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Posts tagged ‘Manfred Eicher’

The girl who cried champagne

Carla BleyThe photograph above, taken by Caterina di Perri, comes from the insert to Carla Bley’s new album, Trios, the latest instalment of her collaboration with the bass guitarist Steve Swallow and the saxophonist Andy Sheppard. It’s the pianist/composer’s first album for ECM — and, she says, the first in which she has submitted herself to the demands of a producer (Manfred Eicher, the label’s founder) other than herself.

I’d started listening to the album when, while doing a bit of research into another subject entirely, I found an early mention of her in an issue of Down Beat dated September 5, 1965, from a review of a concert in the garden of New York’s Museum of Modern Art by the Jazz Composers Orchestra and the New York Art Quartet. The magazine’s reviewer was evidently having trouble with what was then known as “the new thing”, with only Ms Bley’s appearance to give him relief from what he clearly found to be an ordeal. Here’s what he wrote:

The evening did have three points of interest, all visual. The first was scored before a note was blown, when (John) Tchicai appeared, conventionally garbed, but with his face decorated with warpaint and what looked like chickenbones stuck into his cheeks. The second was (Milford) Graves, continually assaulting his drums and kicking at his cymbals in a manner that had, so far as I could tell, nothing to do with anything else that was going on. The third, and greatest, was Mrs Bley at the piano in the second half, one of the most authentically ravishing women you ever clapped eyes on, with nothing lacking of slim grace and brooding intensity to complete the picture of musical genius as only a Hollywood director would have the nerve to present it — a vision that, while it lasted, almost compensated for the regrettable noises that went with it.

I’m not going to name the critic in question. History has a way of making fools of all of us from time to time.

Anyway, Trios is an exceptional recording, in which she and her collaborators revisit some familiar themes — including the ever-entrancing “Vashkar”, first recorded in a standard piano trio format by her then-husband, Paul Bley, for the Savoy label 50 years ago this month. “Les Trois Lagons (d’apres Henri Matisse)”, “Wildlife” and “The Girl Who Cried Champagne” will all be familiar to her fans in various other versions; the opener, “Utviklingssang”, has previously been recorded by a nonet, a duo (Ms Bley and Swallow) and an octet, but I’d be surprised if this is not the definitive treatment of a gorgeous hymn-like tune.

For me, the surprise of the album was the way it converted my hitherto rather guarded admiration for Sheppard’s playing to a much warmer response, and made me drop my normal resistance to Swallow’s work on bass guitar. I’m afraid I could never understand why the man who was so articulate on the double bass on those classic George Russell Sextet albums from the early ’60s (and on the Paul Bley session that produced the original “Vashkar”) would want to devote himself full-time to an instrument far less appropriate to jazz. In this exposed setting, however, he plays with a guitar-like fluency and lyricism, the lack of the acoustic instrument’s tonal flexibility never hampering his contribution in the way it has — possibly to my ears alone — in the past.

And “The Girl Who Cried Champagne”? That’s a private joke between Bley and Swallow, who are long-time partners. It’s her.

The archaeology of ECM

ECM Haus der Kunst

A wall of shelves filled with master tapes might not be everyone’s idea of an artwork, but it was one of the things that caught my attention in Munich’s Haus der Kunst last weekend, as part of an exhibition titled ECM: A Cultural Archaeology. Here, on shelf after shelf, were boxes of two-inch recording tape carrying the labels of the studios in Ludwigsburg, Oslo, New York, Lugano and elsewhere in which Manfred Eicher, the founder of Editions of Contemporary Music, has recorded Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Arvo Pärt, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jan Garbarek, Bill Frisell, and many others.

It seemed an appropriate installation since attention to the quality of recorded sound was one of the factors that enabled the Munich-based ECM, particularly in its earliest days, to stand out from the herd. Eicher wanted his records to sound beautiful, and he made every effort to get what he wanted. He wanted them to look good, too, and ECM’s artwork – particularly the wonderful graphic designs of Barbara Wojirsch – takes its proper place in the exhibition.

ECM Don CherryIt was nice to see a photograph of the late Don Cherry, who made many important albums with Eicher, on the poster advertising the show. Curated by Okwui Enwezor and Markus Müller, it opened in November and alongside the visual material and the sound installations it included several films related to the label and its artists. Among them were Theodor Kotulla’s See the Music (1971), featuring Eicher in his pre-ECM incarnation, playing bass with the alto saxophonist Marion Brown and the trumpeter Leo Smith; Meredith Monk’s haunting Ellis Island (1981); and Anri Sala’s striking Long Sorrow (2005), in which the alto saxophonist Jameel Moondoc plays while sitting on a window ledge on an upper floor of a Berlin apartment block.

The exhibition was accompanied by a series of concerts which ended on Saturday night with the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his New York Quartet, featuring David Virelles on piano, Thomas Morgan on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. This is the line-up that appears on Stanko’s new album, Wislawa, and although there were a few signs to indicate that they hadn’t played together since the recording last summer, there was also a great deal to enjoy.

I found myself listening closely to the playing of Morgan, who was introduced to Eicher by the late Paul Motian; they appeared together last year on the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s superlative trio album for ECM, Sunrise, one of Motian’s last recordings. Thirty-one years old but looking about half that, Morgan is unusual among modern bassists because his playing is modest and unassertive, containing none of the rhetorical gestures that most of his contemporaries use to inject drama into their solos – particularly since bass strings got lighter, the action of the instruments became more finger-friendly, and amplification improved. If Morgan’s improvisations sometimes give an impression of tentativeness, that’s merely because he’s weighing and measuring every note he plays.

It’s 43 years since the first ECM release – Mal Waldron’s Free at Last – landed without fanfare on my desk at the old Melody Maker office in Fleet Street. More than 1,000 albums later, no record company has done more to encourage and facilitate a fruitful expansion of jazz’s frontiers, helping to widen its audience as the music expands into an uncertain but exciting future.

The story of Eicher’s project was told in Sounds and Silence, a film made in 2009 by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer and also on view in the exhibition. It’s worth seeing the whole thing, but here’s a link to a very brief trailer, including snatches of Nik Bartsch and Arvo Pärt: http://bit.ly/3xvKP9