Greedily Gobbling ECM

ecm grayblackI’ve avoided Spotify all this time. I already have too much music that I don’t listen to. I’m not interested in the pop stars and generic categories (“relaxing jazz for the office!”) offered on the service. And I have a problem with the fact that artists aren’t compensated fairly — Spotify, like many net economy startups, is a bit of a freeloader.

What’s changed my mind is that ECM Records joined the fray. As of Nov. 17, the label is offering its catalogue on a variety of streaming services. Apple and Amazon are included, but I give those guys too much money already. Spotify has the advantage of in-home tech support through my teenage daughter, who uses the app relentlessly.
ecm block

Limitations of the service became apparent quickly. I was disappointed to find out you can’t just shuffle-play an entire label. (As iTunes should have taught me, things like record labels — or songwriters, or musician identities in general — are not valued in a webstreaming world.)

And I don’t trust Spotify to build me a “radio station” using an ECM album as a seed. I still remember the Last.fm experience — I asked it to play artists similar to a particular jazz leader, and it picked jazz artists who played the same instrument. Start with Charles Mingus, and you ended up with Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, and so on. To be fair, I did accidentally hit the Spotify “radio” button next to an ECM album, and it started me off with a Rune Gramofone track. Not a bad guess. Still — I’ll save the algorithms for when I start exploring Spotify’s free-improv catalogue, which is surprisingly extensive.

The solution to getting what I really wanted — a pseudorandom sampling of ECM goodness — was to built a playlist. I’m just throwing albums into it, as if I’m a game-show contestant with a shopping cart and a time limit. I’ll add and delete as the whim strikes, or as I find that a particular album doesn’t suit me. Interestingly, the playlists are the one feature my kid hasn’t experimented with. So much for tech support.

Here’s a smattering of what I’ve thrown into there, or plan to:

Mal WaldronFree at Last (1970) — From 1970, ECM catalogue number 1001: The very first. I’m not sure we even had this on vinyl at KZSU (and the KZSU library itself is a trove of ’70s and ’80s ECM vinyl).

Jan GarbarekSelected Recordings (2002) — Part of the :rarum series of compilations that ECM put out around the turn of the century. I figure the series will be a good way to survey some of the artists I’ve paid short shrift to, like Garbarek.aec-niceguys-185

Vijay Iyer SextetFar From Over (2017) — Because I haven’t gotten around to hearing it yet. What? Stop judging me!

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys (1979) — Because I’ve never heard it, and it’s listed in Len Lyons’ 101 Best Jazz Albums book. Lyons openly admits that doing a “best jazz albums” book is rather ridiculous; in reality, the book is a chronicle of the major jazz movements. It helped me understand why Coltrane and Miles are so revered, for instance. Anyway, in the “Free Jazz” chapter, he uses Nice Guys to introduce the Art Ensemble. I should listen.

The Codona Trilogy (1979, 1981, 1983) — Simply titled CodonaCodona 2, and Codona 3, these albums tapped the “world music” thing before it was a thing, featuring Collin Walcott on sitar, hammer dulcimer, and tabla. Along similar lines…

Jan Garbarek, Anouar Brahem, Ustad Shaukat HussainMadar (1994) — Sax, oud, and tabla. I added a few Brahem albums to the playlist, following up on my explorations of jazz oud.

Andy Sheppard QuartetSurrounded by Sea (2015) — Never tapped into Sheppard after getting early exposure to him in a freely improvised context. I knew his regular stuff wouldn’t be so far out, but it’s nice, especially with that ECM touch.

Andrew Cyrille: Time Stretched Apart

Andrew Cyrille QuartetThe Declaration of Musical Independence (ECM, 2016)

cyrille-declarationThe quieter tracks here are about as “ECM” as it gets. The Declaration of Musical Independence is full of meditative space and loose, floating structure.

This orbit reaches apogee in “Dazzling (Perchordially Yours),” an homage to silences. Most of the track features small scribbles of improvising bordered by bubbles of emptiness. Even the crashing segments, where the entire quartet gears up to make some noise, carries a meditative quality.

It’s the kind of track where the musicians will insist there’s no “lead” player, but I think of Cyrille having the floor. He shapes the piece with slow gong strikes or the sparse clacking of wood blocks, declaring authority inside the field of silence. His patient approach reminds me of his playing on Monk’s Japanese Folk Song (Dizim, 1997), the jazz trio album by koto player Miya Masaoka.

The album does include tunes that are more directly jazzy, written by the other players: Bill Frisell (guitar), Richard Teitelbaum (piano/synths), and Ben Street (bass). Teitelbaum’s “Herky Jerky,” for instance, is a busy track featuring knotty, active improvisation — you’d hear it and point directly to “free jazz.”

Much of the album, though, carries that sense of time stretched apart. “Say…” written by Street, has the four players following their own slow, unspoken rhythms. The tangible melody of Frisell’s guitar sort of sets a tempo, but it’s not certain that the others are in step; the magic is in letting the music drift past, absorbing the “whole” that the four are individually creating.

“Coltrane Time” is the track that’s drawn the most attention. Written but never recorded by Coltrane, and down through Rashied Ali to Cyrille and Milford Graves, the composition appears to be a long snare-drum line. Cyrille, according to the liner notes, repeats it while playing with the tempo and adding accents on the rest of the drum kit.

What I said about stretched time goes for “Coltrane Time” too, but it might be harder to notice, because it’s the noisiest track on the album. I think it’s Teitelbaum on synthesizer who’s doing the screechy, guitar-hero-sounding solo, with Frisell calmly arpeggiating and sprinkling crystal harmonic notes. But despite the central role of the snare, there’s no clear “center” to the rhythm.

Frisell’s presence on the album took some getting used to. That makes me a bad jazz fan, I know, but while his toneful Americana guitar adds a beautiful shimmer, it’s sometimes a distraction.

He’s still got a touch for the abstract, as you can hear in his squiggles and blips on “Manfred” and the deliciously disconnected improv, “Sanctuary.” (He did come from the ’80s downtown NYC scene, after all.) But I found myself longing for a less chummy sound. I also don’t agree with the inclusion of his composition “Kaddish,” a straight-up sad tune with solid melody; it’s played with a mood befitting the album but is still quite the anomaly, like a beginner’s guide to the rest of the album.

Cyrille remains active, which is good to see. Proximity (Sunnyside, 2016), a duo album with Bill McHenry came out concurrently with Declaration and is getting a lot of press. His Route de Frères (Tum, 2011), recorded with a quintet called Haitian Fascination, is a quintet date with some Caribbean influence. (Side note: It features saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, who’s now facing retirement due to health problems.) And of course, Trio 3, with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman, is still going.

I’ve recently delved into Cyrille’s past with Metamusicians Stomp (Black Saint, 1978) by the band Maono, which included Ted Daniel on trumpet and a young David S. Ware. And I’m not done; I think my next Cyrille exploration might be the piano trio led by Søren Kjærgaard, who’s employed Cyrille and Street for a series of albums on Danish label Ilk Music.

Ches Smith’s ECM Trio

Ches SmithThe Bell (ECM, 2016)

imageSo many of the musicians I came to know during the early 2000s have fled to New York. Among them is drummer Ches Smith, who’s come to the spotlight as a part of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil and a leader of his own avant-jazz band, These Arches.

Those two bands fit in the same subgenre in my head. But I’ll always remember Smith for a band that was closer to instrumental pop: Good for Cows, his duo with bassist Devin Hoff (who is still out there, and whose one-off, strings-based project Redresseres, is going to be the subject of a writeup here someday.)

Now Smith has joined the company of ECM bandleaders with The Bell, a trio album where the band sketches wispy outlines that lead to frenzied excursions.

The title track, opening the album, is an exception. It’s all about the long game,  developing gradually over a monotonic pulse and Mat Maneri’s slowly repeated viola line. Smith himself contributes small accents — a cymbal tap or dramatic, short swells of timpani. The deep atmosphere is very “ECM.”

Most of The Bell is far from ambient, however. There’s the tense drama of “Isn’t It Over,” which  builds into a cross-current of polyrhythms: a piano pulse from Craig Taborn, a subtle free groove on drums, and a soloing viola, each flowing on a different timestream. It’s relaxing, but also dark.

The 11-minute “I’ll See You on the Dark Side of the Earth” culminates in almost a heavy rock theme played in Maneri’s richly sour microtonal style, and he and Smith essentially rock out over Taborn’s somber piano chording.

The Bell‘s gorgeous, cerebral title track turns out to be just the surface. You’ll find plenty of passages of crystalline delicacy, but the overall album covers a gamut of moods.

Berne-Watching

Tim Berne’s SnakeoilYou’ve Been Watching Me (ECM, 2015)

berne-youveBy the time I had opened Snakeoil’s You’ve Been Watching Me, I had seen the band twice, including one show that ran through all the major tracks on this, their third CD. So I wasn’t expecting any surprises — but I’d forgotten that this session adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira.

He blends in well. He’s often featured playing the unison lead, adding a new color to the themes. And sometimes he adds David Torn-like effects, as in the distant rumble he builds during the ominous ending to “Embraceable Me,” with its one-note piano chime holding the tension for the mad group solo to follow.

Tim Berne is an artist who churns through bands and compositions rapidly, always anxious to move on to the next thing. It’s nice, then, when something sticks. As with the Bloodcount quartet, it’s been good to see Snakeoil get time to settle, to find its own equilibrium.

“Comfortable” probably isn’t a word Berne wants to hear, but yes, I’ve grown comfortable with this band. It doesn’t feel stale, and the addition of Ferreira adds a fresh challenge without disbalancing the band’s chemical equation. But for me as a listener, what’s nice about “comfortable” is that this third Snakeoil album is heightening my awareness of what I like about this band.

Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet brings a chamber-music delicacy to those long, quiet stretches. He’s especially good during a long, spare stretch of “Small World in a Small Town,” playing opposite Matt Mitchell‘s piano and Ches Smith on vibes and drums.

Mitchell’s piano can play the role of a hard, punishing bassline, but his higher calling here is to add another dimension of tangle and complexity to Berne’s tangly, complex composing. Compositions such as “Small World in a Small Town,” “Embraceable Me,” and “Semi-Self Detatched” (excerpted below) feature cross-current melodies played by separate factions of the band — something Berne did with Bloodcount, too, but it feels like he has more options and more density with this band.


We enjoyed Ches Smith’s music here in the Bay Area for years, so it’s not surprising that he has an intuitive grasp for what this band needs. His drums are a catalyst for building the tension leading to those big, dramatic composed segments, while the vibraphones and timpani let him add to those quieter stretches.

And then there’s Ferreira’s guitar, filling a role similar to Marc Ducret‘s part-time role with Bloodcount: sometimes doubling up the melodies, sometimes adding rugged, scratchy effects to the mix. Over the quick, heavyhanded patter of “False Impressions,”he cuts a nice solo, choosing a skinny, echoey sound, from the Robert Fripp end of the spectrum. And he gets center-stage on the brief title track, a solo-guitar composition reminiscent of the Ducret pieces on Berne’s album, The Sevens.

Above: Snakeoil, minus Ferreira, performing “Embraceable Me” at The Stone.

Tim Berne, Still Selling Snakeoil

Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.
Photo: John Rogers, via ECM website.

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil has released its third album on ECM and is backing it with a U.S. tour launching this week. There’s only one California stop, at the Berkeley Arts Festival (2133 University Ave, Berkeley) on Sunday, May 3.

It’s too bad Yoshi’s is no longer an option. The club’s plush environs suited the sophistication and silences of the originial Snakeoil, especially the glassy foundation laid down by Matt Mitchell’s piano. The live act is more jagged than the ECM-polished version on disc, but it still worked really well in that club. Alas, in the time since Berne played there in 2012, Yoshi’s has become more of a pop venue.

Berkeley Arts doesn’t have Yoshi’s acoustics, but it will provide a receptive crowd that won’t be talking over the music, and we’ll be physically closer to the band. For Berne, the economics might not be the same (actually, who knows; maybe they’re better) but it’s a good tradeoff for us in the audience.

Released on April 10, You’ve Been Watching Me [WARNING: link launches an audio file] adds guitarist Ryan Ferreira to the original quartet of Oscar Noriega on clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano, and the versatile Ches Smith on drums and percussion. New York audiences got a taste of the new mix at Roulette and Barbès concerts in 2013. Video evidence was posted online — part 1 of the 5-part Barbès concert seems to have gone missing, but here’s part 2:

Ferreira also played quite a few of the shows at The Stone for Berne’s 60th birthday last year.

Cut-and-pasted directly from Berne’s web site (screwgunrecords.com), here’s the Snakeoil itinerary:

April 21 : New York NY, Jazz standard
April 24 : Philadelphia PA, Barnes Museum
April 25 : Baltimore MD, an Die Musik
April 26 : Washington DC, Bohemian Caverns
April 28 : Buffalo NY, Hallwalls
April 29 : Toronto ON, Music Gallery
May 3 : Berkeley CA, Berkeley Arts Festival
May 4 : Seattle WA, Royal Room
May 5 : Portland OR, Jimmy Mak’s
May 6 : Sante Fe NM, GiG performance Space
May 7 : Albuquerque NM, The Outpost
May 8 : St. Louis MO, New Music Circle
May 9 : Chicago IL, Constellation
May 10 : Detroit MI, Trinosophes
May 11 : Minneapolis MN, Icehouse

Another Dose of Tim Berne’s Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil — Shadow Man (ECM, 2013)

Tim Berne's Snakeoil: Shadow ManMaybe this is a dumb thing to say, but Shadow Man, the second outing for Tim Berne’s Snakeoil quartet, feels like songs and arrangements picked for the group, a conscious effort to stretch the band’s boundaries.

It’s a fine-lined distinction and possibly a phantom one; after all, it’s pretty obvious the group existed, toured successfully, and made plans for a second album — so of course the songs were hand-picked for them. It just feels like this time, Berne and his cohorts had the advantage of fully knowing the band’s strengths and tendencies. The second time around, they could play to their strengths but also try to push into new territory.

Maybe I’m only getting that impression because “side two” (i.e., the last three songs out of six) consists of three suites, at 23, 19, and 16 minutes, respectively. Not so unusual for a Tim Berne album, but … well, I took it as a sign that these guys aren’t kidding around.

“Socket” (the 19-minute one) has your uptempo, bouncing Berne melodies and the slow parts that typify a suite. But I get different colors out of this than from most of the first Snakeoil album — the almost avant-loungy lushness of the piano/sax duo and the percolating, Bloodcount-like heat of the theme that emerges at the halfway point. There’s a very ECM-like stretch with Oscar Noriega on clarinet, spinning a modern-classical-styled solo as he does so well, accompanied by Matt Mitchell’s patient, angular piano chords and just a wisp of a vibraphone sound from drummer Ches Smith.

“Static” broadsides its way through a nifty bass-clarinet solo by Noriega, then lands in a piano/sax area that feels to me like new ground. Maybe it’s just the instrumentation; that’s certainly Berne soloing, but that piano near-ostinato and the echoey ECM production give it an air that seems new.

The album even starts as if trying to make a new impression. Berne doesn’t appear for the first three minutes, leaving us in a sea of piano and vibes — alien ground compared with Berne’s albums from the ’90s and ’00s.

Of course, Shadow Man isn’t a complete departure. “Static,” “OC/DC,” and “Cornered (Duck)” open with pulse-pounding lines in Berne’s familiar herky-jerky style. (“Static” was co-written with Marc Ducret and got workouts with the Big Satan trio.) Plenty of Berne-written goodness provides the foundation, and the band’s respective improvising voices stretch the fabric into new shapes. It’s a solid effort.

Every other review seems to mention Paul Motian’s “Psalm,” so I might as well, too. It’s a fitting homage to the drummer, a spacious, still duet of Berne and Mitchell maintaining a balanced sense of motion.

Rainy Day ECM

Photo by BennyLin0724 on Flickr.

An ECM record just seems so appropriate on a rainy afternoon. And all of a sudden here in the Bay Area, the last two days have turned rainy-looking: the cool wind, the big artistic clouds. Actual rain comes in tiny bursts, but it’s the sky that counts. It sets up that ECM mood.

So, I spun Jon Hassell late Thursday afternoon. I’d picked up his CD, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street (ECM, 2009) at the library the previous weekend, randomly stabbing through the shelves while waiting for the kids.

I don’t know Hassell from hamburger, but his photo makes him look like a veteran artist, with a style and purpose well weathered by years of honing, seeking, perfecting … You know, it’s just that black-and-white artsy photography. It turns me into the critic who wants to show off that he’s read Faulkner.

Anyway, I found the atmosphere I was looking for, in spades. Trumpet is a great instrument for setting up an indeterminate, spacey chasm of sound, and Hassell uses heavy reverb to that advantage. Behind him is a rustle of varying amounts of electric bass, guitar, synth washes, and samples, a backdrop that’s gray but in varying moods and rippling waves.

Quite a few trumpeters love to set this kind of floating, ethereal mood, with the crisp trumpet tones mixing into a brew of modern, tech-driven sounds. It’s mellow with an edgy undercurrent. From the label that also supports Enrico Rava and Tomasz Stanko, it’s hardly surprising. (Eric Truffaz’s early-2000s work comes to mind too, although that’s closer to a pop vein, IIRC.)


That doesn’t mean it lacks any unique touches. It’s just that sometimes, as much as I love to plumb new ground with music — sometimes even I just want to settle into a comfortable mood.

The tracks do feature different sounds, but the real uniquenesses lie in the little touches of the background — such as guitar by Rick Cox, of the Cold Blue label (a mellow drone/ambient cousin to ECM but from the more troubled, dangerous side of the family) or the warmth of Pete Freeman’s electric bass, especially in spots where it’s used sparingly. I love Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche’s violin, spinning Persian-sounding lines on the 12-minute “Abu Gil,” which is a terrific slow jam occupying a comforting space.

The album isn’t completely my cup of tea. The auto-harmonized trumpet sound starts to make me itch after a while. But as a dose of ECM, a remarkably consistent label, it certainly hit the spot.

Snakeoil

Tim Berne’s Snakeoil plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center on Monday, Feb. 27, and at Yoshi’s Oakland on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Tim BerneSnakeoil (ECM, 2012)

It’s not as though being on the ECM record label was going to change Tim Berne’s music, but I had to wonder. ECM has a sound, a particular aura that’s built Manfred Eicher a worldwide fan base, even though ECM’s range is wider than some realize. (Would you have submitted Prezens to the label that did a CD of Bach viola da gamba songs?)

Even when Eicher doesn’t produce a recording — as on Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change (reviewed here), he takes control of the final mixing. You don’t escape the sound.

So, while a track like “Not Sure” kicks off with those driving, bouncing composed lines that Berne is famous for, you’ve also got “Simple City,” which opens the album with Matt Mitchell on careful piano, letting the notes absorb into the resonant air. It’s like slowly crackling ice, with tiny dissonances here and there for color. Ches Smith starts adding some percussion (timpani, whoa) and Berne finally enters on sax — and the feeling has changed from that icy ECM specialty to the warm-and-comforting (but somehow still icy) ECM specialty.

Tim Berne. Source: Kuumbwa Jazz; click to go there. Photo by Robert Lewis.

Eicher is particularly good at recording drums. I can really savor Smith’s work all over this album, especially the cymbals, whether it’s him splashing about or that clean tapping of wood-on-metal. The resonant room plays well with Oscar Noriega‘s clarinet, too, especially early in “Yield.” He’s going crazy while the band plays a gentle, pulsing rhythm, and the little resonances of the room crop up when Noriega takes a breath or delivers a long, keening note — nice studio-provided touches.

The composing is Berne all over; the first instants of “Scanners” will tell you that, with its quick-paced theme stacking interlocked parts on top of each other. Snakeoil is full of those rock-out moments juxtaposed with loose improvisation or slow, contemplative stretches. The ending of “Simple City” is slow and drawn-out, reminding me of the cooldown endings to some of Berne’s half-hour Bloodcount suites.

None of the tracks is blazingly fast, but “Scanners” moves at a good clip. We’ll call that the hit single (at 7:21, it’s also the shortest song). And “Spectacle” builds to a big, stormy finish. On the prettier side, “Spare Parts” includes a gentle stretch while Berne solos warmly over a calm piano-and-clarinet line. It’s Berne-like and ECM-like, and it’s got a cozy feeling that plays well with the album’s rainy-day cover.

“Scanners” and part of “Spectacle” can be heard via the Screwgun Records page, where you can also order Snakeoil. And if you’re wondering whatever happened to that Los Totopos album Berne recorded — this is it; they just changed the band name.

Motian Studies

Paul Motian’s recent passing got me examining some of the albums I’ve bought over the years that happen to include him.

A couple of these purchases came in the wake of discovering Tim Berne’s Bloodcount on the JMT label. I started snapping up all things JMT — and the label was already defunct, which perversely added to the fun. Anyway, it turns out Motian showed up on a lot of those albums. (Stefan Winter has since revived the entire catalog on Winter & Winter — where you’ll also find a PDF-formatted obit for Motian, cataloging his JMT output.)

Tethered Moon — s/t (JMT, 1995) ….. This one was hard for me at first. On the slow tracks, the music just seemed to sit there. Years later I would reconsider, having gotten more accustomed to less “busy” styles of music.  It’s a Kurt Weill collection, but the songs don’t have the Weill-like tension and drama. Sometimes, the band comes across as a regular piano trio, with Masabumi Kikuchi showing some Keith Jarrett-like leanings, down to the funny-voiced singing alongside his piano lines. But for some patches, this album becomes a celebration of inner stillness, colored by Motian’s delicious brushwork and the rich, resonating wood of Peacock’s bass.

Wolfgang Muthspiel — Perspective (Verve, 1996) ….. The opening “Gang of 5” held me spellbound on first listen. It’s expansive and open-aired, a landscape built on Motian playing a groove without a steady beat. He’s busily riding the cymbals and the snare in a very jazz-like way, but if you try to “spell” the beat in your head, you’ll be foiled. Above this, Muthspiel spins weeping lines on violin and Marc Johnson follows with mournful bowed bass. Eventually, Muthspiel switches to electric guitar for some free soloing over Motian’s non-groove.

On “No You Hang Up First,” you get to hear Motian assigned to play a straight 2/4 beat. Of course, it doesn’t stay that way, and the composition includes a breakdown passage where Motian gets to open up the rhythm.

My recollection is that I bought Perspective on a whim in Europe. It sure looks like a JMT release, but the label says just “Verve” — which did acquire JMT and printed its catalog for a sort time — and I can’t find Muthspiel’s name in the Winter & Winter reissue series.

Paul Motian and The Electric Bebop Band — Reincarnation of a Love Bird (JMT, 1994) ….. Hey, you get to hear Motian play regular swing! Sort of. The slower tracks like Monk’s “Ask Me How” get a swing infused with Motian’s airy treatment, those light, light taps on the cymbals. He’s in more straightahead mode on  some faster ones like Miles’ “Half-Nelson,” and you get to hear a nifty bebop solo from him on “Be-Bop.” I get the feeling this band started as Motian’s way of cutting loose a little bit, in a be-bop sense. (Ironically, by “cutting loose” I actually mean “giving in to jazz’s normal constraints.”) This album used a two-sax, two-guitar format for an exciting, busy sound in some places; Don Alias’ percussion sounds nice but seems like a bit much over Motian’s drumming, sometimes.

This one’s a JMT issue that you can’t get on Winter & Winter; it’s sold out!

Keith Jarrett ….. you know what, I’m not gonna call out a title. That whole mid-’70s period, with Dewey Redman (sax), Charlie Haden (bass), and Motian — those were glorious years. I had to pillage the used bins for Backhand, Bop-Be, El Juicio, and Mysteries, but you can find them all on CD now, thankfully. (Or online; I’m linking to eMusic there, but plenty of other outlets have them.) I think each album includes one “weird” track, one that departs from Jarrett’s snappy-yet-open jazz and goes into complete experimental strangeness, often in a slow, pensive mood. And then there’s The Survivors’ Suite, which I’ve called out previously. I’ve thought about these more than actually listening to them in the past couple weeks, so maybe they shouldn’t count here.

Paul Motian — Conception Vessel (ECM, 1973) ….. I hadn’t heard this one before, though I was aware of it (and other Motian ’70s gems) in the KZSU vinyl library. I’d mentioned it in discussing Motian’s composing, in my review of Joel Harrison’s tribute album. It’s Motian’s first album as a leader, and he tests the waters in so many areas. Sam Brown’s guitar plays rough-and-tumble on “Rebica” but still foreshadows the drifting role Bill Frisell would play for Motian later. The title track is a duet with Jarrett, both players exploring loosely connected territories with a spacious ferocity. “Inspiration from a Vietnamese Lullabye” puts Leroy Jenkins’ violin alongside Becky Friends’ flute in a downright vicious, emotional jam.

Most of these tracks have a younger Motian playing powerfully, with lots of cymbals, still resonating with the heat of the ’60s. He’s certainly not adhering to timekeeping, but neither is the sound dominated by his magician’s subtlety with blank spaces. I like the results a lot.

Of course, Motian’s catalog has a lot more to it. These are just the things I’d grabbed off the shelf, so to speak.

Back to Vienna

While listening to Craig Taborn‘s solo piano CD, Avenging Angel, and chastising myself for thinking of Keith Jarrett so many times, I got the itch to give Jarrett’s Vienna Concert a spin.

It’s a 1992 ECM album of solo piano, just two long pieces. I can’t remember specifically why I bought this CD, as opposed to any other Jarrett piano disc, but I vaguely recall a side comment in a jazz magazine about how proud Jarrett was of this particular recording. Jarrett concurs with this note in the liner card: “I have courted the fire for a very long time, and many sparks have flown in the past, but the music on this recording speaks, finally, the language of the flame itself.”

Not to be dramatic or anything.

“Vienna, Part I” does shine.  The first third of the piece is built from the richly comforting gospel music Jarrett is so good at. There’s a slow bassline in there that’s every bit as delightful as that one riff that I think made The Köln Concert so famous.  From there, he shifts into a phase of stone-cold chords, blocks of concrete descending amid periods of temporary quietude.

Shortly after the halfway mark is when things suddenly spark. Jarrett comes out of a quiet pause with a fast, fiery rhythm in an odd tonality that then shifts further off the rails, gathering, brewing, intensifying. After about four minutes of this, he bursts forth, splashing madly up and down the keyboard while still keeping the same chaotic tonality intact. Those last six words are crucial. He’s taken this mood, this moment, and driven it outward, a wider radius that turns out to be perfectly comfortable and appropriate, a necessary conclusion.

Then the mad keyboard fluttering — fast but always in more of a ur-Jarrett rhythm than a Cecil Taylor spattering — slowly gives way to a pure major key, and from there, Jarrett downshifts back into big, grand chords that manipulate the heartstrings, a grand finale of seven or eight minutes.

There’s a characteristically indulgent side to the finale, but Jarrett does earn it. It’s a cooldown at the end of a magnificent race. Was it truly his best solo work at the time? I can’t say; I’ve delved only the surface of his solo concerts. (I haven’t heard the Sun Bear Concerts, in particular.) But I do feel like Vienna is monumental in a way few other musicians can match. Köln is the pop hit; Vienna might be Jarrett’s deeper, less appreciated masterpiece.

Speaking of underappreciated masterpieces — I notice The Survivors’ Suite is available on eMusic and probably on other legitimate download sites. Go get it. Recorded with Jarrett’s classic quartet (Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian), it’s an epic piece that’s unique in Jarrett’s catalogue. That’s a story for another day.