“Warm? Cool? What’s the Difference?”: Reevaluating ECM

Jan Garbarek
:rarum II

Gary Burton
:rarum IV

Art Ensemble of Chicago
:rarum VI

Terje Rypdal
:rarum VII

Bobo Stenson
:rarum VIII

ECM Records has a reputation among jazzbos, and it’s not necessarily a good one. This German-based label began in 1969; its first release was Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. Since then, ECM has released both jazz and classical albums, which means that for 33 years the label has been pigeonholed pretty hard. ECM jazz albums are supposed to be clean, but antiseptic; jazz-based, but new-agey; interesting, but too perfect; brilliant, but remote and even a little chilly; worthy of respect, perhaps, but not love.

Do they deserve this reputation for coldness? Label founder Manfred Eicher denies it, saying “Warm? Cold? What does that mean?” And yet, of course, it’s in his best interest to say that — we get to make up our minds for ourselves. Well, now’s a perfect time to revisit the question, because ECM has started something called the :rarum series, in which they ask some of their heavy hitters to pick their own favorite tracks for best-of anthologies. We’ve already reviewed the Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett discs, so we’ll be focusing here on five artists who have all been instrumental to the label’s success. If there is an “ECM sound”, we are sure to find it here.

Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek leads things off with a two-disc affair. He deserves that honor — he’s appeared on more than 50 different ECM albums, as a leader and a sideman. Garbarek is responsible for a lot of the ECM stereotype: his tone is distinctively clear and precise (and virtually without vibrato), and his interest in international music and classical structures has caused some lazy reviewers to lump him in with the floaty Windham Hill crowd. I think this collection proves otherwise, once and for all . . . but only if you listen to it all the way through.

Disc 1 is devoted to sessions in which Garbarek was a leader. It opens with a wailing little snippet from 1975’s Dansere, and then gets to what might be the archetypal ECM track. “Viddene”, from Garbarek’s 1976 collaboration with Ralph Towner titled Dis, is everything that ECM friends and foes might wish. It pits Towner, the founder of the group Oregon, on “windharp” and 12-string guitar against Garbarek’s scalpel of a soprano sax for five and a half sharp minutes, and it’s fascinating to hear a duo that doesn’t really sound like they’re playing together at all. It’s passionate and well-argued by both sides, but it’s like two solo performances spliced together. And the next track, “Iskirken”, doesn’t get much “warmer” at all, considering that it’s just nearly seven minutes of Garbarek blowing the hell out of his horn against Kjell Johnsen’s pipe organ drone. His tone is as perfect as the polar landscape . . . and about that far away.

But then you start to understand Garbarek a little — hey, that’s just the way his horn sounds. This realization kicks in around the time you hear “Lillekort”. This 1980 piece features Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos on the talking drum and John Abercrombie on guitar, and it’s just about as Caribbean as you can get in the middle of a hot July day. “The Path” uses an abstract version of be-bop to cast its spell, with increasingly Coltranian horn work by Garbarek, some very lovely riffing by Bill Frisell, and ace work from popular ECM rhythm stalwarts Eberhard Weber (bass) and Jon Christiensen (drums). “Raga I” is a collaboration with Pakistani musicians and the late Usted Fateh Ali Khan, whose vocal qawwali work never failed to enchant. And dig the computer drums and psychedelic keyboard work on 1988’s “Aichuri, the Song Man” — Prince would have killed for this arrangement. Clearly, there’s more to Garbarek than meets the gossip.

The real revelation to me here is Disc 2, which is all about Garbarek as a collaborator and sideman. Simply: the guy has no ego whatsoever. Whether it’s playing second fiddle to his mentor Keith Jarrett on “Belonging” and “My Song”, getting Latinate with guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden on “Cego Alderado”, or busting an Arab-flavored showdown with oud player Anouar Brahem on “Joron”, Garbarek is the very model of decorum; when he needs to lay out, he lays out, and when it’s time to burn, he burns. Check the live version of “Sunshine Song”, which decides to turn into a nice little acid jazz number halfway through its 12 minutes, or Towner’s delicious “Oceanus”, another epic-length piece built on a simple chord which doesn’t resolve itself until the very end of the song. Just about the only thing on this disc that might be stereotypical is the last track, “Parce Mihi Domine”, which is performed with a classical vocal quartet — it’s beautiful, but it’s not true. But overall, you end up learning about the way this man operates: Garbarek doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve or anything, but you can’t fault him for trying to pander.

But it’s kind of strange that Garbarek’s double-CD set has nothing on it from Afric Pepperbird, his first ECM record and one of the more influential discs in the label’s history. And why not anything here from the 1973 session Witchi-Tai-To, which he co-lead with pianist Bobo Stenson? To hear any of that, you have to go to pianist Stenson’s collection, where the title track is buried. It’s an amazing, swinging version of Jim Pepper’s song, with a celebrated solo by Garbarek — but it’s Stenson’s piano work that always made this tune a classic. Stenson’s disc is unusual in that most of the work on it comes from the 1990s. His 1999 double album, Serenity, is well-represented; “Fader V (Father World)” showcases the delicate ambition of that project, with Stenson’s fingers gliding across the keys in solo after morse-code solo, and “East Print” is a great lead-off piece. I was also happy that his work with Charles Lloyd is represented by “Song”, a lengthy piece that completely justifies its length through the stunning solo Stenson pulls off so casually. But Stenson, as far-thinking as he is, doesn’t have any kind of truck with distance. His playing is direct and emotional — the very antithesis of what ECM detractors might say.

I was shocked at how radical another Garbarek collaborator, Terje Rypdal, sounds on disc. He started out playing rock with a Norwegian surf-rock group called the Vanguards in the 1960s, was there for the Afric Pepperbird sessions, and has gone on to lead bands and win awards for his classical compositions. This is my favorite of these discs, just because it’s so all over the board. The opener, 1974’s “Silver Bird Is Heading for the Sun”, sounds remarkably like the rock stuff on Miles Davis’ album Get Up On It, which didn’t hit the stores until ’75 — it rocks, it swings, it funks, and it soars, all seemingly as easy as pie. He is the true third-stream artist, and shows it in the Bach-like “Double Concerto for two electric guitars and symphony orchestra”, which could be the single edit of “Maggot Brain”. But he’s also not afraid to just crank it out on the pop-metal-jazz tip — “Chaser”, done with his mid-’80s band the Chasers, just made Steve Vai and other supposed six-string mavens burst into tears with his fire, his wit, his momentum, and his beautiful bent notes. I’m also especially fond of the weirdo piece “The Hunt” from 1974, which sounds like the drunken ghost of Charles Mingus haunting his own funeral.

Speaking of Mingus — it’s time to get to the anomaly here. Why, exactly, if ECM was supposed to be so staid and cold and perfectionistic, did Eicher sign the Art Ensemble of Chicago? (Some suspect that he wanted a high-profile “black group” on the roster, but we’re not going to speculate about that.) This group of Windy City surrealists took all of recorded music, blended it with African forms on the frappé setting, and then shot it right back out of their instruments. It’s clear from the very first track on the album who one of their heroes was: the song is called “Charlie M”, and it is the perfect Mingus tribute, recorded one year after his death. It’s loose and tight in equal amounts, like the best Mingus, but with a true democratic vibe that Mingus never had. All members were equal in the AEC, and all are represented as composers on this disc, with varying degrees of success. Joseph Jarman’s high-flying synth dirge “Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi” is a luscious ambient-Celt mood piece that eschews solos and pulse, and Lester Bowie’s Cuban groove “Rios Negroes” shows off the fun dancey side of the band, but Malachi Favors Maghostus’ 20-minute “Magg Zelma” spends half its time fucking around with weird percussion noises to no avail before turning into a lovely thing. And Roscoe Mitchell, who’s still premiering new works here in Wisconsin, strays a little too close to the Mingus fence on “Odwalla/Theme”. Overall, this is NOT the place to start if you’re looking to learn more about the AEC. I ended up understanding less about them after listening to this disc than I knew before.

And then there’s Gary Burton, who seems to be related to none of these other acts at all on first listen. “Four or Less” is the first track, and it sounds, amazingly . . . just like jazz. Burton’s a whiz on the vibes, to be sure, but there is no “classical” or “African” influence on him whatsoever. If anything, his tone is a little warmer than that of Bobby Hutcherson, to whom all vibists must be compared — but Hutcherson scores points because he’s also a composer, whereas all the selections on this disc are other people’s pieces. Not to say they’re not great pieces; Carla Bley’s songs here are over-complex and mostly-brilliant like always (it’s interesting to hear the two different versions of “Syndrome”, with the later one taken insanely fast), and compliment Burton’s style quite nicely, and her buddy Steve Swallow tosses in a shake-your-hips thing called “Ladies in Mercedes” that completely rules. Whether it’s a fast jam like “La Divetta” or a slowdance like “Duke Ellington’s Song of Love”, Burton gets the job done with taste and flair . . . and doesn’t overdo it on the “flair” part.

Is there anything common linking these artists? A sound? An aesthetic? A philosophy? I don’t really think so. All they have in common is their brilliance at playing jazz music, and having once been signed to the same label. Of the five discs, the least essential ones are the Burton and the AEC — for the latter, I’d recommend going to one of their studio albums for deeper insight than you’re going to get here. As for Rypdal and Stenson and Garbarek, this might be your best chance at being introduced to these interesting artists.