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Jon Christensen 1943-2020

JonChristensen

On two occasions I was fortunate enough to be in very close proximity to the playing of the Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen, who has died at the age of 76 after a distinguished career that included collaborations with Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, George Russell, Bobo Stenson, Jan Garbarek, Tomasz Stanko and many others, most of them gathered under the ECM umbrella.

The first occasion came around 25 years ago when Stenson’s trio, with Anders Jormin on bass, played the Pizza Express. It was with this group — which can be heard on the albums Serenity (1998) and War Orphans (2000) — that Christensen showed how he had added something of Billy Higgins’s lift and swing to the colouristic approach pioneered by Paul Motian. His wonderful subtlety was also evident on the second occasion, at the Jazzahead! festival in Bremen five years ago, when he played with the guitarist Jakob Bro and the bassist Thomas Morgan, two musicians of matching depth and transparency.

He was a master of sticks, mallets and brushes. For Bro, Morgan, Stenson, Jormin and any of the countless other improvisers with whom he played over the decades, I can’t imagine there were many better gifts than the knowledge that you’d be sharing a bandstand with a musician of such profound sensitivity.

* The photograph of Jon Christensen is © Roberto Masotti / ECM Records.

Lyle Mays, soundpainter

As Falls Wichita

This September it will be 40 years since Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny went into a studio with the producer Manfred Eicher to piece together the 20-minute work that gave its name to an album: “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”. A sidebar to their work together as members of the Pat Metheny Group, it soon became recognised as a remarkable free-standing piece of work.

Crudely put, it functions as the soundtrack to an imaginary film: starting with the babble of voices — a sports crowd? a street market? a political demonstration? — and the thrumming of a bass guitar, evolving into gorgeous tunes built sometimes simply of chords, sometimes of melodies whistled or played on a berimbau (a heartbreaking twang). All sorts of soundscapes are evoked, and all sorts of weather, through textures that are constantly shifting and blending. The sound of Metheny’s various guitars and Mays’s keyboards and synths is of its time, but timeless, too. The berimbau is played by Nana Vasconcelos, who also contributes percussion and is the only other musician present.

It’s a beautiful American tone poem, epic in its sweep but also intimate in its approach to the listener. Later in the decade Metheny’s group would record the great “Last Train Home”, which felt then, and still feels, like a coda to the longer piece.

Lyle Mays died on February 10, aged 66, after a long illness. “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” is likely to live as long as people are still listening to the recorded music of the twentieth century.

* The album As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls was released in 1981 on the ECM label. The photograph, taken by Klaus Frahm (father of Nils), is from the cover.

Bryan Ferry at the Albert Hall, 1974

Bryan Ferry Albert Hall

My most powerful memory of Bryan Ferry’s debut as a solo artist at the Albert Hall, four and a half decades ago, is of a blonde woman sitting just along the row from me in the ringside seats. She was in her early thirties, I’d guess, tanned and expensively dressed and coiffed; she’d arrived by herself, carrying a bouquet of flowers. After each song, she rose to her feet and shouted “Bravo!” several times, as if we were at the Royal Opera House. I think she might have been German, possibly Austrian or Swiss. At the end of the encore she reached under her seat to retrieve the bouquet, which she hurled towards the stage. It seemed a clear sign that Ferry had made a decisive move away from the college and club circuit on which Roxy Music had made their reputation, and had acquired a new audience in the process.

Now a recording of one of the concerts Ferry gave over three consecutive nights at the Albert Hall in December 1974 has finally been released, and it fully captures the sense of occasion. Barely two years after Roxy’s debut album had made them the object of mingled wonder and scorn, their singer now had two solo albums behind him and was confident enough to present himself alone in the spotlight in the country’s most famous concert hall.

Musically, it was a lavish production: John Porter and Phil Manzanera on guitars, Eddie Jobson on piano and violin, John Wetton on bass, Paul Thompson on drums, plus three female backing singers (one of them Vicki Brown, formerly of the Vernons Girls and the Breakaways), and a large orchestra, conducted by Martyn Ford, including Chris Mercer and Ronnie Ross on saxophones, Martin Drover on trumpet and Malcolm Griffiths on trombone. It sounded big at the time, and I’d guess not much 21st-century post-production was needed to make it sound impressive today.

The repertoire is mostly drawn from those two solo albums, from the arch teenage pop of the Paris Sisters’ “I Love How You Love Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” via the howling rock and roll of “Sympathy for the Devil”, “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” to the grown-up cocktail-hour balladry of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “These Foolish Things”. There are a couple of originals: “Another Time, Another Place” and “A Really Good Time”.

For me, the biggest successes are Ferry’s daring covers of two of my all-time favourite records: the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” and the Miracles’ “The Tracks of My Tears”. You tamper with the masterpieces of Brian Wilson and Smokey Robinson (and their co-writers) at your peril, but Ferry treated them with affection, respect and imagination. I remember being in AIR Studios on Oxford Street during the sessions for These Foolish Things — the first solo album — and listening to a playback of “Don’t Worry Baby”, during which I was particularly struck by the guitar solo, played by Porter. Ah yes, Ferry said — he’d told his old Newcastle University friend to start the solo at the bottom of the lowest string and finish, eight bars later, at the top of the highest. It was a perfect example of the application of art-school thinking to pop music. The Miracles song is rendered beautifully, with one minor niggle: I wish he’d sung “You’re the permanent one” — the way Smokey did — rather than “You’re the only one”, as subsequent interpreters (including Gladys Knight) have done.

Maybe the most successful piece of all is “The ‘In’ Crowd”, a Top 20 hit for Ferry earlier in 1974, in which he gives Dobie Gray’s Mod-era anthem a thorough update: those implacable opening electric-piano chords, the screeching, chopping guitars of Porter and Manzanera, the double-beating thunder of Wetton and Thompson, and a vocal speaking directly to party people from Bigg Market to Saint-Tropez. As the song ends and the applause erupts, I’m almost sure I can detect a German-accented shout of “Bravo!”

* The photograph of Bryan Ferry, © Michael Putland, is from the jacket of Live at the Royal Albert Hall 1974, released by BMG.

Andy Gill 1956-2020

Take an ounce of Wilko Johnson, a teaspoon of Sonny Sharrock, an echo of Robert Fripp’s solo on “A Sailor’s Tale”, marinate those ingredients in a powerful sense of political disenchantment, and you had Andy Gill, whose splintered electric guitar chords were the defining sound of Gang of Four, one of the most creative — and ultimately influential — bands of the late ’70s. Gill died on February 1 at the age of 64, and it was interesting to read so many tributes by people whose lives had been touched by his music. Among the most eloquent of those commentators, not surprisingly, were Jon Pareles in the New York Times and Simon Reynolds, who wrote about him for Pitchfork: “Remembering Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Who Ripped Punk to Shreds”. I saw the band at the Electric Ballroom in 1979, and they left a powerful impression. To tell the truth, though, it had been a long time since I played one of their records. But listening again to “At Home He’s a Tourist” brought an immediate reminder of how fresh and smart they sounded back then, at a time when they, the Pop Group, Talking Heads and Television made it seem as though there might be a future for rock music.

ECM in London

Craig Taborn at RAM

No apologies for returning, one last time, to the continuing celebrations of ECM’s 50th anniversary. For a short festival at the Royal Academy of Music, the director of the jazz programme, Nick Smart, invited several of the label’s luminaries — the bassist Anders Jormin, the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the singer Norma Winstone and the saxophonist Evan Parker — to spend a week working with students before presenting the results in two public concerts on Thursday and Friday night.

Jormin’s compositions — very much what many people would think of as archetypal ECM music, with a restrained lyricism that seemed to have its deepest roots in Nordic folk music — were played by a septet notable for the outstanding singing of Ella Hohnen-Ford and Alma Naidu. Downes and his colleagues in the trio called ENEMY, the bassist Petter Eldh and the drummer James Maddren, enhanced their tricky compositions with arrangements for string quartet, three woodwind and two percussionists, of which the most successful were “Last Leviathan”, a piece from Downes’s ECM debut, Obsidian, fetchingly rearranged for strings and piano, and Eldh’s eventful “Prospect of K”, cunningly scored by Ole Morten Vågan.

For the festival’s closing set, Smart led the Academy big band through a sequence of rare and unheard compositions by the late Kenny Wheeler, another ECM stalwart, featuring Winstone, Parker and Stan Sulzmann. The juxtaposition of the two tenors of Parker and Sulzmann created a contrast that exemplified the breadth of Wheeler’s conception — although their thunder was almost stolen by the alto saxophone of Lewis Sallows, a student whose long solo displayed a disinclination to plump for stylistic orthodoxy and a powerfully dramatic imagination. The crisp and flexible drumming of Ed Richardson, an Academy graduate, also took the ear.

Twenty four hours earlier, Sallows had also been part of the 12-piece band (pictured above) which provided the festival’s highlight. Craig Taborn is already known as one of the most creative and original pianists of the current era; those who were present at the Vortex for his solo gig last year speak of it in awed tones. Friday’s set showed him to rank alongside Steve Lehman, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson and Eve Risser as an adventurous composer-leader who knows how to exploit the resources of a larger ensemble while retaining all the spontaneous interaction of a small group.

Although this was music of great sophistication, there were times when its sheer fire put me in mind of those great Mingus units of the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the members of the Jazz Workshop learnt their parts by ear and took it from there. The trombonist Joel Knee, the trumpeter Laurence Wilkins and the two altoists, Sallows and Sean Payne, threw themselves into the project with enormous skill and gusto, and the ear was also taken by the guitarist Rosie Frater-Taylor, whose opening solo was strikingly thoughtful and who made significant contributions to the riff-ostinatos on which several of the pieces were built.

Taborn’s own solos on acoustic and Fender-Rhodes pianos demonstrated his gift for gathering all the energy once associated with Cecil Taylor and using it to activate the coiled springs of his own imagination. During an unaccompanied introduction, he made the Rhodes roar in a way that completely divested the instrument of its familiar role as a provider of a cool funky background sound. It was one of many moments, individual and collective, that made the event such a success.

The Henrys’ ‘Paydirt’

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It’s my theory that Meghan and Harry haven’t fled the UK for Canada to get away from the red-tops. I think it’s because they know that the Henrys and the Weather Station have new albums out this year, and they’ll get more chances to see these great Canadian musicians playing gigs in actual Canada.

I don’t know when Tamara Lindeman intends to put out the new Weather Station album, but the Henrys released theirs this week. It’s their sixth, it’s called Paydirt, and it’s another one guaranteed to delight those who’ve acquired a taste for the understated, beautifully shaped music of the band led by the guitarist Don Rooke, who is probably best known outside his homeland as a key contributor to Mary Margaret O’Hara’s small but bejewelled discography.

When Rooke visited the UK before Christmas, we took a train journey to Nottingham together, during which I asked him which, out of all his collection of guitars, was the one he’d be most reluctant to lose. Unsurprisingly he nominated his original Weissenborn, a soft-shouldered Hawaiian lap steel made in Los Angeles before the second world war. Don plays all sorts of guitars, but the mellow, unhurried twang of this one makes it the best-suited to his particular form of self-expression .

Unlike its predecessors, Paydirt is not available on CD. Sixteen tracks can be downloaded, 11 of which are also available on a vinyl disc. Whichever you choose, you’ll get a quietly eventful ramble through a landscape in which folk, country and blues meet and mingle, the conversation varying in stylistic emphasis but held together by a firm sense of collective understanding. To apply familiar terms like “backwoods” or “backporch” would not be entirely inappropriate, although it would probably overemphasise the bucolic nature of music that feels no need to advertise its sophistication.

Alongside Rooke are Davide DiRenzo on drums, Joseph Phillips on acoustic bass, John Dymond and Paul Pasmore on bass guitars, Jonathan Goldsmith on piano and pump organ, Joey Wright on guitar and mandocello, John Sheard on organ and pump organ and Hugh Marsh on violin. That sounds like a lot of musicians, but they share the work around and the sound is always spare and intimate. There are no guest singers this time, but every track sounds like a song.

The tunes are all Rooke’s. You might feel as though you’ve known them your entire life. You haven’t. If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be “Ruby I Realize”, a relaxed shuffle in which the infiltration of Sheard’s light-fingered organ makes them sound like a chilled-out Booker T and the MGs, in the best possible way. Or the hymn-like dignity of “Stolen Border”. Or the blithe, skipping tune of “Bounty Jumpers”. Or the yearning lyricism of “It Was Old But We Knew”. Or the dobro and pump organ of “The Church Picnic”. Or the lightly funky second-line rhythm of “His Weakness Was Slender Arms”. Like just about every note I’ve ever heard from this source, Paydirt is highly recommended.

* Paydirt can be acquired via Bandcamp: https://thehenrys.bandcamp.com/album/paydirt

Big bands at the Vortex

Calum Gourlay 3

A big band in a small club can be a thrilling experience. The Scottish bass player and composer Calum Gourlay has been playing a monthly gig at the Vortex with his large ensemble for four years now, and last night I finally got around to acting on the advice I’d been getting to check them out. My informants were correct: Gourlay’s band has not only youth and enthusiasm on its side but also a powerful character of its own.

Three trumpets, three trombones, five saxophones, piano, double bass and drums, all arrayed in the conventional style; this is a mainstream-modern band with no fashionable touches. The originality comes from within, which is the usually best place. And in this case it comes from the way Gourlay’s compositions set up his array of fine soloists.

This isn’t surprising, since Duke Ellington is one of his models — and no one ever knew how to write for a band full of soloists like Ellington. Unless it was Charles Mingus, of course, and I felt I heard a lot of Mingus in this band’s freewheeling spirit, not just because the leadership comes from the man with the bass.

He kicked off with “Evening”, a 6/8 tune featuring a take-no-prisoners tenor solo from Riley Stone-Lonergan. “Blue Fugates of Kentucky”, contrasting boppish unison riffs with brief passages of mayhem, contained one of the solos of the night, in which the altoist Alice Leggett tied together slurs, stutters and triple-time flourishes with an impressive sense of architecture. “Ro” showed off Gourlay’s sense of humour and love of sudden dynamic contrasts, and set up an effective skirl behind Kieron McLeod’s forceful trombone solo. The slow, wandering “Solstice” became a feature for James Allsopp’s content-rich baritone improvisation, and the set closed with Tom Rideout’s Shorterish tenor on “New Ears”.

Not everyone writing for big bands realises that you might have three trumpets and three trombones, but you don’t have to use them all the time. It was apparent that Gourlay loves to mix and match elements within the horns, rather as Ellington and Gil Evans did, making couple of passages of straightforward writing for the reed section all the more exhilarating for the contrast they provided.

The second set was an even more impressive demonstration of Gourlay’s skill at creating landscapes for individual soloists. On two pieces by other composers, he employed the tactic of giving the improviser space to say her/his piece, then bring them back for the coda. On a fascinatingly radical recasting of Monk’s “Pannonica” the solo voice was Laura Jurd’s trumpet; on a startlingly different arrangement of Coltrane’s “Naima” it was Stone-Lonergan. Other original compositions featured fine solos from the pianist Alcyona Mick, the trumpeters James Davidson and Sean Gibbs, and the trombonist Owen Dawson. Dave Ingamells was the alert and propulsive drummer.

Davidson and Mick were also featured in another big band gig at the Vortex a week or so earlier, this one celebrating what would have been the 90th birthday of Kenny Wheeler, who died in 2014. Scott Stroman directed the London Jazz Orchestra — of which Wheeler was an early member almost 30 years ago — through the great Canadian’s charts, filled with glowing brass chorales. There were fine solos from Henry Lowther and André Cannière on trumpets, Martin Speake and Pete Hurt on altos, Matt Sulzmann and Tori Freestone on tenors and Stuart Hall on guitar, all urged on by Alec Dankworth on bass and Paul Clarvis on drums.

The second half was taken up by “Sweet Time Suite”, the extended work featured on Wheeler’s classic Music for Large and Small Ensembles, released 30 years ago by ECM. The singer Brigitte Beraha took the role originally performed by Norma Winstone of the lead voice in the flaring ensembles that filled the room with Kenny’s unique lyricism.

* Calum Gourlay has a new quartet album out on the Ubuntu label. Called New Ears, it contains stripped-down versions of several pieces from the big band’s repertoire and features McLeod on trombone, Helena Kay on tenor and James Maddren on drums. It’s highly recommended.

Visions of the abstract

Evan P in Vilnius

The news of the death of the photographer Jak Kilby has saddened all those who called him a friend. I met him in 1969, when he was a year or two into his work of chronicling a section of London’s jazz scene bracketed by two bands: the Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Chris McGregor’s Blue Notes. That lasted through ’70s and into the ’80s, resulting in a valuable record of the work of musicians such as John Stevens, Trevor Watts, Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo and many others.

Jak was a warm, kind man, and he was close to the musicians. He shared houses with some of them and drove them to their gigs in, as Trevor Watts told me, a series of vehicles that invariably broke down. He loved the music — and that was how it was always known: the music — because, I think, of its human qualities and a spirituality that was inherent even in the playing of those who did not think of themselves in such terms. (Later he converted to Islam, adopting the name Muhsin, and moved to Malaysia, the base from which he travelled to explore the Muslim world.)

Since the news came through I’ve been listening to a new CD by the saxophonist Evan Parker, the bassist Barry Guy and the drummer Paul Lytton: three musicians regularly captured by Jak’s camera in his early years on the scene. It’s called Concert in Vilnius and was recorded in the Lithuanian capital in October 2017, making it the fruit of almost half a century of collaborations.

Starting out when jazz-based free improvisation was in its infancy, each of them achieved a great deal in terms of expanding the vocabulary of their instruments, which was always part of the project. Now we can listen to them expressing all the wisdom and confidence of their maturity in a language — individual and collective — that they created.

Of the four pieces that make up almost an hour of music, perhaps the most ear-popping is Part III, which opens with a prodigious solo by Guy, using many different resources to make his bass sound like a regiment. It moves into a passage of astonishingly detailed and dynamic percussion/bass dialogue, and then reaches full trio-sized fruition with the arrival of Parker, who unfurls one of his most astonishing tenor improvisations, moving from brusque lyricism to those mind-bending skirls that seem to exist in two or three adjacent dimensions.

The idiom may be half a century old, but it will never be an easy-listening experience; it demands attention and commitment from the listener as well as from the player. What Jak Kilby and other lovers of free improvisation recognised early on is how risk is answered by reward to a degree unavailable in any other kind of music. In those moments it can reach the sublime, touch the infinite.

* Concert in Vilnius is released on a Lithuanian label called NoBusiness Records. The photograph of Guy, Lytton and Parker is from the CD insert and was taken by Vytautas Suslavičius.

ECM at 50

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By the end of the 1960s, jazz had gone right out of fashion. If it was by no means dead in creative terms, it was no longer good business for the music industry. So the arrival of a new jazz record label was quite an event, which is why I can remember quite clearly the first package from ECM arriving on my desk at the Melody Maker‘s offices in Fleet Street, and opening it to extract Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. I knew about Waldron from his work with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and others. But an album from the pianist, recorded in Europe and packaged with unusual care on an unfamiliar label based in Munich, came as a surprise.

Pretty soon it was followed by Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, and then by Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun. Before 1970 was out further packages had included an album by the Music Improvisation Company (with Evan Parker and Hugh Davies) and Jan Garbarek (Afric Pepperbird). It became obvious that something special was happening under the aegis of ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher.

I guess it was in 1971, with solo piano albums from Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Terje Rypdal’s first album and two albums of duos teaming Dave Holland with Barre Phillips and Derek Bailey, that the label’s character really became clear. Eicher stood for jazz with a high intellectual content, saw no reason to privilege American musicians over their European counterparts, and set his own high standards in studio production and album artwork. All these things — particularly his fondness for adding a halo of reverb to the sound of acoustic instruments, inspired by how music sounded in churches and cathedrals — were eventually turned against him by the label’s critics. The sheer volume of great music produced over the past 50 years is the only counter-argument he ever needed. His greatest achievement has been to make us listen harder, deeper and wider.

ECM’s golden jubilee is being marked by events around the world. On January 30 and February 1 there will be a celebration over two nights at the Royal Academy of Music in London, featuring the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the bassist and composer Anders Jormin and the Academy’s big band playing the music of Kenny Wheeler with guests Norma Winstone, Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann. I thought I’d add to the festivities by choosing 20 ECM albums that have made a particularly strong impression on me since that first package dropped on my desk half a century ago; they’re listed in chronological order. Although there are many other contenders, I stopped at 19; the 20th is for you to nominate.

1 Terje Rypdal: Terje Rypdal (1971) The guitarist’s debut was an early sign of Eicher’s determination to capture and promote the new sounds coming from northern Europe, and from Norway in particular. Rypdal was one of the first to present himself as a wholly original voice.

2 Paul Bley: Open, to Love (1972) For my money, the finest of ECM’s early solo piano recitals, with Bley examining compositions by Carla Bley (“Ida Lupino”), Annette Peacock (“Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”) and himself.

3 Old and New Dreams: Old and New Dreams (1979) Don Cherry, one of Eicher’s favourites, is joined by Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in this homage to the music of their former colleague, Ornette Coleman. The 12-minute “Lonely Woman” is astonishingly lovely.

4 Leo Smith: Divine Love (1979) The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith was among the squadron of American innovators who arrived in Europe at the end of the ’60s and whose influence gradually became apparent in the ECM catalogue. Divine Love is a classic.

5 Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (1981) A Swedish ethnomusicologist, composer and percussionist, Berger put together a 13-piece band — Don Cherry being the only famous name — to record this strange and compelling multicultural mixture of jazz and ritual music.

6 Charlie Haden / Carla Bley: Ballad of the Fallen (1983) Fourteen years after the historic Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Bley reunited for a second studio album featuring music of resistance.

7 John Surman: Withholding Pattern (1985) A solo album in which Surman developed his skill at overdubbing soprano and baritone saxophones, piano and synths, this opens with “Doxology”, in which Oslo’s Rainbow studio is turned into an English church.

8 Bill Frisell: Lookout for Hope (1988) One of several guitarists whose careers were nurtured at ECM, Frisell recorded this with a lovely quartet — Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) — before moving on.

9 Keith Jarrett Trio: The Cure (1991) Includes an eight-minute version of “Blame It on My Youth” in which Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette achieve perfection, no matter how many times I listen to it in search of flaws.

10 Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (1996) In a dream line-up, the Canadian trumpeter is joined by the alto of Lee Konitz, the guitar of Bill Frisell and the bass of Dave Holland.

11 Tomasz Stanko: Litania (1997) The Polish trumpeter interprets the compositions of his compatriot and sometime colleague Krzysztof Komeda. A wonderful group features the saxophonists Joakim Milder and Bernt Rosengren, with a core ECM trio — Bobo Stenson (piano), Palle Danielsen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) — as the rhythm section plus Terje Rypdal’s guitar on two of the tunes.

12 Trygve Seim: Different Rivers (2000) Most ECM music is for small groups, but here the Norwegian saxophonist and composer permutates 13 musicians in an exploration of subtle textures and gestures. The great trumpeter Arve Henriksen is among the soloists.

13 Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2005) Ever listened to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and wished there had been more post-bop jazz with that kind of relaxed intensity and melodic richness? Here it is. Tomasz Stanko and Jan Garbarek are the horns, Marcin Wasilewski and Slawomir Kurkiewicz the pianist and bassist.

14 Masabumi Kikuchi: Sunrise (2012) Kikuchi, who was born in Tokyo in 1939 and died in upstate New York in 2015, was a pianist of exquisite touch, great sensitivity and real  originality: a natural fit with Eicher, who recorded him with the veteran drummer Paul Motian and the quietly astounding bassist Thomas Morgan.

15 Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (2012) The label that released Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in 1978 is the perfect home for the group led by the Swiss pianist and composer, who explores the spaces between minimalist repetition and ecstatic groove, between gridlike structures and joyful improvisation.

16 Giovanni Guidi: This Is the Day (2015) With equal creative contributions from Thomas Morgan and the drummer João Lobo, the young Italian master leads a piano trio for the 21st century: always demanding close attention but never short of refined lyricism.

17 Michel Benita + Ethics: River Silver (2016) Led by an Algerian bassist, a quintet including a Japanese koto player (Mieko Miyazaki), a Swiss flugelhornist (Matthieu Michel), a Norwegian guitarist (Eivind Aarset) and a French drummer (Philippe Garcia) create music that incarnates the ECM ideal of reflective, frontierless beauty.

18 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (2017) A double album recorded live in Chicago in 2015, featuring Mitchell with four trios — including the trumpeter Hugh Ragin and the percussionist Tyshawn Sorey — who finally come together in a memorable celebration of the legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

19 Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017) Knotty but exhilarating compositions, solos packed with substance from Graham Haynes (cornet), Steve Lehman (alto) and Mark Shim (tenor): a statement of the art as it moves forward today.

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* The photograph is a still from the 2011 film Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher, by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer. There’s a chapter containing further thoughts on ECM’s place in the evolution of modern music in my book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis and the Remaking of Modern Music, published in 2009 by Faber & Faber.

Booker T’s tale

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Back in the 1980s, living in California, Booker T Jones was having so much trouble getting work as a musician that he and his wife took classes to become real-estate agents. Booker T Jones. That one. The one from Booker T and the MGs. The one who produced Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Willie Nelson’s Stardust. Whose Hammond B3 was a signature sound of ’60s R&B. Whose simple little 12-bar riff, titled “Green Onions”, still stands, 57 years later, as one of popular music’s moments of absolute perfection.

The tale about the real estate business is one of the surprises in Time Is Tight: My Life in Music, a new autobiography in which Booker T takes us on a pretty extraordinary journey. He tells the story — without the aid of a ghostwriter — in short chapters, sometimes shuffling the time sequence in a way that suggests he might have taken Bob Dylan’s Chronicles Vol 1 as an example. The mosaic effect is never intrusive: it works on the level of a man musing about his past and making connections that skip back and forth across time.

There’s an evocative portrait of his childhood as a multi-instrumental prodigy in Memphis, which included playing piano with Mahalia Jackson in church at the age of 12, making his first session at Stax Records on baritone saxophone behind Carla Thomas at 16 and playing organ behind William Bell on “You Don’t Miss Your Water” at 17. “Green Onions” arrived when he was 18, propelling him and his three fellow band members — Steve Cropper, Lewie Steinberg and Al Jackson Jr — to national prominence. But by then he could not be deflected from his plan to study music at the University of Indiana, which meant a 400-mile round trip to play sessions at weekends. It also put a dent in whatever touring plans the MGs might have had.

Tensions between Jones and the other band members simmer throughout the narrative, reaching one or two flashpoints as they go through various reunions and re-estrangements over the decades. The author seems to shy away from providing his deepest thoughts on his colleagues (including Duck Dunn, brought in by Cropper to replace Steinberg in 1964), and he provides no new information on the mysterious 1975 murder of Jackson, to whom he was close. There is a telling moment when, after spending a joyful time in Paris meeting beautiful women and writing the soundtrack to Jules Dassin’s 1968 movie Uptight, he re-records the theme tune, “Time Is Tight”, with the MGs for a single release. When it comes out, he discovers — “much to my dismay” — that the names of the other three have been added to the composer credits, as if this were just another session.

Jones has an enquiring mind and seemed to work out very early on that the deck was stacked against musicians when it came to royalties and song-publishing. He was on a salary at Stax, which paid minute royalties for the recordings and took complete ownership of his (very valuable) publishing rights. When the label was sold to the Gulf & Western corporation in 1969, prefacing its eventual collapse, he took it as his cue to move to Los Angeles, where he encountered a very different crowd from the one he had known in Memphis.

Before long he was befriending Leon Russell, playing bass-guitar on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and living with Priscilla Coolidge, the sister of Rita, whose solo hits he produced. The nightmare of his eventual 10-year marriage to the hard-partying, wrist-slashing Priscilla is recounted in detail, balanced by the subsequent description of his blissful family life with Nan Warhurst, who became his third wife in 1985 (and gave her name to a track on Potato Hole, his great instrumental album of 2009).

There are some passages of effective prose: “The hills of Malibu could be every bit as lonely as a cell-like room in Manhattan. At night, the hills became quiet and seemed to close in so tight on you that you’d swear you were going crazy. Just like the noise in New York. Especially if you were alone, or with the wrong person.” Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the whole book comes when Nan’s mother corners him at their wedding to tell him how disappointed she is that her daughter has married across the line of colour: “The unthinkable had happened in her family and she stood shaking, glaring into my eyes. No one noticed or knew what was going on.” If the last few pages contain sentimental passages on how well his kids have turned out, we can cut him some slack there.

As well as the absorbing descriptions of working with Nelson, Otis Redding, Neil Young and many others, and of playing for the Obamas at the White House, long-term admirers will enjoy the analysis of how a few of the MGs’ best known pieces were created, particularly in terms of their chord structures. Anyone who is currently listening to the recently released first volume of their collected singles and B-sides will find their enjoyment enhanced by reading his accounts of the making of “Green Onions” (its voicing inspired, it turns out, by Booker’s early lessons in Bachian counterpoint), “Soul Dressing”, “Booker-Loo” and others, including Albert King’s “Born Under a Bad Sign” and Eddie Floyd’s extraordinary “Big Bird” (“We had moved into the Age of Aquarius”), as well as by that of later pieces such as “Hang ’em High” and “Melting Pot”.

Booker T Jones is one of my musical heroes, and an hour spent in his company in 2009, for a Guardian interview, left me with the impression of a deeply thoughtful and naturally open-minded man. His autobiography tells me a great deal I didn’t know and makes me respect him even more.

* Booker T Jones’s Time Is Tight: My Life in Music is published in the USA by Little, Brown and in the UK by Omnibus Press. The Complete Stax Singles Vol 1 (1962-67) is out now on the Stax/Real Gone label.