Listening to the Wind: Moran/Holland Duo Live Report

Jason Moran / Dave Holland Duo
Barnes Hall, Cornell University
January 28, 2012
8:00 pm

Sometimes a performance can change your life. Equally rare is the performance that brings life to change. To those fortunate enough to be in the intimate confines of Barnes Hall last night, the latter is in tall order. The performers need no introduction (for the curious, my pre-concert report is here), and perhaps they prefer it that way, for when they take to the stage they deflect attention from themselves by first paying deference to one another. Yet even before our rapt attention and respectfully placed woops fill the room, the stage itself has told us all we need to know. Between towers of speakers and amplifying equipment, two instruments: a freshly tuned Steinway and a prone bass. Moran’s chair, which he brings wherever he can, sports clean, modern lines, while Holland’s trim yet deep instrument seems to hold countless histories in its burnished surface. Already there is a conversation happening, as if to confess the music before the artists actualize it.

And actualize it they most certainly do. Rather than kick off the concert with bang, however, they start with a touching homage to the great Sam Rivers, with whom both Moran and Holland had the opportunity to work and whose recent passing was felt deeply by all who knew him. To feel his spirit living on like this is a joy to witness. With the gentle cascade of a frozen waterfall in spring thaw—appropriate for this unseasonably warm winter—the gentle strains of “Beatrice” go straight to the heart, from the heart. Between Moran’s crisp pointillism and Holland’s smooth hibernations, one finds hard-won balance. Each note leaves an aftertaste of affection.

Holland and Moran follow up with an offering apiece. Holland’s paints some of the broadest sonic vistas of the set, twisting his virtuosity into a solved Rubik’s cube. Alongside this powerful chunk of expressiveness, Moran’s “Gummy Moon” reads like a bedtime story (and by no coincidence, for the title reflects his children’s mispronunciation of the classic Goodnight Moon). Beneath Holland’s monotone, the piano man unpacks terse chording into a majestic tale of starlit travel. A breath and a pause, and we’re off to a whole new gig as Duke Ellington’s neglected “Wig Wise” ushers us into the center portion of the show. The duo share a smile and a nod, welcoming us into something as timeless as the thematic material at their fingertips. Moran is a whirlwind of ideas, though both musicians’ flair for ecstatic performance is in full evidence here.

After a ballad so smooth one would swear the house lights dimmed out of sympathy, the unmistakable zigzag of Holland’s classic “Four Winds” further strengthens the Rivers connection. Moran explores some of the more turgid recesses of this well-aged tune, even as Holland stomps his way through a storm of brilliance. As with all the music they play, they take this number not only to new heights, but also to new depths.

Next, Holland provides one of the concert’s highlights in his “Hooveling.” Meant to evoke one’s navigation through a New York City crowd, it twists and turns with a deftness so hip it almost hurts. Moran listens right there with us, enjoying the talents of one who commands at the solo bass like no other, before turning an eye to something bygone, a tender farewell that only presages the second tribute of the night in Paul Motian’s “Once Around the Park.” As Holland lovingly explains before they play, Motian frequented the jogging path around the reservoir at Central Park. It was during one such running session that the tune came to him. And indeed, we can feel the chill city winds passing from the piano through the bass’s arboreal footwork. A fitting tribute to a human being of profound melodic insight.

Before the duo close with improvisations on a familiar Thelonious Monk theme, they lay the nostalgia on thick with “Twelve,” a tune once taught to Moran by his teacher Jaki Byard. The result is a veritable train ride through a landscape of nodding heads.

With these two, jazz isn’t just an art form. It’s a warm hearth in the cold. Moran is a hopeful player, always looking ahead to whatever light may be on the horizon. His right hand is a water strider of expression that widens its purview at every turn. Now a chromatic jester, now a paternal force, it engages the left with insistence and verve. Holland, too, strikes a happy medium between wildness and diction. In spite of his ever-wandering fingers, he is nothing if not selective. He chooses his lows carefully, as does Moran his highs, and each of his harmonics feels like a drop of innocence in a conflicted world. He can bring that wincing twang to bear with the best of them, but more often wants to talk with us rather than at us. Both Moran and Holland make every repetition novel and exciting. Like souls lost in the beauty of a memory that threatens to fade in a harsher present, they seek to record everything they see—not for posterity, but for the invaluable ardor of the moment.

If you were unable to get a ticket, or simply found out about this special performance too late, fear not, for you needn’t have been there to feel its effects. Those energies are still out there, running rampant like a Rivers soprano line, if not slinking stealthily like a Motian brushstroke, into the most hidden recesses of our consciousness. Just listen, and you might hear them in the wind.

Playing it like it is: Jason Moran and Dave Holland take to the Barnes stage at Cornell

Comedian Hannibal Buress tells it straight: “People say, ‘I’m just taking it one day at a time.’ You know who else is? Everybody. That’s how time works.” And maybe that’s how jazz works, too. It’s a daily process, an ever-expanding diary of life experience that everybody’s being written into. Its pages ruffle and shuffle, rhyme in real time, bend and tear, yet through it all retain a cover as distinct and as battered as our Real Books. Every once in a while, a musician comes along who tapes up the binding, slaps on a new nameplate, and calls it fresh. Pianist Jason Moran is one such musician, one who knows there’s no past without a future. Bassist Dave Holland is another, one who knows there’s no future without a past. Though far from strangers, having been involved together in latter’s Overtone Quartet since 2009, as a duet they offer a rare chance to see two consummate artists in dialogue.

“My first opportunity to work with Dave,” says Moran in an e-mail interview, “was as a sub for Steve Nelson in his Quintet. This was the first time Dave’s quintet music was played with a piano, so it was quite a big space to fit in. Dave is an extremely supportive player. Meaning he is both a fantastic captain and a deck hand.” Yet the Houston native, who celebrates his 37th birthday this month, has spent much of his career rocking the boat. With influences ranging widely, from Thelonious Monk to Sol LeWitt, the avenue of his playing is lined with all manner of architectural styles. In addition to being one of the most important jazz pianists of his generation, he’s a thinker and, above all, a father. When I ask him about how he’d like to be remembered, he says, humbly, “That my children loved me, and that I taught them how to love.”

The title of his major debut, I think, says it all: Soundtrack to Human Emotion. It’s a philosophy to live by for someone who uses emotions as a writer might lay verbs on the page. From his jump outside the box with the immortal Sam Rivers on Black Stars (Holland also worked with Rivers on the seminal 1972 joint Conference Of The Birds) and on through to a trio session for the ages with Chris Potter and the late Paul Motian on Lost In A Dream, he has painted a veritable gallery of life-driven moods and impressions. Moran is also an educator. He teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he places no small value in passing on ideas and conversations: “Young players should follow their heart. And if the music takes over their life, let the music lead the way, as there is so much to discover.” A harbinger of things to come, to be sure. Then again, why wait when you can experience it for yourself?

Most thumbnail sketches of Dave Holland, now 65, will include the requisite cameo by Miles Davis, in whose band the young bassist’s voice came to prominence. As a bandleader in his own right, the voice is so inimitable that those same sketches have since become a blur of dazzling color. To hear him in any group setting, one would never suspect—and rightly so—that he felt anything less than admiration for the talents he has enlisted over the years. His larger ensembles, beginning with the Quintet on 1984’s Jumpin’ In for ECM and expanding more recently to the Octet and beyond on his own Dare2 Records, have proven to be hotbeds for progressive thinking in the genre. Holland also redrew the upright landscape with 1978’s Emerald Tears, joining a growing roster of unaccompanied albums for an instrument all too often relegated to the rhythm section. There’s an enormous difference between playing solo and playing a solo. And while the lone piano is a relative mainstay in jazz recordings, Moran’s 2002 contribution, Modernistic, managed to make a comparably original statement: here is one who listens.

Indeed, listening is what these men do best. Whether it’s to themselves or to one another, their craft welcomes us to share in a compassion so hip that your head is already nodding before note one. Theirs are open, melodious hearts, and we are honored in their presence to step into an intimate circle where sound and peace walk hand in hand, taking it—you guessed it—one day at a time.

Jason Moran and Dave Holland will be performing at Cornell University’s Barnes Hall in Ithaca, New York this Saturday, January 28, at 8:00 pm. Tickets are sold out, but be sure to check back with me here at “between sound and space” for the post-concert report. The full Moran interview is below.

How do you define the power of a standard?

The power of a standard lies within how good it sounds when out of the hands of it’s original composer.

Can you tell us a little more about your classical background and how that fits into what you do at the keyboard?

My technique is where most of my classical background reveals itself. My first Suzuki method teacher was Yelena Kurinets. She had a very strict vision about what piano technique is, and that has helped keep my hands in good form, knock on wood.

When you’re on point, really feeling it, what is your state of awareness? Do you disconnect or plug in? Do you leave us behind or take us with you?

Well, I think it’s a combination of both disconnecting and connecting. I like to think of it as simultaneously talking and listening to someone. It’s the balance of those things. The audience is always on the ride. And as with all riders, some like to wear no seatbelt, some ride in the bed of a truck, some water-ski, and some simply look out of the window.

Tell us about working with Dave Holland for the first time. Will you be approaching the duo set any differently than your work with the Overtone Quartet?

My first opportunity to work with Dave was as a sub for Steve Nelson in his Quintet. This was the first time Dave’s quintet music was played with a piano, so it was quite a big space to fit in. Dave is an extremely supportive player. Meaning he is both a fantastic captain and a deck hand. So if I want to make a sharp left turn with the boat, he’s pulling the line quickly to help change the course. Given his extensive history, there won’t be much that will throw him off. So, we love having our musical dialogue shift languages.

You are clearly dedicated to passing along your passion and energy to the next generation. How has teaching informed your playing? What do you think is most important for younger players to understand as they grow into jazz, and vice versa?

Teaching allows me to hear the concerns of the next generation of musicians. Their concerns allow me to tailor my teaching methods to them. I continue to be a student myself, so I feel like we are all in the same boat, and we are all on the front line. As for my playing, I think having to discuss my methods so frequently, I realize I need to practice what I preach. Young players should follow their heart. And if the music takes over their life, let the music lead the way, as there is so much to discover. Most of all, young players need to study themselves, and secondly study the history.

Which artists, musical or otherwise, make you shake your head in wonder and think, “I’ll never get there”?


What do you get from working with other musicians? What do you think they get from you?

This music is built around community. It works best when you work well with others. It’s more a life lesson than a musical one. Have respect for people and their ideas, and work with them. I’m not sure what they get from me, but “energy” is the term I keep telling myself.

How did you react to Paul Motian’s recent passing?

Paul was a fixture in NY, so it’s very different without him occupying the city. He let everyone in. Wonderful man.

Being an ECM nut, I adore your presence on the Athens Concert with Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. How did you become involved in this fantastic project, and what was it like working with two such distinct legends at the same time?

I’ve been with Charles for almost 5 years, and it is an ongoing process. He shares so much knowledge with his band, and he shares his community as well. In one breath Maria gives us the history of vocal music. It’s all circular, as we like to say.  

When the day comes that you lay down your last note, how would you like your contributions to be remembered?

That my children loved me, and that I taught them how to love.

Who are you listening to these days?

Sam Rivers and Henry Threadgill. Sam also passed recently. For many years, he and Dave were very close. A wonderful catalog of music has been left behind. I’m working on a Henry Threadgill celebration. And lastly, I’ve been listening to a lot of comedy, and am loving Hannibal Buress.

Describe what jazz means to you in one word.

I can’t, so I won’t.

Dave Holland Quintet: Seeds of Time (ECM 1292)

Dave Holland Quintet
Seeds of Time

Dave Holland bass
Steve Coleman alto and soprano saxophones, flute
Julian Priester trombone
Marvin “Smitty” Smith drums, percussion
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, cornet, pocket trumpet, fluegelhorn
Recorded November 1984 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Seeds of Time presents the Dave Holland Quintet in arguably its finest incarnation. With Kenny Wheeler blowing brass, Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums, Julian Priester on trombone, and Steve Coleman on reeds to enlighten the senses at every turn, one simply can’t go wrong with this date. For me its brightest stars are Wheeler and Coleman, both of whom paint the album’s most vivid scenes. Coleman’s transportive alto lights up the night against Holland’s metronomic click in “Uhren” before Wheeler pushes us into the deep end, where swims a school of extracurricular percussion. This fantastic start keeps expectations high, though these are ultimately surpassed by what follows. “Homecoming” is another jubilant enterprise, which turns on every dime dropped from Holland’s strings along its precisely winding road. The tightly wound horns unleash one engaging phrase after another, Wheeler in particular kicking up the solo-verse up a notch or two. Holland also punches his time clock with a tight diversion. “Perspicuity” introduces Coleman’s flute into a lacier matrix as Holland walks on air. The opening of the “Celebration” that follows speaks from beyond our time with the voice of an era wrapped in gold. Some of the grooviest bass work around can be found on this track as Holland runs up and down the stairs of an architecture that is purely his own. The title couldn’t be more apt, for celebration is exactly what this formidable band brings to the table every time. “World Protection Blues” seems also to come from a distant time, only now from the future. The quintet builds to fever pitch as lines and spaces fill out one another into a solid color of wonder. A noteworthy solo from Priester to boot, positively swinging with rounded edges. “Gridlock (Opus 8)” is a working argument of modern anxiety. Its confrontations of flesh and technology, of mobility and imprisonment, are cracked open like a forgotten blue egg from the robin’s nest of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Coleman dances on air as the band takes flight from a hard bop defenestration. Smith’s back-and-forth action here is a high point in the Holland archive. The funkier lines and cowbell-infused gait of “Walk-A-Way” leaves us blissfully prepared for “The Good Doctor.” Here Holland slinks in like a panther into a caravan of flute and horns. “Double Vision” ends on a high note, lassoing our attention (as if the album hasn’t already) to an electrifying hitching post. After the opening blast Wheeler launches forth as Holland and Smith hold down Fort Groove. A flick of register gives us a wormy soprano sax solo, positively soaring over Holland’s firm grounding.

The energy of this music is such that we find ourselves lost in every contortion of its features. Holland is no holds barred without being aggressive, direct without being confrontational, straightforward without ever being staid. Each successive album only seems to further energize his band mates, and with Seeds of Time we know firsthand how he can do the same for his listeners.

A must-hear for those who take their coffee with excitement.

<< Oregon: Crossing (ECM 1291)
>> Gary Burton Quartet: Real Life Hits (ECM 1293)

Dave Holland Quintet: Jumpin’ In (ECM 1269)

Dave Holland Quintet
Jumpin’ In

Dave Holland bass, cello
Steve Coleman alto saxophone, flute
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, pocket trumpet, cornet, fluegelhorn
Julian Priester trombone
Steve Ellington drums
Recorded October 1983 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Jumpin’ In isn’t just a title. It’s a call to action. So let’s get to it. The eponymous opener is a veritable résumé, a formative and ever-growing catalogue of accomplishments through which one can view the development of an artist at work. Only here, we experience that development in real time. It is clear from the first moments that Dave Holland is a step above not only so many other jazz bassists, but also composers in bringing freshness to his music. In the absence of a piano or mallet instrument, acceptance into the Quintet firm requires an equally impressive CV (that stands for “Consummate Virtuosity”) to pull it off right. Like a fine pointillist drawing, each scene has no definite border, but rather coheres through the openness of the image. Holland seems to have always had a soft spot for great trombonists, and the inclusion of Julian Priester was a masterstroke in this regard, for his anchorage is nearly as fresh as Holland’s throughout. Drummer Steve Ellington and a young Steve Coleman on alto and flute complete a powerful improvisational picture lit by Kenny Wheeler’s sideways trumpeting. Holland’s compositional sensitivity reveals itself in “First Snow,” a gorgeous concept for a jazz tune, and equally so in its execution. It is also a potent example of Wheeler’s craft and the fine balance it achieves between delicacy and piercing evocation. Coleman offers up the album’s only non-Holland tune with “The Dragon And The Samurai.” This respectable palette cleanser boasts some fabulous braiding from the three horns and pulls us down a bumpy road to “New-One,” Priester’s time to shine. “Sunrise” flags the elemental themes that are the album’s touchstones, while “Shadow Dance” spins a cinematic tale that is equal parts Spy Hunter and melodrama. The tongue-in-cheek “You I Love” shows the horn players at their best and plays us out on a whim.

Jumpin’ In bristles with energies sure to work their way into your tapping foot and nodding head. It is also a fitting testament to Charles Mingus, to whom the album is lovingly dedicated.

<< Ulrich P. Lask: Sucht+Ordnung (ECM 1268)
>> Steve Tibbetts: Safe Journey (ECM 1270)

Dave Holland: Life Cycle (ECM 1238)

Life Cycle

Dave Holland
Life Cycle

Dave Holland cello
Recorded November 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Holland picks up here where he left off on Emerald Tears with this overlooked solo album, which finds him swapping his usual upright for cello. While Holland is obviously no stranger to the instrument, it is such a rare pleasure to hear the cello alone at his bow. The bread and butter of this set is the eponymous five-parter, which indeed seems to trace a life from beginning to end. It is not only a cycle, but also its affirmation, such that the birth cries of “Inception” rend us with the thrill of being in a way that suggests awareness of a former existence. The sensorial “Discovery” walks us through a feeling-out of the world, adding sound to the richness of its growth. This pathos continues on through the inward-gazing “Longing” and “Search,” both of which hone their emotive capstones in the psychological and biological. The latter’s title might as well be a slogan for the album as a whole, where the overarching realities of its path are marked by time and space, on through a funkier “Resolution.”

The album’s remainder offers up a potpourri of technical flourishes and fragrant artistry. The linear meditations in “Sonnet” slumber alongside the finely chiseled “Runes,” which is not only a standout, but also brings Holland’s bass-minded lyricism to the fore most evocatively. A shake of the kaleidoscope gives us the erratic turns of “Grapevine,” and intimations of Hindemith in “Chanson Pour La Nuit.” In this last, we find the death that is silence, awaiting rebirth at the next press of PLAY.

Holland has a clean, if slightly rough-around-edges, sound on the cello, and brings his pizzicatist’s sense to this date’s mostly arco playing. Each gesture becomes its own life, released the moment his fingertips leave the strings. In this way, the album speaks not only to the evolution of an artist, but also to the art of evolution.

<< Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette: s/t (ECM 1237)
>> Denny Zeitlin/Charlie Haden: Time Remembers One Time Once (ECM 1239)

Dave Holland: Emerald Tears (ECM 1109)

ECM 1109

Dave Holland
Emerald Tears

Dave Holland double bass
Recorded August 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The upright bass is, of course, a fixture of many jazz ensembles, in which it often “solos” but only over or surrounded by other instruments. Strange, then, that the thought of it on its own should be such a difficult one to swallow (no pun intended). Where most musicians might have fallen back on the comfort of overdubbing and other postproduction trickery, Dave Holland stepped boldly into the limelight (pun intended) with Emerald Tears. Although the album does retain a certain novelty factor by its very concept, even in the hypothetical presence of a tradition of solo bass recordings one imagines it would stand out for its broad palette and ingenuity.

Six of the album’s eight selections bear Holland’s name as composer. “Spheres” and “Under Redwoods” are the two contemplative interlocutors. The former volleys melodic cells between lower thrums and a harmonic pedal point. Quick fingerwork from both hands adapts the instrument to constantly shifting desires for a sound that is fragmented yet immediately relatable. The latter spreads a wider net that is more experiential than autobiographical.

The heavily lilting intro of the title cut declares its state of mind with ceremonial regularity, even as it bends to the whim of improvisation. A flick of the finger gives off a burst of virtuosity. “Combination” is, not surprisingly, a relay between bowing and plucking. This is the outlier of the program and for me doesn’t work quite so well as the rest. Nevertheless, its timbral variety is only heightened by its surroundings. In this vein, and far more effective, are the extended techniques of “Flurries,” which liquefy the strings even further. “Hooveling” is a most characteristic Holland bass line that could easily inaugurate a full-blown quintet piece, but is used instead as a hook into scattered monologues. Of the two non-Holland cuts, the post-bop wings of “B-40/RS-4-W/M23-6K” (Anthony Braxton) give plenty of lift. One might feel tempted to populate the sky around it with clouds shaped like drums, sax, and piano were it not for Holland’s rewarding density. Urgency is regained in “Solar” (Miles Davis), which maps its paths in jagged strokes across an already erratic geography.

Emerald Tears is more than a love song to its instrument. It is a free journey with definite returns, each a touchstone along the way. It takes a few listens to pick out the album’s motives, but they’re surely there, pristine and flowing. I think for the right mood this is a perfect album to put on and let carry you away. Either way, it is a striking and exemplary solo achievement bearing one of jazz’s most distinctive creative signatures.

<< Paul Motian Trio: Dance (ECM 1108)
>> Terje Rypdal: Waves (ECM 1110)

Gateway 2 (ECM 1105)

ECM 1105

Gateway 2

John Abercrombie guitar, electric mandolin
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums, piano
Recorded July 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this era of tawdry sequels, it’s almost difficult to believe that John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette could have surpassed the profundity of 1975’s seminal Gateway. I say “almost” only because each member of this dream trio has yet to let this committed listener down and always comes to the studio bearing a basket overflowing with fresh ideas. Not only do the results of this 1978 follow-up not disappoint, they ascend into their own category.

At first we aren’t sure what to think in the carefully executed half-sleep of the 16-minute “Opening.” Amid tinkling icicles Abercrombie’s guitar wavers above the bass as it gradually forms intelligible words out of the scattered letters with which we are confronted. The process is so intensely organic that we find ourselves being lulled into its speech-like rhythms. As the snare becomes more forthcoming with its intentions, Holland fleshes out its implications with a tantalizing loop, through which Abercrombie hooks his song with a sound that is wiry yet ethereal. Just as engaging in his supportive statements, he provides ornamentation for Holland as DeJohnette rides with fierce precision into a fine solo of his own. The steam of malleted cymbals condenses into the following “Reminiscence.” Holland and Abercrombie blend into a larger instrument in this pensive track that sounds like the acoustic shadow of Pat Metheny’s “Midwestern Night Dream” (see Bright Size Life). “Sing Song” is another dose of milk-and-honey goodness. Wonderfully nuanced drumming here from DeJohnette uplifts even as it placates. Meanwhile, Abercrombie leans back into an ergonomic continuity that soon plateaus into an engaging turn from Holland, whose quintessential bass line in “Nexus” opens the band to a limber display of virtuosity. Abercrombie is again transcendent in this tower of syncopation, from which trails the Rapunzel-like strands of a limitless creative cache. DeJohnette’s piano turns “Blue” into an ending that is as bitter as it is sweet.

For those who haven’t heard this unit’s first album, I recommend doing so before settling into this one. Not because either is “better” than the other, but only because the development between the two is more readily appreciated when experienced chronologically. In any case, Gateway 2 is its own animal that thrives best in the habitat of our appreciation.

<< Richard Beirach: Hubris (ECM 1104)
>> Art Lande and Rubisa Patrol: Desert Marauders (ECM 1106)

Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)

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.

<< Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnnette: Gateway (ECM 1061)
>> Enrico Rava: The Pilgrim And The Stars (ECM 1063)

Kenny Wheeler: Gnu High (ECM 1069)

ECM 1069

Kenny Wheeler
Gnu High

Kenny Wheeler fluegelhorn
Keith Jarrett piano
Dave Holland bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded June 1975, Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Kenny Wheeler’s ECM debut cut against the grain of his previously avant-garde stylistics. Dispensing here with his trusty trumpet for fluegelhorn, Wheeler carved out a niche that still leaves room for no other. The heartening tone of “Heyoke” animates our very bodies with 22 minutes of bliss. After Wheeler’s prophetic intro, Jarrett is given free reign at the keyboard, uttering ecstatic cries as he threads through Holland’s solo while also buoying Wheeler’s instinctive pickups. “Smatter” injects this trio of compositions with a hefty dose of kinetic energy that is sustained by Wheeler’s fluid brass and the tireless volleys of Jarrett. Even as the latter takes his lone passage, one feels the energy lingering like a potential leap into flight. “Gnu Suite” begins smoothly before locking into a downtempo trajectory. An unrepeatable magic occurs as Holland’s magnetic solo opens into the wider ethereal territory of his bandmates’ consecutive reappearances. And as the voices realign themselves, we feel the release of arrival, of knowing that we’ve come home.

One could hardly smelt a more fortuitous combination of musical alloys, which in spite of (or perhaps because of) their intense respective powers, manage to cohere into a consistently visionary sound. Jarrett only seems to get better in the presence of others (this was to be his last album as sideman), feeding as he does off their energy and vice versa. Wheeler is another musician who easily stands his own ground, yet imbibes only the most saturated elixirs of mindful interaction. And I need hardly extol the wonders of having Holland and DeJohnette covering one’s back. Gnu High stands out also for the fact that many of its solos occur alone, so that we are able to place an ear to the heartbeat of every musician in turn. Their internal compasses share a magnetic north, pointing to a direction in sound that continues to drive the label some three-and-a-half decades later.

<< Terje Rypdal: Odyssey (ECM 1067/68)
>> Keith Jarrett: Arbour Zena (ECM 1070)