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ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2019

Tyran Grillo By

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ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2019
(Le) Poisson Rouge
New York, NY
January 11-12, 2019

On January 11th and 12th, Winter Jazzfest attendees were treated to two nights of performances by some of the ECM's most vibrant affiliates. The impressions left in their wake verged on moving pictures, comprising a montage of producer Manfred Eicher's voluminous commitment to the music at hand. Shades of that same commitment resounded through every set, by which one chapter after another hinted at an ongoing master narrative.

In that spirit, saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist, Michael Formanek, and guitarist Mary Halvorson didn't so much set the tone as reveal its vulnerability to change. To do so with their combination of microscopic attunement was a feat in and of itself, and rendered their strangely wistful buoyancy that much more realistic. Cohering and separating like beads of mercury, the instruments seemed to acknowledge their molecular similarities. While jazz might be said to center around expansions of rudimentary themes, this trio accomplished that rare magic of making fearlessly intimate music with grand elements. Halvorson, all but drowned in Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus in a 2016 Winter Jazzfest concert, was now a central figure. With a style perhaps best described in oxymoronic terms as legato angularity, she lit every microtone like a match. Formanek, too, toed a line of polarity between anchorage and free navigation, while Berne brought his hairline-fractured lyricism to fruition with humility. Appropriate, then, that the trio should end with a tune called "But Will It Float," a Fibonacci groove that was as rhetorical as it gets. The trio is set to record for ECM this year.

Music of a different order was in store when Shai Maestro, a new addition to the label's roster, took to the stage with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Not since Tord Gustavsen has a piano trio's debut been so achingly melodic, and to witness their making of music in such close quarters was a privilege. Over the course of a set that shed its skin many times over, Maestro brought his strain of "meta-swing" to bear on a host of originals. He opened "The Dream Thief," the title tune off the album in question, with an almost G. I. Gurdjieff-like intro, as Roeder and Nehemya worked into his quiet, sunlit arena. Throughout both "The Forgotten Village" and "Looking Back," Maestro shuttled between arid and oceanic textures in a mosaic so seamless it felt like one meticulously painted tile. The dynamics of the trio were a festival highlight to be sure, especially in the ways that Nehemya's ecstatic softness offset Roeder's pliancy. The drummer was like a pilgrim dropping stones into water, Roeder the painter fixing those ripples in time, and Maestro the interpreter translating their patterns into song. The result was music that evolved into something greater than the sum of its own parts, especially in "What Else Needs To Happen," a song dedicated to saxophonist Jimmy Greene's daughter, Ana, and which featured a mournful speech by Barack Obama on the dangers of gun violence. But nowhere was their spirit of confluence so present as during the last tune, when the audience began singing along with the theme: an all-too-rare commodity of togetherness.

Closing out the first evening was a new super group spearheaded by trumpeter Ralph Alessi. By far the most celebratory configuration of the sequence, it featured saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber in a mélange of Alessi originals. "Fun Room" kicked things off in style with a fluttering intro from Alessi and Coltrane. The latter's tenor proved to be a robust foil for Alessi's plasticity, and made the hip beats that followed even more ecstatic. As Gress and Ferber tessellated their rhythms, the evening was clearly about to get more interesting. Next was the abstract yet tender "Iram Issela," which found the group digging deep, while "Oxide" showed Alessi at his chain-reactive best. "Imaginary Friends," which titles the band's latest album, was quintessential for its slow start and busy denouement. The set ended with the upbeat "Melee." With intensity all around, especially from Coltrane's peerless sopranino and Ferber's rip-roaring accents, this was as real as real gets.

The sequel to all this pulled the curtains to reveal Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn steeped a mind-meld of duo action. From delicate drops to spiraling textures of craftsmanship, the pianists kneaded spontaneous actions into a wholesome intensity with such care that they seemed to speak as a giant, 176-key instrument. By turns furious and delicate, with some groovier seeds thrown in for good measure, their styles didn't so much react to each other as co-create. Here were players who thought not only with but also through their hands. During one memorable passage, they elicited something akin to Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint before relaying bass lines down a track of spectral beauty. Given the way in which the pianos were arranged, and the fact that the musicians switched seats for the second improvisation, it was impossible not to see the whole thing as a Yin Yang in sound. Morphing from earthly to extraterrestrial at the drop of a hat, they ran with that image into a space of welcoming bliss.

If anyone could follow such brilliance, it was trumpeter Mathias Eick, leading a simpatico band of pianist Andreas Ulvo, violinist Hakon Aase, electric bassist Audun Erlien, and drummer Olaf Olsen. From the opening tune, "Children" to the last, "Ravensburg" (also the title of his latest album), he and his bandmates created a vibrant mood that, like a prism, split into an audible spectrum by the light of his uncompromising melodies. Riding every thermal with thematic urgency, he pulled his band into soaring vistas. Aase and Erlien were expert in their approach, feeding off one another in "Oslo" and "At Sea" to evocative effect. Both were like poems unraveled to reveal the sheet music of their own architecture, while the more prosaic "Friends" traced words of hope in the very air. Through it all, Eick's trumpet was a bird set upon the wind. Whether building the nest of "Girlfriend" or adding color overall, not a single note felt forced or out of place.

Drummer Billy Hart finished things off righteously, offering a set with pianist Ethan Iverson, saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Ben Street that played like a cross-section of jazz history. Opening with a tune dedicated to Hampton Hawes, the 78-year-old bandleader unleashed a hit from his snare that whiplashed everyone out of their between-set conversations. Buoyed by a clear-and-present Stephens and the classic inflections of Iverson, Hart had all he needed to plow through originals and old standbys with equal fortitude. The band's take on "Giant Steps" was especially raw in this regard, while the tenderer "Song for Balkis" brought an open-air feeling to fruition. "Duchess," which Hart lovingly dedicated to "all the grandmothers in the house," elicited a subtle form of swing that could only have come from the sticks of one so experienced. Last but far from least was "Neon," an Iverson original that opened with an explosive solo from Hart before spreading a slick theme that found Hart and Street in spiritual lockstep.

All of this was as much a reminder of where jazz has come from as of where it is going, a lifeline to the heart from musicians simultaneously reacting to and creating history. So little of that history would ever have been known without ECM, and the best way to repay what it has given us is to give ourselves to it in kind.

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