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Posts tagged ‘Wadada Leo Smith’

ECM at 50


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.


* 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.

Ten Freedom Summers / 2

Leo Smith 1His Ten Freedom Summers may have been shortlisted for this year’s Pulitzer Prize, but that doesn’t mean Wadada Leo Smith has stopped work on the epic composition which he began writing more than three decades ago (and about which I wrote here back in August). During last night’s performance at Cafe Oto in London, the first of three across which he will deliver the entire sequence, he inserted an entirely new movement, and it turned out to be the most memorable of the lot.

Smith arrived in East London with a slightly reduced version of the double ensemble that appeared on the 4CD version released by Cuneiform Records last year. Alongside his trumpet, the piano of Anthony Davis, the bass of John Lindberg and the drums of Anthony Brown were the Ligeti Quartet — Mandhira de Saram (first violin), Patrick Dawkins (second violin), Richard Jones (viola) and Ben Davis (cello) — with the video artist Jesse Gilbert operating from a desk next to the sound mixer.

A clue to the inspiration behind the new movement, called “That Sunday Morning”, arrived when an image of a church appeared on the screens behind the players, followed by the faces of four young African American girls. They were Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair, the four members of the congergation who died on September 15, 1963 when a group of Ku Klux Klan members set a bomb under the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. It was one of the most terrible incidents of the long struggle commemorated by Smith through the titles of the other movements, which mention Dred Scott, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, and others.

As you might have expected, the new piece adopted the mood of a threnody, a quiet and reflective lament that contained moments of striking beauty, particularly in Smith’s brief outbursts and in the rolling gospel phrases that Anthony Davis used sparingly but to very powerful effect. It was heartbreaking and spellbinding, and I hope the composer finds a way to record it in this form one day soon.

Two hours of music, with hardly a break, passed quickly, as I imagine they will tonight and tomorrow. I found myself thinking that the rearrangement of the pieces for the string quartet, rather than the nine-piece ensemble used on the album, worked extremely well, and perhaps even better, thanks not least to the talent and commitment of the young British quartet, rising to the challenge of a masterpiece.

Ten Freedom Summers / 1

Wadada Leo SmithFifty years ago, a wholehearted embrace of American culture made even those of us 3,000 miles away feel we had a stake in the country’s destiny. So although we may have been neither American, nor black, nor even socially or economically disadvantaged, the March on Washington — which took place on August 28, 1963 — in some way felt as though it involved us, too, even if all we could do was cheer from the sidelines.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Washington DC this weekend to mark the anniversary. What I’ve been doing is reading my sometime colleague Gary Younge’s fine new book The Speech, which describes the process by which the Rev Martin Luther King came to write his “I Have a Dream” address, and listening to Ten Freedom Summers, a suite by the trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith. If you don’t already know the latter, this is a set of four CDs containing four and a half hours of music divided into 19 individual movements based on themes from the civil rights struggle, performed by Smith’s quartet/quintet and a nine-piece chamber ensemble. Recorded over a three-day period in November 2011 and released last year on the Cuneiform label, it was one of three finalists for this year’s Pulitzer Prize.

The titles of the individual pieces are sometimes suggestive — “Black Church”, “Democracy” — but usually more explicit in their references. “Dred Scott: 1857” is the first movement, referring to the Missouri slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in that year. “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott: 381 Days” is another. There are references in other titles to Medgar Evers and Emmett Till, to JFK and LBJ, to the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and to Malik Al Shabazz, better known as Malcolm X.

Unlike some of the music that accompanied the civil rights struggle, from John Coltrane’s miniature masterpiece titled “Alabama” (a threnody for the four black schoolgirls killed in the Birmingham church bombing in September 1963, barely a fortnight after the March on Washington) to Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”, there is nothing in Smith’s work here that explicitly evokes his subject, no overt gestures that would indicate a relationship to his chosen titles. This does nothing to diminish its extraordinary power.

Smith, who was born 71 years ago in Leland, Mississippi, first came to notice at the end of the ’60s, as a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago, along with Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and others. His bands included the Creative Construction Company, with Braxton and the violinist Leroy Jenkins, and New Dalta Ahkri, whose personnel included  Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake and Anthony Davis. Along with other members of the AACM, he spent time in Paris in 1969 and became acquainted with the new generation of European free jazz musicians. His many recordings have appeared on the Kabell, Nessa, ECM, Leo and Tzadzik labels, as well as Cuneiform.

As a trumpeter, he had his own character from the beginning. If you wanted a shorthand description, I suppose you could say that he occupies the space between Don Cherry and Lester Bowie. But the originality and substance of his playing are more than enough to command the attention all the way through this mammoth undertaking, in which his is necessarily the dominant voice. I’ve always liked his tone, open or muted, and the crisp assertiveness of his phrasing, and the sense of poise he conveys.

The long-standing nature of his partnership with the pianist Anthony Davis, who appears here, is evident in the closeness of their dialogues. Like Smith, Davis is a quietly original musician who, in his own compositions as well as his playing here, demonstrates complete comfort with the idea of bringing together elements from African American and European musical practices. The basic group is completed by John Lindberg, an exceptional bassist, and two drummers, Susie Ibarra and Pheeroan Ak Laff, who alternate on some pieces and play together on others.

Sometimes Smith employs gestures immediately identifiable as drawn from jazz: “Thurgood Marshall and Brown vs Board of Education” finds Lindberg anchoring the piece with a slow-grooving funky bass figure, while the interplay between Davis and Ibarra on “The Little Rock Nine” is outstanding. Elsewhere the climate resembles that of classical chamber music: passages for flute, harp and strings in “Medgar Evers: A Love Voice of a Thousand Years’ Journey for Liberty and Justice” have a watercolour delicacy that reminds me of Toru Takemitsu. But more often it seems, to employ Duke Ellington’s phrase, beyond category. The chamber group — basically a string quartet plus harp, clarinet, flute, percussion and an extra violin — appears both by itself and with the quartet/quintet. So organic and unselfconscious is Smith’s writing that the frontier between the two groups disappears, as does the line between composition and improvisation.

The prevailing mood, not surprisingly, is soberly reflective. Even so many years after the events Smith is commemorating, there is much to reflect on. This is not a bruising experience;  the writing and playing are characterised by a sustained lyricism. Nevertheless few  will want to absorb all four and a half hours in at one sitting, and it may a take listener years to become as familiar with these individual pieces as with the much shorter jazz classics of earlier eras. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Smith’s work exists on its own terms, a marvellous tribute to its immense subject.

* The photograph of Wadada Leo Smith was taken by Steve Gunther and is from the booklet accompanying Ten Freedom Summers. Gary Younge’s The Speech is published by Guardian Books.