In 2010, I embarked on a life-changing journey through the entire ECM catalogue. Five years later, I reached synchronicity when I reviewed every album on the ECM, ECM New Series, and JAPO imprints. In the wake of that milestone, my attentions were pulled in many different directions, as I was simultaneously raising a new family, earning a Ph.D., teaching, publishing as both author and translator, sharpening my skills as a traveling music journalist and photographer, and pivoting into newfound spiritual awakenings. Consequently, my ability to keep step with ECM’s unflagging release schedule—which now averages one new album per week—waned in the light of these and other commitments. And so, imagine my (lack of) surprise when, upon deciding to resume this project in earnest, I realized that I had fallen behind by about 200 albums. On this, the 14th day of November 2019, I can humbly say that synchronicity has been restored. Whether by coincidence or unconscious design, just as my final “catch-up” release in 2015 was Keith Jarrett’s Creation, this time around it happens to be Jarrett’s Munich 2016, released only two weeks ago. The significance will hardly be lost on you, my dear readers. And how fortuitous, too, that I should arrive at this point in the heart of ECM’s 50th anniversary. Going forward, I aim to be your go-to source for the most up-to-date reviews and will be unveiling a few surprises, so stay tuned. The extent of my gratitude may just be bigger than the influence of the label to which I offer it. My deepest thanks to you for continuing to share it with me.
Keith Jarrett piano
Recorded live July 16, 2016
at Philharmonic Hall, Munich
Producer: Keith Jarrett
Engineer: Martin Pearson
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 1, 2019
The more I listen to Keith Jarrett’s improvised concerts, the more I shy away from the adjective “solo” to describe them. Not because I live under a delusion that it isn’t just him translating energies that 99.99 percent of us could only hope to detect, but because each iteration of this asymptotic journey at the piano reminds me of the ghost of yet another former self who goes on playing in an alternate reality even after he lifts his hands and takes a bow amid the applause of this one.
Throughout this two-disc recording, which documents a July 16th performance in the city and year of its title, Jarrett unveils 12 numbered sculptures of possibility, each more freestanding than the last. Not that the path between them is linear. What begins in Part I—the set’s longest, just shy of 14 minutes—as a many-tentacled deep sea creature has by Part III already morphed into a landbound shepherd. The latter’s hymnal qualities light a gospel fire in the underground railroad lantern of Part IV before dissolving into the child’s dream that is Part V.
Part VI marks another change of face, uniting questions of mountains above with answers of valleys below. The contortions of Parts VII, IX, and XII are ages between, giving way to meditations in which un-pressed keys speak as truthfully as their contacted neighbors. Few are so profound in this regard as Part XI, of which a certain air of finality is only as permanent as the wind on which it’s written. It whispers as an antidote to the shouting match that has become our lives.
In light of all this, we get a trinity of shades in Jarrett’s choice of encores. In “Answer Me, My Love,” he embraces the past as if it were a dying future. In “It’s A Lonesome Old Town,” he embraces the present as if it were the only hope of peace. And in “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” he lets go of all three states of mind, knowing that honesty of expression is the only wave we can catch to keep him visible as he follows one horizon in search of the next.
Dreamlife of Debris
Kit Downes piano, organ
Tom Challenger tenor saxophone
Lucy Railton cello
Stian Westerhus guitar
Sebastian Rochford drums
Recorded November 2018
at St. Paul’s Hall, University of Huddersfield
and St. John the Baptist, Snape
Engineer: Alex Bonney
Produced by Sun Chung
Release date: October 25, 2019
Following his 2018 ECM headliner debut, Obsidian, Kit Downes returns at the organ (and piano), this time among friends, including saxophonist Tom Challenger (heard for a spell on Obsidian), cellist Lucy Railton, and drummer Sebastian Rochford. The latter is heard prominently in the concluding “Blackeye,” a piece cowritten by Downes and Challenger. Its thicker brushstrokes fill a rather different sort of canvas than the ones preceding, albeit touched by the same palette.
“Sculptor” opens with Challenger’s bare tone, a kiss of sun on the morning glory of piano that then imbues the scene with its color. Also lurking is guitarist Stian Westerhus, a new addition to the Downes nexus who is rightly described by Steve Lake in his liner notes as, at times, a “near-subliminal participant.” Twinkling like starlight in “Bodes,” his guitar emotes under tension of utterly non-invasive strings. The latter tune is the album’s masterstroke: a fully narrative journey from cradle to grave that catches as many life experiences as it can before passing them on like an inheritance in faith of continuation.
Comforting about Downes as composer is his underlying sense of open-endedness. Titles such as “Pinwheel” and “Sunflower” suggest interconnections just beyond their titular surfaces—not only in Railton’s liquid threading, but also in their ability to turn melody into substance (if not the other way around). “Circinus” and “Twin” make sense of the organ as if it were a text to be interpreted in humility. Both elicit an undeniably cosmic feel, strangely rendered in textures of flesh and soil.
The only piece not by Downes is “M7.” Composed by his wife, bassist and vocalist Ruth Goller, this organ solo centers its energies in sustained pedal points while spreading open the periphery as one might a pair of hands. In its cradle, the entire album’s heart dents a pillow woven from old maps and cartographic sketches, each drawing closer to an undiscovered country but never quite reaching it. Content to float wherever the current may lead, it closes its eyes and redraws its path in the language of a dream, where the only songs that matter are those without words.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles
As the peoples of the Earth move into the
21st century, where hi-tech moves them deeper
and deeper into realms of the unknown, visions
of the ancient chime and bell remind us of
the lyrical power that remains at the heart
of mankind’s quest for fulfillment.
If ever there was a boxed edition that needs your attention, it’s The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles. If ever there was a boxed set that doesn’t need your attention, it’s also The Art Enemble of Chicago and Associated Ensembles, because the music it contains exists on a level so far beyond us that the very universe is already listening to it in infinite regression. What we have in this 21-disc treasure trove is something as metaphysical as it is satisfying in the hands: a legacy made wieldable in crisp lines of typography and cardboard.
ECM Records and the Art Ensemble of Chicago were both founded in 1969, and so it seems inevitable that their kinship should extend beyond numerological coincidence into the realm of audio. In the words of multi-reedist and founding member Roscoe Mitchell, “It has been amazing to have taken this journey together,” and make no mistake: This journey can be savored however one wishes to approach it, inserting life experiences into the music’s nooks and crannies, just as the music leaves its traces in those experiences in return.
The recordings gathered here span from 1978 to 2015, and are accompanied by a 300-page book that contains all of the original album materials along with newly unarchived photographs, paratexts, and essays written specifically for the occasion. In a preface by Manfred Eicher, ECM’s founder and lead producer speaks of his first encounters with this “polystylistic” collective as both sonically and visually unforgettable experiences. Having wanted to record them for some time, it wasn’t until 1978 when, in a six-month flurry of activity, he recorded the AEC’s Nice Guys, Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Divine Love, all of which revolved around the genius of trumpeter Lester Bowie. Vijay Iyer describes in a liner note the “disruptive vocality” of Bowie’s trumpet as “discursive, declamatory, mischievous, and yet welcoming, as though he were somehow speaking to and for everyone.” As such, it marks this collection’s topography with the itinerant precision of a cartographer whose only dream is to show and never tell.
Producer Steve Lake, in a heartfelt tribute of his own to this roving constellation, calls Bowie and Mitchell “two of the most strikingly individual players in creative music of the post-Coltrane era.” To make good on that statement, one could spin this set like a globe and land a finger anywhere. Lake discusses the significance of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and of what began as the Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble (with Bowie, reedman Joseph Jarman, and bassist Malachi Favors) in particular to reveal its compositional acuity and vivid individualism. As the first AACM project to sink its teeth into Europe (by that time acquiring percussionist Don Moye), the AEC had a lot to say. As Lake so delectably puts it: “On any given night, a set’s components might include gong-splashed ancestral meditations and go-for-broke collective improvising, throbbing drum choirs, parodic parade marches, fiery post-bop, vertiginous silences, classical paraphrases, prayer meeting invocations, hints of Chicago blues and country blues and old timey folk song, down-home funk and radical urban sound-collage with impatient bike horns and sirens, all underlining the ‘ancient to the future’ claim which mighty bassist Malachi Favors, in a moment of inspiration, had appended to the Great Black Music slogan.” All the while, labels were trying to capture the uncapturable, but it wasn’t until ECM came along that the AEC’s sonic panorama could be set free.
Nice Guys, being the ECM debut of the AEC, is lacquered in legend. A Rolling Stone Guide capsule review describes it as follows: “A Miles Davis tribute, a hint of reggae, percussion labyrinths, formidable saxophone solos and incredibly sensitive group dynamics are some of the ingredients that make Nice Guys essential.” The keywords are “some” and “essential.” The first because the album is a mélange of old influences and new creations alike; the second because no one who appreciates jazz as a living history should be without this watershed record. In Moye’s words, “In the ancient tradition of art and black music, a musical presentation was not just about music. It was about all the different elements of life.” Indeed, what the AEC achieves, whether in the studio or on stage, is nothing short of life itself. As pianist Craig Taborn, heard as part of Mitchell’s Bells for the South Side, likewise says of Nice Guys: “The melodies moved through actual environments that seemed palpable and teeming with life and energy.”
While Nice Guys is certainly a keystone in the AEC’s discography, I cradle it as a compass through some personal favorites. Highest among those is Full Force, a ball of fire and ice wrapped in one engaging package. From the ephemeral to the everlasting, its moods span the gamut of human experience and etch the soul with its contrasts. Without hesitation, I would direct any and all newcomers to this album as a point of initiation. Another immutable entry into this canon is Smith’s Divine Love, which matches the trumpeter’s depth and breadth with a formidable lineup that includes Bowie, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and bassist Charlie Haden. There is a muted quality to this album—both literally and figuratively—that hints at veils beyond veils to the emotional vibrations beyond them still. It is music as language, turned inward until it binds itself as a book of heartbeats.
A hop and skip bring us to Bowie’s All The Magic!, which blends tributes and the tribute-worthy, culminating in a fascinating solo session that approaches resonance and whimsy with equal sanctity. Peter Kemper characterizes this unusual album as a space in which “[c]areful movements must be made, with small steps forward and a watchful eye to the rear. The investigation of the path being taken appears more important than the goal at the end of the path.” In light of this apt description, and because Bowie is such a primary force, I bow to the dedicatory charisma of the AEC’s Tribute to Lester, which unfurls from every strike of the gong a spirit of undying breath.
Among the Mitchell outings included, I would uphold Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 as a vivid example of what he is capable of in his element. Like a strand of DNA broken and regrown into a widening family, every note births another by grand experimental design. That Mitchell makes it all sound so intuitive is testament to his ability to reign forces as a precondition for liberating them.
The self-titled effort from DeJohnette’s New Directions receives a welcome reissue among these other gems. Featuring guitarist John Abercrombie, drummer Eddie Gomez, and a perennial Bowie, it frames the trumpeter as lyrical griot and takes full advantage of the afforded space. All of this and more funnel into Made In Chicago, in which DeJohnette joins saxophonist Henry Threadgill, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, bassist Larry Gray, and Mitchell. Jack DeJohnette was never part of the AACM proper, but his introduction of Abrams to Mitchell was the first sneeze in a creative avalanche unlike any other. Like old friends turning the same page, this live document rejoices in the very act of rejoicing and yields one of ECM’s most masterful turns in recent memory.
Music is, as Thomas Staudter phrases it, “the human experience in its full glory.” In the hands of the AEC, music means also a dance between the symbiosis of structure and freedom. In absence of said dance, we can make no truth claims about the AEC and its offshoots, for we are nothing more than the wind shaking the boughs of a tree whose fruit is forever ripe.
Tell of the rustling. Speak of horizons. Practice, practice the strength of beautiful telling from one generation to another so that the beautiful does not pass again into oblivion. Tell each other of life’s scenes. What was good shall be. Slow down to enjoy with the help of colors—and discover. See the greenness and hear the droning and transform your spontaneous sighs into a powerful song.
–Peter Handke, “Über die Dörfer” (“On Villages”)
Below is a list of all 18 albums contained in this essential collection, linked to my full review of each. Keep in mind, however, that no matter how many words I and others have spilled in honor of this hallowed assembly and its tandem galaxies, there’s nothing so cosmically rewarding as opening your ears and letting these lightyears of creative spirit flow where they will.
ECM 1126 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Nice Guys (May 1978)
ECM 1167 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (January 1980)
ECM 1211/12 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Urban Bushmen (May 1980)
ECM 1273 Art Ensemble of Chicago: The Third Decade (June 1984)
ECM 1143 Leo Smith: Divine Love (September 1978)
ECM 1209 Lester Bowie: The Great Pretender (June 1981)
ECM 1246/47 Lester Bowie: All The Magic! (June 1982)
ECM 1296 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: I Only Have Eyes for You (February 1985)
ECM 1326 Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (March 1986)
ECM 1808 Art Ensemble of Chicago: Tribute to Lester (September 2001)
ECM 1651 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Nine To Get Ready (May 1997)
ECM 1872 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Mitchell: Composition/Improvisation 1, 2 & 3 (September 2004)
ECM 1873 Transatlantic Art Ensemble/Parker: Boustrophedon (September 2004)
ECM 2087 Roscoe Mitchell & The Note Factory: Far Side (March 2007)
ECM 2494/95 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (September 2015)
ECM 1128 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): New Directions (June 1978)
ECM 1157 Jack DeJohnette’s New Directions (w/Lester Bowie): In Europe (June 1979)
ECM 2392 Jack DeJohnette (w/Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Henry Threadgill): Made In Chicago (August 2013)
ECM fans won’t want to miss the latest issue of DownBeat magazine, which pays tribute to the label with an extensive article by Josef Woodard. A perfect addition to your ever-growing collection.
Craig Taborn piano, electronics
Chris Speed tenor saxophone, clarinet
Chris Lightcap double bass, guitar
Dave King drums, electronic percussion
Recorded May 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Tim Marchiafava
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 3, 2017
In the footsteps of two successful leader dates for ECM, pianist Craig Taborn rolls the die of paradigm once again and hits a solid four with Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on bass and guitar, and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion. Opener “The Shining One” is sure to delight fans of label mate Tim Berne, whose penchant for complex geometry is echoed here. Comparison aside, there’s a DNA helix all its own down which these musicians slide toward endings as abrupt as their beginnings. Speed navigates the bandleader’s genetic code as if it were his own back yard, while Lightcap and King engage in sequencing that feels at once parasitic and parthenogenetic.
“Abandoned Reminder” unravels its story from whispering electronics, as Taborn narrates a ballad-turned-trip down a stairway of psychological proportion. Such changes are indicative of an overall constitution, which by suggestion of an unusual fluidity activates proteins in underused listening muscles. The title track and “The Great Silence” are remarkable in this regard. Their enmeshment of soft virtue and hard truth is the quartet’s calling card. Like the arpeggios that thread both in their final phases, they treat predictability as a springboard for its own undoing.
Says Taborn of working with such widely accomplished musicians, “This music trades on transparency. I wanted all the elements to be crystalline, so that the layers of the music work like a prism.” Indeed, prismatic effects abound throughout“New Glory,” in which Taborn and Speed exchange unveiled conversation, and “Ancient.” The latter’s transition from bass monologue to ritual confluence shows a band working with patience and detail. As the parts, so the whole. Whether in the resonant piano-drums duet of “Subtle Living Equations” or the cosmic textures of “Phantom Ratio,” which floats Speed’s tenor on an ocean of nostalgic loops, the effect is consistently appropriate to the theme at hand. And while Taborn’s writing tends to pay homage to those themes at microscopic levels, his nod to Roscoe Mitchell’s “Jamaican Farewell” sees the jewel for the facets, and shines a methodical light of appreciation through a heart whose every beat is musical gospel. This is good news indeed.
Bells for the South Side
Roscoe Mitchell sopranino, soprano, alto and bass saxophones, flute, piccolo, bass recorder, percussion
James Fei sopranino and alto saxophones, contra-alto clarinet, electronics
Hugh Ragin trumpet, piccolo trumpet
Tyshawn Sorey trombone, piano, drums, percussion
Craig Taborn piano, organ, electronics
Jaribu Shahid double bass, bass guitar, percussion
William Winant percussion, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, marimba, roto toms, cymbals, bass drum, woodblocks, timpani
Kikanju Baku drums, percussion
Tani Tabbal drums, percussion
Recorded September 2015 at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago by David Zuchowski
Mixed May 2016 at Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines by Gérard de Haro with Steve Lake
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: June 16, 2017
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Roscoe Mitchell presented a cornucopia of trios at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in conjunction with the exhibition The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Said exhibition included percussion set-ups favored by Art Ensemble of Chicago legends Don Moye, Malachi Favors, Lester Bowie, Don Moye, and the reed-favoring multi-instrumentalist himself, all incorporated into the present double-disc recording.
Mitchell is the alpha and omega of this project, spearheading a series of designated trios to explore different organs of his immense compositional body. With Hugh Ragin (trumpet) and Tyshawn Sorey (here on trombone), he offers “Prelude to a Rose,” a somewhat funereal dirge that pops a cathartic blister about midway through.
With Jaribu Shahid (double bass) and Tani Tabbal (drums), Mitchell presents an unabashedly soulful sermon in “Prelude to the Card Game, Cards for Drums, and the Final Hand.” By force of his muscular alto, he punches holes in the time cards printed and cut by Shahid’s thick bowing before Tabbal turns the very concept of time inside out in an extended soliloquy, leaving a brief trio to throw some light at the end of the tunnel. Mitchell continues down that same introspective avenue in “Six Gongs and Two Woodblocks.” For this he’s joined by James Fei (reeds, electronics) and William Winant (percussion) for what may just be the album’s most brilliant turn of events. Its balance of outer and inner is at the very core of what Mitchell does best as a composer.
Even with pen laid aside, as in “Dancing in the Canyon,” a group improvisation with Craig Taborn (piano, organ, electronics) and Kikanju Baku (drums, percussion), he’s still the catalyst for an otherwise impossible chemical reaction. His sopranino dances as if it’s on fire and the only way to keep itself from turning to ashes is to sing until its throat runs dry. The sheer musicality of this unscripted dive inward is lucid to the extreme.
The album’s remainder is as shuffled as its musicians, for throughout it Mitchell recasts his trio actors in new roles and configurations. From the picturesque latticework of “Spatial Aspects of the Sound” to the nearly 26-minute blend of ambience and explosions that is “Red Moon in the Sky,” the latter segueing into the AEC’s calling card, “Odwalla,” played by the entire nonet, sound is substance. Connective tissue along the way spans a world of apparent influences, from Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis to Anthony Braxton and Edgard Varèse. Taborn (electronics) and Shahid (bass guitar) unearth haunting ore in “EP 7849,” while in the title track Ragin slings precise arrows of piccolo trumpet over the “percussion cage” Mitchell created for the AEC and which is resurrected here to wonderous effect by Sorey. But even at its most explosive, as in the drums- and piano-heavy “The Last Chord,” there’s more Genesis than Revelation at play. Let there be music.
Jakob Bro guitar
Thomas Morgan double bass
Joey Baron drums
Recorded November 2015, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 23, 2016
The title of Streams, guitarist Jakob Bro’s second leader date for ECM, could hardly be more appropriate to describe music that flows with the quiet charm of a forest creek, bubbling all the way from childhood to whatever here and now you happen to inhabit when encountering it.
“Opal” touchingly opens the album’s inner sanctum: a sacred gift for profane times. As the first of seven layers, it peels back just enough of life’s opacity to sense a shared humanity deeper within. Bro zooms in on filaments of memory, each a wire drawn from one biographical telephone pole to another. Bassist Thomas Morgan is so attuned to these electrical impulses that the possibility of a power outage seems a distant fantasy. Drummer Joey Baron marks their trail with care, ending with raindrops on a silo.
“Heroines” is one of Bro’s most patient confections. Morgan shuttles through the composer’s loom, soloing with restraint and focus, while the guitar folds itself in layers of cosmic radiation until the night itself begins to glow. This tune is further recast in a solo guitar version later in the set. Like a plant regressing to seed, it has all the world in its mouth before it opens to sing.
“PM Dream” is a free improvisation dedicated to Paul Motian. As in the music of its namesake, its heart beats somewhere between veiled ambience and solid ground. Morgan and Baron dot its continent with runes of memory, as they do in “Full Moon Europa,” which through its quiet substructure yields achingly dramatic elicitations from Bro. “Shell Pink” is another stunner, tracing its nautilus spiral into origins. Morgan is wonderous and sincere, enhancing that locomotive quality, inherent to all of Bro’s finest, along a parabola of ice to fire to ice.
Nowhere is geologic force so thoroughly studied as in “Sisimiut.” Where normally Bro is more interested in following a burning fuse than chronicling the explosion it foreshadows, this time he allows a little of that fire to spill over. But because destruction would be antithetical to the loving atmosphere he has so painstakingly created, we never encounter a bang, going out instead with a hush.