A Treasure Trove of ECM: ECM Releases Next Round of :rarum Compilations

A Treasure Trove of ECM
ECM Releases Next Round of :rarum Compilations

by John Kelman

copyright © 2004 John Kelman

For 35 years ECM Records has represented the unique vision of label-owner/producer Manfred Eicher, who has defined a highly personal aesthetic over the course of more than 700 recordings. But it is the international roster of musicians, some of whom have been with the label since inception, who have made it possible for Eicher to elevate his ideas into unparalleled artistry.

Starting in 2002, ECM began releasing a series of recordings called :rarum Selected Recordings, which once again demonstrated ECM's unique approach, this time to that time-worn concept: the compilation. By allowing the artists themselves to select their favorite recordings from past sessions, and by asking them to provide liner notes and photos from their personal collections, ECM has created a series of recordings that truly represents what each artist is about. Rather than compiling collections of what the label thinks are the best recordings, they allow the artist full creative control; the only contribution the label provides is an excellent re-mastering of all pieces in 24 bit/96KHz format, packaging and distribution.

The first eight :rarum collections were critically acclaimed; now, in 2004, ECM has released the next 12 in the series, representing a group of artists who have, over the years, re-defined contemporary improvised music; with selections that range from their earliest days with the label to their most recent, these collections demonstrate a label, a producer and a series of artists who are at once timeless, contemporary and forward-thinking.

Pat Metheny Selected Recordings 1975-1984 (:rarum IX)

Along with Keith Jarrett and Dave Holland, Pat Metheny may be the most visible of the artists who have recorded for the label; but unlike Holland and Jarrett, who remain with ECM, Metheny chose to leave the label in 1985 following a series of 11 records that established him as one of contemporary jazz's most masterful and diverse guitarists.

This collection comes closest to being a 'greatest hits' compilation, with all but one track featuring heavily in live performance, but that does not diminish the importance of each piece. Presented chronologically, this collection shows the growth of Metheny, in nine short years, from a precocious 20-year-old on "Bright Size Life," to a mature self-producing artist with a strong compositional sensibility on "First Circle."

When the Pat Metheny Group first arrived on the scene it introduced a different slant on fusion; electric, yes, but with a predilection towards more earthy, acoustic sounds. Lyle Mays used synthesizers, but his main instrument was always the piano; Metheny himself has a collection of guitars and guitar-like instruments that has grown, seemingly exponentially, over the years; but even his guitar synthesizer is used to create sounds that are remarkably warm and natural.

Alongside representative tracks from his group recordings are highlights from his side projects, including his seminal 80/81 group with Michael Brecker, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, and the poignant piece, "Lonely Woman," from Rejoicing, his 1984 recording with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins.

Dave Holland Selected Recordings 1972-2000 (:rarum X)

Dave Holland may be ECM's most ubiquitous bassist, appearing on nearly 20 recordings as a guest and 15 as a leader. With the exception of one track from his ongoing Gateway collaboration with John Abercrombie and Jack DeJohnette, Holland has chosen to highlight his own work for the label in a collection of 11 mostly self-penned tracks that span 28 years.

Holland seems intent on demonstrating the breadth of his compositional and performance abilities. Starting with the odd-metered "How's Never," Holland quickly establishes one of his strongest characteristics, an unfailing sense of groove that makes the most complicated passages flow naturally and with surprising grace. "You I Love" finds his mid-'80s quintet demonstrating a fine sense of swing, and "Shifting Sands" shows his current award-winning quintet navigating unusual time signatures in a ballad setting.

As a leader Holland has attracted and, often for lengthy periods of time retained, some of the best contemporary artists, including Kenny Wheeler, Steve Coleman, Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter and Julian Priester. Regardless of the configuration, regardless of the context, Holland nurtures his groups, sometimes yielding surprising results. On the title track from Conference of the Birds he places Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton and Barry Altschul, better known for their work in free jazz, in an almost pastoral setting, reflecting Holland's English roots.

Jack DeJohnette Selected Recordings 1976-1997 (:rarum XII)

Jack DeJohnette is ECM's most widely-recorded artist, having appeared on 45 albums as a guest or co-leader, alongside his 11 albums as a leader. His supple drum style, with its characteristically dry cymbal sound, has graced recordings with artists as diverse as Miroslav Vitous, Terje Rypdal, John Surman and Kenny Wheeler. As a member of Keith Jarrett's Standards Trio he has, for the past 20 years brought a new freshness, a new meaning, to the Great American Songbook.

On his collection, DeJohnette has eschewed some of his more well-known work, instead concentrating on pieces that he hopes, in his words, "will bring peace, warmth and joy."

Opening on a bright note with "Third World Anthem," from his expanded Special Edition, DeJohnette demonstrates his capability to create a joyous, raucous sound. On "Jack In," his Oneness group creates a more trance-like ambience. The Mick Goodrick piece, "Feebles, Fables and Ferns," shows DeJohnette at his tranquil best.

With 16 recordings as part of Jarrett's Standards Trio, it is interesting that DeJohnette should choose a track from his very first ECM recording, Ruta and Daitya, which finds him paired with Jarrett alone. There is an overt spirituality about this track, "Overture/Communion," which echoes DeJohnette's own beliefs.

With tracks from the Gateway collaboration and his ground-breaking New Directions group, featuring the late Lester Bowie, it is fitting that he should close with two pieces from Pictures, demonstrating his abilities with and beyond the drum kit, as well as his long-standing relationship with guitarist John Abercrombie.

John Surman Selected Recordings 1976-1999 (:rarum XIII)

On more than 30 recordings as leader or guest, John Surman has displayed a unique sound on soprano and baritone saxophones, and bass clarinet. As strong as the jazz tradition is in his playing and writing, he reflects a distinctly British sensibility.

Surman has chosen a cross-section of his work for the label, from the multi-tracked solo effort "Edge of Illusion," from Upon Reflection, to the brooding "Stone Flower" from Coruscating, which paired Surman and long-time collaborator, bassist Chris Laurence, with a string quartet.

Surman is a fearless player, with a style that knows no boundaries. From the free explorations of his collaboration with Barre Phillips, Stu Martin and John Abercrombie on "Mountainscapes VIII," to the icy edge of "Gone to the Dogs," with his Nordic Quartet; from the straight-ahead waltz of "Ogeda," with John Abercrombie's trio, to the brooding intensity of "Number Six," from his time in Miroslav Vitous' quartet; Surman has never been one to be pigeon-holed; but through it all runs the thread of his singular voice.

"The Returning Exile," from The Brass Project, blends Surman's sometimes pastoral style with a brass ensemble to stunning effect. Sadly, his quartet with John Taylor, Chris Laurence and John Marshall did not make the cut; still, this collection clearly establishes the work of a significant artist.

John Abercrombie Selected Recordings 1974-2000 (:rarum XIV)

As ECM's de facto guitarist-in-residence, John Abercrombie has performed on 25 albums as a guest, along with 17 recordings as a leader. A contemporary of Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield, Abercrombie has sadly never achieved the same level of widespread acclaim; still, with a more abstruse yet always lyrical approach, Abercrombie has graced the recordings of many of ECM's most influential artists, and has several longstanding collaborations that continue to this day.

Abercrombie has chosen to emphasize his work as a leader, as well as three ongoing collaborations. Represented are his '70s quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald; his '80s trio with Peter Erskine and Marc Johnson; his '90s organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum; and his most current quartet with Mark Feldman, Marc Johnson and Joey Baron. Collaborations with Kenny Wheeler, Ralph Towner and Gateway are also featured.

From the first notes of "Timeless," Abercrombie establishes himself as a player with a personal voice. With a remarkable sense of invention, he covers much territory, from the impressionistic solo piece, "Memoir," to the melancholy Wheeler composition, "Ma Belle Helene;" and from the lightly-swinging "Carol's Carol," to the more outward-looking "Convolution."

Few guitarists today can match Abercrombie's combination of exploratory verve with a penchant for melodicism; in the span of 80 minutes Abercrombie delivers a collection that succinctly summarizes everything that he is about.

Paul Motian Selected Recordings 1972-1987 (:rarum XVI)

When drummer Paul Motian first came to ECM as a member of Keith Jarrett's American Quartet, he had already established a reputation through his work with Bill Evans and Paul Bley. Nevertheless, it was the prompting of Manfred Eicher that saw Motian first begin to write music, record as a leader, and create a style that, over the course of six recordings made between 1972 and 1985, explored the juncture between lyrical impressionism and modern free improvisation. While Motian no longer records for ECM under his own name, his ongoing work with artists including Bley and Marilyn Crispell assures a continued presence.

Motian experiments with the harmonic openness of a sax-based trio with Charles Brackeen, represented on four tracks from Dance and Le Voyage; explores free jazz with Jarrett on the title track from Conception Vessel; and works in a bass-less environment with Bley, Frisell and Surman on "One in Four," from The Paul Bley Quartet. The title track from It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago highlights a nascent trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano that continues to this day. From deceptively free music to lyrical tone poems; Motian's writing has always been impressionistic, and completely his own.

Motian's collection represents the birth of a leader and composer, with a program of music that is truly timeless.

Eberhard Weber Selected Recordings 1974-2000 (:rarum XVIII)

Eberhard Weber, along with Jaco Pastorius, heralded a new era for the bass as more than an anchor instrument; with a hybrid electric instrument that looks like something between a bass and a cello, Weber has developed a distinctive sound that allows the instrument to play a lead role in defining the melodic development of a composition. A member of Ralph Towner's Solstice, part of Jan Garbarek's recording and touring ensemble for more than 20 years, and a leader in his own right who, with a catalog of 11 recordings, has contributed some of ECM's classic moments, Weber is clearly a performer, composer and leader of consequence.

Weber has always exhibited a strong classical influence, and a desire to place improvisation within a richly composed structure. Nowhere is this more evident than on "French Diary," from his latest release, Endless Days, or on "Maurizius," from Later That Evening. On "Gesture," from Jan Garbarek's Wayfarer, he demonstrates how the bass can move effortlessly from counterpoint to a more traditional time-keeping role, all the while covering the space in between. Yet, for all his dexterity, Weber understands the meaning of space; the title track from Fluid Rustle is a prime example of how five instruments can create rich texture out of the barest minimum.

Weber's collection gathers tracks from his own recordings in addition to Solstice, Garbarek, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton; it creates the impression of an artist who has created a unique musical language on his instrument and in composition.

Arild Andersen Selected Recordings 1975-1999 (:rarum XIX)

Another influential but lesser-known bassist, Arild Andersen may be better known for the Scandinavian artists that he has introduced to the world, including Nils Petter Molvaer, Bendik Hofseth, Bugge Wesseltoft, Jon Balke and, more recently, Greek pianist Vassilis Tsaboropoulos. But that should not diminish the impressive body of work that he has accumulated over more than 30 years.

Andersen's writing has always reflected Norwegian folk music, but context is everything. From the third-stream work of "The Island," on Hyperborean, to "Svev," from his Ralph Towner/Nana Vasconcelos collaboration If You Look Far Enough; from the impressionistic piano trio work of "She's Gone," from Achirana, to the title track of his most overtly folk-influenced release, Sagn, Andersen explores his roots, bringing them firmly into the present.

Welcome on this collection are tracks from recordings which have yet to be released on CD, including Green Shading Into Blue, Clouds in My Head, and Lifelines all of which showcase Andersen's sweet, singing sound.

In the late '80s Andersen led a group, Masqualero, which explored the crossroad of Norwegian folk music and more open post-bop. The group is represented on three tracks, one from each of their recordings.

An interesting oddity is "The Sword Under His Wings," from Molde Concert, a 1982 recording that features Andersen, Frisell, John Taylor and Alphonse Mouzon in full-out fusion mode; another example of the musical breadth that Andersen has demonstrated in a career's worth of recordings.

Jon Christensen Selected Recordings 1974-1997 (:rarum XX)

While Jack DeJohnette has appeared on more recordings, Jon Christensen, who until now has had no releases issued under his own name, is the drummer who has truly represented an ECM 'sound'. On 50 sessions with artists as diverse as Tomasz Stanko, Enrico Rava, Miroslav Vitous and Jan Garbarek, Christensen's elasticity with time has elevated every session he has participated on into something completely unique.

With such a large number of sessions to choose from, it may be surprising that Christensen has elected to keep the number of groups represented to a minimum. But further investigation reveals that each group represents a stylistic leap for Christensen as a player.

Christensen has chosen three tracks from his time with Keith Jarrett's European Quartet, all of which show him in a somewhat more rhythmically structured environment. But even in this context he shows a remarkable ability to add color while, at the same time, demonstrating an incredible sense of swing.

"Piscean Dance" from Ralph Towner's Solstice, and "Per Ulv," from Terje Rypdal's Waves, show Christensen displaying a rock sensibility; yet, while he manages to maintain a solid groove, there is an underlying sense of freedom that distinguishes him.

"Tutte" shows Christensen with Masqualero, approaching freer rhythmical territory further developed on the title track from Bobo Stenson's War Orphans. Surprisingly, though, Christensen at his freest comes with "Glacial Reconstruction," from neo-classicist Ketil Bjornstad's Water Stories. Christensen moves around the kit, creating waves of sound that fit perfectly with the water-theme of the recording.

Christensen's liner notes depict a man of few words; but with this collection, he is finally afforded the due he so richly deserves as the drummer who has been responsible for providing rhythm and texture to so many of ECM's greatest recordings.

In addition to the nine titles reviewed, ECM has also released :rarum recordings by Carla Bley, Tomasz Stanko and Egberto Gismonti. In every case the collections serve as terrific introductions to each artist for the unfamiliar; and wonderful compilations to add to the collections of the already initiated. These recordings show a label that, over the course of 35 years, has changed the course of modern music, and continues to do so with each and every new release.

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