Monday, May 01, 2006

the ECM sound

art ensemble, full forceart ensemble, third decadepreconceptions, generalizations and stereotypes often lead you astray. i've always had this notion of what "the ECM sound" is all about -- clarity in sound production values, austerity in performance values -- but these characterizations, however accurate, do not automatically yield kenny g no matter how much one might be inclined to think they do. after all, ECM is the label that mainstreamed the art ensemble of chicago; after seeing the AEC for the first time at the cleveland art museum during black history month in 1989 and having my little 21-year-old mind blown away, it was their albums on ECM that i found at the local public library.

crispell trio - nothing ever was, anywaybley trio - not two, not oneevan parker electro-acoustic ensemble, drawn inwardstill, and especially in recent years, it's the cooler, calmer avant-garde jazz that ECM features rather than the scorched earth avant-garde. nothing ever was, anyway, the marilyn crispell trio double CD tribute to annette peacock, is some of crispell's most lyrical playing i've heard, a far cry from her earlier cecil tayloresque dates for leo records. the bley-peacock-motian trio not two, not one is also a stunner, as stark as the light and shade in its black and white cover. the series of evan parker electro-acoustic ensemble discs, now numbering four, are wonderful logical progressions not of parker's high-energy trio work (with guy & lytton or schlippenbach & lovens) but the sustained interwoven textures of the music improvisation company recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

john abercrombie, gatewaybut is it possible for ECM stuff to ever really get out out out, or just plain rock? the answer is yes. i should've taken my clue from a john abercrombie LP i picked up a while back, gateway (1975). i know, an ECM guitarist? what could be closer to windham hill new age pap? think again. with a rhythm section of holland and dejohnette, this trio knows how to rock and abercrombie can make a stab at hendrix and pull it off better than most.

jan garbarek, afric pepperbirdso recently i'm looking into jan garbarek. cold, austere, nordic, i know. so they say. and i'll be damned if the cover of his first ECM recording, afric pepperbird doesn't look about as cold, gray and nordic and far removed from anything afric as you could imagine. well look for this one if you can find it cuz if a live show i've been listening to by the same band (Jan Garbarek tenor and bass saxophones, clarinet, flutes, percussion; Terje Rypdal guitar, bugle; Arild Andersen bass, african thumb piano, xylophone; Jon Christensen percussion) from the same time period (1971) is any indication it rocks. hard. frankly it sounds like bitches brew on jaegermeister and bad LSD. how could a band with a guitarist named terje pull this off? well he does it -- and not so much by going for hendrix like abercrombie but, i dunno, krautrock guitarist michael karoli of can. seriously, rypdal at this time period gets some of the most interesting wall-of-electronoise guitar sounds i've heard from anyone, in any context.

Jan Garbarek, Witchi-Tai-Toand what about garbarek? well personally i'll pass on that best officium recording with the hilliard ensemble (the penguin guide calls it an exercise in "faith minimalism," which is i guess why ECM records recent arvo part too -- tho don't be fooled, part's early stuff is very solid post-serialist composed music) because on afric pepperbird he's pretty out there, reminding me a bit actually of early gato barbieri tho with less ayler/sanders and more coltrane. the other one of his to keep an eye out for is witchi-tai-to (1973), which is actually attributed to the jan garbarek-bobo stenson quartet. again based on a live recording i have from the same band same period, here the coltrane comparison is even more appropriate because of the lineup and garbarek's sound (which has, by this time and like barbieri's, lost any aylerisms it might have had). stenson is an interesting, folksy lyrical pianist, and the rhythm section (Palle Danielsson, bass; Jon Christensen, drums) is incredibly fluid and powerful.


K. Lorraine Graham said...

I'm pretty interested in Garbarek's use of obsessive droning--sometimes conventionally lyrical, sometimes not--and how that's related to the idea of trance. I sometimes prefer the headspace and sense of silence produced by a droning sound to more "out" music--depends on the context, for me.

A recent two-CD Keith Jarrett record--Radiance--does an excellent job of combining his lyrical and atonal interests and putting them in useful tension.


Drew said...

Leo Smith's records for ECM are amazing. I esp. dig Divine Love

There is tons of great stuff on the the ECM catalogue- The Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips Time Will Tell is beautiful, though not in an austere way (not that I have fear of beauty or clarity or austerity)

I also been listening to Dave Hollands more recent ECM stuff with Steve Nelson on vibes- esp Prime Directive.

Taylor Brady said...

It's not so much the cold, Nordic thing that bugs me about a lot of ECM recordings -- I can dig a bracing dose of subzero anti-expressionism as much as the next guy. For me, though, it's that freakin' reverb that shimmers around the edges of everything they've ever recorded that's the dealbreaker. And in some cases, yeah, that sound is appropriate (Garbarek, Part, etc.: "holy minimalism", "holy post-jazz", "holy playing in an empty Olympic swimming pool, Batman").

But that holiness is precisely the problem in other areas. The Evan Parker Electroacoustic Ensemble is a good example -- that auratic sheen drains off all the specificity of what might be otherwise pressurized, prickly and combative/dialogic sounds, and sort of polishes everything down to a single lush surface. Compare that to the developments in other areas of electroacoustic improv, including projects these same musicians have played on, and you'll see what I mean. (And actually, the live bootlegs of Parker's ensemble I have, for all their back-row muddiness, sound better to me than the ECM studio recordings). It just feels like a cheap technological fix, a way to turn musics that value immanence into a wide-eyed upward stare at transcendence.

As for the ECM Art Ensembles, well... Nice Guys is phenomenal, IMO. And that two-disc live set, Urban Bushmen has some great stuff. (Bowie's playing on New York is Full of Lonely People is heartbreaking). But the rest of 'em are a pretty mixed bag when you stack them up against the recent reissues of their Paris period. Again, the sound on those earlier recordings is, from a technical standpoint, often abysmal, but at least it "falsifies" the playing through an honest poverty of means rather than an ideologically-loaded engineer's bad faith.

Some oddities in the catalog that have never been reissued on CD, as far as I know, include the first Music Improvisation Company record and an unlikely and amazing duo performance of Derek Bailey and Dave Holland. Tellingly, they both display more of the "dry" sound I'd associate with other labels' recordings of early-70s British improv, though.


Taylor Brady said...

Was apparently just posting as Drew was, and yeah, how could I forget those Leo Smith records. Amazing stuff!

Drew said...

Yea, Taylor's right about the reverb, and generally that's what the label gets slagged for, along with putting out improv music that some people think is too atmospheric /relaxed.

Reverb is basically setting and context -- it's waveform information about place, so if you use the same airplane hanger reverb for every band, it has a homogenizing effect. Different bands work better in different contexts. It also splits up the signal you're getting from the instrument into the sound the instrument makes vs the sound of the room it's in, and when the recording is set to represent the room to such an extent, you get less info about the instrumental tone - and this tends to hurt most when the music is denser in pulsation.

I think there's a poetic equivalent of reverb settings and it concerns the resonance of vocabulary and context.… also the resonance of reference and how reference bounces around culturally/ mentally like sound waves

There are cases where this large reverb works in the ECM catalouge, though, most of time with players who use lots of space. Hence my note about Leo (who I studied with in the late 80s)

Also the Don Cherry / Ed Blackwell El Corazon works really well with that ECM large room sound.

tmorange said...

drew what yr saying about reverb reminds me of alvin lucier, who as i'm sure you know has done compositions using the "acoustic signatures" of given interior spaces. like, he records a balloon being popped in a train station, edits out the "pop" and is left with the acoustic resonance of the train station, uses and manipulates that result in his compositions. fascinating. know of anyone else working in this vein?

sound and language tho are qualitatively different kinds of information tho, no? i mean yes, it's all vibrational on some level (and we can get taylor in on this from a braxtonian angle), but the problem with language always being that it's information on the utterly mundane level as well as whatever else it carries...

interestingly with evan parker's solo work -- clearly a music very dense in pulsation -- he knows how to identify and utilize the resonant qualities of a performance space. rod smith and i saw him in a presbyterian church in foggy bottom DC a few years ago, and i've been listening to a recording he made at a church in guelph ontario around the same time i think, and it's quite clear in such instances that he's playing the space as much as he's playing the instrument. in some recordings, live or studio, he's miked far too close and it really ruins it, there's no space for the performance to breath in.


Drew said...

hmmm. .. yea, -- I find there's always _way_ more info carried in language than is intended by it's agents and this is a musical thing and a data thing - but this polyvalence is dangerous to people who need to hide information so the tradition of decoding the information is more strictly controlled. This is why you can pick apart GWBs speechs so easily (hence he caters to the most raw forms of denial), also way it's always hard work to critique a poem... Language is only framed as primarily carrying literal and mundane and monopolar info if the people trying to control the information have set up system where that's what everyone assumes, natch. My experience with language tells me that it's much closer to sound and music in how it encodes information than most people assume. If people were encouraged to think of it this way, though, it would be much harder for people with concentrated social power to lie with it.

Drew said...

I posted a note about the Lucier thing in the next post up…

Another person who works w/ reverb / resonance/space is (as I'm sure you know) Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening is recorded in an abandoned underground cistern with a huge natural reverb : its makes the ECM room sound like muffled closet- it's like 35 or 45 seconds. They use is very interestingly - esp w/ the use of just intonation with makes the long tones very smooth - like glass.