Larry Grenadier: The Gleaners (ECM 2560)

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Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Larry Grenadier double bass
Recorded December 2016, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Mixed February 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Larry Grenadier, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 15, 2019

With The Gleaners, Larry Grenadier joins a line of double bass virtuosos—including Miroslav Vitous, Barre Phillips and Dave Holland—that have released a solitary program on ECM. What distinguishes his from those predecessors is as much a matter of musicality and energy as of tone and texture. For while the prospect of a solo bass recording may conjure images of hermetic ponderousness, Grenadier cuts against the grain of expectation with a vast cartography. In the three-dimensional plucking of “Pettiford,” as also in the arco beauties of “Oceanic” and “The Gleaner” that surround it, he walks the line between comping and melodizing with such ease that he seems to emerge with a new category in hand. In the evocative “Woebegone,” one of only two tracks to feature minimal overdubs, he combines those elements richly. Another highlight of his originals is “Vineland,” which tips its hat to Phillips.

Grenadier includes a smattering of lovingly chosen material by others. Chief among them is “Gone Like the Season Does.” Written by his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, it feels like watching a teardrop fall in slow motion. Also noteworthy are his fusion of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” with Paul Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston,” which is about as full a statement as one could imagine from the instrument, and a dramatic reimagining of George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which begins with urgent bowing before settling into a lilt of robust, down-home pizzicato.

Rounding out this cabinet of curios are two bagatelles written for Grenadier by musical compatriot Wolfgang Muthspiel. The second of these is a thing of staggering beauty and points to The Gleaners as more than an album of bracing insight and invention, but one of the finest solo bass efforts ever produced.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Louis Sclavis: Characters on a Wall (ECM 2645)

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Louis Sclavis
Characters on a Wall

Louis Sclavis clarinet, bass clarinet
Benjamin Moussay piano
Sarah Murcia double bass
Christophe Lavergne drums
Recorded October 2018, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019

This 13th ECM leader date from Louis Sclavis takes its inspiration from pioneering urban artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest, with whom the reed virtuoso and composer has been friends since the early 1980s. Although similar in theory to Napoli’s Walls, the album could hardly be more different in practice. And while Sclavis isn’t usually one to compose with images in mind, for this project he did just that, referencing paintings on walls from as close to home as Paris to as far away from it as Palestine.

For this, Sclavis trusted the talents of pianist Benjamin Moussay, bassist Sara Murcia, and drummer Christophe Lavergne. Despite having played with Moussay for a decade and with Lavergne some years back, he first convened this particular quartet in the context of another project called “Loin dans les Terres” (Far Inland) in 2017. The present effort strikes me, for lack of a better word, as one of Sclavis’s “jazziest” to date, although Moussay gives it his own classical touch. Much of it feels balladic, elegiac, and nocturnal. As Sclavis tells me by email, “When I compose I don’t think ‘jazz,’ but try to find the best way to express my inspiration, so sometimes the world of classical music feels appropriate.”

The tune “L’heure Pasolini” blends these signatures and more into a savory mélange. Like a wall crumbling from neglect, bass clarinet, piano, and bass suggest the remnants of a border. Moussay is downright gorgeous, while Murcia digs deep but also flies when thermals reveal themselves. Between this shadowy piece and the concluding brightness of “Darwich dans la ville,” the situation of every image is taken into account. The piano intro of “La dame de Martigues” stirs a kindred heart before bass clarinet moves like a figure in sheer clothing. Sclavis notes his affinity for this low reed, which sounds more soulful than ever: “I’ve been playing bass clarinet since 1972. It’s my go-to instrument. More and more, it has become my natural voice, to the point where I can now say exactly what I feel through it.” That said, the standard clarinet in “Extases” yields some of his most alluring textures on record, singing with fortitude and emotional release. Just as visceral is Murcia’s bassing in the groovier “Prison.”

In consideration of its strong conceptual foundation, I wondered how the music changed on its way to the studio. “In concert,” Sclavis responds, “we played more compositions. The record, however, is a strong collaboration between us and [ECM producer] Manfred [Eicher]. He knows what we want and how to achieve it, and by his suggestion we kept only my original music of our repertoire.” The sole exception to that model is Moussay’s own “Shadows and Lines,” in which bass clarinet returns like a specter in stone-laden scenes. The band ramps up its energy, just as quickly devolving into a pianistic unraveling that leaves Sclavis to roam unbound by idiom. His improvisations showcase a master at work. Then again, technical flourish takes a back seat to emotional acuity, especially in two group improvisations that came out of Eicher’s suggestion. As Sclavis tells it, “I decided to call these ‘Esquisse’ [French for “sketch”], in the manner of Ernest preparing for a painting.” All of which leave the walls of our minds as listeners bare and primed to receive images of vivid imagination and political relevance.

Heinz Holliger/György Kurtág Zwiegespräche (ECM New Series 2665)

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Heinz Holliger
György Kurtág
Zwiegespräche

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn, piano
Marie-Lise Schüpbach English horn, oboe
Sarah Wegener soprano
Enresto Molinari bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Philippe Jaccottet recitation
Recorded June 2018, Radiostudio DRS Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Philippe Jaccottet was recorded August 2017
in Grignan by Nicolas Baillard, Studios La Buissonne
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
–Philippe Jaccottet

If it comes as no surprise that Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, perennial names in the ECM New Series roster, studied composition under Sándor Veress (cf. ECM 1555), then neither should the inevitability of blending their artistry in one of the most seamless programs to grace the imprint in recent years. Holliger, for his part, found a kindred spirit in Kurtág from day one: “Every note he writes is essential; there is never an idea of small talk…of wanting to please somebody or an audience.” The overarching title Zwiegespräche (“dialogues”) accurately describes the music. For indeed, when their works are placed side by side, a distinctly conversational rapport grows. These dialogues, however, extend beyond the composers themselves and into realms of texts, other musicians, and spaces of interpretation, so that in the listener’s walk from one end to the other, it becomes difficult to tell where Holliger’s terrains end and Kurtág’s begin.

If both are melodic composers, a memorial heart distinguishes a significant portion of Kurtág’s output. Most poignant in that regard is his …Ein Brief aus der Ferne an Ursula (2014) for oboe solo. Written just days before the death of Holliger’s wife Ursula (see, e.g., Lieder ohne Worte), it’s a loving tribute that wants to dance but instead curls into itself. The follow-up …für Heinz… (2014) is scored for piano, left hand, thus symbolizing Ursula’s absence. Its dissonances rest in brief catharsis.

A brighter pairing finds itself represented in both composers’ settings of the same text by 17th-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius. Dating from 2010, they feature soprano in the leading role. Where Holliger adds oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet, Kurtág pairs the voice with English horn only. Holliger’s version was written while in hospital, where he challenged himself to write a madrigal each day during his recovery. Kurtág’s likewise pulls on inner filaments of mortality.

A standout of the album is Holliger’s Berceuse pour M. (2015), performed on English horn by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. Like her teacher, Schüpbach displays immaculate breath control and a balance of light and shadow. Holliger’s interpretations of seven poems by Philippe Jaccottet are equally moving. Each is read by the poet himself, and the words, written beneath corresponding notes in the score, are matched by oboe and English horn in extractions of hidden messages. The piercing altissimo of “Dans l’étendue…” and vocal inflections of “Je marche…” are especially visceral. Even the programmatic touches of “Oiseaux” feel more than reactive: they are cocreators in an extra-linguistic process.

Back in Kurtág’s world, a sequence of dedicatory aphorisms unfurls. Of these, the most naked are those written for contrabass clarinet solo. Schatten makes delicate use of key clicks and barest breath, and Kroó György in memoriam, written for radio editor and music critic György Kroó, rarely transcends a whisper. At more than six minutes, the latter feels like a novel compared to the short stories that surround it. The Hommage à Elliott Carter (for English horn and contrabass clarinet) and In Nomine – all-ongherese (Damjanich emlékkö) for English horn solo are vibrantly noteworthy as well.

Holliger finishes with his solo oboe Sonate. Composed in 1956/57 and revised in 1999, it is recorded for the first time here, after 63 years of sitting on paper since he penned it for Veress’s composition class. In it we can hear Veress’s influence on the younger composer, if not also Holliger’s on the older. From the leaping Präludium to the virtuosic Finale, ponderance of nature outweighs the nature of ponderance, leaving us with nothing short of a masterpiece.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Enrico Rava/Joe Lovano: Roma (ECM 2654)

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Enrico Rava
Joe Lovano
Roma

Enrico Rava flugelhorn
Joe Lovano tenor saxophone, tarogato
Giovanni Guidi piano
Dezron Douglas double bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Concert recording, November 10, 2018
Sala Sinopoli, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome
Engineer: Giampiero Armino
Editing: Manfred Eicher and Stefano Amerio (engineer)
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 6, 2019

Recorded at Rome’s Auditorium Parco della Musica during a pop-up tour in November 2018, this album preserves a formidable group led by Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava (heard on flugelhorn throughout) and American saxophonist Joe Lovano. Alongside pianist Gianni Guidi, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, they take us through a set of originals, classics, and original classics in the making.

Rava opens the set with two tunes of his own. The delicate swing of “Interiors” unfurls a scenic backdrop as the frontmen stretch firmament over fundament. It’s incredible to hear just how organically Rava and Lovano—each a master in his own right—avoid stepping on each other’s toes. The moment they occupy the same space, theirs feels like an inevitable collaboration. Like two shooting stars crossing in the night, they seem to be a once-in-a-generation coincidence, yet in the process yield an even brighter star that careens beyond the asteroid belt of expectation. Neither is foreign to the healing power of poetry. “Secrets” elicits a more itinerant sound with Rava as primary storyteller. Despite their titles, this and the opener are reveal their love of creation like a morning glory drenched in the rising sun. Cleaver reaps a gorgeous harvest of cymbals, adding splashes of color amid the monochrome, and through those actions works up a lather of protection against the march of time. Lovano, for his part, shows his ability to immerse himself in the ever-evolving soul of things.

“Fort Worth” initiates a Lovano-penned sequence with upbeat inflections, by which memories of the past and predictions of the future are adhered. Lovano is the winding spirit of the rhythm section’s uncanny swing. When he gives the floor to Rava, the warmth of the venue feels more palpable than ever. Guidi’s solo is particularly superb, unpacking two gifts for each one wrapped, and holds light in its hands. “Divine Timing” is a more free-wheeling vehicle for Cleaver, who primes the canvas for some unbridled color schemes. Douglas, meanwhile, understands the need to give as much space as he occupies.

The quintet ends with a powerful triptych, kicking off with Lovano’s “Drum Song,” which takes an anciently leaning bass solo as its seed and finds the composer on tarogato before morphing into John Coltrane’s “Spiritual,” of which Rava is the shining galaxy. All of this funnels into the dream of Guidi alone playing “Over The Rainbow” a nod to the cosmos to which we must all one day return.

Ethan Iverson Quartet with Tom Harrell: Common Practice (ECM 2643)

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Ethan Iverson Quartet
with Tom Harrell
Common Practice

Tom Harrell trumpet
Ethan Iverson piano
Ben Street double bass
Eric McPherson drums
Recorded live in January 2017 at The Village Vanguard, NY
Recording engineers: Andreas K. Meyer, Geoff Countryman, and Tyler McDiarmid
Mixing: Andreas K. Meyer at Swan Studios, NYC
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 20, 2019

From the first breaths of trumpeter Tom Harrell in George Gershwin’s “The Man I Love,” it’s clear that Common Practice will betray its title’s coy humility from start to finish. Though known as an improviser of far-reaching originality and fortitude, Harrell accepted the challenge of pianist Ethan Iverson to play it straight, casting off shackles of virtuosity in favor of something far deeper and more difficult to achieve: bare emotion. The result was a weeklong residency in 2017 at The Village Vanguard in New York City, where bassist Ben Street and drummer Eric McPherson joined for this heartfelt journey through the Great American Songbook and beyond.

Denzil Best’s “Wee” showcases an exuberant McPherson. Locking step with Street, he and the bassist form a dyad of forward drive that makes no attempt to hide its secrets because we’re too slow to catch up with them anyway. Iverson is on fire but dances enough to avoid getting burned. Says the bandleader of his rhythm section: “None of us is approaching straight-ahead jazz like we want it to sound like 1955 or 1945 or 1965. We’re playing in the 21st century. But what I hope gives it depth is a commitment to the tradition, and when it comes to Ben and Eric, it’s about esoteric aspects of that tradition, nothing academic.” True to concept, whether in Vernon Duke’s balladic “I Can’t Get Started” or the band’s smile-inducing take on “Sentimental Journey,” fresh synapses of intuition coil themselves into being at every turn. The latter tune’s microtonal harmonies stay crunchy even in the milk of expectation. “I Remember You” gets an equally whimsical facelift, sporting attractive glissandi from Street and Harrell’s allusive brilliance to boot, while “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” and other gems train one eye on the future, another on the past, and an invisible third on the here and now.

Two Iverson originals put the final pieces into this tantalizing puzzle. Of these, the bluesy “Philadelphia Creamer” cycles through its motifs as if they were a renewable energy source, while Harrell moves lithely through the changes like hard-won philosophy incarnate. Iverson himself digs deep into the keyboard, while McPherson gives us classic cymbalism throughout.

As fresh as the performances are, to say there’s no nostalgia within them is like saying there’s no paint in a Picasso. To be sure, they channel modern blood, but the veins are as aged as they come, tempered by experience and primed for transfusion.

Bley/Peacock/Motian: When Will The Blues Leave (ECM 2642)

When Will The Blues Leave

When Will The Blues Leave

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock double bass
Paul Motian drums
Concert recording by RSI, March 1999
Aula Magna STS, Lugano
RSI concert and recording producer: Paolo Keller
Engineer: Werner Walter
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 31, 2019

A surprise from the ECM archives from this rarely recorded trio, who made first blush with the label on Paul Bley with Gary Peacock and reunited in 1998 for Not Two, Not One. In 1999, a year after the latter recording, they went on tour. This album documents one of those performances from Lugano’s Aula Magna. To be sure, it’s a welcome return for drummer Paul Motian, who seems to hover from the great beyond with his usual sagaciousness. Still, to these ears it’s the intuitive relationship of pianist Paul Bley and bassist Gary Peacock that make this date a worthwhile addition to your collection.

Bley Trio
(Photo credit: W. Patrick Hinely)

Most of the tunes are Bley’s own, including the delightfully skittish “Mazatlan,” which challenges any listener to slide even a sheet of paper between the interlocking piano and bass. From this bubbling cauldron of ideas wafts a most savory aroma, which carries over all the way to “Dialogue Amour,” a masterstroke that finds the musicians finishing each other’s sentences. Whether unpacking a forest fire’s worth of heat from “Flame” or turning the balladic “Longer” into a dance of joy, fierce communication abounds amid Motian’s luscious soloing. Bley’s unaccompanied “Told You So” is his wheelhouse: a nostalgic sweep of Americana rendered as a rollicking and flowing cinema of the mind. Just as full is his solo rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” tenderized by Bley’s underlying humming. This lullaby for the soul ends with a harp-like strum on the strings.

Pianist and drummer do wonders with Peacock’s evergreen “Moor,” listening as much as speaking through their instruments around the core of its composer’s flexing tendons, and Ornette Coleman’s title tune takes even deeper precedence with its charm. Peacock and Motian swing hard, leaving Bley free to uncork his finest improvisational vintage for the occasion. All three, however, are as much drawn to abstraction and untethered signatures, which by the end leave us with a bittersweet taste of having been there while knowing that such a possibility, unlike the blues, has indeed left us.

Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (ECM New Series 2612)

 

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Anna Gourari
Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded January 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double.
Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.
–Joseph Brodsky

In the wake of Anna Gourari’s first two ECM New Series recitals, the Russian pianist steps more deeply than ever before into dreamlike repertoire. That said, there’s actually very little in the way of fantasy in the present disc, reconfiguring as it does experiential fragments into an anagram of reality. The album begins and ends with arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach of slow movements from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, respectively. Both are skeletal at first but soon burgeon into a tangle of nerves, veins, and tendons. As fundaments of an ever-growing monument, through whose windows shines a future sun, they send out their pulse as a signal to the unborn. And as a plush interior takes shape, hands lay themselves down as if to sleep and never wake, holding on to melody as a tether to this world before moving on to the next. Elusive, perhaps, but also infinite.

Between these walls, furniture reveals itself to be the seat of our listening. The most prominent sectional is Alfred Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), which in its cerebral upholstery offers respite for the weary self. Like a tour of a stroke-ridden mind, it holds fast to memories even as it struggles to lasso the words to articulate them. All we emerge with instead is a series of notes, chords, and mosaic rhythms. The central Lento carries its dissonant flesh up a staircase from which gestures leap ahead of the body they describe before finding in the final Grave a double meaning of mood and physical location.

In the shadow of this tower, Giya Kancheli’s Piano piece No. 15 (his theme from Robert Sturua’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht) dances like a child without a future, just as his Piano piece No. 23 (theme from Sergei Bodrov’s 2002 film Bear’s Kiss) gilds the frame of recall with harmonious alloy. In kindred spirit, Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) finds Gourari aligning her emotional y-axis with the score’s x. Each note seems pulled from the keyboard, spinning polyphony into a chamber of prayer.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) bears dedication to Gourari herself, and by that association turns friendship and respect into audible communication. Darkly inflected yet chiseled in light, each piece is a window into the otherss, a symbiotic aesthetic given wings by sensitive performances. There are stories to be told here, but not in the manner of linear narratives, for hints of jazz and freer associations assure us that beauty, urgency, and proclamation all share the same oxygen. This leaves only Wolfgang Rihm’s Zwiesprache (1999), which occupies a region liminal to the rest, where an archaeological dig is already well underway. These dedications are playful yet morose, touching impressions as if they might bleed on contact. We, however, know that in Gourari’s purview no such wounds will ever be inflicted, because healing is never too far behind.

50 for the 50th: ECM’s Anniversary Touchstones

Anniversary Touchstones I

The word touchstone dates from the late 15th century, denoting a special black quartz used to test the quality of gold alloys by the streaks left behind on its surface. While it has retained its metaphorical usage as a criterion by which the quality of something—in this case, music—is measured, it feels especially apt in the context of ECM Records. The German label has always been about the object as art, if not also art as object, and through its associative chain of cover imagery, recording technology, and curated musicianship has honed a finely grained stone in its own right across which any other discography might be drawn across to judge its efficacy.

ECM released the first series of Touchstones in 2008. Numbering 40 in total, each album was a world unto itself. It only feels appropriate that ECM should revisit the idea this year in celebration of half a century’s creative operation with a series called “50 for the 50th.” Like its predecessor, this new collection gives opportunities for veteran listeners to revisit old friends and newcomers to make new ones. Label stalwarts Keith Jarrett and Arild Andersen rest comfortably alongside such legendary outliers as Mike Nock and Bill Connors. This alone relegates the choice of banner titles to the realm of near-impossibility.

One thing we can reliably measure is the cartography of cultural, instrumental, and regional depth in these 50 artful selections. Like the cardboard gatefolds in which they are now packaged, each is a streamlined presentation of otherwise uncontainable forces. Some of the farthest reaching of those forces can be found on Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel In The Lotus. Already the subject of a much-needed reissue when it found its way onto CD for the first time in 2008, this 1974 masterpiece marked the only ECM appearance of pianist Herbie Hancock and introduced drummer Billy Hart to the label’s nexus. Alongside drummer Frederick Waits, Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers, Mwandishi bassist Buster Williams, and trumpeter Charles Sullivan, the latter just two months away from Carlos Garnett’s Black Love, Maupin’s reed playing spans the gamut from romantic to extraterrestrial.

Another unmissable album is David Darling’s Cello (1992), which features the titular instrument in both its acoustic and custom 8-string electric forms. The set is entirely improvised, built around deceptively simple arpeggios and motifs from which he unravels some of the most beautiful music to be found anywhere. Floating blissfully between jazz and classical, Cello further treats the border around either category as permeable, as so many other artists under producer Manfred Eicher’s purview have.

Primary among the genre-defiers is Louis Sclavis, whose quintet effort Rouge is graciously included in the new Touchstones. Released the same year as Cello, it finds the reed player and composer in the company of violinist Dominique Pifarély, bassist Bruno Chevillon, pianist François Raulin, and drummer Christian Ville. Rouge is significant for being Sclavis’s first for ECM. “It was my doorway into this very famous label,” Sclavis tells me by phone, “and the beginning of a very long story. Over the years it has become more and moreimportant for Manfred and I to work together and I record almost every one of my projects with him. It’s vital for an artist to have a label that follows you and all your iterations. In addition to helping me and so many other artists find their musical paths, recording for ECM has the added advantage of placing your music into hands all around the world. He fights to keep as many CDs in circulation as possible, so something you recorded thirty years ago is still available. This means the world to me, as I would consider every album I’ve done to be equally important on a personal level.” The inclusion of Rouge and all its wonders is proof positive of this philosophy and speaks to the vitality of ECM as an archive in recorded sound. It also reminds us that neither these nor any other 50 albums plucked from a catalog of over 1600 no more represent ECM than ECM represents them. The circularity of that relationship is the key to their longevity and more than justifies their trajectory into every fortunate ear.

Anniversary Touchstones II

(This article originally appeared in condensed form in the November 2019 issue of DownBeat magazine.)