Sunday, August 31, 2008

ECM Madness, Part 1

So ECM has just begun what I can only describe as a massive archival series. This month alone, ECM is re-releasing 15 classic (or so the copy says) CDs in nice little 11 dollar cardboard slip cases, probably in some kind of misguided attempt at getting in on Blue Note's RVG-series action. Of course, ECM's new slip discs could never compete with the RVG series; there aren't enough ECM records that are considered "classics" by the jazz intelligentsia (plus the jazz intelligentsia has a habit of making fun of the as-far-as-I-can-tell non-existant "ECM sound"), although their back-catalogue is probably just as varied and fruitful as a whole. Either way, here's your guide to the first batch of those archival discs.

As should be expected, some CDs considered "classics" by ECM are pretty terrible. I'm surprised that there hasn't been more of a critical reappraisal of John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner's "Sargasso Sea," which is probably the most typically "ECM" album I've ever heard, and the sort of album that critics point to when they talk about the "ECM Sound." Towner plays a bunch of sus chords, and Abercrombie plays some predictable guitar over it. It isn't very good. Of course, other albums that are also very typically ECM are great; "Dreams So Real," arguably Gary Burton's best album in print (I have yet to hear the out-of-print RCA stuff he did with Larry Coryell), is also full of sus chords and clean guitars, but happens to be brilliant. The tunes, written by Carla Bley, form a suite for Burton and some incredible sidemen (the record introduced the world to Pat Metheny) to improvise over. The best parts of the album are sublime, showing what made the "ECM Sound" popular to begin with.

Of course, as I said earlier, 'The ECM Sound" is a myth, as some of the best reissues show: Dave Holland's "Extensions" is extremely funky, and altoist Steve Coleman is so sharp and energetic on it that he sounds like he'd cut through "ECM Sound"ing wide open spaces like a knife. The tunes themselves are also too complex to fit with the aforementioned albums. Granted, "Extensions" came out more than a decade after the other two, but people still talk about "The ECM Sound" almost twenty years after "Extensions." Plus, "Gnu High," probably Kenny Wheeler's best record, is just as good and it came out before "Dreams So Real." Although there are only three tracks (the shortest clocks in at about 8 minutes), Wheeler packs a huge amount of punch into the album; his sidemen Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Holland (all ECM stalwarts and Miles Davis alums) each sound great, whether during individual solos or group improvisations.

Of course, there are other notable records being reissued; "American Garage," an absolutely awful Pat Metheny Group record (how many Pat Metheny Group records couldn't be described that way?) that happens to be popular and has received critical praise from everybody (it has 4 1/2 stars out of 5 on; perhaps the allmusic system of scoring is like the golf system). I think "bad album from the Pat Metheny Group" is enough of a description, but unless you like that stuff, stay far away. I have a friend who heard "Bright Size Life," Metheny's brilliant debut, and bought "American Garage" afterwards, thinking, "Man, it can't be that bad." Let his tragic (but true) story be a cautionary tale for you. You don't want to be the guy who wasted his 11 dollars on an album of the Kenny-G-of-the-Guitar playing odd-meter Ray Charles rip-offs. And then there's Jack DeJohnette's "Special Edition," which some think of as having the best, err, edition, of that band. I don't think it holds a candle to later albums with Gary Thomas and Greg Osby, but with David Murray and Arthur Blythe you can't really go wrong.

So there you go, ECM's first series of reissues. There are more coming out on September 30th, so you can expect another lengthy appraisal then. For now, though, that's ECM Madness! Next time I'll review something or other, and it will probably even be new!

No comments: