ECM at 40: Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 3-6, October 22-25, 2009
ECM at 40. It's hard to believe that a record label responsible for stretching the boundaries of modern music has survived the various crises that have threatened and, in some cases, decimated so many others. With Enjoy Jazz's "The Blue Sound: 40 Years of ECM" festival-within-a-festival, it's as good a time as any to take stock of where the label has been, where it is, and where's it's going.
Mannheim Castle, Venue for "The Blue Sound: 40 Years of ECM"
In a press conference that took place prior to the first evening's concerts, label head/producer Manfred Eicher spoke of how the label has, indeed, survived such perceived crises as the oil crisis in the late 1970s which, as he dryly put it, "resulted in vinyl as thin as pizza crust." Just as much a threat was the industry's move to CD format, forcing the label to rethink its design approach to accommodate a smaller footprint. And as music seems, at the same time, to be moving away from hard media to digital downloads and returning to vinyl, ECM continues to stand strong with the vision that has not only made it a remarkable innovator, but a rare survivor. There simply is no other independent label in jazz and beyond that has remained so for so long, and it's Eicher's singular vision of sonic transparency and musical cross-pollination that, as he explained, is all about instinctthe intuition that has kept the label at the forefront of modern musicno longer jazz, no longer classical, but simply music.
Eicher talked about the increasingly blurred line between the label's regular series (once considered the "jazz" side) and the New Series line (the "classical" side), and how musicians are surprisingly well-informed about music beyond their apparent purview. He talked of attending a Radiohead concert and being invited backstage, where he ended up in a discussion about Beethoven with the group's bassist, Colin Greenwood. "It was a surprise," Eicher said," but then again it shouldn't have been." It was a sentiment mirrored by Wolfgang Sandnera respected German journalist who is co-curating the ECM festival with Enjoy Jazz Festival director Rainer Kern and journalist Hans-Jürgen Linkewho talked of how classical composer György Ligeti was informed by jazz, and how violinist Thomas Zehetmair, scheduled for a duo performance with violist Ruth Killius later that evening, takes considerable improvisational liberties with the music of Paganini on his most recent recording, Paganini: 24 Capricci (ECM, 2009).
"The Blue Sound" Curators (l:r): Wolfgang Sandner, Rainer Kern
The theme of the day-long ECM symposium scheduled for Saturday, October 24, was "ECM Music and the Transatlantic Music Dialogue," with speakers from North America (this writer), Germany, England and Italy. With Eicher participating in a closing panel discussion, plenty of the debate and discussion going on at the Festival Caféwhere fans, musicians, ECM staff and journalists could meet and interact throughout the festival's four dayswas brought into sharp focus, with plenty of fresh perspectives. But around all the talk was something even more important, more elemental: the music itself, with a selection of eleven ECM artists representing a true cross-section of the label's unfettered approach to music without borders. Chapter Index
- John Abercrombie Quartet
- Thomas Zehetmair / Ruth Killius
- Egberto Gismonti / Alexandre Gismonti
- Keller Quartett
- Terje Rypdal / Miroslav Vitous / Gerald Cleaver
- The Blue Moment Symposium
- Dino Saluzzi / Anja Lechner
- Louis Sclavis Quintet
- Alexei Lubimov Trio
- Anouar Brahem Quartet
- Enrico Rava New York Days
- "The Blue Sound" Wrap-Up
- Thomas Zehetmair / Ruth Killius
At the conclusion of John Abercrombie's performance, the opening show of "The Blue Sound," the guitarist said to his audience, "Thank you...and thank you Manfred"a sentiment that was echoed by many other artists throughout the festival's four days. It was also a particularly meaningful comment, coming from one of the label's longest-standing artists, first appearing in 1973 on saxophonist Dave Liebman's classic Lookout Farm, and releasing his own Timelessan early classic for both Abercrombie and the labelin 1974.
Closing in on a decade together, Abercrombie's current quartet has the distinction of being his longest-lasting ensemble (recording-wise, at least), though there has been one personnel change on Wait Till You See Her (ECM, 2009), its most recent release, with bassist Thomas Morgan replacing Marc Johnson. Morgan's woodier, more muscular sound has changed the complexion of the group, though it's still a compelling synchronicity of Abercrombie's varied interests, most notably a chamber jazz sound due, in no small part, to the encyclopedic classicism that imbues violinist Mark Feldman's vivid improvisations.
Opening with Abercombie briefly alone, the group's empathic free play was established from the get-go on "Line-Up," one of five tunes taken from Wait Till You See Her. With Morgan's right hand skittering up and down his bass between notes, as if to find exactly the right spot to achieve the desired tone, he proved as strong a fit live as he was on the album, the perfect replacement in a group where, even in the presence of delineated solos, the interaction between the players was both acute and astute.
Drummer Joey Baronwho, according to Abercrombie in a 2004 AAJ interview, actually ended up in the group almost by accidenthas become, over the last 30 years, one of modern jazz's most intuitive drummers and the perfect foil for Abercrombie. With eyes constantly darting around the stage, Baron went beyond conventional picking up of a phrase from Abercrombie, seeming at times to complete the guitarist's ideas even as Abercrombie was already moving ahead to the next one.
l:r: John Abercrombie, Joey Baron, Thomas Morgan, Mark Feldman
With respect to transcendence, watching Abercrombiewhether soloing along or in tandem with othersrevealed a guitarist who has gone beyond matters of technique and theory. So absolutely comfortable with his instrument, he always manages to avoid signature phrases that often define most guitaristseven the best onesby creating a sound and approach that's unassuming yet and absolutely fresh and distinctive, as was also heard at the guitarist's 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival performance.
Abercrombie introduced most of the 85-minute set's music with his characteristically dry sense of humor. Referring to his elegant "Anniversary Waltz," he said: "This song was written for my wife. She got me a present for our anniversary and I didn't buy her anything, so I said to her, 'What can I do? I'm not worthy.' She said, 'Write me a song,' and so I did. When Feldman left the stage for the aptly titled and amiably swinging "Trio," the guitarist explained, "It's like a marriage; guys come and go...have affairs with other bands and then come back...it makes the marriage stronger...I really don't know what I'm talking about." With a comfortable vibe coming from the stagejokes going on between band members throughout the set, with Baron his usual smiling selfthe music was deep, but it was also effortlessly playful, at times even mischievous.
Rarely going too far back in his catalogue, Abercrombie did pull out the indigo ballad "Spring Song," from Open Land (ECM, 1999), the guitarist's first encounter with Feldman. As the tune progressed, however, it took on greater power, with Baron as elastic as ever, Morgan an unshakable anchor and the entire group responding to each other at the drop of a hat. Feldman's solos were amongst the most overtly virtuosic, as he effortlessly ran the gamut from rapid cross-string bowing to high register harmonics, always with an emphatic focus on construction that said all it needed to say, and nothing more; his solo on Wait Till You See Her's "Sad Song" brief, but absolutely perfect.
l:r: Joey Baron, Thomas Morgan
A short but equally ideal encore was the quartet's version of Ornette Coleman's often covered "Round Trip," from its The Third Quartet (ECM, 2007), a song that clarified the lyrical beauty of Coleman's writing. It may be a largely "time, no changes" tune, but the free jazz icon's memorable melody acted as a guiding beacon throughout that provided a firm context for the group's collective, swinging interplay. A terrific ending to an outstanding performance from an artist who continues to find new, personal ways to mine the realm of chamber jazz with elegance, understatement and, at times, considerable power.
With Feldman's inherent classicism a significant link, violin virtuoso Thomas Zehetmair and violist Ruth Killius delivered an all-acoustic performance (no microphones, no PA system) that spanned four centuries and four countries, from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Germany) and Niccolò Paganini (Italy) to Heinz Holliger (Switzerland), Bohuslav Martinů (Czechoslovakia) and Giacanto Scelsi (Italy).
It was no coincidence that the duo opened with Mozart's graceful yet majestic "Duo G-Due KV 423," since Mannheim was a place the prolific and mercurial composer spent considerable timequite possibly in Mannheim Castle itself, the home of "The Blue Sound" festival. The duo's remarkable performance made great use of the large, acoustically resonant Hall of Knights to create a sound much fuller than might be expected from simply a violin and viola. Both players possessed the dynamics and profound sense of nuance to do more than just bring the music to life, creating a visible sense of interaction that, despite the more scripted music, mirrored Abercrombie's performance in the Castle's auditorium.
Zehetmair left the stage to Killius, who took the performance to a more modern place with Scelsi's "Manto 3," a challenging but deeply moving piece written for viola and female voice. Known for working around a single pitch with microtonal variations and drama created through use of timbre and dynamics, it was brief but powerful piece, as Killius sang in a deep voice that, even without knowing the words, felt like an outpouring of rage and grief, her viola creating the key context around which her singing orbited and intersected.
Holliger's "Drei Skizzen für Violine und Viola"written specifically for Zehetmair and Killiusremained in avant territory, the first of its miniature movements a confluence of harmonics; more color and texture than melody. The second movement was paradoxically fuller in harmony yet sonically more hollow, the result of a device fitted on the bridges of both instruments to mute the complexion. The final movement was one of contrapuntal complexity, as viola and violin moved at times in parallel, elsewhere seemingly inexorably interlocked.
An aspect to the performance that was most remarkable was how a simple musical dyad could create so much harmonic implication. Zehetmair's solo performance of three miniatures from Paganini: 24 Capricci were sequenced to create a miniature narrative within the context of the entire concert. Zehetmair's stunning virtuosity was, perhaps, at its most visible here as his dyadic implications were executed with rare precision and articulation, a true marvel of a performance that brought music written nearly 200 years ago into the 21st century.
Martinů's "Drei Madrigale," a relatively contemporary suite of three pieces that, nevertheless, brought the concert full circle with more accessible and, again, slightly majestic melodies, brought the concert to a close. The appreciative and fully attentive audience demandedand receiveda well-deserved encore written by British composer Peter Maxwell Davies. With a strong mix of music from centuries past and contemporary chamber jazz, "The Blue Sound: 40 Years of ECM" got off to a fine start, auguring well for the three days to follow.
As empathic as band members can become, especially after years of working together, the familial bond is inevitably a stronger one. Rare but not completely uncommon, it's possible to find examples in jazz where siblings work together to great effect. The Heath Brothers is one such example; in the case of Moutin Reunion Quartet the bond is even tighter, with twin brothers François and Louise Moutin demonstrating an even deeper connectionone equally shared by twin brothers Alex and Nels Cline on the now relatively rare occasions when they work together. Rarer still is the opportunity to see father and son work together. Argentinean bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi's group, responsible for Juan Condori (ECM, 2006), brings brothers and sons together, but larger group settings are rarely as intimate as the most exposed of musical settings, the duo. And so, Enjoy Jazz's appearance by the highly influential Brazilian composer/pianist/guitarist Egberto Gismonti and his son, guitarist Alexandre, was a performance that demonstrated just how acute the connection between father and son can be, especially when translated into music.
"There are probably some fathers and mothers here," Egberto said partway through the performance, "You guys know..." What mothers and fathers knew was just as clear to those without children, as the connection between Egberto and his son was palpable, as he encourage Alexandre with looks that can only be described as full of love and pride. The same was returned by Alexandre though, in response to his father's comments to the audience, he smiled and said, "I don't know...I only know the son part."
The two Gismontis have been playing together since Alexandre was in his early teens, though they've only begun recording together, with their Enjoy Jazz performance culled largely from Saudações (ECM, 2009). Ranging from extended pieces to relative miniatures, the elder Gismonti played a custom-built 14-string guitar with nylon strings, while the son played a standard classical guitar. Egberto's instrument, extending the range far below a normal guitar, allowed him to approach the instrument pianistically at times. A rawer player in contrast to Alexandre's more polished performance, the two guitarists were miked, but the beauty of the room and the soundman responsible for all the performances at Mannheim Castle was that the amplification was minimal, just enough to fill the rather large room with a capacity of approximately 400, while allowing for the kind of delicate nuance that so defined the performance.
The first hour or so was comprised largely of duets, though Alexandre did recreate his tender and lyrical solo version of his father's enduring "Palhaço" from Saudações. While the elder Gismonti is, perhaps, the more distinctive player at this point in time, Alexandre is already more than delivering on a certain promise. Prodigious skill may have underlain the set, but it was a combination of Gismonti's distinctive writing and the remarkable interplay between the two instrumentsfixed in structure but free in interpretationthat defined the set. The two created a hypnotic interlocking of minimalistic, repetitive finger-picked patterns, in particular on the opening "Zig Zag," where Egberto constantly egged Alexandre on with the slightest of visual gestures, while Alexandre responded in a way that suggested there was another dialogue going on in addition to the music itself. Solos were traded freely, with only the slightest of nods to cue into new compositional constructs.
When Alexandre left the stage, Egberto moved over to pianocompletely unmiked, yet filling the room with sound where, with an enraptured audience, it was so quiet that the slightest touch could be heard. Three songs, including his enduring "Frevo," demonstrated Gismonti's improvisational prowess, stretching the music freely while maintaining an unfailing musical eye on the definitive melodies. As with his guitar playing, he's an unbridled player whose music comes more from the rainforests than the cities of Brazil, playful yet emotionally exposed.
Alexandre returned for a duet with his father, who remained on piano, for two encores that began brightly, but ended on a more subdued note. As powerful as the musical performance was, just as potent was the clear devotion, pride and love that flowed like an undercurrent throughout the set.
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.
An important part of "The Blue Sound" festival was a full-day international symposium held at the university in Mannheim Castle, featuring eight lecturers from a variety of countries and with a multitude of perspectives, and a final panel discussion that included Manfred Eicher. With Enjoy Jazz a festival largely in German, English and German translations were available for attendees, sp they could understand the lectures, regardless of the language.
Perhaps most surprising about the Symposiumthough, given the broad scope of ECM, perhaps not so surprising at allwas how little overlap there was between lecturers. Süddeutsche Zeitung editor Thomas Steinfeld opened the day with a lecture that was only partly serious on the subject of "nothing," though not in reference to the old Seinfeld television show, but more philosophically. ECM CDs begin with five seconds of silence, and Steinfield explored the significance of this unusual marker. French critic, philosopher and curator Daniel Soutif spoke of the emergence of jazz in Europe, setting the context for how American jazz found its way across the ocean and, in the 1960s, became part of a movement that was as much sociological as it was artistic. This writer spoke about how ECM recontextualized American jazz within a broader musical spectrum, and how label loyalty evolved through the expectation that new recordings would be anything but similar to what had come before.
Oldenberg professor of media, Susanne Binas-Preisendörfer, spoke about music industry trends, while Hannover professor of trumpet, Herbert Hellhund, discussed the importance of the north in ECM's overall aesthetic, and the label's commitment to incorporating the cultural traditions from countries around the globe into the overall purview of improvised music. BBC Radio's Fiona Talkington delivered a particularly compelling lecture that drew a line from ECM's regular series to New, using Terje Rypdal as the initial touchstone, but ultimately leading from his memorable "Return of Per Ulv," from If Mountains Could Sing, forward to his own Lux Aeterna (2002) and Knaefel's 2000 same-titled composition and album (performed by cellist brothers Patrick and Thomas Demenga). From there, Talkington drew a line back to Schumann and, ultimately, Bach, and in a brief twenty minutes of speech and sound samples, vividly made the same point that Eicher made two days prior at the press conference.
From there, Italian writer Francesco Martinelli demonstrated the confluence of Euro-American traditions, dating as far back as the 1930s, when ((Sidney Bechet)) referenced music from an Italian opera in one of his solos. That cross-pollination has existed all along was Martinelli's theory, and it was proven even further as he came to Italian clarinetist/composer Giovanni Trovesi, whose Profumo di Violetta (ECM, 2009), brought the stylistic blurring of opera and improvised music to the Northern Italian provincial banda. "The Blue Sound" co-curator, Wolfgang Sandner, stepped in at the last minute for the unavailable Richard Williams, and closed the lecture segment of the day with discussion of Keith Jarrett, in particular, his highly successful Köln Concert (1976), and how the pianist constantly creates something from nothing.
Ending with a panel discussion involving this writer, Fiona Talkington, Daniel Soutif and Manfred Eicher, questions from the audience were taken, as well as driven by co-curator Hans-Jürgen Linke. It was a fitting close to a day filled with new ideas and intriguing consolidationsall of which are planned to be published in a book in 2010, to celebrate ECM's 40th Anniversary.
When it was released in 2007, Ojos Negrosthe sublime duo recording by Argentinean bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi and German cellist Anja Lechnerwas critically acclaimed for its marriage of Saluzzi's South American folk tradition and Astor Piazzolla-informed tango, with Lechner's inherent classicism; yet another example of ECM and its artists blurring or, in some cases, entirely erasing anything that would prevent a fertile cross-pollination of musical ideas.
Dino Saluzzi and Anja Lechner
Of course Saluzzi is no stranger to the classical world, having released the second of two albums, both called Kultrum (1998), where the bandoneonist collaborated with the German-based Rosamunde Quartetthis first encounter, in fact, with Lechner, a member of Rosamunde. While her early career was largely focused on classical concerns, Lechner was also interested in improvised music and, as a result of Kultrum, the music of South America. Lechner began touring with Saluzzi as a duo some years ago, so Ojos Negros was no singular event; instead, it was the culmination of much work togetherwork that has continued since the album's release, and demonstrated palpable growth in the duo's all-acoustic performance in the resonant Hall of Knights, the ideal venue for yet another ECM group that values space and the decay of notes, and eschews conventional virtuosity for more lyrical concers.
If Ojos Negros was an album where the improvisation was more in the area of interpretation rather than overt creation of, for example, new melodies based on the structure of the writing, Saluzzi and Lechner's performance demonstrates a duo that may still work within the confines of the written page, but takes considerably more risk and liberty than it did when the album was recorded three years ago.
Saluzzi appeared to be almost in a state of transcendence, eyes open but seeing something beyond what was in the literal world. Lechner was, perhaps, more grounded but no less engaged, as the two wound their way through a 75-minute set culled, in part, from Ojos Negros. Tender melodies intertwining with temporal elasticity, and a sound that filled the room with warmth, as the two connected through nearly constant eye contactthat is, when Saluzzi wasn't looking somewhere else that nobody else could see.
Near the end of the duo's moving performance, Saluzzi spoke clearly from the heart when he said: "Manfred Eicher is a part of my heart, because he's a part of my history" As the weekend continued to move forward, there was much praise for Eicher who, according to trumpeter Enrico Rava in public after the final performance on Sunday, October 25, spoke of how, "sometimes you come to the studio and you don't know what to do; Manfred Eicher can help you find what to do." It became abundantly clear that Eicherdistanced completely from the kind of record creation where the producer has little artistic involvementis invariably the added member of the ensemble, an active artistic participant whose suggestions are sometimes subtle, other times definitive.
In a time where mentoringteaching the art of improvisation through experience rather than a textbookis in increasing danger of extinction, it's always a pleasure to find established artists who are committed to passing along their own histories to younger players. American trumpeter Terence Blanchard is one such artist; Polish trumpeter (and ECM recording artist) Thomas Stańkois another. French saxophonist/clarinetist Louis Sclavis is yet another and, by bringing all but one member of the young group that recorded his latest album, Lost on the Way (2009), he demonstrated the real value of music's oral tradition.
Louis Sclavis and Oliver Lété
Opening with the first track off Lost on the Way, Sclavis' new quintet brought back guitarist Maxime Delpierre from his previous release, the equally fine L'imparfait des langues (2007). Looking like he's barely out of his teens, Delpierre played with a curious approach that was, in part, influenced by Bill Frisell at his most angular, but also by the more overdriven agro of Radiohead. As the only chordal accompanist in the group, he was an idiosyncratic player, ideal to support Sclavis' serpentine lines and remarkable solos, as well as some outstanding features for saxophonist Matthieu Metzger, who matched Sclavis for energy, imagination and sheer endurance during some of the set's more electrifying moments.
Like Delpierre, electric bassist Oliver Lété looked as though he'd be more at home in a rock band, and certainly some of the fire he brought to the group came from that space; Sclavis has, in fact, evolved a sound, in recent years, that appeals to fans of some of progressive rock's more compositionally ambitious groups, but his language is far deeper, his improvisational acumen far more acute. There were relative miniatures like "Bain D'or," with drummer Eric Groleau's mallet-driven pulse and a lithely melody that snaked in and around Delpierre's arpeggiated guitar and Lété's equally contrapuntal lines. The group occasionally coalesced around a unison phrase that acted as a rallying point and setup for Lété's oddly shaped solo.
Louis Sclavis Quintet (l:r): Louis Sclavis, Oliver Lété, Matthieu Metzger
Eric Groleau, Maxime Delpierre
Capable of powerful forward motion, Groleaureplacing Lost on the Way's François Mervillewas a knotty player ideal for Sclavis' compositional twists and turns, and while he soloed rarely, a clearly unique approach that utilizes dark cymbals to color the more indigo shades of tunes like the temporally fixed but seemingly elastic "Le Sommeil Des Sirénes."
"Un Vent Noir" took the group into near-rock territory, with Delpierre's hypnotic strumming, Lét's persistent strumming and Sclaviswho played most of the set on bass clarinetlayering sinewy lines over the lengthy intro vamp, ultimately resolving into an attractive, mixed-meter melody. As much as Sclavis brought years of experience to his younger players, so, too, did they return the favor by providing the reedman with a context to allow the continued evolution his distinctive, modern-edged approach. It made for a thrilling performance that was one of the highlights of "The Blue Sound" festival.
For the final performance to focus on ECM's New Series line, the last day of "The Blue Sound" began with a late morning performance by pianist Alexei Lubimov, violinist Alexander Trostiansky and clarinetist Kyrill Rybakov. It was the perfect combination of elegant simplicity, bold drama and instrumental virtuosity that brought deeper meaning to a repertoire that included pieces by Galina Ustwolskaja, Valentin Silvestrov, Meyer Kupferman, Igor Stravinsky and, perhaps ECM's most renowned composer, Arvo Pärt. Given Pärt's proclivity for larger orchestral/choral works, with the focus of this festival on smaller chamber ensembles, it was an opportunity to experience two of Pärt's most beautiful compositions"'Spiegel in Spiegel' für Klarinette und Klavier," and the sublime "Für Alina," both from the Estonian composer's Alina (1999), but "'Spiegel in Spiegel" also on this trio's more recent Misterioso, from which the Utwolskaja and Silvestrov were also culled.
Alexei Lubimov Trio (l:r): Alexander Trostiansky, Alexei Lubimov, Kyrill Rybakov
It was an intriguing way to start a Sunday morning, with Ustwolskaja's "trio für Violine, Klarinette und Klavier" a somewhat moody but appealing piece that highlighted the sensitivity of the trio to the finer details of the music. Beginning with Rybakov's obliquely lyrical melody, Lubmiov entered with emphasis on the lower register of the piano which, in the larger expanse of the Hall of Knights, sounded immense without being overwhelming. The piece gradually became more abstruse, a darkly evocative piece that, over the course of fifteen minutes, waxed and waned with unpredictability, for those unfamiliar with the composition.
Pärt's "Spiegel in Spiegel," driven by Lubimov's gentle piano arpeggios that, with additional notes gradually introduced above and below them, created unexpected and gorgeously simple harmony with Rybakov, whose melody created a lulling sense of tranquility. Both players demonstrated an acutely sensitive touch, with Lubimov's nuances creating a soft sense of power as the piece ebbed and flowed over the course of eight minutes. It was a fitting segue into the final piece of the performance's first half, Silvestrov's "Post Scriptum, für Violine und Klavier," where an initial sense of folkloric simplicity was gradually absorbed into an underlying tension, filled with implication.
The second half began with Kupferman's "Moonflowers, Baby, für Kalrinette solo," a spare entry by Rybakov that set the context for the second set, a piece that required the utmost control and nuance to perform, as the clarinetist gradually evolved a melody that was so compelling on its own that accompaniment simply wasn't necessary. Rybakov then left the stage, as Lubimov began a solo piano segment with Ustwolskaja's "Sonate f&252;r Klavier, leading into Silvestrov's "Zwei Postluden für Klavier," a piece dedicated to Pärt but which was ultimately the most boldly dramatic of the set, creating a powerful tension that was then released to great effect with Lubmivo's spare, spacious "Für Alina," where stasis created a calming effect and rapt attention from the audience.
Ending with Stravinsky's "Suite aus 'L'Histoire du soldat,'" the trio brought the transcendence back to earth with a brighter, more majestic closer, one movement of which was repeated as the encore; with a program this intense and this expansive, it's no surprise the trio didn't have any additional material to play. Still, the audience clearly didn't want the performance to end but, as ever, all good things must.
After a lengthy break, Anouar Brahem delivered a performance with his new quartet, responsible for The Astounding Eyes of Rita (2009), another milestone for this Tunisian oudist, who has been gradually moving away from the more direct traditionalism of his ethnic roots, but still retains their flavor, even as he recruits musicians from other countries.
It's an unusual combinationfour instruments all in the lower register but performing largely in their upper ranges. Brahem's oud merges both subtly and beautifully with bass clarinetist Klaus Gesinglast heard on singer Norma Winstone's sublime Distances (ECM, 2008)electric bassist Björn Meyer, a member of pianist Nik Bartsch's group Ronin, last heard on Holon (ECM, 2008) and percussionist Khaled Yassine, who plays only the bendir (frame drum) and brighter darbouka.
Once again the university auditorium was amplified only slightly to allow the instruments to fill the room, but so softly, with such understatement, that it felt like an entirely acoustic performance despite the presence of Meyer's electric bassa bass which helped create a sense of forward motion in conjunction with Yassine, but of such a delicate kind that even the slightest dynamic lift created a surprising sense of power.
After the show Brahem spoke of how it felt natural and almost entirely acoustic onstage, with the monitors barely used. It was obvious, watching the group, that there was a comfortable feeling, where it was possible to allow a note to decay into complete silence; a characteristic that encourages even great use of space. Brahem often barely whispered on his strings, occasionally singing along with the melodies on his oud, but so softly it was almost necessary to lean forward into the music. This was beautiful, transcendent music that commanded attention almost through its indirect nature; rather than the music jumping out of the speakers, this music encouraged the audience to come forward to participate.
Subtlety was the definitive marker here, with Gesing layering deceptively simple lines, then retiring to create accompaniment so soft that it was more felt than heard. Brahem gradually revealed the virtuosity that's always underlying his music as the set progressed, but the focus was always on creating solos of compositional focus. Meyer was the ideal rhythm partner for Yassine, even as he demonstrated remarkable technical aptitude, but never in ways that overwhelmed this gentle, beautiful music. Instead, through delicate use of harmonics and the use of thumb versus finger versus tapping, he created a wealth of textures despite the relative simplicity of his setup.
Björn Meyer, Khaled Yassine
It was a performance that may well go down as not just one of the best of "The Blue Sound," but of the entire Enjoy Jazz Festival. A rare standing ovation brought the group back for not one, but two encores, though by the second they'd run out of material, and so they reprised one of the tunes from the set, but this time as a feature for Meyer, who was as dominant as anyone else throughout the set, but rarely (if ever) soloed. If the group had been willing, the audience would have stayed on, but it was time to leave and let the stage be reset for the final performance of "The Blue Sound."
It's amazing the difference changing one group member can make. While drummer Paul Motian contributed his characteristic colors to Enrico Rava's New York Days (ECM, 2009), the fact that he no longer travels meant that the Italian trumpeter had to recruit an alternate drummer for his closing show at "The Blue Sound." With bassist Larry Grenadier and saxophonist Mark Turner already members of the ensemble, it only made sense to bring Jeff Ballardthe third member, with Grenadier and Turner, of the trio Fly, whose latest release, Sky & Country was also released on ECM earlier this year. While Ballard can play color with the best of them, he's also a more direct and propulsive drummer than Motian, and between him and pianist Stefano Bollani's curious ability to be both deep and absurd at the same time, Rava's New York Days group turned into something far hotter than the original.
It's hard to imagine a group of players having more fun onstage than this one. With material culled primarily from New York Daysone track was played from Rava's 2004 release, Easy Livingthe group came charging out of the gate. There were softer, balladic moments during the set, but even then Bollaniwho, with Rava, delivered an equally absurd yet musically full duo performance in Ottawa, Canada this past summerfound ways to make the most lyrical of musical spaces mischievously playful, without detraction or distraction.
Rava and Bollani make a great tag team as well, and when Rava wasn't delivering solo after solo of melodic invention and leaps into the stratosphere that make him one of the most expansive trumpeters alive, he was standing on the sidelines egging Turner on. Turner is one of those popularly undervalued but critically acclaimed players who deserves far more cred. Like Rava, he possesses no shortage of chops, but he's also a thoughtful player who builds his solos with great care, and refuses to succumb to the temptation to overstay his welcome. More than once during the set, he could have kept going but, instead, he finished his solo succinctly and left the stage.
Despite the presence of structure, this was unequivocally free jazz. Rava, in his post-show interview, alluded to the fact that when free jazz first emerged in the 1960s, it wasn't really free, because you couldn't, for example, play time. Rava spoke of wanting to play melody and changes, but also being free to do so when and where he wanted. His performance in Mannheim was the perfect example of a repertoire that balances all aspects of playingswing, changes, change/no time, time/no changes, and more. All this made the moments where the group descended into more "conventional" free play all the more dramatic, all the more effective.
Grenadier and Ballard have an even greater history together than their time spent playing with Turner in Fly. The two also play with pianist Brad Mehldau, and while Grenadier has always been one of the strongest rhythm section players of his generation, he's been less thought of as a soloist. All that changed with his performance in Mannheim. While it's certainty that he does solo with this much strength and conviction at other times, he's yet to be documented doing somaking the fact that this show wasn't being recorded all the more a pity. He clearly was having a great time, in particular with Bollani, whose affable but slightly crazed presence onstage was absolutely infectious.
Ballard, too, was driven by Bollani's purposeful insanity. He was a bit of a loose cannon, to be sure, but it never came at the expense of the music, as his own recent ECM release, Stone in the Water (2009) clearly demonstrates. This is a player of great depth, and even when he appears to be looking for ways to disrupt the proceedings, he's inevitably keeping things free and fresh, driving the music in new and unexpected directions. Ballard was on fire, delivering a solo that may be one of the hottest he' ever donemore's the pity again, that it wasn't being recorded. This is absolutely a group that should be captured live.
And so, ECM's 40th Anniversary Celebration at Enjoy Jazz ended on a tremendous high note. As a variety of ECM staff from Munich and New York regroupedalong with members of Brahem and Rava's groups, journalists, festival staff, and friends and fans of Enjoy Jazzat the Festval Café for a few drinks and goodbye, it could have been a sad moment. But after the successes of the past four days, where so manybut not all, never all; that would simply not have been possible in such a short timeof the label's strengths were brought into sharp focus, if anything people left the festival with a sense that there was still far more work to be done, and that there will absolutely be a reconvening in ten years, when ECM hits the half century mark.
AAJ's next Enjoy Jazz piece will cover performances by Bill Frisell's 858 Quartet; a solo performance by Brad Mehldau; drummer Jimmy Cobb's So What Band paying tribute to Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959) at 50; and singer Cassandra Wilson.
All Photos: John Kelman