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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 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.


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