ECM at 40: Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 3-6, October 22-25, 2009
With amplified performances taking place in the Castle's auditoriuma part of the University that uses much of Mannheim Castleacoustic performances took place in the Castle's Hall of Knights, a remarkable room filled with 17th century paintings and sculpturesa room whose beauty adds its own personality to the music being performed within.
Hall of Knights, Mannheim Castle
"The Blue Sound" provided a broad cross-section of the artists and musical styles that have contributed to ECMs broader aesthetic. As much as it would be impossible to imagine a celebration without Thomas Zehetmair, any festival paying tribute to ECM would be lacking without the presence of Keller Quartett, truly one of the world's most impressive string quartets, whose discography on ECM goes as far back as Bach and as recent as György Kurtág and Alexander Knaifel. For its Enjoy Jazz performance, the Quartettviolinists András Keller and János Pilz, violist Zoltán Gál and cellist Judit Szabó delivered a set focusing on the contemporary, with interpretations of György Ligeti's "Streichtquartett Nr. 1: Métamorphoses Nocturnes," Kurtág's "Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervànsky op.28" and Béla Bartók's "Streichquartett Nr. 5."
A challenging set, but one that was profoundly evocative, it drew an inexorable link to the jazz world and co-curator Wolfgang Sandner's comment of the previous day concerning Ligeti's jazz proclivities. The composer's string quartet may have been unequivocally classical in tone and development, with impressive markers definitive of his groundbreaking innovations; but so, too, were voicings that spoke more of jazz's own sophisticated harmonies. An often dark and occasionally dramatic composition, it was still curiously accessible; even when the strings continued to ascend through upper register harmonics, converging in delicate yet tension-building microtonal harmonics, it was less outré than, say, the celestial "Lux Aeterna" or "Atmospheres," two Ligeti compositions made famous by film director Stanley Kubrick when he used them in his seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). There were, in fact, passages of deeper beauty.
Kurtág's "Officium breve," heard on Keller Quartett's Musik für Streichinstrumente (ECM, 1996), demonstrated the greater meaning that silence can bring, and highlighted Keller Quartett's outstanding dynamic range to create a reading that, in many ways, demonstrated the vast difference between hearing this music on record and in performance. ECM has always aimedand successfully achieveda distinctive sonic transparency, where every nuance, every detail is absolutely clear. It's original aim was to bring the kind of pristine clarity, so often heard in classical recordings, to the jazz world of the early 1970s where relatively little attention was paid, as even milestone albums like Miles Davis' Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969) were murky recordings where it was impossible to hear with anything resembling pellucidity.
Keller Quartett (l:r): András Keller, János Pilz, Zoltán Gál, Judit Szabó
No less modern than Ligeti, there was a more prevalent folkloric element to "Officium breve," and voicings that were of a more oblique nature. Every member of Keller Quartett is a virtuoso, with András Keller, in particular, participating on a number of other ECM titles, including Béla Bartók's 44 Duos for Two Violins (2002), and the expressive qualities of the individual players brought a different kind of light to the piece, especially in a room where the softest phrase could be heard throughout. ECM's recording of the piece has its own soundscape, with a different kind of intimacy that draws in the ear when Szabo begins her long, languid glissandi beneath the piercing violin harmonics near the piece's half-way point. In the Hall of Knights, while the elemental nature of the music was retained, the natural reverb of the room created a different kind of immediacy, even as the thirteen-minute piece reached its zenith, before ending with an almost painful beauty, mournful and reflective.
Of his six renowned string quartets, Bartók's 23-minut "Streichquartett Nr. 5" is, perhaps, one of the lesser recorded outside those projects that cover the entire series. Even more redolent of the traditional music of his native Hungary than the Romanian Kurtág, it was a powerful closer to this hour-long performance. "Finale,"the closing section of this five-moment suite, "was a propulsive and definitive ending to a performance that, in its own way, stretched the boundaries of classical music by, at least in parts, blurring the increasingly fuzzy line between ECM's regular and new series recordings.
No ECM festival would be complete without representing the music of Norway, which has been such a large part of the label's focus, nor would it be comprehensive without the kind of international collaboration that has also been a label touchstone.
Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal has, as an ECM artist since nearly the very beginningfirst appearing on the label's seventh album, Jan Garbarek's early classic, Afric Pepperbird (1971), and releasing his own eponymous debut the same year defined a sound that has come to be called, for better or worse, right or wrong, "Nordic Cool." Heavily influenced by rock guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, Rypdal has nevertheless evolved his own sound that is also informed by early work with George Russell, the creator of the Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization (1968). Miles Davis has also figured in the guitarist's career, but throughout, his playing has been an unmistakable combination of raw energy, a restraint rare for electric guitarists, and a sound that manages to evoke images of vast, barren landscapes. Also a modernistic classical composer, he's further blurred the lines between musical genres on albums like Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away (1974) and If Mountains Could Sing (1995).
Czech double-bassist Miroslav Vitous, as co-founder of the seminal fusion group Weather Report, has pushed his own boundaries. While not as prolific as Rypdal, he's recorded a number of outstanding records for ECM, including First Meeting (1980), the first of three albums with his early-1980s quartet with saxophonist John Surman, drummer Jon Christensen and either pianist Kenny Kirkland or John Taylor. In the 1980s he created what has since become one of the de facto standards in orchestral samples, and has used them to great effect on more recent albums including Universal Syncopations II (2007) and Remembering Weather Report (2009), an album that pays tribute to the more improv-heavy days of early Weather Report in spirit, if not in letter.
The two musicians collaborated with American drummer Jack DeJohnette on two albumsTerje Rypdal / Miroslav Vitous / Jack DeJohnette (1978) and the 1981 follow-up, To Be Continued. While this trio, focusing on written material by Rypdal and Vitous, dissolved shortly after the second album, the guitarist and bassist came together occasionally over the years, including a tour with Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu in the mid-1990s. For their reunion performance at Enjoy Jazz, Rypdal and Vitous recruited American drummer Gerald Cleaver, who was an important part both Universal Syncopations II and Remembering Weather Report. The rapport he shared with Vitous was on a deep level, and while he possessed no shortage of kinetic power when needed, he was also capable of the kind of texture and color that made this improv-heavy trio such a treat.
The late night performance was not without its problems. Vitous, using a keyboard to trigger a variety of samples throughout the show, sometimes seemed as though he was losing focus by having to disturb his playing to activate the samples. And, equally, it often felteven when playing material that was clearly Rypdal'sthat he was the focal point, when the trio should have been more egalitarian.
That said, his soundand in particular his signature arco tonewas as compelling as ever, and he remains a virtuosic player capable of providing some rhythmic foundation while engaging in trialogue with Rypdal and Cleaver, even if the conversation was, at times, one-sided.
Rypdal, on the other hand, was there with ears wide open, as he both responded to and provided his own cues in a series of pieces that were based around pulse-driven free play. In recent times, including the performance of a new extended piece, "Crimescene," with the Bergen Big Band in Bergen this past May (recorded for his next album), he's been playing better than he has some time, quite possibly better than he ever has, with a combination of trenchant lyricism, surging, sustaining notes and chords, and Hendrixian whammy bar swoops that, despite the reference, remain wholly his own.
Cleaver, too, was keeping his eye on the ball, intuitive and fully engaged. Creating a tumultuous undercurrent that possessed pulse but, at the same time, was open-ended and filled with greater implication, he also demonstrated a broader purview than usual by playing glockenspiel and tympani. And while grooveat least by more conventional definitionwas a rare commodity during this ninety-minute performance, when he did lock in with Vitous, it created a terrific sense of release from much of the tension built throughout the show. It may have been a show of mixed results, but the beauty of this kind of experimentation is that it's risk without necessarily (or always) total success. The journey is often as important as the destination, and for Rypdal, Vitous and Cleaver, it was one well worth taking.