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

John Kelman By

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Anouar Brahem Quartet

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 combination—four 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 Gesing—last 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 bass—a 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.

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."

Enrico Rava New York Days

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 Ballard—the 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 Days—one track was played from Rava's 2004 release, Easy Living—the group came charging out of the gate. There were softer, balladic moments during the set, but even then Bollani— who, with Rava, delivered an equally absurd yet musically full duo performance in Ottawa, Canada this past summer—found 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 playing—swing, 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 so—making 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 done—more's the pity again, that it wasn't being recorded. This is absolutely a group that should be captured live.

"The Blue Sound" Wrap-Up

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 regrouped—along with members of Brahem and Rava's groups, journalists, festival staff, and friends and fans of Enjoy Jazz—at 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 many—but not all, never all; that would simply not have been possible in such a short time—of 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.

Visit ECM Records, John Abercrombie, Alexandre Gismonti, Miroslav Vitous, Gerald Cleaver, Dino Saluzzi, Anouar Brahem, Enrico Rava and Enjoy Jazz on the web.

Photo Credit: John Kelman

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

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