ECM at a Half-Century

Celebrating 25 classic albums spanning 50 years of the jazz label that refused to play by the rules

ECM The Creative Label

Celebrating its fiftieth anniversary in 2019, ECM Records has long been a label that many jazz fans love to hate. While anyone who follows the label’s prodigious release schedule might find that puzzling, in some ways it’s understandable.

The Munich label doesn’t merely release records – it proffers an aesthetic, both visually and sonically, and that aesthetic is defined by the vision of founder Manfred Eicher. The covers often come wrapped in photos or paintings according to Eicher’s tastes (even if he’s not the actual graphic designer), while his preferred sonic setting – an austere production sound with generous open space, languid tempos and plenty of reverb – is applied to the vast majority of works on the label. Combine those elements with an emphasis on small group recordings and the classically-derived harmonic sophistication inherent in so many of its albums, and the music on ECM earns the oft-used sobriquet “chamber jazz.”

For lots of fans, there are marks of quality. They know what they’re going to get when they slip an ECM release in their basket at the record store. (Physical product still dominates ECM’s sales, though the label’s recent engagement with streaming may change that.) They’ll get a carefully curated set of recordings that come from a label that cares deeply about the music it presents. For detractors, however, it’s a different story. Critics dislike, even abhor, the label’s production sound, considering it an interference with the musicians’ sound – one that stifles energy and improvisation. For them, the ECM aesthetic is a forerunner of new age music, and the covers could even be considered pretentious.

Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy I Only Have Eyes For You,        ECM 1985

As it always is, the reality is somewhere between the two poles. There are plenty of albums in the ECM catalog that seem to live up to depreciators’ claims – albums more concerned with mood than music, or that highlight simple melodic ideas acquiring more import in the mix than they might deserve. But there are, arguably, more records that don’t fit those narrow guidelines – far more. There are plenty of non-boring records in that roster – aggressive free jazz albums, works by composers and instrumentalists that prefer to challenge listeners rather than comfort them, even chamber jazz records that achieve a rare beauty instead of a soporific haze. There’s a reason why so many jazz greats record for the label: Carla Bley, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Andrew Cyrille, Bill Frisell, Charles Lloyd, Wadada Leo Smith, Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie, Gary Burton, Roscoe Mitchell, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Paul Motian, Pat Metheny and many more. Indeed, the first album ever released by ECM, the Mal Waldron Trio’s Free At Last in 1969, was as straightforward as postbop piano trio music gets. Even some of the artists that exemplify the label’s vision, like saxophonist Jan Garbarek, started out making far different records than the ones for which they’re known. There’s a reason why ECM has been named the number one label in respected jazz rag Downbeat’s critic’s poll ten years in a row. (Eicher has won Best Producer for the past seven.)

 

 

If the label can be continually faulted for anything, it’s the fact that it doesn’t keep its catalog in print. Once a production run is out, that album is gone – Eicher prefers to spend money on putting out new records rather than reissues or keeping the catalog alive. While that’s understandable from a business point of view, especially given the twenty-first century’s lack of interest in record sales, it’s a drag for jazz fans, as it leaves many fine recordings languishing in the vaults. (Or overpriced on Discogs.)

Fortunately, Eicher and ECM have chosen to celebrate the label’s golden anniversary by reissuing fifty vintage records from its history: twenty-five in the first half of the year and twenty-five in the second. Given snazzy digipak covers and bargain prices (but no remastering – ECM trusts the production job it did the first time around), these releases rescue some great recordings from limbo. Even the ones that don’t quite hit the “classic” mark are at least good examples of the vision that makes the label what it is.

In covering the first twenty-five of these albums, we’ve chosen to divide them in categories. Mainstays are artists that have or have had long histories with the label – in some cases spending their entire careers there. Pianists and Guitarists are self-explanatory – the label has a long history of giving musicians on both instruments distinctive sonic settings. Outliers are the artists who don’t comfortably fit any category – not as composers, instrumentalists or even, in some cases, jazz musicians – or who recorded only one album for the label. Some of these albums, of course, fit under multiple banners, or might even not truly fit under any of them. Consider these categories more signposts, pointing the way to discovery, than stamps.

 

Mainstays

 

 

Pianist Keith Jarrett began recording for ECM in the early seventies, and has remained with the label ever since. Originally released in 1983, Standards, Vol. 1 was the beginning of something special: a long-running band with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette that applied Jarrett’s wide-ranging imagination to the Great American Songbook. Recordings of “The Masquerade is Over,” “All the Things You Are” and “God Bless the Child” are hardly uncommon, but Jarrett’s nimble fingers, creative solos and devotion to melody give these much recorded tunes new life. Peacock and DeJohnette bring their own distinctive touches to the rhythms without getting in the way of their leader’s vision- the pair’s funky groove on “Child” is worth the price of admission alone. ECM has many LPs from Jarrett’s Standards Trio in the catalog, and everyone of them deserves reissue. But there’s something special about hearing the threesome come together and make magic for the first time.

 

Though his band Oregon has traversed the label landscape in its forty-odd years of existence, guitarist Ralph Towner has been an ECM loyalist for the entirety of his solo career. While he has several notable LPs in his catalog, including Solstice, Batik and the John Abercrombie co-bill Sargasso Sea, one of his most famous has festered on the OOP pile for far too long.

 

 

1975’s Matchbook finds the acoustic guitarist sharing the studio with master vibist Gary Burton (who also has a bunch of excellent LPs on ECM) for a series of quiet but vibrant duets. One might assume that Towner creates the backdrop for Burton to solo over, but that’s not always the case. The guitarist stretches out plenty on his 12-string and classical axes, and Burton is as good as painting the backgrounds as he is sprucing up the foreground. The pair get to the heart of the matter with the lovely “Song For a Friend,” lively “Icarus” (probably Towner’s most famous composition) and “Matchbook,” closing out this classic album with a gorgeous take on Charles Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.”

Bassist Dave Holland first recorded for ECM as sideman and co-leader in 1971, and as a leader on 1972’s magnificent Conference of the Birds, a landmark in chordless jazz. While it’s puzzling that Birds wasn’t chosen for reissue, the return of 1985’s Seeds of Time, the second with his newly minted quintet, is most welcome.

 

 

As both bassist and composer, Holland has always thrived leading this band, which may have changed personnel over time but never became less than the perfect vehicle for the leader’s omnivorous vision. This album is particularly democratic, with saxophonist Steve Coleman (on his way to becoming a major bandleader in his own right), trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and trombonist Julian Priester sharing the melodic weight. The band borrows a pair of tunes from non-member Doug Hammond as well. Check Priester’s zesty “Celebration,” Coleman’s playful “Gridlock (Opus 8)” and Holland’s swinging “Homecoming” for jazz that doesn’t fit into a stylistic box, but still defines the essence of the form.

Miroslav Vitous and Jan Garbarek are also ECM oldtimers, particularly Garbarek – in many ways the Norwegian saxophonist embodies the ECM sound, for good or ill. In collaboration with Czech bassist/Weather Report co-founder Vitous, it’s mostly the former on the pair’s 1993 album Atmos. Though Garbarek’s folk-influenced, early morning melodies stand out, it’s really Vitous’ show here – the low-ender wrote almost everything, and his double bass is as prominent a deliverer of tunes as Garbarek’s soprano and tenor horns. Indeed, it’s the contrast between Vitous’ bluesy strokes and Garbarek’s sinuous coo that makes the tracks compelling. “Pegasos,” “Direvision” and the title cut practically vibrate with productive tension, and the addition of orchestral samples on the two-part, co-composed “Time Out” adds a rogue element that pushes the music into even more intriguing territory.

 

 

The label keeps the spotlight on Garbarek for 1980’s Aftenland, another duet album, this time with organist Kjell Johnsen. Though the hornman is best known for his jazz work, this hews closer to classical music than it does anything related to swing or the blues. Garbarek definitely takes the lead here, his soaring soprano lines dominating every track. Johnsen mainly sets the foundation on which Garbarek stands, though he occasionally gets frisky in his fingerings. Recorded in a Swedish church, the tracks make use of natural reverb in the manner of classical recordings, giving the record a spacious, slightly haunted sonic wash. Not really jazz, not exactly classical, the darkened “Syn,” the phantasmic “Iskriken” and the dramatic “Enigma” carve out their own mysterious spaces in Garbarek’s musical firmament.

Bassist Eberhard Weber has been essential to the ECM aesthetic as both leader and sideman, appearing on dozens of albums with Garbarek, Burton, Towner, Pat Metheny and even, outside the ECM family, Kate Bush. Wielding an electric upright bass since the early seventies, the Stuttgart native carries a distinctive tone and melodic sensibility that allows him to stand out in any arrangement without being overbearing. Incorporating elements of classical, ambient and minimalist musics, Weber almost embodies what many consider to be the ECM sound, his work proudly earning the “chamber jazz” designation. The Following Morning, Weber’s third solo LP, is a particularly adroit example. Joined by his regular keyboardist Rainer Brüninghaus and members of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, the bassist/composer paints rich pictures of glowing dawns and blinding sunrises. “On a White Horse” and the title track could have easily degenerated into new age goop; it’s a testament to Weber’s skill and ingenuity in balancing his various tools that it never quite happens.

 

 

Though not a household name to casual jazz fans, trumpeter and flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler recorded a long string of albums for ECM and others over the course of forty-plus years. 1984’s Double, Double You, his fourth album for the label, finds the Canadian-born British resident backed by saxophonist Mike Brecker, pianist John Taylor, bassist Dave Holland and drummer Jack DeJohnette for a high energy set. Opening tune “Foxy Trot” sets the standard, with interlocking riffs, spirited solos and a lively, swinging rhythm pulse. “W.W.” follows suit, while “Ma Bel” handily displays Wheeler’s touch with smoky balladry. The most impressive highlight, however, is the sidelong medley “Three For D’reen/Blue For Lou/Mark Time,” a piece that unfolds over the course of nearly twenty-four minutes from brooding ambience to blasting improv. Double, Double You is pure jazz delight.

 

 

Maverick bassist Barre Phillips came to ECM after ten years of playing with everyone from Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre to Eric Dolphy and Archie Shepp. The San Francisco-born French resident also released the first solo bass record in 1968, a habit he would continue with his longtime label. However, 1976’s Mountainscapes, his first album as leader for ECM, is a full band effort featuring his Trio partners Stu Martin on drums and synthesizer and John Surman on woodwinds and synthesizer, plus extra synth player Dieter Feichtner. The predominance of electronic keyboards and a program of one piece broken into eight parts might lead one to believe this is a record of washed-out pre-ambient soundscapes. Nothing could be further from the truth, though, as Phillips and his sidemen key in on his free jazz background for “I,” “VIII” (which guest stars guitarist John Abercrombie) and other tracks. Even the more atmospheric cuts, like “II” and “VI,” employ drone more than ambience, and tend to let Surman go wild. Phillips himself is no supportive wallflower – his frenetic bowing on “III” and thrumming arco on “IV” lead the charge without being about showing off his obvious virtuosity. Simply put, Mountainscapes is a brilliant record, and it’s a thrill to have it back.

 

 

Speaking of  John Surman, it took the British reeds master a while to arrive at ECM’s doorstep (his career stretches back to the sixties), but once he did (in 1979) he decided to stay. Known for contemplative and experimental music, Surman stepped into a different realm for 1993’s The Brass Project, a collaboration with Montreal saxophonist, composer and conductor John Warren. With Surman’s regular rhythm section of bassist Chris Laurence and MVP drummer John Marshall in tow, he and Warren assemble a seven-person strong contingent of trumpet and trombone players to bring the pair’s tunes to life. The brass folks’ sonorous arrangements carry the main melodies while Surman solos on saxophones and clarinets, sometimes inviting one of his new compadres to take the spotlight. Tracks like “The Returning Exile,” “Wider Vision” and the ballad “Silent Lake” encapsulate the record’s concept, but it’s on the two-part epic “The New One Two” and the massive “Mellstock Quire/Tantrum Clangley” that the record really shines. Somewhere between big band and marching band, The Brass Project is smartly conceived and executed.

 

 

French clarinetist and sax player Louis Sclavis joined the ECM roster in the early nineties and has been a bulwark ever since. His 1991 label debut Rouge shows how good a fit he is, while still being eager to push its boundaries. At his most classically-inclined, Sclavis and his backing quartet practically embody the notion of chamber jazz on tracks like “Reflet” and “One.” But he and violinist Dominque Pifarély are just as eager to play out, weaving frenetic lines together on “Moment Donné” and “Kali La Nuit” like they listened to Ornette Coleman right before they went into the studio. Pianist François Raulin adds clinking synthesizer to the charged mix of “Les Bouteilles” and the varied “Rouge/Pourquoi Une Valse,” and the whole ensemble is at its envelope shredding best on the epic cut “Face Nord.” Sclavis has made some somber, dreamy music during his ECM tenure – while there’s some of that here as well, there’s enough playful, hyperactive nose-tweaking to reveal a whole new dimension to his work.

 

Pianists

Though he’s had a long and prolific career, Mike Nock is hardly a household name even in the jazz arena. A New Zealand native, the pianist studied at Berklee and spent a decade in New York as a session musician, but has practiced his craft mostly in Australia and his home country. 1982’s Ondas, his sole ECM date, makes clear that that’s a shame: he’s got a deft tonal touch, a sense of whimsy that allows him to freely improvise off the melody and an insular feel that draws active listeners to him, rather than dragging them over. Joined by international rhythm section Eddie Gomez (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums), Nock veers between the lush environments of “Forgotten Love” and “Land of the Long White Cloud” and the roiling adventures of “Visionary” and “Doors.” With its emphasis on quiet intimacies and subtle virtuosity, Ondas is practically a primer on the ECM outlook, but it’s also one of the best of its kind.

 

 

Keyboardist Chick Corea is known for his taste, melodicism and prodigious technique, and his record tends to be tightly composed and arranged, even as they leave plenty of room for improvisation. But he explored the unrestraint of free jazz with Circle, the trio version of which released the album A.R.C. on ECM. As obviously indicated by the title, he continues down that profligate path on Piano Improvisations Vol. 1, recorded and released in 1971. Far from avant-garde, though, the baker’s dozen piece herein focus his classically-schooled touch into a series of sharp, tuneful performances that have more in common with pre-bop songcraft and piano rolls than Circle. A short piece like “Ballad For Anna” and a longer one a la “Sometime Ago” both feature Corea at his rippling best, always subsuming his skill in service to the tune, even if that tune is being made up as he goes along. He’s at his most ambitious with the eight-part “Where Are You Now?,” a sidelong suite of vignettes that showcase his talent, from atonal to sentimental, in a most flattering light.

 

 

Canadian pianist Paul Bley recorded Ballads in 1967, but it wasn’t released until 1971. Working with bassists Gary Peacock and Mark Levinson (on separate tracks) and drummer Barry Altschul, Bley does make a passing nod to its eponymous form, but it’s unlikely anyone would take up slow dancing to these three long tracks, all written by avant-garde composer Annette Peacock. Bley’s free jazz background comes to play more than his work with saxophonist and frequent employer Jimmy Giuffre, with enough open improvisation on “Ending” and “So Hard It Hurts” to make one believe they were made up on the spot. A veteran of Corea’s out-there quartet Circle, Altschul never lets the rhythm sit in repetition, and the bassist act as lead voice as often as Bley. The leader’s restless piano remains the focus, however, and displays no interest in making Ballads the easy listen implied by the title.

 

 

Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson is another ECM stalwart, releasing both his debut solo album Underwear and Sart, the first of a handful of albums with Jan Garbarek, in 1971. He also recorded with free jazz trumpeter Don Cherry for ECM, and was a member of saxophonist Charles Lloyd’s quartet during his label tenure. 1998’s War Orphans, recorded with his intrepid trio with bassist Anders Jormin and drummer Jon Christensen, features the ivory-tickler at his best. At first blush, Stenson’s harmonic sophistication and steady demeanor make him an emblematic ECM artist. But his sense of swing, experimental impulses (like treating the piano wires like a hammered dulcimer), dedication to playing around the melody as much as with it, and willingness to duel Jormin push him out of chamber jazz and into postbop territory. A seething groove keeps Ornette Coleman’s title track and Jormin’s “Eleventh of January” and “Natt” off center. When the heat rises, as on Silvio Rodriguez’s “Oleo de mujer con sombrero,” Duke Ellington’s “Melancholia” and the leader’s “Bengali Blues,” it threatens to set off smoke alarms.

 

 

As any jazz fan knows, Peter Erskine is a drummer, not a pianist. But the trio with which he performs on 1999’s Juni includes expert British pro John Taylor, who shares compositional duties with Erskine. While Erskine has a handful of ECM albums, Taylor’s tenure was much longer, and he’s right at home here. Consistently blending melodicism with outsider playing, Taylor gives Erskine’s “The Ant & the Elk,” Kenny Wheeler’s “For Jan” and his own “Windfall” and “Fable” their sparkle. In contrast to his crack precision with bands like Weather Report and Steps Ahead, Erskine keeps the rhythm loose, spending as much time with snare rolls and cymbal splashes as backbeat, letting bassist Palle Danielsson act as anchor. But Taylor is definitely the star of the show.

 

Guitarists

An axeman’s axeman, Mick Goodrick has spent most of his half-century career as a sideman (Gary Burton, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden, Jerry Bergonzi) and a teacher (Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Julian Lage – if it’s a prominent jazz picker from the last forty years, Goodrick was probably involved in his or her education at some point). Thus his discography isn’t exactly teeming with solo albums. His first and best, however, appeared on ECM – a label with which he was familiar due to his work with Burton – in 1979. The curiously titled In Pas(s)ing features Goodrick fronting a quartet consisting of ECM mainstays Jack DeJohnette and John Surman, as well as former Bill Evans bassist Eddie Gomez, who worked extensively with DeJohnette in guitarist John Abercrombie’s New Directions. Never a flashy player, Goodrick is as comfortable comping behind Surman’s probing soprano as he is soloing, but in either case he’s a model of using awesome technique in the service of a tune. A master of chord dynamics, Goodrick lets the melodies rule postbop creations like “Pedalpusher” and “Feebles, Fables and Ferns,” as his golden tone speaks for his vision as much as his fingers. The epic “In the Tavern of Ruin” lets everybody have a chance to shine, with Surman leading the charge and Gomez turning in an especially impressive solo. “In Passing” closes with a caffeinated energy level, pushing Surman to his limits and letting the rhythm section boil over, while Goodrick sits back and takes it all in. Simply brilliant.

 

 

Pat Metheny became more famous once he made the leap to a major label in the mid-eighties, but when he started his long career, it was as an ECM artist – both as a leader and as a sideman. His 1976 debut Bright Size Life rightfully made a splash amongst jazz guitar aficionados, and deserves a reissue as well. But 1977’s Watercolors is of equal significance, as it’s essentially the birth of the Pat Metheny Group. PMG pianist Lyle Mays and drummer Danny Gottlieb make their first appearances with the guitarist here, along with bassist/mentor Eberhard Weber. More importantly, Metheny finds his voice as a composer, blending Jim Hall, soft rock, Latin music, folk and hints of classical into the sweetly melodic composite on which he’s built his career since. That means he leans toward the saccharine sometimes, as on “Lakes” and “River Quay,” which sounds like it should have been issued on CTI. But when Metheny hits full flower, as on the title track, the virtuostic “Florida Greeting Song” or the epic “Sea Song,” he proves the worth of the tuneful vision he would pursue for the next four decades.

 

 

 

John Abercrombie has long been one of the most prolific axemen on ECM, with an enviable catalog of classic records. While not necessarily one of those, 1984’s Night still deserves its reissued status. On the surface a return to the lineup of his landmark ECM debut Timeless with keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette (plus special guest saxist Mike Brecker), Night lives up to its name with a smoky, 3 a.m. ambience. Hammer and DeJohnette mostly stay in the background, setting up the framework for Brecker and Abercrombie to provide melodies and solos. Not everything clicks here – the title track borders on smooth jazz cheese, and Hammer’s opening “Ethereggae” feels as archly clever as its title. But the meditative “3 East,” the ripping “Four On One” and the groovy “Believe You Me” are reminders of what a special player, composer and bandleader Abercrombie was.

 

 

Norwegian guitarist and longtime ECM fixture Terje Rypdal rarely gets the credit he deserves for being a pioneering fusionist in the seventies – his bold, strange classic Odyssey (1975) is required listening for anyone interested in the style. By the time his career landed on 1987’s Blue, the Strat master had stripped his ensemble down to the power trio the Chasers, AKA bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr and drummer Audun Kleive. The classically-trained Rypdal generally avoids happy jazz rock clichés, allowing him to create tunes like “Kompet Går” and “Last Nite” that blend appealing melodies and staccato playing into tracks that never resolve quite the way you think they should. The mysterious “Og Hva Synes Vi Om Det” embraces ambient sounds by floating on a becalmed sea of synth beds, while “I Disremember Quite Well” makes the ballad form as unsettling as its title. In contrast, the title track follows fairly predictable beats for a fusion ballad, but Rypdal’s biting, sensual tone and willingness to fuck shit up give it life. A few dated synth noises aside, Blue transplants Rypdal’s distinctive take on fusion into the slick ‘n’ shiny eighties pretty much intact.

 

Outliers

David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury is a great example of ECM’s commitment to unusual and unclassifiable musics. The guitarist’s fourth record for the label (counting a prior solo record and two albums with his quirky fusion group Everyman Band), the 1987 release nearly defies description. At this point in his career, the New Yorker had abandoned any attempt at a conventional guitar hero career, freely mixing elements of jazz, rock and more experimental musics, without wholly committing to any of them. Working with trumpeter Mark Isham, bassist/Stick player Tony Levin and, most surprisingly, Yes/King Crimson drummer Bill Bruford, Torn uses familiar tools, but then morphs his constructions into new shapes. “The Mercury Grid” could fit on a contemporary fusion record, a prog rock record or even a new age record without causing fans of those genres to raise an eyebrow. The rhythmically “Previous Man” rocks without being macho about it, while the two-part “Network of Sparks” travels into other worlds marked by ambient soundscapes and swirling improvisation. Part of the reason this album inhabits its own space comes down to the way Torn thinks about sound. Unless he’s shredding, his effects-heavy guitar is often not recognizable as itself, while Bruford’s emphasis on the Simmons drum kit and Levin’s switching between the Chapman Stick and synthesized bass (never using an actual bass guitar) helps give the tracks an extra-dimensional feel. It’s a smart use of then-trendy tools to make music that sounds of its time, but not dated – a neat and very difficult trick.

 

 

Though known for jazz and classical music, ECM has also been a home for exotic musics that don’t easily fit either of those categories, at least not on the surface. Argentine composer Dino Saluzzi defines that nicely on Andina, his ECM debut from 1988. Performing his own music on unaccompanied bandoneon, Saluzzi brings the melodies of his home country to the wider world. Not that this is an album of native folk tunes and tango – it’s closer in spirit to a solo classical recital than a collection of songs representing a many-faceted culture. Which is fine – Saluzzi has a strong grasp of melody and introduces a lot more variety than one might expect from what’s essentially a solo accordion project. The coltish “Dance,” the mournful title track and the gentile “Tango of Oblivion” reveal a composer whose work could be translated to a full band or orchestra quite easily. Saluzzi would fill out his sound with other musicians on subsequent works for the label, but there’s something special about hearing him bring forth his talent alone.

Guitarist Steve Tibbetts has been giving record store employees fits for decades. Is he jazz? New age? Rock? Folk? Worldbeat? Some form of modern classical? In truth the St. Paul six-string slinger lifts bits from all of that and more – he’s a musical magpie unafraid to borrow anything that strikes his fancy and incorporate it into his own work. The all-acoustic Northern Song, his third album and second for ECM, makes this clear with the first tune. “The Big Wind” starts with gentle acoustic guitar noodling, before opening up into a catchy melody supported by stalwart percussionist Marc Anderson’s congas and Tibbetts’ own kalimba. The track then shifts to near-ambient sounds, exploiting quietude, before the guitarist goes pastoral, poking at different aspects of his own song. “Form” gets even quirkier, sounding like he’s channeling some exotic birdsong through his instrument. “Aerial View” keys on repetition, Tibbetts layering circular riffs over Anderson’s subtle conga rhythm. The sidelong “Nine Doors/Breathing Space” explores the kind of neo-classical folk ambience that likely helped land Tibbetts in the New Age section, a categorization that must have made the electric firestorms of other Tibbetts LPs quite a shock.

Stephan Micus would occupy a distinctive space on any label. The German singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer uses a large variety of reed, string and percussion instruments from other cultures – everything but the usual guitar, piano and drums – to create pieces that sound like they hail from a specific folk tradition, but in reality come from Micus’s imagination. He deliberately plays the instruments without formal training to find new sounds, and even his lyrics are mostly improvised syllables. His thirteenth LP, 1992’s To the Evening Child is as fine an example of his unique vision as anything in his catalog. “Young Moon,” for example, uses the flute-like kortholt and suling and a plucked dilruba to back Micus’s droning vocals for a tune that sounds somewhere between European Renaissance music and a Middle Eastern religious piece. “Equinox” puts the bow to the dilruba and adds a reed instrument called a nay for a crying instrumental work that seems to seep in from the ether. Not unlike Dead Can Dance’s Brendan Perry if he was a classical composer, Micus borrows from world musics to execute a very singular vision.

 

 

Saxophonist George Adams was a veteran of the bands of Charles Mingus and Gil Evans, and was just getting his quartet with pianist Don Pullen off the ground when he released 1979’s Sound Suggestions, his sole ECM date. Backed by German sax player Heinz Sauer and ECM vets Kenny Wheeler, Richard Beirach, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette, Adams makes no concessions to chamber jazz here. Instead he just goes about his merry postbop way, from his Latin-influenced “Imani’s Dance” to Wheeler’s lush “A Spire” to Sauer’s freewheeling “Stay Informed.” Everybody keeps the arrangements melodic while maintaining a high energy level; Adams sets the standard with fiery soloing, pushing Wheeler and Beirach to meet him. Adams even contributes a rough vocal to the madcap blues “Got Somethin’ Good For You.”

As a member of Chicago’s famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, trumpeter Leo Smith (known as Wadada Leo Smith since the eighties) has long pushed the boundaries of African-American improvisational music into odd and often otherworldly territories. 1979’s Divine Love appeared right around the time his friends the Art Ensemble of Chicago began a memorable and impressive ECM run. (Indeed, this album was also first last year as part of the 21-disk Art Ensemble of Chicago box set And Associated Ensembles.) As free as free improvisation can be, the tracks feature little-to-no rhythmic center and consist mainly of Smith and woodwinds player Dwight Andrews swirling around each other like birds in a strong wind, while vibraphonist Bobby Naughton fills in the blanks. While that sounds like chaos, it’s actually much more mystical than it sounds. Bassist Charlie Haden adds his distinctive thrum to “Spirituals: The Language of Love,” and Smith’s fellow brassmen Lester Bowie and Kenny Wheeler add harmonies to “Tastalun.” A challenging but rewarding listen.

 

Michael Toland

Michael Toland has been writing about music for various fan- and magazines since 1988, including Austin Chronicle, Blurt, The Big Takeover, Trouser Press Record Guide (online), Pop Culture Press, Amplifier, Sleazegrinder, Austin-American Statesman, Austinist, Austincitysearch, Goldmine, FHT Music Notes and, from 2001–2006, his own website, High Bias. As might be surmised by the number of times “Austin” appears in the above list, he lives in Austin, Texas.

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