Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012
When the history books of the final quarter of the 20th century and the first quarter of the 21st are written, there's no doubt that ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher will figure prominently. How could he not? With a label now in its 43rd year, with well over 1,300 releasesthe lion's share produced by Eicherhe's not just created a significant body of work, he's shaped one that speaks of a personal aesthetic, and an acute ear for music ranging from cutting edge to traditional, and from spare and tranquil to dense and intense, all with an international eye for artists who come from the United States, England, Tunisia, France, India and elsewhere. There is no other label in historynot just jazz, but recorded music as a wholethat comes from an active producer for its entire duration; one who doesn't just oversee a recording session, but becomes an integral part of the creative process, and a de facto added member to whatever configuration of musicians are at work.
The subtitle of an evening where Eicher was invited to Enjoy Jazz for a listening session at Ludwigshafen's BASD-Gesellschaftshaus was "Manfred Eicher plays previously unreleased music from the ECM archives." Perhaps the title was a tad misleading, as some in attendance were expecting more along the lines of three 2012 releases where older archival material was released for the first time: pianist Keith Jarrett's SleeperTokyo, April 16, 1979, MagicoCarta de Amor, from the early 1980s trio of saxophonist Jan Garbarek, pianist/guitarist Egberto Gismonti and bassist Charlie Haden, and Odyssey: In Studio & In Concert which, in addition to releasing Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal's 1975 album Odyssey for the first time in its entirety, included a previously unreleased radio recording with the Norwegian guitarist's group, Unfinished Highballs. Instead of playing older material from the archives, however, what Eicher did was present an evening of what's to come: new music that's in the can and awaiting release, sometime in 2013.
There was also some disappointment that, rather than speaking about the sessions, the artists or the recording process, Eicher chose to say very little; insteadand, given his reputation, something that should not have come as a surprisehe let the music speak for itselfand on a tremendous Bowers & Wilkins sound system worth over 27,000 Euros. In a time when compressed music has sadly become the norm, Eicher's evening made the point, without actually saying it, that music needs to be heard the way it was recorded, and the depth and clarity of the B&W sound system dovetailed perfectly with the label's approach to recording that has defined it since inception: pristine sound and complete transparency amongst the layers, making it possible to hear every note, every nuance, every whispered breath.
Eicher did, after the listening session was over, come back and speak more about the music, as well as answer questions from the audience. Still, for those not speaking German, it had to be all about the music, and if this session was any indication, 2013 is going to be as good a year for ECM as 2012. Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko was instantly recognizable, despite a slight smoothing of his often raspy tone, with his New York Quartet consisting of pianist David Virelles, bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Another set to look forward to came from trumpeter Ralph Alessi's forthcoming ECM leader debut, featuring pianist Jason Moran, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits (making his own first-ever ECM appearance). Songways, from pianist Stefano Battaglia's trio with bassist Salvatore Maiore and drummer Roberto Dani (last heard on the superb The River of Anyder (2011)), promises even deeper chemistry, and an even more finessed ability to play freely while being endlessly melodic.
There were also strong entries on the classical front, including a particularly powerful Concerto for Violoncello and Strings featuring cellist Kristina Blaumane and the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra. Eleni Karaindrou's forthcoming Musik zu "Medea", with its sublime combination of chamber ensemble, lute and ney (Persian end-blown flute), sounded like another great addition to the Greek film scorer's already fine body of work for the label, following 2009's Dust of Time. So, too, did the renowned Keller Quartet's rendition of Ludwig van Beethoven's String Quartet #16, while Iva Bittová's "Fragments I," "II" and "VII" will certainly represent a strong debut as a leader for this violinist/singer.
Eicher also played two pieces of music already released. An excerpt from Steve Reich's minimalist classic, Music for 18 Musicians (1978), and a track from the just-released Carta de Amor (2012) strongly suggested that Eicher, much as he does when he sequences tracks on a recording, was being very specificnot just about the music, but about the order in which the it was unveiledduring the evening. ECM recordings typically have a very definitive arc across the breadth of a recording, making them more than just a collection of discrete pieces. In this revealing evening of music on the horizon, Eicher turned what might, at first glance, have seemed to be nothing more than a series of tracks, into an evening's program of music that gradually assumed its own appealing shape.