Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

I have two strong memories associated with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who is celebrating his 70th birthday today. The first is of discovering his LP Folk Songs, the first of his albums that I bought, and the one that opened up the world of music recorded by Manfred Eicher on the ECM label. The second memory is of listening to a specific Garbarek tune in a particular place, symbolizing for me a moment of European optimism. Continue reading “Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday”

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The music in my head in 2016

The music in my head in 2016

Something I’ve remarked on before is that these posts don’t properly reflect the ubiquitous presence of music in my daily life. Occasionally I do mention a new album that has made an impact, and I do record here all the live music events that I attend. But there’s always so much more. So here is a roundup of some of the music which I have particularly enjoyed in 2016. The post ends with a playlist of the music mentioned. Continue reading “The music in my head in 2016”

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal

Play like you think it’s going to be the last time. That’s the only way to play.
Keith Jarrett

Precisely one week after the atrocities began in Paris we were in the Royal Festival Hall watching Keith Jarrett give one of his most intense and impassioned solo performances. Hunched over the Steinway, his face at times just inches from the keys, the man in the single spotlight and all of us gathered together to hear him play represented everything that the killers seek to destroy – a shared pleasure in music and the freedom to mingle at peace on a Friday night with other human beings from anywhere in the world, of all faiths or none.

Continue reading “Keith Jarrett at the Royal Festival Hall: music can heal”

Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity

Charles Lloyd: Arrows Into Infinity

Charles-Lloyd-en-Big-Sur

 Charles Lloyd at Big Sur
There are few jazz musicians whom I hold in greater reverence than Charles Lloyd, so when I learned earlier this year that a documentary about his life was soon to be released I did something that I’ve never done before: I pre-ordered the DVD on Amazon. My anticipation was heightened by news that the film had been compiled by Lloyd’s long-time partner and artistic collaborator, Dorothy Darr.

Unfortunately, however, I must report that I found Arrows Into Infinity a big disappointment. It’s like one of those music documentaries you see on BBC4 on a Friday evening: lots of talking heads, a smattering of stills of posters and photographs from times past, and frustratingly-truncated clips of the musician in live performance.  The DVD does not contain any extras – no bonus clips from studio rehearsals or concert recordings.

The worst aspect of documentaries like this is that the talking heads mainly talk about themselves – their reactions to being in a particular place at a particular time and seeing Lloyd perform, or hearing his then latest recording. The worst of these solipsistic offenders is the dreaded Stanley Crouch, who seems to turn up in every documentary about jazz these days.  We learn nothing from him, except that Crouch is self-opinionated and has little to say that enhances our understanding of Lloyd or the enjoyment of his music.

Nor is he the worst offender: another talking head, musing on the impact which Lloyd’s classic recording Forest Flower made upon her, says: ‘I was never really a flower child; I was a Forest Flower child’.  It really is difficult to believe that someone as close to Lloyd and as committed to his art as Darr could have thought such inanities worth preserving.

Above all, the aspect of Arrows Into Infinity which will frustrate many who have been inspired by the albums which Charles Lloyd has recorded for ECM since his return to public performance two decades ago – music deeply spiritual, boundary-crossing, and always probing new frontiers of expression – is that barely one third of the film dwells on this period of renewed energy and creativity, and then only in an incoherent and fragmentary manner.

Arrows into Infinity cover

Two-thirds of Arrows Into Infinity is devoted to a painstakingly detailed account of Lloyd’s career up to the point in the early 1970s when, beset by personal doubts and the effects of drug abuse, he dropped out of sight.  There’s no doubt that this is an interesting period, and one in which we can discern clear continuities in Lloyd’s approach to his music: most especially, the emergence of his distinctive saxophone style and his interest in looking beyond conventional boundaries  to collaborate with musicians outside the world of jazz.  Nevertheless, the detailed  and methodical treatment of this period only serves to highlight the film’s scrappy and hurried review of his work in recent decades.

Lloyd joined the Cannonball Adderley Sextet in 1964, where he performed alongside Nat Adderley, Joe Zawinul, Sam Jones and Louis Hayes. He remained with Cannonball for two years, before signing with CBS Records in 1964 Lloyd to record his first album as a leader: Of Course, Of Course. Robbie Robertson played some guitar on that album, and tells of seeing Lloyd live for the first time.  He also explains the origin of album’s title ‘If Charles agreed with you, he’d say, ‘Of course’.

In 1965 Lloyd formed his own quartet, the brilliant ensemble that introduced the jazz world to the talents of pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette and bassist Cecil McBee. Their first release together was a studio recording, Dream Weaver, followed by Forest Flower: Live at Monterey, released in 1966.  Forest Flower made history as one of the first jazz recordings to sell a million copies: it was a crossover success that appealed to hippy rock audiences, and remains a great live album and a milestone in Lloyd’s career.  In the film, Jason Moran, pianist in the current quartet, speaks of finding Forest Flower in his parents’ LP collection as a kid and it being a seminal influence.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

The Charles Lloyd Quartet in 1967

The Charles Lloyd Quartet was the first jazz group to appear at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco and shared billing with rock luminaries like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Cream, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.  Lloyd was selling plenty of records and making connections beyond the usual jazz audience: he appeared on recordings by the Beach Boys, including Holland, and numbers such as ‘Caroline No’ and ‘God Only Knows’ remain in his repertoire.

Charles Lloyd Quartet Fillmore

The Charles Lloyd Quartet play the Fillmore

All this is interesting stuff, but the film tips too heavily toward this period, to the neglect of the equally interesting music that Lloyd has made since the 1990s.  As Michael S Clark observes at Instrumentali.com:

The film tends to dwell on the important episodes in Charles Lloyd’s musical career, not least his crossover appeal to rock audiences in the mid to late sixties, concerts in the Soviet Union that inadvertently politicized his jazz identity and jamming his way past musical checkpoints with the likes of The Grateful Dead, The Beach Boys and The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It’s strange to say, but the longer the film stays in those places the more Lloyd himself fades from view. This is especially true when the HBO-style testimonials are in full flow. The river of effulgent praise is no doubt deserved, but these talking heads are not the subject, and Lloyd is fascinating enough in himself to carry his own story.

The film spends a lot of time on the quartet’s  tour of the Soviet Union in 1967, including their rapturous reception at the Tallin Jazz Festival. Lloyd observes that ‘we were not first: Benny Goodman had done it, but he was on a State department tour. We were invited by the people’.

Charles Lloyd in Russia Downbeat magazine cover

Charles Lloyd in Russia: Downbeat magazine cover, July 1967

It was a t this point that Charles Lloyd chose to drop out, retreating to land he’d bought on a hilltop overlooking the ocean at Big Sur.  The move was partly in response to the music industry’s unwelcome expectations: ‘The business wanted me to become a product’,  he says in the film. ‘And to become a product, I would have to be predictable. I wasn’t looking for fame or fortune. I was looking for the zone, the holy grail of music. That was my salvation, because I had heard it and I knew what it was. That was my saviour. It was the light.’

But another reason was that Loyd had begun to fall back on drugs that impaired his playing and his creativity. ‘I thought I was sailing but I hit a wall and I couldn’t really function,’ says Lloyd. ‘At a certain point I began to suffer musically and I began to suffer spiritually. I had to go away.’

Charles Lloyd, Big Sur

He got through with the help of transcendental mediation and his Vedanta faith that teaches the harmony of all religions – and with the support of Dorothy Darr, who became his wife and manager: she ‘saved my life’; she ‘keeps our ship afloat’. Together, they managed their 13 acres, ‘planting gardens, pulling weeds’.  They grew avocado trees, figs, vegetables, and took hikes through the redwoods.  It was here that he found the peace, in Lloyd’s words, to ‘wake up and see there’s beauty outside of us and inside of  us’.

In those reclusive years, he still played, taking his flute out beneath the trees: ‘I played music outside, but I wasn’t thinking of coming back to public performance’

CharlesLloyd-flute-bw

Charles Lloyd and flute at Big Sur

Later, he began to play local gigs – accompanying readings by Ken Kesey and Carlos Castenada, and  poets such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder. Then, in the early 1980s, the 18-year old French pianist Michel Petrucciani came to Big Sur, seeking Lloyd. Inspired by Petrucciani , Lloyd formed a quartet that toured America, Europe and Japan  in 1982 and 1983 with Petrucciani on piano and Palle Danielsson on bass.

In 1986, after a spell in hospital with a nearly fatal medical condition, Lloyd rededicated himself to music. When he regained his strength in 1988 he formed a new quartet with the Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson and bassist Palle Danielsson.  His first ECM recording Fish Out Of Water, with Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen signalled a new beginning.

It’s at this point Arrows Into Infinity kind of falls apart, with the remaining third of the film dealing only cursorily with the succession of outstanding recordings which Lloyd has made for ECM since 1989.  The great ensembles which Lloyd has assembled in the past two decades are mentioned only fleetingly: for example, the brilliant new quartet with Jason Moran, Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, the Sangam trio with Harland and Zakir Hussain, or the Greek project with Maria Farantouri. We gain no sense of how his work has developed since the 1990s, and only fleetingly glimpse how his sound is rooted in his personal philosophy.  There are too many talking heads, and not enough of Lloyd himself, talking or playing.

There is one moment of insight into the source of his beautiful, spiritually questing sound when a Japanese interviewer asks him where it comes from. Lloyd’s answer is just a little unexpected.  It’s not Coltrane, but Lester Young: ‘He had that pretty, gentle sound’, says Lloyd. ‘There’s not enough of that in the world’.

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins by Dorothy Darr

Charles Lloyd and Billy Higgins (photo by Dorothy Darr)

There’s a moving passage in which Lloyd speaks of his friendship with the drummer Billy Higgins, and of reconnecting with Higgins in the 1990s (they hadn’t played together since the late 1950s).  We see them duetting together in the studio shortly before Higgins’ death in 2001.

Someone in the film remarks that Charles Lloyd makes ‘music that is always searching, but is always at peace with itself’. That seems to me to be a perfect summation of the meaning and the sound of Charles Lloyd’s music.  In All About Jazz in September 2007, Matt Leskovic wrote:

Lloyd’s music is complex and advanced, yet even in its most adventurous moments it remains accessible. He is one of the purest melodists alive today, blessed with the ability to sing through his instrument and tug at the emotions of all who hear him. After hearing Billie Holiday early in his life, he yearned to become a singer, but realized he did not have the voice. He soon got his first saxophone, vowing to express himself and sing passionately through his horn. Like that of a vocalist, his music weaves through a wide gamut of emotions—reflective, joyous, dark, mellow, and reaching—and it always stays grounded by retaining its earthy folkiness.

[…]

There is a genuine universality in the music of Charles Lloyd. He acts as a conduit of the varied experiences of life, channeling Zen-like peacefulness and understanding to his listeners. His dedication to the music is stronger than ever and his approach is more purposeful. Passionate and sincere, each breath blown through his instrument has deep significance. This truly comes to light when seeing him perform. Audiences can not only hear, but see and feel his intent as his presence on stage is magically captivating and utterly heart warming.

‘It’s arrows into infinity’, declares Charles Lloyd in the closing frames of this documentary, putting into words his attitude to music making. Here are three clips I found on YouTube that speak more clearly than I’m afraid Arrows Into Infinity does of the character of Lloyd’s musical questing.  They are snapshots of just one stage in the quest: the Sangam trio with Eric Harland and Zakir Hussain.  The first two clips feature Lloyd explaining what he is striving for, as well as playing – with a clarity which Arrows Into Infinity never seems to approach.  The third video is a full-length set by the Sangam Trio.

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Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Records from the ECM label always begin with moments of silence.  The ECM motto is the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence. Moments of silence are as important as sounds in the documentary film Sounds And Silence: Journeys with Manfred Eicher which I have just seen.

Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM and outstanding producer of contemporary music, documenting his travels via concert halls, recording studios, and back to the headquarters of  Editions of Contemporary Music in a tower block by the autobahn outside Munich. I have grown to love the music of ECM ever since discovering Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Folk Songs back in the 1980s.  I can’t imagine the last 40 years without the music of ECM. For me, Manfred Eicher is a hero: he has taken me on a 40 year journey that continues still. Continue reading “Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher”

ECM: 40 favourites

Posts here during the last couple of days have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of 40 of my favourite ECM albums, in no particular order. Continue reading “ECM: 40 favourites”

ECM cover art

The first ECM records were recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. ECM had focused on a predominantly European version of jazz, often incorporating folk elements, and attracted players including Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and Terje Rypdal who have made their lifelong home with the label. Recording as well as musical quality was of the highest standard, reflected also in a cover design ethos which featured beautiful photography and creative typography.

The main ECM designer for the first 25 years was Barbara Wojirsch whose playful layouts and combination of fonts and handwritten titles were highly distinctive. Dieter Rehm joined her in the 1980s with a similarly varied approach.

People who regularly return to the same location tend to become sensitive to slight changes in the view, and quickly incorporate them into the philosophy into the familiar picture, so that everything remains intact.  Similarly, those to whom ECM music has become a cultural staple accept variations in the familiar ECM ‘image’with the same nonchalance as changes in the music itself, whose sound values remain unmistakable, however wide-ranging the styles.

This ingrained habit, like a paraphrase of conventional pattems of consumption, has not led to indifference among the many who have grown up with ECM over the years. On the contrary, it has produced a kind of connoisseurship in which visual recognition exists on a par with its counterpart. ECM’s music has taught many people how to listen – and some how to look! When they play the recordings, the modest rectangle in their hands enjoys an attention and affection for a time span few other visual objects can hope to enjoy. That is why rec0rd covers in general, and ECM’s in particular, are worth talking about [… ]

[To begin with, there were]  the many iconic covers that Barbara Wojirsch created with Manfred Eicher and Dieter Rehm during the long years of their association. Her retirement from ECM in 1999 did not mark a sharp break in c0ntinuity. The vocabulary of ECM’s imagery had been invented, and it was rich enough to be adopted by new artists with new points of emphasis, now focused through Eicher’s work with graphic artist Sascha Kleis. Wojirsch’s artistic development took her from expressive typography and photography in the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s to highly personal paintings and pictures. Her manner of preparing the ground – her scrapes, scratches and scribbles – has found a surprising parallel in the paintings of Mayo Bucher, who entered Eicher’s field of vision in the mid-1990s and whose work has appeared on a number of covers based on his paintings since 1997. Also characteristic of new directions for the label is the collaboration with Jan Jedlicka, whose paintings, sketches and photos have been displayed on many sleeves.

The most obvious change over the last ten years has, however, been ECM’s attitude towards photography and its use in cover pictures. Until well into the 1990s, the photographic motifs on ECM’s covers were often narrative and representational, at times even going so far as to illustrate the title of the album, albeit obliquely. Today the photographs resist easy interpretation and classification. Instead, they are photographic objets d’art that reveal their meanings only upon closer inspection, luring the viewer into an enigmatic labyrinth of interpretations. Other photographs recall stills from motion pictures – ‘unfinished’ images that relate to what has just preceded them or is about to follow, and to the continuum of cinema, the medium perhaps closest to music itself. [Manfred] Eicher used this pictorial approach in his choice of covers from a very early date, but only intermittently. His affinity to photography and the cinema has led him to cultivate a closely related field where an extended family of artists, photographers and graphic designers now join forces with the ECM producer to contribute to the label’s imagery, creating a visual pendant to the music in its collection of covers.

Many things have changed. Today ECM’s photographs are mainly black-and-white, with colour used sparingly or as a jarring accent, while uniformly austere typography also contributes to a visual identity. Even so, ECM’s covers are ‘beautifuI’, yet complex enough to disclose their full meaning only to those who seek to listen visually: ‘Think of your ears as eyes’.
– Lars Muller, from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM

Barbara Wojirsch  and Dieter Rehm (design)


A larger collection of  Barbara Wojirsch and Dieter Rehm covers can be viewed here.

Jim Bengston (photography)

Roberto Masotti (photography)

Caroline Forbes (photography)

The shapes in the photograph still please me and I am always reminded that if you stay out on the hillside long enough something will change and not always for the worse.
– Caroline Forbes

Christoph Egger (photography)

Jan Jedlicka (artwork/photography)

Gerald Minkoff  (photography)

Surrogate Cities

Confucius said that an image is worth more than 10,000 words. I am allowed only 250. Perhaps I should be relieved. This photograph, taken in January 1990 in Moscow, seems to me in perfect tune with the title of Heiner Goebbels’s disc Surrogate Cities, whose musical armature is interwoven with the words of Heiner Miiller, Hugo Hamilton and Paul Auster. The picture is of a Soviet swimming pool, a heated one, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, a pool that no longer exists. On the site, before the Revolution, there stood a basilica, which Stalin demolished with the intention of  substituting a colossal hollow statue of Lenin (on the scale of NewYork’s Statue of Liberty), whose outstretched hand was going to contain a library. But the ground was unsuitable, and the foundations were filled with water and turned  into a swimming pool. One evening when I was walking there, a swimmer emerged from the dark depths (he can be seen in the lower left of the shot) and seeing my camera asked: ‘Are you from the New York Herald Tribune?’  I answered ‘N0’ and he vanished. When communism collapsed the swimming pool vanished too, because the Orthodox clergy wanted to reconstruct the basilica on the site.You can still get sprinkled with water there, but now it’s holy water. As Paul Auster says in In the Country of Last Things: ‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted.’ That is why I always know that I am seeing everything – and hearing it – for the first time; but also for the last time.
– Gerald Minkoff

Muriel Olesen (photography)

The light touch of foot-soles as a woman dances at the centre of the ritual maze, a fragile flower with petals of chalk, a propitiatory choreography traced each morning on the ground.  As if in echo, the faint coughing of a white tiger from the zoo nearby. Rustlings, variations, in persistent notes that extend through the air and disappear into the night. Silences and erasures. A few magical movements will make both the pattern and the music reappear on the doorstep at dawn to greet the ephemeral beauty of the new day. Black the dress, black as as a monsoon cloud suspended over those white furrows, alreadyworked, henceforth fertile: Monodia . . .
– Muriel Olesen

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