Bobo Stenson Trio: War Orphans (ECM 1604)

 

Bobo Stenson Trio
War Orphans

Bobo Stenson piano
Anders Jormin double-bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded May 1997 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Following a memorable return on 1996’s Reflections, the Bobo Stenson Trio strengthened its resolve with the release of War Orphans. Like the Ornette Coleman tune that gives the album its title, the flow borne out on these proceedings is attentive and sincere. The footfall of the same, tender as if not wanting to wake a sleeping child, lends this and its surroundings a natural feel. Yet it is “Oleo de mujer con sombrero” by Cuban folk singer and nueva trova pioneer Silvio Rodriguez that prefaces. A tender intro from Stenson leads us into the album cover’s barren vista, a place where memories and souls intermingle like characters in a Theo Angelopoulos film. Anders Jormin grows from the piano like a melodic appendage into the waters of his own “Natt.” The first of three tunes by the bassist, its current rolls stones into smooth jewels, while “Eleventh Of January” and “Sediment” bring synergy and whimsy in turn. Captivating solos in both cast him as the hub of this emotional wheel. Coleman resurfaces in “All My Life,” to which drummer Jon Christensen adds his skipping crosscurrents, setting off another star turn from Jormin, whose fingers dance their fretless way into the heart of Stenson’s lone original, “Bengali Blue.” This smooth joint crashes against the rhythm section’s shore before a surprisingly buoyant version of Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” woos us into the piano’s final words, receding like a sun dipping its ladle into steaming ocean.

War Orphans has a feeling of clockwork, intimate gears set by key to turn and melodize. It is a salve to our innermost wounds. Like ripples in a pond from three stones, these minds naturally find ways to commingle.

Keith Jarrett Trio: At The Blue Note – The Complete Recordings (ECM 1575-80)

Keith Jarrett Trio
At The Blue Note – The Complete Recordings

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded June 3–5, 1994, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When Keith Jarrett opens Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way,” the first off this monumental document of a weekend’s Blue Note concerts in June of 1994, we feel right at home. Sharing the stage with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, he epitomizes balance of fire and grace in the famed jazz club’s intimate and hallowed confines. But there is, of course, nothing confining about the 7-hour journey on which the listener has just embarked, for as Peacock spreads his fingers wide, fanning the flames over DeJohnette’s never-hackneyed rat-a-tat-tat, we understand that this is something more than music. It’s art, pure and simple.

So begins the first of three glorious nights of (mostly) standards from the trio that rewrote them all. What follows is a veritable train of the tried and true, which lets off the Gershwins at one station with “How Long Has This Been Going On,” Charlie Parker at another (“Now’s The Time”), and J. J. Johnson at still another (“Lament”). Peacock’s improvisational arc is their running spine, binding page after page of archival paper with insoluble glue. Jarrett manages to float throughout the livelier locks of “While We’re Young,” “Oleo,” and “If I Were A Bell,” the latter of which requires a pair of binoculars to spot DeJohnette, so high does he soar. The second Friday set also proves fertile ballad ground, tugging at the heartstrings “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning.” Here Peacock eases in almost unawares—a gradation of sunset from pink to orange—and turns drums into whispers. “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” is another highlight, closing out the night with a gospel edge.

“Autumn Leaves,” which for my money no one plays better, kicks off Saturday’s tour de force at the astronomical length of nearly 27 minutes. But make no mistake: not a single note is wasted. Between Peacock’s beautifully ascending lines and Jarrett’s open O of ecstatic communication with the gods of improvisation, to say nothing of the fine swinging of the sticks from DeJohnette, there is always something to admire with each new listen. “Days of Wine and Roses” spreads one royal jazz flush across the poker table, giving us some of the set’s most unified moments, while a likeminded rendition of “When I Fall in Love” underscores Peacock, who is every bit as deft as Jarrett at unpacking the motives at hand for all they’re worth. “How Deep Is The Ocean” is a perfect example of Jarrett’s skills as an introducer, bringing us as he does into the atmosphere of the piece before the vamp rears its familiar head. Fresher moments abound in “I’ll Close My Eyes.” A crisp joint that snaps like a snow pea, its affirming energies feed Jarrett’s most phenomenal solo of the entire package. Spinning his chromatic staircases as if he were a lighthouse builder in a parallel night, he adds flesh to every bone. As Friday ended in Pentacost, so Saturday ends in the blues with “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be.”

Which leads us into the dynamic visions of Sunday’s closing sets. The first takes the smooth (“My Romance”) with the tempestuous (“La Valse Bleue”), the flustered (“You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”) with the thrilling (“Straight, No Chaser”). The second adopts a more meditative approach, melting in Jarrett’s own “Desert Sun.” One of a smattering of originals, it unfolds like a solo concert piece, made all the richer for the presence of his incomparable sidemen. Like “Partners” (appearing twice on the album) and “Bop-Be,” it is a standalone story, a new chapter in a book that may never be finished. “No Lonely Nights” is another personal trip and finds its composer pouring on the starlight like syrup over pancakes. The remaining half of his tunes grow out of shorter standards, turning, for example, “On Green Dolphin Street” into a 21-minute jam with the addition of “Joy Ride.” So, too, with “You Don’t Know What Love Is” (augmented by Jarrett’s “Muezzin”) and “I Fall In Love Too Easily,” which submits to “The Fire Within.” And where else could such sustained brilliance come from?

Just when you think you’ve picked a favorite guide out of this trio for these sentimental journeys, another swoops in to take his place. In spite of their seemingly unstoppable flow, they always know when to take pause, to let the air breathe with the heads and tails of something new. And while I’d never recommend limiting oneself to a single recording by this groundbreaking group, for deep-end swimmers you can’t go wrong with this dive. As a live document alone, it will stand the test of time. The only downside is that you may feel sad at not having been there when all of this went down. Thankfully, through this treasure of a recording, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we were. The only standards worth sharing, says Jarrett in his liner notes, are the highest ones, and at the Blue Note you’ll find nothing but. This is where it’s at.

David Darling: Cello (ECM 1464)

David Darling
Cello

David Darling acoustic cello, 8-string electric cello
Recorded November 1991 and January 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

David Darling’s Cello is one of the most stunning albums ever to be released on ECM in any genre. Its fluid paths feel like home. Darling plows the improvisatory depths of his soul, given free rein in the studio to paint the negative spaces in between those clouds on the album’s cover, ever deeper, ever truer to the core of something alive. Most journeys might take you across some distance to get you to where you’re going, yet few will actually unpack where you are standing with such complex, unabashed glory that one need not take a single step to travel to the end of the universe and back. Cello is one such journey.

The opening “Darkwood I” carries us into a state of bliss unlike any other, finding its interest in the empty spaces of time that define our action and thought alike. “No Place Nowhere” swells with the blessing of life, finding in every shift of light a new window through which Darling casts the details of his destiny through shadow. One finds here a long and winding road into horizon, forever receding, that is the vanishing point in sound, the blessing and the curse of beauty, the sweeping gesture of aesthetic pleasure rolled humbly into a never-ending circle. The bird calls of “Fables” dance in the sky like time-lapsed aurora borealis, twisting our sense of time to the tune of something divine. “Dark-wood II” is a wilting flower, a lakeside flower dropping spores. “Lament” lowers us in swaddling into the slow-motion cradle of the wind, the mountain veil as a crook in a mother’s arm, singing our souls softly to sleep. “Two Or Three Things” evokes Jean-Luc Godard with its softly flowing landscape of water and wind, grass and foam, where swim the vagaries of our modern life against the tide of regression that is our calling into death. This breathtaking journey guides us into a place that is so deeply inside us that we must disappear to find it. “Indiana Indian,” forever my favorite track on the album, begins in a harmonic swirl before loosing a pizzicato chain of finely honed memories. A jazzy half-note swing brings us into the enthralling drama of “Totem.” Here, an ocean of double stops, a tidal wave of lilting lines, leaving an imprint of “Psalm” in the sands. Its protracted antiphony sheds its clothing to reveal “Choral.” This Möbius drop into solitude, where harmony offers the illusory promise of companionship in a world without bodies, whispers at the interstices of our alienation. “The Bell” has the makings of an Arvo Pärt choral work with its microtonal harmonies and tintinnabulations. “In November” rounds a cinematic edge, rolling over into a low and calming thunder and ending with the yellowing strains of “Darkwood III.”

On paper, these might seem little more than chromatic exercises, but in the vastness of Darling’s playing, combined with Eicher’s attention to space, they achieve a meditative state in which the simplest musical utterances become the most profound. Eicher’s touch can be ever felt in the sound and in the melodic elements he has provided, showing us that he is not only a fine producer, but also has a supremely sensitive ear for melody and, above all, time. For this improvised session, Eicher told Darling to go as deep as he could go, thus expressing the spirit of the label at heart, not to mention the spirit of what a musician can achieve when open to infinity.

Stephan Micus: To The Evening Child (ECM 1486)

Stephan Micus
To The Evening Child

Stephan Micus steel drums, voice, dilruba, suling, kortholt, ney, sinding
Recorded January and Feburary 1992 at MCM Studios
Digital mastering: Tonstudio Mahne, Dießen

Stephan Micus’s fifth album for ECM is a lullaby. I know nothing of its origins, but I would be surprised if he hadn’t just become a father before recording it, so freshly paternal are its meditations. This time, Micus turns the kaleidoscope of his endless talent to reveal steel drums as the sound color of the moment. These provide a resonant, gamelan-like undercurrent throughout and become more biologically attuned as they sing beneath his mallets. Yet it is his actual voice that awakens the heart in “Nomad Song,” scooping earth in such a way that all life falls through its fingers unharmed, leaving only a heap of unconditional love. The newness of creation abounds in “Yuko’s Eyes,” in which Micus sings now through a bowed dilruba, turning infancy inside out to reveal a future of hope and dreams fulfilled. “Young Moon” pairs that constant steel drum with suling (an Indonesian bamboo flute) and kortholt (a capped reed instrument popular during the Renaissance) for a softly glittering wave of light, given corporeal shape through open-throated calls. The title track welcomes ney, through it gilding the album’s aquatic themes with moonlight. It grows a feather for every breath that falls, as if reaching out to any and all children who slumber in fear and security alike. From these Micus spins a wealth of comfort, trembling to the tune of his heartbeat. There is perpetuity in this dream, from which one is born and to which one returns when circadian rhythms have become a thread of silence. “Morgenstern” stretches a sky bridge from cloud to cloud with steel-drummed steps, while “Equinox” lives in penumbral shadow, crowning a procession of closed-mouthed reverence. Each pair of hands offers a flower to “Desert Poem.” Eyes shielded by sleep, Micus dips his toes in the Milky Way’s waters and dries himself against a tree that grows alone, save for the fallen seed who awaits for the light of dawn to bless it with the kiss of tomorrow.

This music sounds in those hushed spaces where the universe inhales, the sound that keeps all celestial bodies spinning. Like the language in which Micus sings, its words convey meaning to a part of us deep and out of grasp. But for the duration of an album, at least, we can feel it as presently as the rain on our faces.

John Surman/John Warren: The Brass Project (ECM 1478)

 

John Surman
John Warren
The Brass Project

John Surman saxophones, alto and bass clarinets, piano
Henry Lowther trumpet
Stephen Waterman trumpet
Stuart Brooks trumpet
Malcolm Griffiths trombone
Chris Pyne trombone
David Stewart bass trombone
Richard Edwards bass trombone
Chris Laurence bass
John Marshall drums, percussion
John Warren conductor
Recorded April 1992 at Angel Studios, London
Engineer: Gary Thomas
Produced by John Surman and Steve Lake

John Surman makes an indelible statement with The Brass Project, for which conductor John Warren leads a fine set of ensemble interpretations of the English saxophonist’s engaging compositions. The result is an album of many moods, beginning with the pensive horns and bass clarinet mesh of “The Returning Exile” and ending with the likeminded haunts of “All For A Shadow.” The filling is equally rich, boasting such deftly realized swings as the Wheelerian “The New One Two,” of which Part 2 showcases Surman’s uplifting soprano work. With the grace of a falcon, he navigates the great brass divide, casting a far-reaching shadow with his outstretched wings. That same soprano mesmerizes in “Mellstock Quire/Tantrum Clangley,” which despite its quiet sheen enables the album’s most spirited playing. The Brass Project is not without its surreal moments, as in the burnished drones of “Spacial Motive,” but for the most part we get such groovier shades as “Wider Vision” (a.k.a., baritone chocolate) and some straightforward balladry in “Silent Lake.”

As with the last, the arrangements here explore the full benefit of Surman’s music with the musicians at hand and give us unique insight into the mind of an artist who never ceases to grow. Fans of his solo work wanting to branch out: look no further.


Original cover

Miroslav Vitous/Jan Garbarek: Atmos (ECM 1475)

 

Miroslav Vitous
Atmos

Miroslav Vitous double-bass
Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Recorded February 1992 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For me, Jan Garbarek excels in his more intimate and intensely collaborative settings, and this date with Miroslav Vitous makes for some fine synergy indeed. Vitous takes light steps, if with heavy intent, through the introductory “Pegasos.” Garbarek, meanwhile, is content in hanging his throaty songs from high rafters. Like its eponymous animal, this music and all that follows is a mythic blend of strength and finesse, joining feathery appendages to a robust body that soars wherever it may. “Goddess” treads more carefully and seems to regress even as it grows, achieving a balance of proportion between body and mind, transcending the plains even as it plants its feet to the earth’s core. Vitous elicits some lovely percussiveness here, drumming his bass to send Garbarek on a lyrical scouting journey. The rhythmic ruminations continue in “Forthcoming,” giving the saxophonist all the inspiration he needs to dig deep and pluck out the ponderous jewel that is the title track. Here we encounter some beautiful thoughts from soprano, threading the ever-growing loom of Vitous’s strings. A captivating track that takes a delicate swing of its melodic compass into a direction of utter stillness. Unfortunately, “Time Out” (Parts I and II) detracts from the album’s tender atmosphere. Its horn-blasted interjections are grossly out of place. In between them, however, is “Dirvision,” a heart-tugging solo from Vitous that precludes two meditative numbers to close.

All in all, despite a brief misstep, a fascinating and worthy excursion from two far-reaching talents. How fortuitous to have them both here, telling stories timeless and sincere.

Keith Jarrett Trio: Bye Bye Blackbird (ECM 1467)

 

 

Keith Jarrett Trio
Bye Bye Blackbird

Keith Jarrett piano
Gary Peacock bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded October 12, 1991 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jay Newland
Mastered by Jan Erik Kongshaug
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Seeing that Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, and Jack DeJohnette all once shared a stage with Miles Davis early on in their careers, it’s no wonder that they should step into New York’s Power Station studio, where the trio first took shape, for this classic tribute session. Recorded just 13 days after the Prince of Darkness’s passing, Bye Bye Blackbird sits above the rest for its sheer profundity of expression. The Keith Jarrett Trio is, of course, not an outfit to take itself lightly: with an average track length of over eight minutes, we can rest assured that every tune will be carried to conclusions far beyond our reckoning.

The title opener welcomes us into a nostalgic world, glimpses of what it must have been like to work with Miles. The high-end musings into which the music evolves speak to the ecstasy that any such musician must have felt at those moments of ethereal access. One cannot help but notice how energetic, for the most part, this session is. Between the swinging “Straight No Chaser” and “Butch And Butch,” there’s more than enough to get excited about. Jarrett is as fine as ever, singing his way through every spiraling change like a child skipping into the magic of “Summer Night.” Here, Peacock plays with a more consolatory air, allowing a tear or two before the 18.5-minute group improv “For Miles” lifts wheels from tarmac. After a spate from DeJohnette and a lush pianistic flowering, the cloud cover of our lingering grief fades with each new shift. The inescapable “I Thought About You” then brings us into the excerpted “Blackbird, Bye Bye,” closing us out with a kiss and a sigh.

Yet for me, the brushed beauties of “You Won’t Forget Me” ring most authentically. A reflective solo from Peacock buoys Jarrett, who stretches his own veils across the stars, cupping an entire city in his hands and keeping all who dwell within it warm against the chill of remorse. We will indeed not ever forget him.

A note on production. The sound of this recording is distinctive—compressed and sere. I imagine it was recorded with very little preparation, and the fact that it was later mastered by Jan Erik Kongshaug indicates an absence of engineers when the tracks were laid down. This gives the music an archival ring, reaching back to the atmosphere of the 60s, without which nothing on this heartfelt album would have existed. Whether calculated or not, I appreciate the throwback. One can feel this music on the verge of exploding, looking respectfully, distantly, and with deference to the past. Suitably recorded for a moment-in-time sort of feel, it is like the capsule of a bygone era unearthed in a silent world.

Louis Sclavis Quintet: Rouge (ECM 1458)

 

Louis Sclavis Quintet
Rouge

Louis Sclavis clarinets, soprano saxophone
Dominique Pifarély violin
Bruno Chevillon bass
François Raulin piano, synthesizer
Christian Ville drums
Recorded September 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Rouge is the magical label debut from clarinetist and soprano saxophonist Louis Sclavis, fronting here a group whose unity betrays an innocence honed to a galactic edge.

The album is an organically connected unit, a suit of sights and sounds working in concert toward a vastness that outstrips them all. I cannot help, from the vantage point of retrospection, draw certain musical connections throughout this hour-long journey. First are the Edward Vasala-like touches of “Kali la nuit,” which like the enigmatic drummer paints a veritable field whose constellations are marked by the hoof-prints of wild horses. Tales of war and tradition intermingle until they become one unbreakable braid, contrasting visceral screams with old-school togetherness. One then encounters the specter of minimalism in “Reeves,” which seems fed through a kaleidoscope filled with shards of Philip Glass. These are merely an exploratory introduction to the intense electric violin of Dominique Pifarély, who stirs the drink until there’s only ice left in the glass. A heady piano trio fills out the backdrop all the while with a glittering appliqué of finely wrought support. “Les bouteilles” is perhaps the most eclectic. With head nods ranging from John Surman (in its exquisite attention to melodic and technical detail), Steve Reich (in the string playing), and Pat Metheney (in the exuberant close), it’s a fantastic ride.

These comparisons do nothing to rob Sclavis of his originality, for he casts a shadow from a distinct angle of mind and experience. As in the dawn-drenched threads of “One,” he draws his craft through varicolored needles. His flair for the programmatic is also notable, as in “Nacht,” in which bassist Bruno Chevillon folds his alchemy into the batter of the evening sky, baked to a crisp by distant stars and glazed with a sugary free jazz concoction courtesy of drummer Christian Ville. “Reflet” is an even starrier affair, one of many celestial moments in the album’s remainder, all of which find rest in “Face Nord.” Like a rewound VHS tape, this highly cinematic track spools back through climax, tragedy, romance, and into an innocent beginning. This we find fleshed forward in “Yes love,” the album’s last, stringing us across pianist François Raulin’s web of emotional power, innocence, and honesty—the tenets by which this groups lives, breathes, and plays.

Anouar Brahem: Conte de l’incroyable amour (ECM 1457)

 

Anouar Brahem
Conte de l’incroyable amour

Anouar Brahem oud
Barbaros Erköse clarinet
Kudsi Erguner ney
Lassad Hosni bendir, darbouka
Recorded October 1991 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After a memorable ECM debut with Barzakh, Anouar Brahem recorded this even more memorable sophomore effort one year later. Carrying over percussionist Lassad Hosni, Brahem welcomes Turkish musicians Kudsi Erguner on ney and Barbaros Erköse on clarinet. Erköse, a gypsy music specialist, adds rich colors to an already dense palette, weaving tethers that pull us into tender worlds. His duets with Erguner (“Etincelles” and “Peshrev Hidjaz Homayoun”) stand out as some of the album’s most flowing. The title track brings the patter of clay drums, weaving a gorgeous ney into our vision. (The melodies and rhythms here put this listener immediately in mind of the song “I Love You” from Omar Faruk Tekbilek’s album One Truth.) Captivating. Erguner shines again in “Diversion.” Slaloming through every drummed pillar with the conviction of a bird in search of prey and yet with the delicacy of an angel avoiding such violence, he brings a sense of history to every lilting gesture. “Nayzak” revives the clarinet amid oud and drums for a stunning taste of mountains and the plains. The album’s meat, though, comes in Brahem’s unaccompanied storytelling. From the dawn chorus of “L’oiseau de bois” and invigorating virtuosity of “Battements,” through the tender air “Le chien sur les genoux de la devineresse,” and on to “Epilogue,” there is unimaginable depth of yearning in every twang and strum.

This album is all about the composition, stripped to the barest essentials of melodic craft and burrowing straight into the marrow of our past lives. One of Brahem’s best to date.