A First Foray into ECM Jazz

In an effort to introduce more novel content into my daily listening and to challenge myself a bit, I’ve decided to explore the ECM label, particularly the Touchtone remasters. In 2008 ECM issued forty of their most popular albums spanning 1971 to 1993 in the form of affordable cardboard sleeved compact discs. A few of the names were familiar, most notably Jon Hassell who I know from his Fourth World: Possible Musics tribal ambient LP produced in collaboration with Brian Eno. ECM’s motto is, “the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence” and I was eager to test their claim.

Ambient themes seemed to be a suitable point of ingress for the genre of ECM jazz, as I am most comfortable with long-form soundscapes which emphasize sonic texture over melodic structures. I quickly found my way to a few introductory recordings well-suited to this task:

• Ralph Towner’s Solstice and Batik LPs (ECM chamber jazz) described as hauntingly beautiful, with elements of drone and wall of sound, characterized as smooth and mellow

• Jan Garbarek & the Bobo Stenson Quartet – Witchi-Tai-To – a classic understated work of spiritual jazz from 1974

• Tomasz Stanko’s Litania: The Music of Krzysztof Komeda, showcasing hypnotic, atmospheric Polish jazz performances

• And the label’s most prominent artist, Keith Jarrett’s critically acclaimed Facing You and The Köln Concert LPs which are described as smooth, calm, and soothing instrumentals, featuring impassioned improvisation with moments of great intensity. Köln is considered a revolutionary work of contemporary jazz.

It’s a curious place to find myself as a listener and chronicler of music. I’ve read very little in the way of jazz criticism and am only rudimentarily acquainted with both its theory and contextual history. That made this territory a unique and satisfying venture from the familiar to something new and interesting.

Witchi-Tai-To

Witchi-Tai-To is an hypnotic and surreal exercise in spiritual jazz with a mellow and meditative quality characteristic of many ECM releases. It definitely inspires me to track down lush and uplifting spiritual jazz classics like Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchidananda and Pharoah Sanders’ Karma and Black Unity LPs.

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Jarrett’s Facing You was awe-inspiring. This was clearly bold, new territory for solo jazz piano. Jarrett’s improvisation is personal, intense, and fantastically dynamic. Still, there is a gentleness to his performative style that makes the album incredibly accessible and satisfying.

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The Köln Concert is absolute heaven. From the first notes, it’s evident why this is celebrated as the best-selling solo album in jazz history and the all-time best-selling piano album. And the circumstances of the performance make the magic of this music all the more remarkable. Evidently, Jarrett was suffering significant back pain and was wearing a brace the evening of the performance. The pain had cost him several nights’ sleep and following the drive from Zürich he was thoroughly exhausted. Jarrett arrived at the opera house only to discover that the piano on which he was to perform upon was small and poorly-tuned rather than the Bösendorfer grand he’d requested. But with only a few hours before the concert, Jarrett made the very best of the situation and went on to improvise one of the greatest concerts ever captured to tape.

Solstice

Solstice is arguably the best of Towner’s catalog, forty minutes of instrumentals wedding sustained drones with elements of fusion and chamber music. It approaches the dreaded label of “new age” music but is jazzy enough to escape the bland realms of near-self-parody commonly associated with the genre. Never overly-energetic, the album is consistently subtle and darkly atmospheric.

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Batik is a similar work equally noteworthy for Towner and for Jack DeJohnette’s abstract drumming on the album, especially his contribution to the title track.

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I found Litania to be highly accessible and thought-provoking. It’s gentle enough to provide a sonic wallpaper but sufficiently engaging to activate my mind and send me into a trance of self-reflection. The three variations of “Sleep Safe and Warm” are intimately soothing but the most intriguing selection from the album is “Night-Time, Daytime Requiem” which wanders placidly for more than twenty minutes of atmospheric bliss. “The Witch” changes up the dynamic a bit with the addition of an electric guitar but keeps with the ambiance of the record. The album could function well as dinner jazz but seems to lend itself ideally to quiet, solitary exploration.

What I enjoyed most about each of these releases was ECM’s consistently ascetic, restrained, and meditative properties. While the recordings dabble in free jazz and avant-garde experimentalism, they remain at all times refined and gently ethereal. It was a most rewarding venture, and I’m excited to continue exploring more of “The Most Beautiful Sounds Next to Silence.”

More than likely my next survey will be of the fifteen albums Arvo Pärt issued under ECM. Sublime listening awaits!

 

 

 

A Momentous Discovery and a Wish Fulfilled

The last two weeks of January have been beautifully inspiring.  A further exploration of choral works at the recommendation of a fantastic fellow classical connoisseur led me to revisit Arvo Pärt’s Da Pacem.

Harmoni Mundi - Arvo Part - Da Pacem

I was instantly enamored by the sacred sounds of The Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir and the fantastic production quality of the recording.  And I was duly delighted by the discovery that the release was issued by the Harmonia Mundi label (from which I’d recently acquired the 20-volume CENTURY I and II early music catalogs).  This remarkable music set the stage for a brilliant musical revelation – one that carried with it emotive and intellectual majesty I’ve not experienced since my first listen to Eno’s Airports.

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The revelation arrived in the form of a fated discovery of Germany’s Harmonia – the supergroup of Dieter Moebuis of Cluster (synthesizer, guitar, electronic percussion, nagoya harp, vocals), Hans-Joachim Roedelius of Cluster (organ, piano, guitar, electronic percussion, vocals), Michael Rother of Neu! (guitar, piano, organ, electronic percussion, and vocals), and eventually, Brian Eno (synthesizer, bass, vocals).

Their small but influential discography was produced by Conny Plank, who produced works by Neu!, Cluster (almost becoming a member of the band), Ash Ra Tempel, Can, and Guru Guru.

In December of last year, Larry Crane interviewed Michael Rother for TapeOp.com and discussed the formation of Harmonia, their work, but it was an article published January 20th of this year in The New Yorker titled, The Invention of Ambient Music that first introduced me to Harmonia.  The article cites a video interview from 1997 in which Bowie named some of his influences, including Kraftwerk, Neu!, and Harmonia.

An inspiration good enough for the Thin White Duke is certainly one worth exploring, so I wasted no time in queuing up Harmonia’s first album, Musik von Harmonia, released in 1974 on the classic Brain label.

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Instantaneously I knew I’d found something exceptional.  The tracks were united in a consistent theme – instrumental exploration of subtle, ever-shifting sonic textures – an electronic realization of Satie’s vision of furniture music.

On the surface the work might initially appear uneventful, dull, and lacking in focus or direction.  There are no lead vocals and no primary melodic structure. However these seemingly detrimental characteristics are precisely what contributed to their greatness and lasting-influence in the world of ambient music and beyond.  

Eno has stated that Harmonia was “the world’s most important rock band” in the mid ’70s.  Daniel Dumych elaborates in his article for hyperreal.org: “Perhaps Eno’s reason for praising Harmonia so highly was that their music fit the requirements of ambient rock. Its music was equally suitable for active or passive listening. The careful listener found his/her attentions rewarded by the musical activities and sounds, but Harmonia’s music was also capable of setting a sonic environment.”

In John Cage’s classic Indeterminacy: New Aspect of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music (Folkways FT 3704, 1959), he observes:

“If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

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Cages words accurately describe a first-listen to Harmonia’s music, (only I was instantly receptive to the “subtle, ever-shifting sonic textures” to which I alluded above.)  Headphones donned and eyes closed, I laid in bed and soaked in every note of the Harmonia catalog.  By its conclusion, I’d scoured the web for information on available recordings in a vinyl format and was astounded and elated to learn that only three months prior (to the day, in fact), a massive deluxe 6LP box set celebrating Harmonia’s complete recordings had just been issued by Grönland Records in Germany!

The teaser video for the set:

The set, titled Complete Works, contains all the released material from 1973 to 1976, including their 1976 collaboration with Brian Eno and four unreleased tracks (Documents 1975).  Also included are a 36-page booklet, a concert poster, a pop-up, and a digital download code.

harmonia set
Overcome with excitement at this fateful cosmic alignment of circumstance, I sprang from my bed, and quickly dialed my contact for German import vinyl and limited edition recordings.  The set was not intended for distribution in the US, and copies had already sold out from the Grönland Records website.  Thankfully, my contact came through for me and within a matter of minutes I’d secured a copy for my library.  It just arrived in the States and I couldn’t be more delighted.  

Below is a video of the unboxing of this wonderful box set.

It’s truly remarkable to experience this sort of exhilaration over a newly-discovered artist.  As an archivist with well over 100,000 recordings in my library, there are moments when I fear I’ve exhausted the 20th century of all its surprises.  But, like I was by my first experience listening to Harry Partch, I am once again awakened to the magnificence of our greatest century of cultural artistry.

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