ECM's New :Rarums, Part 2: The Drummers

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This, the second of three installments on the subject of ECM Records' latest set of Rarum artist collections, focuses on the drummers. The three represented here include Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian, two players who have shared the same company at critical junctures (eg. Bill Evans; Keith Jarrett) but share very little in common in terms of playing style. Jon Christensen, unique here because he has not recorded as a leader, has nestled more into the niche of European chamber jazz, though he's made his own excursions into more experimental settings as well.

Paul Motian edges out the other two as elder statesman, around 70 and about ten years older than the relative youngsters. Obviously that's a lot of career to reflect on, and these reviews won't be filling out all the background. In fact, to be clear, these artists each made the unfortunate decision not to write a blurb for their compendium, and so we're left with a few words and a usual (informative & accurate) stock bio. That's fair, but the effort pales in comparison with the consideration players like Eberhard Weber took in putting a little more of themselves into each collection.

(Note: see below for links to other Rarum reviews.)

Jack DeJohnette
Rarum XII: Selected Recordings

Jack DeJohnette's long career has included stints alongside an enormous collection of visionary musicians. To truncate that list is almost a crime, but consider the names John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and Sun Ra for starters. The very diversity of styles among these players has dictated that DeJohnette adapt like a chameleon, depending on the setting. But at the same time he's distinguished himself with a muscular, assertive style that he can dial down when a softer touch is required (though he usually gets his fingers dirty in any case).

As much as any other Rarum compendium to date, DeJohnette's really spans the range. These eight tunes range from six to twelve minutes in length, offering plenty of stretching room. Who would have thought that a lengthy, burbling tuba solo could be aptly matched with funky snare and hi-hat hits, as at the conclusion of "Third World Anthem," from 1984's Album Album ? (And that's not your pappy's N'awlins bump-and-grind tuba, mind you.)

DeJohnette shares the stage with percussionist Don Alias on "Jack In," from Oneness, very gradually jacking in with cymbal and then snare until the quartet reaches full steam. Michael Cain sort of reins things in with regular mainstream piano, but occasional spurts out into open space do happen (eg. halfway through, when guitarist Jerome Harris comes back for a second solo).

A deliberate, ECM-ish "Feebles, Fables, and Ferns" serves as intermission before a very odd duo couplet with Keith Jarrett on electric piano, "Overture/Communion," which goes from open-space meditation right into rocky psychedelic jam midway at the juncture. Both players were in Miles Davis' group at the time the record was made (1971), and this was before Jarrett swore off the electric piano forever. It's an interesting snapshot in time, to say the least.

DeJohnette did the jam thing across three records as part of Gateway, an out jam trio with guitarist John Abercrombie, and "How's Never" (also a Holland choice) from the outstanding Homecoming (1989) offers just a glimpse at the sort of bridled energy three jazz/rockers could put together.

"Silver Hollow" and "Picture 6" present DeJohnette on his second instrument, the piano. It's always a bit of a challenge to accept a master musician's choice to pick up another instrument, but his piano playing has been more the side effect than the dose of any given record. Sort of New-Agey and lush, his piano work is a bit flaccid for me, but I'm sure softer souls disagree wholeheartedly.

DeJohnette's choice of music is hardly predictable. Where, for example, is his Standards Trio work with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock? That's a reasonable objection to a collection which otherwise does a good job of representing a varied career through a mix of tracks. But check out either of the other two discs in this article first, unless you're a diehard fan.

Paul Motian
Rarum XVI: Selected Recordings

Oddly enough, Paul Motian (pronounced "motion") played with the same two pianists who established entire schools of music in their wake. Together with Scott LaFaro, he provided Bill Evans exactly the right amount of subtlety and shading needed to top off some of the pianist's deeper meditations. (The chemistry of this group is most obvious on the two 1961 Village Vanguard recordings, which are absolutely essential.)

He also joined Keith Jarrett for a trio with Charlie Haden and also the pianist's more adventurous American Quartet (also Quintet) alongside saxophonist Dewey Redman. This material, like much of what Motian's later work, tends to be more experimental with respect to both timing and timbre. Motian is not a heavy drummer—and he never has been—which leaves the listener to piece together a full picture from light hits and dancing cymbal work.

The nine pieces on this collection span 1972 to 1987, spending the most time in the late '70s and early '80s. Motian's tenure as a leader with ECM mostly dried up after that fertile period, leaving him to explore his muse elsewhere on Soul Note, JMT, and Winter & Winter. His returns to ECM have been notable, eg. with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock on At the Deer Head Inn (1992) or with Marilyn Crispell and Gary Peacock on Amaryllis (2001). A convoluted 7:43 here in duo alongside Jarrett on "Conception Vessel" seems a little out of place, but neither player hesitates to take risks.

Four of these pieces document his tenure with saxophonist Charles Brackeen (alongside first David Izenzon and later J.F. Jenny-Clark on bass), which draws upon the post-Ornette continuum but tends toward a more expressionistic overall bent. "Abacus" (from Le Voyage , 1979) presents some surprising but complementary free drumming, the most attention-grabbing of the four.

Four tracks document Motian's work alongside guitarist Bill Frisell, broken in by gentle brushstrokes on the dark and lonesome "One in Four" (from The Paul Bley Quartet , 1987). However, these two players did their finest playing alongside Joe Lovano, who is featured on the remaining three cuts. Lovano still sounds fresh on "It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago" (from 1984), minus the ritualistic mannerisms that have characterized his later work.

It turns out that Frisell also picked "Mandeville" for his own Rarum set, and with due cause. Simple cascading harmonies define a mid-tempo folk jam, eerily reminiscent of Frisell's work with the Ginger Baker Trio thirteen years later, but damn, Paul Motian is most definitely no Ginger Baker. Or, wait, maybe that's backward. Ginger Baker is no Paul Motian. Whatever. One of em spanks, the other tickles. You decide which touch you prefer.

Jon Christensen
Rarum XX: Selected Recordings

Unique among these drummers is Jon Christensen, who lacks a single ECM record as leader. But with 50 others as a sideman, it's pretty clear who's doing the work in the background to propel some of the biggest stars in the catalog. As sort of a house drummer, Christensen has played a huge role in establishing the "ECM sound" and modernizing Scandinavian jazz at the same time. His sound on the drums is unmistakably crisp and generous (without ever being heavy), critically relying on an interlaced network of cymbal hits that recalls Billy Higgins in many ways (but minus his infinite dynamic shades).

Back in the day when Keith Jarrett still hung around people who liked to make noise, he recorded Personal Mountains (1979) with his European Quartet, also featuring saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen. The title track of that record exemplifies the rough, rocky edge that characterized Jarrett's playing from the time (and which has now gone nearly extinct from the pianist's oeuvre). Christensen provides unusually high octane rocket fuel to keep the juggernaut moving forward.

Two other tracks feature Jarrett's European Quartet, including the ever-gentle and shimmering "My Song" (from the 1977 record of the same name). Christensen relaxes significantly and recedes to support melody instruments on this tune. But closing out on "The Windup," perky becomes the operative word and all four instruments fold out to embrace a heavily gospel-inflected spirit.

The piano trios represented here (with Jon Balke and Bobo Stenson) are near-perfect reflections of what has become stereotyped as the label's immaculately clear chamber-esque style and recording technique. But to reduce this music to a cliche is a disservice to its overall quality, particularly in the case of the darkly melancholic "War Orphans" (from the 1997 Stenson album of the same name).

It's clear from this overview that Christensen has an unusually solid working relationship with Jan Garbarek, if you had to pick a player, but this revolving cast of fifteen never settles down. You get the feeling that Christensen is most comfortable in a relatively restrained setting where he can still pull against the yoke, carry on subtle and refined conversations, and avoid hitting his instruments too hard.

For more Rarum coverage, see:
2004 Rarums, Part 1: The Bassists
2004 Rarums, Part 3: The Guitarists
2002 Rarums

Tracks and Personnel

Jack DeJohnette: Rarum XII

Personnel: Jack DeJohnette: drums, piano; John Abercrombie: guitar; Don Alias: percussion; Lester Bowie: trumpet; Michael Cain: piano; Eddie Gomez: double-bass; Mick Goodrick: guitar; Jerome Harris: guitar; Dave Holland: double-bass; Keith Jarrett: piano, electric piano; Howard Johnson: tuba; David Murray: tenor saxophone; John Purcell: alto saxophone; Rufus Reid: double-bass; John Surman: baritone saxophone; Gateway.
Tracks: Third World Anthem; Jack In; Feebles, Fables and Ferns; Overture; Communion; How's Never; Silver Hollow; Picture 5; Picture 6. Recordings 1971-1997.

Paul Motian: Rarum XVI

Personnel: Paul Motian: percussion, drums; Paul Bley: piano; Charles Brackeen: soprano saxophone, tenor saxophone; Billy Drewes: alto saxophone; Bill Frisell: guitar; David Izenzon: double-bass; Keith Jarrett: piano; Jean-Francois Jenny-Clark: double-bass; Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone; Ed Schuller: double-bass; John Surman: soprano saxophone.

Tracks: Conception Vessel; Dance; Asia; Folk Song For Rosie; Abacus; It Should've Happened A Long Time Ago; Fantasm; Mandeville. Recordings 1972-1987.

Jon Christensen: Rarum XX

Personnel: Jon Christensen: drums, percussion; Keith Jarrett: piano; Jan Garbarek: tenor and soprano saxophones; Palle Danielsson: double-bass; Ralph Towner: guitars; Terje Rypdal: guitars, synthesizer; Palle Mikkelborg: trumpet; Sveinung Hovensjo: bass; Jon Balke: piano; Arild Andersen: bass; Eberhard Weber: bass; Bobo Stenson: piano; Anders Jormin: double-bass; Ketil Björnstad: piano; Björn Kjellemyr: double-bass.

Tracks: Personal Mountains; Piscean Dance; Per Ulv; Tutte; Oceanus; War Orphans; My Song; Glacial Reconstruction; The Windup. Recordings 1974-1997.


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