Terje Rypdal: Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away (ECM 1045)

Terje Rypdal
Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away

Terje Rypdal electric guitar, guitar
Sveinung Hovensjø 6- & 4-string basses
Pete Knutsen mellotron, electric piano
Odd Ulleberg French horn
Jon Christensen percussion
Südfunk Symphony Orchestra
Mladen Gutesha conductor
Recorded 1974 in Oslo and Ludwigsburg
Engineers: Jan Erik Kongshaug and Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This laconic yet lasting statement from Terje Rypdal marked the Norwegian guitarist’s third ECM appearance as composer and leader. Its crucible continues to yield an enticing tincture of prog-rock and classical stylings for the weary musical mind. The reverberant French horn that animates “Silver Bird Is Heading For The Sun” betrays nothing of its cooption by a punchy g/d/b constituent. Floating on a well-aged mellotron, it bows out gracefully as Rypdal rolls in like a fuzzed haze. Sveinung Hovensjø’s robustly amplified bass carries its surrounding weight beautifully, and continues to do so for the album’s duration. Languid relays between guitar and horn coalesce at the piece’s muscular conclusion. In “The Hunt,” we get a heftier dose of percussion, courtesy of the one and only Jon Christensen. Thus begins a brightly syncopated journey filled with plenty of dynamic movement. All of which makes the title piece that much more affecting. A lone cello becomes our only introduction into its slow 18-minute wave of orchestral bliss. Oboe and clarinet usher in the encroaching stillness with subdued attention. Only during a climactic peak does Rypdal make his presence known, as if born from the nexus of violins trailing off into the darkness (a section that perhaps foreshadows Gavin Bryars’s After the Requiem). This switch from external to internal register seems to caress some distant shore, much like the waters of the album’s cover. We wait for dusk, only to realize that the night has never left us.

Whenever I Seem To Be Far Away is an album in infrared, a silent face whose expressions make infinite use of a limited palette. Rypdal is one of the few hybridizers whose creations become something outside of themselves. His soloing wrenches from its present surroundings as many handfuls of melody as it can before fading into the solace implied at the album’s genesis. And I cannot stress enough how fantastic the bass sounds throughout, its steady tone stabilizing like an iron cable. In it, we hear our own gravidity made audible, touching its lips to a temple of sound with a following of one.

<< Julian Priester: Love, Love (ECM 1044)
>> Dave Liebman: Drum Ode (ECM 1046)

Terje Rypdal: What Comes After (ECM 1031)

ECM 1031

Terje Rypdal
What Comes After

Terje Rypdal guitars, flute
Barre Phillips basses
Jon Christensen percussion, organ
Erik Niord Larsen oboe, English horn
Sveinung Hovensjø electric bass
Recorded August 7/8, 1973 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal’s What Comes After, his second for ECM as frontman, is more about what came before. An exquisite diversion from the dustier billows of his later work, it charts much of the same territory as its self-titled predecessor, only this time with a tighter supporting roster. Sveinung Hovensjø lays down the dominant bass line that is “Bend It,” an atmospheric 10-minute opener that lulls us into its nocturnal crawl. The bowed bass of Barre Phillips and Jon Christensen’s subtle drum work adorn long-form improvisations from Rypdal as he wrenches out an ever-changing dialogue from the repetitive core. “Yearning” reprises the sinewy oboe (played here by Erik Niord Larsen) of Rypdal’s self-titled effort and features him in a rare acoustic turn. The jangly percussion makes for a mystical, if all too brief, experience. The see-sawing melodies and tender bass solo of “Icing” extend this feeling of isolation and memory before the delicate rimshot of the title track slinks metronomically through Rypdal’s mounting ruminations. “Séjours” marks the oboe’s standout return in one of the album’s most thoroughly realized tracks, while “Back Of J.” leaves us with a sparse final word, Rypdal unplugged and unhurried.

Albums like this allow us to appreciate the ways in which artists grow. ECM’s consummate electric guitarist has worn many hats, and perhaps none so many as in his formative years. Here, he feeds off his surroundings, even as he strays in equally fruitful directions, always harboring an innate awareness of where he is grounded. A wonderful place to start for initiates and strangers alike.

<< Gary Burton: The New Quartet (ECM 1030)
>> Ralph Towner: Diary (ECM 1032)

Terje Rypdal: s/t (ECM 1016)

ECM 1016

Terje Rypdal

Terje Rypdal guitar, flute
Inger Lise Rypdal voice
Ekkehard Fintl oboe, English horn
Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone, flute, clarinet
Bobo Stenson electric piano
Tom Halversen electric piano
Arild Andersen electric bass, double-bass
Bjørnar Andresen electric bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded August 12 & 13, 1971, Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Terje Rypdal’s first ECM effort as frontman is a bewitching look into the Norwegian guitarist’s formative years. With a bevy of talented musicians in tow, he forges a mercurial portrait of late-night melodies and hidden desires. “Keep It Like That – Tight” is stifling and seedy, buffeted by cooling fans and laced with the fumes of an alcoholic haze. It’s a desolate hotel room where more than evening falls, a cigarette put out on the skin, incoherent words spilling from warm lips. The atmosphere is acutely palpable, oozing with film noir charisma and slurred speech. Garbarek spins a notable solo here, only to be overtaken all too soon by Rypdal’s drunken swagger. One might think this would be a taste of things to come, but Rypdal surprises with “Rainbow,” a most ethereal track laden with reverb and stratospheric beauty, dominated by oboe for a more classical sound. The background clinks and hums with a variety of percussion, bowed electric bass, and flute. The third track, “Electric Fantasy,” lies somewhere between the first two, a jazz suite with symphonic flavor. Rypdal’s former wife Inger Lise adds some moody vocals as an English horn expands the sound even further. Illusive drumming from Christensen and the occasional wah-wah guitar add dynamic touches of their own. The ambient crawl of “Lontano II” reverses the opening effect by leading into the more blues-oriented “Tough Enough,” leaving a grittier aftertaste.

The striking differences in instrumentation between tracks may be off-putting to some, while others may see it as part of a larger concept. Either way, this self-titled album is thematically rich and more than worth the listen.

<< Jan Garbarek Quintet: Sart (ECM 1015)
>> Keith Jarrett: Facing You (ECM 1017)

Stenson/Andersen/Christensen: Underwear (ECM 1012)

1012

Underwear

Bobo Stenson piano
Arild Andersen bass
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded May 18/19, 1971 at the Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 15, 1971

With such a solid trio of musicians and a name like Underwear, you just know this one’s going to be good. And sure enough, Stenson kicks things off just right with the spirited title track, throughout which every instrument bubbles in a witches brew of fine flavors. Exuberant drumming, flurried bass lines, and a tightly knit sense of composition make this one of the great openers of ECM’s extensive jazz lineup. Hot on its heels is “Luberon,” the album’s requisite ballad, the placement of which both emphasizes the liveliness of the opener while also bolstering its own lyrical sensibilities. “Test” lays on a more organic sound of percussion and scraped piano strings. This delicate backdrop continues as Stenson breaks into a clearly defined melodic improvisation, prompting cries of ecstatic joy before succumbing to a forced fadeout. “Tant W.” brings us into more laid-back territory with its alluring conversation between piano and drums. Once the bass joins in, the groove becomes certifiably infectious. After this block of Stenson originals, we are treated to a pair of fine closers. Ornette Coleman’s “Untitled” runs with reckless abandon through frenzied pyrotechnics, priming us for the comforting “Rudolf” (Andersen). The latter’s fluid piano intro becomes the heart of the piece, echoing in an otherwise bass-dominant space.

Stenson is entirely on point, as if he were inborn with a finely attuned sense of melody and articulation. His playing is democratic and guides with a gentle hand, always managing to cover so much of the keyboard in a single cut. Andersen’s busy fingers provide the album’s backbone, while his gorgeous vibrato and twang-ridden charm work wonders in the softer moments. And Christensen’s drumming never fails to excite. Triply inspired soloing and a synergistic core make Underwear a prime choice for the ECM newbie and veteran alike. A simply fantastic album, this is one for the ages.

<< Dave Holland/Barre Phillips: Music From Two Basses (ECM 1011)
>> Dave Holland/Derek Bailey: Improvisations for Cello and Guitar (ECM 1013)

Heinz Reber: MNAOMAI, MNOMAI (ECM New Series 1378)

Heinz Reber
MNAOMAI, MNOMAI

Thomas Demenga cello, viola
Terje Rypdal guitar
Jon Christensen drums
Tschin Zhang vocal
Ellen Horn vocal
Recorded October 1990, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Swiss composer Heinz Reber (1952-2007) cut a fascinating figure in the world of sound. He began his career as a music therapist for psychiatric patients before turning to more public forms of audible expression. Reber would even combine the two in a 1975 play for Swiss radio, the cast of which was culled from those same patients. Such ruptures of identity would characterize his output to come. For the spiraling exegesis that is Mnaomai, Mnomai, Reber assembled a handful of equally committed (no pun intended) instrumentalists and vocalists for an intriguing mélange of sound and spoken word. The word mnaomai (pronounced “mnah’-om-ahee”) appears in the New Testament and means “to bear in mind” in Greek. Reber lifted his title from Jean-François Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. Although the source texts are interesting in and of themselves—ranging from Beckett to Chinese protest poetry written by Tschin Zhang, one of the album’s vocal performers—they constitute a set of linguistic entities whose orthographic shapes are as equally important as their verbal ones. Thomas Demenga’s viola seems to struggle through its opening while a low groan stretches in the background. Demenga scrounges for phonetic footholds as Zhang’s voice rings out like a light to show the way. Jon Christensen and Terje Rypdal each take their own direct approach, even while Demenga continues to wrestle with his communicative role. Zhang’s voice soars through a field of strings with the surety of a homing pigeon, while that of Ellen Horn creeps in from above, percolating through Zhang’s as if to strip these languages of their semantic egos. Sometimes the voices are present, other times they are distant, but they never stray from their message. Part III consists of a repeated figure on viola, as if Demenga’s instrument has finally found a solid phrase and is reveling in its repetition. This is followed by a final spurt of poetic energy that fizzles out into a delicate cello strum.

In closing, I should like to address a concern I have over a particular way in which this piece has been interpreted. Mnaomai, Mnomai contains a fair amount of spoken Mandarin, and for those of us who don’t speak the language it’s all too easy to over-romanticize Chinese for its rhythms and other idiosyncrasies. This seemingly impenetrable barrier is further strengthened by the addition of Horn’s quieter recitations, of which Steve Lake writes: “When bringing Ellen Horn’s voice into the ensemble, Tschin Zhang’s poem was converted into Norwegian, another ‘alien’ tongue, to keep the text as a pure play of sounds.” But “pure” to whom? Surely, heritage speakers of either language will have a difficult time treating the text as a meaningless, if enchanting, jumble of phonemes. Rather, they will hear a skillful recitation of a heartfelt poem written in a time of great political upheaval. Are they somehow missing the point? I doubt it. In spite of Reber’s supposed interest in the “Far East,” I don’t feel as if he is using the world’s most populously spoken language just for the sound of it. Otherwise, what would be the purpose of using words at all? Chinese is itself no more “beautiful” or “musical” than any other language, and any assertions to the contrary are simply a matter of opinion. In the end, Reber cannot be said to be tapping in to some mystical linguistic core, but rather creating a new and personal juxtaposition of music and speech as a means of teasing out the narrative potential in both. Neither can we ignore that the musicians, and Demenga in particular, are also “speaking” through a multi-instrumental conversation. Still, I think Lake is getting at the heart of this record: namely, that language’s fundamentally arbitrary vocabularies are like composed matter—static and silent until they are enlivened by human rendering. It all comes down to the transparency of the utterance. This is music interested not in its legacy, but in its disintegration, for as the title reminds us, we do well to “bear in mind” that meaning exists only insofar as it holds our interest.

Jan Garbarek Quartet: Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1007)

1007

Jan Garbarek Quartet
Afric Pepperbird

Jan Garbarek tenor and bass saxophones, clarinet, flutes, percussion
Terje Rypdal guitar, bugle
Arild Andersen bass, african thumb piano, xylophone
Jon Christensen percussion
Recorded September 22/23, 1970 at the Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 1, 1971

Saxophonist Jan Garbarek has changed with time and age, but already in Afric Pepperbird, his first album for ECM and one that would instigate an unbreakable association with the label, he invites us into a world that is playful yet mature. Half of the album is made up of miniatures, “Skarabée” and “Mah-Jong” the most precise and delicate among them, laced as they are with drummer Jon Christensen’s distinctive cymbal work and overall compositional sensibility. “MYB” and “Concentus,” for their part, drop like seeds into the album’s fertile soil. Bassist Arild Andersen’s steady bass line assures us the title track can swing with confidence, pouring on Saharan charm like fresh honey, while “Blow Away Zone” features an adventurous Terje Rypdal on guitar and an ether-wrenching solo from Garbarek, who squeezes his way through an opaque tornado of bass and drums. Clocking in at twelve-and-a-half minutes is “Beast Of Kommodo,” a rewarding romp of gargantuan proportions. Garbarek gives his all, mixing roars with fluted reveries with equal conviction. The set bows out with “Blupp,” a smile-inducing froth of percussion and vocals that doesn’t so much describe its title as demonstrate it.

This may very well be, along with Witchi-Tai-To, the quintessential Garbarek album for those who normally don’t care for his style. Whatever your taste in jazz, whatever your opinion on Garbarek and the label he calls home, this is a spirited and robust effort worthy of your attention.

<< Wolfgang Dauner: Output (ECM 1006)
>> Robin Kenyatta: Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008)

Keith Jarrett: Belonging (ECM 1050)

ECM 1050

Keith Jarrett
Belonging

Keith Jarrett piano
Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones
Palle Danielsson bass
Jon Christensen drums
Recorded April 24 and 25, 1974 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

From beginning to end we are treated to a mélange of moods in this, the first effort from Keith Jarrett and his European quartet. Compositionally astute and clearly the work of steadied hands, Belonging finds each musician in fine form. Whether it is Garbarek’s punctilious doubling in the buoyant “Spiral Dance,” Danielsson’s mellifluous bass solo in “Blossom,” or Christensen’s rollicking snare in “The Windup,” everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. Jarrett’s fingerwork is, of course, superb throughout, but it is the energy underlying his playing—the very spirit of his pianism—that really seems to drive things forward. The album is zigzagged, fading adeptly from head-shaking abandon to heavy darkness from one cut to the next. Ballads make up the longest passages on Belonging and seem to turn ever inward within the confines of their own emotional borders. For the most part, sax and piano are explicitly unified, as if trekking on either side of the same divide, although sometimes they seem to look in opposite directions, as if involved in a long-running debate, unsure of whether reconciliation can be had in the throes of so much dialogue. Jarrett’s jilted approach is well suited to these down-tempo moments while the bass gently asserts its tremulous presence in the background. Garbarek’s sudden entrances weave a dense stratosphere of brassy elegance. “’Long As You Know You’re Living Yours” is pure Jarrett and provides Garbarek with plenty of space to run amok with his screeching serenade. The title cut is another ballad, this one of a different shade than the rest; not an alleyway, but a brief lapse into self-pity. As the album’s center, it also encapsulates a core theme: this music evokes a past from which one cannot escape or, more positively, simply a sense of belonging as the title would imply, the inescapability of one’s roots in place and time. Overall, this is an essential example of what ECM can do when it throws a handful of singular talents into a studio.

<< Keith Jarrett: Luminessence (ECM 1049)
>> The Gary Burton Quintet with Eberhard Weber: Ring (ECM 1051)

Ralph Towner: Solstice (ECM 1060)

ECM 1060

Ralph Towner
Solstice

Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars, piano
Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, flute
Eberhard Weber bass, cello
Jon Christensen drums, percussion
Recorded December 1974 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This is arguably the first recording to fully flesh out the aural expanse for which ECM has come to be known. Although I am well aware of the immense groundswell of musical activity that was the 1970s, certainly an album like this was a refreshing and altogether mind-altering experience for those fortunate enough to be young musical explorers at the time. Featuring a lineup of musicians who would go on to weave ECM’s significance into the fabric of time, Solstice is a tour de force of musicianship, writing, arrangement, and recording.

Each track is brimming with life and features the sensitive application of a variety of instrumental combinations and studio savvy. “Oceanus” showcases Garbarek in his prime, soaring with an unbridled emotional register. As always, Towner’s 12-string speaks in 360 degrees. Superb drumming from Christensen complements lush melodic lines from Weber, who stretches a melodic cello into infinity while his bass arises like the conical aftereffect of a water droplet. “Visitation” clouds this ardor in a nocturnal vision filled with laughing spirits. “Drifting Petals” is a slow progression, a timid look out onto a dusty plain where the promise of freedom looms larger than the possibility of danger. But then an elder’s advice rings in our ears and pushes us onward. Feet move of their volition and pull us into the ever-receding horizon as the first drops of a squall streak across our foreheads. Towner proves again that his piano musings are not to be taken lightly, as they make for one of the most evocative tracks on the album. A transcendental 12-string solo (with gentle dimensional support from Weber) opens “Nimbus,” soon blossoming into a flourish of flutes, drums, and a bowed bass that cries with the grating fluidity of a sarangi. Garbarek’s sax joins in the fray and lets loose its harmonious fire. The deftly overdubbed flutes return, spreading their wings for a few moments before fluttering off into the distance. “Winter Solstice,” “Piscean Dance,” and “Red and Black” comprise a triptych of duets: the first for classical guitar and sax, the second a prime jam for 12-string and drums, and the third for 12-string and bass. “Sand” ends our cosmic journey with one of Garbarek’s deepest meditations for sax set to the strangely compelling ululations of Christensen’s flexatone lolling about in the background.

Melodically robust while structurally yielding, this is an album to be treasured and is a must-listen for anyone desiring to know what ECM is all about. An astounding meeting of musical minds if there ever was one.

<< Arild Andersen: Clouds In My Head (ECM 1059)
>> Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnnette: Gateway (ECM 1061)