Two recent, unexpected and entirely welcome additions to the iTunes music store: Jan Garbarek's "In Praise of Dreams" and the Keith Jarrett Trio's "Out-of-Towners." Unexpected because they are the first releases from the venerated, Luddite-leaning ECM label to be made available online -- and welcome because they suggest the possibility that more of ECM's unparalleled catalog of modern jazz and classical music might eventually find its way online.
Over the 35 years that he's run ECM, Manfred Eicher has single-mindedly maintained a recognizable aesthetic for the label, but he's also shown an astonishing ability to spot great talent early on. The list of significant artists who made early recordings on ECM, before they achieved legendary status -- including Jarrett, Bill Frisell, Paul Bley, Dave Holland, Chick Corea, John Scofield, Paul Motian and Dollar Brand (later Abdullah Ibrahim), as well as composers like Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt -- is genuinely mind-boggling.
As for the two records available right now: Garbarek, who was once one of the more promising and unusual saxophonists in jazz, and who made more intriguing use of John Coltrane's overpowering legacy than anyone else except Charles Lloyd, has spent the last few decades slowly disappearing into a haze of excessive reverb and New Agey synth sounds. "In Praise of Dreams" continues that trend, and represents the least appealing aspect of the ECM house aesthetic.
The Jarrett record is another story entirely. This trio, dubbed "the standards trio," with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums, has been playing together for more than 20 years. I'd say that they were the best working band in jazz -- except that they seem so far removed from the rest of the jazz world, so distinctly different from any other jazz being made right now (or at any time in the past, for that matter), that the label would be irrelevant. They are off in their own world, drawing most of their repertoire from the classic standards of jazz, but playing them in a way that bears little relation to today's innovators (Bill Frisell, Dave Douglas, Brad Mehldau, et al.) and even less to the "young lion" traditionalists.
With this trio, there are no gimmicks, no complex arrangements -- as I understand it, they don't even rehearse or plan their sets in advance. They use a standard as essentially a place to meet up, a neutral space to make music in. And within that space, they range freely and with perfect equality. There are solos, it's true, moments when one of the members of the trio is in the spotlight, but almost all the time they are all soloing, all playing lead simultaneously. Yet somehow, magically, they never get in each other's way. It's almost like a three-voice fugue by Bach: Together, the voices form a coherent piece of music, but any of the three could be the melody at any given moment, and it's up to the performer -- or the listener -- to choose. It's actually not quite accurate to call the standard a "neutral space," because the musicians play with a deep awareness of the material, of the emotional terrain implied by a given tune. But whatever extra richness it may bring, the material is fundamentally ancillary to the experience, to the point, of the music.
The trio's sound and approach have changed very little over the years. They've occasionally made records that do not use standards as the framework, starting instead from free improvisation -- including two astonishing recent ones, "Always Let Me Go" and "Inside Out," that seem to have been released in direct response to the short shrift given free jazz in Ken Burns' documentary "Jazz" -- but they're not that different in content from the standards records. It may take more energy, or simply a different kind of energy, to pull the music from the air rather than building it up from a familiar melody, but the goal, and the result, remain the same. "The Out-of-Towners" is different from what came before it only in that the trio is sounding progressively fleeter, as Jarrett slowly and methodically excises every hint of lugubriousness from his playing.
I'm no audiophile, but a special mention should be made of the recording quality here. This trio has released many live records over the years, and the sound has always been superb, as it is on all ECM recordings. But this may be the most beautifully recorded live album I've ever heard, with all the immediacy and clarity of sitting onstage with the trio.
"Sweet Pea," Altyrone Deno Brown, from "Eccentric Soul: The Bandit Label"
Numero Group, as readers of this column may recall, is the fledgling reissue label responsible for the Capsoul Records compilations that yielded Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr's "You Can't Blame Me," a song that generated a good deal of appreciative mail when I posted it earlier this year. Now they've dug up another obscure soul label, the Chicago-based Bandit Records. The label's story sounds like bad fiction: It was owned by Arrow Brown, a "rogue entrepreneur" who wrote and produced all the label's music, directing the operation from his house, which was part commune, part harem. One of the label's artists was Arrow's son, Altyrone Deno Brown, and his debut single "Sweet Pea," recorded in 1973 when the boy was 7 years old, is the crown jewel of this compilation. He has one of those surprisingly low, perpetually hoarse voices that some small children mysteriously have, and he sings with extraordinary intensity -- as well as a good deal of very un-childlike vibrato. It's borderline ridiculous, and very moving.
While there's nothing else quite as astounding as "Sweet Pea" on this disc, there are plenty of other beautiful songs. Arrow Brown was a competent though unexceptional composer, but under his control Bandit Records consistently turned out highly atmospheric tracks, with unpolished but passionate singers, and excellent, sometimes truly bizarre, production -- check out the almost "Pet Sounds"-like opening to "Another Day." Like other Numero Group releases, the CD is lovingly, beautifully packaged, with extensive liner notes. It can be purchased from the label's Web site. Salon Exclusive Free Download: "Sweet Pea"
"E. Is Stable," Menomena, from "I Am the Fun Blame Monster"
There are boatloads of "clever," "quirky" bands out there, and Menomena comes across as one of the "cleverest" and "quirkiest": Their debut record is packaged in the back of a flip book, its title is an anagram of "the first Menomena album," and most of it was recorded and sequenced using a computer program called Deeler, which was designed specifically for that purpose by a member of the band. Their music is full of unexpected juxtapositions and sudden shifts of tempo and mood, but it's all executed so logically, and with such pinpoint accuracy, that the songs never feel as scattered as they should. And the band can work with an impressive economy of means: "E. Is Stable" is built from a guitar loop, a bass line, a heavy drum groove, an occasionally shifting but largely static piano part, and a simple two-phrase vocal melody sung in a tortured emo-ish voice, and with some touching, wistful lyrics: "Your hands used to work miracles/ Skin on skin, I blush/ Your hands used to work miracles/ For me alone." Free Download: "E. Is Stable"
"Northern Sky," Nick Drake, from "Bryter Layter"
If you haven't heard Nick Drake's music, or have only heard it in the context of a Volkswagen commercial, take advantage of this free download, a rarity from a major-label artist. The song is "Northern Sky," one of Drake's most beautiful compositions. Unfortunately, like all of Drake's work except for the songs on the flawless "Pink Moon," it was marred by producer Joe Boyd's insipid and utterly tasteless light-rock production. This is far from Boyd's worst, but it's still a shame that the song can't be heard with just Drake's voice and guitar, and without John Cale's absurd, noodly piano-playing (yes, Velvet Underground John Cale, who should have known better). No matter -- just bask in the beautiful melody, and then go buy "Pink Moon." Free Download: "Northern Sky"
"Prices," Damien Jurado, from "Just in Time for Something"
Some artists go lo-fi out of financial necessity, some because of a misguided indie aesthetic that equates "authenticity" with bad recording quality. Others genuinely like a degraded sound, are interested in the disruptive possibilities of white noise, in the delicate nostalgia that can be conjured by tape hiss and analog crackle. That path has its pitfalls -- too often it can be like the musical equivalent of stripping some of the paint off a piece of furniture to artificially age it -- but it can also produce powerfully evocative music. On his new five-song EP, "Just in Time for Something," Seattle indie-folker Damien Jurado is clearly taking the atmospheric power of lo-fi sound quite seriously: To record the EP, he bought a '67 tube-powered reel-to-reel, through which he ran tape salvaged from thrift stores. The effect is to render Jurado's already delicate acoustic balladry positively spectral. Free Download: "Prices"
"Spiders," Wilco, live recording
I haven't had the pleasure of hearing Wilco perform live since alterna-guitar god Nels Cline joined the band's lineup, but by all accounts he's been a brilliant addition. The whole band sounds pretty great on this live recording of "Spiders," from a show last June at the Vic in Chicago. The song was one of the real highlights of the largely dull "Ghost," but it's even better live, as it's essentially a tight, minimalist frame for extended guitar solos. I'm not entirely sure which guitar parts are being played by frontman Jeff Tweedy and which by Cline, but it's probably a safe bet that the stuff that sounds like Neil Young in full spaz-out mode is Tweedy, while the more abstract, non-guitarish guitar sounds are being made by Cline. Whatever the case, the full effect is thrilling. Also available on the band's Web site is a beautiful live version of "Cars Can't Escape" (free download here), an outtake from the "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" sessions. Free Download: "Spiders"
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