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Posts tagged ‘Manfred Eicher’

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.

ECM at 50

manfred-eicher

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.

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