One of the oldest jazz traditions has been the "all-night jam" where the musicians could gather and show off their new "riffs," exchange ideas and collaborate onstage before a handful of delighted listeners.
A modern expression of this "jam" consciousness has been the establishment of record labels, such as CTI and Carla Bley's Watt Records, in which a "stable" of musicians lend their abilities to the various releases of the company. Their collaborations are featured on vinyl instead of before footlights, and the listeners now number in the thousands on a world-wide stage.
ECM is a German-based label that has, for years, presented many of the new jazz musicians from the United States and Europe in solo and in collaboration with one another. Founder-producer Manfred Eicher and his staff oversee each release and, while the styles of the musicians are different, the packaging and recording of their work bears a unified "ECM stamp." The covers are tastefully designed with subtle graphics and informative liner notes. The recordings are similarly understated - lushness of sound and clarity of playing are provided by the musicians; studio tampering is avoided.
ECM has recently changed its American distributor (from Polydor to Warner Bros.) and released a new set of recordings. Here is a sampling.
Dave Holland, "Emerald Tears" (ECMI-1120). The very idea of an entire record devoted to solo bass is imposing, technically and esthetically. Holland is more than equal to the task. The solo format allows him to experiment with the harmonic and sonorous potentials of the bass - his creativity takes care of the rest. Holland's work is a quantum leap in the evolution of stringed bass playing.
John Abercrombie, "Characters" (ECMI-1117). Abercrombie's guitar work has always been similar to the linguist who speaks 20 languages and has little to say in any of them. Technically proficient and conversant in many styles, he never manages to bring his creative ideas to their full potential. His use of echo units and electronic devices seldom ascends to a level above artistic doodling, and his compositions lack substance and structure. This record is provocative, yet ultimately, uninspired.
John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, "Gateway 2" (EMCI-1105). This record is a musical collaboration in only the most tenuous sense. What strengths there are (and there are some) rely on the individual qualities of the musicians - a sense of collaborative thought and ensemble is lacking. Drummer DeJonette and Holland are exemplary (Abercrombie is still doodling) and they have moments of thoughtful interaction. For the most part, however, the record seems to be more of a triple "solo" effort.
Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Daniellson, Jon Christiansen, "My Song" (ECMI-1115). Virtuoso Jarrett's abilities have been more than adequately represented on earlier ECM records of his solo piano work, while his playing with his American group and his flirtations with classical music have seemed pretentious and self-indulgent. On this record, he is an ensemble setting - intelligent yet warm - that allows his gospel-tinged playing to sparkle. Garbarek's sax, Daniellson's bass and the intricate drumming of Christensen provide a playful sound whose improvisational nature is a treat for the ear and the mind.
Bill Connors, "Of Mist and Melting" (MCMI-1120). Connors' work in the early 70s, with Chick Corea's "Return To Forever" was characterized by an intensity and enthusiasm that have waned in recent records. The listless performances by Connors, Garbarek, DeJohnette and bassist Gary Peacock are attributable to the unimaginative material that Connors has written for this session. The record does suggest that Connors' work might be better suited to the rock-oriented approach of RTF than to the jazz style he is presently pursuing.
Egberto Gismonti "Sol Do Meio Dia" (ECMI-1116). The exotic sounds of South American music (with its African, European and Indian influences) are blended skillfully by Gismonti and set in the context of European jazz. The results are enlightening on some pieces ("Kalinba," "Cafe") where the styles coalesce with an engaging simplicity, yet pieces such as "Raga" are somewhat cluttered and distracting. Garbareck, Ralph Towner (guitar), Nana Vasconcelos (percussion) and Collin Walcott (tabla) add interesting accents to the music and the record provides a wealth of ideas that one hopes Gismonti will explore in the future.