue Note catalogue). ECM has been unique in charting the in-between, those crepuscular moments of the genre in which transitions abound, and in fact define the parameters of the music. This fabulous collection of long out-of-print label efforts by Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen brings those transitions most clearly into focus. His music is firmly earthbound, yet at the same time so far beyond the stratosphere that seasons and times of day cease to matter. Such an approach allows us to come to the music as we are, absorbing it with the same spontaneity in which it is produced.

Clouds In My Head (ECM 1059)
Recorded February 1975 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“305 W 18 St” is a breath of fresh air in even the freshest climate. The title refers to the bassist’s onetime home base, a New York apartment belonging to singer Sheila Jordan (who can be heard on Steve Kuhn’s Playground). I suspect these kinds of autobiographical details lie behind almost every title, some more inferable than others. Either way, Andersen’s gravid bass line and the lilting flute of Knut Riisnaes usher us into the album’s optimistic world, setting the pace for an exemplary thematic journey. There are plenty of breathtaking stops along the way, including the piano-driven “Outhouse,” with fine soloing to be had by all over a tight rhythm section headed by Pål Thowsen on drums; the sympathetic embrace of “Song For A Sad Day,” in which Riisnaes’s bone-tickling tenor tears our inhibitions to shreds; and the uplifting promises of the title cut. Neither can we pass up “The Sword Under His Wings,” a closer to end all closers. Lightning fast fingerwork from Andersen brings a live dynamism that practically begs for applause at every given opportunity. Not to be outdone, Jon Balke shows his chops as well, intimating what would become his own flowering career beyond the band. The album’s finest sax solo sparks a flare of virtuosity, snuffed too soon. A groove-oriented aesthetic dominates Clouds, but with enough downtempo diversions to soften the blow. Each theme is a springboard to fantastic leaps of intuition. Those of Riisnaes, whose resemblance to the early Garbarek is uncanny, are the farthest-reaching, variously filled with glorious hesitations and catharses.


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Shimri (ECM 1082)
Recorded October 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In its second outing, the Arild Andersen Quartet saw the replacement of Balke and Rissnæs with saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen (already heard to mind-blowing effect on Edward Vesala’s Nan Madol and soon to appear on Satu of the same) and pianist Lars Jansson (whose trio, of which Anders Jormin was an original member, remains one of Sweden’s great jazz outfits). Here, Andersen dons more overtly compositional clothing, and lays his heart bare. The mood is a little more relaxed, its sound more porous, its gestures more internal. Starting with some chromatic pianism and Aaltonen’s winged soprano in the title track, and working through the timeless beauties of “No Tears” and “Ways Of Days,” we encounter deeper mysteries in “Wood Song.” On the surface, its wooden flute and colorful percussion evoke an arid landscape populated by rattlesnakes and desert winds, yet on deeper inspection seeks to reveal the improvisational in the mundane. “Vaggvisa För Hanna” is a multifaceted little number that plays like Red Lanta with an added rhythm section. Tenor sax makes its triumphant return in “Dedication.” Jansson wanders into some incredibly lyrical asides, singing like Keith Jarrett (who was among his formative influences as a music student), but led back to the main path by Aaltonen every time. While it is unclear who or what this concluding track is a dedication to, I like to think it was made for the listener, whose very existence animates the creative process at hand. For as Andersen recedes, leaving Aaltonen alone, we are drawn into that final gasp of cymbals and toms like an acolyte into selflessness.


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Green Shading Into Blue (ECM 1127)
Recorded April 1978 at Talent Studio
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The final album of this set changes gears yet again, working itself into a highly refined configuration. Jansson expands his contributions with added electronics. Their presence, subtle as it is, unpacks the music’s histories with far greater visibility. From the laid-back groove of “Sole” to the staccato backing of “Radka’s Samba,” we are treated to a colorful array of songs without words. Stories are the primary driving forces here, such that “The Guitarist” is not about the instrument but about the trembling hands that cradle it. Like an intro that never materializes into a full-blown swing, it has more than enough to sustain itself. “Anima” is another smooth joint that offers some of Andersen’s most understated brilliance. Aaltonen’s legato tenor lends an illusory impermanence. The album’s remainder is like a garden of quiet beauty. The cultivated panache of the sax-heavy “Terhi” and the “organic” backing of the title track wander into Eberhard Weber territory with every step. “Jana” closes in all the lushness this quartet has to offer in a synth-infused groove, finishing with the exuberance of Aaltonen’s soprano flourishes.


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Andersen is about as straightforward a musician as you are likely to encounter. His motivic acuity is engagingly bipolar, easily straddling funk and elegy in a single breath. His notes are powerful, sustained, and binding like glue. And in such fine company, the cumulative effects are unfathomable. Though his presence was vividly felt in a handful of early ECM releases, including Afric Pepperbird, Sart, and Triptykon, it was with these three albums that Andersen left his first inedible marks. What a joy it is to finally have them in the digital archive.

Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79 (ECM 2036-39)

Gary Burton
Chick Corea
Crystal Silence: The ECM Recordings 1972-79

Gary Burton vibraphone
Chick Corea piano

The vibraphone and piano combine to make one of jazz’s most potent instrumental combinations, and nowhere so invigorating than at the hands of Gary Burton and Chick Corea. To say that the possibilities between them are limitless is to ignore the immediacy of their abilities, in which we may now bask to the utmost content in this timely reissue. Jazz’s most singular duo in a set of three albums on four CDs. Now those are some positive integers.

Crystal Silence (ECM 1024)
Recorded November 6, 1972 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It all begins here, with Crystal Silence. The title says it all: silence crystallized into dazzling melodic gems, each its own prismatic doorway into improvisatory translucence. Corea offers a fine set of five compositions (the most notable being the slick opener “Señor Mouse”), along with three beautifully realized tunes by bassist Steve Swallow (“Arise, Her Eyes” being a personal favorite), and another by Mike Gibbs (the somber “Feelings And Things”). In spite of the variety of voices represented here, the album grows like one long, extended story, a dynamic that seems to shadow the musicians wherever they set foot. The title track, reprised and extended since its inaugural appearance on Return To Forever, is a subdued tour de force in style, presentation, and content. “Falling Grace” (Swallow) is one of the shorter pieces on tap, but what it lacks in time it makes up for in exhilaration. We end with an instrumental version of another Return classic, “What Game Shall We Play Today.” Each piece is rendered with such dynamic sensitivity that one can immediately recognize the effect Crystal Silence must have had when originally released, and no doubt continues to have to this day. Connected as they are by the same mellow fuse, these tunes need hardly a spark to set them to glowing.

This essential album constantly skirts the line between destitution and celebration, rebuilding as many structures as it tears down. The pianism soars, and one could never praise Burton enough for providing the intuitive right hand to Corea’s metronomic left. Above all, this is a masterful exhibition of improvisation around strong thematic material that breaks through its own generic conventions, and is another indispensable example of what ECM has done to enrich and enlarge the landscape of jazz music from day one.


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Duet (ECM 1140)
Recorded October 23 – 25, 1978, at Delphian Foundation, Sheridan/Oregon
Engineer: Bernie Kirsh
Produced by Chick Corea and Gary Burton

If Crystal Silence is the Corea/Burton universe writ large, then the “Duet Suite” that opens this follow-up album is its densest galaxy. Buoyant grace, turn-on-a-dime syncopation, and an abiding sense of direction make every moment an experience to savor and relive as many times as a single lifetime will allow. More than a lasting mosaic of what either of these musicians is capable of, the suite overflows with so much energy that it could easily have gone on to fill the entire album. And in many ways, it does, being a meta-statement of all to come. The lovingly arranged selections from Corea’s Children’s Songs that follow expand fourfold the brief glimpse into this masterwork afforded us in the project’s debut. These otherwise intimate excursions sparkle like film stills sped into viable movement. The hip nostalgia of “Radio” (Swallow) plunges us into the past, even as it directs our eyes to the future, reeling through its motifs with head-tilting abandon. Burton’s staggered rhythms make for an ecstatic crosshatching of polyphony. At last, we come to Corea’s seminal “Song To Gayle.” Soon to be a staple in the outfit’s traveling songbook, this fluid conversation is almost blinding in its agreement. Duet is rounded out by the ever so exquisite “Never” (Swallow) and “La Fiesta,” a Corea original that brings the album’s most enthralling moments into focus.


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In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979 (ECM 1182/83)
Recorded October 28, 1979 at Limmathaus, Zürich
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Zürich live album is the clear standout of this collection and a real treasure among many in the ECM catalogue. All the classics are here, gloriously reincarnated for new and veteran listeners alike: a sweeping rendition of “Crystal Silence” flows with the power of a river during spring thaw, “Falling Grace” becomes strangely uplifting, “Song To Gayle” sparkles, and Corea’s improvisational turns during a vivacious “Señor Mouse” have all the makings of a hallmark triumph. These actually outdo themselves in live form, plain and simple. But they are only half the fun. Lest we forget the wealth of other material in the set, the duo delights us with “Bud Powell,” Corea’s pitch-perfect tribute to the bebop pioneer. The man at the piano can’t help but sing along as he negotiates one fluid key change after another. We also get some mesmerizing virtuosity from Burton, which makes us want to join in the applause at home. Another high point is “Endless Trouble, Endless Pleasure” (Swallow), which ends the show with a spicy half-step glory. But the real treasures here are the onetime C-Sides making their ECM digital debut at last. Each gives the respective musician his moment alone. Burton’s tender evocations of the Swallow standards “I’m Your Pal” and “Hullo, Bolinas” flit like a ballerina across the stage, while a lush 15-minute interpretation by Corea of his own “Love Castle” pulls his pianism into utterly new territories.

Live energy brings inexpressible wonder to these pieces. With each listen, they show their colors by an increasingly visible logic, extending solos here and shortening graces there, until the whole picture begins to make intuitive sense.


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Once in a great while, there are combinations that simply cannot fail. Chick Corea and Gary Burton embody one of them. Their supporting articulations are sometimes so delicately applied that one cannot help but become an extension of the other. They seem to find in each other a new vision of life, which they bring to every note. They also really know how to introduce a piece. Rather than lead us patronizingly into their sound-world, they drop us directly into its liquid center, so that while coming up for air we begin to understand the music from the inside out. These are two wirewalkers at the height of their creative talents, yet who have since forgone their balance bars in favor of more airborne travels. This is quite simply music for the ages.


Eberhard Weber: Colours (ECM 2133-35)

 

 

 

Eberhard Weber
Colours

Eberhard Weber bass
Charlie Mariano soprano saxophone, shenai, nagaswaram, flutes
Rainer Brüninghaus keyboards, piano, synthesizer
Jon Christensen drums
John Marshall drums, percussion

“I would not be you, El-ahrairah. For Frith has given the fox and the weasel cunning hearts and sharp teeth, and to the cat has given silent feet and eyes that see in the dark, and they are gone awry from Frith’s place to kill and devour all that belongs to El-ahrairah.”
–Richard Adams, Watership Down

For six years, Eberhard Weber’s Colours enthralled the European tour circuit. A unique entry into the growing number of fusion outfits of the seventies, Weber charted a distinctly introspective path into jazz’s most unanswerable questions. The ensemble’s inimitable blend of improvisational and chamber music aesthetics was a perfect fit for ECM, not so much filling a gap as defining one. By the time he had recorded for the label, Weber had already honed a most distinctive skill, brought to its worthiest fruition on his custom electrobass, and was even present in Wolfgang Dauner’s much-neglected Output. Without a doubt, Colours created some of the label’s most mellifluous music. The sound is unmistakable, coiling like a snake around some of the most gorgeous atmospheres to grace your ears.

Yellow Fields (ECM 1066)
Recorded September, 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With “Touch” we are immediately privy to a groove-oriented game between piano and bass. The lush, open sound is heightened by the presence of synth strings, prefiguring Weber’s later orchestral collaborations. Charlie Mariano’s soprano floats with positive energy and unbounded enthusiasm as the strings morph into trembling sirens. Jon Christensen adds backbone to otherwise invertebrate music. Weber is subdued in this first track, leaving Mariano to take the lead with a soulful stride toward a quick fadeout, leaving us wanting more of what could have been.

“Sand-Glass” begins with water droplets and the occasional artfully placed rim shot. High notes on bass provide a constellatory framework. Within these borders, seemingly drawn but only imagined, Mariano solos like a comet, his sentiment flaring against a limpid night. Mariano flaps his wings around the fuselage of Weber’s bass line before being rocked to sleep in an electric piano cradle. Inspirations grow more pronounced as Mariano picks up the shenai, a quadruple-reed North Indian oboe that tunnels into the brain like a shawm. We ride this wave until the drums pick us up and drop us back into a shattered world of aftershocks and quieting energy.

The title track is an auditory hermit. With the theme quickly dispensed with, improvisation turns joyful fancy into gorgeous abandon. All the while, discipline reigns as abstractions build into a more melodic whole in which the sound and the message are one and the same. Weber takes a more supportive tack, allowing Brüninghaus a cosmic solo on electric piano. Statements conveyed and time regained, the band wraps up with a fleeting thematic revival amid an interlacing of rhythms and supportive flourishes.

Lastly, we merge onto the “Left Lane,” which opens with a pensive bass, soon joined by electric piano. Christensen defibrillates, turning this slow drive into a cruise. The piano sings in its higher regions before trickling down like rain on a window. Weber returns to spark a new groove, moving from elegiac to jazzy in a flash. A seemingly tame sax solo quickly turns dramatic, opening our hearts to a visceral farewell.


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Silent Feet (ECM 1107)
Recorded November 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Seriously Deep” throws a light blanket of tender drones and electric piano, quilted with gorgeous solos on soprano sax and bass. Steady rhythms (hereon provided by ex-Soft Machine drummer John Marshall) turn something otherwise mournful into life-affirming joy. The title is not a pretentious statement of the music’s emotional cache, but rather a description of its physical path as it digs toward the center of the earth. The second, and title, track of the album’s modest three is an ironic one, requiring active hands to evoke silent feet. The helix that is Weber and Brüninghaus spirals in place as cymbals connect like base pairs within, thus leading to one of the latter’s most captivating pianistic passages. It is the kind of balanced exuberance that characterizes Pat Metheny at his most potent stretches of imagination. Stellar breath control from Mariano plays beautifully off Weber’s every move, making for one of the finest cuts in the collection. We end nocturnally, watching with “Eyes That Can See In The Dark.” A smattering of percussion sets off a wooden flute in a floating auditory reverie. While one might think that an electric bass would upset this delicate atmosphere, Weber is one of the few who can pull it off with such fluid precision. From this pool arises a specter of winds, blown like gusts of air from pursed lips across outstretched hands. Again, Mariano turns out some incredible soloing to finish.

Those who, like me, grew up reading Watership Down will doubly appreciate the occasional references Weber draws from the classic novel. “Silent Feet” and “Eyes That Can See In The Dark” both refer to a central creation myth among the story’s protagonists, a herd of rabbits fleeing in exodus from the warren they once called home. Storytelling becomes a central diversion in these hard times, and the origins narrative is a favorite: At a council of the animals, Frith the creator and sun god gives each its own ability to forever pursue the wily and celeritous rabbit. To the cat, he gives Weber’s cited traits, all the better to seek out its foe under cover of night. Respectfully, Weber takes a more romantic view of the hunt and allows us into the animal mind without malice.


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Little Movements (ECM 1186)
Recorded July 1980 at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The vast drone of “The Last Stage Of A Long Journey” cuts a thick line below the Steve Kuhn-esque intro. Like the silent monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey, it mystifies as it enlightens. Saxophonic clusters punctuate a deep recurring thrum. Brüninghaus introduces a plaintive ostinato behind Weber’s crisp solo over brushed drums. Every gesture therein lifts us into cloudier airspace. “Bali” gives us more drone, until Marshall and Weber lock us into a solid trek to outlying territories. Like a train through the mountains that suddenly part to reveal a lively village, it shows passengers an idyllic vision of life on the margins. The piano keeps us moving forward, however, so that we only get a glimpse. Weber provides the coal, while Mariano lights a fire to feed it. A beautiful arpeggiator opens the door on a transcendent detour before bringing us back on track. The energy and motivic clarity remind one instantly of Steve Reich’s Tehillim. Next, Colours weaves “A Dark Spell” over us. Over a distant cascade of piano, bass and sax congregate in thematic clusters. Mariano outdoes himself, performing back flips in the sky as our speed increases in the last stretch. Engaging harmonies between bass and sax offer an incredible display of dynamic control that recedes like a classical riff. The title track begins with a repeated motif on piano as random sounds—accordion, gongs, and breaking glass—populate the background. From this, we get a thematic highlighting by Mariano against Weber’s delightful counterpart. The smooth and easy ending sweeps up any remaining debris with every repetition. “‘No Trees?’ He Said” is a straightforward track that appears smooth from every angle. From its tight rhythm to its reed doublings, this is simply stunning music. There is nothing little about these movements.


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Though palpable in every amplified note, Weber’s legacy is about more than just assembling a handful of incredibly talented beads and threading them with smooth production. “Telepathic” is hardly the word to describe the sound of Colours, but it steers us in the right direction. The music in this set remains untouched, a sign of its far-reaching clarity of purpose. It is chaos theory epitomized in sound: every note goes where it must, never to be repeated. Weber’s music not only soars, it transcends the atmosphere. I like to think that, somewhere, an extra-terrestrial is glowing with delight at these sounds, pulsing through space-time with the energy of all creation.

Chick Corea: Solo Piano (ECM 2140-42)

Chick Corea
Solo Piano

Chick Corea piano
Ida Kavafian violin
(Children’s Songs, Track 20)
Fred Sherry cello
(Children’s Songs, Track 20)

Much of the jazz that has come to characterize the “ECM sound” is known for its pellucid solemnity. Conversations between sound and space abound, in which vestiges of their own histories mark the passage of time. To younger listeners like myself, it is sometimes easy to forget that the label remains rooted in the youthful immediacy one finds in these formative efforts from Chick Corea. While his refreshing approach to pianism inhabits the same continent as other formidable players, Corea is very much his own culture. Much of the later material that would come to define the “Corea sound,” however, is in clear evidence throughout these discs, and especially in the improvised efforts.

Piano Improvisations Vol. 1 (ECM 1014)

Recorded April 21 & 22, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From note one, these improvisations abound with the freedom of an artist who is ever at his peak. Their many tender touches and nostalgic leanings are shielded by a powerful optimism. Such exuberance makes them all the more embraceable in their poignancy. Tunes such as “Noon Song” twirl like a skirt in the breeze. Others (“Sometime Ago” and “Song For Sally”) are flirtatious and skip from one thought to another: a love in overdrive. The pièce de résistance, however, is the eight-part suite “Where Are You Now?” In this series of “pictures,” Corea renders for us a film whose soundtrack precedes its images. There are no mysterious titles to ponder; each tells us exactly what we are going to hear. The playing is at once pliant and mechanical, carrying across its feelings with such genuine appreciation for the listener that one cannot help but smile.

 


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Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 (ECM 1020)
Recorded April 21 & 22, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This companion volume of Corea’s improvisations doesn’t merely continue where the first left off, but fleshes out finer details unexplored in its neglected depths. This volume is more nocturnal than the last, a siesta in songs without words. “After Noon Song” starts us off alluringly before the crisper interjections of Thelonius Monk’s “Trinkle Tinkle” and Wayne Shorter’s “Masqualero.” The second act is where the album begins to fray at the edges, and becomes all the more mystical for it. At first, experiments like “Departure From Planet Earth” seem to stray into unnecessarily weighty territory. Yet with each listen, they tell us more about their travels. And while Corea’s often-discussed religious predilections (I dare not invoke the “S” word here) may give us even greater insight into the music’s enigmatic borders, in this instance such forays into biographical details provide little advantage. Either way, Corea reacclimates into “A New Place.” This is polyglot music, of which each melody its own tongue. Though some are more readily interpretable than others, we always know what is trying to be said.

 


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Children’s Songs (ECM 1267)
Recorded July 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

By a similar twist of fate that kept me from The Köln Concert for so many years, I only discovered this album recently, and I must say that it deserves a throne alongside Keith Jarrett’s magnum opus for its unfathomable hidden power. Beneath the album’s contemplative veneer beats a furnace of a heart stoked by creative flames, the heights of which are rarely surpassed in today’s genre-hungry climate. Begun in 1971, and recorded here twelve years later, Children’s Songs gives us Chick Corea at his compositional best. At first, the title is an enigma: Are these songs to be played by children or for children? But as we soon discover, the child has already outgrown itself. Like clouds, these pieces take on whatever shapes we project onto them. On the one hand, their steady obbligatos and carefully chosen points of contact resemble the latent energies of Philip Glass (No. 1) and Steve Reich (No. 9). On the other, they pantomime a range of influences, from ragtime to Satie (No. 19 is like something lifted straight out of Gymnopédies) to Bartók (the Mikrokosmos parallels being almost too obvious to mention). One can also clearly see how influential this music must have been to others. The filmic beauty of No. 4 cannot have been lost, for example, on Michael Nyman. These are also pieces about contrast. Take, for example, the left hand in No. 6, which lays out a triadic darkness, while the right hand insists on spinning light before our very eyes. Corea’s characteristic ornaments, as in the descending trill at end of No. 3, grow richer every time, and the sweeping elegies of No. 10, 12, and 13 allow the Corea we know and love to shine through. Violin and cello add delightful pliancy to the “Addendum,” a classically minded closer that puts a stylish bow on an already crisply wrapped package.

 


Original cover

Corea and his legacy blossom at every moment throughout these three seminal albums, with which he singlehandedly revitalized the solo piano program as an art form to be taken seriously in the post-Art Tatum era. He is the reliable narrator, the quiet provocateur, and the entertainer. He is also none of these. He bids us to listen without pretense, knowing that a carefully defined surface is nothing without the depth to support it. At the same time, he wastes no time in trying to intellectualize what lies beneath, secure in the knowledge that his music will carry on the conversation. This is an essential collection that belongs on any ECM fan’s shelf, not to mention a prime candidate for reissue of the century.