ECM Bass Summit: Eberhard Weber & Miroslav Vitous
It is considered bad critical form to focus on a particular record label in a review, but it is difficult to discuss ECM artists and the "ECM sound without mentioning ECM and its svengali, Manfred Eicher. No recording company since Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s can boast as distinctive a sound and eclectic a roster of players as ECM. Alchemist Eicher deftly blends and promotes jazz, world and classical music, creating an immediately identifiable ethos in notes that seem to float above the staff, regardless of the performer. In the "jazz arena, Eicher and ECM take great glee in concentrating on the fluid border between harmonically defined and freely improvised music. ECM certainly did not invent this focus but it has gone a long way toward perfecting it.
There is something deconstructive about allowing the two performance phases of harmonically established composition and free improvisation to intermingle at the two immiscibles' interface. Extending this fluid mechanics metaphor, a natural equilibrium, based on the collective artists performing, emerges where a creative tension is formed via the ebb and flow between composition and improvisation resulting in an overall domination of neither.
Conveniently, this post-modern approach is amply illustrated on a pair of bassist-led recordings by two musicians with lengthy ECM recording histories, Eberhard Weber and Miroslav Vitous. Being bassists and recording for the same label are not the only things the two men have in common on these releases. The year 2007 has marked significant birthdays for both, Weber's 65th (celebrated in live performance on Stages Of A Long Journey) and Vitous' 60th birthday.
Stages Of A Long Journey
Stages Of A Long Journey was recorded in Eberhard Weber's home of Stuttgart in March this year, employing the local SWR Radio Symphony Orchestra and a host of soloists familiar to Weber throughout his almost 40-year career. Perfectly conceived, even in its title, Stages Of A Long Journey casts well-known Weber compositions in new arrangements, against a symphonic wall-of-sound not unlike Joe Zawinul employed with his Weather Report corpus and the WDR Big Band Köln on Brown Street.
Beautifully, the opening "Silent Feet, from Weber's 1977 release of the same name, illustrates this approach. The composition is floated by the symphony orchestra while being propelled by Weber, with his custom five-string, upright "electrobass, and his long-time collaborators, the most in evidence here being soprano saxophonist Jan Garbarek and vibraphonist Gary Burton, who weave in and out of the closely structured composition. Garbarek and Burton's solos provide the "stretch in "Silent Feet.
More in keeping with the freer side of composing is Weber's cover of Carla Bley's "Syndrome." The band introduces the familiar theme before breaking into separate free and 4/4 solo sections. In the latter, Weber's bass is featured prominently speed walking, while Rainer Bruninghaus solos effectively on piano. During the freer sections Gary Burton is given reign to display his pioneering four-mallet vibes technique. Jan Garbarek breaks out the tenor for perfectly formed, muscular solos. "Seven Movements" is a splendid duet for the bassist and Garbarek's soprano instrument. The performance is taut and sinewy without a single wasted note by either musician.
The concert is anchored by the appropriate "Birthday Suite, employing both orchestra and core band in a seamless performance. Piano and drums transitions between formal movements give the sum a late Romantic tone poem feel. Weber is way out front, celebrating his milestone with his friends and colleagues of many years. This suite is followed by the exquisitely percussive "Hang Around propelled by Reto Weber's vocal gymnastics (that should be the envy of any hip-hop artist trying to emulate vocal percussion). Reto Weber demonstrates how it is done. Weber closes his birthday celebration with the aptly chosen "The Last Stage Of A Long Journey, where the bassist brings together all of the elements of the concert into a satisfying symmetry leaving the listener wanting more of this kind of music.
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Universal Syncopations II
In comparison with Stages Of A Long Journey, Universal Syncopations II is less rigorously composed, boasting a freer performance approach. Miroslav Vitous also chooses a less rhythmic, more free approach to his bass playing, often approximating Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro's approaches on Ornette Coleman's ground-breaking Free Jazz (Atlantic, 1961), though in a manner decidedly more well-behaved and accessible.