As much as I find myself blissfully consumed with a number of fine, fine recordings of late -- a better crop in the past year or so than in some time -- there is still nothing quite like experiencing music live. Two recent live events by ECM records were thoroughly entertaining, and provided a nice counterpart to recordings on the label by the artists involved.
On March 21st, I attended German composer/stage director Heiner Goebbels' theater work Hashirigaki at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Theater. Going in, I was a bit worried about the amalgam of material that constituted the piece: a combination of Kabuki theater, Gertrude Stein poetry (The Making of Americans), and arrangements by Goebbels of Beach Boys songs! While I had heard recorded evidence that Goebbels is able to take the most disparate of source material and turn it into a unified work that contains his own personal stamp, I wasn't sure that even he could pull off a postmodern juxtaposition such as this.
My misgivings were unfounded; the 90 minute Hashirigaki is quite an entertaining evening. Off-kilter instrumental versions of Brian Wilson songs, with relatively little singing by the cast of three actresses, set a backdrop for a wonderful array of visual and musical elements. There are traditional Japanese theatrical gestures and instruments and a live theremin, an electronic instrument used on "Good Vibrations", which I had not had the pleasure of hearing live before. In fact, the beauty of the theremin is seeing it being played -- the performer elicits pitches from the machine with a series of gestures, conjuring sounds rather than pressing keys or buttons or the like. There were some very clever staging and lighting effects, and props consisted of a charming collection of materials: balloons, bells, small toy buildings, and a cardboard bus pushed along by the cast. The Stein texts were treated with an appropriate sense of irony and comic timing. When there is this kind of conglomeration of materials, one can worry about the creator treating each element with appropriate respect. In Hashirigaki, Goebbels has found the appropriate balance between irreverent whimsy and loving care for his materials.
For those in the New York and LA areas, there are two upcoming performances of another of Goebbels' theater works, Eislermaterial, also available from ECM on CD. On July 13th, the work will be performed in NYC at the LaGuardia Concert Hall. It will also be performed at UCLA on December 4th. Eislermaterial is Heiner Goebbels' take on the works of composer Hans Eisler, who is probably most famous for composing the East German national anthem; it is unfortunate that his works are not better known here in the US, particularly his collaborations with Brecht. Once again, Goebbels finds a way to both present an affectionate portrait of his subject, while creating something entirely new in his treatment of Eisler's compositions. A particular aspect of this is his collaboration with the Ensemble Modern, encouraging improvisation and input from the musicians. In a recent conversation, Goebbels told me how, rather than giving the musicians parts to read from, he gave each the sheet music to the songs, and suggested that they try to come up with their own part. Such a loss of control is difficult for most composers and directors, and it makes what Goebbels does a singular and courageous approach.
On March 7, I attended a performance by another ECM artist, Louis Sclavis. He performed his score to the silent Charles Vanel film Dans La Nuit for a screening of the picture at FIAF in New York. I recently reviewed the soundtrack album for Splendid, and it was an interesting experience to see the score performed live. The musicians had the challenge of performing the music with artistry, all the while syncing their playing to the movie in real time. Occasionally, the ending of one piece would have to be truncated by a second or two to pick up the track for the next scene. But for the most part, Sclavis and company did remarkably well. A real treat -- I wish silent films were more frequently performed with live music (as they were originally presented).
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ECM's :rarum project of best-of compilations by their artists continues apace. This month, we will look at Vol. V-VIII in the series.
:rarum V - Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell has been recording with Nonesuch for a long while. However, he made his start at ECM, and a lot of his formative work is recorded there. In addition to cuts from his early solo albums, Frisell's :rarum CD contains a number of pieces on which he was a sideman, including tracks with Kenny Wheeler, Paul Bley, Jan Garbarek, and some of his earliest recording dates with Paul Motian. Not only that, but Frisell selected the unusual inclusion of a work inspired by his music on which he doesn't play -- Gavin Bryars' hauntingly evocative "Sub Rosa".
One of Frisell's musical characteristics of which I am most fond is his ability to blend in with the approach of many ensembles, while simultaneously making sure that you know he's the one wielding the guitar. A lot can be made of an artist's progress and evolution, but right from the get-go on the early cuts, what Frisell calls his "Americana thing" -- a sound and sensibility extolling folk and old-time country while in a jazz context -- is right there. His performances on pieces from the in-print but elusive recordings In Line and Lookout for Hope alone make this compilation well worth seeking out.
:rarum VI - Art Ensemble of Chicago
The Art Ensemble is another group of artists who have not spent their entire career at ECM, but turned out some of their finest recordings during their stay at the label. They are one of those groups that is impossible to nail down (my favorite kind). Their music is a mix of blues, jazz and techniques from postwar experimental music (including electronics). Most of all, they are pioneers of the integration of ethnic instruments and "World Music" approaches into the realm of jazz. Recently, AEC has returned to ECM with a recorded tribute to their recently deceased founding member Lester Bowie.
This :rarum CD features some of their extended compositions, such as the 20 minute epic "Magg Zelma" from their Full Force album -- a veritable cornucopia of ethnic instruments that is at turns meditative world music and experimental improvisation. There are also some nice shorter pieces, like the three minute avant jazz "Nine to Get Ready", performed by the AEC side project Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory. All in all, an excellent introduction to the myriad musical explorations undertaken by the AEC.
:rarum VII - Terje Rypdal
Guitarist and composer Terje Rypdal shows us how the artist's input into these compilations changes the way that listeners may perceive them. Instead of focusing on his work as a sideman to numerous stars, as a producer, or as a composer, Rypdal selected cuts that show off his guitar playing. As he is a formidable musician, with that unusual, especially for a "Guitar God", combination of taste and chops, his selections will elicit no argument from me.
As a consequence, a lot of Rypdal's offerings here fall into a region somewhere between two most-maligned genres (frequently unjustly, I might add), jazz fusion and progressive rock. A perfect example of the former is the album's first track, "Silver Bird is Heading for the Sun". This 1974 piece captures the gestalt of electrified jazz of that era, with the standard combo of electric piano, electric guitar and bass, and drums. However, an additional instrument adds a twist -- Odd Ulleburg's french horn. It is little quirks like this that are indicative of Rypdal's approach never being by-the-numbers, and almost always resulting in challenging but attractive music. Examples of the Prog end of things are "Transition", on which Rypdal plays both guitar and keyboards, and "Waves". His long, soaring melodic lines once again recall, to my ear, some of Steve Hackett's solo work.
In my soon-to-be-published review of Rypdal's newest album, Lux Aeterna, I bemoan the fact that his Double Concerto recording was not given a US release -- as, if Lux Aeterna was any indication, I want to hear more of Rypdal's concert music. A movement of the Double Concerto is included on here, and it more than lives up to my expectations. I still urge ECM to send copies of the entire Double Concerto to Stateside record stores!
:rarum VIII - Bobo Stenson
Did you ever learn a new word and then notice that you heard it all the time for the rest of that week? Was the word being spoken around you before, and you just didn't notice because you didn't comprehend its meaning, or did your learning its definition set off some kind of chain reaction which altered the linguistic behavior in your environment?
A similar reaction overtook me when I rediscovered pianist Bobo Stenson's playing while researching an article on Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. His playing so thoroughly blew me away that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard more of it. Then I realized, after doing a little digging, that I already had. Stenson has played with a host of great jazz musicians, and I owned several terrific albums on which he was a sideman -- I just hadn't put two and two together. Perhaps it had something to do with Stenson's consummate taste and lack of grandstanding when he isn't a leader. I am glad that both the Stanko piece and this :rarum CD helped me to realize what I had been missing.
A testament to Stenson's place as a favored sideman is the number of luminaries who appear on this compilation -- among them Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry, Tomasz Stanko and Charles Lloyd. Stenson's playing on Ornette Coleman's "What Reason Could I Give", a duet with trumpeter Don Cherry, is truly lovely, evoking hints of Bill Evans in its lyrical ballad style. "Song", from Charles Lloyd's album "the Call", also features an attractive and melodically ruminative solo by Stenson.
In addition to collaborations, there are several recordings of Stenson's trio. On these, he gets a chance to step out front on a wide array of compositions by Silvio Rodriguez, Duke Ellington and Ornette Coleman, as well as his own pieces. Of the originals, "Golden Rain" from 1999's Serenity seems to have the makings of a standard; I would love to hear other artists interpret it. Now that he has my full attention, I am sure that my ears will perk up whenever I hear the name Bobo Stenson spoken.
Next month: A look at some of the lions of experimental music recording on Leo Records.
-- Christian Carey