Week ending 22 February 2020: our final ECMfest

This week’s Cosmic Jazz is – as always – available on the Mixcloud tab (left). Open it for an hour of great music – mostly from Neil’s ECM label collection which has recently celebrated 50 years of jazz and more. Neil began collecting ECM music after going into a Zurich record store in 1973 and hearing the recently released Keith Jarrett 3LP Bremen/Lausanne Concerts – in the days when you shut yourself in a listening booth and heard 30 minutes of music for free before making your decision to purchase (or not). He walked away with that Keith Jarrett box set and started on a musical journey that still continues.

We began the show with the ethereal sounds of the Norwegian Tord Gustavsen Trio who appeared at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival in 2003 just after the release of their debut album for ECM, Changing Places. Live, the textural quality of this music was sharpened further – the silences between the notes almost as important as the music itself. Gustavsen and his trio (including extraordinary drummer Jarle Vespestad) conjure floating melodies with a real verse/chorus structure that linger in your consciousness long after the music ends. Listen out, too, for the bass playing of Harald Johnsen on our choice from this album – the track title Where Breathing Starts could not be more apposite.

Another memorable live performance experienced by both Neil and Derek in the suitably resonant acoustic of Norwich Cathedral came from our second ECM artist, trumpeter Arve Henriksen. Ever since Miles Davis began using the Harmon mute and then wahwah pedals, trumpeters have realised the totally different sounds that can be created with this instrument. There’s a current trend for a much more breathy sound on trumpet – and perhaps this all began with the fourth world/ambient sounds of Jon Hassell almost 45 years ago. On his debut recording Vernal Equinox in 1973, Hassell experimented with echo and envelope filters, sometimes muti-tracking his trumpet to create a sound that was almost vocal. Listen to the 22 minute title track here for one of the inspirations of this style.  You can hear this in Henriksen’s approach but also in the music of Nils Petter Molvaer whose music we have featured previously on Cosmic Jazz. Migration is, however, an exceptional and evocative track from the stunning release Cartography.

Up next was English saxophonist John Surman from his curiously titled 1981 ECM outing The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon, a duo album with drummer Jack DeJohnette. On Nestor’s Saga, Surman is featured on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone. Surman would add more electronics in later albums for ECM, including the excellent The Road to St Ives which continued Surman’s fascination with his Devonian/Cornish heritage.

There are many albums on the ECM label that could be considered essential – but Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds is undoubtedly one of these. A free jazz masterpiece, it really belongs in any self-respecting collection. Remarkably, this was Holland’s first album as a leader – and what a group he assembled! Holland had worked with saxophonist Anthony Braxton and drummer Barry Altschul in the group Circle (along with pianist Chick Corea) and his partnership with Altschul made for one of the most dynamic rhythm sections of the decade. Saxophonist Sam Rivers was over twenty years older than his colleagues, and he had briefly been a member of Miles Davis’ quintet in the early 1960s, before being ejected in favour of Wayne Shorter. The title track of Conference of the Birds is a surprisingly gentle, almost pastoral piece that opens with a lyrical bass solo from Holland, demonstrating how just how versatile a player he is. Holland explained the inspiration for the title in the album liner notes: While living in London I had an apartment with a small garden. During the summer around 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, just as the day began, birds would gather here one by one and sing together, each declaring its freedom in song. It is my wish to share this same spirit with other musicians and communicate it to the people. Whether Holland knew it or not (and he probably did), Conference of the Birds is also the title of the most famous collection of poems by the Persian Sufi poet Attar…

Our final ECMfest drew to a close with another title track, this time from the late Canadian flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler. The album is an all-star affair with Holland again on bass, veteran Lee Konitz on alto sax and Bill Frisell on guitar. Unusually, there is no drummer on the record but that hasn’t prevented this timeless recording from achieving something of a cult status. It’s a remarkably restrained, lyrical recording that grows on any listener prepared to stay with it. For more Wheeler, check out the extended waltz Heyoke from the 1975 recording Gnu High. The album features Dave Holland once more but also includes Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette.

We ended the show with two very different sounds – but both artists we have seen live over the years. Joey Alexander is the extraordinary talented young pianist from Jakarta, Indonesia who just gets better and better. Now aged 16 and with a new album out soon, we featured another track from his download only collection of outtakes released at the end of 2019. This was his take on John Coltrane’s Equinox – and a very fine version it is too. The album is available from all download sources – listen here on Bandcamp.

Just as Fela Kuti was influenced by the jazz he heard while studying in the UK, there’s no doubt that jazz musicians have in turn been influenced by him. Listen to Brandford Marsalis’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and check out his stunning sampled use of Fela’s Beasts of No Nation. We chose to end the show this week with an album and title track new to Neil’s Fela collection: Fear Not For Man appears on a 2018 vinyl reissue on Knitting Factory Records and was located in one of the many excellent vinyl stores in Singapore. The island state (where Neil is based) is something of a haven for record lovers – including those looking for jazz releases old and new.

  1. Tord Gustavsen Trio – Where Breathing Starts from Changing Places
  2. Arve Henriksen – Migration from Cartography
  3. John Surman – Nestor’s Saga from The Amazing Adventures of Simon Simon
  4. Dave Holland Quartet – Conference of the Birds from Conference of the Birds
  5. Kenny Wheeler – Angel Song from Angel Song
  6. Joey Alexander – Equinox from In a Sentimental Mood
  7. Fela Kuti – Fear Not For Man from Fear Not For Man

Neil is listening to…

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