Shankar: Song For Everyone (ECM 1286)

 

Shankar
Song For Everyone

Shankar 10-string double violin, drum machine
Jan Garbarek soprano and tenor saxophones
Zakir Hussain tabla, congas
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Recorded September 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Shankar and Jan Garbarek’s previous collaboration, Vision, opened many people’s ears to the more fruitful possibilities of idiomatic blends. And while that initial project yielded a fascinating album in its own right, I always felt it lacked something I couldn’t quite articulate. With Song For Everyone, that lack becomes clear once Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain level the playing field with their earthy rhythms. In their presence, electric violin and saxophone can soar even higher, knowing there will always be a ground to return to. As if to underscore this point, Shankar also employs a drum machine, as in the delightful “Paper Nut” that inaugurates us into the album’s universe. Shankar’s Philip Glassean harmonies and flexible dips form a sling that shoots us in slow motion toward the Visionary galaxy of “I Know,” where his sparkling pizzicato lines are reinvigorated by the presence of tabla. Garbarek has hardly ever sounded as clean as he does here. He digs deep into his emotional and technical reserves and proves his chameleonic abilities, such that whenever he returns with the theme in tow, it is always as if from a long journey. This enchanting track also exemplifies the coalescence of which these two musicians are so worthily capable. “Watching You” reinstates the drum machine, which is immediately valorized by Shankar’s likeminded precision (even when multi-tracking, he sounds like one instrument). Ascendant chording provides ample uplift for Garbarek’s rainbow arcs. The violin solo here proves that Shankar’s mastery comes not from the top down, but from the inside out. He makes the most demanding passages seem effortless and the simplest seem complex, as in “Conversation.” Here his virtuosity enhances Garbarek at his adaptive best. After the anthemic jubilation of the title track, “Let’s Go Home” comes across as introverted, though no less energetic. “Rest In Peace” ends the album with bowed heads. It is a slow dissipation of cloud, a gentle breeze of the heart, the empty chambers of a body in which music is the only tangible spirit.

Egberto Gismonti/Nana Vasconcelos: Duas Vozes (ECM 1279)

 

Duas Vozes

Egberto Gismonti guitars, piano, flutes, dilruba, voice
Nana Vasconcelos percussion, berimbau, voice
Recorded June 1984 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes I wonder. I wonder what forces were at work to have brought two brilliant music makers like Egberto Gismonti and Nana Vasconcelos together on this earth. I wonder what energies nourish their spirits any time the two of them step into the studio, alone or otherwise. I also wonder how a surefire recipe for continued enchantment could come out of the oven as this misshapen improvisation session from 1984. Neither musician has ever needed a definitive structure around which to coil his respective song in order to be captivating (just listen to, for example, the breadth of freedom in Gismonti’s Solo or Vasconcelos’s Saudades), but during the first few steps of Duas Vozes I find myself craving it. It’s not that the images painted therein aren’t unique, only that the colors with which they are painted simply don’t blend. Thus is the album’s first half the backside of a one-way mirror: we can see through its devices, even if the microphones can’t. Thankfully, in the latter half we come face to face with a reflection that shows us only the depth of our awe.

Our first confusions arise in “Aquarela Do Brasil,” which begins playfully enough, but quickly degrades into six long minutes of Vasconcelos’s whooping (compare his sparing use thereof on “Carneval Of The Four”). “Rio De Janeiro” also breaks its promise when, after the lively pulse that opens it, Gismonti’s guitar wanders in circles without ever enlarging any of them. And while much of this sounds like outtakes between jam sessions, there are some flashes of brilliance in which these longtime friends explore insanely microscopic avenues of their craft, particularly during a passage for which Gismonti plays the little strings at top of his instrument. The cavernous flute of “Tomarapeba” opens the portal just a little more, as do Vasconcelos’s calls from the treetops in “Dancado.”

It isn’t until “Fogueira” that we get something undeniably special, something far beyond what I would already have expected. Its balance of restraint and full-out effusiveness blossoms with a Ralph Towner-like sensibility, Vasconcelos adding masterful color all the while. With this, the portal is thrown open, letting in the floodlights that are “Bianca” and “Don Quixote.” In the latter, Vasconcelos’s insectile tongue-fluttering adds the perfect environmental touch, even as Gismonti unveils his piano for a final stretch of droning brilliance.

For an album that is only half the masterpiece it could have been, how it ever came to be included in ECM’s Touchstones series would seem unwarranted were it not for its destination. But even if we aren’t quite sure about how it gets there, Duas Vozes is worth your attention for that destination alone.

Pat Metheny Group: First Circle (ECM 1278)

 

Pat Metheny Group
First Circle

Pat Metheny guitars, synclavier guitar, guitar synthesizer
Lyle Mays trumpet, synthesizers, piano, organ, bells
Steve Rodby acoustic bass, bass guitar, drum
Pedro Aznar voice, guitar, percussion
Paul Wertico drums, percussion
Recorded February 15-19, 1984 at Power Station, New York
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Pat Metheny

By the release of First Circle, expectations for the Pat Metheny Group surely ran high, but with the appearance of new drummer Paul Wertico (replacing Danny Gottlieb) and Argentine percussionist Pedro Aznar (who took the place of Nana Vasconcelos, and whose vocals elevated the group to new levels) the results coalesced into something timeless. Don’t let the hokey “Forward March” fool you, however. Everything that follows is as solid as it gets. Were you to map out a flow chart of listeners’ favorites here, the largest field would likely be taken up by the effervescent title cut. And while indeed this vocalese-laden train of stunning pianism from Lyle Mays and Metheny’s equally locomotive acoustic is a glorious masterstroke if there ever was one, one can hardly refuse the wide vistas of “Yolanda, You Learn” or the heartrending brushwork of “If I Could,” one of the most utterly beautiful statements Metheny has ever recorded. “Tell It All” and “End Of The Game” hark back to Offramp, the latter especially in its soaring synth guitar lead. Both are spurred along by a gentle guiding hand, born of a palpable synergy and given traction in Wertico’s fantastic timekeeping. Although Metheny’s presence is vivid throughout, for me it is Mays who gilds this project with its distinguishing colors. And hats off to Aznar, whose singing in “Más Allá” (this album’s “What Game Shall We Play Today?”) adds another highlight. It’s fantastic to hear lyrics being added sparingly to the Metheny universe, if only because his melodic lines already describe so much without them. Aznar shines again in “Praise,” thereby ending things with a revelry more than worthy of its title. Are you really still reading this?

Oregon: s/t (ECM 1258)

 

Oregon
Oregon

Paul McCandless reeds, flute
Glen Moore bass, violin, piano
Ralph Towner guitar, piano, synthesizer
Collin Walcott sitar, percussion, voice
Recorded February 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

By the time of this self-titled ECM debut, the collective known as Oregon had firmly established its uncategorizable sound on a host of recordings for Vanguard. From the cover photograph, which stands as one of the more confounding choices in ECM history, those unfamiliar with Oregon would probably never guess that the music it sleeves could be so ethereal. Oregon finds the group still in its original incarnation with Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, and Collin Walcott (in one of his last sessions with the group before his life was tragically ended in a 1984 car crash).

The opening chords of “The Rapids” render some of the album’s more compositionally minded passages (the others being McCandless’s “Beside A Brook” and two pieces from Moore, of which the winged “Arianna” stands out). And yet, while rays of light shoot from McCandless’s soprano, the music’s percussive colors are what really hold our attention. Oregon doesn’t so much cross into as over idioms, as exemplified to pointillist effect in the droning “Beacon.” These sustained emotions continue later in “Skyline,” before carrying us into “Impending Bloom,” the rhythms of which burst like an organic ancestor of Aphex Twin’s “Alberto Balsalm.” It also constitutes a meta-descriptive statement for Oregon’s musical process, where the idea of profusion is but a memory on the slope toward a different kind of light. It moves with the persistence of a small locomotive, soprano saxophone flirting with the snake of smoke above it. The evocative “Taos” is another highlight, so adroitly negotiating as it does subterranean thrums with high flutes. The crepuscular guitar and wayfaring bass clarinet of “There Was No Moon That Night” form yet another.

I must confess that, despite Oregon’s legendary status, I was only recently introduced to their music via this recording. A magical experience. As I understand it, those more well-versed than I in Oregon lore tend to look down upon this album, so who knows how my relationship with it might change as I begin to familiarize myself with the more classic material. Whatever may come, I know I’ll always appreciate this date for having shown me the way.

Dino Saluzzi: Kultrum (ECM 1251)

Dino Saluzzi
Kultrum

Dino Saluzzi bandoneón, voice, percussion, flutes
Recorded November 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album, not to be confused with the ECM New Series effort of the same name, was Dino Saluzzi’s first for the label. Using only his two hands, the bandoneón master brings out the multifarious qualities of his instrument as no other can. In this music we feel decades upon decades of history compressed into every squeeze of the bellows, and find ourselves surrounded by yearned-for lands and traditions. Into these we are ceremoniously welcomed through “Kultrum Pampa – Introducción Y Malambo” (Introduction And Malambo). Flute and drum draw us out from the cave of our ignorance and into the rising dawn, where nothing but an open circle awaits us with the promise of life. A voice chants, lifting a feather with every word and dropping it into our memory. We disavow the codes that divide our skins and minds, that bind our resolve to ideology, that whisk away our honor and truth to false idols. This blending of chant and song enhances the sacredness of both. It is one of three longish pieces on the album, which include the stunning “Agua De Paz” (Water Of Peace), one of the most gorgeous Saluzzi has ever recorded, and the rushing current of “El Rio Y El Abuelo” (The River And The Grandfather), in which he brings his veritably orchestral sound to mountainous light. There are moments in this piece that, especially around the 3:10 mark, sound exactly like the penultimate fade of Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Illusion. Such unintended moments of confluence merely hint at the reach of Saluzzi’s playing. Similarly, the handful of shorter pieces on Kultrum seem to flirt with their own watery reflections, coming to a head in the three-part suite “Ritmo Arauca” (Arauca Ritual). This life cycle is woven in earth and ice by a shuttle of elemental percussion. What was once the ceremony now becomes all-knowing life, a landscape where towering figures mingle with those too small to imagine, where the wind and the sunlight share a common yarn, where the elevation of a human life depends solely on how it falls. Again, Saluzzi’s voice emerges alone, as much soothsayer as it is curious child. Fans of Ken Fricke’s Baraka will also recognize here the shared Andean roots of Inkuyo’s “Wipala.” At last, “Pasos Que Quedan” (Steps That Stay) calls us back into the smoke where we began, where only our selves await, purified by sky and song in “Por El Sor Y Por La Lluvia” (For The Sun And For The Rain).

This album proves Saluzzi’s value not only as a musician, but also as a living heart of which music is blood. He is a master in the truest sense, which is to say that he pours forth through his instrument, as his instrument, showing us that the only way down his musical path is to close our eyes and let our feet guide us. Without question, one of ECM’s top 10 of all time.

Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (ECM 1209)

 

Lester Bowie
The Great Pretender

Lester Bowie trumpet
Hamiet Bluiett baritone saxophone
Donald Smith piano, organ
Fred Williams basses
Phillip Wilson drums
Fontella Bass vocal
David Peaston vocal
Recorded June 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title cut on Lester Bowie’s The Great Pretender comes of course from The Platters, the influential vocal group whose other hits, “Only You” and “The Magic Touch,” catapulted the group’s success through the rock n’ roll charts of the 1950s. Bowie’s investment in popular music’s connections to jazz set him a world apart. Second perhaps only to 1978’s The 5th Power, his debut for ECM as leader works wonders with its namesake. Where the original opens with quiet fortitude, this massive 17-minute rendition does so even more, the pianism of Donald Smith breathing a soulful mist upon a landscape that sometimes swirls with unanticipated gales. Fontella Bass and David Peaston are our doo-wop backups, their presence making the music that much more phenomenal. From Hamiet Bluiette’s heady baritone solo to the swampy rhythm section, Bowie has plenty of gum to chew in his horn.

No Bowie experience is complete without an inoculation of whimsy, and this we get in his rendition of “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” Phillip Wilson’s bright snare and Bowie’s fluttering elaborations share the air with Smith’s long slides. These morph into an evocative Fender Rhodes in “When The Doom (Moon) Comes Over The Mountain,” a wild chase backed by Fred Williams’s popping electric bass and the late-night sprawl of Bowie’s blatting. What begins as an overused Latin riff in “Rio Negroes” quickly transforms into a foray of architectural proportions secured by solid improvisational beams. Rich bass lines and rim-work carry us out in style. “Rose Drop” again looks through a glass playfully, only this time with a deeper drop. The tinkling of toy piano sparkles in Bowie’s waning sunlight, overflowing with half-remembered sentiments, each a photograph pasted in a scrapbook like no other.

Lester Bowie is like the moon. His is a field that waxes and wanes, haunting us with intimations of a distinct face, even as it harbors a dark side that we never get to see, except through the grace of studio technology, which allows us a glimpse the deeper intimations of his craft. We get this most readily in “Oh, How The Ghost Sings,” which from the evocative title to its flawless execution rings with the after-effects of a temple bell, the actual striking of which we never hear, and ends on a protracted, distant wail.

The material on The Great Pretender is all great and lacks a single pretender, and has been deservedly consecrated among ECM’s Touchtones.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM 1167)

 

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Full Force

Lester Bowie trumpet
Joseph Jarman reeds, flute, gongs
Roscoe Mitchell reeds, percussion
Malachi Favors Maghostus bass, percussion, melodica, vocal
Famoudou Don Moye sun percussion
Recorded January 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Engineer: David Baker
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Full Force begins in cool breath and ends in scalding heat, the inhalation and exhalation of its own mission. As one comes to expect from any AEC outing, tonal colors are on a mission to envelop us. Despite what the title would have you believe, this is an album of staggering subtlety and finesse. That being said, it is also an intense experience. The first such intimations appear early in “Magg Zelma,” which amid a delectable gamut of percussive signatures begins like an iteration of John Zorn’s Cobra—duck calls share the air with gongs, brass, and mysterious whistles—before the muddy bass of Malachi Favors is cross-hatched more regularly by cymbals and winds. Rhythmatist Don Moye keeps us in the loop as our reedmen crack a freedom egg. Big band horns carry us along through tight harmonies in “Care Free,” which lasts all of 51 seconds, prelude to the Mingus tribute “Charlie M.” Here, the mood and melody recall “A Sentimental Journey,” if through raunchier diction. An unhinged bass solo and some swanky sax from Roscoe Mitchell underline its narrative flow. “Old Time Southside Street Dance” christens itself with a bottle of fire. Laced with an incredible alto solo sustained by circular breathing and equally inexhaustible energy, this tune is perfectly programmed as the penultimate catharsis. A string of solos from trumpet, soprano, and bass skid into the finish line by the skin of their teeth.

These vagabond musicians prove their inventiveness at every turn, and nowhere more so than in via the Baroque chamber instruments woven into the prismatic title track. They hurtle forth with all the potential of a tornado compressed into a dot—a sweeping yet brief gesture, a calling out, a fluttering drum, a distorted voice, a bout of laughter, and a resolute twang running its fingernail around the edge of an enormous sonorous quarter.

Now occupying a well-earned place among ECM’s carefully chosen Touchstones series, this may just be the best entry point into the AEC’s fantastic ride.

Pat Metheny: New Chautauqua (ECM 1131)

 

Pat Metheny
New Chautauqua

Pat Metheny electric 6- and 12-string guitars, acoustic guitar, 15-string harp guitar, electric bass
Recorded August 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pat Metheny is one of those rare artists whose virtuosity is so fluid that it is no longer a necessary lens through which to view his music. Despite the 43 strings at his disposal for this fourth ECM outing, Metheny opts for pure expanse over density. While his first three projects found him fronting equally captivating support, here we see the Missouri native charting heretofore-unrecorded autobiographical depths that remain as resonant as they ever were.

New Chautauqua is bookended by two travel diaries. The title opener cracks like a morning egg onto a sizzling griddle. Here, as throughout, we find an entire desert compressed into a single grain of sand, needing only the microscope of Metheny’s meticulous syncopations to make our way through its staggering terrain. At the far end of the tunnel is new life lit by “Daybreak.” Additional guitars and bass ooze with optimism in this divided smile, holding fast to the idea of—but never the physical need for—a destination.

Along the way, we encounter a string of contemplative rest stops, each the trail marker of a limpid night. Every verse of “Country Poem” makes for a fitting prelude to the diptych of “Long-Ago Child/Fallen Star,” in which the 15-string harp guitar dialogues with an open slide in the lead. Such delicacy can only be drawn in negative space, using pigments of regret and joy in equal measure. A heavy pause inhales deeply before expelling its acoustic splendor, hovering over arpeggiated flowers like a silent and thoughtful bee whose days are numbered, but whose memory lives on through a psychological pollen of sorts that cross-fertilizes vaster, less visible pastures. “Hermitage” might as well be the album’s title, so thoughtful are its steps, each a point along a circle of plot and resolution. Yet the needle in the New Chautauqua haystack is “Sueño Con Mexico.” Threaded by an acoustic ostinato, around which Metheny gilds ornamental embraces, its unyielding grace never fails to unhinge. It has the entire world’s natural cycles in its purview, turning as might an eddy in an April stream.

Metheny’s is a highly refined world that is as loose as it is exacting, written in the kind of polished script that can only come from a musical path forged through love of communication. Among decades of varied output, this stands as one of his most vivid sonic postcards for the yet-to-be.

Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette: s/t (ECM 1125)

 

Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette

Terje Rypdal guitar, guitar synthesizer, organ
Miroslav Vitous double-bass, electric piano
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded June 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal/Miroslav Vitous/Jack DeJohnette joins its eponymous crew in a one-off trio date for the ages. Although billed as something of a Rypdal venture, the album is primarily a canvas for Vitous, who bubbles forth with all the viscous potency of oil from a crack in the earth. The bassist and Weather Report founder culls from that selfsame influential oeuvre his classic tune, “Will” (a lilting and sentimental ride which made its first appearance on Sweetnighter), and pairs it with “Believer,” another original that is more Rypdal-driven. These two form the heart of a tripartite experience that begins with a pair of Rypdals. The first of these, “Sunrise,” floats in on DeJohnette’s scurrying drums, spurred by the air currents of Rypdal’s Fender Rhodes. Suspended plucking from bass stands out like heat lightning against Rypdal’s grittier monologues. Overdubs balance out the spacious surroundings with their fallow echoes. The guitar dominates here, its trembling accents seeming to grab clouds by their collars and shake them until melodies come falling out in patchy storms. He scrapes his pick along the strings, as if tearing holes in the very fabric of space-time. With respectful stealth, his gorgeous chording in “Den Forste Sne” manages to undercut the bowed bass, the latter recalling the tender songs of David Darling. This one is a stunner in its grandiose intimacy, accentuated all the more by Rypdal’s low-flying passes. We end with a diptych of group improvisations, each the shadow of the other. Between the frenetic syncopations of “Flight” and the pointillism of “Seasons,” we are given plenty of poetry with which to narrate our inner lives.

While, arguably, a pronounced variety of modes would have made this a “stronger” record, it seems content in being the languid organism that it is, and constitutes another enchanting landscape deservedly hung in the hallowed ECM Touchstones gallery. It might not be the best place to start, but what a detour to be had along the way…