Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra: s/t (ECM 1409)

ECM 1409Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra

Benny Bailey trumpet
Thomas Heberer trumpet
Henry Lowther trumpet
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Paul van Kemenade alto saxophone
Felix Wahnschaffe alto saxophone
Gerd Dudek soprano and tenor saxophones, clarinet, flute
Walter Gauchel tenor saxophone
E. L. Petrowsky baritone saxophone
Willem Breuker baritone saxophone, bass clarinet
Henning Berg trombone
Hermann Breuer trombone
Hubert Katzenbeier trombone
Utz Zimmermann bass trombone
Aki Takase piano
Günter Lenz bass
Ed Thigpen drums
Misha Mengelberg piano
Alexander von Schlippenbach conductor
Recorded May 1989 at Studio 10, RIAS Berlin
Engineer: Sören Pehrs
Produced by RIAS Berlin and ECM

The Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra was begun in 1988 as the brainchild of Alexander von Schlippenbach. A decorated composer and student of B. A. Zimmermann, Schlippenbach is perhaps best known as the founder of the Globe Unity Orchestra, which spurred the 1960s jazz scene into the first of many influential phases. This self-titled album is the BCJO’s group’s debut, recorded when the outfit was all of a year old, and features a stunning array of musicians, including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, reed man and flutist Gerd Dudek, baritone saxophonist E. L. Petrowsky, bass clarinetist Willem Breuker, and pianist Misha Mengelberg.

The set is a triptych of moods and configurations, of which the first, Ana, comes to us from the mind of Kenny Wheeler. From the somber piano intro, one might think a Keith Jarrett solo concert was in store. This illusion is quickly banished by the wealth of instrumental forces at hand. With horns taking the upper range and arco bass the lower, drums ride the outer circle while a hefty trombone strings along some rounded hits from the band. Between the deftly woven brass tapestry and beautiful solo turn from pianist (and wife of Schlippenbach) Aki Takase, Wheeler dominates the solo-sphere —that is, until Petrowsky’s tenor throws some much-needed fuel into the fire. This slides into an upbeat bridge before ending on a free-for-all and a sparkling piano flourish.

The album’s remainder was penned by Misha Mengelberg, whose keys can be found poking their thoughts here and there. The conventional horn intro of Salz wipes the blackboard clean for the frantic bass clarinet lessons of Willem Breuker—who, along with Petrowsky, is one of the group’s shining stars—and the composer’s own frolicking pianism. Another of the album’s best solos resides herein, this time from the tenor of Dudek, who also threads in a few lines of flute.

The lightly syncopated vertigo that welcomes us into Reef und Kneebus promises the album’s best engagements, but instead turns into an over-long meander between a few stellar points. Wheeler, though, is as engaging as always, and the swing comes back into the picture toward the end. This final piece plays more like a series of unrelated vignettes and feels a touch out of place.

This is a full recording, one that accentuates the breezy rhythm section and keeps the brass well separated. The band blows free and easy and tries its best to keep us out of the compositional rut with some freer gesticulations. A respectable outing that could have stood to be spun blindfolded a few times and loosed unaided, but which nevertheless balances its conscious progressions well.

<< Sidsel Endresen: So I Write (ECM 1408)
>> Dave Holland Quartet: Extensions (ECM 1410)

ECM New Series Anthology (ECM New Series 1405)

ECM New Series Anthology

Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gidon Kremer violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Meredith Monk voice, piano
Heinz Holliger oboe
Kim Kashkashian viola
Tamia voice
Pierre Favre percussion
Shankar double violin
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone, flute
Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute
Erin Headley vielle
Thomas Demenga cello
Paul Giger violin

ECM made history in 1984 with the release of Tabula rasa, the first of the jazz label’s equally influential New Series. Not only did this beloved recording introduce many to the music of Arvo Pärt, but it also clarified producer Manfred Eicher’s classical roots and fed into the likeminded sensibilities Eicher was then bringing with increasing confidence to his groundbreaking approach to jazz. It is therefore appropriate that Pärt, the imprint’s shining star, should be represented here more than any other composer or performer. His Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, a haunting secular homage to a composer he would never meet, is the disc’s open door. Its quiet sweeps and intoning tubular bell resemble little in all recorded music. Pärt comes to us further through his spiraling Arbos for brass and percussion and through Fratres, a touchstone in his compositional career. Existing in many treatments, here it is given one of its most powerful through the greatness of violinist Gidon Kremer. Accompanied by Keith Jarrett at the piano, his simple yet burrowing progressions capture (and release) the essence of something so physiological that one cannot but help feel it in the veins.

If Pärt is the New Series’ mainstay composer, then the phenomenal singers of the Hilliard Ensemble are its star performers. Since making their label debut with a flavorful rendition of Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah, of which the Incipit is given here, they have redefined the art of the chamber vocal ensemble.

Meredith Monk shifts the light considerably in a selection from her Vessel: An Opera Epic. The New York-based composer and performer has established a loyal group of vocal artists, all of whom find in her voice a depth of inspiration all too rarely encountered. One would feel tempted to call her world mysterious, were it not for the fact that it sounds undeniably familiar. “Do You Be” is a representative work in this regard, an aria of sorts that blows her ululations through the branches of a faraway tree.

Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger is another major compositional force in the New Series catalogue, and his Studie Über Mehrklänge for solo oboe is as good a place as any to start for those adventurous enough to wander his musical paths. As the title (A Study in Multiphonics) already informs us, Holliger wrings a wealth of sounds and colors from the single woodwind. Whether unsettling or ethereal, they never fail to enchant and reinvent with every listen.

The peerless Kim Kashkashian gives us the final movement of Paul Hindemith’s fifth Viola Sonata. This 11-minute masterpiece is the first of a smattering of solo pieces on the album, the others being Thomas Demenga’s astonishing Sarabande from the fourth Cello Suite of J. S. Bach and an all-too-short excerpt (only three of its original twenty-two minutes) from “Crossing” by Swiss violinist Paul Giger. The album, Chartres, from which the latter was taken is one of the finest violin recordings ever released and is a must-have for those interested in exploring more of what the New Series has to offer.

Singer, scholar, and early music specialist Paul Hillier gives us “Can Vei La Lauzeta,” a haunting lilt of troubadour stylings by Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180). It is a fitting inclusion in a program that is but a thread in an ongoing tapestry—more than I can say about the album’s filler. Why, for example, do we find not one but two selections from saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams? A fantastic album, to be sure, but not a New Series release. The same goes for “Ballade” by singer Tamia and percussionist Pierre Favre and “Adagio” by Carnatic violinist L. Shankar. Both are lovely sonic constructions yet neither appears under the New Series title. I realize that perhaps these were an attempt to show that the music of ECM proper can sometimes carry over into fuzzier areas of genre, but isn’t that what the far more numerous anthologies from the very same are for?

Another addition—that of actor Bruno Ganz’s recitation of “Vom Abgrund Nämlich” by Friedrich Hölderlein—may also seem curious, if only for its politics, but its opening lines at least ring to the tune of the ECM spirit, which has cast its sonic lessons into the widening sea of listening in which we are all embedded:

We began of course at the abyss
And have gone forth like lions

By and large, this is an adequate introduction to a side of ECM that some may feel hesitant to explore. Yet rather than pay for a well-chosen, if sometimes puzzling, collection, I would instead encourage the curious to get their hands on any one of the above recordings in full.

<< Aparis: s/t (ECM 1404)
>> Karlheinz Stockhausen: MICHAELs REISE (ECM 1406 NS)

Stephan Micus: Twilight Fields (ECM 1358)


Stephan Micus
Twilight Fields

Stephan Micus flowerpots, hammered dulcimer, Bavarian zither, shakuhachi, nay
Recorded November 1987 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland

Instrumentation is ever at the heart of the Stephan Micus experience. Never a gimmick, it imparts to listeners a sense of organic care that is palpable in every gesture. Of those gestures we get a plethora in Twilight Fields, his second album for ECM proper. In this close-eyed experience, the crowning elements come from a set of tuned flowerpots which, when struck with hand or mallet, produce a xylophonic texture that borders on gamelan. Part 1 spreads its vision like a walk through rice fields, lush and crepuscular. Hammered dulcimers dance above your head like a thousand memories, through which the rasp of a shakuhachi carries a pregnant song. Myriad footsteps walk alongside as you traipse through the otherwise unpopulated expanse of a nubile life, one to which you have strung all manner of concerns and loves and which now unites in a cord of simple possibility. The thrumming energy of that shakuhachi dissipates into Part 2, in which one hears only contact in lieu of movement, sound stepping in for dance with the gentle persuasion of a lullaby. The song returns, this time not a memory but a harbinger of things to come, an oracle bone hollowed out and given vocal shape. It dries and cracks with age yet maintains its splendor. Its golden light leaks between leaves and breathes in their veins. Out of these gonging interiors Part 3 enacts a rite of flowerpotted passage into the strains of Part 4, one of the most beautiful creations Micus has ever recorded. Here it is the nay that sings, at once moonlight and its reflection, the singer and the sung. Its surroundings open up in a hammered flower, lotus-like and iridescent. The shakuhachi’s mournful stag cry in the fifth and final part drops its dipper into a font of forgotten wisdom, scooping out the moon to drink down its cratered light. The wind refracts into a zither’s hum, leading us to the shaded glens of introspection that sustain all art and through which one must pass in order to arrive at the self.

No matter what instrument Micus plays, one can always hear breath running through it. Like the flutes that figure so prominently here, it rests crisply at the edge of some aquatic abyss, every careful step touched by the blade of a forgiving biography.

<< Koch/Schütz/Käppeli: Accélération (ECM 1357)
>> Rabih Abou-Khalil: Nafas (ECM 1359)

Dave Holland Quintet: The Razor’s Edge (ECM 1353)

Dave Holland Quintet
The Razor’s Edge

Dave Holland bass
Steve Coleman alto saxophone
Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn, trumpet, cornet
Robin Eubanks trombone
Marvin “Smitty” Smith drums
Recorded February 1987 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Still reeling after seeing Dave Holland in a recent intimate performance with Jason Moran, I find myself going back to the fresh directions he explored on ECM with one of his finest outfits: the Quintet. As its third album for the label, The Razor’s Edge is all the more important for being reedman Steve Coleman’s last run with the group before his travels took him elsewhere on the path to musical geomancy. He joins Holland with the usual suspects: trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Robin Eubanks, and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith (of, among countless other projects, Jay Leno Tonight Show Band fame).

The Quintet is as dynamic as ever in this seminal outing, which finds Eubanks and Coleman in particularly fine form. The trombonist gives us some early traction against Holland’s skittering delights in “Brother Ty,” while that unmistakable alto trades places with soulful insights in the more pensive “Vedana.” Next is, if the reader will indulge me, the title cut, which opens with Wheeler against a delicate rhythm section before releasing a tremulous solo from Eubanks. Coleman flies off a half-pike of big band sound, a raging flare of virtuosic wonder at the mouthpiece. Holland pauses for reflection in “Blues For C.M.,” only to drop the anchor with a gorgeous and unassuming theme. Coleman dominates again, bringing a slower heat this time around as he fills each available nook and cranny with his golden tone. An all-too-brief response from Eubanks brings us down into “Vortex.” Holland proves the early bird, opening to the full band with Coleman at the helm of yet another engaging vessel. And out of sparkling breath comes a muted Wheeler, hurling a pitch to Coleman at bat. Tracks like this are hard to beat, each a hefty dose of wonder and logic rolled into a ball of fun. After a couple of slow swings, Smith kicks us off into “Figit Time,” in which Coleman excels right out the gate. He is, like the album as a whole, a house aflame, threading every hot potato of a needle passed his way. The invigorating drum work in this masterpiece makes it alone worth the price of admission. This is life on jazz.

<< Gary Peacock: Guamba (ECM 1352)
>> Oregon: Ecotopia (ECM 1354)

Eberhard Weber: Orchestra (ECM 1374)


Eberhard Weber

Eberhard Weber bass, percussion, keyboards
Herbert Joos fluegelhorn
Anton Jillich fluegelhorn
Rudolf Diebetsberger French horn
Thomas Hauschild French horn
Wolfgang Czelustra trombone
Andreas Richter trombone
Winfried Rapp bass trombone
Franz Stagl tuba
Recorded May/August 1988 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Carlos Albrecht
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Despite an overt lack of the very instruments implied by the title of this mysterious effort from bassist Eberhard Weber, it is far from misleading, for the orchestra is in our minds, and in Weber’s heart as he emotes with the fullness of his instrument. The album divides itself between two distinct halves. The first of these hones emphasis on the solo. Weber is the foreground, flexing like the backbone of a creature whose anatomy is otherwise invisible. After the fluttering opening statement of “Seven Movements,” the palette warms into a lush ostinato, which only seems to accompany itself as it coils its golden threads into a brass-gilded frame. Some percussive death throes provide rare drama. “Broken Silence” features a delicate arco bass soaring low above its droning shadow toward the horizons of “Before Dawn.” This, a gorgeous spell working its lilting magic like a funhouse mirror, except that here we find not laughter or distortion, but an expansion of our sonic worldview. Weber jazzes things up for “Just A Moment,” riding a slingshot into “Air,” itself but a pliant reed in a pond, a cattail waiting to cast its children into the wind.

“Two Early To Leave” blends a congregation of brass into tremulous strings, thereby evoking the sweeps of Weber’s earlier work and inaugurating us into the breathtaking second half. We continue with “One Summer’s Evening,” floating sinuous lines along a current of synthesizer. The tender solo of “Daydream” winds its embrace against a sunny drone, while the darker emotional urgency of “Trio” drops itself into a deep sleep, where it dreams of the “Epilogue,” a forlorn path tread by pizzicato footsteps until it is flattened and no longer kicks up dust.

Orchestra is Weber at his purest. A lovely exposition of his talents, technical and melodic alike. Certainly not the one you’ll want to start with, but by no means a shabby place to spend the night before continuing on your journey.

<< Dave Holland Trio: Triplicate (ECM 1373)
>> Dino Saluzzi: Andina (ECM 1375)

Krakatau: Matinale (ECM 1529)



Raoul Björkenheim guitars, bass recorder, gong
Jone Takamäki tenor, alto, soprano and bass saxophones, krakaphone, reed flute, wooden flute, bell
Uffe Krokfors double-bass, percussion
Ippe Kätkä drums, gongs, percussion
Recorded November 1993 at Hardstudios, Winterthur
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Steve Lake

Krakatau is an ever-exciting fusion project from Finland that left two broad gasps on ECM. Matinale was the second, and remains the more politically astute of the pair. Guitarist Raoul Björkenheim is the main compositional force behind the album, and leads a quartet of hip multi-instrumentalists squared out by reedman Jone Takamäki, bassist Uffe Krokfors, and drummer Ippe Kätkä. The title track emerges from the gates with a blast of fresh energy in which Björkenheim and Takamäki dominate the left and right channels vying for the middle ground, which has been claimed as the rhythm section’s sole territory. Steve Lake’s deft production and Martin Wieland’s pointed mixing only enhance this plus sign, for the album is indeed all about the additions each musician brings to bear on this visceral studio date: (1) Björkenheim, a distorted and bubbling cauldron of emotional whiplash, (2) Kätkä, a persistent flavor one can’t quite brush out, (3) Krokfors, a counterweight to the constant threat of imbalance, (4) Takamäki, a smoothness that can be buttery yet also knows how to crack a wry smile now and then.

Three improv sessions follow this opening chunk. Krokfors’s bass hums like a sleeping whale through the roiling gong and windy shores of “Unseen Sea Scene,” dreaming of the Chinese gong and reeds of “Jai-Ping.” Björkenheim interrogates his lucrative solo here like some criminal aria, matching Takamäki’s incisions drop for drop until they are bled dry. “Rural,” on the other hand, is a bass-heavy piece that manages to be light on its feet, borne along by an entourage of low reeds.

After a mournful intro, “For Bernard Moore” blossoms into life through a frenetic bass and cymbals. It fast-forwards through that life with a lush sax solo, only to be retold by a tighter guitar line. Excellent stuff. Yet at twelve and a half minutes, the album’s meta-statement is “Sarajevo.” Björkenheim opens with something like a folk song before pressing onward into a viscous and sometimes morose landscape of ruin. This is a portrait in stark color of a body whose language is a bowed head. Sounding here like the vamp of a carnival organ slowed into frightening pathos, and there like a body struggling to be heard from under the rubble of a senseless act of destruction, it seeps into the bones like empathy. To keep us from falling too far, “Suhka” offers a dance of light on water by enacting the very song that has set it into motion. To finish, our fearless foursome slake a “Raging Thirst” with undeniable conviction.

Matinale reshuffles its own formula with every cut, and provides a window into Krakatau’s uniquely personal process. Don’t overlook it.

Steve Tibbetts: Big Map Idea (ECM 1380)

Steve Tibbetts
Big Map Idea

Steve Tibbetts guitars, dobro, kalimba, pianolin, tapes
Marc Anderson percussion
Marcus Wise tabla
Michelle Kinney cello
Recorded 1987/88 in St. Paul, Minnesota
Engineer: Steve Tibbetts
Produced by Steve Tibbetts

With this release, Steve Tibbetts turned a new leaf in his cartographic imagination. The album’s title betrays its creator’s humility, acknowledging the incompleteness of any landscape, which is never more than a cultural possibility. We see this the moment that signature slack-jawed guitar and worldly percussion paint for us a big map indeed in “Black Mountain Side.” And what’s this? A Led Zeppelin tune, artfully arranged and wrapped in a sparkling bow as only Tibbetts can tie it. But even when he strays into the dripping caverns of “Black Year,” where flames have burnt out long ago yet still flicker with feeling, we are never lost, for there is always something familiar to hold on to. Tracks like this and “Big Idea” teeter at the edge of an all-out frenzy, but stay respectfully perched atop cold mountains, watching the plains with eagle eyes. Each hit of the steel drum forms a new cloud, rustling the foliage in “Wish” and hopping like a bird from branch to branch. The finger tapping and kalimba-infused connections of “Mile 234” make it one of the more masterful turns on this trip. Some of that same instrumental color bleeds into “100 Moons” before an acoustic/electric dance lays track in “Wait.” Sampled voices flow throughout “3 Letters,” turning like a diorama lit by strings, and finish as if living in reverse, turning light into dark, warm and sustained by a maternal hope.

If the majority of Tibbetts’s work is a chant, then Big Map Idea is a lullaby. It is a florid expression of its ancestors, using a relatively intimate palette, one where wings and earth are far closer to one another than logic would dictate.

<< Keith Jarrett: Dark Intervals (ECM 1379)
>> Jan Garbarek: Legend of The Seven Dreams (ECM 1381)

Pepl/Joos/Christensen: Cracked Mirrors (ECM 1356)


Harry Pepl
Herbert Joos
Jon Christensen
Cracked Mirrors

Harry Pepl guitar, roland midi guitar system, piano
Herbert Joos fluegelhorn
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded February 1987
Engineer: Gerhard Tauber
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug

After my faulty impressions of guitarist Harry Pepl’s effort with Werner Pirchner and Jack DeJohnette, I was gratified to stop on my listening journey at an unassuming little way station called Cracked Mirrors, which proves a far better showcase for Pepl’s innovative talents. For this collaboration, he welcomes Herbert Joos on fluegelhorn and drummer Jon Christensen. Joos lays down a breathy gorgeousness in his two-part “Wolkenbilder” (Cloud Picture). The first of these sets Pepl’s acoustic sequences into the recesses of an ambient storm, while the second makes beautiful use of midi and underscores Pepl’s off-kilter regularity. Joos shines like a snake of light into “Reflections In A Cracked Mirror.” In a rare death by drum machine, Christensen hauls us through a thicket of unsettling midi guitar, which is only strengthened by the punctiliousness of Pepl’s execution. “Schikaneder Delight” pays homage to, I can only surmise, Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s famous librettist, with a showy ball dance that plods like something from a calliope before morphing into a Bill Frisell-esque fantasy. “Die alte Mär und das Mann” (The Ancient Tale And The Man) is straightforward trio work that features more greatness from Joos, who also excels throughout “More Far Out Than East,” in which Pepl is clearly having fun skittering through the rafters. “Purple Light” brings back the shaking and trembling, leaving us drained of our “Tintenfisch Inki” (Squid Ink). This final track features lovely piano from Pepl, who sends this eclectic marble skee-balling into orbit at last.

Pepl’s playing, as restless as it is welcoming, is difficult to pin down. This makes it all the more fascinating. He is the bloodstream of a vast organic landscape, where feelings of fracture share the roads with heavy travelers. One to explore.

<< Steve Tibbetts: Yr (ECM 1355)
>> Koch/Schütz/Käppeli: Accélération (ECM 1357)

Doran/Studer/Wittwer: Red Twist & Tuned Arrow (ECM 1342)

Red Twist & Tuned Arrow

Christy Doran electric and acoustic guitars
Fredy Studer drums, percussion
Stephan Wittwer electric guitar, synthesizer, sequencer programming
Recorded November 1986 at Soundville Recording Studios, Luzern
Engineer: Rene J. Zingg
Produced by RT&TA and Manfred Eicher

Guitarist Christy Doran, who nowadays divides his time between teaching in Switzerland and recording, is another in a line of unique guitarists on the ECM roster. For those new to this intriguing musician as I am, this seems as good a place as any to start, though one may also encounter swatches of his art flapping in the wind of the OM collective. For the Red Twist & Tuned Arrow project, he joins improviser extraordinaire Stephan Wittwer and OM founder Fredy Studer on drums and percussion. The product of this chemical reaction is a record of great ingenuity that has worn well. What first impresses about Doran and Wittwer is their delicacy. We find out right away in the Derek Bailey-esque vibes of “Canon Cannon” that both musicians are far less interested in powering their way through material than they are in uncorking a fine vintage of fermented logic. Moving from the synth ground lines here to the perpetuity of “1374,” again we are awash in the microscopy, which is only enhanced by Studer’s evocative colors. Like something out of a sci-fi film, it pulses with alien energy. On that note, “Quasar” might as well be called “Quaver,” for that it does in abundance, moving through a gallery of playing that is nocturnal yet blinding. Doran does much to admire here in the date’s crowning achievement, which is not without its more forthright moments in the oh-so-satisfying grunge of “Belluard.” Along with “D.T.E.T.,” “Backtalk” casts a jazzier, if more abstract, reflection onto the mix. The trio ends smashingly with “Messing,” a quintessential track for Doran, who takes his signature seizures to their greatest height yet. An acoustic breaks from its cage and runs rampant with its freedom cries, leaving the piece’s latter half to fend for itself electronically. Awesome.

Doran grists a pliable sound that never stays in one place or genre for very long. His quick costume changes ensure that we remain on our toes. Perhaps an acquired taste for some, but satisfying and ultimately joyful, with nary a pessimistic puddle to step in.

<< Thomas Tallis: The Lamentations Of Jeremiah (ECM 1341 NS)
>> Enrico Rava/Dino Saluzzi Quintet: Volver (ECM 1343)