A second look: Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette (ECM 1237)

Werner Pirchner / Harry Pepl / Jack DeJohnette

Werner Pirchner tenor vibes, marimba
Harry Pepl ovation guitar
Jack DeJohnette
 drums
Digitally recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Writing these reviews has been as much an opportunity to learn about the many fascinations of ECM (and music in general) as about myself. Part of that learning process involves reassessment. So far in my explorations of the label, there have been only two bumps in the road—no small feat for a catalogue of 1300 releases. One of these bumps was the self-titled record cut by Werner Pirchner, Harry Pepl, and Jack DeJohnette. Recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1982, it came across to my ears as a one-off session that was perhaps better suited to remain in reissue limbo. Yet after posting a rare critical review, I incurred an unexpected backlash. Rather than let this underscore my defensiveness—which is useless, for how can one argue with another’s appreciation of art?—I took it to heart and have, over the past year, returned to this album on occasion to absorb its expressive secrets. The experience also revealed an imperfection in my system: because I am hearing so many of these records for the first time, and in my sometimes-overzealous efforts to reach synchronicity with ECM’s rigorous release schedule, I tend listen to albums only once before reviewing them. While on the one hand this gives (I hope) a freshness of feeling to my attempts at describing the indescribable, on the other it doesn’t always leave me prepared to expound upon an experience that may be a longer time in coming. I am also an ardent, if idealistic, believer that music tends to come into one’s life when it is meant to, but that sometimes its interest requires incubation. I simply did not give this date the attention it deserves.

“African Godchild” opens its eyes to a savannah dawn and draws us into a scene resonant with life. The depth of Pepl’s talent, now that I’m more familiar with it, is immediately evident in the spaciousness of his evocations. Pirchner matches that spaciousness on the inside, so that our understanding of it becomes unified. We can hear from this that the Pepl/Pirchner relationship is the nexus of the trio, the guitarist providing spider webs of support for the mallet man’s acute inscriptions. DeJohnette’s kick drum and cymbals add relief to their subtle crosstalk. The interrelatedness of foreground and background is deftly realized, especially as Pepl steps forth with an echoing solo, sculpting the drama with practiced fingers. “Air, Love And Vitamines” is perfect for an autumn afternoon. It is a prime vehicle for Pirchner, whose Jarrett-like inflections enchant at every turn and constitute the vertical to DeJohnette’s horizontal. The drummer balances the hidden urgency of this tune and blends seamlessly with Pirchner’s chording. After listless beginnings, “Good-bye, Baby Post” Pirchner leads the way into a resonant groove. Pepl acts the bass player’s part, even more so in his solo, before pinpointing the night with far-reaching flame in “Better Times In Sight,” for which Pirchner brings us back to earth but not to land, preferring as he does to skate the limpid waters of a forgotten sea.

I stand by my original opinion that the processing on Pepl’s instrument obscures what is already such a direct voice (compare this to the more organic buzzing of Pirchner’s marimba), yet I can understand the motivation for contrast. Ultimately, his gorgeous sustains and crunchy backing ring true in spite of the effects applied. And while I still think the recording levels could still use some tweaking, I have found a solution: listen to it loud.

This curious little gem may or may not hold you at first listen, but it does have the potential, like anything worth its salt, to endear as it endures.

Pepl/Joos/Christensen: Cracked Mirrors (ECM 1356)

 

Harry Pepl
Herbert Joos
Jon Christensen
Cracked Mirrors

Harry Pepl guitar, roland midi guitar system, piano
Herbert Joos fluegelhorn
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded February 1987
Engineer: Gerhard Tauber
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug

After my faulty impressions of guitarist Harry Pepl’s effort with Werner Pirchner and Jack DeJohnette, I was gratified to stop on my listening journey at an unassuming little way station called Cracked Mirrors, which proves a far better showcase for Pepl’s innovative talents. For this collaboration, he welcomes Herbert Joos on fluegelhorn and drummer Jon Christensen. Joos lays down a breathy gorgeousness in his two-part “Wolkenbilder” (Cloud Picture). The first of these sets Pepl’s acoustic sequences into the recesses of an ambient storm, while the second makes beautiful use of midi and underscores Pepl’s off-kilter regularity. Joos shines like a snake of light into “Reflections In A Cracked Mirror.” In a rare death by drum machine, Christensen hauls us through a thicket of unsettling midi guitar, which is only strengthened by the punctiliousness of Pepl’s execution. “Schikaneder Delight” pays homage to, I can only surmise, Emanuel Schikaneder, Mozart’s famous librettist, with a showy ball dance that plods like something from a calliope before morphing into a Bill Frisell-esque fantasy. “Die alte Mär und das Mann” (The Ancient Tale And The Man) is straightforward trio work that features more greatness from Joos, who also excels throughout “More Far Out Than East,” in which Pepl is clearly having fun skittering through the rafters. “Purple Light” brings back the shaking and trembling, leaving us drained of our “Tintenfisch Inki” (Squid Ink). This final track features lovely piano from Pepl, who sends this eclectic marble skee-balling into orbit at last.

Pepl’s playing, as restless as it is welcoming, is difficult to pin down. This makes it all the more fascinating. He is the bloodstream of a vast organic landscape, where feelings of fracture share the roads with heavy travelers. One to explore.

Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette: s/t (ECM 1237)

Werner Pirchner / Harry Pepl / Jack DeJohnette

Werner Pirchner tenor vibes, marimba
Harry Pepl ovation guitar
Jack DeJohnette
 drums
Digitally recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vastly under-recognized malleter and composer Werner Pirchner sharing the same studio with guitarist Harry Pepl and drummer Jack DeJohnette? What could go wrong? Quite a bit, unfortunately. The opening “Africa Godchild” starts intriguingly enough, seeming to creep from the soil like an awakening locust. Pirchner describes with his marimba the feelers of a friend testing the air and finding only the welcoming glow of sunrise, while DeJohnette’s tom-heavy drumming calls forth the swarm. Yet despite these evocative beginnings, Pepl’s Ovation soon becomes distracting, and the chorus effect applied to it makes its chording sound perpetually out of tune. When soloing, however, it sounds fantastic, as the force of the playing cuts through the warble that constricts it. In “Air, Love and Vitamines,” the guitar again feels out of place, despite the lovely improvisatory stretch from Pirchner’s vibraphone. “Good-bye, Baby Post” fares little better, and Pepl’s crackling solo is too little too late. He shows admirable melodic acuity in the closing “Better Times In Sight,” but is once more undermined by the amping, which would have benefited greatly from a cleaner treatment.

This unusual collaboration could have been something special. Technical criticisms aside, its major stumbling block comes from the musicians’ lack of communication. Each draws a sphere that only seems to intersect tangentially with the other two. This might have been a gem of a recording had only Pirchner and DeJohnette been there to lay it down. In a catalogue as vast as ECM’s, one can hardly be surprised to encounter a forgettable effort now and then. Sadly, this may be one of them.

Adelhard Roidinger: Schattseite (ECM 1221)

 

Adelhard Roidinger
Schattseite

Adelhard Roidinger bass
Heinz Sauer tenor saxophone
Bob Degen piano
Harry Pepl guitar
Werner Pirchner vibraharp, marimba
Aina Kemanis voice
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
Recorded November 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s unfortunate that Adelhard Roidinger only cut this one record for ECM. The Austrian-born Renaissance man seems to have been a perfect fit for the label, which by the time of this release (1982) had firmly established its aesthetic hold on the jazz market. Schattseite has a lush, airy sound that is always appealing, and what better way to draw us in than with the slow-moving “Fü Pfü.” The soloing is crisp all around: gorgeous vibe work from Pirchner, Pepl’s soft guitar licks, DiPasqua’s tender drumming, a fluid run from Sauer on tenor sax, and an alluringly pianistic turn from Degen all make for a crystalline opener, and Roidinger’s plaintive accompaniment pulls it all together with humility. There is much stopping and starting, as if the music were afraid to latch on to a memory it knows could be self-destructive. Next is “Lufti,” a delightfully overdubbed bass duet, interrupted by occasional glissandi for a playful effect. “Loveland” fades in on a sweet piano riff doubled by Aina Kemanis’s brassy vocals, evoking the distinctive sound originally forged on Return to Forever. Roidinger harmonizes with the lead motif, blending into another mercurial leap from Pirchner, this time on marimba, supported by a delicate repeat of the same progression sans voice. The fantastic sax solo and Metheny-esque picking lend even more elegance to the track’s progressive sound. “Stress” begins with a bowed electric bass, caressing the air like whale songs. Sauer introduces the main line, again doubled by Kemanis, before Roidinger steps in to offer some regularity, thereby allowing Deger more room to flex his fingers. “Ania” starts with laughter, or something like it. Out of this abstract pointillism comes an engaging chant, throughout which Pepl jauntily strums his way along. The album closes with its longest track, “When Earth Becomes Desert,” which steadily moves from haunting drones to an all-out improv-fest. The marimba is unusually present here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was miked differently, if not added in postproduction. The final minute brings us slowly back down with a gorgeous melody in tutti.

Although Schattseite does take a while to find its groove, whatever it may lack in drive it makes up for in atmosphere and melodic robustness. This is an album of exceptional sound and quality, and is like the audio equivalent of a scenic route: it may get you to the same destination, maybe even less efficiently, but its allure is such that by the time you near the end, you no longer care where you were going. In dire need of a reissue.