Sep 23 2018
We really need to have a talk about ECM Records.
Sungjae Son – Near East Quartet
There’s a lot of stuff to celebrate on ECM Records this year, but it’s this Sungjae Son Near East Quartet recording that justifies the hope that the celebration will continue long into the future.
It’s not difficult to understand why the ECM Sound gets pigeonholed into a description of sparse, Nordic jazz music. For god’s sake, their motto is “The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence.” But the truth is that ECM’s past and present is marked by chaos and chatter via the avant-garde and folk music traditions, so while quiet piano recordings by Keith Jarrett and Tord Gustavsen might symbolize the past and present of ECM, it’s certainly not an indication of the music emanating from the below that surface view.
And it’s apropos to speak of ECM past and present when describing the music of Near East Quartet. The album’s foundation is built upon the traditional Korean music, gugak. While ECM has never placed limitations on the folk music borders its musicians cross over to, it’s not often that Korea gets a visit. This is a nifty development, and hopefully indicative of further outreach by ECM to new places and different sounds. But there is a moody prog-like element to this music that echoes the recent past of ECM and such artists as Terje Rypdal and Miroslav Vitous. And it goes further back, too, when vocal contributions were as distinct as a pocket trumpet solo from Don Cherry or as rich with dialogue as the percussion of Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Tenor saxophonist Sungjae Son, guitarist Suwuk Chung, percussionist & vocalist Yulhee Kim and drummer Soojin Suh (plus Sori Choi with some additional percussion in a guest role) offer up a beguiling sound that is as electric and it is cerebral. There are times it drives me into daydreams and other times it spurs me into activity like my own personal soundtrack. Near East Quartet is something a little different but also intimately familiar. And it’s promising as hell that ECM Records keeps spreading its wings further and future outward.
Barre Phillips – End to End
No matter who you are and no matter how established you may be, and irrelevant of the particular creative medium at play, doing the solo thing is about as vulnerable a position artists can put themselves in. There’s an inherent fear built into every creative venture. Time and perseverance and practice and a solid routine can tamp that fear down and shove it out of the way so that the creating can get underway, but, still, even if you’re a veteran of your art form, it’s still gotta be hanging out there just waiting for an opportunity to descend.
I’d imagine the solo venture is especially perilous for musicians whose instruments aren’t typically thought of as a solo project candidate. Like, bass, for instance. Do displays of technique get misinterpreted as showing off chops? Is the whole project going to be misconstrued as some sort of self-absorbed me me me thing? Can I tell the story in the absence of other voices?
Barre Phillips sidesteps all of those pitfalls on his latest, and he accomplishes it by building a narrative. Every bit of End to End rolls out like a story, with some sections behaving as plot development and others as images for the world that holds it in its embrace. Over and over, Phillips finds different ways to get his bass to sing, with the lasting impression that he doesn’t really recognize any limits to the instrument’s range.
You have every reason to be skeptical that a solo bass recording can be as engrossing as I found End to End. But I’m pretty sure if you give the music a chance, it’ll obliterate your skepticism halfway through the first of the album’s three movements. That’s when it happened to me, and, despite my skepticism going in, the challenge I’m facing now is one of addiction to this recording.
A final personal observation that might have no bearing on your experience: This album hits me not unlike one of John Surman’s solo recordings. It sounds nothing like a Surman solo work, but how the music initiates both a cerebral and emotional reaction is startlingly similar. Also, much like a Surman solo work, End to End marries well to both a sunrise and late nights spent only in the company of a sleepy-eyed moon.
Trygve Seim – Helsinki Songs
I want to like the music of Trygve Seim more than I do. The saxophonist’s output has always been something of a mixed bag for me. Let’s start with what I like and why I remain hopeful: Seim puts that melody out there on a pedestal. He gives it the care and attention of a parent tending to their newborn. If I were to be told that Seim keeps a running list of his favorite melodies, I would buy into that claim. What else? Well, he’s contributed to some of my favorite modern recordings. I also really enjoy when he goes heavy with a folk sound element; it makes that Nordic jazz get moody as hell, and plenty charismatic.
Unfortunately, the saxophonist is just as likely to veer away from that territory and, instead, come strong with expressions that dive into contemporary pop. It’s a turn of events that makes a melody sweet as syrup and pour out with a comparable thickness.
And it’s not just that the melody goes sweet. It’s how Seim, who can really belt it out on saxophone, does. That loses me every time. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing in general. I’m sure that style has its fans, and god bless ’em for getting what they want. But it’s the kind of thing that leaves me wanting something more… something like Seim inevitably provides on every album along with those tunes that get a bit too syrupy for my tastes. Even a track like “New Beginning,” which might’ve suffered from that problem, doesn’t, just by way of Seim applying some restraint in its delivery. That approach gives the melody a delicate presence, like a tiny stream of water cutting between sheets of ice.
Tord Gustavsen Trio – The Other Side
So, this is probably one of those albums where I better state my personal feelings up front, because I’m not really sure anything else I say isn’t going to be colored by them, and, besides, it’ll provide you some context as you make up your own mind on how much weight to give my words. By and large, the music of Tord Gustavsen bores me to tears. This statement has evolved over the course of many many years and countless attempts to connect with his music. I adore ECM Records, and I love so many of their sparse, tranquil recordings… especially those with piano in the lead (I’m looking at you, Marcin Wasilewski). And Gustavsen has been to modern ECM like Keith Jarrett was to the label in the previous century (and still is, actually), so that was an extra motivation to sort his music out. I’ve always found it a bit strange that I’d literally fall asleep while his music was on the stereo.
But, damn, I do very much enjoy his new release The Other Side. So many of the influences and preferences that’d receive a mention in the liner notes of previous recordings (a love of church music, thin veins of the blues as an undercurrent to his pieces, a potent use of silence) come through strong on this recording. I’m not saying this album blows me away or anything, but there have been many a Sunday nights of late, when I’m trying to wind down from the weekend and not yet ready to brace myself for Monday morning, that this recording has soothed my weary soul while also still adding some excitement to the dwindling hours of the weekend. I think one thing that really has me gravitating to it is that the pianist initiates a spike of intensity from time to time, like on “Re-melt” and an arrangement of the traditional work “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro,” and those evocative passage carry over nicely to the calmer pieces. But, also, Gustavsen just seems to draw out the feeling of those calmer moments, gets them to resonate just a tiny bit more than he has previously… and that makes all the difference. For me, at least. Like I said, my relationship with Gustavsen’s music is tricky. He’s all the rage among ECM fans. It feels nice to be able to join that crowd, even if just for a single recording. Bassist Sigurd Hole and drummer Jarle Vespestad round out the trio.