Vijay Iyer / Wadada Leo Smith: a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM 2486)


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a cosmic rhythm with each stroke

Vijay Iyer piano, Fender Rhodes, electronics
Wadada Leo Smith trumpet
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016

Labyrinths, lines among lines – A mesh
Difficult to destroy
Yet one must
Nothing more
Out of chaos, form – silence
–Nasreen Mohamedi, diary entry, 1968

That pianist Vijay Iyer looks up to Wadada Leo Smith as a “hero, friend, and teacher” is nowhere so beautifully obvious as on this, their first duo record. He recalls his five years spent with the trumpeter’s Golden Quartet, in which he and Smith “became a unit within the unit generating spontaneous duo episodes as formal links.” Said balance of spontaneity and form accurately describes an artistic process that adds as many layers as it peels away.

The seven-part a cosmic rhythm with each stroke came about in response to Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990), whose diary yields every title therein. “All becomes alive” introduces electronic augury as spinal tap, while Smith’s castings reveal a divination that feels simultaneously digital and analog. There’s tension here, but it has no teeth to masticate Iyer’s block chords. Instead, it marvels at its own narrative unfolding, one word at a time. These dynamics fluctuate all the way to “Notes on water,” in which synthesized elements bring the suite to its origami conclusion. Along every crease in between—whether through the muted proclamations of “The empty mind receives,” the frenetic grammars of “Labyrinths” and “A cold fire,” or the ambient depths of “A divine courage”—we encounter a biographical fingerprint. The forensic tools required to piece these together into a coherent identity are as much drawn from the listeners as the performers.

Iyer Smith
(Photo credit: John Rogers)

Their investigation is bookended by two outlying compositions. Iyer’s “Passage” refuses to see either palette or canvas as flat surfaces, emphasizing instead their three-dimensionality and capacity for absorption. What begins as a delicate, John Cagean landscape morphs into a bolder ode to time and space. If Iyer’s pianism speaks in acrylics, then Smith’s trumpeting revels in the split tails of calligraphic brushstrokes, reading between their lines a language of metonymic potency. Smith’s “Marian Anderson,” dedicated to the contralto and civil rights activist of the same name, fits together broader temporal scaffolding upon a likeminded foundation. The end effect rolls itself into a seed of origins, ready to sprout at the slightest contact of our listening water.

Ferenc Snétberger: In Concert (ECM 2458)

Ferenc Snétberger In Concert

Ferenc Snétberger
In Concert

Ferenc Snétberger guitar
Concert recording December 2013, Liszt Academy, Grand Hall, Budapest
Engineers: Stefano Amerio, Giulio Gallo
Mixed at Artesuono Recording Studios, Udine by Stefano Amerio, Manfred Eicher, and Ferenc Snétberger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 11, 2016

Recorded live in December of 2013 at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Academy of Music, In Concert archives a deeply personal performance by Hungarian guitarist Ferenc Snétberger. As his ECM debut, it instantly calls to mind Ralph Towner’s Solo Concert in format, sharing further affinity with Keith Jarrett for including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as encore. The ECM comparisons are more than cursory, as Snétberger grew up inspired by the label’s stalwarts, including Egberto Gismonti and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Much of the eight-part suite, entitled “Budapest,” that comprises the program is improvised, though built around heartfelt melodies of Snétberger’s design. Amid a spiraling association of history and spontaneous creation, an original voice emerges. “Part 1,” for instance, builds its castle on a faraway hill yet makes it feel as if it overlooks our own back yard. The cleanliness of tone, coated in just the right amount of varnish, resonates with a depth matched only by the recording. “Part 2” is meant to evoke Bach’s tonal voicings, and beyond that embraces a certain intimacy unique to the German composer. With a lyrical assurance that’s never cloying, Snétberger taps into something essential, as also in the Astor Piazzolla-inspired “Part 3,” wherein every sway of the curtain reveals a biographical whiff of the breeze that moved it. The samba sandwich of “Part 4” contains a monophonous passage of astonishingly vocal quality. The freely improvised “Part 5” serves as a virtuosic segue into “Part 6,” which treats the surface tension of a pond as canvas for photorealistic sound painting. If “Part 7” is the sunlight, then “Part 8” is the tree intercepting it for shade: an ideal vantage point from which to ponder the concluding rainbow in all its quiet glory.

Ferenc Snétberger

Having mentioned Towner and Jarrett at the start, it’s only fitting to end with them in mind, as much to say that Snétberger’s ECM debut belongs rightly alongside those giants of solo improvisation.

Thomas Zehetmair: Robert Schumann (ECM New Series 2396)

Zehetmair Schumann

Robert Schumann

Thomas Zehetmair violin, direction
Orchestre de chambre de Paris
Recorded February 2014, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris
Tonmeister: Hannelore Gurtet
Recording supervision: Guido Gorna
Engineer: Frédéric Briant
An ECM Production
Release date: March 18, 2016

The music of Robert Schumann (1810-1856) has slowly coalesced on ECM’s New Series into a poetic genre all its own. In the capable hands of violinist Thomas Zehetmair, who rendered the labyrinthine depths of the German composer’s string quartets in equal parts crystal and shadow, and here conducting the Orchestre de chambre de Paris in an even more dynamic program, it has taken on new life.


For the Violin Concerto of 1853, Zehetmair plays from an Urtext edition to which he himself made important contributions, poring laboriously over the original manuscript to correct the piece’s many errors and elevate it to its deserved status in the pantheon of violin literature. The first movement is almost a concerto in and of itself, moving with the force of an ocean wave crashing on shore. The second movement is emblematic of its composer’s flair for merging strength and delicacy, and of the soloist’s ability to balance the two with artful resonance. As he and the orchestra leap into the final stretch with elasticity, we find ourselves nearly overwhelmed by invention. Few concertos feel as corporeal as this, seeming to pull on every tendon and sinew until it trembles with joy. Although originally thought unplayable by violinist Joseph Joachim (for whom it was written) and Clara Schumann, and never heard until 1937, this recording lends it a resplendent inevitability. Zehetmair’s direction is as vibrant as his playing, and in both one finds an abundance of insight.

The Symphony No. 1 (“Spring”), op. 38, of 1841 emerged only after many failed attempts, and in its present iteration abounds with Beethovenian exuberance, but always with that indefinable touch for which Schumann was so highly regarded. The programmatic flair of the first and fourth movements, in combination with the robust exposition between them, articulates a timeless pastoralism in concise terms. It’s an atmosphere rightly shared by the Phantasy for Violin and Orchestra, op. 131, of 1853. It brilliantly concludes the program, funneling every impulse that preceded it into a flourishing ecosystem of ideas. Ironically enough, in this rendering it feels more reflective of reality than the preceding two works, if only by virtue of its fiery exegesis. Zehetmair brings his all to the table, leaving not a single crumb to show for it.

The engineering is appropriately raw and clear—so clear, in fact, that a page turn is audible in the right channel in the first movement of the Violin Concerto—and allows us to feel immersed but never assaulted.

Jon Balke: Warp (ECM 2444)

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Jon Balke

Jon Balke piano, sound images
Piano recorded September 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Sound images recorded and processed at Madstun by Audun Kleive and Jon Balke
Field recordings by Jon Balke
Mixed September 2015 at RSI Studio, Lugano by Jon Balke, Manfred Eicher, and Stefano Amerio (engineer)
Mastered at MSM Studios, Munich by Christoph Stickel
Produced by Jon Balke and Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2016

In a catalog rich with singular artists, the ECM discography of Jon Balke is without parallel. On Warp, the Norwegian pianist retracts his improvisational claws into even deeper levels of possibility, seeking connections between sound, environment, and the infinite spaces that blur where one ends and the other begins. It’s more than a formula, but a philosophy that has guided his work for the label from the very beginning. Combining freely rendered passages on the piano, recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, with field recordings and electronics, he doesn’t so much guide the listener as allow himself to be guided as one through uncharted landscapes of expression.

Despite the many kinds of samples, ranging from sounds captured in an Istanbul mosque to an airport announcement read by his daughter Ellinor, there is a uniformity to their purpose as substance. In this sense, it’s almost counterintuitive to spotlight particular tracks over others: each is a vital organ that cannot be removed without compromising the entire organism. The album, then, is more like a film shot in one take, each scene coordinated through a meticulous rehearsal of script, foley, and camerawork—a remarkable feat, given the collage aesthetic at play.

Warped Balke

From the beginning, internal dialogues are the norm, whether through abstract meanings or their material production. Much of the latter is metallic in origin, torn from broken machines and other castaway objects yearning for recovery. Shades of church organ lend sanctity to memories that have no purpose but to shed their skin to make room for one degraded copy after another until only stillness remains. Although it’s tempting to interpret all this as an exercise in nostalgia, its sheer presence is enough to dispel such staid notions of emotional suggestion. Rather, it bleeds as if to remind us of its vitality, filling a cup so transparent that every gesture shows through. And when voices sing, they touch a finger to its rim, ringing out with astonishing contrast.

Warp is that rare exemplification of “ambient” music in that it doesn’t create atmosphere for the mere sake of it, but with such a sense of physicality that listeners can’t help but feel like they’ve walked through someplace neither sacred nor profane, but content in having been graced, if only once, by our attention.

DeJohnette / Coltrane / Garrison: In Movement (ECM 2488)

In Movement

In Movement

Jack DeJohnette drums, piano, electronic percussion
Ravi Coltrane tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones
Matthew Garrison electric bass, electronics
Recorded October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Akihiro Nishimura
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 6, 2016

This groundbreaking session presents drummer Jack DeJohnette alongside saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and electric bassist Matthew Garrison. Having played with their legendary fathers—John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison—DeJohnette understands that repeating history is easy, but that only someone of his patience and experience can reform it. Says DeJohnette of his bandmates, here making their ECM debut, “Ravi and Matthew are aware of their heritage, but part of the intention of their music is to be recognized for who they are—and that’s already apparent. That’s why I play with them, because they have their own voices.”

In Movement is nothing if not a tribute project. That said, it’s a tribute to many things—some more easily definable than others. When playing the music of the greats, the musicians open their hearts and minds in equal measure. Coltrane the father, for one, gets a serious nod with the trio’s take on “Alabama,” a tune overwhelmingly pregnant with retrospection and taking on a feeling of such historical significance that it feels more like a prayer than a social statement. Coltrane the son lends it visual urgency, dipping his fingers into the ashes of modern discontent and forming an image not unlike the album’s cover art, while Garrison engages in thick description amid DeJohnette’s splashing cymbals.

The title track rests on a bed of electronics (courtesy of Garrison), listing through its changes like a boat along water. Coltrane’s soprano dances, a restless exegete who communicates in gestures rather than words. A brilliant dive inward that acts like a doorway into the alchemy of “For Two Jimmys.” Dedicated to Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix, it glistens like the ripest of fruits on the vine. With ritualistic abandon, it charts one mystery after another, plotting fresh strata in DeJohnette’s mastery.

Trio In Movement

The Miles Davis/Bill Evans gem “Blue In Green” pairs DeJohnette on piano with Coltrane on soprano for a nocturnal meditation before the Earth, Wind & Fire classic “Serpentine Fire” emerges as if freshly washed in the one element missing from the band’s iconic name. DeJohnette’s funky snare evokes a bygone era in futuristic grammar, while Coltrane unleashes one of his most inspired cadenzas on record.

All of which seems like a preamble to “Rashied.” Bearing dedication to Rashied Ali, this tune documents Coltrane’s first studio excursion on the sopranino saxophone, an instrument that feels tailor-made for his temperament and resonates powerfully alongside the drums in a duo setting. This fiery pieceearned a standing ovation from the crew at New York’s Avatar Studios, where the album was recorded, and rightly so: it’s revitalization incarnate. In the wake of this extroversion, “Soulful Ballad” returns DeJohnette to the keys for a somber farewell. As with “Lydia” (named for DeJohnette’s wife), it adds a dash of sweetness to an otherwise savory program.

Bassist Henry Grimes once said that being an innovator means coming out the other side another person. And in that sense, each of these musicians has come into his own, apart from who he once was. The difference here is that we know them through their creative action, instantly and irrefutably, and can only shake our heads at the planetary alignments working in their favor.

Ralph Alessi: Quiver (ECM 2438)


Ralph Alessi

Ralph Alessi trumpet
Gary Versace piano
Drew Gress double bass
Nasheet Waits drums
Recorded September 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed October 2015 at Avatar Studios, New York by James A. Farber (engineer), Manfred Eicher, and Ralph Alessi
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 19, 2016

Trumpeter Ralph Alessi returns to ECM, following his leader debut for the label, with an ace band of pianist Gary Versace, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Nasheet Waits. This time around, his signature balance of openness and angularity is in fuller effect, made even more prosaic by Versace’s touch. Gress brings his own thorough palette to the studio, while Waits—with whom Alessi first played in Fred Hersch’s quintet—walks a delicate seam both inside and outside the pocket.

Alessi Solo

Over the course of ten originals, Alessi guides his painterly cohort through a gamut of hues. From the primer of “Here Tomorrow,” he moves ever-onward toward the next brushstroke before the current one has even the slightest chance to dry. As a player of genuine dynamism, Alessi treats the melancholy of “Window Goodbyes” (the title references his five-year-old daughter’s habit of waving from the window as he leaves for a tour) and “Shush” with as much rapt attention as any upbeat blending (of which the album is bereft until the closing “Do Over”).

The rubato “Smooth Descent” is a wondrous exhibition for Versace and Gress, both of whom widen its scope with every note they choose. “Gone Today, Here Tomorrow” and “Scratch” are the most cubist detours of the set, although both leave plenty of room between Alessi’s blasts of exposition to find our own way. Through it all, he shows narrative purpose in his playing. Whether in the somber intro of “Heist” or colorful exegesis of “I to I,” he understands the value of any language—in this case, music—to provoke meaning in the flesh. We might therefore think of the album’s blushing title track as the trembling of a body, although it makes just as much sense to imagine it as a bag slung across the back, each arrow it holds a melodic weapon rounded to heal rather than harm.

Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus: The Distance (ECM 2484)

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Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus
The Distance

Ensemble Kolossus
Loren Stillman alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Chris Speed tenor saxophone, clarinet
Brian Settles tenor saxophone, flute
Tim Berne baritone saxophone
Dave Ballou trumpet
Ralph Alessi trumpet
Shane Endsley trumpet
Kirk Knuffke trumpet, cornet
Alan Ferber trombone
Jacob Garchik trombone
Jeff Nelson bass trombone, contrabass trombone
Patricia Franceschy marimba
Mary Halvorson guitar
Kris Davis piano
Michael Formanek double bass
Tomas Fujiwara drums
Mark Helias conductor
Recorded December 2014 at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY
Engineer: Jon Rosenberg
Mixing: David Torn
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Manfred Eicher at MSM Studios, München
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2016

After two eminent quartet outings for ECM, The Distancedemonstrates Michael Formanek’s redefinition of big band jazz. Although the bassist and composer cites influences as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and Charles Mingus, his music is more than the sum of its parts, a palette that yields fresh hues with every listen. Drawing on talents both within and without his usual camp, the album pays equal tribute to the known and unknown and activates the sound of each and every player.

Most of this sonic continent is inhabited by denizens of Formanek’s octagonal Exoskeleton Suite. The suite is introduced by a prelude that embodies its title better than anything that follows it. The bandleader’s soloing indeed acts like a protective shell around the many chemical reactions taking place within it. Analyzing them with scientific precision are pianist Kris Davis and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, both of whom turn method into esotery in compact sweeps of accord.

In light of this opening statement, “Part I – Impenetrable” feels like newfound freedom. Pewter cloudbursts give way to Loren Stillman’s nostalgic altoism, which like a child overturning a log uncovers a wriggling ecosystem that would otherwise remain hidden. “Part II – Beneath the Shell” fast-forwards into evening, where a groove inhales the secrets exhaled by its predecessor. Chris Speed works his tenor into the very heart of things, while Kirk Knuffke’s cornet flickers like a candle in a room that smells of rum and ink. “Part III – @heart” is a showpiece for trombonist Ben Gerstein, whose elicitation of harmonics and other peripheral signatures works into a string-bending, metallic fringe of extreme beauty.

“Part IV – Echoes” is a rift in vast ocean waters, of which trumpeter Ralph Alessi and trombonist Alan Ferber are master navigators. Where Alessi cuts his map with an X-ACTO knife, Ferber glues those pieces into a new one, leaving guitarist Mary Halvorson to recalibrate the compass in “Part V – Without Regrets.” Taking the flow into unexpected directions, she forges a chamber aesthetic to the rhythms slithering between her strings. “Part VI – Shucking While Jiving” features a string of brilliant soloists, including Tim Berne on baritone saxophone, Brian Settles on tenor, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Jeff Nelson on bass trombone. This one marks a tectonic shift in place and time. Smooth yet also pockmarked with worthy interruptions, its atmosphere combusts by influence of ecstatic kinesis. “Part VII – A Repitle Dysfunction” returns to the fragmentary intimacies of Part V, only now with the wall-breaking marimba of Patricia Franceschy and clarinet of Oscar Noriega. Fujiwara and Davis, too, shine through the ruins with their ancient light, as precise as an eclipse. All of which funnels into “Part VIII – Metamorphic,” a collective improvisation for the full ensemble that describes a landscape formed as if through-composed.

(Photo credit: John Rogers)

The suite’s prelude is itself preluded by the title track, which eases Settles onto a locomotive track of horns and brushed drums. The force of it moves just so, blurring trees on its journey toward empty coastline. In a development so misty and cinematic that it could almost be mistaken for a Gavin Bryars ensemble piece, it interlocks with its surroundings—less like a puzzle and more like a leaf among a spray of others.

Formanek has always been unafraid to bend his scores to their limits and let their rougher edges flap for want of new connections, but here his art achieves even deeper relevance in that regard. The result is not a message in a bottle, but a bottle in a message.

Miranda Cuckson & Blair McMillen: Bartók/Schnittke/Lutosławski (ECM New Series 2446)



Miranda Cuckson violin
Blair McMillen piano
Recorded January 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 15, 2016

Violinist Miranda Cuckson and pianist Blair McMillen make their ECM New Series debut in a program of three 20th-century Slavic masterworks. The two-part Sonata No. 2, Sz 76, of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) was composed in 1922, a time when Bartók was deeply into expressionism yet content in mapping two idiosyncratic detours for every step he took in someone else’s shoes. It opens with a profoundly simple statement, intoning the same note on the violin six times across the palimpsest of a piano key strike. Cuckson makes each iteration distinct before swimming against the delicate cascade that ensues.

Bartók’s folk influences are by turns clear and obscure, weaving with playful assurance throughout his compositional fabric, and the push and pull between the instruments has never sounded so continuous as in this rendition. The dancing Allegretto gives a range of insights into the composer’s distilling process, which by virtue of its underlying force makes an overlying confidence necessary to carry it across in performance. In that regard, Cuckson’s bow feels like two feet: separate yet guided by the same brain. McMillen’s artful exuberance likewise uproots colorations with systematic abandon. The piece ends as intimately as it began, forgetting every leap as a temporary severance from the gravity of mortality.

Cuckson and McMillen
(Photo credit: Caterina di Perri)

The Sonata No. 2 “Quasi una sonata” of 1967/68 is a brilliant dip into the font of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998), whose previous ECM appearances have been equally marvelous. The subtitle here means “like a sonata,” thus betraying the composer’s disdain for the constraint of something so pedantic. Its brazen chords, exaggerated silences, and whimsical details showcase the spaciousness of Markus Heiland’s engineering. Cuckson’s navigations of every angle are wonderous to behold, and McMillen’s presence feels at once responsive and directive. From the airy and mysterious to the grounded and profane, vignettes cohere by the unwavering creativity of both artists. The more insistent and programmatic the music becomes, the less one needs to cloak it in expectations. The default mode of this anti-sonata, then, isn’t pretty entertainment but on-the-ground activism. Ending as it does, violin alone and swooning, it has no qualms over dissolution.

From the pen of Witold Lutosławski (1913-1994) comes the Partita for Violin and Piano (1984), finishing the program with something conceptually between its two predecessors. Comprised of three through-composed pillars and garlanded by two ad-libbed sections between, it is a somewhat gloomier yet no-less-playful exposition of plurality. The first movement, marked “Allegro giusto,” is distinguished by its vertigo-inducing glissandi. Such meticulous imbalances work their way through everything that follows, finding only partial traction in the final Presto, as if resolution were the very antithesis of happiness. This leaves us with a wealth of impressions to choose from, any one of which might describe these pieces just as well, yet which falls short of touching fingers around motifs that have no use for category.

Andy Sheppard Quartet: Romaria (ECM 2577)


Andy Sheppard Quartet

Andy Sheppard tenor and soprano saxophones
Eivind Aarset guitar
Michel Bonita double bass
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded April 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 16, 2018

Saxophonist Andy Sheppard’s quartet with guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Michel Benita and drummer Sebastian Rochford pulls out threads from this album’s predecessor and from them weaves an even more seamless tapestry.

Once again, Aarset proves an integral presence, adding (in Sheppard’s words) an “orchestral voice,” which percolates as life-giving water through soil. On “Thirteen,” one of seven tunes penned by the bandleader, swells of guitar move with a grace rarely encountered since, appropriately enough, Terje Rypdal’s contributions to Ketil Bjørnstad’s The Sea. The title track, by Brazilian songwriter Renato Teixeira, is a vessel drifting on the waves that surround it. Its contours, graceful as they are melodic, accommodate Benita and Rochford’s infusions like sail to wind.

“Pop” returns to native lyricism, once again highlighting Aarset’s textural relief with aching regard. “They Came From The North” delineates yet another altar for this intuitive rhythm section, whose attention to detail swings from guitar strings into Sheppard’s sunlight. The tenderness of “With Every Flower That Falls,” written as part of a live soundtrack to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, sashays with all the monochromatic charm it can muster, turning silence into song and leaving “All Becomes Again” to dance as if alone in the dawn, holding onto last night’s dream with the conviction of someone newly in love.

All of this is cloaked in “Forever And A Day,” two takes of which frame the album in an aquatic ellipsis. With an atmospheric integrity made possible only by such a combination of musicians, engineer (hat tip to the great Stefano Amerio in Lugano) and producer Manfred Eicher at the helm, the port of your listening may just feel emptier than you ever imagined without its docking.

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