Week ending 21 December 2019: a full on ECMfest

ECM Records is 50 years old – and Cosmic Jazz needs no excuse for a celebration of this incredible label’s output over the years. In the last few shows, Derek has been featuring some of ECM’s huge and diverse repertoire but this is the first show devoted to the label. As noted in previous shows, ECM has a unique profile in jazz characterised by distinctive art direction, the wizardry of recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug and probably the most diverse roster of jazz and jazz related artists in the history of the music.

We began with Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and the title track from his essential 1997 album Khmer, recently released for the first time on vinyl. You can hear Molvaer talking about the album right here. Molvaer’s breathy tone on trumpet suits the ambient sounds of samplers and percussion that suffuse the album.  He’s stated that the album was an attempt to incorporate all the influences on his music – from Brian Eno, to Steve Reich and to the drum and bass sounds of the time.

Up next was another ECM stalwart, Paul Motian. I first came across his album Conception Vessel as long ago as 1972 – one of the very first ECM releases that featured Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden. Tonight’s show featured a track from one of his later albums for the label and one with an unusual line up – two saxophonist and three guitarists for starters. The album is also unusual in that it celebrates the compositions of Charlie Mingus, hence the inclusion of the classic Goodbye Porkpie Hat – itself an elegy for saxophonist Lester Young who had died just two months before Mingus recorded the track in 1959.

Rios Negroes has been a longtime favourite track of mine. Lester Bowie somehow manages to capture the history of jazz in just one track. Whether with the Art Ensemble of Chicago or in his solo work he blazed a trail that – uniquely – looked backwards as well as forwards. Back to Bubber Miley and the Cotton Club but also into the future of jazz in the 21st century. In just seven minutes across the track Bowie takes a first solo that slurs and smears, crackles and blares in a mix of early jazz and contemporary sounds. Bowie was a southerner born in St Louis and early in his career he played with blues and r and b artists including Little Milton and Rufus Thomas. On Fela Kuti’s No Agreement album he makes a distinctive contribution that works perfectly against the afrobeat sounds. The band on The Great Pretender is the most sympathetic he ever had. The late Phillip Wilson on drums is perfect and Hamiett Bluiett provides some lovely bottom end baritone.

Chick Corea is one of jazz music’s great survivors – and at 78 he’s still making great music with both his electric band and his piano trio. Corea has recorded for ECM from the very beginning – his two solo piano improvisation albums were recorded in 1971. Our selection is from one of the two excellent trio records Corea recorded for the label in the 1980s alongside Miroslav Vitous on bass and the legendary Roy Haynes on drums. This track is actually a solo outing for Haynes – but there will be more from this and Corea’s more recent trio recordings in upcoming shows.

Our second appearance from Lester Bowie is from the group he co-led for many years until his death in 1999 – the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Their Odwalla Theme was a signature composition by the band and often featured in live shows. More idiosyncratic music came from one of the first groups that represented a unique take on what we might (incorrectly) call ‘world music’. Here at CJ we firmly believe that all music is world music with the global presence of jazz blazing a trail for all kinds of musical collaborations. Codona was named after its three members – Collin Walcott, Don Cherry and Nana Vasconcelos. They used world music traditions authentically, in the sense that each individual in the group had decades of study and immersion in a wide range of music from all four corners of the earth. None of their sounds were watered down or fusion-like. Instead, they played free like the deep jazz artists they were. Codona were all about listening to each other but with humour and playfulness so that the music feels artless and totally improvised. Our choice came from the first of three albums and melded together two Ornette Coleman tunes with one by Stevie Wonder – and all in under four minutes. And what an album cover too!

ECM might be a European label but much of their earlier recordings emanated from the USA – including pianist Steve Kuhn, recording here with his extended trio of Steve Swallow on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums and Sue Evans on percussion. The opening track on the album sounds utterly contemporary – it could have ben recorded yesterday rather than 45 years ago.  Whilst Kuhn only recorded two albums for ECM, Jan Garbarek has appeared on hundreds. We could have chosen any of his recordings as a leader, his work with Keith Jarrett in his European quartet or any of his many collaborations. Like John Coltrane on tenor, Wayne Shorter on soprano or Art Pepper on alto, Garbarek has a unique tone – especially on his curved (rather than straight) soprano saxophone. It’s heard clearly on the track we played from his live 2CD release Dresden. Recorded in 2007, Garbarek’s band for this record is Rainer Bruninghaus on keys, Yuri Daniel on bass and Manu Katche on drums. Paper Nut is a Shankar composition and Garbarek takes the lead melody on his saxophone rather than Shankar’s distinctive electric violin.

Our final two tracks are real outliers for the label. Leo Smith, now Pulitzer Prize winner Wadada Leo Smith and one of the most prolific jazz musicians of the moment, recorded just this one album for ECM and early in his career too. On Tastalun, Smith is joined by – yes – Lester Bowie and Kenny Wheeler, both also on trumpet.  We ended the show with musical maverick Jon Hassell who has been ploughing his own unique furrow for many years. Hassell’s music is on the cusp of ambient and jazz with strong Arabic and Asian influences. It’s all brought together on his 1986 Power Spot album. Our third track from a trumpeter, the title tune Power Spot showcases Hassell’s unique processed trumpet sound alongside lots of electronics and guitar treatments from Michael Brook.

  1. Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer from Khmer
  2. Paul Motian Band – Goodbye Pork Pie Hat from Garden of Eden
  3. Lester Bowie – Rios Negroes from The Great Pretender
  4. Chick Corea – Hittin’ It from Live in Europe
  5. Art Ensemble of Chicago – Odwalla Theme from Coming Home Jamaica
  6. Codona – Colemanwonder from Codona 1
  7. Steve Kuhn – Trance from Trance
  8. Jan Garbarek – Paper Nut from Dresden
  9. Leo Smith – Tastalun from Divine Love
  10. Jon Hassell – Power Spot from Power Spot

Neil is listening to…

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