This is the third post in which I recall some of the music I’ve enjoyed in 2015 but never got round to writing about. This one is dedicated (with two exceptions) to music recorded on the record label that is, for me, indispensable – ECM. There’s a lot of jazz, examples of the gift of ECM’s guiding spirit Manfred Eicher for bringing together musicians from different contexts to create wonderful sounds, and some of the contemporary music released on the ECM New Series label.
It’s been four years now since the release of The Athens Concert, the stunning double CD by jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd and Maria Farantouri. That recording was graced by the lyra of Sokratis Sinopoulos. Now ECM have released Eight Winds, an album of reflective, yearning music that embraces ancient Greek musical tradition and the kind of unclassifiable contemporary chamber music that have become the trademark of Manfred Eicher’s productions for ECM.
On Eight Winds Sinopoulos leads his own quartet, also comprising Yann Keerim on piano, Dimitris Tsekouras on bass and Dimitris Emanouil on drums. The lyra dominates the melodies, some of which are stirring and some of them sad – suggesting parallels with the swings in circumstance of the musicians’ nation in the past twelve months.
Some of these tunes might sound sweet played on a violin, but the lyra has a creaky, raspy sound that feels as if it’s coming from a past age, and that means the mood, if at times lyrical or elegiac is nevertheless far from sentimental. ’21st March’ (which appears on the CD in two variants) is one such tune which, as one reviewer observed, has the feel of such nobility that it could be used as the soundtrack to a documentary film about the huge suffering of of the Greek people in recent years. ‘Street Dance’, on the hand, has the feel of an Irish jig with energetic percussion from Dimitris Emanouil, while ‘Thrace’ features superb passages of interplay between the four musicians. ‘Forever’ is a meditative conversation between the almost cello-like lyra and Yann Keerim on piano.
Sokratis Sinopoulos’s lyra is almost the first thing heard on the opening track of Charles Lloyd’s latest album Wild Man Dance, released earlier this year – though not on ECM, since Lloyd has returned to Blue Note after nearly 30 years. However, the album sounds quintessentially like the sort of thing Manfred Eicher would have produced, having a distinct European feel that draws upon various folk traditions but resting upon the foundations of a solid American rhythm section comprising pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Joe Sanders, and Lloyd’s long-time drummer Eric Harland.
The long first track ‘Flying Over the Odra Valley’ opens with Sinopoulos’s lyra bowing in behind tinkling notes from a cimbalom played by Miklos Lukacs before bass, drum, and Clayton’s piano enter in a collective rhythmic improvisation finally joined by Lloyd.
Wild Man Dance is a 6-part suite commissioned by the Jazztopad Festival in Wrocĺaw, Poland in 2013 and recorded there. The music – like the previous Athens Concert – is a seamless blend of jazz and folk forms, featuring adventurous improvisation. In April this year Charles Lloyd played Wind Man Dance at the metropolitan Museum of Art. The entire concert can be seen on the Met’s website here.
Back with ECM, the fourth album for the label by Sinikka Langeland, The Half-Finished Heaven, was a gem that I wrote about at length in March. It’s a gorgeous record from an artist I first encountered in 2006, when she released her first ECM recording, Starflowers. Like that album, The Half-Finished Heaven is an inspiring mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry, expressing ‘the mystery and joy of everyday encounters with animals in the forest’. For three pieces Langeland sets to music texts by Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, which in their own way speak of the transformative power of nature. Her vocal on ‘The Light Streams In’ is framed beautifully by Lars Anders Tomter’s yearning viola.
Sinikka Langeland regularly collaborates with jazz musicians, including Trygve Seim, who appears alongside classical viola player Lars Anders Tomter and percussionist Markku Ounaskari on The Half-Finished Heaven. But if Langeland’s album isn’t easily pigeon-holed as jazz, there were others from the ECM stable that I heard this year which readily fall into that category.
Mathias Eick has been a regular sideman on many ECM releases, and after two albums as leader (Skala and The Door), this year he came up with Midwest, a melodic and atmospheric set whose titles reflect place and distance travelled. It’s an imaginative journey from Hem, the tiny Norwegian village where the trumpeter grew up, to the plains of Dakota in the American Midwest. (It was to the Midwest that hundreds of thousands of Norwegians travelled in the 19th century, taking their music with them – and their accent, as the return of the hugely-enjoyable TV series Fargo confirms).
Eick told one interviewer that the inspiration for the album came during a gruelling North American tour: ‘I’d been out on the road for a long time and was feeling homesick. Then we reached the Midwest and I suddenly felt as if I was home. I had a sense of why the early settlers would want to build their farms there. It reminded me very much of parts of Norway.’
The presence of violinist Gjermund Larsen, whose roots are in the Norwegian folk tradition, strengthens the earthy, roots sound on the tunes. Eick and Larsen are joined by pianist Jon Balke, double bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Helge Norbakken.
Guitarist Jacob Young’s Evening Falls was one of my favourite albums of the last decade, a collection of mellifluous tunes for nocturnal listening. This year I’ve been listening to his latest album, Forever Young. (Young was born in Lillehammer which reminds me of another eccentric TV series, Steve Van Zandt’s Lilyhammer)
On Forever Young, Jacob Young is joined by the saxophonist Trygve Seim and the trio of Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski. The album has the same warm, lyrical and joyous feel as Evening Falls. It’s jazz very much in the American tradition but with a European feel, Young’s acoustic and electric guitar quietly meditative alongside Seim’s gorgeous sax and Marcin Wasilewski’s piano.
Marcin Wasilewski was a new name to me when I saw it in the credits for Forever Young. Earlier this year, I discovered his new album Spark of Life – only to discover that it was his fourth album for ECM in the past decade. The set begins with the intensely melodic ‘Austin’ and I was instantly captured.
Spark of Life features pianist Marcin Wasilewski’s Trio with Slawomir Kurkiewicz on double bass and Michal Miskiewicz on drums, supplemented by Joakim Milder on saxophone, whose lyrical playing lends the album its particular beauty. Milder’s name was not familiar – though in fact I had heard him before: on Tomasz Stanko’s Litania. The players share a love of the music of Krzyzstof Komeda, Polish pianist and composer of film scores, and Komeda’s lovely ‘Sleep Safe and Warm’ theme, written for Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is present on this collection – along with an inventive cover of the Police’s ‘Message In A Bottle’.
Diverting briefly from ECM, I have enjoyed the new CD from Swedish bassist and cellist Lars Danielsson. Titled Libretto II, it’s a follow-up to his successful 2012 collection, Libretto I. I mention it here, not just because I like the music, but also because a guest player on this album is Mathias Eick of ECM fame (see above), and the Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasayan (also of ECM, about whom more in a mo).
In the words of one reviewer, Libretto II is ‘perfect Sunday morning jazz’ but I reckon it sounds great on any day of the week or at any time of day. It’s music of shimmering beauty that sounds as if it ought to be on Manfred Eicher’s label, combining classical chamber music elements that veer gently into jazz harmonies with a hint of Scandinavian folk. The CD is sensuously recorded, with Danielsson’s bass and the brushed drums maintaining the languid atmosphere. The opening ‘Grace’ features Eick’s atmospheric trumpet and some classical guitar from Dominic Miller.
I’ve loved Andy Sheppard’s work for a very long time (Learning to Wave from 1998 and Dancing Man and Woman from 2000 are two of my favourite jazz CDs, as is his collaboration with pianist Joanna McGregor, Deep River). Then, with Movements in Colour in 2009, he was taken aboard Manfred Eicher’s ship. His latest for ECM is Surrounded by Sea.
As on his last album, 2012’s Trio Libero, his Quartet once again includes Michel Benita on double bass and Sebastian Rochford on drums, but adds Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronic sounds to provide distinctive atmospheric elements. The album’s centerpiece is a reading of a Gaelic tune, ‘Aoid, Na Dean Cadal Idir’ that was initially intended to be part of a collaborative album with Hebridean folk singer Julie Fowlis, but the project never came to fruition. Sheppard takes the melody on his soprano and improvises, while Rochford’s brush and stickwork and Aarset’s ambient washes provide colour and backdrop. This is a live performance of the track at the Opus Jazz Club in Budapest:
Anouar Brahem, Tunisian master of the oud, is another ECM artist whose albums have been among my absolute favourites on the ECM, and rarely a week goes by in this household without listening to such albums as Astrakhan Cafe, Le Pas Du Chat Noir, or Thimar his stunning debut in 1998 with John Surman and Dave Holland. His most recent collection, Souvenance, was recorded in 2014, six years after his last ECM album, The Astounding Eyes of Rita. In that time Brahem’s emotional world had been dominated by the political upheaval sweeping first through Tunisia then through neighbouring countries. Extraordinary waves of change, accompanied by great hopes and fears. ‘I don’t claim a direct link between my compositions and the events taking place in Tunisia,’ says Anouar, ‘but I have been deeply affected by them.’ With Souvenance Franҫois Couturier (whose piano made such an atmospheric contribution to Le Pas Du Chat Noir has returned to the Brahem group. There’s a fragility to these pieces, with a string quartet providing a shimmering texture against which Anouar Brahem’s oud and Couturier ‘s piano stand out in bold relief.
Apart from all the great jazz there is to listen to on ECM discs, I also receive a musical education from releases on the sister New Series label. Over the past year or so it’s been a release from 2013 that we have returned to again and again. Dobrinka Tabakova is a composer born in Bulgaria in 1980 but raised from a young age in London. String Paths is the first full album devoted to her music.
It’s music that is immediately accessible – richly melodic, catchy even, especially in the case of Suite in Old Style for viola and chamber orchestra which is the undoubted centrepiece of this album (it was, apparently, the piece that when he heard it performed at a European music festival led ECM producer Manfred Eicher to propose that ECM record it.
Coursing through this spirited collection (nominated for a Grammy award) are echoes of musical traditions in eastern and western Europe, and of classical and contemporary directions in music. Other highlights of the recording are Tabakova’s string septet Such Different Paths and a trio for violin, accordion and double-bass, Frozen River Flows. Earlier this year, as part of BBC Radio 3’s celebration of female composers for International Women’s Day, one episode of Composer of the Week was devoted to Dobrinka Tabakova (sadly, no longer available on iPlayer).
The German cellist Anja Lechner is another ECM star whose musical collaborations I’ve enjoyed in recent years. Manfred Eicher likes to place his musicians in new contexts – players from the world of jazz introduced to musicians working within classical or avant-garde currents. Previous albums have paired Lechner with Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos (Gurdjieff Chants, Hymns and Dances and Melos), and the Argentinean bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi (Ojos Negros and Navidad De Los Andes). On her most recent release, Moderato cantabile, she is joined by François Couturier, the pianist who also features on Anouar Brahem’s Souvenance.
Lechner is a classical soloist, but with an interest in improvisation, while Couturier is a jazz musician exploring beyond the boundaries of jazz. Moderato cantabile features their own arrangements of works by composers from the margins of music history, notably G.I. Gurdjieff (to whom, like Keith Jarrett, Lechner has already devoted a whole album). Lechner has spent some time in Armenia, deepening her understanding of the contexts from which Gurdjieff ‘s music emerged.
Which brings me neatly to the ECM record that I’ve been playing most recently. Completely unclassifiable, Luys I Luso (‘light from light’) matches jazz pianist Tigran Hamasayan with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir on an album that has Tigran digging deep back into his Armenian roots. It’s a beautiful CD – recorded in Yerevan, the Armenian capital – on which the pianist loosely improvises as the chamber choir sing new arrangements of Armenian hymns, sharakans (chants) and cantos, some dating back to the 5th century, many written in grabar, the oldest form of the Armenian language. Atmospheric and intriguing.
Finally, one of the longest partnerships that Manfred Eicher has cultivated at ECM Records has been with the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt who celebrated his 80th birthday on 11 September this year. Pärt’s 80th birthday and three decades of shared collaboration was marked by the release of Musica Selecta: A Sequence by Manfred Eicher, a double CD that collects eighteen pieces from twelve of Pärt’s recordings released on ECM, now sequenced by Eicher to be, as he says in typically sparse sleeve notes, ‘heard and experienced in a sequence.
Each episode offers an insight into our shared journey. Together they evoke new associations, as the journey goes on. ‘From long ago thus singing..’ begins the Clemens Brentano poem whose setting by Arvo introduces my sequence on this album. Like Brentano’s nightingale, the music continues to sing.
Indeed it does.