Interview: Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill

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This ultra-rare promotional CD from 1994 contains an interview with Keith Jarrett conducted by Timothy Hill. Much of the interview is spent discussing the backstory and recording circumstances of At The Deer Head Inn, Jarrett’s phenomenal live album with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, and Bridge Of Light, a program of classical music composed by Jarrett.

When Jarrett first encountered the Deer Head Inn itself, it was the only place of its kind in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where jazz wasn’t exactly on the hearts and minds of communities far more concerned with everyday practicalities. Jarrett was living in Allentown, where jazz was limited to generic rooms at best. Deer Head was far enough away that he wasn’t really aware of it until he got his first regular gig there, playing drums for local pianist (and Jarret’s personal friend) Johnny Coates. “I learned a lot about what not to do twice,” he recalls of those early gigging days, long before the piano became his forte. After two summers of grabbing the Deer Head by its antlers, sitting in sometimes on guitar (which, incidentally, earned him an invitation from Stan Getz to play in a Calypso band), he left that part of his history behind to dive headlong into his career as a pianist. By the time the Deer Head gig materialized, he hadn’t played there as pianist for nearly three decades.

Many elements came together for that performance to make it what it was. First, the venue was a “piano room” in the truest sense, a place of intimate construction that practically begged for Jarrett’s song. Second was the fact that drummer Jack DeJohnette, his trio go-to, was unable to make it, leading Motian to fill in at the last minute. Third was the “behavior and concentration” of everyone involved—a rapt attention he attributes at least in part to Motian’s involvement. When things come together like that, following a natural flow without depending on “large things,” as he puts it, magic is born.

Jarrett further bows to a certain magic in the recording itself. He mentions the “crucial little keys” of how a player is feeling, and how technology may struggle to capture those details in such a beautiful way. In this case, however, they shine through with utmost clarity, including the vocal exclamations for which he is (in)famously known. “I should’ve written them a thank you note,” he quips, speaking of Peacock and Motian, who he makes a point of noting added their own whoops of excitement in the heat of the moment. “If I’m going to be the culprit, let it be all three of us.” The conversation turns naturally to the tune “Chandra” (included along with “It’s Easy To Remember” at the end of this CD), which Jarrett praises for Motian’s avoidance of sticks altogether. Where any drummer would start with brushes and switch to the punctuation of sticks, Motian’s continuous brushing spoke directly to Jarrett’s heart: “This is what we’ve got now. This is what it is. And it put me in another place, where the expectations were not the same as they would be every time you play.” Thus did Motian pull everyone into the center of things.

At around the time that Bridge Of Light was coming together, he was already working on a commission from Japan to write the Adagio for oboe and string orchestra featured on the album. When told there would be time left in the program, his thoughts turned to the Elegy he was writing for his Hungarian grandmother. Taking such an active role in directing that recording was, for him, like “being in charge of a country,” whereas Deer Head was like “being not in charge and knowing it would be okay.” Such polar, yet parallel, opposites would seem to define his career. At Deer Head, for example, there wasn’t any music until it was played, whereas in a classical setting, anxieties toward perfection ran high. Classical musicians, he avers, should be less obsessed over playing the same music better than anyone else and more concerned about being themselves enough not to care, allowing the music to “bloom for itself” instead. And if blooming is what it’s all about, then Bridge (from which the Adagio and the “Dance” of Jarrett’s violin sonata are also included here) is a veritable field of life.

“You don’t have to be emphatic when you’re doing something beautiful,” says Jarrett of the creative process. “If you emphasize the beauty of something, you might step on it.” And while one might easily flag this statement for hypocrisy, spoken as it is by someone who can stretch a concert staple like “Autumn Leaves” to well over 20 minutes, there’s a sense that Jarrett is always saying what needs to be said and, accordingly, wasting no notes whenever he’s “on.” As he observes of jazz: “It would be as though you were to write poetry in more than one language at a time…and make it somehow into a coherent language of its own.”

As interesting as the above insights are, at best I would say this rarity has value only as an archival curiosity for the Jarrett completist, though it’s always fascinating to hear him speak of his own work. Either way, the objects of this discussion tell more of their past, present, and future than even he could, and perhaps our journey to find and experience them is the strongest bridge of all.

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An Hour With Pat Metheny: A Radio Special

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In March of 1979, Pat Metheny appeared on the “Oral Tradition” radio program (broadcast out of Venice, California) to talk about the Pat Metheny Group’s self-titled debut and his then freshly released solo follow-up, New Chautauqua. Produced by Martin Perlich, this hour-long special was released on a rare promo LP by ECM and features an in-depth conversation with the guitarist between selections from both of albums.

Metheny gets into the meat and potatoes of his upbringing. Growing up in small-town Missouri among a family of trumpet players, his brother Mike having taught the instrument at Berklee College of Music in Boston from 1976 to 1983, Metheny needed only reach his hand out to grab hold of one. And that he did, joining the school band and doing fairly well for himself until his need for braces put an end to his future in brass. Immersed as he was in Top 40 culture, guitar was an easy choice for a substitute, and so he picked out his first axe and starting swinging. After doing the “garage band thing” for about a year, at age 14 he had a watershed moment when he saw Wes Montgomery and Gary Burton’s group perform a stone’s throw away in Kansas City. Hearing improvisation in earnest for the first time, and in such close quarters, converted him to jazz on the spot. It wasn’t long before he had every album by Burton, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane he could get his hands on. He recalls how naturally the concepts of jazz came to him, whereas in rock music the role of the guitar was ultimately unclear. Sitting in with blues musicians in Kansas City, where he humbly guesses he was being brought onstage as more of a novelty at first than anything else, was his first real classroom. After a year of teaching in Miami, he joined Burton’s band with Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Mick Goodrick, all of whom saw something in the young guitarist. Along with their already-heightened abilities came the patience needed to allow someone like Metheny to blossom.

Metheny elaborates on his jump from rock to jazz. Whereas in the former vein he saw a vital sensuality that was of organic appeal to younger listeners, he also yearned for a subtlety that rock just didn’t have. He even gave prog (Deep Purple, Iron Butterfly, etc.) a chance in the hopes there might be something there. But he quickly realized how those guitarists were just “playing blues scales up and down like every rock player always did, [only] a lot longer and twice as boring.” It was in improvisation that he found the wider, more nuanced feeling he was searching for, and the first guitar icon to show him how it was done was Jimi Hendrix. Thinking back on it, he still wonders how Hendrix was as popular as he was. Still, Hendrix was in no way a conscious influence, but a talent to look upon with wonder. In Metheny’s estimation, the guitar was essentially neglected as a frontline instrument until Larry Coryell joined forces with Burton in 1967, paving the way for John McLaughlin and other pioneers. Before then, advances in guitar technology just weren’t developed enough to make it stand out against the harmonic landscape of a saxophone or piano. Coryell was groundbreaking for bringing a hard-edged sound to a jazz context, thereby widening the scope of what the instrument could do as a method of sound production. When Metheny himself came on the scene in 1974, the only viable gigs for jazz guitarists were with Jack DeJohnette, Chico Hamilton, or Burton. Burton was the natural fit.

From Pat Metheny Group we hear “Phase Dance” and “San Lorenzo.” In light these wonders, even Metheny is aware of their commercial appeal the non-jazz listeners (the album hit the Billboard charts, after all) but is adamant about changing nothing to achieve that success. “I just physically couldn’t play something that I didn’t really believe in,” he admits, thus capturing something essential to the steadfastness of his art.

Metheny transitions into reminiscing about touring in Oslo, where he spent three days writing, and two more recording, the music that would become New Chautauqua. Spurred on by fears of typecasting himself, and encouraged by producer Manfred Eicher, transitioning from a quartet to a solo project was the logical next step in his recording journey (though he isn’t without his sense of humor, as when quipping about a “fantasy record” with Lyle Mays and singer Nicolette Larson). Metheny likens the sound of Chautauqua to the open spaces of his childhood—hence the country twang of the album’s title tune (heard here, along with “Sueño Con Mexico” and “Daybreak,” the latter a nod to the Beatles’ “Please Please Me”). He also unpacks the title, which pays homage to the so-called Chautauqua who drove around playing one-nighters all up and down the Midwest (his great-grandfather, in fact, was a leader of one such group).

In addition to these anecdotal details, Metheny reveals a bit of his creative process. “Every time we hit the stage and we play the first notes, it enters a completely different realm for me,” he says of live performance, which is more than his wheelhouse but a way of life. He goes on to describe his style as one of playing “out” and never for himself, and shares an analogy for playing that was passed on to him by Burton: “There’s a whole grammar thing you go through when you’re becoming a musician and an improviser that’s very similar to…when you’re a child and you’re learning…how to speak…. It gets to the point where…you don’t think about verbs and pronouns and stuff…you just say whatever you have to say and it comes out. Sometimes there’s little goofs…but the message comes through if you’ve got something to say. It’s exactly the same when you’re improvising. You have this whole backlog of information, but when it comes time to play, as you become more advanced as a player, you think less and less about the technical things…and you just say what you have to say, and hopefully the audience will respond to what you’re saying if you make the picture clear enough for them.” And how does he respond whenever people come up to him and ask how he plays so well? “I haven’t practiced in four years.” The stage is where it all goes down.

“I don’t see myself as a guitar player that plays melodies in a setting,” he self-observes. “I see the act of playing the guitar and writing the tunes and having the band as a statement about what I want to be like as a guy, you know…. If I were ever not going to do that, I would go sell cars for my father.” Of course, we can be thankful he isn’t selling cars but rather music that was made to flow from their stereos as we drive along open roads to places we’ve yet to know.

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David Byrne: Music for The Knee Plays

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David Byrne
Music from The Knee Plays

Garnett Brown trombone
Ray Brown trumpet
David Byrne vocals
Pete Christlieb saxophone
Rich Cooper trumpet
Ernie Fields baritone saxophone
Chuck Findley trumpet
Bill Green baritone saxophone
Bobbye Hall percussion
Dana Hughes trombone
Paul Humphrey drums
Jackie Keslo saxophone
Harry Kim trumpet
Don Myrick saxophone
Nolan Smith trumpet
David Stout trombone
Phil Teil trombone
Ernie Watts saxophone
Fred Wesley trombone
David Blumberg conductor
Recorded:
One On One Studio, North Hollywood, April 4, 1984
Engineer: Mark Wolfson
Studio Sound Recorders, North Hollywood, April 5 & 6, 1984
Engineer: Joel Moss
Mixed at RPM Studio, December 8-17, 1984
Originally Mastered at Sterling Sound, NY
Produced by David Byrne

A tree is best measured when it is down.

This 1985 release, a rare one for ECM, comes from the fertile mind of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. Originally intended as incidental music for Robert Wilson’s grand opera The CIVIL warS, to be played while actors and crew prepared set between acts, these brass-heavy arrangements of traditional tunes, folded into a rich batter of original compositions and spoken word, take their inspiration from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band of New Orleans and have since come to constitute a standalone work in their own right.

“Tree (Today Is An Important Occasion)” sets the tone for a journey of horns and voice that is as even-tempered as it is dramatically sincere. This postmodern dirge for the otherwise voiceless intersections of body and materials that govern our lives is perhaps even more relevant now than when it was written. Colors and fashion, each linked to specific emotions and personality traits, roll through the mind like an art gallery disassembled and thrown. As possibilities of self-expression are donned and discarded like replaceable skins, we are left to determine our own subjectivity in the onslaught of objective pretense we call our daily lives. The mélange effect of worlds colliding is dazzling in the moment yet darkly tinged in the remembering.

“The Sound Of Business” is a detailed assessment of our work-obsessed culture. Its uncanny chain of images contrasts the bustle of everyday life with the slow-motion fantasies struggling for air beneath its surface. “Social Studies” pulls away another mask to reveal the colonial scaffolding of well-to-do urbanites. Through deconstruction of knowledge-seeking privilege and the impulse to study that which does not belong to us, it puts our desire to live vicariously under a sonic microscope.

Byrne’s voice is a powerfully understated element. With consistent, even-tempered brilliance, he speaks matter-of-factly about large ideas (and hugely about the mundane), such that the very notion of importance stands on its head until it passes out. Even in his absence, the effect remains. Among the instrumentals he helped arrange, “Theadora Is Dozing” is a particularly enchanting tessellation of brass and percussion, while his own “Admiral Perry” is another standout for its evocative cast, as is the haunting “Winter.”

“In The Future” is quintessential Byrne, and imagines a time when sameness is the norm and norms are all the same. Like an intimate shadow of his timeless “Once in a Lifetime,” this crushing indictment of individualism shows us the horrors of an age when everybody becomes like everybody else. And so, ending in the comforts of the opener’s reprise, we realize that wheels are all there are, and that we, the ephemeral rats running nowhere within them, might one day destroy each other until there’s nothing left.

Peter Rühmkorf: Jazz & Lyrik.

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Peter Rühmkorf
Jazz & Lyrik.

Peter Rühmkorf voice
Michael Naura
piano
Wolfgang Schlüter vibraphone
Klaus Thunemann bassoon
Eberhard Weber bass, violoncello
Christian Willisohn piano
Titus Vollmer guitar
Leszek Zadlo saxophone, flute
Christian Kappe flugelhorn, trumpet
Ansgar Elsner saxophone
Burkhard Jasper piano
Alexander Morsey bass
Klaus Gunnemann drums
Dietmar Bonnen piano
Andreas Schilling bass
Mastering: Eberhard Schnellen and ECM Records
Studio: ES-Dur, Hamburg
Produced by Hoffmann und Campe in collaboration with ECM Records
Release date: November 17, 2009

Jazz & Lyrik names a genre that might never have existed as such without Peter Rühmkorf (1929-2008). Together with pianist Michael Naura, vibraphonist Wolfgang Schlüter, and a host of other talents, the lauded German poet and essayist brought a consistent physical quality to his spoken artistry. It’s a characteristic he quite consciously cultivated: “I’m also a bit like an instrument,” he said in 1985. “My poems are fixed, like the keys on a piano. Only I must strike with the voice. The poem I read is my instrument. I just have to intone it.” While the form of jazz poetry presented in this 3-disc treasure trove, an archive coproduced by Hoffmann und Campe in collaboration with ECM Records and with support from the Arno Schmidt Foundation, reached its peak in the 1960s, the recordings documented here span from 1976 to 2006. The former year was a watershed one, when Rühmkorf recorded Kein Apolloprogramm für Lyrik for ECM. On that album, from which eight tracks are included, he joined forces with Naura, Schlüter, and bassist Eberhard Weber, yielding such phenomenally descriptive morsels as “Tagebuch” and “Zirkus.”

Eight further tracks are also included to represent the 1978 follow-up album, Phönix Voran. Leszek Zadlo (saxophone and flute) replaces Weber, making for a folk-tinged change of scenery and adding delight to such tracks as “Ich butter meinen Toast von beiden Seiten” and “Allein Ist Nicht Genug.”

Yet this album’s most valuable rarities are in its live recordings—delightful not only for their historical value, but also for the insight they provide into Rühmkorf’s effect on an audience. The standout in this regard is “Variation auf »Abendlied« von Matthias Claudius,” from an 18 September 1994 performance. As Rühmkorf riffs on the lyrics of Germany’s most beloved lullaby, he brings an improvisatory quality to the reading, so much so that the applause that follow it feel like those given after a jazz soloist passes the torch. The arrangement by Naura and Schlüter is as heartwarming as it is sincere (it’s also among the more pristinely recorded of the live selections).

This set also traces the afterlife of Phönix Voran as it played out in radio broadcasts from 1987, 2001, and 2005. These unlock secrets in that album’s highlights (especially “Komm raus!”) and others that never made it to the studio (“Einen zweiten Weg ums Gehirn rum”). The addition of guitarist Titus Vollmer in the middle performance is magical, as is the effect of hearing Rühmkorf’s voice recite the title poem on three separate occasions over a period of nearly as many decades.

Other noteworthy selections include the self-styled studio composition “Elbterrassen,” in which Rühmkorf beats over a recording of “C Jam Blues” from the Johnny Griffin album At Onkel Pö’s Carnegie Hall, Hamburg 1975; “Früher, als wir die großen Ströme noch …,” a 2005 performance featuring a rhythm and horn section, along with the less tangible instrument of Rühmkorf’s sly humor; and “Betr. Rundfrage Grundfrage,” a 2006 interpretation of a 1998 poem whose domesticity meshes beautifully with the intimate microscopy of pianist Dietmar Bonnen and bassist Andreas Schilling.

Rühmkorf had a wonderful way of speaking, at once in rhythm with the music (if not the other way around) and wandering its own path freely alongside it. What a significant achievement to have it so lovingly preserved, especially in such a mosaiced fashion. As the title of “Bleib erschütterbar und widersteh” reminds us: stay shattered and resist glory.

Pat Metheny Group: Live In Concert

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Pat Metheny Group
Live In Concert

Pat Metheny guitars
Lyle Mays keyboards
Mark Egan bass
Dan Gottlieb drums
Recorded August 31, 1977
at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco
Radio broadcast by KJAZ
Engineer: Bud Spangler
“San Lorenzo” recorded September 4, 1977
at Seattle Opera House
Radio broadcast by KZAM
Engineer: Rick Keefer
Prepared for release by Robert Hurwitz

This rare promo-only LP documents two live radio broadcasts from the summer of 1977 by the Pat Metheny Group. Three of the four tracks are taken from a performance at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall as heard on KJAZ, while the outlier, “San Lorenzo,” was heard on KZAM from a performance at the Seattle Opera House. That latter tune is a thing of archival beauty. First, we get to hear Metheny introducing to the crowd what has since become a staple of the band’s repertoire as a “brand-new one.” Second, Metheny gives brief insight into its “odd tuning for the electric 12-string” and by extension into his process. This information only heightens our wonder at what transpires for its effortlessness of execution in a nascent stage, while also cluing us in on the historicity of its coalescence. Moreover, Metheny and company play it more slowly and enigmatically than on the seminal album they would record for ECM a year later, thus allowing keyboardist Lyle Mays a horizon’s worth of space in which to dance.

Mays, by any stretch of the imagination, is the highest mountain on that horizon (its peak now glowing more brightly than ever in the light of his recent passing). The greenery he paints in “Watercolors” drips as if after a rainstorm of hope and nostalgia. Amid drummer Dan Gottlieb’s glistening cymbals, he pays deference to an underlying ether. Gottlieb shines also in “Phase Dance,” which opens the album. In this setting, it immediately becomes apparent just how much ECM production brings out from certain configurations. Hearing the Pat Metheny Group in close quarters like this allows individual lines to rise lucidly, leaving us to imagine the depths extracted in a studio setting. Either way, it’s glorious to hear the band’s vibrant turns of phrase. Mark Egan’s electric bass is the backbone, flexing in harmony with every shift of weight. The excitement of the crowd is also palpable, and shows how well-traveled the music was on the road before it landed in the studio a year later. It’s worth noting that the title here is misspelled as “Phase Dancer” on the LP sleeve, as it may just be the most accurate description of Mays’s mode throughout the lesser-heard “Wrong is Right.” Its vivacity, to say little of Metheny’s golden solo, shows what can happen when musicians and listeners share the same oxygen. As KZAM-FM’s then-music director Jon Kertzer writes on the back cover: “Forget about jazz-rock fusion and who played with whom and where. Just sit back and listen to the music—some of the most refreshing and creative sounds that I have heard in a long time.”

William Naboré: Franz Schubert – Piano Sonatas

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William Naboré
Franz Schubert – Piano Sonatas

William Naboré piano
Recorded May 1976 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When ECM recorded Valery Afanassiev performing at the 1985 Lockenhaus Festival, it would be label’s first intersection with Schubert after its classical-leaning New Series imprint went into effect. Sadly, that recording didn’t see daylight until 1998. Still, it set a benchmark for future New Series way stations in the ongoing Schubertian journey that has since unfolded. But ECM and Schubert have an even deeper relationship going back to 1976, when Virginia-born pianist William Naboré made this rare recording (distributed in Japan on Trio Records) at Ludwigsburg’s Tonstudio Bauer under the direction of producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Martin Wieland. In a way, Afanassiev picked up where Naboré left off, taking on Schubert’s posthumous opus DV 960 in B-flat Major, while this album begins with DV 959 in A Major. Naboré’s reading of the latter is as distinguished as anyone familiar with his playing will expect. It’s also chock-full of selectively applied exuberance, especially in the righthanded tone clusters of the Andantino. Before that, however, a faintly Mozartian take on the opening Allegro lends insight into a player who reinforces the architecture of what came before so that he might have the most artful support possible for his sometimes-acrobatic bursts of whimsy. In that precise vein, his rendering of the third movement—a delicate Scherzo—is exquisitely detailed. The final Rondo-into-Allegretto speaks of a composer who, at the end of his short life, had already perfected the sonata form as he understood it to the point of breathing it out onto the page, despite his rapidly waning health, and of a performer who, only a few years older than Schubert himself when he wrote it, understands this music as if it were his own.

By the time of this recording, as Naboré himself observes in an album note, apocryphal impulses had crept their way into the hands of many a Schubert interpreter. “The Schubert sonatas,” he writes, “are addressed to the imagination and need no such props to validate their existence.” True to his assessment, Naboré uses steadfast restraint as a source of illumination from within rather than elaboration from without, as is especially the case in this program’s second half. The C Major Sonata, DV 840, was composed in 1825 and bears the title “Reliquie” (referring to its unfinished state, as only two full movements survive). Nevertheless, the initiatory Moderato is in no way diminished by its power of execution in this most fundamental of tonalities. There’s a geometrical quality to be experienced that holds its breath throughout the Andante that follows. Though no less dramatic than its predecessor, the mood is subtler in its urging. Thus, the intimacy of this recording (and of the instrument it captures) only enhances the grandeur of Schubert’s spirit (and Naboré’s ability to extract it).

Eleni Karaindrou: τό 10

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Eleni Karaindrou
τό 10

Music for the TV series based on the homonymous novel by M. Karagatsi
Directed by Pigi Dimitrakopoulou

Spiros Goumas bouzouki, baglamas, mandolin
Kyriakos Gouventas violin
Dinos Hadjiiordanou accordion
Thomas Konstantinou guitar, mandolin
Mimis Doutsoulis contrabass
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Nikos Ginos clarinet
Stella Gadedi flute
Maria Bildea harp
Sergiou Nastaza violin
Eleni Karaindrou piano, keyboards
Recorded September 2007 at Studio Sierra
Engineer: Giorgos Kariotis
Mastering: Petros Siakavellas
Produced by Eleni Karaindrou

This soundtrack by Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou was released in 2008 on the Mikri Arktos label in cooperation with ECM. Containing music from the television series The 10, itself based on the last (unfinished) novel of M. Karagatsis, it is something every admirer of Karaindrou’s music will want to track down. Set in the 1950s, the show centers around a block of apartments and the many exploits of its wealthy landlord, whose nephew has designs to inherit it all. In a satirical and soap-ish fashion, its many colorful characters come out of the woodwork, each with their own dramas to add to the mix.

This collection of quintessential melodies scintillates with the contributions of some of Greece’s finest musicians, including oboist Vangelis Christopoulos (Karaindrou’s go-to interpreter), accordionist Dinos Hadjiiordanou (last heard by ECM followers on Tous des oiseaux), harpist Maria Bildea (see Dust of Time and The Weeping Meadow, among others), violinist Kyriakos Gouventas (who appears regularly alongside Savina Yannatou as part of Primavera en Salonico), and the composer herself on piano and electronic keyboards. Other leading voices to be found among the ensemble are the bouzouki of Spiros Goumas and the guitar of Thomas Konstantinou. Karaindrou’s arrangements brim with the personalities that made the series (available on YouTube here, if you want a sense of context) such a colorful success. With an effortless combination of beauty and whimsy that is her bread and butter, she weaves a full biographical tapestry for her subjects.

Each piece embodies a life. Moods range from the understated to the exuberant. As in so many of her soundtracks, a fantastical approach to history clothes a dreamlike core, adorned with moments of unabashed reality, at once uplifting and heartbreaking. In this case, it’s all about contrast. Whether baiting shadows with light or vice versa, every motif has its opposite. Tunes sport many variations, as if showing us just how chameleonic people can be as they interact, divide, and everything in between. Even the opening tango, alluring as it is, has its mournful reiterations (the fourth of which, for harp and accordion, is the most haunting). All of which suits the voyeuristic nature of the show, affording us glimpses through one window after another at the lives of those just trying to find their place in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

Mal Waldron: Spanish Bitch

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Mal Waldron
Spanish Bitch

Mal Waldron piano
Isla Eckinger bass
Fred Braceful percussion
Recorded September 18, 1970 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Kurt Rapp
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Post-bop master Mal Waldron may just be the most important musician in ECM history, if only because his Free At Last was the label’s first bona fide release, opening a doorway to a paramount catalog of music. And while that seminal album, recorded in 1969, has recaptured the spotlight in a recent vinyl reissue, listeners may not be aware that Waldron stepped into the studio a year later to lay down a sequel of sorts. Recorded at Tonstudio Bauer, with Kurt Rapp engineering and Manfred Eicher producing, the curiously titled Spanish Bitch never made it to ECM proper and was released instead in Japan on the Globe label. Like its predecessor, Spanish finds the pianist in a trio setting, once again with go-to bassist Isla Eckinger but now, in place of Clarence Becton, welcoming Fred Braceful on drums.

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SIDE A opens with the eponymous tune, and through its modal affiliations nods in the direction of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, who also appropriated Spanish scales for effect. In his hands, however, such motifs take on an almost ritualistic quality as scaffolding for an idiosyncratic reverie. From a web of bass and plucked piano strings emerges a vibrant block of chords. Waldron sets aside the theme almost as soon as he develops it, using it as a springboard for his laser-focused energy. Eckinger’s unusual solo sets up Waldron’s phenomenal own, building to steadfast density and playing off Braceful with glorious aplomb. This is followed by Waldron’s audacious take on “Eleanor Rigby.” A somewhat warped version of this evergreen, it boasts a robustness of architecture such as only Waldron could blueprint. He owns the song from start to finish, turning it into something of a macabre lullaby.

SIDE B pulls us back into original territory with the laddering effect of “Black Chant.” Initial restraint waters a muscular flower of high tone clusters over a plowing left hand. Though the aesthetic is Waldron’s own, it incorporates the voices, movements, and hardships of many who came before him. But don’t mistake this for catharsis. It is, rather, a link in a humble chain. Another original, “All That Funk,” saves the strongest for last. Here Waldron swings hard like a ton of rocks, leaving plenty of room for Eckinger’s forthright exposition before punctuating a groovy dialogue with Braceful. Here most of all, Waldron’s playing comports itself as a force to reckon with in three dimensions. Thus, his willingness to go deep into the darkest parts of his musical soul yields blinding light.

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As a service to completists, below I have translated the original Japanese liner notes by jazz critic and producer Masahiko Yuh (悠雅彦):

The first thing to catch my eye is this album’s title, Spanish Bitch. It brings me back to one late May evening, when Mal was listening to Miles’s widely lauded Bitches Brew in an apartment not too far from the center of Munich. Mal just sat there without a word, casting his gaze in my direction from time to time to show me how much he admired the extraordinary beauty of Miles’s music. I can still see that gentle smile.

“Anyone would be captivated by this music on the surface. But the real beauty of Miles is on the inside. It’s amazing, don’t you think?”

I’ll never forget the way Mal’s eyes sparkled as he said this. There’s no reason to think he would be married to his choice of album title here. This music, painted as it was on his canvas, clearly differs from the world of sorcery and black magic that so enamored Miles (Bitch = Witch), who had incorporated a representative mode of Spanish folk music for little more than exotic effect. That said, remembering Mal’s expressions of enthusiasm, I like to think that perhaps in using the word “Bitch” he had Bitches Brew somewhere in mind. And as the light percussion of Ina’s knife from the dimly lit kitchen mingled pleasantly with Miles’s trumpet, it may be that the concept behind Spanish Bitch was already starting to take shape. As I made to leave, Mal handed me a copy of the ECM label’s first release, his own Free At Last (Japanese catalog number SMJX-10098). About four months later, on September 18, 1970, Mal would head into Tonstudio Bauer in the city of Ludwigsburg with bassist Isla Eckinger and drummer Fred Braceful to record his second album for ECM, Spanish Bitch.

… . … . … . …

Mal Waldron vanished from the American jazz scene in 1965, when he moved across the pond to Europe. It would be fair to say, however, that he had already been primed to do so since ’62, when his singular career as a jazz pianist came to a halt. In ’63, a long bout with illness left him virtually unable to perform. Moreover, life in America had hijacked his creative ambition. And so, as had happened over the past few years when playing with Mingus and Dolphy, among others, there was no longer anything to ignite his passion.

In ’64, Mal wrote his first film score for Cool World. “Not even that lit a fire under me to perform,” he recalls. At the time, Mal was shut in with his parents, who lived in Jamaica, Queens. But then, another composing gig: this for a French film called Three Rooms in Manhattan. Gleefully, he flew to France and, after a month of taking in the freer air of Paris, completed his score.

A brief return home found him hurriedly putting the finishing touches on scoring and recording for the film Sweet Love, Bitter, by then already intent on putting America behind him. This was how Mal, once separated from performing in earnest, ended his film composing career as quickly as it began. He also knew that a host of new creative endeavors awaited him in Europe.

And that was how, in the fall of 1965, he settled down in Paris at last. That same year and the next, Mal took part in the Bologna Jazz Festival. It was during that time that he recorded his well-known tune “All Alone” and moved to Germany by way of Italy at the end of ’66.

He landed in Munich in ’67 and never left, and since then has become a fixture of this city.

Munich was love at first sight. Here he discovered Swiss bassist Isla Eckinger and American-born drummer Clarence Becton, the talented jazzmen with whom he would play on Free At Last. He was able to take short trips to European capitals and make a living by performing jazz. It’s easy to imagine how much contentment it brought him. Above all, however, it was the superlative atmosphere of the Domicile jazz club, where he enjoyed performing every night, and where the ancient and the modern comingled in perfect accord, that kept him there. The atmosphere in Munich was the freshest and most alive in all of Germany.

Nearly every jazz fan and musician who set foot inside the country paid a visit to Munich, where they were sure to drop by Domicile. Dusko Goykovich led his big band there, bringing verve to a packed house amid uproarious applause. Recently, bassist Jimmy Woode sat in with Mal’s trio, and, much in contrast to Mal’s deadpan demeanor, coaxed smiles from the crowd like a circus clown. Pony Poindexter, stopping over on his way to Belgium, was also welcomed onstage. With alto in hand, he gave a laid-back performance. One night it would be Benny Bailey, the next it might be the Clarke-Boland Big Band delighting audiences to overflowing. Such was the energy Domicile was known for. Only when Mal sat down at the piano did an apparently miraculous silence take over the room. His profound reverberations and faint tone colors coiled about the feet of everyone squatting next to all those great black musicians whose portraits hung on every wall. It was most unbefitting of this city’s nondescript lights and the hammering of Olympic construction outside. I dare say, his own hammering thundered more eternally. Still, Mal’s acute sensibilities already had a whiff of German folklore to them, combining with his ancestral blood to produce an even deeper, heavier reverberation. We both remember that time, when he recorded “All Alone” during his brief Italian sojourn, a tune replete with the sun of the south country in all its warped beauty, laden with transparent pathos…. I don’t know anyone who so intuitively grasps the plight of ethnic peoples and who struggles so earnestly with his own music as Mal.

Keith Jarrett: Salle Pleyel Paris 1992

KJ INEDITS

Recorded at Salle Pleyel in Paris on October 25, 1992 and produced by Manfred Eicher, this was a limited promotional item offered by the French retail chain Fnac to customers who purchased two qualifying ECM or ECM New Series CDs. Consisting of two exclusive tracks, it’s a poignant snapshot of Jarrett atop a mountain no one else is likely ever to scale.

His perennial encore, “Over The Rainbow,” glistens with lyrical suppleness. Looking back as we can through the lens of retrospection, we find in it the story of an entire career, if not also the life it defines: from the initial stirrings of talent that surely twitched in the young pianist’s fingers, through the chronic fatigue syndrome that would all but hijack his gifts four years later (incidentally, when this disc was offered), and beyond a recovery whose afterglow continues to illuminate ears in the darkest hours. No matter how sweeping, dramatic, and turbulent the experiences that came before, we can hold vigil in these fleeting moments of intimacy before they turn away from us to seek the hand of an ether we have yet to touch.

In the wake of this inward glance, the exuberance of Jarrett’s own “C The Blues” feels like a splash of water on the face. Romping through memories as if they were a muddy riverbank along which the dead and the living dance in celebration of kinship, Jarrett gives every mouth a voice. The colorful ornaments of his right hand are the nurture to his left’s nature, each note a word spoken, a relationship formed, a spirit harnessed, only to fade as quickly as it forms. Like the fog of a window about to be defrosted, it resolves into a clarity of vision such as only he can provide.

These same two tracks also appeared on a CD included with issue No. 672 of the French magazine Jazz in May of 2015:

Jazz Magazine

Jazz Magazine CD