Revinylization #51: ECM is Back in the Vinyl Game

Given his seemingly endless stream of ideas, virtuoso instrumentalism, and considerable wealth of recordings, Keith Jarrett is a creative universe unto himself. He began his recording career on Atlantic Records and recorded for several labels, including Impulse!, along the way, but it was on Manfred Eicher’s label ECM that he first broke through to worldwide fame in 1973, with the 3-LP set Keith Jarrett, Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne. Considering its landmark status, it’s fitting that the album is among the first releases in ECM’s new Luminessence vinyl series, reissued in its original triple-vinyl form.

ECM began as a vinyl label in 1969, releasing ECM 1001—Mal Waldron’s Free at Last—in 1970. By 1992, ECM albums were being released on CD only. The label’s transition back to vinyl was a long time coming. With fresh lacquers cut from the original master tapes and pressed at Record Industry in Germany, this new series marks a sea change in ECM’s trajectory as a label. In 2017, ECM became one of the last labels to make their catalog available for streaming. They’ve now become one of the very last to begin reissuing albums on vinyl. Like all things ECM, including which titles are to be reissued, the decision to jump back into the world of 12″ LPs undoubtedly comes from ECM co-founder and continuing inspiration Manfred Eicher (footnote 1).

Jarrett’s Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne was followed a year later by the Jarrett/Jan Garbarek album Luminessence: Music for String Orchestra and Saxophone (1974), which the vinyl-reissue series is named for. Bremen/Lausanne came two years before the most famous Jarrett album, 1975’s The Köln Concert, which has yet to be reissued on Luminessence.

The constant gush of ideas in Bremen/Lausanne‘s three lengthy tracks is a musical fireworks display. Rarely stuck for a way into a musical exploration, or, and even more impressively, a way back out, Jarrett routinely hits on a theme with his left hand and then improvises in, on, and around it with his right until he deftly alights on another inspiration to build on, another ledge to dive from. He plays with great sensitivity and unremitting drive. There are moments in his playing, such as at the midway point in the second part of the Bremen concert, when the pace slows and he beautifully lingers, that make it clear that no one has ever, before or since, improvised music with this kind of inventiveness, speed, and flair.

Most powerful (and, it has been argued, most indulgent) as a solo player, Jarrett has also been very successful and productive playing in small groups, as demonstrated in 1975’s Gnu High, a new Luminessence release from the late Kenny Wheeler. A Canadian who first achieved fame in the UK playing with John Dankworth’s Big Band, the trumpet/flugelhorn player later played fusion with Mike Gibbs and free jazz with Tony Oxley and Anthony Braxton. With his pure, distinctive tone and resounding imagination, Wheeler made this record, his 1975 ECM debut, with the all-star quartet of Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Propelled by DeJohnette’s splashy cymbal work and Jarrett’s usual dramatic ferocity, “Heyoke,” the nearly-22-minute opening number, shows Wheeler’s generosity as a leader. The sprightly and mercifully short “Smatter” showcases Wheeler’s tone and Jarrett’s incisive accompaniment, while the title track, taken at a leisurely tempo, allows all four players—particularly Holland, who takes a wonderful solo—to stretch out and live inside the music.

ECM’s superpower has always been Eicher’s ears and the major role eclectic music, especially what’s often called “world music,” has played in his expansive vision for the label. Brazilian Naná Vasconcelos plays the berimbau, a single-stringed instrument. Variously employed by Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead), Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira, and Max Cavalera, leader of metal band Sepultura, the berimbau can be buzzy or have a plucked open-stringed resonance; either way it is unforgettably distinct. On the 19-minute “O Berimbau,” from 1979’s Saudades, Vasconcelos, assisted by string composer Egberto Gismonti and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, sways between reflective moments and insistent rhythms. On “Vozes (Saudades),” with persuasive violins in the background, Vasconcelos’s voice is layered, overdubbed, and progressively speeded up into a vocal flurry. Also using vocals as a central element, “Ondas (Na Óhlos De Petronila)” achieves a groove, with an ominous gong rumbling in the background. Overall, a haunting set, whose origins are global.

Carrying on the spirit of the improvisational genius Ornette Coleman, in whose band all four members spent time, the quartet Old and New Dreams made five albums between 1976 and 1987, including their 1979 ECM debut, Old and New Dreams. Comprised of Dewey Redman (tenor saxophone), Charlie Haden (bass), Don Cherry (trumpet), and Ed Blackwell (drums), the quartet split the difference between the freedom of free jazz and the strictures of bebop. All four players are powerhouses, and their obvious chemistry allows them to share the solo spotlight effectively. Holland’s solo enlivens the opener, a cover of Coleman’s “Lonely Woman.” Taken at a faster tempo, “Open or Close,” another Coleman tune, is studded with rapid, economical solos, first by Redman in inventive squiggles and later by Cherry, twisting notes and reaching for conclusions in a higher register. The album closes on the ghostly wails of strings and horns, in Charlie Haden’s “Song for the Whales.”

These first four Luminessence reissues uphold ECM’s long tradition of clear, natural-sounding, extremely well-recorded sessions. A pioneer of high-quality vinyl, Eicher’s ECM is back in the game.

Footnote 1: See Fred Kaplan’s 2019 interview for Stereophile here.

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