Saturday, April 28, 2018

Maru Sankaku Shikaku - 1973 - Maru Sankaku Shikaku (Circle Triangle Square)

Maru Sankaku Shikaku 
Maru Sankaku Shikaku (Circle Triangle Square)

01. Circle One 17:11
02. Circle Two 16:50
03. Triangle One 17:05
04. Triangle Two 14:19
05. Square One 16:54
06. Square Two 14:17

Bonus on 4cd version:
07. Four One 14:26
08. Four Two 14:09
09. Five One 10:07
10. Five Two 10:00

Sakuro "Kant" Watanabe
Kohji "Tohchan" Miura
Etsuko "Manager" Watanabe
Yoshiyuki Hida

Long dormant artifacts from the halcyon days of Seventies Japanese trippy hippy psychedelia, three albums recorded by a group of travelling troubadours Maru Sankaku Shikaku have been bundled into a big set and made available to interested folks beyond the shores of Nippon. Led by Sakuro “Kant” Watanabe, the band travelled around Japan in the early 1970s performing publicly as street performers and dossing down in sleeping bags and tents where need be.

The three discs convey the impression of long shamanistic rituals in which free-form and improvised music dominates. A lot of it sounds direction-less and perhaps it was intended to be. There are sometimes passages where the music seems to coalesce into something definitely rhythmic and acquires focus and purpose. In such sections, the music is surprisingly energetic and joyful, and the performers carry on and on for their lives until they’ve sucked the life out of the groove. Disc 1 in particular feels like the appetiser to the main course and dessert that will follow on succeeding discs: while certainly very active, it has the ambience of the musicians practising warm-up and preparation, and occasionally psyching themselves into their own private trances, in which they engage in mental and psychic space travel, in order to ready themselves for the main rituals. The mood is happy and exploratory, as performers experiment with various objects, some musical and others not so but pressed into service anyway, and play with them for as long as their attention is not distracted by the next toy available.

At this point it should be said that each disc, representing an individual album, is about 30 minutes long with just two tracks (each corresponding to one side of the original vinyl LP release) so it can be assumed that the music was originally intended to be continuous on each album. It could very well be that the albums are excerpts of one continuous jam session. Disc 2 begins rather alarmingly with a woman’s wordless ululations against accompanying drums and a guitar: neither instrument makes any coherent sense and both play against each other. The music is frantic with a restless animated zip: all instruments zing off at tangents and follow their individual journeys in often demented ways. Guitar especially scrabbles through a forest of blues tones and drums knock about constantly. Organ noodles and stutters about. Later a definite guitar melody develops and energy concentrates in the riffing. As on Disc 1, there is plenty of mucking about and curious experimentation for its own sake.

Disc 3 features faster, slightly more structured music as the performers get caught up in the mood of their moment and go for broke while the inspiration powers them. The singing is perhaps the most outstanding aspect here: the disc starts off with a male performer babbling away excitedly while jaunty piano follows him. The troupe is caught up in the vocalist’s mood and garbled, wordless singing continues more or less for the length of the album.

The whole set really is a musical universe unto itself; to say the performers were off with the fairies is an understatement to say the least. Probably the closest contemporary parallel would be the strange fey fairy folk ambient music scene that used to exist in Kyogle in northern New South Wales some years ago. The music takes its inspiration from free-form jazz without appearing jazzy at all. What became of the performers after they recorded their five albums is unknown but if they knew their body of musical work has survived down to the present, they would surely be overjoyed. A new generation of listeners can finally discover the performers’ strange rituals and journeys to another world for themselves.

After forty years, the music remains fresh and as loopy as it must have been at the time. My copy of the set is a digitally remastered one and the hiss and crackle of the original vinyl do not appear.

Reissue of this Japanese early '70s performance group. The group's name is literally the icons for a "circle," "triangle" and "square," with "Maru Sankaku Shikaku" substituting as a translation for those images. Circle Triangle Square were a painted bunch of commune rockers and percussion tribe second to none, whose random bells, flute and remedial tea-tray flailings were still more like the Godz or Nihilist Spasm Band than the deep theta-space obliterations of Taj Mahal Travellers. Led by future Murahatchibu drummer Sahuro "Kant" Watanabe, CTS were part of an elite bunch of Shinjuku Futen bands who actually made it onto record. Digitally remastered. Includes a 16-page booklet with notes by band leader Sahuro "Kant" Watanabe. Contains the original LP artwork.

Reissue of this Japanese early '70s performance group. The group's name is literally the icons for a "circle," "triangle" and "square," with "Maru Sankaku Shikaku" substituting as a translation for those images. Circle Triangle Square were a painted bunch of commune rockers and percussion tribe second to none, whose random bells, flute and remedial tea-tray flailings were still more like the Godz or Nihilist Spasm Band than the deep theta-space obliterations of Taj Mahal Travellers. Led by future Murahatchibu drummer Sahuro "Kant" Watanabe, CTS were part of an elite bunch of Shinjuku Futen bands who actually made it onto record. Digitally remastered. Includes a 16-page booklet with notes by band leader Sahuro "Kant" Watanabe. Contains the original LP artwork.
"Unlikely triple CD reissue of this amazing Japanese underground obscurity: Maru Sanaku Shikaku aka Circle Triangle Square, were a radical free-improvising street theatre ensemble founded by Sakuro Watanabe in 1970 and featuring a rotating ensemble of musicians that included Reck and Chiko Hige of legendary Japanese No Wave groups 3/3 and Friction. Disregarding skill or technique, the group play extended acid jams that marry the cultic feel of classic Kraut séances with a goofy Familiar Ugly approach to joyful noise and the kind of abstruse musical strategies that would reconcile the higher-minded drone of Taj Mahal Travellers with the total musical freedom of NNCK and The Godz. It’s mind-boggling to think that these studio recordings came out in 1973 as they sound completely contemporary, taking freak folk modes and radically deconstructed rock jams and extrapolating them to the moon. There are ginchy guitar jams that come over like Tom Rapp jamming Corky’s Debt To His Father, percussion pile-ups and soft lunar ragas that are pure Tower Recordings and the kind of massively dislocated spontaneous psychedelia – complete with mind-phasing F/X and massed vocal chants – that would link them to a tradition that runs through Group Ongaku, East Bionic Symphonia, Marginal Consort et al. A phenomenal set that turns linear underground histories on their head. Highly recommended." Volcanic Tongue

Ralph Towner and Gary Burton - 1986 - Slide Show

Ralph Towner and Gary Burton 
Slide Show

01. Maelstrom 8:43
02. Vessel 5:25
03. Around The Bend 4:24
04. Blue In Green 5:19
05. Beneath An Evening Sky 6:26
06. The Donkey Jamboree 3:57
07. Continental Breakfast 3:19
08. Charlotte's Tangle 4:18
09. Innocenti 4:51

Twelve-String Guitar – Ralph Towner
Vibraphone, Marimba – Gary Burton

Digital recording, May 1985, Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg

When one thinks of pairing vibraphonist Gary Burton with another soloist, Chick Corea comes foremost to mind. Burton’s work with guitarist Ralph Towner could hardly be more different, for where the former configuration funnels into a colorful storm of activity, in the latter we find far more intimate gestures articulated in monochrome. Case in point: “Maelstrom,” which starts us on the inside, spinning on its edge like a coin teetering at the promise of rest. Towner is as delicate as ever, fitting his harmonic staircases into Burton’s Escherian architecture with ease. This piece also highlights Towner’s compositional talents, which make up eight of the album’s nine tracks (the only exception being the slice of sonic apple pie that is “Blue In Green”). Towner and Burton frequently swap roles (“Vessel” being one notable example) and do so with seamless charm. Between the waking dawn of “Innocenti,” which features a rare turn from Burton on marimba, and the flurried “Around The Bend,” there is plenty of range to delight and calm the senses in turn. In the latter vein, we have “Beneath An Evening Sky,” a canvas of hues as muted as its title would suggest. The combination of Towner’s twinkling 12-string and Burton’s “vibrant” aurora lures us into a life of fantasy, where “The Donkey Jamboree,” a jocular ditty comprised of slack guitar and marimba, gives us a taste of sand and sunlight. “Continental Breakfast” (compliments of the Hotel Hello?) keeps the energy going in a travelogue of morning train rides, while “Charlotte’s Tangle” loosens the seams of the sky above.

This follow-up to the duo’s 1975 Matchbook is every bit as lovely as its predecessor, only this time around the atmospheres are deeper, richer with detail. Worthy.

Ralph Towner - 1983 - Blue Sun

Ralph Towner
Blue Sun

01. Blue Sun 7:15
02. The Prince And The Sage 6:19
03. C.T. Kangaroo 5:34
04. Mevlana Etude 3:02
05. Wedding On The Streams 5:02
06. Shadow Fountain 6:33
07. Rumours Of Rain 11:02

Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, French Horn, Cornet, Percussion – Ralph Towner

Recorded December 1982 at Talent Studio, Oslo

If there were ever any doubts as to Ralph Towner’s consummate abilities, though one would need to travel far to encounter them, they can only have been put to rest with the release of Blue Sun. A near highpoint in Towner’s extensive discography, it might have shared the summit of 1980’s Solo Concert were it not for a few frayed threads. Towner’s compositions are already so harmonically dense in their solo form that other instruments merely externalize what is already so internally apparent to them, so that the intimate pickings of “The Prince And The Sage,” “Mevlana Etude,” and “Wedding Of The Streams” hover most clearly before our ears. At the same time, there is something skeletal about his playing that cries for flesh. Not for want of completeness, nor out of lack, but rather through the his balance and inward posture, a flower-like duplicity that embraces both blooming and wilting in the same breath.

Among the potpourri of instruments that Towner plays here, his Prophet 5, while nostalgic, sometimes gets in the way. It seems unnecessary, and evokes more the novelty of using one when his talents on so many other acoustic options were readily available to him. These “unnatural” sounds turn a concave sound into a glaringly convex one. “C.T. Kangaroo” in particular, while playful enough, jumps out as an anomaly in the album’s otherwise majestic mood. The lack of guitar also renders it incongruous. Elsewhere, however, synth textures do blend nicely, as in the floating pianism of the opening title track, and in “Rumours Of Rain,” to which a French horn adds vocal depth. “Shadow Fountain” also makes adept use of electronic textures, bubbling like water on a sunny day.

Towner fans will want to check this one out for sure, but newbies may want to hold off.

Ralph Towner - 1980 - Solo Concert

Ralph Towner
Solo Concert

01. Spirit Lake 8:43
02. Ralph's Piano Waltz 7:04
03. Train Of Thought 5:30
04. Zoetrope 6:00
05. Nardis 5:12
06. Chelsea Courtyard 6:53
07. Timeless 4:54

Guitar [12 String And Classical] – Ralph Towner

Recorded October 1979 during concerts in München (Amerika Haus) and Zürich (Limmathaus)

Ralph Towner’s Solo Concert holds a special place in my ECM-adoring heart, for it was my introduction to a guitarist whose skills have since become staples of my listening life. Lovingly recorded in the open concert spaces of Munich and Zurich, Solo Concert is to the guitar what Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert is to the piano. It’s that good.

Towner’s own compositions make up the bulk of the album. The opening “Spirit Lake” is the most transcendent of these and exemplifies Towner’s craft as both technician and melodic wellspring. Notes drip from his 12-string with shimmering lucidity, dipping below every motif it can swing from as it blossoms into a brilliant flourish of an ending. What at first seems an abstract improvisational exercise in “Train Of Thought” reveals the instrument’s hidden voices, in which a pulsing bass lingers and harmonic clusters soar. The staggered melodies and banjo-like articulations of “Zoetrope” contrast superbly with “Chelsea Courtyard,” in which dissonant arpeggios lie in the grass, above which the clouds are so thin they’re barely visible, and motivations even more so. Still, the music offers more than enough provocation as nostalgias flit by the windows of our attention, the curtains of which Towner opens to let in the light of a half-remembered day.

Towner also lays his hands on a pocketful of sparkling covers. Of these, the two by John Abercrombie—“Ralph’s Piano Waltz” and “Timeless”—are notable for their use of thumbed anchors, which provide a ghostly counterpoint to wider runs in the upper registers. Lilting syncopations trade places with jazzier throwbacks, packing melodic energy into increasingly compact cells. Yet it is with “Nardis” (Davis/Evans) that Towner truly enthralls. Played on classical guitar, it is a vivid standout that jumps headfirst into its themes before unraveling them in a blissful wave. Towner’s deft harmonies and prowess at the fingerboard leap with the precision of synchronized swimmers about to clinch a gold.

This is an intelligently assembled program of complementary music that shows the depth and breadth of Towner’s abilities more than any single disc. My only complaint is the applause that breaks the spell of every piece when it ends. Then again, I’d have done the same had I been there.

If you’ve ever wondered just how high a guitar can fly, then here’s your plane ticket.

Ralph Towner - 1979 - Old Friends, New Friends

Ralph Towner 
Old Friends, New Friends

01. New Moon 7:22
02. Yesterday And Long Ago 7:46
03. Celeste 4:43
04. Special Delivery 7:00
05. Kupala 8:01
06. Beneath The Evening Sky 7:02

Bass – Eddie Gomez
Cello – David Darling
Drums, Percussion – Michael Di Pasqua
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar, Piano, French Horn – Ralph Towner

Recorded July 1979 at Talent Studio, Oslo.

This set of six extended pieces—each penned by Ralph Towner—is like the flipside of his classic Solstice. From the moment we step into its sound-world with the resplendent 12-string of “New Moon,” we know this will be a path from which we may never wish to stray. Towner’s unexpected French horn adds shading and depth to his already gossamer billows, leaving the fluegelhorn of Kenny Wheeler to snake through Michael DiPasqua’s lucid drumming as the unmistakable cello stylings of David Darling arise from the depths of our expectations. Darling, a personal favorite among ECM-represented artists, proves to be a welcome, if nearly ineffable, presence. One hears shades of his classic Darkwood unfolding like a meandering dream in “Yesterday And Long Ago,” while “Beneath An Evening Sky” weaves twelve strings through six over his ornamental crosshatchings.

Not unlike the album as a whole, “Celeste” forges an uplifting sort of melancholy, heard in Towner’s heartwarming pianism and in Wheeler’s boldly sketched lines. Moments of sheer majesty quickly succumb to underlying reveries, awaiting the “Special Delivery” of Eddie Gomez’s vocally infused commentary. This leaves only “Kupala,” which shows off Towner’s fine muting technique, brushed drums adding a touch of age. Running his fingernails along the edge of this sonic quarter, Towner opens the floor to a magic that only the listener can supply.

I know it’s nothing new to say, but albums like this always put me in awe of jazz, an art form in which a musician can surrender oneself so freely to the musical moment and yet just as easily anchor oneself in explicitly composed material. Likewise, Towner’s music, and especially that collected here, is something into which one can read experiences that are at once rooted in the physical world and firmly bound to a realm where physicality is a myth. Like its own mythology, it is creation and dissolution made one. It ends in a slow fall, laying itself down like a flower upon its own grave.

Ralph Towner, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette - 1978 - Batik

Ralph Towner, Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette

01. Waterwheel 9:20
02. Shades Of Sutton' Hoo 4:34
03. Trellis 8:18
04. Batik 16:17
05. Green Room 6:16

Bass – Eddie Gomez
Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Twelve-String Guitar [12 String Guitar], Classical Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner

Recorded January 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo

There are certain images that seem fail-proof when musically evoked. The “Waterwheel” that inaugurates us into guitarist Ralph Towner’s astonishingly beautiful Batik is one of them. Having since been painted for us by such varied talents as Hamza El Din (see the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa) and Marina Belica (former leader of the October Project, of which their self-titled debut is a personal all-time favorite), Towner’s particular configuration embodies the best of all worlds with the precision of his fingers magnified to great effect by Jack DeJohnette on drums and soothingly animated by the bass of Eddie Gomez. Towner’s democratic shifts in density allow for solos to shine through the haze unhindered, such as the enchanting bass that darts through his added splashes of 12-string. Towner rejoins in overdubbed costume, while amplified sustains peek like the sun from behind a cloud. Their passage through the sky is marked only by DeJohnette’s delicate metronome, allowing us one final glimpse of its thematic pool. “Shades of Sutton Hoo” is named for an Anglo-Saxon burial ground and haunts us with its reverberant lows and tinkling cymbals. A noticeably freer structure pervades, tracing every mound of earth with archaeological care. This delicate filler leads us up a “Trellis” of melody into ghostly afterthoughts. Gomez’s voice cuts with urgency through Towner’s ornamental stride. Their sumptuous counterpoint continues in the 16-minute title track and sets us down comfortably in Solstice territory. DeJohnette unleashes a noteworthy solo, while Gomez laces his quick fingers to support every hoisted footstep. We end in the “Green Room.” Painted with Towner’s mournful piano, it glows in a wash of potent commentary from bass and brushed drums, crumbling like spring snow into silence.

A classic to the nth degree.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ralph Towner - 1977 - Solstice / Sounds And Shadows

Ralph Towner 
Solstice / Sounds And Shadows

01. Distant Hills 10:43
02. Balance Beam 10:38
03. Along The Way 5:10
04. Arion 8:40
05. Song Of The Shadows 9:25

Bass, Cello – Eberhard Weber
Drums – Jon Christensen
Soprano Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Flute – Jan Garbarek
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar, Piano, French Horn – Ralph Towner

Recorded February 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo

If Ralph Towner’s classic Solstice was an overland journey, then Sound And Shadows is a subterranean dream. Featuring the same lineup as its predecessor—Jan Garbarek on saxophones, Eberhard Weber on bass and cello, Jon Christensen on drums, and Towner himself behind an arsenal of instruments—the results are perhaps not as focused. Then again, they don’t need to be.
Amid the spacious 12-string considerations of “Distant Hills,” we cannot help but feel a rich and complex topography curling into slumber above our heads. Weber’s electronic touches here deepen what is already clothed in darkness. The tighter “Balance Beam” is, like its titular object, steady and reassuring yet something to which one must pay respect if one is to navigate it successfully. Garbarek’s sopranic accents teeter across it, bringing with them the idea of light where there can be none. “Along The Way” is a collection of invisible snapshots animated by the life force of the musical gesture. Towner reprises his deft pianism in “Arion.” Caressed by the fluid unity of Christensen and Weber, he unhinges unspoken memories into the soil. “Song Of The Shadows” ends the album in a blend of classical guitar and flute over receding strings.

Along with Garbarek’s open splendor and admirable restraint, Weber’s snake-like pedal points comprise the ideal complement to Towner’s pinpoint metallic precision. Christensen’s cymbal work glistens as ever, proving that rhythm can be just as effective in a whisper. This is an album of sensations without images, one that reminds us that in order to have light, we must have umbrage, and this it brings in great quantity.

Ralph Towner - 1975 - Solstice

Ralph Towner

01. Oceanus 10:58
02. Visitation 2:32
03. Drifting Petals 6:56
04. Nimbus 6:25
05. Winter Solstice 3:58
06. Piscean Dance 3:33
07. Red And Black 1:12
08. Sand 4:07

Bass, Cello – Eberhard Weber
Drums, Percussion – Jon Christensen
Tenor Saxophone, Soprano Saxophone, Flute – Jan Garbarek
Twelve-String Guitar [12-string] , Classical Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner

Recorded December 1974 at Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo

This is arguably the first recording to fully flesh out the aural expanse for which ECM has come to be known. Although I am well aware of the immense groundswell of musical activity that was the 1970s, certainly an album like this was a refreshing and altogether mind-altering experience for those fortunate enough to be young musical explorers at the time. Featuring a lineup of musicians who would go on to weave ECM’s significance into the fabric of time, Solstice is a tour de force of musicianship, writing, arrangement, and recording.

Each track is brimming with life and features the sensitive application of a variety of instrumental combinations and studio savvy. “Oceanus” showcases Garbarek in his prime, soaring with an unbridled emotional register. As always, Towner’s 12-string speaks in 360 degrees. Superb drumming from Christensen complements lush melodic lines from Weber, who stretches a melodic cello into infinity while his bass arises like the conical aftereffect of a water droplet. “Visitation” clouds this ardor in a nocturnal vision filled with laughing spirits. “Drifting Petals” is a slow progression, a timid look out onto a dusty plain where the promise of freedom looms larger than the possibility of danger. But then an elder’s advice rings in our ears and pushes us onward. Feet move of their volition and pull us into the ever-receding horizon as the first drops of a squall streak across our foreheads. Towner proves again that his piano musings are not to be taken lightly, as they make for one of the most evocative tracks on the album. A transcendental 12-string solo (with gentle dimensional support from Weber) opens “Nimbus,” soon blossoming into a flourish of flutes, drums, and a bowed bass that cries with the grating fluidity of a sarangi. Garbarek’s sax joins in the fray and lets loose its harmonious fire. The deftly overdubbed flutes return, spreading their wings for a few moments before fluttering off into the distance. “Winter Solstice,” “Piscean Dance,” and “Red and Black” comprise a triptych of duets: the first for classical guitar and sax, the second a prime jam for 12-string and drums, and the third for 12-string and bass. “Sand” ends our cosmic journey with one of Garbarek’s deepest meditations for sax set to the strangely compelling ululations of Christensen’s flexatone lolling about in the background.

Melodically robust while structurally yielding, this is an album to be treasured and is a must-listen for anyone desiring to know what ECM is all about. An astounding meeting of musical minds if there ever was one.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Ralph Towner and Gary Burton - 1975 - Matchbook

Ralph Towner and Gary Burton 

01. Drifting Petals 5:15
02. Some Other Time 6:11
03. Brotherhood 1:08
04. Icarus 5:50
05. Song For A Friend 5:04
06. Matchbook 4:30
07. 1 x 6 0:58
08. Aurora 5:07
09. Goodbye Pork Pie Hat 4:22

Twelve-string Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner
Vibraphone – Gary Burton

Recorded July, 26, 27, 1974 at Studio Bauer, Ludwigsburg

A matchbook doesn’t typically provide a surface for lasting statements. On its flap, one scrawls a phone number, an address, or any other piece of information as ephemeral as the flames for which it is mass-produced. Such is not the case with guitarist Ralph Towner and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Instead, we get indelible marks of grace and humility, each a brighter spark at the wick of our attention.

Towner originals form the bulk of this project, of which the opening “Drifting Petals” is a quintessentially evocative example. Between his 12-string and Burton’s plaintive returns, we get an emotive handful of light poured directly into our ears. This combination recurs in an intimately redacted version of “Icarus,” which paves new avenues of understanding through one of Towner’s most popular compositions. Burton’s touch adds a metallic fervor that contrasts well with the softer piano version on the previous year’s seminal Diary. Twelve strings of bliss continue in “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” In this delicate, dark arrangement, Mingus’s classic tune wilts into a devastating ending.

The album’s remainder gives us Towner in a more classical mode, thereby halving the number of strings at his disposal, but with no loss of distance. “Some Other Time” builds an enchanting synchronicity, throughout which both instruments connect and drift apart like memories and expectations. Burton’s plush chords give Towner’s fingers plenty of forgiving terrain. The two switch roles, as they often do, for their respective solos. “Song For A Friend” is a bleaker piece wrapped around a gentle persuasion. As an affirmation of beauty, it is sometimes painful, shaded by the same colors with which all relationships are rendered. Towner draws the album’s most endearing solo here across an ideal tidal accompaniment. A notable highlight is Towner’s buzzed introduction of the title track, achieved by weaving a matchbook into the strings of his guitar. This sets off a flurry of whimsical activity and attentive soloing, meshing in a tightly knit cloth that leaves no dangling thread.

Three instrumental angles converge in the triangular “Aurora”: classical and 12-string guitars occupy the left and right channels, while vibes bond them with living energy and song. In addition, Towner and Burton are each given their own moments in two brief, but beautiful, tracks. “Brotherhood” is a haunting piece by Burton alone, its musical nether regions fluttering in anticipation of the higher notes dropping into its dark pool, while “1×6” is a classical guitar solo that ends before it begins.

The sound of this album is like no other and unfolds itself with the delicacy of a morning glory, yet with melodies as indestructible as the sunlight that sustains them. Its many colors are provided not only through finely wrought melodies, but also through a wealth of rhythmic variations throughout. If you like either of these artists apart, then you can’t go wrong with them together.

Ralph Towner - 1973 - Diary

Ralph Towner 

01. Dark Spirit 7:18
02. Entry In A Diary 3:50
03. Images Unseen 4:12
04. Icarus 6:13
05. Mon Enfant 5:39
06. Ogden Road 7:57
07. Erg 3:12
08. The Silence Of A Candle 4:54

Piano, Gong, Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner

Recorded April 4 and 5, 1973

This is about as intimate as music gets. Diary features Towner on guitars and piano via overdubs, creating a layered sound that is at once dialectical and univocal. The recording gives Towner vast space in which to work, pushing his reach ever skyward. His guitar lines drip like liquid mercury, beading apart and reforming in continually novel ways. As with much of Towner’s work, Diary gives us a series of pictures, or perhaps even an array of lenses through which to view the same scene from different perspectives or times. “Icarus” is a resplendent duo for 12-string guitar and piano that erupts into a stunning passage of plucked harmonics accompanied by bursts of piano improvisation. Though one of Towner’s most beloved compositions, nowhere else does it sparkle with such effervescence. “Mon Enfant,” a traditional tune and the only non-original in this set, is lovingly arranged for the temperate give of nylon. “Ogden Road” is another 12-string/piano number, the scope and feel of which seem to presage the epic tendencies of Steve Tibbetts. “Erg” is an invigorating piece for two guitars, one of which Towner scrapes, jangles, and taps to furnish a uniquely rhythmic backdrop. As coda we have the lovely “The Silence Of A Candle” for piano alone. Overall, Diary stays true to its subtle convictions. And while more abstract tangents like “Images Unseen” may feel somewhat less realized than other pieces, they never fail to welcome the listener into their frustrations and fears. That being said, an intriguing indifference coheres the album, as if born of the thrill of charting new territory: the explorer’s heart is struck with such awe that all people and circumstances leading up to that moment seem to fade into the most unreachable recesses of memory. Yet once the discovery has been made, all of it comes rushing back. This is precisely what a diary does, turning the past into the present through the act of inscription (recording) so that one can uphold that past later as a tangible object of scrutiny or validation, a log of one’s journey to “getting there.”

As the cover art would imply, this music is two-thirds stratospheric, one-third oceanic, and accordingly played with grace and undulation. Every instrument and sound is the result of careful thought and choice, and the deeply considered arrangements are delectable. The 12-string is a mainstay of Towner’s repertoire, and what he does with the instrument is nothing short of inspiring. Having first discovered Towner through his solo guitar music, I was pleasantly surprised by how suitably well his duly inspired piano riffs complement this album. Towner has everything he needs at his fingertips: a full-fledged percussion section, lead voice, and accompaniment. The one thing missing in his ensemble is you, the listener. So what are you waiting for?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Ralph Towner with Glen More - 1973 - Trios / Solos

Ralph Towner with Glen More
Trios / Solos

01. Brujo 5:34
02. Winter Light 3:34
03. Noctuary 2:22
04. 1x12 2:48
05. A Belt Of Asteroids 6:37
06. Re: Person I Knew 6:18
07. Suite: 3x12 7:12
08. Raven's Wood 5:19
09. Reach Me Friend 3:24

Bass – Glen Moore
Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner
Oboe – Paul McCandless
Tabla – Collin Walcott

Recorded November 27-28 1972 at Sound Ideas Studio, New York City.

Essentially an Oregon album under a different name, Trios/Solos consists mainly of Ralph Towner originals culled from the group’s Vanguard sessions. The opening “Brujo” is anchored by Towner’s twelve mighty strings and the late Collin Walcott’s tabla stylings, leaving a winding crevice through which Glen Moore works his whimsical bass. “Noctuary” features Paul McCandless on oboe, soaring loosely through the Towner/Moore fulcrum before the trio ties itself into a tightly improvised not. The Bill Evans tune “Re: Person I Knew” stands out in a gorgeous rendition. Towner doubles on piano and 12-string—laying down a sound that would soon crystallize into his classic ECM album Solstice—as Moore lurks in the background. “Raven’s Wood” continues the same configuration, only this time with nylon, darkening its pastoral modality with nocturnal visions.

Despite the intimate wonders of these trios, the album’s titular solos abound with some of its most focused and furthest-reaching moments. Moore’s “A Belt Of Asteroids” is a curious one at that. Seeming at first out of place in its present company, it carefully peels open the album’s outer layers with every twang. The remainders feature Towner doing what he does best. Take the compact “Suite: 3×12,” a carefully thought out composition in which his palpable picking and love for harmonics shines through at every turn, not to mention his consistently progressive energy. The last of the three movements is more aggressive in its attack and wound around a precise rhythmic core. “Winter Light” is heavily steeped in 6-string nostalgia, lonely but content in its solitude. “1×12” is, by contrast, a run along a blazing trail. Lastly, we have “Reach Me, Friend,” a snapshot of expectation that breathes with audible resolve.

As the driving force behind the album, Towner’s technique is mellifluous as usual, forging an aerial sound that constantly surveys the untouched lakes shimmering below like mirrors in the brilliance of his execution. Despite the lush performances throughout, the imagery is all so viscerally sere. And while there is no danger in what we see, there remains a threat unseen, lingering just beyond the horizon, quelled only by the arrival of the morning sun.

Azimuth - 1985 - Azimuth '85

Azimuth '85

01. Adios Iony 6:20
02. Dream / Lost Song 5:52
03. Who Are You? 3:37
04. Breathtaking 6:52
05. Potion 1 2:12
06. February Daze 6:20
07. Til Bakebiikk 9:02
08. Potion 2 3:35

Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Vocals – Norma Winstone

Recorded March 1985 at Rainbow Studios, Oslo.

The equivocal trio known as Azimuth will forever be one of ECM’s most profound. The combination of John Taylor’s pianism and Norma Winstone’s vocals alongside Kenny Wheeler’s soulful trumpeting was just what the 1980s needed to find solace in sound. Taylor’s heart is sure to still yours in “Adios Iony,” from which Wheeler and Winstone draw parallel threads before the slow persuasion of words begins to make itself heard:

…a boat rounds the bend…bearing down…
three herons stand their ground…swaying…
did you see them land?
moon behind branches…
suddenly bright, clear, frosty

Winstone paints her poetry in talk-singing before leaping into a pool of organ as Wheeler plays us out. “Dream” sleeps peacefully in loving vocal arms.

you and I in a vast deserted square
everything crumbles to the ground
facing you, I slowly slide into the chasm of your smile…

We feel blissfully lost, somehow grounded by love yet pushed ever forward beyond our wildest desires and into humbler shelters. The piano of “Lost Song” then looks us in the eye as if to speak the next title: “Who Are You?” The trumpeting here is liquid mercury. Like Siegfried’s bird, it is a floating commentator, hanging from the thinnest of threads pinched in forested fingers.

…funny to think of the children we were
memories we walked right through
but now you ask,
I’d have to guess that you feel lonely too…

Music and song walk hand in hand into the slow dance that follows. In “Breathtaking,” Winstone touches glaring heights with her vast internal power, drawing her throat into the refractions of a “February Daze.” The Steve Reichian consistency in the keys lends unusual urgency to the group’s ethereal sound, which only further blurs the snapshot rendered in “Til Bakeblikk.” The album’s elixir is made complete with two “Potions,” the second of which sits perched on the softly swinging bar of its aural cage, forever singing, forever wanting, and finding flight only in the concluding silence.

This is Azimuth’s zenith and another significant chapter of ECM’s backstory. It’s easy to see why this album never made it on to the 3-disc retrospective, for to do so would have risked diluting its value as a standalone artifact. Essential for many reasons, not least of all for Taylor, who plays as if he were holding an inanimate body in his hands, tracing its every contour until it comes back to life.

Azimuth with Ralph Towner - 1980 - Depart

Azimuth with Ralph Towner 

01. The Longest Day 6:27
02. Autumn 11:09
03. Arrivée 7:50
04. From The Window 1:08
05. Windfall 4:32
06. The Rabbit 2:34
07. Charcoal Traces 4:32
08. Départ 10:28
09. The Longest Day (Reprise) 3:45

Flugelhorn, Trumpet – Kenny Wheeler
Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner
Voice – Norma Winstone

Recorded December 1979 at Talent Studios, Oslo.

For its third outing, Azimuth welcomed the strings of guitarist Ralph Towner. “The Longest Day” opens in Solstice territory, setting out through a drizzle of piano and 12-string. Winstone’s overdubs visualize gossamer veils of more distant storms, while Wheeler’s soulful trumpet shines like the sun beyond them. Winstone takes her voice to unexpected heights, pulling a banner of time across the sky into the contemplative piano introduction of “Autumn.” There is no falling. Rather, we get the stillness of those leaves before they die, hanging on with their last vestments of color as the winds arrive to shake them from their boughs. Winstone hangs words in the air amid Towner’s almost pianistic fingerings and Wheeler’s staccato cries. “Arrivée” is just that, but is one of many destinations in this sojourn. Incising solos leave their wounds, closed at last by the plasma of Winstone’s mellifluous protractions. This is followed by a quartet of so-called “Touching Points,” which further extrapolate vocal information from instrumental sources, and vice versa. Wordless fibers are at once spun and frayed in passages of intense physicality. Towner is put to improvisatory task, adding tentative yet appropriate ornaments of his own. The organ drone of the title track respires beneath Winstone’s dips into thermal bliss. Words spread their branches, wrought in tinsel and blown glass. The album ends with a reprise of “The Longest Day” for piano alone. Resplendent and far-reaching, it is a bittersweet ending to Azimuth’s most fully realized effort, through which the project honed its sound to an art.

Azimuth was one of ECM’s most deftly realized acts, and it continues to open like a slow cloudburst every time I immerse myself in it. Its malleable formula provides seemingly endless room for possibility. Winstone’s voice sparkles in the soft focus of consistently sensitive production, a slowly flapping bird with nowhere to go but up. She and Taylor are ideal partners, forging as they do a silent smolder of emotional bonds, while Wheeler heaves his own powerful feathers with conviction. The brief addition of Tower heightens their collective sound, even as it tethers them to the earth. This is a classic set of three seminal albums, each a movement in a larger suite, where souls can dance in motions so slow that they appear as still as ice, and are just as vulnerable to heat.

Azimuth - 1978 - The Touchstone

The Touchstone

01. Eulogy 10:22
02. Silver 6:27
03. Mayday 5:27
04. Jero 6:18
05. Prelude 5:34
06. See 10:45

Piano, Organ – John Taylor
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Voice – Norma Winstone

Recorded June 1978 at Talent Studio, Oslo

Azimuth’s second ECM effort is also the group’s most enigmatic. The organ that underlies “Eulogy” gives just enough air for Wheeler to glide, and injects all that follows with deep, warm breath. The trio writes a more intimate letter in “Silver,” answered in the unsteady penmanship of “Mayday,” over which our soloists take great care to dot every i and cross every t. The distant muted trumpets of “Jero” mesh with Winstone’s ambulatory menageries. Taylor draws a fluid line through their incantations, ignoring the periphery all the way to the end of “Prelude,” a track so lovely that it makes one want to listen to the album backwards. This is an elusive set, to be sure, filled with quiet, seething power, but also one that builds its nests comfortably over our heads. It can only fly, because it knows no other way to travel.

John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler - 1977 - Azimuth

John Taylor, Norma Winstone, Kenny Wheeler

01. Sirens' Song 4:10
02. O 6:48
03. Azimuth 12:15
04. The Tunnel 9:14
05. Greek Triangle 2:02
06. Jacob 8:41

Piano, Synthesizer – John Taylor
Trumpet, Flugelhorn – Kenny Wheeler
Vocals – Norma Winstone

Recorded March 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo

1. The arc of the horizon measured clockwise from the south point, in astronomy, or from the north point, in navigation, to the point where a vertical circle through a given heavenly body intersects the horizon.
2. A group made up of vocalist Norma Winstone, husband John Taylor on keyboards, and trumpeter/fluegelhornist Kenny Wheeler whose music, measured from any point, draws an arc through countless heavenly bodies before intersecting with the enchanted listener.

The group that would become Azimuth began its journey on this self-titled album. “Siren’s Song” rests on the forgiving laurels of a repeated motif, gilded by a horn-flanked voice amid pianistic accents. Like a Steve Reich riff dropped in a pool of jazz, it treats the pulse as the animating force of its creation. Wheeler broadens Winstone’s palette in the melodic relays of “O.” The title track is buoyed by a stunningly gorgeous arpeggiator, over which Winstone sets to flight a pair of overdubbed birds. Once they have flown away, Wheeler draws between their pinpointed forms a sinuous trajectory, along which one is able to chart the album’s path with even more fluid precision. The synthetic backdrop builds in scope, turning what might otherwise be a repetitive New Age loop into an elegiac improvisational exercise. The plaintive piano introduction of “The Tunnel” extends this supportive electricity, into which Winstone begins to sow her potent words. Semantics trail off into further meanderings, reminiscent of the previous track, before the backdrop morphs into a stunning change of key. This makes “Greek Triangle,” a curious piece for brass, all the more whimsical for its appearance. Though outwardly incongruous, its breathes with the same focused spirit that animates the whole, thereby elevating it beyond the status of fanciful diversion. It also serves to refresh our palette for the lyricism of “Jacob,” in which Winstone’s braids and Wheeler’s fluid accents close an altogether fascinating mosaic of atmospheres.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner - 1982 - Five Years Later

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner 
Five Years Later

01. Late Night Passenger 9:54
02. Isla 6:24
03. Half Past Two 4:26
04. Microtheme 3:39
05. Caminata 3:01
06. The Juggler's Etude 7:29
07. Bumabia 9:50
08. Child's Play 4:51

Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Twelve-String Guitar, Mandoguitar – John Abercrombie
Twelve-String Guitar, Classical Guitar – Ralph Towner

Recorded March 1981 at Talent Studio, Oslo

John Abercrombie is unique among guitarists in that whenever he becomes enraptured his sound becomes neither louder nor more pronounced but becomes somehow mysterious, liberated. Ralph Towner, on the other hand, revels in the crackling ruptures that so characterize his playing. Yet these roles seem reversed in this follow-up to the duo’s Sargasso Sea. A far more fragile carnation than its predecessor, it seems to forego the usual bag of tricks in favor of something more, as the album’s title would imply, reflective. This is especially apparent in the three improvisations with which the set list is dotted, and nowhere more so than in “Late Night Passenger,” where Abercrombie’s laddered filaments provide stunning berth for the other’s muted, jangling starlight.

As for composed pieces, Towner offers three, Abercrombie two. Among the former’s, the all-acoustic “Half Past Two” is a vibrating rib cage of biographical energies, and the most comely track on the album. The attraction continues with “Caminata” and on through the whimsy of “The Juggler’s Etude.” Abercrombie’s “Child’s Play” pairs electric and classical for a complementary sound, Towner’s shallower accents the caps on Abercrombie’s resonant stalks. Child’s play it may be in name, but in execution it is anything but. Yet it is in “Isla” that the reverie reaches new depths, the musicians’ negotiation of lead and backing effortlessly egalitarian. Such reciprocity is the keystone that keeps this arch from crumbling.

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner - 1976 - Sargasso Sea

John Abercrombie & Ralph Towner 
Sargasso Sea

01. Fable 8:40
02. Avenue 5:16
03. Sargasso Sea 3:57
04. Over And Gone 2:46
05. Elbow Room 5:10
06. Staircase 6:20
07. Romantic Descension 3:15
08. Parasol 5:24

Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar – John Abercrombie
Twelve-string Guitar, Classical Guitar, Piano – Ralph Towner

Recorded May, 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo

It was often raining when I woke during the night, a light capricious shower, dancing playful rain, or hushed muted, growing louder, more persistent, more powerful, an inexorable sound. But always music, a music I had never heard before.
–Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea

Given the contrasting but strikingly compatible talents of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, this album was bound to happen sooner or later. The aptly titled “Fable” best describes what these two musicians achieve together, for theirs is a tale that sounds as if it were written long ago, coalescing out of life’s improvisations into a memorable narrative. Its pairing of Towner’s 12-string with Abercrombie’s electric represents the duo in its most melodically satisfying comfort zone. We get more of the same in the title track, an uncertain travail with hints of soliloquies caressing our ears from either side, and in the relatively explosive moments of “Elbow Room.” Abercrombie opts for an echo effect here, the pulse of which dictates the piece’s rhythmic trajectory. And while I do think the effect weakens the track as its pathos becomes clearer, Towner compensates its contrivance with some flamenco-like body taps. “Staircase” features classical guitar and Abercrombie’s more directly amplified electric in the album’s most carefully realized blend of sound and circumstance. Towner then leaps to his 12-string amid Abercrombie’s own ascendant doodling. A few all-acoustic tracks enliven the mix, of which “Romantic Descension” is the loveliest. The final track, “Parasol,” is a triangular affair between 12-string, electric guitar, and Towner’s overdubbed piano.

Sargasso Sea is an enchanting reverie that has stood the test of time, and with an attractive patina to show for it. Like a kiss in deepening twilight, it loses its physical shape and becomes pure sensation, lost in the placation of a distant slumber.

John Abercrombie - 1984 - Night

John Abercrombie

01. Ethereggae 8:23
02. Night 4:57
03. East 4:30
04. Look Around 8:57
05. Believe You Me 7:40
06. Four On One 7:20

Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie
Keyboards – Jan Hammer
Tenor Saxophone – Michael Brecker

Recorded April 1984 at Powerstation, New York
Mixed at Rainbow Studio, Oslo

As its cover indicates, Night gives us a colorful, collage-like portrait of John Abercrombie, who jumps here into the urban deep end with smoky club atmospheres and tight jams. It’s a joy to see the guitarist working with Jan Hammer again, and the inclusion of Mike Brecker on tenor and Jack DeJohnette on drums make for a winning formula. Hammer adds a particular spike to this sonic punch, competently filling the session’s lack of bass while also fleshing out the production with an evocative sweep. Between the idiomatic blend of “Ethereggae” and the Timeless heat distortion of “3 East,” his billowing keys give Brecker more than enough room to show off his chops (he has hardly sounded better). This date isn’t all fun and games, however, for the rain-slicked streets of “Look Around” give us pause for reflection. Hammer reignites things in “Believe You Me,” which despite being the most straightforward track compositionally sports Brecker’s most uninhibited solo yet. The band saves the best for last with “Four On One,” which draws another ring of fire in an enthralling closer. DeJohnette gets his moment in the sun here as well.

Though something of an blip in the Abercrombie back catalogue, Night is far from benign. Aside from the effusive music, what really distinguishes this album is its sound. Another slam-dunk for engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug.

Jan Garbarek - 1981 - Eventyr

Jan Garbarek 

01. Soria Maria 11:32
02. Lillekort 4:56
03. Eventyr 9:14
04. Weaving A Garland 2:11
05. Once Upon A Time 8:59
06. The Companion 5:46
07. Snipp, Snapp, Snute 4:28
08. East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon 8:27

Jan Garbarek tenor and soprano saxophones, flutes
John Abercrombie guitars
Nana Vasconcelos berimbau, percussion, voice

Recorded December 1980 at Talent Studio, Oslo

A strange flute it was! It emitted a note as sustained as the whistle of a steam-engine, but much more powerful. It penetrated through the whole manor, over the gardens, the woods, for miles out into the countryside, and with the sound of it came a great gust of wind roaring.
–From “Everything In Its Right Place” by Hans Christian Andersen (trans. L. W. Kingsland)

Eventyr means “adventure.” Classical listeners may also recognize it as the name of Frederick Delius’s lovely 1917 tone poem, which is often translated as “Once Upon A Time” to underscore its origins in the folk tale collections of Norwegian scholar Peter Christen Asbjørnsen. Here, the name adorns one of Jan Garbarek’s most recondite efforts to date and, like its own “Once Upon A Time,” houses a world of lessons and signs for those willing enough to interpret them. Joined by John Abercrombie and Nana Vasconcelos, he spins a string of seven improvisations, rounded out by a standard, “East Of The Sun And West Of The Moon” (Brooks Bowman), that doesn’t so much end the album as open us to its nebulous center. In that center we encounter swirls of majesty as only he can draw. With almost liquid fire and ever-insightful phrasing, Garbarek brings his deepest considerations to the nearly 12-minute “Sora Maria” that is its primordial soup. His interplay with Abercrombie resolves into a vague continent, where only the playful refractions of “Lillekort” resolve themselves into separate entities. Vasconcelos’s pliancy is the animating skeleton of the title track, in which his gravelly voice and ritualism exudes from every gamelan hit. In “Weaving A Garland,” tenor sax and guitar paint a rolling horizon of vegetation. Such shorter tracks as this and “The Companion” comprise the more potent incantations amid the long-form spells that otherwise dictate the album’s vocabulary. Transcendence comes in the form of “Snipp, Snapp, Snute,” a sparkling menagerie of triangles and wooden flute that works its light into a crepuscular sky. Through it we see in fine detail the inner life of three musicians whose nets run far into the cosmic ocean, where only transformation awaits in the catch.

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette - 1978 - Gateway 2

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette
Gateway 2

01. Opening 16:17
02. Reminiscence 4:32
03. Sing Song 6:55
04. Nexus 7:55
05. Blue 8:14

Bass – Dave Holland
Drums, Piano – Jack DeJohnette
Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar, Mandolin – John Abercrombie

Recorded July 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo

In this era of tawdry sequels, it’s almost difficult to believe that John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette could have surpassed the profundity of 1975’s seminal Gateway. I say “almost” only because each member of this dream trio has yet to let this committed listener down and always comes to the studio bearing a basket overflowing with fresh ideas. Not only do the results of this 1978 follow-up not disappoint, they ascend into their own category.

At first we aren’t sure what to think in the carefully executed half-sleep of the 16-minute “Opening.” Amid tinkling icicles Abercrombie’s guitar wavers above the bass as it gradually forms intelligible words out of the scattered letters with which we are confronted. The process is so intensely organic that we find ourselves being lulled into its speech-like rhythms. As the snare becomes more forthcoming with its intentions, Holland fleshes out its implications with a tantalizing loop, through which Abercrombie hooks his song with a sound that is wiry yet ethereal. Just as engaging in his supportive statements, he provides ornamentation for Holland as DeJohnette rides with fierce precision into a fine solo of his own. The steam of malleted cymbals condenses into the following “Reminiscence.” Holland and Abercrombie blend into a larger instrument in this pensive track that sounds like the acoustic shadow of Pat Metheny’s “Midwestern Night Dream” (see Bright Size Life). “Sing Song” is another dose of milk-and-honey goodness. Wonderfully nuanced drumming here from DeJohnette uplifts even as it placates. Meanwhile, Abercrombie leans back into an ergonomic continuity that soon plateaus into an engaging turn from Holland, whose quintessential bass line in “Nexus” opens the band to a limber display of virtuosity. Abercrombie is again transcendent in this tower of syncopation, from which trails the Rapunzel-like strands of a limitless creative cache. DeJohnette’s piano turns “Blue” into an ending that is as bitter as it is sweet.

For those who haven’t heard this unit’s first album, I recommend doing so before settling into this one. Not because either is “better” than the other, but only because the development between the two is more readily appreciated when experienced chronologically. In any case, Gateway 2 is its own animal that thrives best in the habitat of our appreciation.

John Abercrombie - 1978 - Characters

John Abercrombie 

01. Parable 10:38
02. Memoir 3:10
03. Telegram 4:32
04. Backward Glance 4:32
05. Ghost Dance 6:58
06. Paramour 3:49
07. After Thoughts 3:19
08. Evensong 7:35

Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Mandolin – John Abercrombie

Recorded November 1977 at Talent Studios, Oslo.

Just four months after the historic Gateway 2 session, John Abercrombie stepped into Oslo’s Talent Studio to record Characters, his first and only solo album for ECM. While the guitarist’s trademark electric lurks here and there, a modified mandolin takes the strongest lead. The album also features about as much acoustic as one is likely to hear from Abercrombie in one sitting. All of this makes for sonic perfection.

At nearly 11 minutes, “Parable” is the longest cut on the album. A plaintive mandolin seems to stretch its strings as Abercrombie adds almost sitar-like cadences until, about halfway through, we realize this is but the stem of an overarching flower, which reveals its full bloom in an acoustic umbrella. With peerless thematic acuity, Abercrombie reconfigures his melodic matrix in “Memoir,” a nostalgic acoustic duet, each channel part of a spontaneous conversation. It is the most fleeting track on the album, but also the most intuitive. Next, Abercrombie transmits a “Telegram” straight into our souls. Like the message of its title, it is formless during transmission, but arrives in tangible form through the advent of technology, of which performance is Abercrombie’s medium of choice. His involuntary humming harmonizes with itself in a subconscious overdubbed chamber choir. “Backward Glance” recalls the title of Steve Kuhn’s classic tune. Dense acoustic chording spins powerful thermals upon which Abercrombie spreads his electric wings, drawing a feathered curtain over our eyes in the final strum. The spindly diversions of “Ghost Dance” percolate like anesthesia through the bloodstream before “Paramour” makes its debut as another acoustic duet (Abercrombie would soon resurrect it at the heart of his first quartet album, Arcade). More of the same awaits us in “After Thoughts,” where every pause feels like a deep breath that is at last exhaled in a luxurious chord. Lastly, through the liquid sheen of “Evensong” we catch visions of ourselves at different ages. After a silence, an acoustic hand opens its fingers wide as one electric swells in accompaniment and the other glides like a stingray for a sublime finish.

The album’s title is a prescient one. In addition to glyphs on a writing surface, “characters” are people, animals, or any other living creature whose desires animate a story. They might also be the traits of those creatures, or even the morals that define their personalities. Here, we encounter all of these and more, threaded ever so genuinely by one musician’s unique sense of space-time. For anyone wishing to peer into the soul behind the sound, let this be your window.

John Abercrombie - 1975 - Timeless

John Abercrombie

01. Lungs 12:09
02. Love Song 4:35
03. Ralph's Piano Waltz 4:56
04. Red And Orange 5:24
05. Remembering 4:32
06. Timeless 12:00

Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie
Organ, Synthesizer, Piano – Jan Hammer

Recorded June 21, 22, 1974 at Generation Sound Studios, New York

On Timeless, guitarist John Abercrombie spearheads a session with keyboardist Jan Hammer and drummer Jack DeJohnette for a melding of minds in the first degree.

The trio kicks things off in high gear with “Lungs,” a heaping pile of kindling set ablaze by Hammer’s high-octane staccato, DeJohnette’s explosive hi-hat, and Abercrombie’s unusually frenetic fretwork. A sublime energy is maintained throughout and the payoff is supremely satisfying—all the more so for its brevity, as the music suddenly changes avenues just a few minutes in. Hammer relays between organ and synth, keeping the pace (and the funk) through trailing guitar solos that send notes like cosmic fingers flicking galaxies into outer space. The organ smolders quietly in the background before clinching a new groove, which Abercrombie laces with lines flanged just right for the mix. It all ends in a game of musical jump rope, with Abercrombie skipping over the alternation of drums and organ. “Love Song” is true to its name and is the first of two exquisite conversations between piano and acoustic guitar. Just as the organ trailed long rows in the soil of our attention, the piano comes as a welcome rain for our crop and the guitar like the sun that infuses it. This brings us to “Ralph’s Piano Waltz,” a highlight of these six fine offerings. Like the album as a whole, this track is a superlative balancing act. It’s a construct so seamless that if you don’t find your foot tapping during this one, you might want to make sure it’s still attached. The electric leads speak in their respective languages, but also mimic each other along the way. “Red And Orange” is what might result if Bach had survived into the 1970s as a closeted jazz musician, and is another standout in a set of many. “Remembering” is an alluring chain of tableux and the second of the two duets. Abercrombie sustains details the piano seems content to ignore, loosening those threads from their weave. We end with the title track, which builds slowly from a synth drone peppered with guitar musings to a full-on embrace of space.

This evergreen stands tall in the ECM forest. There is no sense of competition, only mutual reveling in a distinctly nuclear sound. One could easily call it fusion, but if anything it is fused with itself, for it has created every element it seeks to combine. Timeless indeed.

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette - 1975 - Gateway

John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette

01. Back - Woods Song 7:52
02. Waiting 2:09
03. May Dance 11:02
04. Unshielded Desire 4:50
05. Jamala 4:49
06. Sorcery I 10:58

Bass – Dave Holland
Drums – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar – John Abercrombie

Recorded March 1975 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg

With this record, John Abercrombie both repaved and detoured from his staid path. He could hardly have been in finer company, and the combination seems to have fanned all sorts of flames within him. DeJohnette and Holland string an array of tightropes across which Abercrombie balances his way into previously uncharted territory.

“Back-Woods Song” evokes a mood that would come to define some of the later work of Bill Frisell. To be sure, the sound lives up to its name here as it awakens like an alligator poking its head above some swampy surface. Holland solos wonderfully here, after what some have rightly remarked to be a rather “creepy” turn from Abercrombie, ricocheting delightfully off the cymbals. This is very muddy jazz: viscous, opaque, and teeming with unseen life. “Waiting” is essentially a slow trek for bass that ushers us into “May Dance,” in which Abercrombie’s fingers frolic across the fretboard. Thus he brings a clear sense of continuity and of dynamic energy, scraping away at the surface of possibility and peering into its inner depths without fear of censure. The ensuing frenzy of activity resolves into a delicate bass solo, during which Abercrombie takes a much-needed breather. Holland cleverly mimics Abercrombie’s style, underscoring that same cluster concept of note value and melodic ascendency. “Unshielded Desire” is exactly what it claims to be. It starts with a percussive bang like the finale of a fireworks display and Abercrombie runs with all his might to capture every dying spark as it trails in the sky. The music goes around in spirals, flirting with a center it can never reach no matter how far down it goes, until it is like a compass gone haywire in the Bermuda Triangle. Next is “Jamala,” the most downtempo cut on the album. This is a moody masterpiece and a fine lead-in to the magical, epic, and incendiary “Sorcery I,” which rounds out the set.

I actually fell asleep the first three times I tried listening to this record. For whatever reason, its quirky energy seems to have had a soothing effect on me. Odd, seeing as I cannot imagine a more invigorating guitar trio. Abercrombie has such a distinctive sound and it has to do not only with the amplification and choice of instrument (or pairing thereof), but more importantly with the fragmented aesthetic he brings to his playing. Abercrombie is a “sensual” musician—that is, a musician of the senses. He seems to rattle his own bones, bringing to his improvisation a sense of detached wonder. Those looking for the laid-back Abercrombie may find this an unexpected outing. I do think it’s worth taking a chance on, however, as the freer moments herein might very well surprise and inspire. Despite a seemingly haphazard approach, Abercrombie remains tightly knit to the music’s immediacy. His is an electric sound that stays close to its acoustic roots, while Holland’s solos rise and fall, never straying from the core beat, as if strung to DeJohnette’s limbs.

It’s difficult to explain this kind of jazz to someone who has never heard it, and almost as difficult to describe it as someone hearing it for the first time. It is chameleonic music of the highest order. The wealth of possibility represented here in the art of improvisation expands the ear, the mind, and the heart of the listener, cracking the window of one’s worldview open just that much more to reveal the joys of lived experience. And maybe that’s what jazz is all about: experiencing the human spirit and the infinite ways in which it contorts itself to the tune of some intangible creativity.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Jack DeJohnette - 1980 - New Directions In Europe

Jack DeJohnette 
New Directions In Europe

01. Salsa For Eddie G. 15:38
02. Where Or Wayne 12:00
03. Bayou Fever 18:11
04. Multo Spiliagio 9:33

Bass – Eddie Gomez
Drums, Piano – Jack DeJohnette
Guitar, Mandolin – John Abercrombie
Trumpet – Lester Bowie

Concert recording, June 1979, Willisau, Switzerland

There is a moment in “Bayou Fever” when Jack DeJohnette, showing his adeptness at the keyboard, lapses into “America the Beautiful.” This brief quotation anchors the piece, making it all the more poignant for having appeared in this historic live set. This eighteen-and-a-half-minute juggernaut is as gentle as it is lengthy, and embodies well the lively spirit that infused the drummer’s New Directions project. With the introduction of Eddie Gomez on bass, we hear the call of vocation, the instinct that allows us to persevere through even the most trying circumstances, if only to taste the beauties of creation one more time. Six-stringer John Abercrombie weaves his fingers through the loom of reflection, adjusting the microscope until the dividing cells of Lester Bowie’s trumpet come clearly into focus. This quintessential chunk of tactile birth cycles through a chain of experiences, each the sum of another life before. Once DeJohnette reverts to his forte, he nurtures an inward-looking fluttering of sticks. Abercrombie matches with a fluttering of his own as his nimble hands leap across the fingerboard with an energy that seems to draw audible gasps of expectation from the audience, but which never quite materializes into the full rupture we might expect. One hears in this not hesitation, but rather a more subdued commitment to melodic integrity that praises the living effect of performance over its virtuosity.

It’s a far cry from the album’s opener, “Salsa For Eddie G.,” which begins in the mountains before sliding down their sunlit faces amid scintillating articulations from Abercrombie. With prime support on all sides, DeJohnette is free to move forward without ever looking back. No matter how exploratory he becomes at the skins, his foot keeps the hi-hat going steady, leaving crumbs of light on a dark and winding trail. “Where Or Wayne” begins quietly enough, but then strains a terse improvisatory energy through a fine mesh. The palpable charm throughout provokes laughter from musicians and audience alike. During this portion of the show, DeJohnette introduces the musicians, after which Bowie returns to the foreground and blows out the candle with a flourish of finality.

While the music on In Europe does stretch its very skin to the limits, especially in the trumpet, it manages never to injure itself irreparably. The closest we get to pure abandon is “Multo Spiliagio,” a free-for-fall which contorts its body through many acrobatic challenges. Yet even the most explosive moments are somehow delicately circumscribed. It is an exercise in maturity and critical thinking that ends in sheer delicacy.

This altogether respectable outing gives us a concerted taste of an unrepeatable period in musical history, a time in which the music world’s progress was being most clearly charted on the jazz stage. The concert is miked in such a way that the listener feels situated right between audience and band. We can almost imagine Bowie—this recording’s brightest star—roaming about the stage, projecting his cackling brilliance into every corner of the venue, and hopefully further onto the shelf of any lover of marvelous music.