John Surman: Private City (ECM 1366)


John Surman
Private City

John Surman bass clarinet, recorders, soprano and baritone saxophones, synthesizer
Recorded December 1987 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and John Surman

If the title of Private City comes about as close as one can get to describing the sound-world of John Surman, then that of its first piece, “Portrait Of A Romantic,” does the same for the man behind it. Its quivering recorder blankets us in warmth, fully realized by an electric piano and bubbling as the waters in a forgotten loch. A bass clarinet swims, a creature of myth remembering a time when its kind were plentiful. Thus begins this widely regarded album of incidental ballet music that remains one of Surman’s most personal. The recorder returns, an elusive and mythic voice, “On Hubbard’s Hill,” calling forth steady electronics from the depths of its own dreaming, leaving us to look out on all we’ve done. The familiar sequencer shows its face in “Not Love Perhaps,” climbing itself like a self-generating ladder and carrying with it a sacred form of déjà vu, in which time is but a loop within the heart of learning. Surman’s soprano moves with the grace of a traditional melody that has only now come to the surface of our audible history. “Levtitation” is exactly what he accomplishes with an unwieldy instrument like the bass clarinet. As it splinters into myriad offerings beneath a pregnant moon, an “Undernote” bobs on a current of its own regret. “The Wanderer” is another watery piece, that beautiful soprano melting over a wavering ground of synth lines and bass clarinet, and ending on a distant fanfare. The swaying “Roundelay” exemplifies Surman’s limitless talents, as well as the purity of his notecraft. Led by a fairy-like soprano, it feels like ice-skating along an infinity sign set to music. Last is “The Wizard’s Song,” the album’s crowning jewel, showing us again the inimitable delicacy with which its composer approaches the lower, neglected reeds. Like the ending credits to a movie that lives on even after it is done, the effects keep scrolling in our heads, wandering the darkness until they have reached the private cities inside all of us.

Oregon: Ecotopia (ECM 1354)


Trilok Gurtu tabla, percussion
Paul McCandless oboe, English horn, soprano saxophone, wind-driven synthesizers
Glen Moore bass
Ralph Towner classical and 12- string guitars, piano, synthesizers, drum machine
Recorded March 1987 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Carlos Albrecht, Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The stars of Ecotopia, Oregon’s third and final album for ECM and one wounded by the absence of Colin Walcott, are undoubtedly Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless. One could easily be content in listening to just the two of them for the album’s 50-minute duration, pairing so gorgeously as they do on tracks like “Zephyr.” As it is, we get a rich sound palette that, while a definite shift from what came before, speaks to a mode of experimentation that is therapeutic and adventurous. McCandless’s lines in “Twice Around The Sun” are somewhat lost in the cheapening synthesizer, but make for a light-footed introduction all the same. Thankfully, Glen Moore’s bass and Trilok Gurtu’s percussion steer this vessel into more organic waters. As the group swings in retrograde, Moore works his corona through a shower of bells and stardust. Piano and reeds fall behind silhouetted mountains, leaving Gurtu to ponder the landscape with nimble footsteps, writing the history of a savannah without wind. “Innocente” is the album’s zenith, a wondrous journey in which Towner rides a wave of table beneath McCandless’s lone seagull, who touches wing to water with every chromatic dip. His reeds sound absolutely resplendent, every note a thin ray of sunlight gathered in able grasp. After a brief throwaway improvisation (“WBAI”), the title track vindicates the use of electronics, while the swanky late-night stroll of “Leather Cats” does not. Thankfully, McCandless’s soprano wins out in this conversation. Towner lays down the groovy backbone of “ReDial,” which Gurtu and McCandless are more than willing to flesh out with all manner of delicate venation. Towner outdoes himself and brings his gentle cascade to bear on a smooth finish. “Song Of The Morrow” also makes beautiful use of synthesizers and ends this colorful and classic album which, despite its unnecessary forays into technology, is now assured of its status as one of ECM’s Touchstones.

The Bill Frisell Band: Lookout For Hope (ECM 1350)


The Bill Frisell Band
Lookout For Hope

Bill Frisell electric and acoustic guitars, banjo
Hank Roberts cello, voice
Kermit Driscoll bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded March 1987 at Power Station, New York City
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Lee Townsend

Listening to Lookout For Hope is like wandering into a windblown cowboy town. The dirt is bare, save for the errant tumbleweed that dares set twig in this dustbowl. You wander past the Sheriff’s office. A poster hangs outside the door:



And indeed, Frisell has run off with many a stagecoach prize, fashioning each into a personal politic of twisted charm.

On this, another seminal effort on ECM’s Touchstones, Frisell continued to chart his inimitable sound. The wordless vocals of Hank Roberts in the album’s title opener waver like something from the dream diary of Pat Metheny, with whom Frisell shares much insofar as it is almost impossible to listen to either guitarist without seeing epic films of vivid imagery. But make no mistake about feeble comparisons: Frisell is the only dude on this ranch. From his gentle entrance, we know that his is an axe that melts, revealing thematic contours in negative space. He frees melodies from the chopping block and lets them bump into one another as they will. Roberts’s sinewy cello is a no-brainer. As it extends its forked tongue from this sonic bayou, defenestrating itself in a blissful unraveling, it lands smack in the molasses of “Little Brother Bobby,” where with easygoing persuasion it rocks like a back porch chair before stumbling on through the banjo-infested prophecy of “Hangdog” and into the crystalline vision of the album’s capstone, “Remedios The Beauty.” And where “Lonesome” is a raw slab of Podunk beauty that glistens with Frisell’s acoustic, “Melody For Jack” is a dream tunnel into a trio of miniatures before the warm fuzziness of “Alien Prints” plays us out with understated panache.

Lookout For Hope is a walleyed world replete with hokey profundity and slack jaws. Like a good Stephen King novel, it gets under our skin even as it nourishes it. The titular lookout seems but a toothpick of a shadow on the horizon. But no matter, for by the time the final note has run away we’ve already found our hope.

Norma Winstone: Somewhere Called Home (ECM 1337)

Norma Winstone
Somewhere Called Home

Norma Winstone voice
John Taylor piano
Tony Coe clarinet, tenor saxophone
Recorded July 1986 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After her stunning contributions to ECM via the enigmatic outfit known as Azimuth, jazz vocalist Norma Winstone broke out, or should I say broke in, her solo career with Somewhere Called Home. Joined by pianist John Taylor and Tony Coe on clarinet and tenor saxophone, she lends her sympathetic draw to the canonic tree while also hanging it with her own lyric adornments to the music of Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Towner, and Kenny Wheeler. The finished session is burnished to a dim reflection of yesteryear.

From the first measured steps of “Café,” Taylor’s gentle snowflakes and Coe’s fluted reeds are perfect companions. This is a song, like so many, of people and places intersecting in romances as fleeting as the words they’re built upon. The title track is a geodesic shape of ebony and ivory, splashed with the prismatic light of Winstone’s lilting phrasings. Patterns of loneliness emerge, seeking in the human voice the solace from which our pain also arises, and through which we purge the very same. Taylor and Coe run off, hand in harmonic hand, rushing through the wilds of memory, leaving Winstone to paint the veil of winter in “Sea Lady” with a translucent river of spring, where love flows into an ocean of forgetfulness. “Some Time Ago” opens with a mournful cry from Coe, dropping us talon-first into a sky of childhoods. Every chord from Taylor is a wisp of cloud, gone too soon in a dragon’s breath. Winstone spins the mythology of love into a jewel of hope that shines only in the sunlight of the future. She waits, breathing in the world so that she might exhale the promise of another morning, of another kiss, of another embrace. The delicate impressionisms of “Prologue” and “Out Of This World” recall at once the French symbolists and Manuel de Falla’s Psyche. Coe enchants with every flap of his virtuosic wings, lending his ethereal tenor to “Celeste.” This bittersweet exploration of songcraft catches up to us like an ancestral figure. Every breath of the sax is like that figure’s movements, by turns flesh and shadow, and brought to active life by the erosion of the high note, which chips away like a welding torch at the resolve of our solitude. “Hi Lili Hi Lo” takes comfort in the fact that in order to fall in love, one must jump, blindfolded, from a great height indeed. With “Tea For Two,” we at last get the assurance of a lover’s arms cradling not just our bodies, but also our souls. That gorgeous tenor returns for a final heave, ending where it all began, folded in the origami of time.

Winstone washes away the clothing of every sentiment, exposing the naked flesh of words. Her melodies swim in life’s tormented sea, compressing the universe into a salty teardrop of pure expression. While this date may not be for everyone, it is for me another candidate for inclusion in ECM’s Top 10. A profound, meditative masterpiece that will grow as you do.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Standards Live (ECM 1317)


Keith Jarrett Trio
Standards Live

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded July 2, 1985 at the Palais dis Congrès Studios de la Grand Armée
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Take one look at the thoughtful cover art of this seminal Keith Jarrett release, and you’ll gain immediate insight into what makes his trio click. Each curvaceous line brings a lifetime of movement, of study, and of passion to bear on the music at hand. And with these six standards resurrected to such profound levels, there’s nothing not to like.

Just let the groove of “Falling In Love With Love” have its way, and the quicksand of the trio’s genius has you by the heart. Jarrett is in his element, crying his way through sibilant improvisatory arcs. Peacock surfaces for an engaging solo, Jarrett watching from the sidelines with duly attentive chording before sharing an intuitive stichomythia with DeJohnette. Peacock grabs the spotlight again in “The Old Country,” in which piano and drums spread a subtle launching pad for his low yet adroit flights. Jarrett builds on these, dancing on air through every motivic change before putting the starlight back into “Stella By Starlight.” Ever the sonic chameleon in a world of primary colors, he achieves the musical equivalent of alchemy once his ever-faithful rhythm section dashes in its own mysterious elements. A magnetic bass solo draws DeJohnette’s cymbals like iron filings before ending in a forgiving embrace. “Too Young To Go Steady” receives an absorbing treatment, the band whipping up a soft peak that melts smoothly into resolution. Next is a spirited version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” which unpacks oodles of bliss and shows the trio form at its finest. A whoop-worthy solo from DeJohnette forms an enlivening bridge to the vamp, playing us out into “The Wrong Blues,” which does everything oh so right.

While all the tunes on this album are classic, the untouchable performances make them doubly so.

Beyond recommended.

Jon Hassell: Power Spot (ECM 1327)

Jon Hassell
Power Spot

Jon Hassell trumpet
J. A. Deane percussion, alto flute
Jean-Philippe Rykiel keyboards
Michael Brook guitar
Richard Horowitz keyboards
Brian Eno bass
Richard and Paul Armin RAAD electro-acoustic strings
Miguel Frasconi flute
Recorded October 1983 and December 1984, Grant Avenue Studio, Ontario
Assistant  engineering: David Bottrill and Roman Zack
Produced and engineered by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois

American composer and trumpeter Jon Hassell is best known for his music of the Fourth World, which he describes as “coffee-colored classical.” The definition becomes clearer once you immerse yourself in the sounds of Power Spot. Hassell’s career is as varied as his education. A student of both Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pandit Pran Nath, he is known for overlooking idiomatic barriers in favor of something far broader. Nath left an indelible mark in Hassell, who turned to the master’s voice for guidance in his own playing. His unmistakable tones are achieved by singing into the instrument, thereby drawing clusters of sounds from a single exhalation. This recording is significant for a number of reasons, not least for indicating a moment in sonic history in which the electro-acoustic universe was beginning to spin some of its richer, more majestic galaxies. The music on Power Spot radiates like a supernova waiting patiently for the traction of celestial bodies to fan its clouds away, revealing softly spinning globes of breath and vapor. With such evocative titles as “Wing Melodies” and “The Elephant And The Orchid,” one feels almost overwhelmed by the range of possible imagery. And yet, like any question of mode or genre thereof, these words disappear behind the music’s waterfall.

At first listen the album may seem to blend into a broad wash of sound, but lean in closer and you begin to hear the details emerge. The title track is perhaps the most potent, opening this portal to a wellspring of beats and train whistles. Brian Eno’s amphibian bass slithers through a pond of liquid mercury, fading into the gaseous darkness from which it sprang. Otherworldly connotations are bound to reveal themselves, and nowhere more so than in “Passage D.E.,” which sounds like the soundtrack to a documentary of some undiscovered planet. Notable also is “Miracle Steps,” where live percussion provides marked contrast to the synthetic overlay, drawing in the process the album’s most beautiful cartography.

Power Spot is one protracted aerial view, a bubbling primordial soup of circuits and blips, funneled through such progressive sense of direction and atmosphere as only Hassell can activate. Unlike much of the knob-turning to grace the many electronic albums of the 80s, its sound is strikingly effusive and organic. In this ocean, one finds that the light of life shines brightest on the inside. It is a light that no clouds can obscure, a light that no darkness can close its eyes around. It is a journey of transience, of transport, of futurism and antiquity, of none of these things. Influential? More than words can say. Just listen to Paul Schütze’s Stateless, or the works of countless others who’ve clearly drunk from the Hassell font.

A perfect specimen.

Chick Corea: Trio Music, Live In Europe (ECM 1310)


Chick Corea
Trio Music, Live In Europe

Chick Corea piano
Miroslav Vitous bass
Roy Haynes drums
Recorded September 1984 in Willisau and Reutlingen
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 1983 the Keith Jarrett trio was just getting on its feet. That shadow would prove to be a difficult one to step out of in the coming decades. But if anyone could have thrown a light onto it, it was Chick Corea, who, along with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes, emoted a live recording for the ages. Corea seems to have done much soul searching in the 70s, and on this set one hears his chrysalis crackle with uncontainable vivaciousness. After his warm intro, “The Loop” kicks off the band’s deep combinatory powers with fortitude. Vitous is a joy to experience, his rich, oblong sound surrounding us like a wooded glade, brought to the life by the rustlings of Haynes’s snare and the trickling sunlight of Corea’s keys. “I Hear A Rhapsody” cocks its ear toward rapture. Lost along the winding staircase of its motive, it is a while before we realize these musicians have been keeping us in sight all along. We are reminded of this with every shift, and in the way Corea draws Haynes into whimsical conversation. “Summer Night / Night And Day” gives us the album’s first double-header, Vitous fluttering his wings in ways few others can. From this upbeat wonder, the trio transitions seamlessly into its inverse, seeming to fill every gap in the former’s carving with glorious relief. The second double-header tears a page from the Scriabin playbook with “Prelude No. 2,” making for one of Corea’s most beautiful stretches of internal life ever committed to disc. This bleeds into the staggered breathing of “Mock Up.” Vitous solos us through “Transformation,” while “Hittin’ It” pours the light on Haynes. Eicher has done us a service in including these, for, as so often happens in jazz recordings, long solos are either cut or curtailed. Yet here they are fully fledged elements in the album’s molecular pathways. We end on “Mirovisions,” which writes an arco bass across soaring pianism before diving hawk-like into the Valley of the Groove. A colorful unraveling follows, marked by flashes of buoyancy against a thoughtful backdrop.

A perfect album from Alpha to Omega, this is one of ECM’s finest and a delightful new addition to my Top 10. Invigorating to the last.

Marc Johnson: Bass Desires (ECM 1299)


Marc Johnson
Bass Desires

Marc Johnson bass
Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
John Scofield guitar
Peter Erskine drums
Recorded May 1985 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Samurai Hee-Haw,” the opening track of Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires, is one of the most memorable cuts in the ECM catalogue and a signature one for this transient project. Yet beyond its leader’s deeply rooted bass and Peter Erskine’s key-to-lock drumming, the pairing of Bill Frisell and John Scofield is what truly sets this firecracker a-sparkle. Their combined forces are enough to make one dizzy, and more than once they slip past our expectations by the skin of their teeth. Perhaps nothing could bear the weight of this resounding call to electric arms more confidently than a movement lifted from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. Hence “Resolution,” a groovy flower in which Erskine proves his own mettle with a tripped out solo against the metal string game being woven before him. The band turns the tables once more with the keening “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair.” This Appalachian folk song of Scottish origin finds not new but old life in the stretch of sonic hallway down which it is led. Lest we fall too deeply into elegy, the title track counters with rip-roaring fun. Erskine and Johnson lay down plenty of traction to spare as the two pickers fry the ether with their song. Elmer Bernstein’s “A Wishing Doll” sports a dancing Synclavier that can’t help but put one in mind of Pat Metheny. Flip a switch, though, and suddenly we’re riding Johnson’s “Mojo Highway,” of which the reggae-ish beat and lumpy bass complement smoldering mood swings from guitars.

This is a must for any ECM lover’s collection and ranks among the best of the Touchstones series. Like the title of Scofield’s “Thanks Again” that ends it, it holds up as a sprawling love letter to those on either end of the musical stick.

Bill Frisell: Rambler (ECM 1287)


Bill Frisell

Bill Frisell guitar, guitar synthesizer
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, cornet, fluegelhorn
Bob Stewart tuba
Jerome Harris electric bass
Paul Motian drums
Recorded August 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: James Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you’re like me, then you were introduced to the prodigy of guitarist Bill Frisell through the work of John Zorn’s groundbreaking Naked City outfit. In that context, Frisell was able to stretch his skin in ways that he never has before or since. Or so I believed until I only recently began to explore his back catalogue on ECM. The summit of these early explorations is shared by 1983’s In Line and Rambler. Where the former seemed to burrow into the deepest recesses of his craft, the latter travels far and wide, not least through the presence of some fine sidemen: Kenny Wheeler on three kinds of brass, Paul Motian on drums, Jerome Harris on electric bass, and, perhaps most notably, Carla Bley band regular Bob Stewart on tuba. Stewart’s pomp is especially enlivening, teasing out as it does Frisell’s penchant for not taking himself too seriously. The tuba threads an unwavering smile through the morbid march that is “Music I Heard” and adds earth tones to the silvery palette of the title track. The latter is quintessential among Frisell’s output. The lovely webbed slink of his guitar and gorgeous Wheelerian dialogues carries us in strums and strides to an ethereal conclusion. The band also abides by humor in the hokey and lumbering “Tone.” This, the album’s opener, gives us a taste of the mesh that is Frisell’s style, one strung with long threads of algae, picked up and spun by his band mates in kind. Through the tree swing sway of “When We Go” and the tongue-in-cheekily titled “Wizard Of Odds” we encounter Frisell’s flowery side, ever enhanced by Wheeler’s squeals and stops. The campiness of “Resistor” is tempered by the welding torch of Frisell’s electric and the laser of Wheeler’s trumpet, while “Strange Meeting,” fettered by a pleasant bass line, draws itself into an incisive Synclavier sound. As vital as Frisell is to this date, one feels him most in the compositions. Wheeler and Harris are the real stars, and let us not shut our eyes to Paul Motian’s sparkling threads.

Rambler is a significant album for showing the world a remarkable guitarist on his own terms, and through a set of compositions as distinct to his sound-world as the clouds are to the sky.

(Photo by Matthew Sussman)