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ECM at 40: Enjoy Jazz Festival: Days 3-6, October 22-25, 2009

John Kelman By

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Days 1-2 | Day 3-6 | Days 7-10 | Days 11-12

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.

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 instinct—the intuition that has kept the label at the forefront of modern music—no 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 Sandner—a respected German journalist who is co-curating the ECM festival with Enjoy Jazz Festival director Rainer Kern and journalist Hans-Jürgen Linke—who 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 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 Café— where fans, musicians, ECM staff and journalists could meet and interact throughout the festival's four days—was 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
  1. John Abercrombie Quartet
  2. Thomas Zehetmair / Ruth Killius
  3. Egberto Gismonti / Alexandre Gismonti
  4. Keller Quartett
  5. Terje Rypdal / Miroslav Vitous / Gerald Cleaver
  6. The Blue Moment Symposium
  7. Dino Saluzzi / Anja Lechner
  8. Louis Sclavis Quintet
  9. Alexei Lubimov Trio
  10. Anouar Brahem Quartet
  11. Enrico Rava New York Days
  12. "The Blue Sound" Wrap-Up


John Abercrombie Quartet

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 Timeless—an early classic for both Abercrombie and the label—in 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 Baron—who, according to Abercrombie in a 2004 AAJ interview, actually ended up in the group almost by accident—has 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.

With respect to transcendence, watching Abercrombie—whether soloing along or in tandem with others—revealed 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 guitarists—even the best ones- -by 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 stage—jokes going on between band members throughout the set, with Baron his usual smiling self—the 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.

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.

Thomas Zehetmair / Ruth Killius

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 time—quite 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 Killius—remained 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 demanded—and received—a 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.

Egberto Gismonti / Alexandre Gismonti

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 The Moutin Reunion Quartet the bond is even tighter, with twin brothers François and Louise Moutin demonstrating an even deeper connection—one equally shared by twin brothers Alex Cline 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 instruments—fixed in structure but free in interpretation—that 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 piano—completely 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.
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