Steve Eliovson: Dawn Dance (ECM 1198)

 

Dawn Dance

Steve Eliovson
Dawn Dance

Steve Eliovson acoustic guitar
Collin Walcott percussion
Recorded January 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This album is something of a legend in the annals of ECM lore, as it was the only ever recorded by the fantastically talented Steve Eliovson. With Collin Walcott on percussion for support, the since unheard-from guitarist carves lasting impressions that can now be thankfully heard on CD. The experience begins in “Venice” (as in California), where the guitar speaks with tabla like two continents connected by tectonic plates beneath an ocean. Eliovson’s sonorities are pristine, especially in “Earth End” and in “Slow Jazz,” where the precision of finger placement and the occasional bent note add a soulful turn of phrase. The album’s portal is “Awakening,” a submarine communion of gongs that closes one door while opening another. The title track is buoyed by a glimmering triangle and arpeggios from an internal guitar, while the external speaks in tongues with the various percussive accents that flit in and out of its view. “Song For The Masters” and “Wanderer” share likeminded ostinatos, more flexible melodic leads, and the occasional sitar-ish twang. The unambiguously titled “Africa” seems to prance across the map on which we opened, the all-steel sound visceral and true. Two gorgeous closers—“Memories” and “Eternity”—whisper their promises like secrets, falling with the autumn leaves into seasons as yet unnamed.

Sparse anecdotal evidence paints of Eliovson the portrait of a regretful artist, a man who was compelled to sell his worldly possessions (including the instruments of his trade) and return to his native South Africa. Yet we can also take pleasure in knowing that he left this one document, a jewel of quiet magnificence. Better to have been given this single completed journey than a series of false starts.

Egberto Gismonti: Sol Do Meio Dia (ECM 1116)

 

Egberto Gismonti
Sol Do Meio Dia

Egberto Gismonti guitars, piano, kalimba, percussion, flute, voice
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion
Ralph Towner guitar
Collin Walcott tabla
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Recorded November 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Inspired by his time spent with the Xingu Indians of the Amazon, to whom the album is also dedicated, Sol Do Meio Dia (Midday Sun) is a consistently intriguing transitional album from multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti. With him are percussionists Nana Vasconcelos and Collin Walcott and guitarist Ralph Towner, as well as Jan Garbarek on soprano saxophone for a brief spell. At this point in his career, Gismonti was beginning to fill in the porous sound of his 8-string guitar. To this end, Vasconcelos and Walcott flesh out much of the dizzying rhythmic space that defines his sound, while Towner’s 12-string laces the background with more explicit chording. Walcott traces magical circles in “Raga,” for which Gismonti engages us with nimble fingerwork on the guitar’s highest harmonics. Thus begins a chain of sporadic bursts acting in dialogue. With modest virtuosity, the musicians run hand-in-hand down this ecstatic path of music-making to an even more specific sound, this time marked by kalimba and thumb piano. Gismonti’s shrill flute and wordless chanting here recall the work of CODONA. “Coração” is a rich solo and, along with the album’s closer, is a perfect exposition of Gismonti’s notecraft. The disc finishes with a 25-minute suite. Garbarek makes his only appearance in the opening section, which glows with his mournful ululations. An inviting solo from Towner opens the ears to another fluted passage anchored by percussion and handclaps. One can feel the forest at such moments as if it were living and breathing all around us.

The combination of musicians is pure ECM and reflects the brilliant casting of producer Manfred Eicher. As airy as Sol Do Meio Dia sounds, it is also weighted with a certain nostalgia that is difficult to quantify. Like a memory, its actors are always out of focus even when their intentions ring clear. And in the end the intentions are what it’s all about.

Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)

 

Collin Walcott
Cloud Dance

Collin Walcott sitar, tabla
John Abercrombie guitar
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded March 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The late, great Collin Walcott made his proper ECM debut on Cloud Dance (after an appearance three years earlier on Trios/Solos), where he was joined by the Gateway trinity—John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette—for one of his most powerful albums ever to grace ECM’s vinyl (and later, digital, thanks to a vital Touchstone series reissue) grooves. The marrow-warming twang of Walcott’s sitar sets up the opening “Margueritte” to be a long raga, when suddenly Abercrombie’s electric appears in kind, beckoning a chill entourage of bass and drums and touching off a pair of graceful solos from Abercrombie and Holland. The album’s remainder is fleshed out by a variety of intimate configurations. “Night Glider” and “Vadana” both feature guitar, bass, and sitar, the latter two instruments feeding beautifully off one another, the guitar weaving in and out where it may. The two duets between Walcott and Holland, however, are really where this album gilds its worth. Our frontman lays out plush carpets of tabla and sitar on “Prancing” and “Eastern Song,” respectively, over which Holland takes stock of every variation of pattern and thread count. The second of these pieces, while the briefest of the album, is also one of its most mesmerizing. Contrary to what the titles might have us believe, these are all genuinely realized pieces where the word “exotic” is but another puff of smoke in the breeze. And so, the heavy tabla and shawm-like guitar of “Scimitar” describes not the weapon wielded in the hands of countless white actors in uninformed filmic productions, but rather an exploration of the object on its own terms, tracing forms and histories, battles and silences alike, with due abandon. So, too, with the final and title cut that brings DeJohnette back into the mix for an animated closer.

The telephone wires on the cover are like the strings of some large instrument, with the sky as its sound box. Its clouds don’t so much dance as perform, caressing endless waves of voices careening through the ether. The joy of Cloud Dance is that it makes those voices intelligible. Fans of Oregon, of which Walcott was of course an integral part, need look no further for likeminded contemplation.

Dave Liebman: Drum Ode (ECM 1046)

 

Dave Liebman
Drum Ode

Dave Liebman soprano and tenor saxophones, alto flute
Richard Beirach electric piano
Gene Perla basses
John Abercrombie guitars
Jeff Williams drums
Bob Moses drums
Patato Valdez congas
Steven Satten percussion
Barry Altschul percussion
Badal Roy tablas
Collin Walcott tablas
Ray Armando bongos
Eleana Steinberg vocal
Recorded May 1974, Record Plant, New York
Engineer: Jay Messina
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Drums and drummers. For me, they’ve been the moving force and inspiration, a reason to live, and celebrate life through playing music. Thanks to the men who play the drums. This music is dedicated to you.”
–Dave Liebman

It was the summer of 1997. I was fresh out of high school and settling into my new life at Goddard College (of Phish fame) in Plainfield, Vermont. The transition was sudden, but I was fortunate enough to have been placed in the music dorm, where dwelled lovers of all things audible. Late one night, during an emotionally exhausting orientation week, I was awoken by a sound coming from downstairs. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I descended to the common room to find my dorm mates deep in the throes of an impromptu drum circle. Congas, djembes, pots, tabletops, human bodies: everything was fair game. With nothing but a tin cup and a spoon at my disposal, I joined in with cathartic joy. I don’t think any of us remember how long the session went on after that (I’m not sure we even slept). Sadly, the school itself wasn’t what I had expected. After a long conversation with the group, I decided to return home and incubate for a year. Although this taxing decision eventually put me on a straighter academic path, I do think fondly of the profoundly attuned synergy we of the musical persuasion had forged in those dense seven days surrounded by the region’s denser foliage. Since coming across Dave Liebman’s seminal Drum Ode in reissued form, I have rediscovered something of that physical feeling of surrender one so rarely gets from a laser scanning a concealed silver disc.

Piggybacking on this success of Lookout Farm, Liebman surrounds himself with likeminded company. The rhythmic core of the 1973 joint remains intact, with a minus here and some additions there. The dedicatory introduction of “Goli Dance,” quoted above, leaves no mystery as to the album’s philosophical goals. “Loft Dance” comes closest to reenacting my anecdotal experience, and counts among its actors an animated Richard Beirach on electric piano, a lively John Abercrombie on guitar, and Liebman himself laying down some infectious rhythms of his own. The playing is baked to a crisp, and scathingly uplifting. Gene Perla deploys a heavy anchor, offset by the whimsy of whistles, all of which tethers the soloing to its immediate territory. “Oasis” is the odd one out for its vocal cameo, courtesy of Eleana Steinberg. A beautifully soulful sax solo is rendered all the more so for the songstress’s curious presence, her uneven edges and off-key honesty a sobering foil to the otherwise instrumental sound. Liebman lights a veritable box of matches in “The Call,” a revelatory pyramid with Bob Moses and Jeff Williams at its bottom corners. Its martial snares and echoing sax are the heart and soul of the album, hands down. “Your Lady” (an oft-neglected page from the Coltrane songbook) darkens the mood with a rain-drenched bass and nocturnal soprano sax. “The Iguana’s Ritual” continues in the same vein, save for the noticeable additions of electric guitar and the soothing grace of Collin Walcott’s tabla. Here, atmosphere becomes the primary melody. A trebly bass then ushers in a raunchier solo from Abercrombie and a kinetic finish from Liebman. A fluttering of guitar harmonics begins the end in “Satya Dhwani (True Sound).” Flute and tabla expand the sound further, carrying us out on an enigmatic path to stillness.

The contrast in covers between the original vinyl and the CD could hardly be greater. The latter’s block list of names, while typographically pleasing, obscures the vibrant colors that said roster produces. One look at the former, however, reveals all in a single perusal: a brilliant sun, cradled in the arid landscape of its own desires, has found a voice where shadows intersect, and waits to share it with any in search of oasis.


Original cover

Ralph Towner with Glen Moore: Trios/Solos (ECM 1025)

 

Ralph Towner with Glen Moore
Trios/Solos

Ralph Towner guitar, piano
Glen Moore bass
Paul McCandless oboe
Collin Walcott tabla
Recorded November 27/28, 1972 at Sound Ideas Studio, New York City
Engineer: George Klabin
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Essentially an Oregon album under a different name, Trios/Solos consists mainly of Ralph Towner originals culled from the group’s Vanguard sessions. The opening “Brujo” is anchored by Towner’s twelve mighty strings and the late Collin Walcott’s tabla stylings, leaving a winding crevice through which Glen Moore works his whimsical bass. “Noctuary” features Paul McCandless on oboe, soaring loosely through the Towner/Moore fulcrum before the trio ties itself into a tightly improvised not. The Bill Evans tune “Re: Person I Knew” stands out in a gorgeous rendition. Towner doubles on piano and 12-string—laying down a sound that would soon crystallize into his classic ECM album Solstice—as Moore lurks in the background. “Raven’s Wood” continues the same configuration, only this time with nylon, darkening its pastoral modality with nocturnal visions.

Despite the intimate wonders of these trios, the album’s titular solos abound with some of its most focused and furthest-reaching moments. Moore’s “A Belt Of Asteroids” is a curious one at that. Seeming at first out of place in its present company, it carefully peels open the album’s outer layers with every twang. The remainders feature Towner doing what he does best. Take the compact “Suite: 3×12,” a carefully thought out composition in which his palpable picking and love for harmonics shines through at every turn, not to mention his consistently progressive energy. The last of the three movements is more aggressive in its attack and wound around a precise rhythmic core. “Winter Light” is heavily steeped in 6-string nostalgia, lonely but content in its solitude. “1×12” is, by contrast, a run along a blazing trail. Lastly, we have “Reach Me, Friend,” a snapshot of expectation that breathes with audible resolve.

As the driving force behind the album, Towner’s technique is mellifluous as usual, forging an aerial sound that constantly surveys the untouched lakes shimmering below like mirrors in the brilliance of his execution. Despite the lush performances throughout, the imagery is all so viscerally sere. And while there is no danger in what we see, there remains a threat unseen, lingering just beyond the horizon, quelled only by the arrival of the morning sun.

Meredith Monk: Turtle Dreams (ECM New Series 1240)

 

Meredith Monk
Turtle Dreams

Meredith Monk voice, piano, organ, mini-moog, casio
Andrea Goodman voice
Paul Langland voice
Robert Een voice
Julius Eastman organ
Steve Lockwood organ
Collin Walcott organ, didjeridoo
Recorded June/July 1982 and January 1983 in New York and Ludwigsburg
Engineers: John Kilgore, Thomas Lazarus / Howard Kaufman, Phil Lee, M. Monk, M. Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Collin Walcott

The shell of Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams is, like that of its eponymous animal, of cellular design and impenetrable strength while also housing a fragile heart within. This turtle’s heart is the album’s rhythmic center, represented through the regularity of the organ that opens the title track. The instrument is stripped of effects, direct and without pretension. We meet a voice that might be described as eerie, yet which with a few deep listens reveals its sobering honesty. A second vocalist mimics these incantations. Their combined syllables feel precisely notated and yet free, as if passed down orally rather than through the written page. Eventually the voices rise into mechanical sirens, becoming protracted and devoid of the regularity that has spawned them, until they bubble and froth. The organ stops suddenly, leaving vocal trails to flash and fade like shooting stars. Notes ululate and dance, congregating like insects—dispersed with the wave of a hand, only to return in greater chorus. The first movement ends with return of the two voices, only now slightly askew and in freefall, as other voices rise in countermeasure before fading against the organ, which continues its commentary before deciding on a contentious chord.

The second movement, “View 1,” introduces a sharper pianistic sound. The music is so precise and so cyclical that it almost resembles that of video games, which must also be open-ended so that it can be looped seamlessly (and potentially endlessly) to match the imagery for which it was composed. A single voice comes in, post-processed with a shallow echo, presaging a similarly processed keyboard that slathers the music with nostalgia. Against Monk’s private songs, two voices interject like teasing children. The electric piano then signals a shift in narrative. No longer is the human voice responsible for telling us the tale, but is instead co-opted by silence, reminding us that the same realm which guards our cherished past is the same realm from which arises the most hurtful things. A modulated synthesizer shows its face before bringing the movement to a close.

Next is “Engine Steps,” in which timed silence breeds an unusual industrial rhythm, like a conveyor belt carrying things to be stamped and shipped out into the universe.

A diminutive voice laces the following “Ester’s Song,” a brief peek into the mind of a child at play.

“View 2” signals the organ’s final return, carrying upon its back the same choral cargo. The single voice, the narrative voice, becomes divided, speaking of ancestors, each of whom casts a single lure into Ester’s mind. Her hair grows, but her face stays the same.

The title of the album as a whole, aside from being rather evocative, also might just be the most accurate description of the mood contained therein. For what is a turtle, if not a living being whose body is its home, whose life is lived in and near water, and whose dreams must also be liquid, submerged, and full of the sounds of the marsh. As with much of Monk’s compositional work, what we get on this CD is only half the journey, complimented as it is by dance and imagery. The brief clips available online don’t seem to do justice to the overall shape and feel of what I am sure is a far more inclusive live experience. Nevertheless, the descriptive power of Monk’s wordlessness is staggering, and albums like this one continue to enlarge the scope of linguistic possibility. I can only hope it might do the same for all who listen.

Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM New Series 1197)

Meredith Monk
Dolmen Music

Meredith Monk voice, piano
Collin Walcott percussion, violin
Steve Lockwood piano
Andrea Goodman voice
Monika Solem voice
Paul Langland voice
Robert Een voice, cello
Julius Eastman percussion, voice
Recorded March 1980 and January 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Collin Walcott

Like much of Meredith Monk’s work, the atmospheres on this album are as foreign as they are familiar and comprise a vivid testament to the staying power of her compositional talents. When I first heard Dolmen Music as a teenager, I thought of it as folk music from lands that had yet to be discovered (admittedly, this interpretation was shaped by an oft-cited description to the same effect). Listening to it anew, I prefer to think of it as music that comes from a place so deep within, so familiar, that we tremble to hear it blatantly exposed. Monk’s music is all about the voice: it extends from the voice, begins and ends in the throat, reveling in its elasticity, its pliancy, its fragility.

Gotham Lullaby
Over a sparse layer of four-note arpeggios, Monk sings and squeals, tracing her swan song in the dust. Sustained tones hover in the background just out of reach as her voice ebbs and flows along a wordless coast. This is a lullaby of trees, if not for trees; a dream of darkness between branches and the decay of leaves falling past the city’s edge; a place where the wind can still be felt…

Travelling
This little journey springs to life with a rollicking piano laced with ritualistic drumbeats. Monk carries full weight in her confident ululations. The emergence of a rain stick adds an air of ceremony, where the piano becomes our circle and Monk the medium who channels voices of the dead in a semblance of life. Words dissolve, wetted by the trickling of monosyllables, grunts, and cries. Monk converses with her self, as if the piano were not another voice but a landscape in which the voice has found purchase. She casts her lot into the chasm at her feet as one other voice takes up the call, floating like a severed head in the ether, its mouth agape to expel the song of its birth and its death.

The Tale
A thread of piano and mouth organ supports a series of vocal beads in which we get our first and only discernible words. Over this conformist backdrop, she proclaims:

I still have my hands.
I still have my mind.
I still have my money.
I still have my telephone…hello, hellooo, hellooooo?

And between these seemingly innocuous interjections, she riddles our attention with rhythmic laughter against the sound of breaking glass, the detritus of the living.

I still have my memory.
I still have my gold ring…beautiful, I love it, I love it!
I still have my allergies.
I still have my philosophy.

This is not the voice of the insane, despite what its many disjunctions might have us believe. It is the voice of a larger social body gone awry rather than that of a single individual corrupted by its oppressive infrastructure.

Biography
This is the most emotional composition on the album and makes me stop what I’m doing every time it comes on. It is a keen in reverse that scrapes the interiors of our lungs. Peeking out from the deepest recesses of articulation, Monk sings as if in mourning. Her utter abandon allows her access to divine control through the very lack of her desire to control. In doing so, she looses the strictures of emotional conduct, shedding the outer walls of her physical makeup. She cries as she sings, intoning and droning. Her register strays into animal territory, as if intent on communicating to any and all creatures that might be listening. She runs through this vocal catalog, as it were, as a way of rearticulating the nature of her supposed loss and the comportment of its breathing remnants. This piece in particular rests on a razor’s edge, seemingly content on lying back and letting the world press down until it is cleaved in two. She wakes and walks, a divided self, into the night.

Dolmen Music
The last 24 minutes of the album are dedicated to its title piece, and what an epic journey it is. Dolmen Music unfolds liturgically, as delicate as it is persistent. A cello breathes into our ears with soft harmonics: introit. Women’s voices evoke the fundamental phonemic underpinnings of language. This language is not primitive so much as formative, spreading its vocabulary across space and time. Male voices process, lilting with “Ahs” that degenerate into a sort of ritualistic aphasia constrained only by time signatures. The cello returns: communion. The congregation partakes of a musical host and drinks vocal wine. And in the ecstatic peace that follows, Monk’s voices gather energy and speed with evangelical fervor. The voices work in canon, floating even as they crash into the limits of meaning.

With this album Monk reinvigorated the linear song, the sole/soul singer, the monophonic performer. With the barest resources, she and her highly trained ensemble gave us an eternity of sounds. Dolmen Music makes a stunning addition to any music collection not only for its audible dimensions, but also as an art object, for it boasts one of the most perfectly suited covers in the entire ECM catalog.

Collin Walcott: Grazing Dreams (ECM 1096)

Collin Walcott
Grazing Dreams

Collin Walcott sitar, tabla
John Abercrombie electric and acoustic guitars, electric mandolin
Don Cherry trumpet, flute, doussn’gouni
Palle Danielsson bass
Dom Um Romão berimbau, chica, tambourine, percussion
Recorded February 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A plaintive, leisurely journey from Collin Walcott, North American pioneer in the art of the jazz sitar and ECM visionary whose life ended all too soon at the age 39. To anyone put off by this summary, I cannot stress enough the soulfulness of his playing. Walcott, who studied with the inimitable Ravi Shankar, does not treat his instrument as a mere substitute. Rather, he awakens the sitar to a whole new method of understanding, constructing a viable world around it rather than simply tossing it into the mix as a gimmick or afterthought.

Like the previously reviewed Survivors’ Suite from Keith Jarrett, Grazing Dreams is structured as long-form whole in which individual tracks blend into the overarching power that binds them. “Song Of The Morrow” starts things off right with flirtatious sitar riffs appearing and disappearing against a reverberant wash of guitar and trumpet while subtle and varied percussion sections sneak past in the background. “Jewel Ornament” is a personal favorite here, unfolding like a child’s raga. The hold and release of Cherry’s flute and Abercrombie’s insect-like guitar mesh beautifully with Walcott’s tabla stylings. By the time we get to the title track, which plays out like the folk tune of some undefined diaspora, we begin feel the weight of travel on our shoulders. And so, the final “Moon Lake” stretches out like a diffuse reflection across its titular surface, providing rest and replenishment beneath the sheltering sky of our nocturnal wanderings.

The engineering of this album is ahead of its time. Considering the way each track evolves, an attuned sensibility was clearly required to bring out the music’s full breadth. Case in point: the way the buzzing solitude that opens “Gold Sun” gradually develops into a honeyed elaboration of sitar and bass is nothing short of astonishing. Each tune is spun from the same cloth, dyed in real time with the languid syncopation of improvisers who feel what they hear. Gentility through strength is the backbone of Grazing Dreams, a poignant and timeless statement spun from the ether of dreams.