Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Date With ECM

The Edition of Contemporary Music label can always be relied upon to produce intriguing and challenging output in any given year but 2007 does appear to have been a particularly fertile time for Manfred Eicher's remarkable company. Whilst the label continues to sustain its highly individual aesthetic - music often emphasising atmosphere and mood over virtuosity or technique - it has done so whilst covering an increasingly varied and unpredictable terrain.

I am deeply sceptical of the rather more narrow-minded breed of music listener who, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, continue to assert that classical and jazz are somehow incompatible forms. Classical music is about formal composition, jazz is about improvisation and the two can only ever meet uncomfortably. Anyone still upholding this rather archaic and unimaginative view would do well to listen to the latest wonderful album from John Surman. Surman should have won the Mercury Music Prize for his outstanding 'Proverbs and Songs' album and I wouldn't have objected to him receiving a second nomination for the wistful, contemplative and thoroughly immersing collaboration with the Trans4Mation String Quartet on 'The Spaces In Between'. This is essentially a continuation of the approach Surman first deployed on 'Coruscating', but it is more successfully realised here, with the string players given more space for their own creative statements.

Surman switches between baritone sax, which provides a wonderfully smoky tone for the mysterious opener 'Moonlighter', bass clarinet and soprano, thus ensuring there is more than sufficient tonal variety throughout the album. He even sits out for the title track, allowing violinist Rita Manning to perform an exquisitely controlled and deeply expressive solo. The contrast between his exquisite soprano extemporisation on the bittersweet 'Winter Wish' and the more elusive, wispy sound of 'Moonlighter' is highly effective.

Whilst the most conventional of jazzers might be forgiven for mourning the absence of a rhythm section, the striking impact of the staccato passages of 'You Never Know' demonstrate that the quartet can operate as rhythm players in their own right, although Surman more often favours more languid forms of expression. The pivotal player here is double bassist Chris Laurence, both an orchestral musician and frequent Surman collaborator, and his binding role is fundamental to the music's impact.

Surman recycles a number of older compositions for this project, with extremely satisfying results. 'Where Fortune Smiles' was once restless and driving, but now sounds stately and graceful. 'Mimosa', originally written for Oud player Anouwar Brahem, retains some of its Middle Eastern stylings, but is successfully subsumed into the more European flavour of the rest of the project.

Surman's playing is distinctive and rich throughout, and his compositions are characteristically elegiac and flowing, leaving enough time and space for individual expression. What is most impressive is the smooth interpolation of Surman's melodies with the quartet's elegant accompaniment. 'The Spaces In Between' is a haunting, powerful statement of chamber jazz.

Paul Motian has long carved his own unique niche as a drummer far more interested in texture and space than in rhythmic propulsion or groove. He doesn't swing conventionally, yet his playing has a definitive musicality and invention that continue to mark him out as a world class musician. His bassless trio with guitarist Bill Frisell and towering saxophonist Joe Lovano may be the most fruitful means of capturing his prime concerns. Frisell is the perfect foil for Motian's sweeping, breathing playing. Motian leaves much of the rhythm implied rather than stated, and Frisell's guitar atmospherics (frequently imitated but never bettered by less creative musicians) help craft a spacious, introspective dynamic. There is a palpable conversation between the two musicians, but it is more ruminative than chattering. Whilst Lovano's sound is muscular and strong, he fits into this jigsaw with consummate ease. His playing has commanding authority, but also a snug empathy with the overall texture.

Much of this music has an isolated, desolate quality, particularly the eerie opener 'Cambodia', and the musical ideas are allowed to unfold at a decidedly gradual pace. Whilst the overall sense is of three musicians playing relatively freely, powerful melodies are delivered with pinpoint precision, such as on the beautiful 'Wednesday'. Even when Motian is on the surface somewhat provocative, intent on causing trouble on 'OneTwo', he is so completely locked in with Lovano's dexterous soloing that the effect is extraordinary. How exactly do they achieve this remarkable synergy?

I'm in two minds about the latest work from former Weather Report bassist Miroslav Vitous. Despite its title, 'Universal Syncopations II' is not much of a direct sequel to its predecessor, unless one considers it a more elaborately arranged, orchestral take on a similar folk-meets-jazz concept. Although there are brief appearances here from Randy Brecker and driving drummer Adam Nussbaum, this album lacks the star appearances of the first 'Universal Syncopations' project (which featured Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek amongst others). This time, Vitous has made himself master of all aspects of the process - composing, scoring, arranging, engineering and co-producing. To my ears, there is a sense that this has made this project a little too formalised and controlled. Whilst the orchestral and choral arrangements are dense and engaging, they are based mainly on manipulated sampled sounds, and therefore sound frequently jarring with the more organic nature of the accompanying music. Why not simply have recorded this as a live band with live orchestra? The opening 'Opera', whilst lengthy, is the most immediately successful statement here - fluent and confident, particularly with the benefit of Nussbaum's riveting percussion. Yet the less elaborate Gerald Cleaver takes over for the rest of the album, and the lingering sense is that this is only a half-realised musical statement, and a less confident integration of jazz and classical concerns than the Surman album. Luckily, that wonderfully resonant, coursing bass sound that Vitous has made entirely his own still takes centre stage amidst the orchestral clamour.

There are very obvious criticisms one could direct against the Tord Gustavsen Trio, now releasing 'Being There', their third album for ECM, and apparently the concluding part of an intended trilogy. These are the same criticims that tended to be leveled against the rather excellent Esbjorn Svensson Trio - namely that the group leader, in each case a pianist, is not a very dynamic or inventive improvisor and that the music therefore doesn't qualify as jazz. Well, who cares exactly what it is? Those who dislike est on such rigid grounds are probably more than a little envious of the group's stadium level success in Europe, whilst those who reject the lingering melodies of Tord Gustavsen are missing out on something emotionally charged and quietly affecting.

There's a delicacy and lightness of touch to the playing of all three musicians in the group. Listen to how the drums are so subtle that they often fade into the background. Whilst Gustavsen's extemporising is slow paced and rarely veers too far from the melodic theme, it has a grace and feeling that many of the more outrageous improvisers all too easily abandon. It is also entirely in keeping with the restrained, meditative quality of his compositions.

Whilst there's nothing on 'Being There' quite as immediate as the more infectious melodic statements with which Gustavsen peppered 'Changing Places' and 'The Ground', the gospel influences are brought more clearly to the foreground. The lightly funky 'Blessed Feet', for example, is an absolute delight. There's also more of a rhythmic drive to the expressive, touching 'Vicar Street'.

The more characteristic beauty the band have captured before is also sustained impressively on 'Being There', and there are moments of bittersweet melancholy and supremely understated calm. If it's a more insidious record than its predecessor, more subtly seeping under the skin, then that's probably a powerful quality. Gustavsen will have to develop his musical language for future releases but, for now, this thoughtful, deeply felt music has its own space and value.

Paul Bley is one of the most pivotal and influential of jazz pianists, yet he's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea or Bill Evans. How odd, given that his first foray into solo performance for ECM ('Open, to Love') came two years before the Koln Concert shattered all expectations. Bley has a more open, singing style than Jarrett, although he also favours right hand melodies accompanied by left hand chords. The nameless variations on 'Solo in Mondsee' are impressive elaborations on clearly stated musical ideas and themes. Whilst he frequently hints at pages of the standard repertoire, Bley is more concerned with emotional impact than referencing or thematic deconstruction. In a similar way to how Paul Motian gets tonal variety from the drum kit, Bley is chiefly concerned with contrasts at the Piano, rather than persistence or insistence. The music on 'Solo in Mondsee' is lush and deeply romantic.

One of the more revelatory jazz releases of recent years was 'Neighbourhood', the ECM debut from drummer/composer Manu Katche. Although Katche had been a frequent sideman for Jan Garbarek, he was perhaps better known at this time as a session and touring drummer for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting and Joni Mitchell. Few had expected his compositions to be so lucid and powerful, or that he could command such a top class frontline (both Garbarek and Tomasz Stanko made priceless contributions to the record). Now returning for 'Playground', Katche has wisely opted to maintain some of that album's qualities of deceptive simplicity, whilst not trying too hard to repeat the formula. The star frontline is replaced with Norwegians Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim and, whilst less well known, they prove to be every bit as effective. Seim's lighter tone makes for a neat contrast with the more forceful interjections made by Garbarek on 'Neighbourhood', whilst Eick is a more direct subsitute for Stanko's vulnerable lyricism.

The lyrical, atmospheric approach suits the ECM vision perfectly, and the very selfless playing of all five members of the group allow for a remarkably subtle interplay and conversation. The melodies are warm and immediate, whilst Katche has very successfully made himself a supporting player in his own group, to the great success of this light, airy music. It's not an abstract record at all though, with 'So Groovy' living up to its rather audacious moniker without piercing the overall mood. A little like the Tord Gustavsen record, the solos don't veer too far from the melodic template and there is little here that is radical or unconventional. Yet the feel is exquisite and the pervading warm mood pretty much irresistible.

Perhaps the pick of the bunch though is 'The Third Quartet', unsurprisingly the third album from guitarist John Abercrombie's Quartet with violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Marc Johnson and brilliant drummer Joey Baron. Not only is Abercrombie one of the master stylists and technicians of the jazz guitar, he is also superb at crafting bold, adventurous musical statements through hint and suggestion. This is partially because Abercrombie himself has a distict flair for veering between free rhythm and sprightly, locked on playing, but it's also because of the supreme quality of ensemble playing on display here. Feldman particularly is a brilliant addition - immediately making for unconventional textures and sounds. This music rarely ever feels daring or progressive - instead it sounds effortless - but there's a real alchemy here that may mark this album out as the pinnacle of the group's achievement so far.

The crackling, pulsating opener 'Banshee' is a brilliant example of this group's adventurous dynamic, although its driving qualities are perhaps a little misleading - much of the rest of this album is more ruminative and ponderous. Everywhere however there is a real intensity at work, however. Even when it's at its most quiet and restrained, the music has a force and impact that makes it impossible to ignore. Baron rises to the challenge of partially impersonating the late great Elvin Jones on 'Elvin', and there's also a spectacular reimagining of Bill Evans' exquisite 'Epilogue', during which Abercrombie is at the very top of his game. The originals all sustain a distinctive mood and eccentricity, and the whole album is immersing and hypnotic.

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