Enrico Rava: To Be Free or Not To Be Free
ER: I remember it very well. I remember everything of that night. I played with [bassist] Larry Grenadier, Mark Turner, but with Jeff Ballard on drums because Paul [Motian] wasn't traveling anymore. We had a very good concert.
AAJ: How had ECM changed in the almost-20-year gap before you returned to record Easy Living in 2004?
ER: Basically, I think it hadn't changed, because Manfred Eicher has a very clear idea of what he wants. He records only musicians that he likes and musicians that he knows he's going to like their music; it's the only law, and in that sense it hadn't changed much. Except that, when I came back, he was giving much more space to contemporary music. Before, he had [composers] Arvo Part and Philip Glass, but now there is much more contemporary music. He's also more open to southern European music, and now there are a few Italians that record for him. Back in the '70s there was me, if we're talking about southern, Mediterranean musicians. But now, besides me, there's Stefano Bollani and [saxophonist] Stefano Battaglia, [clarinetist] Gianluigi Trovesi. And now we did a concert playing only the music of [singer] Michael Jackson for him [Eicher], which is a big surprise for a lot of people.
AAJ: No kidding.
ER: [laughs] I know, I know. You must know that I am a Michael Jackson fan. I like very much the last record. To me, it's a little bit like the Beatles' White Album (Apple, 1968). There is a tune called "Little Susie" that could have been written by [singer/composer] Kurt Weil, and tunes like "Privacy" and "History" are incredible-a little bit like "Sergeant Pepper," in a way. I did this concert with a big band-12 people: tuba, trumpet, piano and clavier, guitar, three saxophones, trombone. We did a concert of Michael Jackson's music in May, and we did another concert on November 30th in Rome, and it should come out soon.
We are going to do a lot of concerts with this program. I like this program of Michael Jackson a lot because it's very energetic and there's a lot of life. The tunes are so good. We only do two of the big hits: one is "Smooth Criminal"-one of my favorite tunes-and "Thriller." On "Thriller" we stay very close to the version done by [trumpeter] Lester Bowie. The way we did the tune was a tribute to Michael Jackson but also to Lester Bowie.
AAJ: That sounds very interesting, and we'll look forward to that. Some of your best music has come since your return to the ECM label in 2004. Does this working relationship completely satisfy musically, or do you still feel the need to record music with a different aesthetic on a different label concurrently?
ER: I did that in the '80s. That's why we stopped recording together. The thing was, Manfred's idea is to record maybe every one and a half years, and at that time I felt I wanted to record much more. I had a lot of different things going on that I wanted to record, and it was impossible to do it at ECM, first of all because it probably didn't fit the aesthetic of the label, and because it would have been too many records. So I started recording with somebody else. When I came back to ECM in 2004, I discovered that in a way Manfred was right; it's better to release a record only once in a while when you are ready. I made so many records in the '80s, and looking back I can see that many of them were not necessary.
This record, Tribe, came out two years after the previous record, and the interest around this record is very big. There have been so many reviews. I think the ECM strategy is the right one. I'm happy with that. Besides, I'm 72. I like what I do to be necessary and important.
AAJ: Manfred Eicher is someone you know well. How would you sum up what he has achieved with ECM?
ER: He has invented a very big label, a very important label with a distinct sound and one of very high quality and with a very good distribution. In a way, it's the only very important independent label. But wherever you go, you find ECM records-in the States, in Korea-it doesn't matter where you go. The records are there, and this is very important for us. But it's not just that. The label has a very distinctive sound, and there are people who buy ECM records just because they are ECM. In fact, in many record stores-even though the record stores are disappearing-in Italy, for example, there is a special section for ECM records.
Manfred is a real artistic director. I remember talking with Paul Motian about the order of the tunes when we did the trio record, TATI (ECM, 2005), and I was saying, "What do you think? Should we put this number one or number two?"
Paul said, "Please let Manfred do that." He told me, "With my records, I let Manfred do that, and I trust him 200 percent. He's always right."
Manfred has worked with everyone from classical pianists to [pianist] to Keith Jarrett, the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Arvo Pärt, so he knows how to use the recording machine. He's a real artistic director, and he's a big help in the studio.
Sometimes you go into the studio, and you know exactly what to do, and everything is right, and he doesn't say a word. Other times you go into the studio, for example, when we did Volver (ECM, 1994) with [bandoneon player] Dino Saluzzi. We had a lot of problems, not between me and Dino, because we're very good friends, but between the drummer [Bruce Ditmas] and Dino. The situation was so bad, the atmosphere was so bad, that we couldn't even play. We just sat in the studio and didn't play. So Manfred stepped in and started giving his advice, and he succeeded in starting the whole thing. Eventually the record came out, and it's a pretty good record.