Paul Motian: Selected Recordings (:rarum 16)

Motian

Paul Motian
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

People writing about Paul Motian (myself included) are quite fond of saying that the drummer liked to “play around the beat.” But after revisiting the material he chose for his own :rarum compilation, I have begun to rethink that assessment. For one thing, it implies a Platonic beat hidden in the music to begin with, as if it were (even in the absence of its overt articulation) always there to be served. But might it not also be possible that Motian redefined what the beat meant to begin with? For another, it risks pigeonholing him as a sketch artist. But might not his organisms be mature by the time they reach us? Listening, for example, to “One In Four” (from the Paul Bley Quartet’s 1988 self-titled album), one can hardly deny that his brushes explore the kit as anything less than a painter’s own brushes would a canvas, such that every portion of the emerging image—from background to foreground—requires its own rhythm. Otherwise, the heavily reverbed soprano saxophone of John Surman might not feel so sentient, nor the piano of Bley himself so grounded in self-reflection. Such seeds were already sown in the soil of 1973’s Conception Vessel, the title of which defines itself as an instrument of adaptive truth. So, too, in verses fished from the waters of the Paul Motian Band’s 1982 Psalm. In both “Fantasm” and “Mandeville,” he plays flowing string games with the guitar of Bill Frisell as if it were a tangle of synapses just waiting to complete a thought or action.

Yet the deepest end into which we are granted diving rights is compassed by the Paul Motian Trio in its various iterations. On 1978’s Dance, he uses the title track as a means of filling in the mosaic of bandmates David Izenzon (bass) and Charles Brackeen (soprano saxophone). And while it may seem that he is deconstructing the very idea of a dance—or, in its companion track “Asia,” the very idea of geography—if anything he is showing us that ceremony is improvisational at heart and that without listening before speaking, the sacred would never catch us in its net. Further selections from 1979’s Le Voyage, replacing Izenzon with Jean-François Jenny-Clark (another bassist who would leave us too soon), “Folk Song For Rosie” and “Abacus,” are masterful examples of Motian’s ability to uncover the plasticity of configuration. Brackeen’s soprano flows through the former tune’s landscape like a spontaneously formed rivulet in search of an end, whereas his tenor revels in the latter tune’s flora, which grows faster than he can cut it. In light of all this, it makes sense that in “It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago,” Motian’s 1985 masterpiece with Frisell and tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, the drummer is barely there, for if we dare characterize his sound as reaching us from another dimension, where everything comes into being through music, then it is only logical that he should return to that same realm, leaving us to parse his echoes with fallen words.

Carla Bley: Selected Recordings (:rarum 15)

Bley

Carla Bley
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Color me overjoyed to see a :rarum compilation dedicated to Carla Bley, especially because most of its material does not appear on ECM proper but rather on Bley’s own WATT sublabel. And while the scope of her talents as composer and pianist can hardly be confined to a single disc, the fact that Bley herself (as every :rarum artist) chose the tracks presently collected means we can trace her fingerprints back to origin.

It seems there is little disagreement when it comes to shortlisting Bley’s most enduring works, and we can be sure that 1971’s Escalator Over The Hill would be one of them. From that epic amalgamation of poetry, jazz, and theater comes “Why,” a masterstroke (in an album replete with them) sung with solid charisma by Linda Ronstadt. The following decade unwraps the gift of “Silence” on 1983’s The Ballad Of The Fallen, an ECM production from bassist Charlie Haden’s Music Liberation Orchestra that reads some of Bley’s most mournful writing with depth and passion. Satellite touchstones from the WATT universe include the headstrong radicalism of “Walking Batteriewoman” (Social Studies, 1981), the gospel warmth of “More Brahms” (Sextet, 1987), and the sensual “Fleur Carnivore.” The latter, from her 1989 album of the same name, glistens with sweat and tears, turning solos inside out until their grit becomes palpable.

The 1990s pull out a more whimsical backdrop streaked with the hot pinks of “On The Stage In Cages” (Big Band Theory, 1993), the oranges of “Chicken” (Songs With Legs, 1995) in her phenomenal trio with saxophonist Andy Sheppard and bassist Steve Swallow, and the classical tans of “End Of Vienna” (Fancy Chamber Music, 1998). The most joyful palette of this era is arrayed in “Major” from 1999’s Are we there yet? This live duet between Bley and Swallow works its jigsaw magic without fear of being misunderstood.

In the most recent selection, “Baseball” (4×4, 2000), we find her humorous take on Americana in full effect. From the windup and pitch to a grand slam of a denouement, its organ, horns, and piano loose not a single wasted note. As in the oldest selection, her classic “Ictus,” as interpreted by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (1961, reissued by ECM in 1992), we see her approach of life as music should be: in the moment, of the moment, and for the moment. We can feel these performances because they feel us back.

John Abercrombie: Selected Recordings (:rarum 14)

Abercrombie

John Abercrombie
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Late guitarist and composer John Abercrombie: a talent of talents whose artistry was as genuine as his personality. Unlike a fiction writer playing the role of a narrator who may or may not be reliable, he could always be counted on to tell an honest story. Like all the :rarum collections, but especially in this case, Abercrombie’s self-selection is as widely ranging as his career. Unlike many in the series, it proceeds fairly chronologically, starting in the only place one should—the title track of 1975’s appropriately named Timeless—and ending with “Convolution” from 2002’s Cat ‘n’ Mouse with Mark Feldman on violin, Marc Johnson on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. In what at first seems like an unexpected way to sign off, after its groove sets in halfway through, discovers in Feldman and Abercrombie a fruitful cross-pollination. Another comes in the form of his trio with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Abercrombie’s performances on “Sorcery I” (Gateway, 1975) and “Homecoming” (from the 1995 album of the same name) are equally incendiary. On the opposite end of the atmospheric spectrum, we may find ourselves chatting fireside with a more subdued though no less soul-stirring conversation partner in such acoustic spaces as “Avenue” (with fellow guitarist Ralph Towner) on the shores of 1976’s Sargasso Sea and the multitracked “Memoir” from 1978’s Characters.

Other standouts among his own tunes include the joyful “Big Music” (November, 1993), as rendered with Johnson and drummer Peter Erskine, and “Ma Belle Hélène” (The Widow In The Window, 1990), as heard through the collective filter of Kenny Wheeler on trumpet, John Taylor on piano, and a Holland/Erskine rhythm section. Abercrombie is golden in tone, the arc to Wheeler’s straighter lines. Even when playing the melody of another, be it Richie Beirach’s “Stray” (from the John Abercrombie Quartet’s 1980 self-titled debut) or “Carol’s Carols” by organist Dan Wall (While We’re Young, 1993), Abercrombie opens each motif like a capsule for us to savor and, through the act of listening alone, contribute to before returning to the ground.

John Surman: Selected Recordings (:rarum 13)

Surman

John Surman
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

John Surman is to the saxophone as a tuned mass damper is to a skyscraper. No matter the intensity of seismic activity at hand, he regulates balance, security, and stability through counteractive force. It’s an ability uncannily realized in “Druid’s Circle” (A Biography Of The Rev. Absalom Dawe, 1995), for which baritones provide rhythm and harmony beneath a dancing soprano, and “Portrait Of A Romantic” (Private City, 1988), a tender gathering of bass clarinet, recorder, and synth that tingles with fairytale magic. Such solo spaces are his métier, created through patient multitracking in studio and refined through an aging process that gives it a patina. Employing a sequencer in “Edges Of Illusion” (Upon Reflection, 1979) and using keyboards as a means of keeping time in “Piperspool” (Road To Saint Ives, 1990), he emits signals from universes within to those without.

Surman has also widened the scope of his own music in cyclical “The Returning Exile” (The Brass Project, 1993), “The Buccaneers” (The Amazing Adventures Of Simon Simon, 1981) in duet with drummer Jack DeJohnette, and “Stone Flower” (Coruscating, 2000), which pairs his baritone with an inkwell string section. Other collaborative endeavors mark his discography in cardinal directions. Where “Gone To The Dogs” takes us northward to 1995’s Nordic Quartet and “Figfoot” southward to 1992’s Adventure Playground, the latter alongside pianist Paul Bley, bassist Gary Peacock, and drummer Tony Oxley, “Number Six” from the Miroslav Vitous Group’s 1981 self-titled debut heads west with its circular breathing and dug-in heels, while “Ogeda” looks eastward to 1993’s November with guitarist John Abercrombie, bassist Marc Johnson, and drummer Peter Erskine. Abercrombie’s tender chorus effect contrasts pleasingly with Surman’s blade over the fluid rhythm section.

And in the freely improvised “Mountainscape VIII” (Mountainscapes, 1976), Surman’s baritone and the bass of Barre Phillips, along with Stu Martin on drums and Abercrombie on guitar, render some physically demanding terrain. Yet Surman always knows where to place his steps, defining his path even as the path defines him.

Jack DeJohnette: Selected Recordings (:rarum 12)

DeJohnette

Jack DeJohnette
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Jack DeJohnette is more than the sums of his drums. He is also a distinctive composer and bandleader, and in this :rarum collection he allows immersive insight into a career that might not ever have flourished in the way it did without ECM’s faith. On the dark side of this moon, he charts superlative contributions as sideman to such enduring cartographies as In Pas(s)ing with guitarist Mick Goodrick, saxophonist John Surman, and bassist Eddie Gomez. On that 1979 album’s “Feebles, Fables And Ferns,” a laid-back tune with tender purpose woven into its every fiber, Surman’s baritone is especially comforting and offsets DeJohnette’s starlight in spades. And on “How’s Never,” taken from 1995’s Homecoming, we find him in the likeminded company of guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Holland. The fact that this tune also appeared on Holland’s own :rarum entry means we can now revisit it with the drumming in mind, thus finding an explosive heart at play. Another curious outlier is that traced by him and pianist Keith Jarrett on 1973’s Ruta and Daitya. From that rarely discussed duo album drops the internal dialoguing of “Overture / Communion.”

Swinging around to the fully sunlit face rewards our telescopic listening with the formative statements of “Third World Anthem” (Album Album, 1984) and “Silver Hollow” (New Directions,1978), of which the former could only have come to life as it did at the hands of John Purcell (alto), David Murray (tenor), Howard Johnson (tuba), and Rufus Reid (bass). This DeJohnette original is a master class in joyful noise that compels each soloist to unlock his own secret in the theme at hand. Another substantial leader date tapped here is 1997’s Oneness, for which he assembled a simpatico band with guitarist Jerome Harris, pianist Michael Cain, and percussionist Don Alias. The latter’s congas set the stage for “Jack In,” thereby showing DeJohnette’s sound to be everyday living personified.

Rounding out this conspectus, and rightfully so, are two selections from 1977’s solo endeavor, Pictures. With Abercrombie, guesting on “Picture 5,” he renders a strangely moving experience that moves from abstractions to martial beat and back again, and on “Picture 6” plays piano and percussion for an exercise in aural cinema. Indeed, his images are lit as if by projection so that they may burn themselves into the mind and, ultimately, the heart.

Egberto Gismonti: Selected Recordings (:rarum 11)

Gismonti

Egberto Gismonti
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

To my ears, the music of Egberto Gismonti is ultimately about one thing: memory. This single word may, of course, have as many shades of meaning as there are people to interpret it, and therein lies its power to invite listeners to reflect upon their own experience through the stories Gismonti tells. Whether running across the piano or examining the internal lives of his custom-built guitars, he can always be counted on to put a pin in our collective past as if it were something to revisit when proper arrangements have been made.

And proper arrangements he certainly provides on 1991’s Infância, on which every plucked string of “Ensaio De Escola De Samba (Dança Dos Escravos)” and “Dança No. 1” distills spirit into song. With an unerring sense of concentric motion, he allows quiet thoughts to yield dramatic expositions like the oil between tectonic plates. At the piano, he emotes with bassist Zeca Assumpção, saxophonist Mauro Senise, and drummer Nene on “10 Anos” (Sanfona, 1981), and on “Cavaquinho” packs down one of his most picturesque walking trails to date. Its arpeggios are webs in which the poetry of our lives is caught, seemingly distant yet actually within arm’s reach.

Though each of the pieces selected for this compilation tends to defy lumping together, I can’t help but feel that Gismonti endeavors to pull out songs that might otherwise remain forgotten in the recesses of history. Such is the case in “Kalimba (Lua Cheia)” (Sol Do Meio Dia, 1978), of which the titular instrument serves as foundation, as well as in the oddity of “Bianca” (Duas Vozes, 1984), wherein he is accompanied by the clapping of percussionist Nana Vasconcelos. And when he is alone at the guitar, as on the elliptical “Lundu (Azul)” (Dança dos Escravos, 1989) and the jangling seesaw between introversion and extroversion that is “Selva Amazônica – Pau Rolou” (Solo, 1979), he unwraps implications as the full gifts they were meant to be. Even in “Frevo,” as arranged for orchestra and piano on 1997’s Meeting Point, he makes us feel that we are the only ones being spoken to. He is site-specific, yet knowable anywhere, anytime, without a single introduction needed to take it all in.

Dave Holland: Selected Recordings (:rarum 10)

Holland

Dave Holland
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

Bassist Dave Holland can always been counted on for (at the very least) two things: a clear delineation of ground rules and an openness to seeing said rules blown wide open by musicians he trusts implicitly. Starting on the outside and moving concentrically inward, we witness various levels of intensity with regard to those dynamics. For this collection, he has chosen to sample five of his quintet sessions, spanning the gamut from 1984’s Jumpin’ In to 2001’s Not For Nothin’. Between the classic big band flow of “You I Love” and the caravan ride of “Shifting Sands,” Holland stretches a robust banner of support. Along the way, one finds ample refreshment in “Homecoming” (Seeds of Time, 1985), an ecstatic experience noteworthy for Kenny Wheeler’s flugelhorn; “The Balance” (Points of View, 1998), which equalizes the light of Billy Kilson’s drumming and the shadow of Holland’s bassing toward an explosive running aground; and the title cut off 1999’s Prime Directive, a groove made palpable in Steve Nelson’s vibraphone over some of Holland’s finest backing on record.

Shedding a member gives us three iterations of the Dave Holland Quartet. Going backward, we begin with 1996’s Dream Of The Elders, of which “Equality” features lyrics of Maya Angelou sung by Cassandra Wilson and a worthy solo from saxophonist Eric Person. Holland sees that beauty and raises “Nemesis” (Extensions, 1990). The dissonant guitar of Kevin Eubanks (who also penned the tune) and flowing alto of Steve Coleman make for a choice groove. And no retrospective of Holland’s artistry would be complete without a nod to 1973’s Conference Of The Birds, from which the eponymous track unlocks the magic of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton (reeds and flute) and Barry Altschul (percussion). There’s nothing quite like this everlasting slice of mastery. Just let it speak.

The Dave Holland Trio is briefly represented via “Four Winds” (Triplicate, 1988), shifting from one phase to the next alongside Coleman and drummer Jack DeJohnette. The latter carries over into 1995’s Homecoming with John Abercrombie in the wonderfully sardonic “How’s Never.” This distinct trio is the ideal vehicle to explore its every twist and turn, muscle for muscle. There’s also the jewel of “Inception,” a solo cello piece from 1983’s Life Cycle. An experience like no other in the Holland back catalog, let it be a reminder to absorb that album into your collection post haste (if you haven’t already).

Holland deeply understands that each tune is a world to be established, unraveled with an almost scientific level of truth, and given over to the strengths of chance. In doing so, he sends us packing on the next journey before he even finishes the one at hand.

Pat Metheny: Selected Recordings (:rarum 9)

Metheny

Pat Metheny
Selected Recordings
Release date: January 26, 2004

As the only artist granted two entries in ECM’s “Works” series of compilations, it was inevitable that guitarist Pat Metheny should also be invited to contribute to :rarum. Though confined to a single disc this time around, the results are no less cultivated in the heartlands. Neither is it any coincidence that it should begin with my own introduction to his work: Bright Size Life. His 1976 ECM leader debut with bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummer Bob Moses captured lightning in a bottle and made it audible as music. This joyous track is without equal and has not only stood the test of time but also set the standard for that test. Metheny and Pastorius were the ultimate conversers, and could take their dynamism from one level to the next in a single chord change.

Such dynamics were on fuller display in the activities of the Pat Metheny Group, whose classic ECM albums are ecumenically represented here. The quintessential “Phase Dance” from the PMG’s 1978 self-titled debut is so steeped in nostalgia that it feels like the first time, every time. Continuing chronologically through the laid-back “Airstream” (American Garage, 1979) and the invitational “Are You Going With Me?” (Travels, 1983), we touch down in the title track of 1984’s First Circle. Its locomotive charm, in combination with airy vocals from guitarist Pedro Aznar, make it the ultimate anthem of itineracy.

All of this breadth is due in no small part to the keyboard wizardry of Lyle Mays, with whom Metheny produced the inspired collaboration As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls in 1981. “It’s For You” finds the duo augmented by percussionist Nana Vasconcelos in a glorious groove. Metheny has always been a consummate solo artist as well, and the title track of 1979’s New Chautauqua is among his most emblematic for its connecting of synapses.

Rounding out this road trip are two relative outliers. Where “Every Day (I Thank You)” places his shimmering acoustic in the company of Mike Brecker on tenor, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Jack DeJohnette from a session—1980’s 80/81—that seems too often neglected in assessments of his work. “Lonely Woman” (Rejoicing, 1984), for its part, carries over Haden and swaps DeJohnette for Billy Higgins. The latter’s sundown loveliness ends this worthy introduction to one of the undisputed weavers on the six-string loom.

Bobo Stenson: Selected Recordings (:rarum 8)

Stenson

Bobo Stenson
Selected Recordings
Release date: April 29, 2002

Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson has one of the most endearing relationships to the keyboard one could ever imagine. Despite having carved a path distinct enough through the ECM catalog to warrant one masterful session after another under his own name, he has left behind a formative constellation of contributions as sideman, some of which are included in the present sequence. Each is significant in its own way. With trumpeter Don Cherry (Dona Nostra, 1994), he explored new realms of old material and old realms in new, riding the line between sadness and joy in Ornette Coleman’s “What Reason Could I Give” and flowing ever forward in “Ahayu-Da.” As part of saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s band from the late 1980s into the next decade, he lent his more-than-comping abilities to 1993’s The Call alongside bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Billy Hart in quiet ecstasis, and unraveled the inner thoughts of “Little Peace” on 1995’s All My Relations. Yet nowhere was his presence so well integrated as in Tomasz Stanko’s band. The trumpeter’s original tune “Morning Heavy Song” (Leosia, 1997) is just one of many magical exchanges to which he contributed shaded interpretations.

Stenson and Jormin were attached at the hip in every session they shared, so it was only natural they should remain together when Stenson formed his own trio, closing the triangle with drummer Jon Christensen. There are plenty of moments to cherish here, starting with an explosive take on “Untitled” (another Coleman tune) from 1971’s Underwear. More somber waystations await the curious traveler in Duke Ellington’s “Reflections In D” (Reflections, 1996) and “Oleo De Mujer Con Sombrero” (War Orphans, 1998) by Silvio Rodriguez. Both are standouts in Stenson’s recorded history and feel like music you’d hear in a dream yet still remember after waking. In the tactility of the latter tune especially, Stenson achieves what he does best: describing a vast scene with minimal gestures. Even deeper mastery awaits behind the doors of 2000’s Serenity, which explains the goldmine of material chosen from it here. The first, “East Print,” is an audible inverse equation by Christensen, who plays as if his drums were feet. The others, “Fader V (Father World)” and “Golden Rain,” are Stenson originals in which bass and drums take off their masks to flesh out the composer’s skeletal philosophies. They are also among his most atmospherically authentic creations, reminding us that inner lives should never be forgotten in favor of façades.

Neither can we forget the relatively combustible era of Stenson’s quartet with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and Christensen at the kit. And while both “Svevende” (Dansere, 1976) and the title track of 1974’s Witchi-Tai-To are Garbarek-heavy tunes, Stenson’s sporadic details lend them a charm unbound to a single name. His runs and accentuating clusters are the currents beneath Garbarek’s screeching flights of improvisation, bold and free of artifice.

Though Stenson’s selected recordings mark the eighth of twenty nominal volumes in the :rarumseries, given that the first two were double-disc affairs, we now find ourselves at the midway point in terms of CD count. And so, you can also find Volumes I-VIII available as a boxed set, released in 2002. However you find it packaged, don’t let this one slip under your radar, as it is among the label’s essential compilations.

Rarum I-VIII