ECM Book Now Available Worldwide!

I am thrilled to announce that my book, Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer, is now officially available for purchase!

Colombian publisher Rey Naranjo and I spent years putting this together, and we truly believe it will enrich the experiences of all ECM listeners. Get yours now while you can, as it is destined to become a collector’s item.

Click the picture below to be redirected to the publisher’s website, where you’ll find more information, including a book trailer, and a link to order via PayPal. The price is set at $40, which includes shipping to anywhere in the world.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this labor of love.

Cover copy

 

Julia Hülsmann Quartet: Not Far From Here (ECM 2664)

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Julia Hülsmann Quartet
Not Far From Here

Uli Kempendorff tenor saxophone
Julia Hülsmann piano
Marc Muellbauer double bass
Heinrich Köbberling drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Thomas Herr
Release date: November 1, 2019

Fans of pianist Julia Hülsmann’s work will find familiar flavors enhanced by the unique spice of tenor saxophonist Uli Kempendorff being added to her long-running ensemble. He’s most vividly showcased on “Le Mistral,” one of two tunes contributed by bassist Marc Muellbauer. What begins with a quiet stirring develops into a freely interlocking sound—one honed by years of experience and held together by the band’s open-ended circuitry.

The poetry of Kempendorff’s playing is forthcoming, and the same holds true of his writing, even as “Einschub” is harmonized enigmatically. Most of the composing credits, though, go to Hülsmann. From the opening caress of “The Art Of Failing” to the masterful “No Game,” she treats every instrument as a vital ligament of the same appendage, pointing and flexing to the rhythms of emotional desire. With the tenderness of morning light gaining slow but steady purchase on the corner of a bedroom window, she follows a natural order of things.

Drummer Heinrich Köbberling throws a couple of his own coins into the proverbial fountain, including “Colibri 65,” which furthers the bandleader’s apparent mission of summoning placid, distinct airs.

The set is upheld by two versions of “This Is Not America,” a song written by David Bowie in collaboration with Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays. With broken nostalgia, it winds a melodic tangle from which escape is an easy but deeply unattractive option.

(This review originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Maciej Obara Quartet: Three Crowns (ECM 2662)

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Maciej Obara Quartet
Three Crowns

Maciej Obara alto saxophone
Dominik Wania piano
Ole Morten Vågan double bass
Gard Nilssen drums
Recorded March 2019, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Steve Lake
Release date: October 25, 2019

After their 2017 ECM debut, Unloved, Polish saxophonist Maciej Obara and his quartet make their return with Three Crowns. In addition to six new tunes from the bandleader, the album features improvisational renderings of music by one of the most significant composers of the 20th century: Henryk Mikołaj Górecki (1933–2010). Though Górecki’s work has been subjected to improvisational treatments before, these renditions bear special distinction for being sanctioned by his family, whom Obara came to know while living in Katowice, where the composer once was based. The first Górecki interpretation, “Three Pieces In Old Style,” is so beautifully reimagined that it sounds as if it’s emanating from another world. Pianist Dominik Wania opens in a deeply respectful mood, allowing Obara’s incisive tone to keen overhead, while bassist Ole Morten Vågan and drummer Gard Nilssen roam a rain-kissed landscape below.

“Blue Skies For Andy” is among the stronger Obara originals—not only for its melodic strength but also its patience. It has a classic sound that feels warm to the ears, as precise as it is free. Other highlights range from the savvy urbanism of “Smoggy People,” notable for Wania’s postmodern swing, to the more geometric “Glow,” which recalls the tightly knotted compositions of fellow altoist Tim Berne. Obara’s bandmates grow in real time, though nowhere so maturely as on “Mr. S,” an homage to trumpeter Tomasz Stańko that rolls in on a wave of melancholy and sunshine in equal measure. Like the title track, it’s flexible and always attached to something pure and knowable. There is no mystery here. Only life.

(This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue of DownBeat magazine.)

Synchronicity (Part 2)

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: Munich 2016 (ECM 2667/68)

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Keith Jarrett
Munich 2016

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.

Kit Downes: Dreamlife of Debris (ECM 2632)

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Kit Downes
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.