Artist compilations are as old as recording technology itself. They have proven themselves reliable as a way for listeners to collect hits without collecting records, and for record labels to cash in on their big stars. (The greatest selling record of all time, interestingly enough, is a greatest hits release from The Eagles.)
ECM Records, for three decades a fertile ground for jazz talent, has taken the idea to a new level with their new :rarum series. Here the artists have total freedom to pick their favorite tunes from any record they've made as a leader or sideman. Rather than having label executives making the cut, :rarum emphasizes the vision of the artist.
And it's a great idea. In addition to serving as a convenient introduction to the work of a given musician, this series allows a sneak peek into their mind. Which of their music has moved them the most? Where have they forged the strongest bonds with other players? And what particular periods represent creative peaks? Like Blue Note Records in the '60s, the artists who have recorded for ECM frequently appear on various discs under each others' names. These incestuous relationships mean that collaborations extend in every direction.
The label has done a nice job with presentation. Everything is remastered to 24-bit format, and each set comes with notes by the artist, rare photos, and extended biographical/discographical information.
We've brought together in-depth reviews of seven discs from the first round of :rarum releases. They represent a wide range of music, from tranquility to explosive energy, from composed order to controlled chaos. A number of surprises (noted below) also lie in wait. If you'd like to learn more about an artist, these compilations would be a fine place to begin. Keith Jarrett, for example, has recorded over 40 discs as a leader for ECM. Instead of exhausting your budget on individual recordings, you might profit from using :rarum I as a starting point for exploration.
(Note: Chick Corea, Terje Rypdal, and Gary Burton compilations are not included in this review. Future :rarum volumes featuring Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Tomasz Stanko, and others will appear in the fall. Charles Lloyd, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, and others are due next year.)
(Ed. Note: this collection of reviews was originally published in 2002. The aforementioned "future volumes" came out in late winter of 2004.)
For more information, visit ECM Records on the web.
:rarum I - Keith Jarrett, Selected Recordings
Few improvising musicians have managed to cover the ground that pianist Keith Jarrett has made his own over the last three decades. Those years span avant jazz, classical and neo-classical work, overdubbed solo mysticism, new age flaccidity, deft group improvisation, solo keyboard meditations, and a heap of recent standards interpretations.
Not to belabor the issue, but it's important to recognize the high points from Jarrett's work if you wish to make any sense of this, his 44th (!) record for ECM. So let's pause for a moment to recognize three groups he led to peaks of artistic expression. Jarrett's American Quartet (with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian) explored open, adventurous groundas did the European Quartet (with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen). But nothing has come close to the recognition and popularity he has achieved with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette in his Standards Trio. The last two groups are documented brilliantly on :rarum, with 5 and 3 tunes apiece. These recordings alone make this set a keeper. (The American Quartet, apparently, did not deserve time.)
When Jarrett put together this collection for the Rarum series, he chose material from several periods throughout his career. And these two discs contain some of the most inspiring music of the 20th century. Of course, some of his efforts were entirely forgettable, so there's some chaff amongst the wheat. Five tracks from Spirits, a totally flat overdubbed solo record from '85, stand as a terrible exception to Jarrett's usual freshness and verve. But two relatively unfamiliar solo piano pieces from Dark Intervals, two years later, offer beautifully understated emotion. The featured fifteen minutes from each record make for an interesting contrast.
Outside Jarrett's famous groups (which deserve every ounce of fame they've received), his solo work has also been inspired. The remainder of this set features Jarrett playing solo. The Köln Concert (a major best-seller from the ECM catalog) is too sprawling to be featured here, but 18 minutes of improvised neoclassical clavichord work from Book of Ways start the first disc off quite nicely. Jarrett moves from there to piano and pipe organ and explores the sonorities of the different instruments. On disc two, he continues with organ, piano, and saxophone for some variation along his usual crystalline and articulate lines. With few exceptions, this retrospective flows smoothly and evenly despite chronological jumps and juxtaposition of styles. Jarrett remains idiosyncratic and enigmatic to this day, and perhaps it's that inability to be pinned down which has earned him his creative independence. If nothing else, Jarrett's statements are honest without exception. Some may be more clever or poignant than others, but they are all his own.
Luminaries: one and all. Surprise (or not): the one piece featured on both Jarrett and Garbarek collections, 1977's "My Song." These two players have had a near telepathic understanding, so it's not strange that they would agree on this fine tune.
:rarum II - Jan Garbarek, Selected Recordings
Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek's music can be summed up in one simple word: meditation. Sure, the term is loaded with overtones, both good and bad. But do not confuse meditation with mindlessness: they are polar opposites. Garbarek's thirty years with ECM (as a leader and collaborator) have yielded hundreds of melodies which lead to an infinitely light state of inner peace. It's hard to imagine a more positive statement for a saxophonist who long ago decided to forsake flash-and-bang for "simpler" music with understated spiritual energy.
And this two-disc set does Garbarek justice. Each disc runs in chronological order, roughly from 1975 through 1995; the first is material recorded as a leader, the second is collaborations. Disc one opens with the starkly plantive "Skrik & Hyl" (with bassist Palle Danielsson), a shrill lament cast skyward with no inhibitions and no regrets. It continues with a couple more dark duets, then opens up into small group interplay. Notable efforts from guitarists John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, and David Torn endow these pieces with a nice glowing contrast to Garbarek's horn. A few overdubbed solo pieces, each pursuing the modern primitive, offer a sort of purity unique on the set. With closing small group tunes from the '90s, Garbarek shrouds his sound in a cloak of synth air. (As an aesthetic matter, it seems that Garbarek could do much better here if he just sailed free. Directness has always been his strong point, and there's no sense in muting that voice for the sake of atmospherics.)
Onward we flow, right into the second disc with a heap of Keith Jarrett collaborations. It's interesting to note that Garbarek's brief liner notes don't really comment on any musician except for Jarrett. Their shared energy has resulted in some of the very finest music of the '70s. You can toss away Jarrett's crude and misdirected "Windsong" (featuring the odd combination of Garbarek's soprano sax with string orchestra). But with the glowing title track from Jarrett's Belonging, one begins to appreciate the subtlety and nuance these two players develop when they work as a team. Quartet performances of Jarrett's 1977 "My Song" and 1979 "Sunshine Song" coax a softer and more positive angle from the saxophonist, who often dwells in the territory on the dark side of neutral. The highlight of the disc is the wispy but pulsing "Cego Alderaldo" from 1979's collaboration Folk Songs with Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden.
In much of his jazz chamber music, Garbarek has adopted a strong Eastern flair. His literacy within the musics of India, Pakistan, and beyond seems completely natural and unforced. The greatest piece on this set, "Raga I," comes from Garbarek's 1990 collaboration with vocalist Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Ragas and Sagas. If you don't have the cash for this outstanding double-disc retrospective, you should strongly consider acquiring that recording instead. It's a true masterpieceone of the highest pinnacles in the ECM catalog. (Enough said.)
The luminaries: Keith Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Eberhard Weber, Zakir Hussain, Ustad Fateh Ali Khan, Charlie Haden. The big surprise: Garbarek with orchestra ("Windsong")time to hit fast forward.
:rarum V - Bill Frisell, Selected Recordings
Whatever the musical context, guitarist Bill Frisell has always been a team player. From the edgy avant-garde of Naked City to the deeply melodic music of the Ginger Baker Trio and several wide-ranging groups of his own, he's proven repeatedly that he has the versatility and perceptiveness to fit into wildly different surroundings. His ECM work has for the most part been of the quiet, melodic sort. Since he last recorded under his own name for the label in 1987, he's forged onward with a more country/blues orientation on his own recordings. Some critics have slapped the term "Americana" on this new material, but Frisell dismisses the label: "People say this has come into my playing in recent years. I think it's been there all along." Perhaps so. Regardless, this set documents a fertile period during the '80s when Frisell was finding his own voice.
In his solo recordings, Frisell prizes space and texture. The solo guitar piece "Introduction" (from the Paul Motian band recording Psalm ) has as much silence as sound. "In Line" (from Frisell's record of the same name) explores extremes of timbre and pitch overlaid on a solid, pulsing acoustic foundation. Then there's his work with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Paul Motian. In trio or quintet settings, these players have a very rare kind of cohesion. Surely Lovano has developed his sound substantially since the '80sthis material emphasizes his sure grasp of melody, but it lacks the deftness of tone and angularity of phrasing which he acquired in the '90s. But in some sense, the '80s were golden years for these players. They deliver some of their strongest, most memorable playing on these tunes.
Frisell's work with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler (documented here on three tunes from 1984's Rambler) has a sharper edge, more extreme in tone and color than the rest of the collection. Frisell plays here and there with effects to thicken atmospheric backgrounds and sharpen his crispy improvisations. You can hear the roots of his post-ECM music in the soft blues of "Lonesome" and the stretched, gossamer meanderings of "Alien Prints." Just in case you thought you had Frisell pinned down, he tosses out "Hangdog," a punchy, dissonant fragment from the same record, 1987's Lookout for Hope.
The luminaries: Paul Motian, Joe Lovano, Jan Garbarek, Eberhard Weber, Kenny Wheeler, Joey Baron, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Paul Bley, John Surman. The big surprise: Frisell on banjo on "Hangdog." He turns the instrument inside out and it works.
:rarum VI - Art Ensemble of Chicago, Selected Recordings
If there's one thing Chicago brought into the jazz tradition, it's a palpable sense of freedom. Not just in the sense of "free jazz" (which certainly has its own deep roots in the Windy City), but also in the sense of free personal expression. Individuality is a premium export from Chicago, and few groups have brought this spirit to the listening public like the Art Ensemble. Since the mid-'60s, the AEC has combined an enduring respect for the roots of the jazz tradition (eg. blues, spirituals, swing) with a very personal kind of expression (eg. idiosyncratic styles of performance and a strong theatrical element).
Of the zillion records the Art Ensemble has made, four of their most memorable have been released by ECM. This retrospective includes material from all four ECM quintet albums, as well as solo efforts from Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell. For the most part, the tunes are substantial in length and quite musically involving. Lester Bowie's "Charlie M" (from Full Force ) opens the set with a nostalgic sense of swing. As the piece gets up to speed, Bowie extracts an astounding range of timbres from his horn. Ten minutes later, Malachi Favors' "Magg Zelma" leads off with a soft trance-like combination of bells and drones, only to devolve into restless play. The absurd runs rampant here. Significantly, the contrast between these tunes illustrates the group's motto: "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future."
Other highlights from the disc include the title track from Roscoe Mitchell's 1997 Nine to Get Ready, a large-group discursion into focused free jazz. (Advice from this reviewer: run, don't walk, to get Mitchell's disc. It's profound in every way.) By 1984, Joseph Jarman was experimenting with the synthesizer, and his extremely melodic "Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi" places primitive simplicity within a sophisticated jazz context. Not to neglect the group's double live set Urban Bushmen, "Odwalla/Theme" channels a sizzling burst of energy through amazingly cohesive improvisation.
Luminaries: one and all. Surprises: Joseph Jarman's use of electronics from The Third Decade is artful and coherent, and quite inspiring.
:rarum VIII - Bobo Stenson, Selected Recordings
Listeners familiar with Bobo Stenson's most popular work might count him out as a hopeless romantic, but the Swedish pianist can have sharp edges at times, too. That's why this particular set bears so much interest: Stenson accents his more mellow recordings with some powerful angular energy. For example: his 1993 trio rendition of Ellington's "Reflections in D" bears only shadowy relations to the original, and the understated urgency here emits a sharp glow. And of course, Ornette Coleman tunes are always a real tipoff; two are featured here. Stenson's 1971 recording of "Untitled" with the very same trio is about as bright and edgy as one might imagine. Take that, you disbelievers!
Stenson's obviously been around for a while, and his talent has not waned. His overall sensibility lies between out jazz and chamber music, usually tending toward melancholy. Comfortable on open ground, he lays out sparse lines without overstatement. When the small group convenes to talk, he's eager for conversation. In the much less frequent heat of intensity he seems to find an explosive inner energy. What's remarkable is that Stenson has developed a unique voice which distinguishes him from any other piano player since Bill Evans tradition. Nobody will be comparing Stenson to any other modern jazz pianist without making some dramatic leaps, and that statement enough to convince listeners to tune in.
Bobo Stenson is a traditionalist in one sense, believing that improvisation should exist within structure. His playing bears a certain contagious gentleness, which permeates recordings under his own name as well as with others. Yet at the same time he seems to be always chomping at the bit, which makes his intermittent bursts of unpredictability and crescendo all that much more dramatic. His partners seem to understand this quirk, and they know how to exploit it.
Overall: good tunes and a nice range of styles. A solid pick.
The luminaries: Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd. The big surprises: percussionist Okay Temiz and drummer Anders Kjellberg. On the closer, these two lay down a brilliant edgy funk.
Personnel and Track Listings
:rarum I / Keith Jarrett
Tracks: Disc One: Three pieces from Book of Ways ('86); Heartland ('81); Five pieces from Spirits ('85); Spheres (7th Movement) ('76); The Windup ('74); 'Long As You Know You're Living Yours ('74); My Song ('77); The Journey Home ('77). Disc Two: Recitative ('87); Americana ('87); Invocations (First, Fifth) ('80); Late Night Willie ('79); The Cure ('90); Bop-Be ('94); No Lonely Nights ('94); Hymn of Remembrance ('76).
Personnel: Keith Jarrett: piano, pipe organ, clavichord, soprano saxophone, flute, tabla, percussion; Jan Garbarek: ts and ss; Palle Danielsson: b; Jon Christensen: d, perc; Gary Peacock: b; Jack DeJohnette: d.
:rarum II / Jan Garbarek
Tracks: Disc One: Skrik & Hyl ('75); Viddene ('76); Iskirken ('79); Lillekort ('80); The Path ('81); It's OK to Listen to the Gray Voice ('84); All Those Born With Wings, 3rd Piece ('86); Its Name Is Secret Road ('88); Aichuri, The Song Man ('88); Molde Canticle, Part 1 ('90); Raga I ('90); Twelve Moons ('92); Red Wind ('95). Disc Two: Windsong ('74); Belonging ('74); Oceanus ('74); My Song ('77); Sunshine Song ('79); Cego Aderaldo ('79); Song For Everyone ('84); Rosensfole ('88); Star ('91); Joron ('92); Parce Mihi Domine ('93).
Personnel: Jan Garbarek: soprano and tenor saxophones, flute, keyboards, percussion; Palle Danielsson: b; Ralph Towner: g; Kyell Johnsen: pipe organ; John Abercrombie: g, mandolin; Nana Vasconcelos: perc; Bill Frisell: g; Eberhard Weber: b; John Christensen: d; David Torn: g; Michael DiPasqua: d; Rainer Brüninghaus: p; Manu Katché: d; Bugge Wesseltoft: synth; Ustad Fateh Ali Khan: vocals; Ustad Shaukat Hussain: tabla; Ustad Nazim Ali Khan: sarangi; Marilyn Mazur: perc; Strings of the Südfunk Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mladen Gutesha; Keith Jarrett: p; Charlie Haden: b; Egberto Gismonti: g; Shankar: violin; Zakir Hussain: tabla; Trilok Gurtu: perc; Agnes Buen Garnås: vocals; Miroslav Vitous: b; Peter Erskine: d; Anouar Brahem: oud; David James: vocals; Rogers Covey-Crump: vocals; John Potter: vocals; Gordon Jones: vocals.
:rarum V / Bill Frisell
Tracks: Mandeville (81); Introduction (84); India (84); Singsong (83); In Line (82); Resistor (84); Music I Heard (84); Tone (84); Lonesome (87); Alien Prints (for D. Sharpe) (87); Hangdog (87); Kind of Gentle (96); Closer (86); Sub Rosa (Dedicated to Bill Frisell) (93).
Personnel: Bill Frisell: guitars, banjo, guitar synth; Joe Lovano: ts; Billy Drewes: as; Ed Schuller: b; Paul Motian: d; Jan Garbarek: ss; Eberhard Weber: b; Michael DiPasqua: d; Kenny Wheeler: tpt, ct; Bob Stewart: tuba; Jerome Harris: bg; Hank Roberts: cello; Kermit Driscoll: bg; Joe Baron: d; Lee Konitz: as; Dave Holland: b; Paul Bley: p; John Surman: ss; Jamie McCarthy: recorder; Roger Heaton: cl; Alexander Balanescu: v; Martin Allen: vb; John White: p; Gavin Bryars: b.
:rarum VI / Art Ensemble of Chicago
Tracks: Charlie M ('80); Magg Zelma ('80); Rios Negroes ('81); Folkus ('78); Nine to Get Ready ('97); Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi ('84); Odwalla/Theme ('80); Nice Guys ('78).
Personnel: Lester Bowie: trumpet, flugelhorn, bass drum, percussion; Roscoe Mitchell: saxophones, clarinets, flutes, whistles, percussion; Joseph Jarman: saxophones, clarinets, flutes, synthesizer, bassoon, whistles, percussion; Malachi Favors Maghostus: basses, melodica, percussion; Famoudou Don Moye: drums, congas, tympani, percussion; Donald Smith: p; Fred Williams: b; Philip Wilson: d; Hugh Ragin: tpt; George Lewis: tb; Matthew Shipp: p; Craig Taborn: p; Jaribu Shahid:b; William Parker: b; Tani Tabbal: d; Gerald Cleaver: d.
:rarum VIII / Bobo Stenson
Tracks: East Print ('99); Svevende ('75); What Reason Could I Give ('93); Oleo de Mujer con Sombrero ('97); Fader V (Father World) ('99); Song ('93); Morning Heavy Song ('96); Golden Rain ('99); Witchi-Tai-To ('73); Reflections in D ('93); Untitled ('71); Little Peace ('94); Ahayu-Da (Conclusion) ('93).
Personnel: Bobo Stenson: p; Anders Jormin: b; Jon Christensen: d; Jan Garbarek: ts and ss; Palle Danielsson: b; Don Cherry: tpt; Charles Lloyd: ts; Billy Hart: d; Tomasz Stanko: tpt; Tony Oxley: d; Arild Andersen: b; Anders Kjellberg: d; Okay Temiz: perc.
For more information, visit ECM Records.
Photo of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek by Roberto Masotti