John Surman: Selected Recordings (:rarum 13)

Surman

John Surman
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

John Surman is to the saxophone as a tuned mass damper is to a skyscraper. No matter the intensity of seismic activity at hand, he regulates balance, security, and stability through counteractive force. It’s an ability uncannily realized in “Druid’s Circle” (A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe, 1995), for which baritones provide rhythm and harmony beneath a dancing soprano, and “Portrait Of A Romantic” (Private City, 1988), a tender gathering of bass clarinet, recorder, and synth that tingles with fairytale magic. Such solo spaces are his métier, created through patient multitracking in studio and refined through an aging process that gives it a patina. Employing a sequencer in “Edges Of Illusion” (Upon Reflection, 1979) and using keyboards as a means of keeping time in “Piperspool” (Road To Saint Ives, 1990), he emits signals from universes within to those without.

Surman has also widened the scope of his own music in cyclical “The Returning Exile” (The Brass Project, 1993), “The Buccaneers” (The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, 1981) in duet with drummer Jack DeJohnette, and “Stone Flower” (Coruscating, 2000), which pairs his baritone with an inkwell string section. Other collaborative endeavors mark his discography in cardinal directions. Where “Gone To The Dogs” takes us northward to 1995’s Nordic Quartet and “Figfoot” southward to 1992’s Adventure Playground, the latter alongside pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Tony Oxley, “Number Six” from the Miroslav Vitous Group’s 1981 self-titled debut heads west with its circular breathing and dug-in heels, while “Ogeda” looks eastward to 1993’s November with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskine. Abercrombie’s tender chorus effect contrasts pleasingly with Surman’s blade over the fluid rhythm section.

And in the freely improvised “Mountainscape VIII” (Mountainscapes, 1976), Surman’s baritone and the bass of Barre Phillips, along with Stu Martin on drums and Abercrombie on guitar, render some physically demanding terrain. Yet Surman always knows where to place his steps, defining his path even as the path defines him.

Jack DeJohnette: Selected Recordings (:rarum 12)

DeJohnette

Jack DeJohnette
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Jack DeJohnette is more than the sums of his drums. He is also a distinctive composer and bandleader, and in this :rarum collection he allows immersive insight into a career that might not ever have flourished in the way it did without ECM’s faith. On the dark side of this moon, he charts superlative contributions as sideman to such enduring cartographies as In Pas(s)ing with guitarist Mick Goodrick, saxophonist John Surman, and bassist Eddie Gomez. On that 1979 album’s “Feebles, Fables And Ferns,” a laid-back tune with tender purpose woven into its every fiber, Surman’s baritone is especially comforting and offsets DeJohnette’s starlight in spades. And on “How’s Never,” taken from 1995’s Homecoming, we find him in the likeminded company of guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland. The fact that this tune also appeared on Holland’s own :rarum entry means we can now revisit it with the drumming in mind, thus finding an explosive heart at play. Another curious outlier is that traced by him and pianist Keith Jarrett on 1973’s Ruta and Daitya. From that rarely discussed duo album drops the internal dialoguing of “Overture / Communion.”

Swinging around to the fully sunlit face rewards our telescopic listening with the formative statements of “Third World Anthem” (Album Album, 1984) and “Silver Hollow” (New Directions,1978), of which the former could only have come to life as it did at the hands of John Purcell (alto), David Murray (tenor), Howard Johnson (tuba), and Rufus Reid (bass). This DeJohnette original is a master class in joyful noise that compels each soloist to unlock his own secret in the theme at hand. Another substantial leader date tapped here is 1997’s Oneness, for which he assembled a simpatico band with guitarist Jerome Harris, pianist Michael Cain, and percussionist Don Alias. The latter’s congas set the stage for “Jack In,” thereby showing DeJohnette’s sound to be everyday living personified.

Rounding out this conspectus, and rightfully so, are two selections from 1977’s solo endeavor, Pictures. With Abercrombie, guesting on “Picture 5,” he renders a strangely moving experience that moves from abstractions to martial beat and back again, and on “Picture 6” plays piano and percussion for an exercise in aural cinema. Indeed, his images are lit as if by projection so that they may burn themselves into the mind and, ultimately, the heart.

Egberto Gismonti: Selected Recordings (:rarum 11)

Gismonti

Egberto Gismonti
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

To my ears, the music of Egberto Gismonti is ultimately about one thing: memory. This single word may, of course, have as many shades of meaning as there are people to interpret it, and therein lies its power to invite listeners to reflect upon their own experience through the stories Gismonti tells. Whether running across the piano or examining the internal lives of his custom-built guitars, he can always be counted on to put a pin in our collective past as if it were something to revisit when proper arrangements have been made.

And proper arrangements he certainly provides on 1991’s Infância, on which every plucked string of “Ensaio De Escola De Samba (Dança Dos Escravos)” and “Dança No. 1” distills spirit into song. With an unerring sense of concentric motion, he allows quiet thoughts to yield dramatic expositions like the oil between tectonic plates. At the piano, he emotes with bassist Zeca Assumpção, saxophonist Mauro Senise, and drummer Nene on “10 Anos” (Sanfona, 1981), and on “Cavaquinho” packs down one of his most picturesque walking trails to date. Its arpeggios are webs in which the poetry of our lives is caught, seemingly distant yet actually within arm’s reach.

Though each of the pieces selected for this compilation tends to defy lumping together, I can’t help but feel that Gismonti endeavors to pull out songs that might otherwise remain forgotten in the recesses of history. Such is the case in “Kalimba (Lua Cheia)” (Sol Do Meio Dia, 1978), of which the titular instrument serves as foundation, as well as in the oddity of “Bianca” (Duas Vozes, 1984), wherein he is accompanied by the clapping of percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. And when he is alone at the guitar, as on the elliptical “Lundu (Azul)” (Dança dos Escravos, 1989) and the jangling seesaw between introversion and extroversion that is “Selva Amazônica – Pau Rolou” (Solo, 1979), he unwraps implications as the full gifts they were meant to be. Even in “Frevo,” as arranged for orchestra and piano on 1997’s Meeting Point, he makes us feel that we are the only ones being spoken to. He is site-specific, yet knowable anywhere, anytime, without a single introduction needed to take it all in.

Dave Holland: Selected Recordings (:rarum 10)

Holland

Dave Holland
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Bassist Dave Holland can always been counted on for (at the very least) two things: a clear delineation of ground rules and an openness to seeing said rules blown wide open by musicians he trusts implicitly. Starting on the outside and moving concentrically inward, we witness various levels of intensity with regard to those dynamics. For this collection, he has chosen to sample five of his quintet sessions, spanning the gamut from 1984’s Jumpin’ In to 2001’s Not For Nothin’. Between the classic big band flow of “You I Love” and the caravan ride of “Shifting Sands,” Holland stretches a robust banner of support. Along the way, one finds ample refreshment in “Homecoming” (Seeds of Time, 1985), an ecstatic experience noteworthy for Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn; “The Balance” (Points of View, 1998), which equalizes the light of Billy Kilson’s drumming and the shadow of Holland’s bassing toward an explosive running aground; and the title cut off 1999’s Prime Directive, a groove made palpable in Steve Nelson’s vibraphone over some of Holland’s finest backing on record.

Shedding a member gives us three iterations of the Dave Holland Quartet. Going backward, we begin with 1996’s Dream Of The Elders, of which “Equality” features lyrics of Maya Angelou sung by Cassandra Wilson and a worthy solo from saxophonist Eric Person. Holland sees that beauty and raises “Nemesis” (Extensions, 1990). The dissonant guitar of Kevin Eubanks (who also penned the tune) and flowing alto of Steve Coleman make for a choice groove. And no retrospective of Holland’s artistry would be complete without a nod to 1973’s Conference Of The Birds, from which the eponymous track unlocks the magic of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton (reeds and flute) and Barry Altschul (percussion). There’s nothing quite like this everlasting slice of mastery. Just let it speak.

The Dave Holland Trio is briefly represented via “Four Winds” (Triplicate, 1988), shifting from one phase to the next alongside Coleman and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The latter carries over into 1995’s Homecoming with John Abercrombie in the wonderfully sardonic “How’s Never.” This distinct trio is the ideal vehicle to explore its every twist and turn, muscle for muscle. There’s also the jewel of “Inception,” a solo cello piece from 1983’s Life Cycle. An experience like no other in the Holland back catalog, let it be a reminder to absorb that album into your collection post haste (if you haven’t already).

Holland deeply understands that each tune is a world to be established, unraveled with an almost scientific level of truth, and given over to the strengths of chance. In doing so, he sends us packing on the next journey before he even finishes the one at hand.

Pat Metheny: Selected Recordings (:rarum 9)

Metheny

Pat Metheny
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

As the only artist granted two entries in ECM’s “Works” series of compilations, it was inevitable that guitarist Pat Metheny should also be invited to contribute to :rarum. Though confined to a single disc this time around, the results are no less cultivated in the heartlands. Neither is it any coincidence that it should begin with my own introduction to his work: Bright Size Life. His 1976 ECM leader debut with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses captured lightning in a bottle and made it audible as music. This joyous track is without equal and has not only stood the test of time but also set the standard for that test. Metheny and Pastorius were the ultimate conversers, and could take their dynamism from one level to the next in a single chord change.

Such dynamics were on fuller display in the activities of the Pat Metheny Group, whose classic ECM albums are ecumenically represented here. The quintessential “Phase Dance” from the PMG’s 1978 self-titled debut is so steeped in nostalgia that it feels like the first time, every time. Continuing chronologically through the laid-back “Airstream” (American Garage, 1979) and the invitational “Are You Going With Me?” (Travels, 1983), we touch down in the title track of 1984’s First Circle. Its locomotive charm, in combination with airy vocals from guitarist Pedro Aznar, make it the ultimate anthem of itineracy.

All of this breadth is due in no small part to the keyboard wizardry of Lyle Mays, with whom Metheny produced the inspired collaboration As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls in 1981. “It’s For You” finds the duo augmented by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos in a glorious groove. Metheny has always been a consummate solo artist as well, and the title track of 1979’s New Chautauqua is among his most emblematic for its connecting of synapses.

Rounding out this road trip are two relative outliers. Where “Every Day (I Thank You)” places his shimmering acoustic in the company of Mike Brecker on tenor, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette from a session—1980’s 80/81—that seems too often neglected in assessments of his work. “Lonely Woman” (Rejoicing, 1984), for its part, carries over Haden and swaps DeJohnette for Billy Higgins. The latter’s sundown loveliness ends this worthy introduction to one of the undisputed weavers on the six-string loom.

Bobo Stenson: Selected Recordings (:rarum 8)

Stenson

Bobo Stenson
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has one of the most endearing relationships to the keyboard one could ever imagine. Despite having carved a path distinct enough through the ECM catalog to warrant one masterful session after another under his own name, he has left behind a formative constellation of contributions as sideman, some of which are included in the present sequence. Each is significant in its own way. With trumpeter Don Cherry (Dona Nostra, 1994), he explored new realms of old material and old realms in new, riding the line between sadness and joy in Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason Could I Give” and flowing ever forward in “Ahayu-Da.” As part of saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s band from the late 1980s into the next decade, he lent his more-than-comping abilities to 1993’s The Call alongside bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Billy Hart in quiet ecstasis, and unraveled the inner thoughts of “Little Peace” on 1995’s All My Relations. Yet nowhere was his presence so well integrated as in Tomasz Stanko’s band. The trumpeter’s original tune “Morning Heavy Song” (Leosia, 1997) is just one of many magical exchanges to which he contributed shaded interpretations.

Stenson and Jormin were attached at the hip in every session they shared, so it was only natural they should remain together when Stenson formed his own trio, closing the triangle with drummer Jon Christensen. There are plenty of moments to cherish here, starting with an explosive take on “Untitled” (another Coleman tune) from 1971’s Underwear. More somber waystations await the curious traveler in Duke Ellington’s “Reflections In D” (Reflections, 1996) and “Oleo De Mujer Con Sombrero” (War Orphans, 1998) by Silvio Rodriguez. Both are standouts in Stenson’s recorded history and feel like music you’d hear in a dream yet still remember after waking. In the tactility of the latter tune especially, Stenson achieves what he does best: describing a vast scene with minimal gestures. Even deeper mastery awaits behind the doors of 2000’s Serenity, which explains the goldmine of material chosen from it here. The first, “East Print,” is an audible inverse equation by Christensen, who plays as if his drums were feet. The others, “Fader V (Father World)” and “Golden Rain,” are Stenson originals in which bass and drums take off their masks to flesh out the composer’s skeletal philosophies. They are also among his most atmospherically authentic creations, reminding us that inner lives should never be forgotten in favor of façades.

Neither can we forget the relatively combustible era of Stenson’s quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and Christensen at the kit. And while both “Svevende” (Dansere, 1976) and the title track of 1974’s Witchi-Tai-To are Garbarek-heavy tunes, Stenson’s sporadic details lend them a charm unbound to a single name. His runs and accentuating clusters are the currents beneath Garbarek’s screeching flights of improvisation, bold and free of artifice.

Though Stenson’s selected recordings mark the eighth of twenty nominal volumes in the :rarumseries, given that the first two were double-disc affairs, we now find ourselves at the midway point in terms of CD count. And so, you can also find Volumes I-VIII available as a boxed set, released in 2002. However you find it packaged, don’t let this one slip under your radar, as it is among the label’s essential compilations.

Rarum I-VIII

Terje Rypdal: Selected Recordings (:rarum 7)

Rypdal

Terje Rypdal
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Among the cadre of guitarists gathered beneath ECM’s umbrella, Terje Rypdal stands as a pioneer of Nordic hybridism. His cross-pollination of rock, jazz, and classical influences continues to inspire listeners all these decades later, and a collection like this offers blinks of an eye’s worth of insight into the full scope of his craftsmanship. Having said that, I can lead you through this sequence in confidence that Rypdal himself has chosen for us a worthy discographic pilgrimage.

Of the trifecta referenced above, the most thoroughly represented persona is that of art rocker. Wielding his guitar like an ax in both the proverbial and literal sense, he rightly divides sonic truth from fluff across a spectrum of classic albums. From the representative 14-minute “Silver Bird Is Heading For The Sun” (Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away, 1974), in lockstep with drummer Jon Christensen over Mellotron strings, to the aphoristic “The Curse” (Blue, 1987), with bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and drummer Audun Kleive, Rypdal takes fearless melodic risks, compressing shadows into a prism through which to shine the distorted light of his guitar. Said guitar sings in “Transition” (Chaser, 1985) and distorts in “Tough Enough” (from his 1971 self-titled debut), but always in a way that listens before it speaks.

On the jazzier side of things, we find him guiding a band of melodic travelers in “Waves” (from the 1978 album of the same name) and forensically examining the horn-laced groove of “Over Birkerot” (Odyssey, 1975) as if his life depended on it. His sweet spot, however, lies somewhere between those two coasts, and reaches its apex in “The Return Of Per Ulv” (If Mountains Could Sing, 1995). More than my all-time favorite Rypdal track, it’s also a giant leap of intuition for ECM’s shaping of his sound. Rypdal is unabashedly lyrical and Kjellemyr’s bass pliant yet unbreakably supportive in a tightrope walk between grunge and beauty. Other liminal spaces to be noted are the cowboy’s funereal dream that is “Mystery Man” (The Singles Collection, 1989) and “Ørnen” (another from Chaser), which stokes Bill Frisell-esque flame with a distinctly Rypdalian kindling.

We encounter Rypdal the bona fide composer via the second movement of his Double Concerto, which was paired with his 5th Symphony on a wonderful 2000 release. Strings and harpsichord add a finely woven carpet beneath Rypdal’s guitar, building to urgency before flowing back into a comfortable baseline.

Like a saddle that must be ridden many times before it is broken in and which molds itself to rider and horse alike, Rypdal’s guitar has been well-traveled and handled to the point of serving as an extension of his body and soul. Only time can know where each ride will take us and how long we will need to get there.

Art Ensemble of Chicago: Selected Recordings (:rarum 6)

AEOC

Art Ensemble of Chicago
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

The Art Ensemble of Chicago embodied a world unto itself filled with self-generating ideas, allusions to (if not also illusions of) popular culture, and a whimsy so poetic as to be divinely serious. Their traversal through ECM was sporadic yet legendary, consistent in quality yet varied in execution, intimate yet vastly extroverted. Such dichotomies, however, existed only to be exploded, so that by the time listeners came out the other end of an album’s tunnel, they did so as new creatures. The earliest excursion sampled here is 1979’s Nice Guys, of which “Folkus” combines winged debates, traffic jams, and post-sunset imagery in a twinkling blender of inspiration. The title track is an equally eclectic mix, a mission statement that simultaneously bows to and upends tradition.

Both “Prayer For Jimbo Kwesi” (The Third Decade, 1984) and “Odwalla / Theme” (Urban Bushmen, 1982) show the AOEC’s tendency to finish far from where it began, rendering at one moment an Irish jig and just as resolutely the next a downtown swing. Yet the deepest dives are to be found in Full Force. The 1980 masterpiece gives us “Magg Zelma,” a 20-minute epic that is a set unto itself. From its initial atomic stirrings to the full-blown galaxy it becomes, it’s a downright cosmic act. Everything from childhood lullabies to the dreams they continue to inspire in adulthood is articulated through the bassing of Malachi Favors Maghostus, the drumming of Famoudou Don Moye, and the Reeds of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell. Add to that molten core the volcanic eruptions of trumpeter Lester Bowie in “Charlie M,” and you have a formula for profound disruption. Here, as often in their work, these mind-melded artists use humor as a means of understanding sonic production and the languages required to build it from phonemes to something with coherence and meaning beyond its utterance.

As it happens, “Charlie M” appeared on Lester Bowie’s “Works” compilation from 1988. Also included there was The Great Pretender, from which “Rios Negroes” is served up here like a confection. The montuno piano of Donald Smith sets up a groove with bassist Fred Williams—fantastically deep, deceptively simple. Bowie’s trumpeting is a sound of force but also kindness. Mitchell’s Nine To Get Ready is another viable satellite. That 1999 leader date’s title track is a brilliant conference of reeds, horns, piano, bass, and drums that elicits revelry of a higher order. Mitchell’s breathless playing is echoed by the ensemble and punctures the lid above with countless stars.

This collection, however, offers only a bird’s-eye view of a collective history. Better to immerse yourself in the fullness of the boxed set from 2018. Once you enter it, you’ll never want to leave.

Bill Frisell: Selected Recordings (:rarum 5)

Frisell

Bill Frisell
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Bill Frisell is one of a few musicians who came into prominence under Manfred Eicher’s purview yet has since gone on to spread his wings over landscapes of other labels. On ECM, however, he produced a body of work that was entirely uncommon, and embodies the :rarum title as much as any artist featured in its roster of compilations. His self-selection of music is as insightful as it is dreamily alive. Such a description could apply across the board, but perhaps nowhere so organically as in his work with drummer Paul Motian. On “Mandeville,” for instance, a cornerstone of 1982’s Psalm, his backwoods charm—cultivated as if in the marshlands of a distant childhood—carries that same fluid charge of Motian’s free associations, as also in the dark river currents of “Introduction” and “India” from 1985’s it should’ve happened a long time ago. The latter’s inclusion of tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano shows just how wide a vista a trio can paint. Other key collaborations include “Singsong” (Wayfarer, 1983) with the Jan Garbarek Group, in which he and the saxophonist intertwine as birds who no longer need to hunt because they are fed by each other’s song, “Kind Of Gentle” with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler in 1997’s Angel Song (one of my all-time favorite ECMs), and “Closer” (Fragments, 1986) with pianist Paul Bley. In these, his guitar sings of the past in the language of the present.

Frisell’s albums as leader find him at his most distilled and hard-won. In this respect, he offers digests of three watershed sessions: 1988’s Lookout For Hope, 1985’s Rambler, and 1983’s solo In Line. The first contains such tender flavor profiles as “Alien Prints” and “Lonesome” and boasts the umami of cellist Hank Roberts. The second shows a grungier side of Frisell in such tracks as “Resistor” and “Tone.” In the third, we envision the surreal beauties of the title track. And while In Line also contains one of his gems, “Throughout,” we find it here not in its original form but as arranged by composer Gavin Bryars, who transformed it into the transcendent chamber piece Sub Rosa on 1994’s Vita Nova. In stretching Frisell’s sense of time to fill an era, offsetting regularity with slightly askew phrases, unexpected turns, and breath-stilling highs, Bryars-via-Frisell proves ECM to be its own ecosystem, filled with carefully planted hybrids thriving in crowning harmony.