A second look: Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette (ECM 1237)

Werner Pirchner / Harry Pepl / Jack DeJohnette

Werner Pirchner tenor vibes, marimba
Harry Pepl ovation guitar
Jack DeJohnette
 drums
Digitally recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Writing these reviews has been as much an opportunity to learn about the many fascinations of ECM (and music in general) as about myself. Part of that learning process involves reassessment. So far in my explorations of the label, there have been only two bumps in the road—no small feat for a catalogue of 1300 releases. One of these bumps was the self-titled record cut by Werner Pirchner, Harry Pepl, and Jack DeJohnette. Recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1982, it came across to my ears as a one-off session that was perhaps better suited to remain in reissue limbo. Yet after posting a rare critical review, I incurred an unexpected backlash. Rather than let this underscore my defensiveness—which is useless, for how can one argue with another’s appreciation of art?—I took it to heart and have, over the past year, returned to this album on occasion to absorb its expressive secrets. The experience also revealed an imperfection in my system: because I am hearing so many of these records for the first time, and in my sometimes-overzealous efforts to reach synchronicity with ECM’s rigorous release schedule, I tend listen to albums only once before reviewing them. While on the one hand this gives (I hope) a freshness of feeling to my attempts at describing the indescribable, on the other it doesn’t always leave me prepared to expound upon an experience that may be a longer time in coming. I am also an ardent, if idealistic, believer that music tends to come into one’s life when it is meant to, but that sometimes its interest requires incubation. I simply did not give this date the attention it deserves.

“African Godchild” opens its eyes to a savannah dawn and draws us into a scene resonant with life. The depth of Pepl’s talent, now that I’m more familiar with it, is immediately evident in the spaciousness of his evocations. Pirchner matches that spaciousness on the inside, so that our understanding of it becomes unified. We can hear from this that the Pepl/Pirchner relationship is the nexus of the trio, the guitarist providing spider webs of support for the mallet man’s acute inscriptions. DeJohnette’s kick drum and cymbals add relief to their subtle crosstalk. The interrelatedness of foreground and background is deftly realized, especially as Pepl steps forth with an echoing solo, sculpting the drama with practiced fingers. “Air, Love And Vitamines” is perfect for an autumn afternoon. It is a prime vehicle for Pirchner, whose Jarrett-like inflections enchant at every turn and constitute the vertical to DeJohnette’s horizontal. The drummer balances the hidden urgency of this tune and blends seamlessly with Pirchner’s chording. After listless beginnings, “Good-bye, Baby Post” Pirchner leads the way into a resonant groove. Pepl acts the bass player’s part, even more so in his solo, before pinpointing the night with far-reaching flame in “Better Times In Sight,” for which Pirchner brings us back to earth but not to land, preferring as he does to skate the limpid waters of a forgotten sea.

I stand by my original opinion that the processing on Pepl’s instrument obscures what is already such a direct voice (compare this to the more organic buzzing of Pirchner’s marimba), yet I can understand the motivation for contrast. Ultimately, his gorgeous sustains and crunchy backing ring true in spite of the effects applied. And while I still think the recording levels could still use some tweaking, I have found a solution: listen to it loud.

This curious little gem may or may not hold you at first listen, but it does have the potential, like anything worth its salt, to endear as it endures.

Pirchner/Pepl/DeJohnette: s/t (ECM 1237)

Werner Pirchner / Harry Pepl / Jack DeJohnette

Werner Pirchner tenor vibes, marimba
Harry Pepl ovation guitar
Jack DeJohnette
 drums
Digitally recorded on a Sunday afternoon in June 1982 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Vastly under-recognized malleter and composer Werner Pirchner sharing the same studio with guitarist Harry Pepl and drummer Jack DeJohnette? What could go wrong? Quite a bit, unfortunately. The opening “Africa Godchild” starts intriguingly enough, seeming to creep from the soil like an awakening locust. Pirchner describes with his marimba the feelers of a friend testing the air and finding only the welcoming glow of sunrise, while DeJohnette’s tom-heavy drumming calls forth the swarm. Yet despite these evocative beginnings, Pepl’s Ovation soon becomes distracting, and the chorus effect applied to it makes its chording sound perpetually out of tune. When soloing, however, it sounds fantastic, as the force of the playing cuts through the warble that constricts it. In “Air, Love and Vitamines,” the guitar again feels out of place, despite the lovely improvisatory stretch from Pirchner’s vibraphone. “Good-bye, Baby Post” fares little better, and Pepl’s crackling solo is too little too late. He shows admirable melodic acuity in the closing “Better Times In Sight,” but is once more undermined by the amping, which would have benefited greatly from a cleaner treatment.

This unusual collaboration could have been something special. Technical criticisms aside, its major stumbling block comes from the musicians’ lack of communication. Each draws a sphere that only seems to intersect tangentially with the other two. This might have been a gem of a recording had only Pirchner and DeJohnette been there to lay it down. In a catalogue as vast as ECM’s, one can hardly be surprised to encounter a forgettable effort now and then. Sadly, this may be one of them.

Adelhard Roidinger: Schattseite (ECM 1221)

 

Adelhard Roidinger
Schattseite

Adelhard Roidinger bass
Heinz Sauer tenor saxophone
Bob Degen piano
Harry Pepl guitar
Werner Pirchner vibraharp, marimba
Aina Kemanis voice
Michael DiPasqua drums, percussion
Recorded November 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It’s unfortunate that Adelhard Roidinger only cut this one record for ECM. The Austrian-born Renaissance man seems to have been a perfect fit for the label, which by the time of this release (1982) had firmly established its aesthetic hold on the jazz market. Schattseite has a lush, airy sound that is always appealing, and what better way to draw us in than with the slow-moving “Fü Pfü.” The soloing is crisp all around: gorgeous vibe work from Pirchner, Pepl’s soft guitar licks, DiPasqua’s tender drumming, a fluid run from Sauer on tenor sax, and an alluringly pianistic turn from Degen all make for a crystalline opener, and Roidinger’s plaintive accompaniment pulls it all together with humility. There is much stopping and starting, as if the music were afraid to latch on to a memory it knows could be self-destructive. Next is “Lufti,” a delightfully overdubbed bass duet, interrupted by occasional glissandi for a playful effect. “Loveland” fades in on a sweet piano riff doubled by Aina Kemanis’s brassy vocals, evoking the distinctive sound originally forged on Return to Forever. Roidinger harmonizes with the lead motif, blending into another mercurial leap from Pirchner, this time on marimba, supported by a delicate repeat of the same progression sans voice. The fantastic sax solo and Metheny-esque picking lend even more elegance to the track’s progressive sound. “Stress” begins with a bowed electric bass, caressing the air like whale songs. Sauer introduces the main line, again doubled by Kemanis, before Roidinger steps in to offer some regularity, thereby allowing Deger more room to flex his fingers. “Ania” starts with laughter, or something like it. Out of this abstract pointillism comes an engaging chant, throughout which Pepl jauntily strums his way along. The album closes with its longest track, “When Earth Becomes Desert,” which steadily moves from haunting drones to an all-out improv-fest. The marimba is unusually present here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was miked differently, if not added in postproduction. The final minute brings us slowly back down with a gorgeous melody in tutti.

Although Schattseite does take a while to find its groove, whatever it may lack in drive it makes up for in atmosphere and melodic robustness. This is an album of exceptional sound and quality, and is like the audio equivalent of a scenic route: it may get you to the same destination, maybe even less efficiently, but its allure is such that by the time you near the end, you no longer care where you were going. In dire need of a reissue.

Werner Pirchner: EU (ECM New Series 1314/15)

Werner Pirchner
EU

Werner Pirchner accordion, bass-vibes, voice
Ernst Kovacic solo-violine
Kurt Neuhauser cathedral organ
The Vienna Wind Soloists
Vienna Brass Quintet Prisma
Recorded 1984-1986, Tonstudio Ströher, Innsbruck; Vienna; Tirol; Lend
Engineer: Hanno Ströher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Werner Pirchner (1940-2001) is not a name likely to be well known outside of his native Austria. A multi-instrumentalist with strong jazz roots, Pirchner devoted much energy in the latter part of his life to strict composition, leaving behind an oeuvre of 130 works. This double album, one of the earliest in ECM’s New Series, is a delightful potpourri and a charming record of a unique musical career.

The Sonate Vom Rauhen Leben (Sonata of a Harsh Life) features the composer on the accordion. The music is mysterious, like folk music from afar. Pirchner’s playing is elegiac, highly descriptive, and paints with dense strokes. Loneliness mounts with each section, as if the music were resigned to live and die for itself. Streichquartett Für Bläserquintett (String Quartet for Wind Quintet) balances playful abstraction with comic determination, harrumphing its way through a slideshow of waltzes and tongue-in-cheek adventures. All the more satirical given that Pirchner uses a Tyrolean slave song as its thematic core. The music sounds like a wind section without orchestra, so vast is its implied periphery. Next is Good News From The Ziller Valley, a three-part jig for solo violin that abounds in microtonal harmonies. This is followed by the pointillist Kammer-Symphonie “Soirée Tyrolienne”, a programmatic exposition that sounds like it belongs in a ballet or stage production. Do You Know Emperor Joe is a series of delightfully syncopated vignettes for brass ensemble. This pieces bears its dedication to “Joseph II., the only monarch with the nickname ‘Menschenfreund’ and to Fritz v. Herzmanovsky-Orlando, author of ‘Kaiser Joseph and the Station-Master’s Daughter.’” The audience in this live recording is in stitches and seems to be enjoying itself thoroughly, making us wonder what we missed by not having been there. The mood changes with Two War-& Peace-Choirs, the first of which sounds like something out of Meredith Monk’s vocal world, while the second revels more overtly in the feel of its text—especially in its trilled Rs—and ends with a humorous “Amen” from a deep bass. This is appropriately followed by Kleine Messe Um “C” Für Den Lieben Gott, a dirge for solo organ that seems to pick up on a grander scale where the accordion left off at the album’s intimate beginnings. We end with the brilliant Solo Sonata for Bass-Vibes, played to perfection again by our composer.

It’s hard to know what of make of EU. On the one hand it’s a fascinating cross-section of a very idiosyncratic composer. Pirchner’s innovative approach is apparent at every turn and escorts his listeners through an amusement park of moods. On the other hand some of the pieces do drag on a bit, making sustained interest an occasional issue. Pirchner embodies a unique paradox: where some minimalist composers take repetitive motives and make them sound highly varied, he somehow takes a wide variety of musical elements and makes them sound repetitive. At its best moments Pirchner’s music is uninhibited and just plain fun; at its worst it feels ultimately insubstantial, like an afternoon nap cut short. That being said, the music is also fraught with pauses, leaving much time for listeners to ponder the implications of what they’re hearing. Pirchner’s skills are particularly obvious in the shorter pieces, his bass-vibes sonata the clear standout in this regard. Part III of the selfsame sonata is a stroke of genius matched by an equal level of performance. And speaking of performance, the musicianship, tuning, and recording quality throughout are positively superb.

As I bask in the whimsy of EU for this review, a summer thunderstorm unleashes its ominous fury over my roof, providing a stark contrast to the delightful sounds in my ears. This seems like just the sort of irony that Pirchner would appreciate, one that milks the unpredictability of life for all it’s worth and says in response, “Yeah, I can work with that.”

Incidentally, for a wonderful rumination on Pirchner and his music, check out Stephen Smoliar’s post at The Rehearsal Studio.