ECM Records is the Blue Note Records of the 21st Century. Where Blue Note almost single-handedly defined the sound of jazz (specifically hard bop) in the 1950s and 1960s, ECM has done much the same with the flavor of jazz emerging from the 1970s on. So similar are the two labels, in this respect at least, that both musicians and fans refer to the "ECM sound" in the same way an earlier generation referred to the "Blue Note Sound."
What is it that gives a record label its particular sound? At mid-20th Century Blue Note, producer Alfred Lion wanted the music, above all, to "schwing." One way Lion ensured that his label would "schwing" was by the stellar stable of musicians he recorded. During Blue Note's heyday, these musicians included drummer Art Blakey, pianists Horace Silver, Sonny Clark and Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeters Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Lee Morgan, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, organist Jimmy Smith, guitarist Grant Greenand practically every other ranking hard bop player of the period.
These musicians produced an organic brand of bebop and blues that derived more from the church than it did Manhattan's 52nd Street in the 1940s. No less technical and improvisatory, this hard bop added rough edges to the revolutionary bebop that preceded it, manifesting as the "unk" in "funk." A prototypical composition would be pianist Bobby Timmons' "Moanin,'" sweaty church music performed in bars and at house parties.
Another characteristic of the Blue Note sound was its sonics. The sound was well balanced atop a slightly arid background. Breathy tenor saxophonists are captured with a warm ambience manifested as a sensual rasp in the low registers. Trumpet notes (particularly Lee Morgan's) sound like bullets of mercury hitting glass, sharp and well defined.
How does ECM compare to this paradigm? Well, identically. ECM also possesses a stable of musicians whose music imparts a given type of sound, something perhaps described as "ethereal." ECM artists who typify this sound include pianist Keith Jarrett, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, and trumpter Enrico Rava. These examples merely scratch the surface.
ECM also has its own Alfred Lion in Manfred Eicher. Eicher's production includes "booming" silences over which artists paint their sound portraits in exquisite layers. There are no better examples of Eicher's approach than three recent releases: Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani's The Third man, drummer Manu Katche's Play Ground, and tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman's The Struggle Continues. These recordings have generated a great deal of excitement, all well deserved.
Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani
The Third Man
Enrico Rava is ECM's mid-register trumpet master. In an age where trumpeters are still compared with the godfather, Miles Davis, Rava has staked out his musical territory and built a body of music immediately identifiable and acutely crafted. On The Third Man, Rava duo's with pianist Stefano Bollani on a carefully considered collection of originals and vastly reworked standards, offers the listener a look at (or, rather, a listen to) ECM's use of the plush silence upon which the performances are painted.
Rava and Bollani perform almost independently of one another, each artist's melody lines intertwining with the other, cushioned on that brilliant bed of silence. This is late night music, nocturnal, dream-like. The Italian standard "Estate" is deftly deconstructed by the duo into a moody, melancholy poem. Where "Estate" is sensually amorphous, "In Search Of Titina" is tautly angular, a perusal of scales and time, independently realized.
Between these two compositions is the airy "Sun Bay," which incorporates the opaque lyricism of the former with the angular momentum of the latter. The result is a uniquely balladic performance that perfectly frames Rava's warm open bell tone with Bollani's fractured chromaticism. The intimate confines of the duet have never better been graced.
For a more in-depth treatment of this disc, see John Kelman's review of The Third Man.
Drummer Manu Katche follows up his well received Neighbourhood (ECM, 2006) with Playground. Katche and half of Tomasz Stanko's quartetpianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewiczcomprise the core rhythm section for the disc. The remaining personnel is filled out with saxophonist Trygve Seim, trumpeter Mathias Eick and guitarist David Torn.