Richard Beirach: Elm (ECM 1142)

 

 

Richard Beirach
Elm

Richard Beirach piano
George Mraz double-bass
Jack DeJohnette drums
Recorded May 1979 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nearly five years after his headlining debut, Eon, pianist Richie Beirach stepped into the studio to leave behind his most indelible mark yet. The graceful momentum of the opening “Sea Priesters” is all we need to know exactly what kind of journey this will be. Beirach’s tone sweeps great distances even as it localizes in handfuls of ecstatic melancholy that manage to keep even the most random memories in peculiar order as the rhythm section of Jack DeJohnette and George Mraz ladles its intuition in modest, unquenchable spoonfuls. “Pendulum,” while more upbeat, is also the most reflective track of the set, if only because its contentment seems to stem from a place resigned to life’s iniquities. Its extroverted deployment only intensifies the depth behind it. Mraz brings a particular edge to the trio’s sound here. This is much in contrast to the compelling balladry of “Ki,” which delicately frames our rest before the effervescence of “Snow Leopard” drifts skyward. DeJohnette divines his cymbals like a man possessed, yet without ever losing sight of his surroundings. This leads us to the final, and title, track. An emotionally direct and majestic stroke of sonic brilliance, it resonates like time itself.

Elm has all the makings of a sleeper hit. It is a burnished kaleidoscope of sound: every turn reveals an unrepeatable flower of symmetry. The music is insightful, frank, and eschews any of the pyrotechnics that might have weighed it down. These are musicians of staunch melodic commitment who live their craft so deeply that they seem to know exactly where they are going at all times, waiting only for us to join them at the end of every path drawn. Beirach’s piano is superbly tuned (all hats off to the technicians on this one) and glows under his touch; the beauty of DeJohnette’s timekeeping abilities throughout (especially in “Snow Leopard”) can hardly be overstated, capping off (along with his New Directions European date) as they do a stellar decade in ECM’s hallowed halls; and John Abercrombie Quartet bassist Mraz brings it all home with loving attention.

This may just be Beirach’s best and represents one missed opportunity among many for the Touchstones series. Though only physically available as an expensive Japanese import, it’s worth every yen, and then some.

Richard Beirach: Hubris (ECM 1104)

 

Richard Beirach
Hubris

Richard Beirach piano
Recorded June 1977 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Classically trained pianist Richie Beirach has created some of ECM’s most melodically engaging music. His first solo album is a keepsake to be treasured for its melodic detail and structure. “Sunday Song” embraces the album at either end with heartache and never lets go, even in silence. Within its fibrous interior, Beirach spins thematic funnels from vivid ostinatos. Floating in its liquid center is the title piece, which if anything is circumscribed and modest. No single mood dominates, thereby allowing the listener the benefit of continual reassessment. One feels the music developing in multiple and simultaneous directions, such that a destination cannot always be inferred. Between the speculative considerations of “Osiris” and “Future Memory” and the narrow syncopations of “Leaving,” one finds a range of brushstrokes at the musician’s employ. The aerial dissonances of the latter piece leave particularly indelible impressions upon the mind’s palimpsest. “Koan” is a colorful and erratic interlude and stands equidistant from the likeminded “Rectilinear.” Beirach scales his greatest heights in “The Pearl,” which he buffs to a blinding shine with arresting key changes, only to be refracted in a haunting traipse through the “Invisible Corridor.”

With no one to answer to here, Beirach’s notecraft is pared down to the core and given free reign. These vignettes are atmosphere itself, bound to their titular prompts while also shedding them in favor of absolute expression.

Beirach at the keys (photo by Philipp Uldokat)

Richard Beirach: Eon (ECM 1054)

Richard Beirach
Eon

Richard Beirach piano
Frank Tusa bass
Jeff Williams drums
Recorded November 1974 at Generation Sound Studios, New York
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Eon was the first album under the New York-born Richard Beirach’s name, and arguably still his best. Its balance of rhythm, melody, and reflection epitomizes the piano trio format, and nowhere more so than “Nardis” (Davis/Evans), the 14-minute epic that opens this set of six progressively far-reaching tunes. ECM listeners may recognize its lovely vamp as performed by Ralph Towner on his unparalleled Solo Concert of 1979. Here, it glows under a full and vibrant touch. Beirach keeps his fingers busily engaged, while allowing his rhythm section some glorious airtime, winding down like a rock band extending power chords, only here in a more intimate space in which that prolonging becomes not a dramatic farewell but the acceptance of a new beginning. “Places” (Dave Liebman) is an effervescent piano solo with all the romanticism one might expect from such a consummate musician. It also gives us a preview of his solo album Hubris, which would be soon to come. “Seeing You” (Tusa/Beirach) continues in much the same vein, but reintroduces the smooth glide of brushed drums and bass. A subtle rhythmic acuity and free and easy interplay suspend the listener in a swaying hammock of nostalgia. Block chords burrow through the title track with a hint of dissonance before flowering in calmer pastures. Fair, extended performances make this the culmination of the album’s surrounding gestures. Sentiments build into ecstasy before a final sprinkling from piano and cymbals is flicked into darkness like water from glittering fingertips. “Bones” at last puts more sticks to skin as Beirach recedes for tearful bass solo, hitting the occasional accent to keep us chordally ground. “Mitsuku” closes us out in style with a gratifying promise.

An easy album to get lost in, for at its gates one sees no need for maps.

Dave Liebman: Drum Ode (ECM 1046)

 

Dave Liebman
Drum Ode

Dave Liebman soprano and tenor saxophones, alto flute
Richard Beirach electric piano
Gene Perla basses
John Abercrombie guitars
Jeff Williams drums
Bob Moses drums
Patato Valdez congas
Steven Satten percussion
Barry Altschul percussion
Badal Roy tablas
Collin Walcott tablas
Ray Armando bongos
Eleana Steinberg vocal
Recorded May 1974, Record Plant, New York
Engineer: Jay Messina
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Drums and drummers. For me, they’ve been the moving force and inspiration, a reason to live, and celebrate life through playing music. Thanks to the men who play the drums. This music is dedicated to you.”
–Dave Liebman

It was the summer of 1997. I was fresh out of high school and settling into my new life at Goddard College (of Phish fame) in Plainfield, Vermont. The transition was sudden, but I was fortunate enough to have been placed in the music dorm, where dwelled lovers of all things audible. Late one night, during an emotionally exhausting orientation week, I was awoken by a sound coming from downstairs. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I descended to the common room to find my dorm mates deep in the throes of an impromptu drum circle. Congas, djembes, pots, tabletops, human bodies: everything was fair game. With nothing but a tin cup and a spoon at my disposal, I joined in with cathartic joy. I don’t think any of us remember how long the session went on after that (I’m not sure we even slept). Sadly, the school itself wasn’t what I had expected. After a long conversation with the group, I decided to return home and incubate for a year. Although this taxing decision eventually put me on a straighter academic path, I do think fondly of the profoundly attuned synergy we of the musical persuasion had forged in those dense seven days surrounded by the region’s denser foliage. Since coming across Dave Liebman’s seminal Drum Ode in reissued form, I have rediscovered something of that physical feeling of surrender one so rarely gets from a laser scanning a concealed silver disc.

Piggybacking on this success of Lookout Farm, Liebman surrounds himself with likeminded company. The rhythmic core of the 1973 joint remains intact, with a minus here and some additions there. The dedicatory introduction of “Goli Dance,” quoted above, leaves no mystery as to the album’s philosophical goals. “Loft Dance” comes closest to reenacting my anecdotal experience, and counts among its actors an animated Richard Beirach on electric piano, a lively John Abercrombie on guitar, and Liebman himself laying down some infectious rhythms of his own. The playing is baked to a crisp, and scathingly uplifting. Gene Perla deploys a heavy anchor, offset by the whimsy of whistles, all of which tethers the soloing to its immediate territory. “Oasis” is the odd one out for its vocal cameo, courtesy of Eleana Steinberg. A beautifully soulful sax solo is rendered all the more so for the songstress’s curious presence, her uneven edges and off-key honesty a sobering foil to the otherwise instrumental sound. Liebman lights a veritable box of matches in “The Call,” a revelatory pyramid with Bob Moses and Jeff Williams at its bottom corners. Its martial snares and echoing sax are the heart and soul of the album, hands down. “Your Lady” (an oft-neglected page from the Coltrane songbook) darkens the mood with a rain-drenched bass and nocturnal soprano sax. “The Iguana’s Ritual” continues in the same vein, save for the noticeable additions of electric guitar and the soothing grace of Collin Walcott’s tabla. Here, atmosphere becomes the primary melody. A trebly bass then ushers in a raunchier solo from Abercrombie and a kinetic finish from Liebman. A fluttering of guitar harmonics begins the end in “Satya Dhwani (True Sound).” Flute and tabla expand the sound further, carrying us out on an enigmatic path to stillness.

The contrast in covers between the original vinyl and the CD could hardly be greater. The latter’s block list of names, while typographically pleasing, obscures the vibrant colors that said roster produces. One look at the former, however, reveals all in a single perusal: a brilliant sun, cradled in the arid landscape of its own desires, has found a voice where shadows intersect, and waits to share it with any in search of oasis.


Original cover

Dave Liebman: Lookout Farm (ECM 1039)

 

Dave Liebman
Lookout Farm

Dave Liebman soprano, tenor saxes, alto c flute
Richard Beirach electric, acoustic piano
Frank Tusa electric, acoustic bass
Jeff Williams drums
John Abercrombie acoustic, electric guitar
Armen Halburian percussion
Don Alias congas, bongos
Badal Roy tablas
Steve Sattan tamburine, cowbell
Eleana Sternberg voice
Recorded October 10/11, 1973 at Generation Sound Studios
Engineer: Tony May
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Saxophonist, flutist, and all-around wunderkind Dave Liebman—who only last year received an NEA Jazz Masters lifetime achievement award for his tireless efforts in music and instruction—made his ECM debut with Lookout Farm, his first of only two albums for producer Manfred Eicher as leader (the other being the enthralling Drum Ode; he would also guest on Steve Swallow’s Home some six years later) and a trendsetter for fledgling improvisers seeking their voices in the seventies and beyond. Here, he is joined by a telepathic ensemble that includes regulars Richie Beirach and John Abercrombie, in addition to a pointed percussion section. Abercrombie’s quasi-flamenco arpeggios open the evocative “Pablo’s Story.” Liebman leads in on flute, establishing an intimate flywheel from which is spun a most democratic mosaic of intersections, solos, and rhythmic ecstasy. Liebman (switching to soprano sax) and Beirach provide the skeleton of the track’s flexible physiology. An intuitive pattern of tension and release ensues, thus maintaining a solid unity throughout. Frank Tusa’s understated yet richly emotive bass lines bring out a vital inner depth, and one can hardly remain static during the hand-drummed interlude. “Sam’s Float” introduces a more hardened sound, cut to the core by Leibman’s alto squeals and Abercrombie’s biting electricity. The 24-minute “M.D./Lookout Farm” closes this humble set of three. The first half turns down the lights with its elegiac piano and tender reeds, while the title half transports us with Jeff Williams’s downright flammable drumming.

A spectacular sense of curiosity would seem to be de rigueur in Liebman territory, its infectiousness inescapable. This is a milestone album, not only for the liberating musicianship and timeless sounds, but also for its production value. With Lookout Farm, Eicher channeled the reverberant specter that has haunted the label’s sound ever since, and with it an entirely new way of listening emerged.

A pilgrimage for the ECM enthusiast.