The State of ECM Records 2009: Steve Kuhn, Jan Garbarek and Thomas Zehetmair
Its 40th anniversary year, 2009, has been a good one for Manfred Eicher's Edition of Contemporary Music Company. ECM was selected the Best Classical Label by Gramophone magazine. If that wasn't enough, ECM was selected Jazz Label of the Year and Manfred Eicher, Producer of the Year by Downbeat magazine. No record label since the Blue Note label of the 1950s and 1960s has been able to boast its own "sound." But a unique and identifiable sound is exactly what ECM has in both classical and jazz musics.
Steve Kuhn Trio with Joe Lovano
Mostly Coltrane has received much attention from the writers at All About Jazz. Justifiably so because the project fell at the creative intersection of positive manifold influences. Pianist Steve Kuhn has both a history with ECM and John Coltrane, having performed with the saxophonist in early 1960. Kuhn's trio mates, bassist David Finck and drummer Joey Baron were present for Kuhn's Remembering Tomorrow (ECM, 1996) and their familiarity with the pianist is readily evident. And then, there is Joe Lovano, a keenly appropriate tenor saxophonist for such a project.
To be absolutely sure, none of the principles here are their respective counterparts in the classic Coltrane Quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Jimmy Garrison, and drummer Elvin Jones. They do not need to be. Coltrane is difficult enough to interpret successfully because of his white-hot creativity and spirituality. The lens needed to view Coltrane in interpretation is one that increases the signal-to-noise ratio in performance. Unpopular as the thought might be, Coltrane toward the end of his life was not merely challenging, he was nearly incomprehensible.
So what must we make of Steve Kuhn's musical impressions of Coltrane? Kuhn's pianism is perfectly refined, with smooth transitions and muted exuberance. He is uniquely restrained in the later Coltrane on "Configuration," "Jimmy's Mode" and "Spiritual." On the latter of these tunes, Lovano coaxes a beautiful tone from his horn, deftly navigating the introduction into the breezy groove established by Finck. Into this breezy groove is thrown Baron's controlled poly-rhythms. Coltrane's exuberance is corrected in such a way to broadly appeal.
The trio provides more traditional support on "Song of Praise," reaching a unique empathy with Lovano, whose tenor carefully respects Coltrane's densely electric thought. The rhythm section briskly walks for Kuhn while he delivers an abstract, impressionistic solo. All the needed elements are here, drama, craftsmanship, thoughtfulness, chops and repertoire to make Mostly Coltrane the most perfect jazz disc released this year.
Jan Garbarek Group
If there exists a musical face of ECM, it is Jan Garbarek. The Norwegian tenor and soprano saxophonist has been recording for ECM since the release of Afric Pepperbird in 1970 and has spent the majority of his career with the label, recording under his own leadership and that of others. Almost 40 years of recording make for a large well of experience to choose from when assembling a live performance and Garbarek plumbs his experience deeply.
But that experience has not been without controversy. Is what Garbarek composes and plays jazz? He has certainly played jazz and can swing with the best of them. But recordings like those with the Hilliard EnsembleOfficium (1994, ECM) and Mnemosyne (1999, ECM)blending the ancient and modern in a super-miscible interface. These recordings illustrate Garbarek's soaring Norwegian soprano tone, the most distinctive soprano saxophone sound since Coltrane blew through his Selmer (and Sidney Bechet before him).
This same plaintive Scandinavian tone introduces Dresden: atmospheric, ethereal, spacial, it partially characterizes the signature ECM sound. Garbarek opens the performance with Lakshminarayana Shankar's "Paper Nut," from the violinist's 1985 recording Song For Everyone, on which Garbarek appeared. "Paper Nut" serves as a microcosm of how the remainder of the recording plays out. Garbarek allows his quartet their respective individualities with ample solo room. Drummer Manu Katche propels the disc from fade-in in a controlled Elvin Jones sort or way. Bassist Yuri Daniels (replacing an ailing Eberhard Weber) buoys Garbarek during his frenetic solo and pianist Rainer Bruninghaus provides a peek at what is to come later.