I am always a little over-awed by ECM recordings. They sound as if they should be listened to in a large, loft apartment (with minimalist furnishings) on a system that costs a year’s salary. There is also a suspicion that they operate using a Masonic musical language to which only the true initiate is privy. The spirit of twentieth century abstract art is everywhere. If high modernism is dead then news of that event has not reached the citizens of ECM’s lofty citadel, who are still fiercely loyal to the late monarch. Consequently there is a generally humourless dedication to all things complex, atonal and unfunky that teeters at times into self-parody. A good for instance is that this set is recorded in an Austrian monastery (oh the silence, the spirituality) and that there is nothing as referentially vulgar as a song title to be found- just Variations (one to 12, in fact). However, keeping an incipient Philistinism firmly in in check, it has to be admitted that this is a pretty impressive set—with an abundance of fine, if unashamedly highbrow, music.
The featured trio are major figures on the advanced music scene. A cursory website check threw up about 300 albums in which they have had some involvement. Now veterans—Bley and Phillips are in their sixties, Parker a decade behind—they bring a wealth of talent and history to their playing and are the genuine article. There is barely a single, significant experimental musician that this bunch have not locked instruments with and, unsurprisingly, they ooze confidence and assuredness. Canadian-born pianist, Paul Bley is probably the best known and his involvement from way, way back with Lenny Tristano and Jimmy Giuffre put him in contact with the original antecedents of this particular type of improvisation. That fifties’ classical-plus-jazz movement was termed “Thirdstream” and Sankt Gerold is part of its post-Ornette Coleman incarnation. Chamber music with a Free Jazz frame of reference sums it up.
Bley has a reputation, even within modern jazz circles as an overly cerebral player, which is mind-boggling enough. Add the fact that Evan Parker—from Bristol, England—is one of the more dogged exponents of wild atonalism and the seekers after melody are in trouble. Yet something rather pleasant takes place in the course of these encounters. Bley—or perhaps it was the monastic setting—seems to calm Parker down somewhat, whereas Parker’s ceaseless stretching of sound brings out a more emotional quality in Bley’s work than is usually the case. With Californian Barre Phillips unable to make an ugly noise even in his most vanguardist mode, the combined result is often rather poetic and lovely. Whether this is intended, I have no idea, but I, for one, am glad of it.
The answer may lie in the fact that this album was recorded (in 1996) after a long tour, based on the success of their first outing for ECM—Time Will Tell (1994). There is a relaxed and easy relationship between the participants, ample space for solo pieces and an unhurriedness about the various duo and trio exchanges. Bley becomes almost Chopinesque at times and even Parker’s weird “circular breathing” exercises have a fragile quality about them. Phillips, as I have mentioned already, is grace personified. The album has all the regulation parps, squawks and cacophonous interludes (I recommend Variation 10 for clearing your home of unwanted guests) but that is what they seem—interludes. The dominant mood is contemplative and less dependant on the jagged edges associated with this genre. Not easy listening by any means but not as painful as some will imagine.
As for the Variations—five are ensemble pieces, Bley and Phillips get two each and Parker three. Parker’s contributions are the most demanding or, according to your tastes, the most irritating. Personally, I have always found the Spontaneous Music Ensemble—the British free jazz movement of which he was a key part—the least attractive of free jazz collectives. One cannot help, though, marvelling at his technique and the sheer variety of sounds he gets out of the reeds. That said, Variations six and seven (featuring Phillips) are my favourites as they offer an evocative but still adventurous journey through the instrument’s whole range of possibilities. Yet if Phillips is consistently the most impressive, it is Bley who sticks in the mind the longest. With stately phrasing and layerings of melancholy chords, he proves himself to be nowhere near as dry and academic as his reputation suggests. Variations one, two and nine show him to best effect.
Regular ECM buyers will know what to expect and probably will lap it up. To the less smitten I would suggest that a background in post-Schoenbergian classical music will equip you better than a knowledge of Kansas City tenor men in dealing with the “jazz” on offer here. A general feel for modernism in any of the arts will serve you best of all. I don’t know how much more mileage there is left in this free end of the musical scene but this set is full of conviction and vigour. There is not the slightest hint of anyone simply going through the motions. They are among the best at their particular game, these three, and they know exactly (well, exactly as is permissible in such an open-ended form) what they are doing. I can offer no such certainty but enjoyed the ride anyway.