Peter Erskine Trio: As It Was (ECM 2490-93)

As It Was.jpg

Peter Erskine Trio
As It Was

Release date: July 1, 2016

On paper, drummer Peter Erskine might have seemed like an unusual leader for a piano trio, but once the sounds of his collaboration with pianist John Taylor and bassist Palle Danielsson made their acquaintance with uninitiated ear canals, there was no denying their efficacy as a unit. Erskine followed a trajectory all his own to enter the ranks of ECM, having already established his reputation with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Maynard Ferguson, and Weather Report before breaching ECM waters in sessions with John Abercrombie, Jan Garbarek, and Kenny Wheeler. The latter association brought him into fateful contact with Taylor and Danielsson, and their interactions as a touring band paved the way for the four albums featured on this Old & New Masters set. And so, when it came time to craft his first ECM leader date—1992’s You Never Know—the choice of sidemen was obvious. “Side” being the operative word here, for John Kelman aptly describes the band in his superb liner notes as an “equilateral musical triangle.” By then Danielsson and Taylor were both ECM veterans: the former via landmark recordings with saxophonist Jan Garbarek and pianist Bobo Stenson, the latter via another unorthodox trio with singer Norma Winstone and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler known as Azimuth. Says Erskine in those same liner notes of the band documented here: “The trio seems, by its mathematical and geometric natures, to offer the most possibilities where interaction meets form, and openness meets density.”

You Never Know

You Never Know (ECM 1497)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded July 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this first recording in the company of his European trio, Erskine made a lasting, if subdued, statement of intent. Its contours feel familiar, its moods even more so, and its overall feeling is one of peace and quiet passion. Considering the talent girding every corner of this triangle, it might seem unfair to single out one musician above the rest, but Taylor’s richly harmonic style is difficult to leave unpraised. Not only that, but his compositional contributions make up the bulk of a set awash in tuneful elegance. Take, for instance, the nine-and-a-half-minute opener, “New Old Age,” which seems to tell the story of a life in full circle. Taylor’s motive is the album’s heartbeat. Danielsson expands its EKG line and paves the way for Erskine’s airy considerations. This pattern repeats a cycle of experience, spinning the wheel of time and landing on “Clapperclowe.” This lively tune, softened by a montuno twang, features massage-like patter from Erskine. Another Taylor notable is “Evans Above,” a soulful Bill Evans tribute that sets the pianist dancing on clouds as he glides across landscapes past and present. Danielsson’s exquisite solo, flexible as a gymnast, is a glowing centerpiece. “Pure & Simple” might as well be called “Pure & Cymbal” for Erskine’s astute punctuations, each chiseling away at Taylor’s meteoroid on its path of sonorous fire.

Erskine himself contributes one tune: the sublime “On The Lake.” Its still and reflective sheen obscures a bass that moves like an evolutionary mystery beneath Loch Ness, even as home movies of children swimming, lovers canoeing, and friends gathering at the water’s edge flicker to the rhythm of the composer’s brushes. Three ballads by Vince Mendoza (whose tunes were heard to such great effect on John Abercrombie’s Animato) brings out the trio’s tenderest side, as in the 360-degree support of “Amber Waves.” And how can the empathic “Heart Game” not move us? It tugs and never lets go. If synergy is your bag, look no further than the trio’s closing rendition of “Everything I Love.” This Cole Porter joint is a window through smoke and time and practically bursts with effervescence at Taylor’s touch.

You Never Know would seem to have ushered in a new era for ECM, setting standards yet again for quality of recording, performance, and audience consideration. A dulcet and memorable date that lingers like the notes of a home cooked meal.

Time Being

Time Being (ECM 1532)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded November 1993 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Once the lyricism of “Terraces” eases its way into our hearts, we know we’re in for a sublime experience on Time Being. Erskine’s sensitivity behind Danielsson’s equally considered solo, peeking above the horizon like the edge of a flock in silhouette, reveals sensuous technique through the cymbals and butterfly snare of “For The Time Being,” the responsive brushwork of “Phrase One,” and the dance-like movements of “Palle’s Headache” and “Evansong.” Yet it is Taylor, playing the piano as a blind man might touch a face, who makes this date the melodic gem that it is. We hear it in “If Only I Had Known,” sparkling blurrily in a visual language all its own. Taylor continues to take in every movement of leaf and shade in “Page 172,” which feels like a dream an old windup clock might have, a child’s automaton stretching its hands toward darkness. For “Bulgaria” he takes some thematic cues from folk music of the same. The Bobo Stenson feel on this track pays lovely tribute to the milieu from which he has grown. Danielsson paints a complementary impressionism, putting full heart into every brushstroke of “Liten Visa Till Karin” and in the fluid rustle of “Pieds-en-l’air,” ending a cordially realized set.

These images speak to us in indications, each a fragment of a mosaic beyond even the musicians’ comprehension. It is that same font into which all great improvisers dip, a limitless well that proceeds and recedes simultaneously, churning sentiment at the edge of a pond where inhibition ends and light begins. This is jazz of delectable subtlety that will embrace you, and another masterpiece from a trio that grew in leaps and bounds with every release.

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As It Is (ECM 1594)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded September 1995 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this follow-up date to 1994’s Time Being, Erskine, Danielsson, and Taylor hone their salute to the Bill Evans and Paul Bley schools in their most transcendent short story collection yet. Each of these three narrators lends nuance to the arc. Taylor embodies a sense of perpetual motion quite different from that of Erskine, who in “The Lady In The Lake” evokes with his brushes a quiet train ride. Where the pianism is impressionistic and rounded, the drums are precise and crisp. So, too, in “Esperança,” which through shifting seasons reveals a brocade of sentimental journeys. Danielsson is more than the tuneful support of “Glebe Ascending,” though even in this album opener we get intimations of the interactivity to follow. His engaging filament runs through tunes like “Woodcocks” and “Touch Her Soft Lips And Part,” leaving a trail of footsteps alternating in charcoal and pastel. And what of Erskine? Look to “Episode” for your answer. This urgent piece hits the ground running and stumbles through city streets, whispering of metal and wind and skin. I submit to the defense also “Romeo & Juliet,” which like the classic play begins in innocence before culminating in Erskine’s tragic catharsis of a solo.

As It Is eschews the formulaic, instead kneading instruments and gestures into uniform dough. Just when Taylor seems to launch into an extended monologue, Danielsson rises from the deep to overtake it even as Erskine throws a commentative thread through every loophole. The resulting tumble is fluid and soft. Despite the breadth of its sweep, the music operates at a microscopic level. This is top-flight jazz, recorded, composed, and packaged with artisanal endearment.

1657 X

JUNI (ECM 1657)

John Taylor piano
Palle Danielsson double bass
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded July 1997 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

ECM’s fourth and final album by the Peter Erskine Trio, JUNI best realizes the balance between fullness and sparseness the three had been seeking since their debut. An underlying Bill Evans influence—lifeblood of everything this trio plays—is even more nakedly portrayed. “The forming of this trio was partly a reaction to a lot of stuff that’s out there,” notes Erskine. “There’s so much music that’s just thrown at you, and it’s loud and it has no real dynamic range and all the spaces in the music are filled up. I wanted to oppose that trend.” To that end, if not beginning, Erskine and company enable a delicate asymmetry in which transformation is a necessary condition of life. Whereas before they created epic swaths of watery goodness, this time they concentrate on a subtler array of themes and moods.

Taylor again contributes the most tunes and opens with his wavering “Prelude Nr 2.” Raindrops seem to fall from his fingers in an abstract introduction, dark though chambering a shining heart. “Windfall,” previously heard on Journey’s End by the Miroslav Vitous Group, plots a smoother, Brazilian-flavored journey. Supple flowers grow wherever Danielsson treads, and his rounded solo foils Taylor’s dialogue with Erskine to remarkable effect. “Fable” rounds out the Taylor compositions with a ray of golden light and feathered shadow evoked by him and Danielsson respectively, and strung by the restless air currents of Erskine’s brushes. The latter add paternal love to the plush emotional exchanges of Danielsson’s “Siri,” in which Taylor is the true standout.

Erskine himself counters with a twofer of his own, including the fragmentary and whimsical “The Ant & The Elk” (notable for his subdued yet popping aside) and “Twelve,” from which the album gets its title (jūni means “twelve” in Japanese) and which evokes the barest whispers of swing, maintaining purposeful ambiance even at its most straightforward. “For Jan”—by Kenny Wheeler, for a relative of the same name—reflects Erskine’s work with Taylor in Wheeler-led ensembles. From a skittering drum intro it unfolds into a sparkling anthem with gorgeous slides from Danielsson, who polishes the edges of Taylor’s keys.

Like the second hand of a schoolroom analog clock, “Namasti” (Diana Taylor) passes smoothly through the minutes with precision. Its face may be secular, but its implications are spiritual and take things for the illusions that they are.

JUNI thus brands a perfect yin yang onto Erskine’s résumé. He holds the world on a wire, eliciting a most sonorous gravitation. He is the sun of these sessions. May his light touch your heart.

Charles Lloyd: Quartets (ECM 2316-20)

Charles Lloyd Quartets

Charles Lloyd
Quartets

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

Fish Out Of Water

Fish Out Of Water (ECM 1398)

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

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

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

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

Notes From Big Sur

Notes From Big Sur (ECM 1465)

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

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

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

The Call

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

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

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

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

All My Relations

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

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

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

Canto

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

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

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

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

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

Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM 2296-99)

Special Edition

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

Special Edition

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

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

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

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

Tin Can Alley

Tin Can Alley (ECM 1189)

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

“One, two, you know what to do.”

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

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

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

Inflation Blues

Inflation Blues (ECM 1244)

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

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

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

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

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

Album Album

Album Album (ECM 1280)

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

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

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

Inflation Blues
(Photo credit: Karen Schoonmaker)

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

Paul Motian (ECM 2260-65)

Paul Motian ONM

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

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

Conception Vessel

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

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

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

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

Tribute

Tribute (ECM 1048)

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

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

Original Tribute
Original cover

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

Dance

Dance (ECM 1108)

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

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

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

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

Le Voyage

Le Voyage (ECM 1138)

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

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

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

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

Psalm

Psalm (ECM 1222)

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

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

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

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

it should've happened a long time ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan Garbarek: Dansere (ECM 2146-48)

Dansere

Jan Garbarek
Dansere

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

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

Sart

Sart (ECM 1015)

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

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

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

Witchi-Tai-To

Witchi-Tai-To (ECM 1041)

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

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

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

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

dansere1

Dansere (ECM 1075)

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

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

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

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

Susanne Abbuehl: Compass (ECM 1906)

Compass

Susanne Abbuehl
Compass

Susanne Abbuehl voice
Wolfert Brederode piano
Christof May clarinet, bass clarinet
Lucas Niggli drums, percussion
Michel Portal clarinet (on two tracks)
Recorded January 2003 and October 2004 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Leave dreams to the dreamers
That will not after,
That song and laughter
Do nothing move.
–James Joyce

Compass is more than the title of Susanne Abbuehl’s sophomore ECM album. It is also a physical manifestation of the singer’s artistry. The compass guides with a needle fluid and true, trembling at the slightest change in direction to indicate north. Aiding Abbuehl in this navigation is pianist Wolfert Brederode, clarinetist Christof May, and drummer Lucas Niggli over a span of 12 songs. The number implies a compass of a different register—the clock—and grander others—the solar system, and by extension the Milky Way (hence, perhaps, the cover of her label debut, April)—which dictate the sweep of the clock’s hands with such precision that mortal instruments can only sample a simulacrum of their taste.

That said, Abbuehl’s originality in a planetary system of so-called “jazz vocalists” spins like an instrument celestial, an undiscovered body whose reflection shines through the introductory telescope of “Bathyal.” The words and music are her own, emerging from a primal bass clarinet, dark as the sun is bright, as a vessel down the piano’s river run. The feeling of water, overwhelming enough to drown out the noise of the world, carries also a promise of depth in nature, its tickling spray a mist of love. “Do not run just yet / Do not hide,” she implores: less a challenge to the listener than it is to her own emotions, without which the album’s remainder would fade along with the salmon in their streams.

Two selections—“Black Is The Color…” and “Lo Fiolairé”—from Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs are subjected to unique investigation. The words are carried along by a rather different current, this of charcoal in the form of two clarinets (Michel Portal provides the second reed). In her bare renditions, Abbuehl underscores the power of melodies to overcome the means of their expression. Tied in a braid of lyrical hair, their elements grow along an ebony trail of origins in strands of night and shadow. The Berio inclusion hints at a less obvious connection to the poetry of James Joyce, whose words the Italian composer set to music in 1953, as does Abbuehl for the new millennium. Here she draws inspiration from the same collection, 1907’s Chamber Music. These revivals come in the form of “The Twilight Turns From Amethyst,” “Bright Cap And Streamers,” and “In The Dark Pine-Wood.” In them lies another version of the album’s eponym: as color wheel in the painter’s hand (yellow, as Abbuehl sings later in William Carlos Williams’s “Primrose,” is not a color, but is among other things a shadow). Their circadian approach to worldly being bleeds through the clarinet’s fleshy overlap, a call for unity through real-time calculations of difference. Brederode’s keyboard—the ever-present messenger, the mournful traveler who finds beauty in rest—carves a hovel in every tree along the way, until only a shell of the journey remains. Joyce breathes also through “Sea, Sea!” This song from Finnegan’s Wake outlines a bridge, a meeting of souls across unfathomable expanse, and weaves a basket of alliterations against Niggli’s earthen percussion.

Chinese poet Feng Menglong of the late Ming dynasty rises from the deep in “Don’t Set Sail,” a love poem that is about as hopeful as the waves it fears—although with Brederode behind her, Abbuehl needs no oars. This song pairs hauntingly with the last track, which in having brought us over water now keeps us from it, under threat of storm and chop. A potent metaphor for the solitary heart. Sun Ra’s “A Call For All Demons” unearths deeper loneliness, washed in mercury, while “Children’s Song No. 1,” comes from Chick Corea’s landmark collection of piano miniatures, turns the Tarot card over to reveal a bluebird’s Empress flight.

Although “Where Flamingos Fly” is a jazz standard (the album’s only), it feels the least familiar in the present company. Its distance is emphasized by the soulful clarinet, of which the rasp of breath and wood runs its fingers along the edge of every utterance. Like the album as a whole, it finds in its source a new seed to sprout. In light of this, to call Abbuehl’s arrangements understated would itself be an understatement. Sparse though they are, their awareness of negative space is as thick as the pitch that holds the stars in place.

Trygve Seim: Different Rivers (ECM 1744)

Different Rivers

Trygve Seim
Different Rivers

Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Arve Henriksen trumpet, trumpophone, vocals
Håvard Lund clarinet, bass clarinet
Nils Jansen bass and sopranino saxophones, contrabass clarinet
Hild Sofie Tafjord french horn
David Gald tuba
Stian Carstensen accordion
Bernt Simen Lund cello
Morten Hannisdal cello
Per Oddvar Johansen drums
Paal Nilssen-Love drums
Øyvind Brække trombone
Sidsel Endresen recitation
Recorded December 1998, January and December 1999 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, and Øyvind Brække
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Breathe, and you know that you are the world.

Different Rivers marks Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim’s emergence from the ECM wings as a leader in his own right. Well versed in the label’s vital documentation of European improvising (not least of all through his life-changing tenure with Finnish drummer Edward Vesala), Seim draws upon those influences to pool his talents for the present disc, which deepens the free spirit of his so-called Trondheim Kunstorkester. Trumpeter Arve Henriksen—notably, a close associate of Christian Wallumrød—and a host of Scandinavian talents round out an ensemble of remarkable depth and poise.

Seim’s three duets with Henriksen are the album’s acupuncture points, each a vitalization of the whole. The breathy meditations of “Bhavana” and the flutter-tongued percussiveness of “Between” both spin on fluid axes, but it is “For Edward” that breaks its gravitational ties and flows outward into the universe. Seim’s shakuhachi tone reveals superb control of his reed, a sound honed by oneness with its source. Like two cranes calling to one another in the night, never able to find a way across the Milky Way between them, he and Henriksen paint bridges of artful listening in lieu of earthly travel. Even when they are surrounded, as in the title track, they are ever swimming toward something galactic.

The trumpeter reveals his vocal skills in opener “Sorrows.” In wispy arpeggios he lurks, stranger among a crowd of consenting instruments. The effect is ghostly, sirened by keening higher reeds. With the exception of “Search Silence” (a curious little flicker of geometry), the album’s remainder samples a likeminded palette. The subconscious beats of “Ulrikas Dans” brush on a light gesso for bolder horn strokes. Seim’s piercing harmonics lend an angelic touch, and his tenoring on “The Aftermath” spins a charm bracelet of wispy melodic cells. This life further into the sun-swept plains of “African Sunrise,” giving name to the aching land. Drummer Per Oddvar Johansen’s flint-strikes incite a conflagration in Seim’s playing, ending on scream. I daresay this and “Breathe” are two of the finest tracks in the ECM catalogue. The latter is a mission statement, a parable on the profundity of simplicity. Amid the band’s resonant atmospheres, vocalist Sidsel Endresen recites a powerful wakeup call. She finds a process in every wing-flap, every sprout and blossom, as blurry horn textures translate word into life.

The strengths of Seim’s compositions, and of those interpreting them, lie in their control and dynamic range. Their roots are as deep as their branches are tall, softly aflame with autumnal themes. Case in point: “Intangible Waltz,” which follows Henriksen’s patterns through thick forest and barren field alike. Its central whisperings between drums, accordion, and trumpet work wonders under the microscope. No matter how calm and thin its layers become, it allows visions of a dancing light to seep through.

Seim’s is a viscous music; don’t expect to swing. Meditative and ashen, every track of Different Rivers feels as if it was recovered from the archives of a lost culture, of which only this music remains to represent it. Let the rebuilding begin.

Arild Andersen w/Vassilis Tsabropoulos and John Marshall: The Triangle (ECM 1752)

The Triangle

The Triangle

Vassilis Tsabropoulos piano
Arild Andersen double-bass
John Marshall drums
Recorded January 2003 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Classical pianist and late jazz bloomer Vassilis Tsabropoulos turned heads with his ECM debut, Achirana, for which he redefined the piano trio under the leadership of bassist Arild Andersen and guidance of drummer John Marshall, both improvisers of proven stamina and invention. Whereas Tsabropoulos’s playing felt at times muddied and inattentive to negative space on that nevertheless enchanting record, this sophomore effort ushers us into a new and vibrant chapter with “Straight.” Immediately one can tell in this Tsabropoulos original that its composer has already tapped into the qualities of a fine improviser, treating his hands more like feet engaged in dance, leaping and bounding their way through turns of phrase. The transformation is obvious in the way he listens, in Andersen’s duly spirited soloing, in Marshall’s vintage sound. That feeling of metamorphosis is even more palpable in “Choral” and in “Simple Thoughts,” both rustling, leafy scenes, picturesque yet open to darkness. And in “Cinderella Song,” Tsabropoulos elicits gobs of soul from the rhythm section, carrying the night with all the resignation of one who is sure in life and in love. His development as a jazz artist manifests itself further in the album’s intertextual variety, evoking Bill Evans, Vince Guaraldi, and French impressionism in short chains of keystrokes. In the latter regard, his arrangement of Ravel’s “Pavane” proves that his architectural awareness has indeed bloomed in the four-year gap between trio albums. Here he balances guidance and recession, thinking out loud in real time before our ears and brushing away the leaves to reveal the ground in all its promises of life.

Although on paper Tsabropoulos headlined Achirana, which was irrefutably an Andersen showcase, this time the opposite holds true. Still, Andersen muscles his way through some soft territories without so much as a blemish in his wake. He contributes three tunes, rendering a puff of cloud for every patch of sky. “Saturday” invokes a proper and delicate swing and finds Tsabropoulos going for a more linear approach, which bodes well for everyone involved. There is a nostalgic, quasi-urban energy in this one that sits on the cusp of swimming and drowning, opting to jump before finding out which will prevail. “Prism” offers a velvety ballad—the album’s only in the truest sense—and sets us up for the groovier “Lines,” in which the trio hits its stride.

By far the most interesting portion of this album, however, comes in the form of “European Triangle,” an unusual group improvisation that hints at broader undercurrents begging for exploration.

This is simpatico done right.

Enrico Rava: Easy Living (ECM 1760)

Easy Living

Enrico Rava
Easy Living

Enrico Rava trumpet
Gianluca Petrella trombone
Stefano Bollani piano
Rosario Bonaccorso double-bass
Roberto Gatto drums
Recorded June 2003 at Artesuono Recording Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Enrico Rava has singlehandedly defined Italian jazz as a technical wizard. More importantly, he has also enlivened its soundscape with a playbook that balances verve and thoughtfulness. After a 17-year hiatus, the trumpet champion returns to ECM among his trusted quintet with what might just be his finest album yet (an opinion shared by Rava at the time of its recording). Wherever it may rank in your mental charts, it is a comfortably burnished standout in his discography, due in no small part to the artful brilliance of engineer Stefano Amerio.

Not since Annette Peacock’s an acrobat’s heart has an ECM cover photograph so well captured the atmosphere of the music behind it. Indeed, the thoughtful sincerity of “Cromosomi” unfurls a palette befitting of Roberto Cifarelli’s warmly hued portrait. Rava’s interaction with the young trombonist Gianluca Petrella is close-eyed, intuitive, and lays the groundwork for some crystalline reverberations. The gorgeous pointillism of Stefano Bollani and coruscating accents of drummer Roberto Gatto paint the last rays of sunset. Make no mistake about the title’s significance: Rava’s approach is fiercely biological, so attuned is it to the mutual appreciation of his band mates. “Drops” follows with a handful of candy, turning the chromosomal into the chromatic at the touch of a keyboard and setting the stage for Rava’s soaring flights in “Sand.” Using a slack backdrop as trampoline, he devises lyrical acrobatics and microscopic exchanges galore. Rava continues in this vein throughout the title track, the only one not composed by him, backed by support that has the consistency of meringue and is just as sweet. “Blancasnow” is another brief exercise in pure intonation. Fans will recognize it as the concluding track of his ECM debut, The Pilgrim And The Stars, and here its austerity is even more heavily shaded.

Lest the listener think that Easy Living is all drift, “Algir Dalbughi” plots a hard swing at album center. From Petrella’s ebullient harmonizing comes a vast, big band sound and foils Rava’s extroverted heights with pale fire. Bassist Rosario Bonaccorso opens “Traveling Night” with a fluttering solo and leads the band into another flowing diary entry. Gatto communicates hyper-effectively with Bollani as Petrella fires off a round of humid motives. “Hornette And The Drums Thing” is the finest track of the set and an even finer vehicle for the drummer, who jumps, skips, and shuffles his way through the deck like a blindfolded magician—though he has some acutely observant spectators in Petrella and Bollani following his every move. Rava’s sweep is characteristically melodic and assured. His fingers stir up their own concert, notes singing by like arrows. Gatto’s full-on wizardry quiets into a lush carpet for the band’s legato breakdown, bringing us at last to “Rain,” which draws the curtains, breaks down the set, and bids farewell in style. Between Gatto’s cymbal-laden drizzle, Bonaccorso’s thick sags, and Bollani’s varietal drama, there is plenty to admire in this luxurious sendoff.

Easy Living is the perfect album for an afternoon drive or lethargic morning alike. Its verdant fields and canopied paths smell of a grandmother’s food: no matter how many times you eat it, it will always taste like home.

Essential listening.