Jack DeJohnette’s Directions: Untitled (ECM 1074)

ECM 1074

Jack DeJohnette’s Directions

Jack DeJohnette drums, tenor saxophone
John Abercrombie electric and acoustic guitars
Alex Foster tenor and soprano saxophones
Mike Richmond bass, electric bass
Warren Bernhardt piano, electric piano, clavinet, cowbell
Recorded February, 1976 at Talent Studios, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With Untitled, Jack DeJohnette’s Directions popped a jazz milestone into ECM’s prolifically expanding oven, and it still smells as fresh as the day it was baked. Building off DeJohnette’s robust intro to the 14-minute “Flying Spirits,” a compelling quintet completed by guitar (John Abercrombie), bass (Mike Richmond), sax (Alex Foster), and keyboard (Warren Bernhardt) makes for an aerial interweaving of complementary signatures. The band kicks up a whirlwind of activity, leaving DeJohnette’s delicate applications to rustle like the last stray leaves blowing down the road, out of sight but ever in mind. “Pansori Visions” is an eccentric duet of hand drums and detuned guitar, slack strings sounding like the amplified offspring of a koto and a human voice. Not coincidentally, the title refers to a traditional Korean art form of often-satirical storytelling, also to the accompaniment of a single drummer. “Fantastic” is just that, its colorful percussive accents giving way to some infectious saxophonic action. In spite of the killer title, “The Vikings Are Coming” unfolds like something straight out of Pat Metheny’s Watercolors session, again striated by fluent reeds. “Struttin” evolves into a rather punchy face-off between saxophone and guitar, refereed superbly by DeJohnette. The only victory to be had is in the brief but bitter groove as it closes in resolute harmony. Bernhardt’s “Morning Star” begins with a duet of piano and acoustic guitar, the latter always one step behind. From these dream-like beginnings come a pronounced rhythm section and more melodic fortitude from alto. Capping off this invigorating set is “Malibu Reggae,” which slinks like a drunken dancer in slow motion, its delightfully kitsch keyboard gnawing at the edges of our curiosity with a familiar burn. A tune that would have sat easily among John Zorn’s Naked City abstractions in their heyday, it’s a whimsical ending to a powerfully direct album, ever blushing with hints of its own enigma.

These compositions—all but “Morning Star” are by DeJohnette with or without his collaborators—are bright, resilient, and vociferous. Having stood the test of three-plus decades, they will easily hold up to three more, and then some. And while our leader captivates with his usual kinesis, Foster’s vocal modulations and the unobtrusive support network of Abercrombie/Bernhardt/Richmond make this one for the ages. When you’ve had enough blues for one day, Untitled is as good a pick-me-up as you could ask for. A prime candidate for reissue.

<< Pat Metheny: Bright Size Life (ECM 1073)
>> Jan Garbarek: Dansere (ECM 1075)

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)

Steve Kuhn: Trance (ECM 1052)

ECM 1052

Steve Kuhn

Steve Kuhn piano, electric piano
Steve Swallow electric bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Sue Evans percussion
Recorded November 11/12, 1974 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Perhaps no one on the ECM roster, other than Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, has as enlightened an understanding of the keyboard as Steve Kuhn. His debut album for the label only grows profounder with age. The elegant title track says it all: a trance of epic proportions etched into a set of almost impossibly modest length. Its prominent bass line lays down an airy ostinato, through which Kuhn digs straight into the album’s molten interior. The tender Fender in “A Change Of Face” lulls us into thinking we’re in for another methodical number, opening instead into some blazing percussive interplay between Steve Swallow and Jack DeJohnette. “Squirt” begins and ends with the same staccato declarations, strung together by a continual stream of sustain-pedaled galaxies and brightened by Sue Evans’s always-colorful accents. “The Sandhouse” rolls along the keyboard, collecting debris as it gathers speed toward the hip electric style of “Something Everywhere.” Kuhn lets Swallow do most of the talking here, taking charge only briefly through a series of quick key changes, all while DeJohnette keeps up his end of the bargain and then some. “Silver” is the only piano solo and shows Kuhn at his lyrical best, which hones the raunchy “The Young Blade” into an even darker edge. Kuhn plays us out with “Life’s Backward Glance,” a curious metaphysical experiment in which he intones: “It was a dark and stormy night at sea. The captain called his men on deck and said, ‘Men, I have a story to tell.’ And this is the story he told. It was a dark and stormy night at sea. The captain called his men on deck and said, ‘Men, I have a story to tell.’ And this is the story he told.” The mise-en-abyme of this tale only serves to analogize the haunting enigma of his craft.

An historic example of Kuhn’s lush, romantic style, Trance speaks of something beyond the realm of even the most intense study; beyond the possibilities of unchecked ability, technical prowess, and sheer finesse. It is a journey that has been faithfully recorded for all its hardships and triumphs alike. Kuhn fills every space with something fresh and palpable, allowing us total freedom in the listening.

<< The Gary Burton Quintet with Eberhard Weber: Ring (ECM 1051)
>> Michael Naura: Vanessa (ECM 1053)

Keith Jarrett/Jack DeJohnette: Ruta and Daitya (ECM 1021)

ECM 1021

Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette
Ruta and Daitya

Keith Jarrett piano, electric piano, organ, flute
Jack DeJohnette drums, percussion
Recorded May 1971 at Sunset Studios, Los Angeles
Engineers: Rapp/Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, who continue their formidable partnership to this day, join forces for an early and unique collaboration. This being the tail end of Jarrett’s electric period with Miles Davis, Ruta and Daitya marks an archivally important transition into his imminent acoustic pilgrimages. “Overture Communion” captures our attention from the start with a funky, wah-wahed electric piano, warmly guiding us into the album’s exciting, yet somehow always plaintive world. The title track shakes things up with a spate of hand percussion as Jarrett flutes a more abstract improvisation than the one that began the album, though to no less captivating effect. When Jarrett abandons flute for piano, a markedly different shape brands itself into the foreground. In doing so, something gets obscured. It’s not that instruments from such seemingly disparate geographies cannot tread the same path, but simply that they don’t speak to each other as complementarily. Thankfully, Jarrett’s return to flute, this time of bamboo variety, puts us right back into the conversation. DeJohnette takes up a standard drum kit for “All We Got,” a cut that runs around in circles, even as it rouses us with its gospel-infused aesthetic. Jarrett finds himself acoustically redrawn in “Sounds of Peru.” Piano and hand drums work magically this time around as the duo hones further the groove it has been searching for. Jarrett opens up his playing, giving DeJohnette a wider berth in which to lose himself. No longer do the drums skirt the periphery, but frolic in the territory proper. There is even what amounts to a percussion solo as Jarrett coos in the background with delight, thus preparing him for an inspired passage that grinds bass notes in counterpoint to his running right hand. In “Algeria,” Jarrett sings into the flute again, leaving me to wonder why we don’t hear him on the instrument more often, though perhaps its linearity is somewhat limiting to a musician with such expansive hands (hence, his propensity for polyphonic playing). “You Know, You Know” brings us full circle to the electric piano for a more laid-back coolness before we end with “Pastel Morning,” a beautiful meditation on the electric piano. In the absence of punchy distortion, it sounds almost like a vibraphone, its gentler capacities allowed to float of their own accord.

The album’s title is a curious one, and offers at best a rather opaque X-ray of the conceptual skeleton it sheathes. Ruta and Daitya refer to two island-continents, remnants of the second cataclysm to befall the great island of Atlantis. Both were populated by races of titans, known as “Lords of the Dark Face” as a means of indicating their ties to black magic. If we are to believe Madame Blavatsky, who in her second volume of The Secret Doctrine outlines their genealogical significance in her mystical, albeit highly racialized, account of creation, the Egyptians inherited the cosmological legacy of the Ruta Atlanteans, as supposedly evidenced in the similarities of their Zodiacal beliefs. Whatever the origins, there is much to ponder in Ruta and Daitya. The sensitive pianism for which Jarrett is so renowned is in full evidence throughout, though for me his flute playing really sells the album. Jarrett proves himself more than adept and plays with an addictive sense of abandon. DeJohnette, meanwhile, enchants with a melodic approach to his kit, especially in his use of cymbals.

ECM 1021 LP
Original cover

This isn’t an album I would necessarily recommend to those just starting their Jarrett or ECM explorations. For what it is—a meeting of two consummate musical minds—its importance is a given. While perhaps not as consistently inventive as other likeminded projects (see, for example, the phenomenal Charles Lloyd/Billy Higgins effort Which Way Is East), it is certainly more hit than miss, and strikes this listener with the ambitions of its musicians’ reach every time.

<< Chick Corea: Piano Improvisations Vol. 2 (ECM 1020)
>> Chick Corea: Return To Forever (ECM 1022)

Gateway (ECM 1061)

ECM 1061


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

With this record, John Abercrombie both repaved and detoured from his staid path. He could hardly have been in finer company, and the combination seems to have fanned all sorts of flames within him. DeJohnette and Holland string an array of tightropes across which Abercrombie balances his way into previously uncharted territory.

“Back-Woods Song” evokes a mood that would come to define some of the later work of Bill Frisell. To be sure, the sound lives up to its name here as it awakens like an alligator poking its head above some swampy surface. Holland solos wonderfully here, after what some have rightly remarked to be a rather “creepy” turn from Abercrombie, ricocheting delightfully off the cymbals. This is very muddy jazz: viscous, opaque, and teeming with unseen life. “Waiting” is essentially a slow trek for bass that ushers us into “May Dance,” in which Abercrombie’s fingers frolic across the fretboard. Thus he brings a clear sense of continuity and of dynamic energy, scraping away at the surface of possibility and peering into its inner depths without fear of censure. The ensuing frenzy of activity resolves into a delicate bass solo, during which Abercrombie takes a much-needed breather. Holland cleverly mimics Abercrombie’s style, underscoring that same cluster concept of note value and melodic ascendency. “Unshielded Desire” is exactly what it claims to be. It starts with a percussive bang like the finale of a fireworks display and Abercrombie runs with all his might to capture every dying spark as it trails in the sky. The music goes around in spirals, flirting with a center it can never reach no matter how far down it goes, until it is like a compass gone haywire in the Bermuda Triangle. Next is “Jamala,” the most downtempo cut on the album. This is a moody masterpiece and a fine lead-in to the magical, epic, and incendiary “Sorcery I,” which rounds out the set.

I actually fell asleep the first three times I tried listening to this record. For whatever reason, its quirky energy seems to have had a soothing effect on me. Odd, seeing as I cannot imagine a more invigorating guitar trio. Abercrombie has such a distinctive sound and it has to do not only with the amplification and choice of instrument (or pairing thereof), but more importantly with the fragmented aesthetic he brings to his playing. Abercrombie is a “sensual” musician—that is, a musician of the senses. He seems to rattle his own bones, bringing to his improvisation a sense of detached wonder. Those looking for the laid-back Abercrombie may find this an unexpected outing. I do think it’s worth taking a chance on, however, as the freer moments herein might very well surprise and inspire. Despite a seemingly haphazard approach, Abercrombie remains tightly knit to the music’s immediacy. His is an electric sound that stays close to its acoustic roots, while Holland’s solos rise and fall, never straying from the core beat, as if strung to DeJohnette’s limbs.

It’s difficult to explain this kind of jazz to someone who has never heard it, and almost as difficult to describe it as someone hearing it for the first time. It is chameleonic music of the highest order. The wealth of possibility represented here in the art of improvisation expands the ear, the mind, and the heart of the listener, cracking the window of one’s worldview open just that much more to reveal the joys of lived experience. And maybe that’s what jazz is all about: experiencing the human spirit and the infinite ways in which it contorts itself to the tune of some intangible creativity.

<< Ralph Towner: Solstice (ECM 1060)
>> Collin Walcott: Cloud Dance (ECM 1062)

John Abercrombie: Timeless (ECM 1047)


John Abercrombie

John Abercrombie guitar
Jan Hammer organ, synthesizer, piano
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded June 11 & 12, 1974, Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineers: Tony May and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

On Timeless, guitarist John Abercrombie spearheads a session with keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette for a melding of minds in the first degree.

The trio kicks things off in high gear with “Lungs,” a heaping pile of kindling set ablaze by Hammer’s high-octane staccato, DeJohnette’s explosive hi-hat, and Abercrombie’s unusually frenetic fretwork. A sublime energy is maintained throughout and the payoff is supremely satisfying—all the more so for its brevity, as the music suddenly changes avenues just a few minutes in. Hammer relays between organ and synth, keeping the pace (and the funk) through trailing guitar solos that send notes like cosmic fingers flicking galaxies into outer space. The organ smolders quietly in the background before clinching a new groove, which Abercrombie laces with lines flanged just right for the mix. It all ends in a game of musical jump rope, with Abercrombie skipping over the alternation of drums and organ. “Love Song” is true to its name and is the first of two exquisite conversations between piano and acoustic guitar. Just as the organ trailed long rows in the soil of our attention, the piano comes as a welcome rain for our crop and the guitar like the sun that infuses it. This brings us to “Ralph’s Piano Waltz,” a highlight of these six fine offerings. Like the album as a whole, this track is a superlative balancing act. It’s a construct so seamless that if you don’t find your foot tapping during this one, you might want to make sure it’s still attached. The electric leads speak in their respective languages, but also mimic each other along the way. “Red And Orange” is what might result if Bach had survived into the 1970s as a closeted jazz musician, and is another standout in a set of many. “Remembering” is an alluring chain of tableux and the second of the two duets. Abercrombie sustains details the piano seems content to ignore, loosening those threads from their weave. We end with the title track, which builds slowly from a synth drone peppered with guitar musings to a full-on embrace of space.

This evergreen stands tall in the ECM forest. There is no sense of competition, only mutual reveling in a distinctly nuclear sound. One could easily call it fusion, but if anything it is fused with itself, for it has created every element it seeks to combine. Timeless indeed.

<< Dave Liebman: Drum Ode (ECM 1046)
>> Paul Motian: Tribute (ECM 1048)