Alfred Harth: This Earth! (ECM 1264)

 

Alfred Harth
This Earth!

Alfred Harth tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet
Paul Bley piano
Trilok Gurtu percussion
Maggie Nicols voice
Barre Phillips bass
Recorded May 1983, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This Earth! represents Alfred Harth’s second ECM appearance, supporting a stellar cast of musicians that includes Barre Phillips on bass, Paul Bley at the keys, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and the inimitable Maggie Nicols doing what she loves. The words are by Vicky Scrivener, which could easily be a pen name for Nicols herself—such is the immediacy with which the words seem to pour from her lungs.

“Female Is The Sun” is the album’s anthem. Structured around a counterpoint of bass clarinet and pianistic asides, its skeleton comes to life through Nicols’s animations. Each verse hoists us deeper into the sky, until we begin to feel the heat of that “old gold woman” who oversees our every waking moment:

The earth’s hot eye reels
fenced
and groans before
vestal temperament

The piano and bass in “Relation To Light, Colour and Feeling” are like two adjacent houses. Between them, a sagging clothesline, from which wordless songs, doubled by sax, hang in the breeze of a balmy afternoon. Words await us at the end, each a folded cloth, a swaying branch, a chirping bird.

Luxurious mezzotints and shades
glowing wash of tones

A percussive introduction opens us to the fabulous spoken word performance of “Studying Walk, A Landscape.” Nicols carries us along with her unpretentious tugs, inscribing the scenery with tightened, almost saxophonic squeals. There is an urban whimsy to be found here, refreshing but also tinged by world-weary bitterness. Phillips also has a lovely solo in this whimsical track with heft and shape.

A wish, relief from a circle

In “Body & Mentation,” piano and bowed bass engage Harth’s tenor with bright energy. Gurtu spreads his palms wide through these aural veins, Harth tracing with a palmist’s care. Their interplay vacillates: a few steps from Gurtu, a few expulsions from Harth. Each move forward italicizes the piece’s sentence structure, closing on an elegiac statement from Bley.

Love’s tug –
our barge;
sweet clamorous tidings
on the unique
journey backwards
to progression.

“Energy: Blood/Air” reveals the album’s most porous textures. Over a tightly knit ostinato, Harth breathes life into Nicols, who skims a poem’s surface before slipping into protracted improvisation. Bley floats a light solo over our heads, gathered up amid a handful of bass.

Today she sits
in the angled skies…
lowering lids
at the blushing
earth.

The “Three Acts Of Recognition” that follow slip a contemplative card into this highly charged deck as Harth’s tender yet robust tenor ladles sound into our silence. Some well-chosen reverb lends a throated quality his song. Overtones mingle as piano chords lay down new ground for every self-aware step. A pause. Bley reaches into his instrument, plucking and strumming strings directly, while Harth spins molecules in the air. Another pause. We return to the keyboard, flowing through to the end.

Between the clean
and tender sheets
we’ll hear us out.

“Come Oekotopia” crackles in rain sticks and cymbals, drawing bass from the soil. Harth improvises over Phillips’s nimble strumming. His long-held note midway through is one of the album’s highlights. Percussive bells diffuse this energy. Nicols makes a phonemic cameo at the end.

The mind streams
to pulse
relinquishing

Her subsequent recitative in “Waves Of Being” offsets a gorgeous solo from Bley, who cannot help but raise his own voice in the flare of the moment. Phillips’s bass is bright and bleeds into Gurtu’s string of metal (gongs), wood (sticks), and exoskeletons (shells). Harth’s bass clarinet bubbles with finality, fading into a sustained pluck of piano strings.

Accapella
flourishing
descants…
Acoustically
tonic.

“Transformate, Transcend Tones and Images” shows Nicols in fine melodic form. As the album’s last image, seems to thrive at its center. Nicols adlibs the remainder, as if to dissolve these impressions just enough so that no one can claim them. “Woman in a violet tail-coat,” she sings, “blows her soul-blue sax on south bank.” But we never hear that sax. Instead, we get a string of unrecorded words:

…translate…
…transcend…
…transform…

leading us into the unknown discoveries of the journey ahead.

Harth is an attentive player who writes without erasing, sings without opening his mouth, exhales without hypocrisy. His notes are often shared on This Earth!, but he is never the mimic. Among this session’s band mates, Gurtu proves to be a particularly interesting choice. His cymbal-focused work adds the illusion of a full kit without the overbearing weight thereof. Bley and Phillips, on the other hand, are unmistakably present. Yet Nicols’s voice is the real poetry of the album. She transcends the words she sings even as she inhabits them, bringing genuine physicality to their contours.

Another out-of-print gem, its elusiveness makes it all the more visceral an experience once it finds its way to your turntable.

From left: Maggie Nicols, Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Barre Phillips, Trilok Gurtu

(photo by Ralph Quinke)

Paul Bley: Ballads (ECM 1010)

1010

Paul Bley
Ballads

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Mark Levinson bass
Barry Altschul drums
Recording engineered by Tommy Nola, Nola Studios, NYC
Recorded 28 July 1967 (Side 1) and 31 March 1967 (Side 2)
Mixing engineer: David Baker
Produced by Paul Bley
Executive production by Manfred Eicher/ECM
Release date: 1971

As an early ECM release, this all-Annette Peacock set already demonstrated the crystal clear recording and wide open spaces for which the label would come to be so well known. Throughout the long opener, ironically titled “Ending,” pianist Paul Bley handles most of the thematic legwork, while bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Barry Altschul skitter across his ivory surface like ice skaters so skilled they can stumble on cue. The title is multifarious. It’s the ending of a turn; the ending not of a life, but of the fallacy of its fulfillment; an ending of circumstance; an ending of watersheds; an ending of all the things in this world that buy us freedom, only to spit it back in our face. Altschul steals the show, soloing in slow-moving surroundings. The lagging pace lends further prominence to his playing, underscoring far more than mere virtuosity. As the piece goes on, it trickles like water, perhaps cluing us in on the title’s central meaning: that is, the music’s own loss of energy and creative source, a broken dam letting out its final drops. This is restrained music-making by a trio we know can swing with the best of them. Next is “Circles,” which seems to sweep up the mess of a long-waged battle, all the while showing an immense amount of fortitude in dealing with the prospect of an unclear future. Lastly, “So Hard It Hurts” gives a vivid sense of Annette Peacock’s compositional audacity and her unique way of turning gentility into pain, and vice versa. This time, Altschul is less cymbal-oriented and more focused on hitting the skins, providing ample room for bassist Mark Levinson’s own inspired finger work.

A delicate ridge rises between the musicians like a pyramid in every song, casting a moving triangular shadow as the sun marks its passage through time. The adlibbing is insightful and melodically well-aged. There is a crunchiness to this music, like biting into a confection filled with ever-changing flavors.

In 2019, this album was at last given the new life it needed through an ECM Touchstones reissue.

Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (ECM 1003)

1003

Paul Bley Trio
Paul Bley with Gary Peacock

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Paul Motian drums
Billy Elgart drums
Recorded 1964 and 1968 in New York
Produced by “ECM”
Release date: December 1, 1970

From the moment “Blues” lights the fuse, we’re rocketing through this magnificently swinging album. Pianist Paul Bley proves his comfort in Ornette Coleman territory, easing his way through a series of dexterous detours. His original “Getting Started” follows up with a ballad, its brushed drums giving off a grainy feel, desolate yet comforting. Peacock’s soloing is eager and ever so slightly askew. “When Will The Blues Leave” (Coleman) is a more syncopated affair. Brushes defer to drumsticks, adding delicate punch to the overall sound. Even Bley cannot restrain joyful cries as the mood intensifies. “Long Ago And Far Away” (Jerome Kern) moves forward with locomotive purpose and finds Peacock in an exuberant mood. “Moor” exhibits his soloing and composing, as refreshing as they are restless. “Gary” (Annette Peacock) is a lonely catharsis forged in bass and piano. The bassing here is somber, as if contemplating a jump from a high precipice. When the piano returns, it’s not to pull the bass downward but keep it from falling over. Bley’s own “Big Foot” is a rip-roaring good time. One can feel the lovingness of its creation. Finally, “Albert’s Love Theme” (Annette Peacock) presents us with a new direction as the trio goes its separate ways.

Bley is on point, Peacock hopping with vivacious confidence, as drummer Paul Motian brushes and rat-a-tat-tats his way through five of the eight cuts (the remaining three feature Billy Elgart in his place). The recording, made in 1963 (Motian session) and 1969 (Elgart session), has a classic trebly overlay yet is highly detailed. It’s a listening experience that suggests new focus every time. For this review, it’s Peacock who captures my attention. His fondness for higher registers punches holes in the music and allows the wind to flow through. Considering the time and place this album was cut, and the jigsaw of its talents, it practically recommends itself.

Paul Bley: Open, to love (ECM 1023)

 

Paul Bley
Open, to love

Paul Bley piano
Recorded September 11, 1972 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Hot on the heels of Chick Corea’s diptych for ECM, and certainly not to be outdone, Paul Bley offers up this sizable helping of solo jazz piano. For lack of a better analogy: if Corea’s improvisations were a large family dinner, Bley’s arrangements would be the lemon meringue to follow. Each track doesn’t so much tell a story as try to make us savor its finer details. Bley seems to channel Keith Jarrett at times (or is it the other way around?), as occasionally his voice will creep in with hints of the latter’s seemingly unbounded ebullience. He also directly plucks and strums the strings inside the piano selectively and with tact, adding a fine metallic ring to his otherwise crystalline playing. Bley coaxes our willing ears and leaves us wanting more of his sweet sounds. The album never seems to stray, even if linear melodies are sometimes difficult to pick out. These pieces are duly heartfelt and his version of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” here is stunning.

If ever the word “lovely” was at risk of going out of style for its kitschy implications, let me make a case for this music as a means of reclaiming its validity. Bley’s intimacy is refreshing and comes across beautifully in the present recording. And while one might make a case for Corea’s improvisations as being “dated” (and this is not a bad thing, for its archival value is only heightened as such), Open feels somehow timeless. It is an album that one grows into. The music is for the most part calm and reflective, but ends with “Nothing Ever Was, Anyway” on a bit of an aggressive note; a catharsis, if you will. So does Bley leave the listener with an intriguing question mark that can only be erased with another listen.