ECM

What one heard in 2019

In 2019, one heard a lot of music across multiple genres. Aside from intently focused or plain distracted home listening, one spent a considerable amount of time listening to music on headphones while commuting to and from work. Even though one definitely discovered new and engaging music in 2019, one was unable to come up with a top ten list of favorite albums actually released in 2019. Maybe one is not too big on year-end lists anyways. Be that as it may, one hopes you readers out there find your groove in this random selection and take a listen to some of the music.

January confirmed one’s relatively new interest in electronic music and its interactions with jazz, namely Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music and Brad Mehldau’s Gabriel. One was reminded that one had liked (for the most part) and been pleasantly surprised by their collaboration on Mehliana a few years back, an album of kindred spirits.  

February was bass month as double bassist Larry Grenadier released his first bass solo album The Gleaners on ECM, a musical event – one being a bass practitioner – one just couldn’t miss that one and had to dig deep into it once it was available. Though a longtime devotee, one was impressed with the scope of Grenadier’s bold project and how well he delivered on that promise. Bass is not just beautiful. In those hands, it approaches the transcendent.

In March, one went on a John Coltrane transcribing binge but mostly indulged oneself in idle listening to favorite masterpieces, including A Love Supreme, Sun Ship and Transition. One was reminded – if one needed to be reminded – of the lasting and timeless qualities of this divine music. French quartet Flash Pig also put out a great record in 2019, with the appropriately titled Year of the Pig. In March, one also dipped into the Carpenters for a week and wondered why the innocuous schmaltz of saccharine pop still somehow appeals to one’s ears. One assumes it’s about the harmony and Karen’s angelic voice.

April saw a deliberate urge to acknowledge women artists and feminize one’s male-centric Spotify downloads. As in most art, there are just as many great women in music as there are men but it takes twice as much effort to track them down online. One particularly enjoyed listening to guitarist Mary Halvorson’s Code Girl, pianist Kris Davis’ discography as leader and sidewoman, Angelica Sanchez on drummer Chad Taylor’s Circle Down album, and Angelika Niescier’s New York trio. On the more swinging front, one appreciated (and still does) the work of bassist/vocalist Katie Thiroux. One has probably forgotten a few more.

In May, one was turned on to singer Gabriel Kahane, about whom one knew nothing. Kahane has written some poignant songs, as epitomized by his Book of Travelers album, where he accompanies his short stories on piano. In May, one also set out to fill a gap in one’s knowledge of Stravinsky’s ballets russes. Accordingly, one listened and daydreamed to various renditions of Appolon Musagète, Firebird, and The Rite of Spring. One also checked out Tim Hecker’s follow-up to Konoyo, namely Anoyo, and enjoyed the ride.

What the hell did one listen to in June? Not knowing where to look, one assumes one played one’s musical obsessions on a loop. Somehow one only remembers listening to Armand Hammer’s Paraffin on a crowded subway ride, wondering how to search for good hip hop when one has lost touch with the state of rap these days.

One highlight of July has to be a drive through Pennsylvania’s pastoral countryside with very dear friends, and that moment when Bill Callahan’s Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest came on. Just perfect. One thinks one revisited Eric Revis’ City of Asylum and Crowded Solitudes at some point that month.

One is positive one listened to music on a daily basis in August. But one is equally positive one didn’t discover anything new or catch up on any new release. One probably kept the same music on rotation. With Bach’s cello suites and keyboard inventions a comforting touchstone.

September flew by but one really enjoyed the Stranahan, Rosato Zaleski trio’s Live at the Jazz Standard. What a great chemistry these three have. In a different style, one latched on to the trio of Reid Anderson (of The Bad Plus fame), Dave King (same) and Craig Taborn and their outfit Golden Valley is Now. Wow, one sure didn’t see that one comin’!  And so one had to review it here.

In October, the highly awaited Activate Infinity by the Bad Plus came out. The second one since Orrin Evans replaced Ethan Iverson on piano. Up there with everything they’ve done so far. October also brings the Fall season and – out of nowhere – Ivo Pogorelich playing a selection of Sonatas by Beethoven and Rachmaninoff came on the radio. One immediately checked out the full album. A timely and inspired offering.

In November, one reveled in the power of the bass, as one would. One stumbled on the duo of Scott Colley and Benjamin Koppel. Their album How to get there is as good as this kind of dialogue can get. Also, one got to listen to Chris Speed, Chris Tordini and Dave King’s Respect For Your Toughness (reviewed here) a lot. One saw this trio live and vividly remembers it. One will definitely look out for the next adventure.

In December, one chanced upon Arvo Pärt’s The Deer’s Cry, as performed by the Vox Clamantis ensemble (ECM) and was sucked into its choral beauty. While one listened to other music that month, this one probably tops anything else in peacefulness and lyricism.

Of course, one took some detours through some old-time favorites and heard a lot more than is featured here. But off the top of one’s head, this is it.

Who knows what one will be listening to in 2020?  How weird can the pronoun “one” get?

Merely this, and nothing more

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Ghosts, by nature, are hard fellows to get hold of. Their presence can be haunting and pervasive but good luck catching up with them over coffee. They seem to be here and not here at the same time. A revered musician among his peers, pianist Craig Taborn has played on so many recordings by himself and other jazz/avant jazz musicians that the “ghost” moniker some of his friends sometimes refer to him as seems to be a bit of an overstatement. The man keeps a low profile and doesn’t seem so much interested in cranking out albums for self-promotion’s sake as in experimenting with various musical settings that fit his eclectic aesthetic inclinations. So when Taborn does put an album out, you’d better catch the ghost while he’s around because the music is likely to deliver on and defy your expectations.

One would be hard pressed to define the basic characteristics of ghost music. ( And now the Ghostbusters theme is stuck in your head, I’m sorry!) On his recent quartet release Daylight Ghosts, Mr Taborn displays his penchant for ethereal yet deeply grounded music. The composer/improviser is arguably one the few voices in jazz who can successfully bridge the gaps between such polar opposites as underground Detroit techno, contemporary classical music, Midwest punk rock, Sun Ra and free jazz, without the listener realizing immediately that those influences are actually there. As on his previous albums, the composer favors the transient spaces where the music seems poised to go in one direction and ends up going the other way. His deep involvement in intricate rhythms, shifting time signatures and heavy intoxicating grooves is all in evidence here. For this endeavor he convened a fitting cast of like-minded friends featuring Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, Chris Lightcap on double bass and electric bass and Dave King on drums and electronic percussion. This modern jazz album has all the makings of a spacious ECM record straddling the worlds of classical modern music and contemporary chamber-like jazz. Taborn’s voice is particularly strong as a compositional presence, his piano playing often geared toward arranging the music at key transitional spots and setting heavy left hand bass grooves to shift gears between the sections of a song. The 9 tracks flow together in one seamless suite of through-composed themes, free-form blowing and recurrent patterns picked up by each instrument at various spots. With such titles as “Abandoned Reminder” , “The Great Silence” or “Phantom Ratio”, this is the work of a major jazz composer who strives and successfully assembles apparently disconnected elements into one cohesive piece of music. The opener The Shining One sets the tone of the album. Speed states the serpentine theme once, Lightcap steps right in to provide a contrapuntal groove and Taborn builds on the thematic material before Speed reenters and states a longer version of the theme in unison with Taborn.  And then they all move into collective improvisation. This process pervades the album and works well as it gives a creative opportunity for the musicians to steer their instruments from their usually prescribed roles. Bass and drums have no monopoly over timekeeping and the beautifully crafted melodies segue organically into improvised sections where the collective whole is greater than the sum of its parts. On the title track “Daylight Ghosts, Taborn locks into a 5/4 meter groove that he maintains throughout the last section of the song while a new theme surges on top and carries the song through. Evidently, Taborn enjoys this compositional idea as it occurs repeatedly here as well as on his much recommended trio albums, especially Chants (with Thomas Morgan and Gerald Cleaver, 2013, ECM) “The Great Silence” has Speed fluttering around on clarinet like something out of Prokoviev while the others come in and keep things simmering and sparse under the surface.

Nothing gets too intense on this album as ghosts are not the boisterous type. However, the subdued intensity is there, lurking in those melodic fragments and beautiful silences. “Ancient” starts off with a short bass solo leading into a collective cat-and-mouse chase, finally building into a techno-like anthem gone off-kilter. “Subtle Living Equations” is a feature for Taborn’s beautiful harmonies floating in an enveloping ether. “Phantom Ratio” brings the album full circle, Speed intoning a brooding chant as if coaxing over the other musicians, ghosts in their own right. Taborn obliges with a techno-ish groove on a spooky synthesizer, later joined in by King and Lightcap complementing the rhythmic foundation with unexpected counterpoint.

It is unlikely that this quartet will ever perform this music on stage. After all, you can’t just call ghosts and expect them come right in. But be sure to get this album and another favorite of mine, Chants on which the song “Speak The Name” has been driving me crazy for months and I can’t seem to fully understand why it is so good.

Craig Taborn, Daylight Ghosts,  2017, ECM

Craig Taborn   Piano, Electronics

Chris Speed   Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet

Chris Light   Double Bass, Bass Guitar

Dave King    Drums, Electronic Percussion