JJ 09/71: ECM music, reviewed by Barry McRae

Fifty years ago Barry McRae welcomed some refreshing issues from a relatively new German label. First published in Jazz Journal September 1971

The young Manfred Eicher, founder of the ECM label

With the present dearth of jazz issues it is very refreshing to find a new label devoted to contemporary jazz or music closely related to it. E.C.M. Records are a German company but they are currently recording out­standing Continental and American jazz men. Among their first releases are items from the widest extremes of the avant garde spectrum, all packaged in a most attractive manner.

There are two very good Paul Bleys, in which the pianist is heard in four different trios. He is with Barry Altschul (dm) and either Gary Peacock or Mark Levinson (bs) on ECM 1010, and with Gary Peacock and either Paul Motian or Billy Elgart (dm) on ECM 1003. All of the company’s records I have heard are superbly recorded and the stereo separation is good. The bass players are neither over nor under recorded and on these albums I was struck by the clarity and power of Peacock’s bass work without becoming too consumed by it. Altschul is the best of three drummers to be heard but it is understandably Bley who domi­nates. He has always been a highly emotional player and he now seems to have arrived at a cogent and highly personal style. He picks his single note lines with a feeling for space that one might expect from a vibes player and, at all tempos, plays with a fine control of dynamics.

On ‘Ballads’ (ECM 1010) the three titles, Ending, Circles and So Hard It Hurts are by Annette Peacock. She also contributes Gary and Albert’s Love Theme to ECM 1003 but on this album the material is far more varied. Getting Started and Big Foot are by Bley and there are two by Ornette Coleman, Blues and When Will The Blues Leave as well as Moor by Gary Peacock and Jerome Kern’s Long Ago And Far Away. Perhaps, because of the wider choice of thematic material, I prefer the latter album. Bley certainly responds to the challenge and stamps each item with his authority without losing sight of the composer’s original inten­tions. His approach is also less introspective and he swings on the Coleman pieces, in particular, with a verve missing in the slightly more explorative atmosphere found on ‘Ballads’.

Another excellent trio album is ‘A.R.C.’ (ECM 1009) by Chick Corea (pno), Dave Holland (bs) and Barry Altschul. Apart from the title track, it features Nefertitti (sic), Ballad For Tillie, Vadana, Thanatos and Games. Corea’s formidable technique is well showcased, both on rocking swingers like Nefertitti and A.R.C., but also on shapely ballads like Tillie. He is also as much at home with straight playing as he is when producing a torrent of free expression. Very marked is his sense of development when playing ‘inside’ on a beautiful theme such as Holland’s Vadana. The bassist himself is now a real listener and, while concerning himself with the changes, displays a flair for relating his very inventive ideas to the appropriate musical area. The ubiquitous Altschul again performs well and is, as much as anyone, responsible for whipping up the tension and excitement.

Holland is also on ‘Music For Two Basses’ (ECM 1011) with Barre Phillips. Like ‘Unaccompanied Barre’ on the Music Man label, this offers the daunting prospect of unrelieved bass playing. It is, however, a similar success and even more effective because of the two-voice approach. The two men complement and inspire each other and cover a wide range of effects, both pizzicato and arco. The quality of the lines they create is high and Improvised Pieces I and II are probably the standout tracks. The remaining titles are Beans, Raindrops, Maybe I Can Sing It For You, Just A Whisper and Song For Clare and there is not a weak moment.

A real contrast can be found in the work of ‘The Music Improvisation Company’ (ECM 1005) which consists of Evan Parker (sop), Derek Bailey (gtr), Hugh Davis (live electronics), Jamie Muir (perc) and, on Third Stream Boogaloo only, Christine Jeffrey (voice). Their music is totally free and hews closely to Ornette Coleman’s ideal of playing without memory. Bailey and Parker are always impressive musicians and they work here with genuine spontaneity. Considering the instantaneous nature of their playing, there is a remarkable level of invention maintained. Parker unleashes some of his most unbridled passion, while Bailey demonstrates how electronic variation can encourage a fund of brilliant ideas rather than disguise a lack of them. Muir always strikes me as jazz’s most phenomenal amateur. The things he does on drums are often in­spired but he always seems to play with a total disregard for the subtle needs of his colleagues. The only really weak track is the second untitled piece on side two, but throughout the album the two principles move well outside the field of Jazz. Obviously this is a record that can only be recom­mended to the fully committed follower of European Free Form and it is one that offers much, both in its solo statements and collective interplay.

A record with more orthodox jazz standards is ‘Free At Last’ (ECM 1001) by a Mal Waldron trio that is completed by Isla Eckinger (bs) and Clarence Becton (dm). It shows little change in the leader’s style since his days with Charlie Mingus. If anything, he seems less inclined to get inside his material and this record, while always swinging and professional, tends towards the ordinary. On the credit side, there is Eckinger, a superb bassist whom I had never encountered before. His drive on tracks like 1-3-234 is tremendous and his solos are a model of logical thinking and concise statement. Waldron is at his best on Rock My Soul (not the spiritual) where he can get into a funky groove. On other titles like Willow Weep For Me his approach is orthodox to the extent that his improvisational process is little more than the production of simple variations.

Surprisingly good is ‘Afric Pepperbird’ (ECM 1007) by the Jan Garbarek Quartet from Oslo. The reed-playing leader is assisted by Terje Rypdal (gtr/bugle), Arild Andersen (bs/African Thumb pno/xyl) and Jon Christensen (perc) and the music they produce moves from the harmonically orientated to the free. The percussion backgrounds make use of a wide range of effects and there are impressive examples of free time. Unfortunately, tracks like Scarabee, Concentus and Blupp are rather static and it is only on the titles where the bass is allowed to play its normal role (Mah-Jong, Beast Of Kommodo, Blow Away Zone, Myb and Afric Pepperbird) that the real mobility is achieved. Garbarek is personally a very expressive player, at his best on tenor and with only the occasional lapse into the use of an ill-conceived phrase. Regrettably he seems to have difficulty in assessing such statements for they are developed with the same elan as his more meaningful ideas. His solo on Blow Away Zone is excellent and is a fierce outpouring on what is easily the album’s outstanding number and well suited to his telling use of the false upper register. Andersen’s Peacock-like bass is prominent throughout and even Rypdal’s rather lightweight guitar cannot detract from a worthy album from Norway.

Less to my taste is ‘Output’ (ECM 1006) by the Wolfgang Dauner Trio. The leader plays assorted keyboard instruments and is assisted by Fred Braceful (perc/voice) and Eberhard Weber (bs/cello/gtr). The music is very introspective and too reliant on electronic colouration. The leader’s knowledge of pitch and timbre, however, is considerable and he exploits the fact by allowing dense chordal patterns to interact with more vertical single-note statements. There are moments when the pop underground is the main source of power and the music becomes correspondingly banal. Brazing The High Sky Full is a mediocre percussion exercise and Bruch flirts briefly with musique concrete devices. The remaining tracks – Abraxas and Nothing To Declare – both have things to recommend them and the latter is the best piece on the album. It is a Charles Lloyd-like theme and Dauner simulates a reed line with a richly legato solo that suggests a more outgoing personality.

The most enigmatic of the issues I have heard is Marion Brown’s ‘Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun’ (ECM 1004). It boasts an impressive array of reed men, with Brown, Anthony Braxton and Bennie Maupin. They are supported by Chick Corea (pno), Jack Gregg (bs), Andrew Cyrille (dm) as well as singers Jeanne Lee and Gayle Palmore. This is certainly an impressive personnel but I was left with the feeling that it was not employed to the best advantage. The title track is extremely atmospheric, with sounds of the forest swirling about in instrumental form and aided by phonetic declarations from the singers. On Djinji’s Corner the above line-up is augmented by three percussionists, Larry Curtis, William Green, and Billy Malone. It offers the jazzman’s concept of ‘Interchangeable Discourse’, a form of thematic movement favoured by several contemporary straight writers. Each musician has a station that consists of his primary, secondary and miscellaneous instruments. As he moves rapidly from them to the next, he leaves a thematic fragment that can be taken up or left by his colleagues. The result is a free contra­puntal complex which has moments of real insight as well as passages of directionless futility. Art music of this type would be better judged by a critic with wider tastes than my own. Too often I found myself frustrated by the rapid dissipation of power, as a brilliant jazz idea vanished into the congested tapestry of static sounds.

In all, this represents the beginning of an impressive catalogue and we can only hope that they are able to continue. They are available in most of our specialist shops at £2.55 each and are imported by Continental Record Distributors, 97/9 Dean Street, London W.1.