At least one underlying context of the ECM label has been to present jazz where the line between improvisation and composition/arrangement is blurred. When the improvisations are not "jazzy" as the term is commonly understood, it begins to be difficult to discern where the composition ends and the improvisation begins.
This is not to say that the music demands that the listener be able to figure this out, but rather that the composer, instead of presenting a tune or an idea to the band, lays before it an organic structure in which they are to fit. For this kind of piece to be successful, trust has to exist in both directions between the composer and the players.
Jazz, other than free jazz, has been drifting this way for quite a while, and the move away from merely improvising on standards, either old or modern, is now noticeable. One recent example is guitarist Miles Okazaki's Mirror
(Independent, 2006), where the scores are complex but, when negotiated by the right players, sound alive and anything but stilted and composed.
Bassist Miroslav Vitous' Universal Syncopations II
is an extreme example of this kind of compositional methodology, in that sampled orchestral sounds, which feel very composed, are woven into the improvisational web (or is it the other way around?).
Vitous' Universal Syncopations
(ECM, 2003) was enthusiastically received, not only because it marked the bassist's return to ECM after a decade's hiatus, but because it featured a superstar band that played as a unit, and they cooked.
While Vitous is the only connection between the two albums, his extremely strong musical personality, which was the backbone of the previous album, provides the structure and the freedom here, plus, of course, the electronic orchestral "band member."
The main quartet consists of Vitous, Bob Mintzer (tenor sax), Gary Campbell (soprano and tenor sax) and Gerald Cleaver (drums). Trumpeter Randy Brecker appears on two tracks with additional guests featured on other tracks.
As if to provide a shock to the ear, "Opera" (the longest track at eleven minutes) contains some of the most overt orchestral music (including chorus), especially at the beginning. Caught unawares, one might be excused for not knowing which music is leading and which is following. Soon however, the band develops its personality, led by a very strong Vitous and drummer Adam Nussbaum, who appears on this track alone.
Once the stage is set by "Opera," the orchestra as just another player, albeit with many colors, is easily accepted, and the whole sound becomes the point. While Vitous says that he added the orchestral parts later, it is quite unclear how much studio post-production has been applied.
The music is of such high quality that Vitous can be excused for the occasional excess, because on the whole, this experiment works very well indeed.
Opera; Breakthrough; The Prayer; Solar Giant Mediterranean Love; Gmoong; Universal Evolution; Moment.
Miroslav Vitous: double-bass; Bob Mintzer: tenor saxophone (1, 6, 7), bass clarinet (7); Gary Campbell: soprano saxophone (1, 2, 4, 5, 7); tenor saxophone (3); Randy Brecker: trumpet (1, 6); Adam Nussbaum: drums (1); Gerald Cleaver: drums (2-5, 7); Daniele di Bonaventura: bandoneon (5); Bob Malach: tenor saxophone (8); Vesna Vaiko-Ciceres: voice (8).