by Ian Mann
December 01, 2019
ECM Sunday. Ian Mann celebrates the 50th anniversary of the ECM record label at performances by the Julia Hulsmann Quartet, Crosscurrents Trio and the Jan Garbarek Group.
Photograph of Julia Hulsmann by Tim Dickeson
EFG London Jazz Festival 2019
Day Three, Sunday 17th November 2019
The first Sunday of the Festival saw the concert programme at the Southbank Centre focussing on the 50th anniversary of the celebrated, iconic even, German record label ECM.
Founded in Munich in 1969 by the German producer Manfred Eicher the label released its first album, “Free at Last” by the American pianist and composer Mal Waldron on 1st January 1970.
ECM has always championed the highest production standards with Eicher himself having literally produced thousands of albums over the course of the last fifty years.
Almost as important as the sound quality has been the graphic design that has graced the packaging of ECM recordings, typically beautiful, if sometimes rather abstract or austere, photographic images. In short ECM has developed a unique recorded sound and an equally distinctive visual image, qualities it shares with the American label Blue Note, celebrating its 80th anniversary in 2019. Although the sound and look of the two labels are very different both have developed a strong aesthetic and are instantly recognisable, these qualities helping to gain both labels a strong, sometimes fanatical following.
ECM pioneered a distinctively European approach to jazz recording but nevertheless many leading American musicians have recorded successfully for the label including pianist Chick Corea, vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarist Ralph Towner, drummer Jack DeJohnette and, of course, pianist Keith Jarrett, who remains with the label to this day and whose solo piano album “The Koln Concert” remains ECM’s biggest selling recording. The label also made stars of US guitarists Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, before each left for ‘major labels’.
Perhaps even more important has been ECM’s role in bringing European musicians to the attention of the international jazz audience. Eicher has found a particular affinity with Scandinavian musicians with the Norwegian musicians Jan Garbarek (saxophones) and Tord Gustavsen (piano) representing two of the label’s most successful artists, in both aesthetic and commercial terms.
But ECM is neither an ‘American’ or ‘European’ label. Eicher’s musical vision knows no geographical boundaries and musicians from Africa, South America and Asia have all recorded for the label, among them Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Egberto Gismonti and Indian tabla master Zakir Hussain.
I have loved ECM’s music since the late 1970s, almost unconditionally at first, and the label has introduced me to some brilliant artists, many of whom remain favourites to this day, including Jarrett, Garbarek, Burton, Metheny, Towner, Frisell, Gustavsen, bassist Eberhard Weber, pianist Bobo Stenson and many more.
In recent years I’ve harboured more reservations, sometimes feeling that the need to conform to the ECM ‘template’ or the ECM ‘sound’ has sometimes stifled the creativity of some musicians and resulted in needlessly ‘over austere’ or ‘rarefied’ recordings. But I’ve come too far and invested too much love in the label to turn my back on it now and some of my favourite all time recordings have appeared on ECM.
Eicher and his label have been an important part of my life for a very long time and ‘ECM Sunday’ found me celebrating the legacy of the label at three different concerts by artists associated with the imprint.
First I saw German pianist Julia Hulsmann leading her quartet at the Purcell Room before making my way across to Cadogan Hall to see the Crosscurrents Trio featuring Zakir Hussain, bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Chris Potter. Admittedly this was pushing things a bit as the trio’s new album was recorded for the British label Edition, itself named in honour of ECM, whose initials standing for Editions of Contemporary Music. And in any case Hussain, Holland and Potter all have close associations with ECM, all three having enjoyed lengthy tenures with the German label.
Finally I returned to the Southbank for a performance by the Jan Garbarek Group at the Royal Festival Hall. As ECM’s longest serving artist Garbarek has become synonymous with the label and his recordings with the classical vocal group the Hilliard ensemble have brought his music to the attention of a whole new audience.
JULIA HULSMANN QUARTET, PURCELL ROOM
Compared to Garbarek the German pianist and composer Julia Hulsmann is a fairly recent recruit to ECM – and she’s been with the label for more than decade, releasing her first recording for the company back in 2008.
Previously associated with the ACT label Hulsmann’s ECM career has been centred around her long running trio featuring bassist Marc Muellbauer (also her husband) and drummer Heinrich Kobberling, this line up featuring on the albums “The End of a Summer” (2008) and the superb “Imprint” (2012) and “Sooner and Later (2016). Other recordings have featured additional collaborators such as the UK born, Berlin based trumpeter Tom Arthurs and the experimental vocalist Theo Bleckmann.
My review of the “Imprint” recording can be read here;
Hulsmann’s most recent ECM release, 2019’s “Not Far From Here”, has seen her expanding the group to a quartet once more with the addition of saxophonist Uli Kempendorff. Kempendorff is also a composer and one of the strengths of Hulsmann’s groups is that all its members are writers, helping to give the music additional colour and variety. In addition to the writing of its individual members Hulsmann’s bands have also had an eye for an inspired cover version and the new album is no exception, with two differing takes on “This Is Not America”, written by David Bowie, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.
The Purcell Room with its superb acoustics proved to be the perfect setting for the classically trained Hulsmann who brought the best out of the venue’s beautiful Steinway grand piano. The majority of the material was sourced from the new album and the programme featured compositions from all the group members plus the aforementioned cover of “This Is Not America”.
The quartet opened with Hulsmann’s title track from the new recording, a piece introduced in trio mode with crystalline piano, double bass and the gentle patter of Kobberling’s hand drumming. Hulsmann undertook the first solo before handing over to Kempendorff on tenor sax, who had been patiently waiting his opportunity.
Also by Hulsmann and also from the new album “Streiflicht” was written with the aim of depicting the changing images seen from the window of a fast moving train. Hulsmann’s darting piano phrases and effective use of the piano’s interior were heard in dialogue with Kobberling’s drums, the patter of hands on skins again a significant part of the performance. Meanwhile Kempendorff’s tenor solo saw him probing more deeply, bringing a welcome element of grit and rigour to the quartet’s sound.
Kobberling’s beautiful ballad “If I Had A Heart” was introduced by the trio and featured the composer on glockenspiel. Kempendorff adopted a warmer, breathier sound on tenor, sharing the solos with Muellbauer’s melodic double bass and Hulsmann’s lyrical piano, with the leader’s solo incorporating a passage of unaccompanied playing. Kobberling’s own role was that of colourist, demonstrating the subtle side of his often unconventional playing.
A passage of unaccompanied double bass provided the bridge into Muellbauer’s “The Mistral”, written during the time that the quartet were recording the new album in France. This was a more animated piece that included some of Hulsmann’s most expansive and feverish soloing of the set with the pianist playing off Kobberling, their playful dialogue emphasising the importance of the musical relationship between the leader and the drummer. Kempendorff then weighed in with a powerful solo on tenor sax.
Kempendorff’s own “Open Up” brought a different feel to the music in a composition that was dense and knotty, with hints of the American M-Base movement pioneered by saxophonists Steve Coleman and Greg Osby among others. Edgy solos came from the composer on tenor sax and Hulsmann at the piano.
Hulsmann proved to be a lucid and informative interlocutor between tunes, with an excellent command of the English language. She described the quartet’s cover of “This Is Not America” as a “political statement”, the song having gained a perhaps unintentional current relevance in the current world climate. The performance began with a dialogue between Hulsmann and Kobberling, before adding layers of complexity with the addition of Muellbauer’s bass and Kempendorff’s sax as the music continued to gather momentum. The music then slowed down, giving the piece the feeling of a lament, before erupting into furious protest with Kempendorff’s garrulous, increasingly dissonant tenor sax solo. The album also includes a solo piano variation by Hulsmann, a lament for a lost America as opposed to the impassioned protest of the quartet version. Today’s interpretation successfully managed to combine both strands in a performance that for many listeners must have been the highlight of an already excellent set.
Hulsmann’s “No Game” featured expansive solos from Kempendorff and Hulsmann, both stretching out expansively, and percussively in the pianist’s case, above the rhythmic ferment laid down by Mullbauer and Kobberling. The bassist was also to feature as a soloist but it was Kobberling’s busy drumming that was at the heart of the performance. His style may be unorthodox but his playing is a natural fit for this quartet, and also for the earlier trio.
Two Kempendorff composition were then segued together, “You Don’t Need To Win Me Over”, a brief saxophone and drum duet that led into the more substantial “Einschut”, meaning “Insert”, featuring Hulsmann on piano.
Mullbauer’s “Wrong Song” began as a ballad, with an introductory passage of solo piano, before becoming more knotty and complex. The composer’s bass solo proved to be the lift off point for a robust tenor solo from Kempendorff, fuelled by Kobberling’s explosive drumming, the music now miles away from its opening lyricism.
Kobberling’s “Colibri”, named for a species of hummingbird commenced with a passage of unaccompanied drumming followed by more conventional jazz solos from Hulsmann and Kempendorff, these fuelled by hard driving rhythms as the set developed to a climax.
The deserved encore was the second cover of the afternoon, the ballad “The Water”, a jazz waltz written by Leslie Feist that appeared on the album “In Full View”, the Hulsmann Trio’s album with Tom Arthurs. Gentle and lyrical the piece featured a solo piano introduction from Hulsmann, delicate brush work from Kobberling, a lyrical bass solo from Muellbauer and warm toned, slightly plaintive tenor sax from Kempendorff. It was a delightful way to conclude a superb afternoon of music making.
Although today’s performance was frequently lyrical and beautiful there were also more animated moments that were genuinely exciting. Like many ECM acts the Hulsmann group’s music took on an extra frisson in live performance, bringing a new dimension to the music. Kempendorff has brought a spikier, more improvisatory edge to the group’s sound that serves its music well.
This was a lengthy, value for money show that featured the majority of the pieces from the new album and contained some superb individual and collective playing from a tightly knit and highly skilled ensemble. This was my first sighting of Hulsmann live, having previously enjoyed her music on record, and she and her band didn’t disappoint.
CROSSCURRENTS TRIO; DAVE HOLLAND, ZAKIR HUSSAIN, CHRIS POTTER
Planned engineering works on the Circle and District lines meant that making the relatively short expedition from the South Bank to Cadogan Hall, a journey that I have made by Tube many times, was a lot more difficult than usual.
Had I known that TFL were going to fuck about with the trains I’d probably have stayed at the South Bank and listened to Joe Lovano. As it was I’d heard both Lovano’s new album for ECM and the Crosscurrent Trio’s for Edition and found that I much enjoyed the latter. Frankly I found Lovano’s “Trio Tapestry”, recorded with pianist Marilyn Crispell and percussionist Carmen Castaldi rather dull, hence my choice, although I dare say that in live performance it may have sounded very different.
At the time I was somewhat annoyed that TFL had decided to disrupt the transport system on a weekend when a major cultural event i.e. EFG LJF was taking place. But then I suppose that there’s a ‘major cultural event’ of one sort or another taking place every weekend in London and the work has to be done sometime. I suspect that this weekend’s closures were planned around the fact that no Premier League football was taking place in the Capital that weekend due to the international break. However in addition to my personal inconvenience I’m also a great defender of the music, and it did rather seem as if jazz was getting the shitty end of the stick yet again.
Anyway rant over and I did get to Cadogan Hall on time, and back to the South Bank later on, so no real harm was done.
The members of the Crosscurrents Trio, Dave Holland (double bass), Zakir Hussain (tablas, percussion) and Chris Potter (tenor & soprano saxes) have all enjoyed lengthy tenures with ECM and between them they have issued an impressive back catalogue of recordings for the label, so for me this gig genuinely did feel like part of the ECM anniversary celebrations.
The origins of this stellar trio lie in a larger Crosscurrents project initiated by Hussain that involved other instrumentalists and vocalists. As the ‘senior’ musicians of the ensemble Hussain, Holland and Potter quickly established a rapport and found that they enjoyed working together in the more intimate environment of a trio. Holland and Potter were already long term collaborators and it was Hussain’s idea to involve the pair of them in the original Crosscurrents project.
As a trio Hussain, Holland and Potter have toured extensively and in 2018 recorded their début album “Good Hope” for Edition Records, the finished product hitting the shelves in October 2019. This afternoon’s EFG LJF performance at a packed Cadogan Hall was the final date of their latest European tour and with the album material fully ‘played in’ the trio were determined to round their travels off in style.
“Good Hope” is a remarkably democratic record with the compositional credits divided pretty much equally between the three musicians, Hussain contributing two pieces and Holland and Potter three each.
The album repertoire represented the core of today’s set which commenced with Holland’s “Lucky Seven”, introduced by Hussain at the tablas and subsequently joined by Holland on double bass and Potter on soprano sax. The first solo went to the composer on double bass, followed by the incisive sounds of Potter’s soprano sax, dancing in serpentine arabesques above the polyrhythmic patter of Hussain’s tabla undertow.
Potter switched to tenor for Hussain’s “J Bhai”, a composition dedicated to the composer’s one time Shakti bandmate, guitarist John McLaughlin. The saxophonist’s tone was robust but fluent as he again shared the solos with Holland’s bass. The piece also included an extended tabla feature from the composer, who also entered into a series of dazzling exchanges with Holland.
Potter’s own “Triple Cross”, a composition yet to be recorded, was written specifically for the current tour. This saw the composer moving back to soprano sax as the trio engaged in a series of highly interactive collective exchanges, laced with good humour and a high level of instrumental virtuosity.
Holland’s “Mazad” commenced with a delightfully eloquent passage of unaccompanied double bass from its composer that held the audience transfixed. Holland’s bass motifs were subsequently answered by the rustle of Hussain’s various small percussive devices plus a beguiling soprano sax melody, gliding gently above the subtle rhythms. Holland then embarked on a second passage of solo bass, again demonstrating his total mastery of the instrument – no wonder Potter routinely refers to him as “The Maestro”. A quote from John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (which also features on the recorded version) raised a smile from the audience before Hussain joined the conversation on tabla and Potter took flight on soprano with a solo that combined power, virtuosity, fluency and a remarkable level of inventiveness.
Solo bass also introduced Hussain’s “Suvarna” which saw Potter picking up his tenor to deliver the first solo. The piece also saw further dazzling rhythmic exchanges between bass and tabla. Hussain’s playing was virtuosic and frequently mesmerising, his levels of rhythmic imagination and inventiveness seemingly limitless. Fully engaged throughout, other than during the unaccompanied bass episodes, his performance also represented a considerable feat of physical resourcefulness.
Potter remained on tenor for his composition “Good Hope”, a piece introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tablas, with Hussain again introducing an element of humour into the proceedings.
Potter’s rousing solo above the rapid patter of Hussain’s percussion was utterly hypnotic, as was Holland’s bass solo and his subsequent exchanges with Hussain, the virtuosity again laced with a good natured element of musical humour. On this final date of the tour the trio were clearly determined to enjoy themselves.
Accorded the opportunity of an encore (something of a rarity at tightly scheduled Festival events) the trio sent the audience home happy with an unannounced, but beautiful, composition that cooled the fires after the white hot interaction of the main set. Delightful.
My words can scarcely do justice to the performance of this superb trio who subtly expanded on the recorded versions of their compositions, gently stretching the fabric of the tunes and probing gently but expansively, with their collective musical intelligence at full alert throughout. All three are virtuosos and their solo set pieces were undeniably impressive, but there was never any sense of grandstanding, everything seemed geared to the needs of the music and the trio performance as a whole.
All in all it was a privilege to be there, and well worth the logistical inconveniences alluded to earlier.
JAN GARBAREK GROUP, ROYAL FESTIVAL HALL
I’ll level with you here, this wasn’t my first choice show for this Sunday evening. I’d originally decided to go for Herbie Hancock at the Barbican, having not seen the great man live since the late 1970s. However this was sold out well in advance and there was no chance of getting a press ticket. On reflection this was probably just as well given the transport situation.
After perusing the alternatives on offer I finally decided to opt for this performance by the Garbarek group, having enjoyed so much the performance by the same line up in the same venue at the 2016 EFG LJF. It also fitted in nicely with the day’s ECM theme.
Once again saxophonist Garbarek was joined by his regular working group of Rainer Bruninghaus (piano, keyboards), Yuri Daniel (electric bass) and Trilok Gurtu (drums, percussion, voice), another collection of truly virtuoso instrumentalists.
As its longest serving musician and as one of the biggest names in world jazz Garbarek was a natural choice to headline this day celebrating the influence of ECM.
Unfortunately Garbarek and his colleagues opted to deliver almost the same set as they had done in 2016. I’m temped to just cut and paste my review of the previous show, such were the similarities.
Once again this was an unbroken performance, lasting for almost two hours in total, a musical tapestry centred around familiar melodic themes and punctuated by numerous individual ‘set pieces’.
The evening commenced with the sound of rushing wind, above which Garbarek piped plaintive melodic phrases on his distinctive curved soprano. The patented ‘Nordic Cry’ of his sound has been widely imitated but remains instantly recognisable and very much Garbarek’s own, no other saxophonist sounds quite like him.
Bruninghaus’ melodic keyboard motifs guided us into the familiar territory of “Molde Canticle”, the five part suite that forms the centrepiece of Garbarek’s 1990 ECM album “I Took Up The Runes”, one of his most enduringly popular recordings. The suite also opened the 2016 show and the similarities continued as tonight’s performance adopted a very similar overall pattern and trajectory.
The leader moved between soprano and tenor saxes, his soloing on the latter often powerful and full blooded. On occasions the group would devolve into smaller units, such as during an early dialogue between Garbarek on soprano and Gurtu behind an enormous battery of percussion that included kit drums, tablas, cajon and much more besides.
Although basically unbroken the performance could still be divided into discernible sub-sections, the dividing lines offering space for the audience to express their approval through applause.
As with the Hulsmann group Garbarek’s live performances with this current quartet are less rarefied than his recordings and some of the grooves laid down by Daniel on his five string electric bass were positively funky.
For all this Garbarek still remains aloof, playing the part of the Nordic ‘iceman’. I first saw him perform live in the 1980s but in all that time I’ve never heard him actually speak to an audience. It’s not that he can’t speak the language – I’ve heard him interviewed by Fiona Talkington on Radio 3 and his English is impeccable- but his reticence has somehow become part of his mystique, reinforcing the popular image of the glacial iceman from the Norwegian fjords.
Instead it’s the irrepressible Indian born percussionist Gurtu who is the showman of the group and he was to feature in a series of set pieces that peppered the set. We had Gurtu on tabla and konnakol, Gurtu on cajon and finally Gurtu on everything else, including the kitchen sink as he altered the pitches of cymbals and gongs by immersing them in a bucket of water. It was all very flamboyant and spectacular and the audience loved it, but even these individual episodes seemed to follow the same patterns as last time, set piece routines that ultimately represented more style than substance, rather like the individual features from the prog rock shows of my youth. Emerson, Lake & Palmer anybody?
But it wasn’t just Gurtu to which these cavils applied. Daniel’s bass feature veered between bravado Jaco Pastorius style pyrotechnics to the melodic melancholy of Eberhard Weber, his predecessor in the Garbarek group. An episode of funky thumbing and slapping triggered a departure into a series of quotes from the song “Afro-Blue”, which I didn’t remember from last time, but essentially his feature too followed the same structure as previously.
Likewise Bruninghaus whose barnstorming solo piano feature again threatened to steal the show as he combined classical technique with the raunch of a vintage stride pianist.
Aside from his distinctive soloing on tenor and soprano the leader’s own ‘set piece’ was represented by the dialogue between himself on wood flute and Gurtu on percussion. Like all the others it came at roughly the same point in the programme as before, adding to that feeling of deja vu.
I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t appreciate the quality of tonight’s show, because I enjoyed it immensely. The standard of the playing was brilliant throughout and the innate musicality of all four players was always evident. Anybody seeing this show for the first time would have been dazzled by it, as I was in 2016, and at the close there was a spontaneous standing ovation that reflected both the quality of the performance and the affection with which Garbarek is held by his substantial following.
But for me that element of doubt remained. This was too much like a rock or pop performance for me. It’s weird, I still like rock music and when I go to see a favourite rock band I like to sing along with favourite songs (the kind of bands I like don’t tend to have ‘hits’ as such) and revel in the familiarity.
With jazz it’s different, this is music that is supposed to represent ‘the sound of surprise’, and when I go to see a jazz band I’m always looking for something different. That’s why I prefer to hear original compositions rather than the same old standards. There are many jazz acts I’ve seen on multiple occasions and every time the performance has been different, jazz is a creative crucible and by the time most jazz performers are out touring to promote their latest album they’re already performing tunes written for the next.
I was expecting something similar from Garbarek too, but this highly choreographed show with its almost identical running order and with the ‘set in stone’ individual features felt a bit too much like a rock gig, all a bit too clinical and formulaic despite the undoubted brilliance of the musicians involved. That vital spontaneity that defines the best jazz was missing and the musicians didn’t seem to be having quite as much fun as they did last time. This was brilliance, but brilliance by rote.
I’ve been listening to Garbarek’s music for nearly forty years and still consider myself a fan, so I’m hardly going to give up on him now. At seventy two and with a sumptuous, and admirably varied, back catalogue behind him he’s probably earned the right to rest on his laurels.
On reflection I should perhaps have selected another alternative to the Hancock show. But all this is just me, the reception afforded to the Garbarek group was tumultuous and overwhelming, for many people this show would have been one of the highlights of the Festival – as it was for me first time round.
And apart from maybe Keith Jarrett who else could they have chosen to close a day celebrating the history of ECM. The world would be a poorer place without Manfred Eicher and his pioneering label, that’s for sure.blog comments powered by Disqus