Sunny’s Space-Time Now

Without question, Sunny Murray would take a prominent place in the history of jazz innovators even if he had only made two recordings: the 1962 live session with Cecil Taylor at the Cafe Montmartre, Copenhagen, and the Albert Ayler Trio’s 1964 landmark ESP-Disk debut, Spiritual Unity. Prior recordings by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman freed up jazz melodies from traditional Western chord progressions, but they did so with the backing of conventional hard-bop rhythm sections. Murray broke through that remaining barrier and freed jazz time for new and previously uncharted realms of rhythmic exploration.

Nearly half a century later, I feel like we still lack the proper terminology with which to describe Murray’s innovations. That old warhorse, the metronome, is usually trotted out but really becomes something of an antithetical strawman, here and also with respect to traditional swing, which eludes adherence to a strict number of beats per minute either–unless it’s, say, a consistent millisecond or two ahead of or behind the metronome. Critics will often prefer the term “pulse” when discussing Sunny’s time, but that too strikes me as inadequate because, when not quickened or slowed by some kind of stimuli, a pulse usually remains fairly regular.

Phil Freeman, in his well-researched piece for The Wire, describes “Murray’s ability to break down bar lines and go from bebop timekeeping to creating an amorphous, pulsing rhythm.” Murray creates and responds to pulses to be sure, but far more than that I hear reverberations and echoes, sounds not just in space but shaping and forming it. WHAP WHAp WHap Whap whap goes his snare, for example, and the presence of that sonic shape and form remain long after the moment of its temporal creation has passed. Elsewhere in the space, the hi-hats are chattering constantly, chik chik chik chik chik. If Kenny Clarke’s bop drumming innovation shifted the kit’s primary time-keeping function from the kick drum (as it had been in swing) to the ride cymbal, perhaps Murray elevated the hi-hats to that role, and not just on the off-beats. There is no off-beat in Sunny’s time: every beat is on. And on(e).

And then, the cymbals… here too, the conventional distinction between “ride” and “crash” cymbal carries little relevance. Both shimmer, shudder and sing, the melodies determined in part by their different weights and densities. And herein, I think, lies the heart of Murray’s music: his playing adds and removes different densities to the overall field he creates and shapes with his collaborators, each at times approaching the creation of, if not a black hole that would suck the whole universe into it, perhaps neutron stars, pulsars rather than pulses?

Sunny’s space-time forces nothing short of a belated musical reckoning with Einstein’s insights and an acknowledgement of the spatial qualities inherent to time. The poet Clark Coolidge, who in his early career as a jazz drummer found him gigging with one of Murray’s earliest bandmates in the Cecil Taylor groups, bassist Buell Neidlinger, puts it this way:

As a drummer you’re holding time’s cutting edge in your right hand (ride cymbal), a simultaneity of holding and shaping. You occupy the center of the sonic sphere, the world, and ride it and bear it, inviolable (why heroin is Bop’s perfect chemical). And everything that happens there happens once and at once. Once and Ounce, Groove and Chord, Wave and Particle: the Complementarity of Bop. (Now It’s Jazz 93-94)

Of all the tribute I have read in the wake of Murray’s passing this past week, I think Hank Shteamer gets closest to my sense of Murray’s presence and force in the music: “Murray hovers as a kind of restless background spirit. It might seem too convenient to equate the supernatural overtones of Ayler’s music (‘Spirits,’ ‘Ghosts,’ etc.) with Murray’s place in the music, but I think there is something inherently otherworldly about his playing.” Shteamer goes on, rightly I think, to call Murray an “outlier” but resists “portray[ing] him as some inscrutable savant.” These are words worth exploring a bit further.

Murray certainly occupied a place at some remove from our established or acknowledged centers or systems. There’s no easy placing him in a pantheon of percussion peers and precursors. Ayler’s self-styled trinity offers no quaternary parallel for the likes of Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Milford Graves and Sunny Murray. As much if not more than any of his immediate peers, however, time and again it was his swing and bop elders that Murray regularly cited and praised as forming the society he sought, a lineage he traced going back to Sid Catlett, whom he recounts coming to him one night in the late 1950s in a vision fueled in part by cooked wine laced with ground nutmeg.

As Emily Dickinson’s poem reminds us, “The soul selects her own society,” and sometimes it’s an odd fit. The most vivid demonstration of this comes in the footage from a night at the 1968 Copenhagen Jazz Festival. Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers take the stage for a full set. Next is Max Roach, who performs a briefer solo set. Then the Elvin Jones Trio, with Joe Farrell and Jimmy Garrison, does a full set. Then comes Sunny Murray for a solo set.

Unlike the other acts that were set up more centrally on the stage, Murray’s kit is set up far stage left near the curtains. He walks out and apologizes while he finishes setting up and adjusting his kit. Then he begins straight away, working the kit and himself up with full force, adding to it that otherworldly vocal moan heard on his recordings with Ayler. It’s both fascinating and disturbing to watch, as Murray’s facial expressions continuously flicker between roar and grimace for nearly the full, brief set, which ends abruptly when Murray loses the grip on the drumstick in his right hand (which, it should be remembered as he tells Jason Weiss in Jazz Times, was missing parts of his middle fingers due to an accident Murray suffered while working in a Philadelphia steel factory).

He bows and walks off to decent applause, and as members of the previous groups return to the stage, it becomes clear that a jam session will conclude the proceedings. With Blakey and Jones already behind their kits, Murray rejoins the stage for an up-tempo bop number, playing along for part of it, given a solo opportunity by the others, and at times just sitting out. The number concludes and the audience applauds enthusiastically, which Murray receives while taking his place standing side-by-side with Jones.

The two or three years Murray spent working through the ranks or hard bop, as he described to Dan Warburton in 2000, were significant, but far more valuable were the few years after that time he spent woodshedding with a pianist who lived in the same lower Manhattan loft, Cecil Taylor. That work bore immediate fruit, though the 1960 recordings for Candid originally omitted tracks that included Murray, and the 1961 Impulse recordings were released under the banner of the Gil Evans Orchestra.

From the November 1962 recordings at the Cafe Montmarte, Copenhagen, to the July 1964 Spiritual Unity session, Murray demonstrates not only a clearly formed style but a versatility in adapting that style to different players. With Taylor, Murray settles into something like a heartbeat’s THUMP-thump pulse, combined with the gallop of a thoroughbred horse or possibly a bucking bronco. With Ayler, however, those snare drum WHAPs are more clearly an insistently setting up those spatial densities and reverberations I talked about earlier.

Murray’s first sessions as a leader remain impressive in their own respects. Sonny’s [sic] Time Now sounds almost identical to its contemporary Ayler Quintet recordings except that the compositions are all Murray’s. Thus it’s a rare delight to hear Ayler as a sideman soloing along with the bandleader’s tunes. Murray’s self-titled ESP-Disk date would be worthwhile solely for debuting both Byard Lancaster and Jacques Coursil. The additional saxophonist here, Jack Graham, appears not to have made any additional recordings.

Such was part of the pleasure in revisiting the Murray recordings I could this past week–as with so many contemporary outlier artists, his back catalog is in shambles. Michael Ehrlers made a fine choice reissuing 1969’s Big Chief on his Eremite label, and excellent international octet session including another one-off appearance, this time by poet Hart LeRoy Bibbs.

I find the late-1960s free-jazz blowing sessions found mostly on BYG and a few other labels to be a mixed bag, tainted by the stories advanced by Murray and others of BYG’s lack of payments to the artists and other gangster tactics. I was only able to revisit his sideman sessions during this period, not his leader dates, but the clear standouts to me are Dave Burrell’s Echo and Clifford Thornton’s Ketchaoua. These are very well balanced performances: Burrell splits the album with side one’s title track blowing session and side two’s aptly-titled “Peace,” which features a simple major scale as its main theme. Thornton’s offering as balance throughout, with fierce blowing tempered by expansive space and assorted percussion.

One odd contribution Murray makes during this period is to the Black Gypsy and Pitchin’ Can session, partly under the joint leadership of Archie Shepp and blues harmonica player and singer Chicago Beau (who also featured on some contemporaneous Art Ensemble of Chicago recordings). The title track of “Black Gypsy” calls for a 4-bar backbeat, which Murray never quite sustains. Shepp plays soprano sax exclusively here, to which I have no objection as some critics do; the other reed player acknowledge though, Noah Howard, remains in the altissimo register for the entire track.

Other standouts from my week’s relistening come from the 1970s and Murray’s working group of the time, The Untouchable Factor. Charred Earth (Kharma 1977) is a quartet date with Lancaster, Burrell and Bob Reid, featuring two covers (“Seven Steps to Heaven” by Miles Davis and “Peace” by Horace Silver) along with three Murray originals. Apples Cores (Philly Jazz 1978) features larger lineups various players, some otherwise unknown to me and worthy of more attention: guitarist Monnette Sudler, soprano player Frank Foster, and Youseff Yancy on trumpet and electronics. More well-known players include Don Pullen, Cecil McBee, Fred Hopkins, Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, and Hamiet Bluiett. The standout track for me, though, is the 18+ minute epic “New York Maze,” which features some especially inspired soloing from Bluiett.

Charred Earth also bears fruitful comparison with 1980’s Aigu-Grave, a nominal quintet date with percussionist Pablo Sauvage appearing on two of the five tracks; the rest of the group features French tenor saxophonist Richard Raux, Bobby few and Alan Silva. Its two leading tracks, “Happiness Tears” and “Tree Tops,” are memorable Murray compositions also included on Charred Earth, where they are given freer and perhaps more satisfying treatments. The theme of “Happiness Tears” searches through some minor intervals before resolving in a cheerful major chord. The Charred Earth version is taken and a preferable tempo, which drags a bit on Aigu-Grave especially in the opening statement. “Tree Tops” is a haunting ballad reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Alabama” and I think again benefits more from the tempo choice (this time slower) found on Charred Earth.

Far and away though, my favorite Murray recording from this period–and easily one of my favorite recordings of all time–is Jump Up, his trio recording with Jimmy Lyons and John Lindberg. The group’s billing as the “Jimmy Lyons & Sunny Murray Trio” nominally puts Lindberg, at the time only in his early twenties and thus perhaps not deserving equal billing, is unquestionably an equal presence in the music. The recording captures the trio live at the 1980 Willisau Jazz Festival, and it’s a stunning performance from start to finish.

Lyons periodically stepped away from his twenty years of duty as Cecil Taylor’s sideman to record his own dates as a leader–more often than, say, Sun Ra’s highly regarded and influential tenor man, John Gilmore. But on Jump Up it’s a sheer delight to hear Lyons front and center making every bit of every moment. Charlie Parker’s influence on Lyons’ playing has always been instantly recognizable, and here the title track’s primary melodic figure is the classic bebop octave drop. But completely unique is the character Lyons imparts upon the Parker influence. In fact, I can’t think of a single saxophone stylist more focused than Lyons: not just in his tone, phrasing and attack, but in the horn’s register. He consistently avoids the alto’s lower registers and focuses his surgical precision exclusively on the middle-high range of the horn, preening and grooming his brood of lines like a mother bird. That consistency and patience makes those rare moments here, and even rarer on his recordings with Taylor, when his tone erupts into the squawking extremes, all the more ecstatic. Lindberg and Murray both give peak performances on Jump Up as well, making you wish they had worked together more regularly. At this early stage in his career, Lindberg could work all the implications of a melodic line and run the full range of arco playing, soaring up into the extremes and then bottoming out on an opening bowed string in perfect complement with Murray’s snare and cymbal flourishes.

There’s so much more that needs to be said and discovered about James Marcellus Arthur Murray, which leads me back to Hank Shteamer’s other choice phrasing that I didn’t explore earlier, namely his resistance to “portray[ing Murray] as some inscrutable savant.” I get Shteamer’s point, but I think an emphasis on the positive connotations of that phrase can go far to mitigate our hesitation. “Humanity’s life depends on the unknown,” Sun Ra stated in the documentary A Joyful Noise. Our outliers, prophets and apostates, however much they stood apart from our space and time, by accident or chance and through their sheer humanity, remained and remain a part of us. We have to learn from the examples given us by our “unknowable knowers,” now more than ever.

–Tom Orange

[updated 12 December 2017]




AMN Reviews: Revisiting Anthony Braxton’s Early Solo Saxophone Work

I stopped accumulating downloaded music sometime in the late 2000s when, scrolling through the contents of my nearly-full 1 terabyte external hard drive, I spotted the 6-CD historical retrospective of Polish jazz that I hadn’t listened to in the five years since I had downloaded it. Indeed I still had it, but did I need it, still if ever? Abundance creates whole new levels of compulsion, under which desire can continue unchecked despite aural and mental satiety.

Anthony Braxton enthusiasts understood this dynamic several decades in advance of the digital music era. Even then, most of us necessarily learned to draw the line somewhere: while you’d always find noteworthy exceptions, you tended to focus on a particular period of Braxton’s work, or a group with specific backing musicians, or a kind of instrumental ensemble, or even a record label. Often these would be determined in part by your first exposure to Braxton’s music. While I suspect the first recording I ever heard was the copy of New York, Fall 1974 housed at the college radio station where I first DJ’ed in the middle and late 1980s, the first Braxton recording I owned was the double-LP Alto Saxophone Improvisations 1979 I scored for $4 from the cut-out bin at Wax Stacks in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

So I’ve always been partial to Braxton’s quartet and solo work, and the Tricentric Foundation’s recent announcement of an “official bootleg” 1971 solo recording available for free through this year’s holiday season compelled me to go ahead and add one more downloaded recording to my collection. Since 2011, when they first released Solo (France) 1971 in its “Braxton Bootleg” series, Tricentric has augmented the already voluminous body of Braxton recordings by at least a third. For those keeping score, that’s over one hundred additional recordings in a total discography that currently numbers at 309.

Nevertheless, Solo (France) 1971 is a valuable entry in the Braxton catalog, historically and in its own right. It stands between his two watershed double-LP solo alto saxophone recordings, For Alto (Delmark 1969) and Saxophone Improvisations, Series F (America 1972). For Alto proved to be a groundbreaking moment in the history of recorded jazz and a benchmark for saxophonists to come. It’s a consummate statement not despite but because of its sonic imperfections: while Chuck Nessa achieved some post-production cleanup of the home recordings Braxton made in his Parkway Community Center apartment, For Alto still retains an urgent grittiness and presence as vital as the music itself.

His 1972 follow-up for the America label could be viewed in this context as a studio-quality redo of For Alto if it weren’t for the fact that here Braxton featured newer material, specifically the Composition 26 series of solo works as opposed to the Composition 8 series featured on For Alto. Then in 1975, the Futura label released Braxton’s LP Recital Paris 71, a misnomer in that side 2 was a studio recording of a four-part overdubbed piano piece. Side 1 however featured a 25-minute rendition of the Duke Ellington standard “Come Sunday,” from a performance at the Theatre de l’Epeé des Bois in Paris; soprano saxophone specialist Steve Lacy was also on that bill and thereby awakened to the possibilities of solo performance that he went on to explore at length.

The first two tracks on Solo (France) 1971, and the clear standouts to my ears, were issued in 1998 on the CD News From the 1970s, which accompanied the current issue of the Italian magazine Musica Jazz. A haphazard piece work, News mistitles the two solo alto tracks and separates them in its running order, placing between them a duo with Dave Holland on cello and a quartet date with Kenny Wheeler and a French rhythm section. So if anything, it’s worth having Solo (France) 1971 solely for restoring these two pieces in their full and proper context.

Track one is a nine-minute rendering of a gorgeous ballad, which the Tricentric release calls “Composition 26A” and calls “Composition 26D.” Here I’m inclined to believe restructures, because it’s without question the same tune Braxton gives an all-too brief (2:20) treatment to open the second disc of Saxophone Improvisations, Series F. Played mostly in the alto’s middle-high register, this France 1971 version begins with a quiet near-octave drop and then uses a climbing 4-note arpeggio as a signature motif. Braxton takes two runs through the theme, solos while routinely suggesting and even quoting the theme, and then goes “back to the head” in traditional fashion. In fact it’s perhaps Braxton at his most “singable,” and if the long-mistaken notion of his music as “too cerebral” still exists, this track can put that notion to bed for good.

France 1971’s second track track is without question “Composition 8F,” which Braxton rendered in jaw-droppingly blistering fashion as Track 2 on For Alto. Clocking in just 70 seconds shy of the original rendition, what this version lacks in length and firey intensity it makes up for, as does the whole release, with the overall recording quality, which features nicely balanced roomsound and just a touch of reverb. Comparing the two performances also makes it clear how well-structured the piece is, with Braxton’s shifts in attack, register and tone–from the overblown runs and staccato blasts to the most altissimo squeals–all clearly deliberate and planned in advance.

At the release’s midpoint stands a version of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” which Braxton renders admirably. Then come two more originals: “Composition 8J” is a study in eighth-note patterns, showing Braxton working through a variety of scales and chords, with more than enough melody to avoid charges of being a mere formalistic exercise. This piece also made it to the Series F release, and again in live performance Braxton extends the treatment by a full minute-and-a-half, working through slightly different scales from the onset but still making the composition recognizable.

Closing out the set is “Composition 26G,” which explores multiphonics, or the production of multiple notes simultaneously. In this rendition, Braxton works mostly from the stratosphere down, lingering in extreme altissimos while picking up lower notes along the way. At the three-minute mark, Braxton hums at pitches below his playing to enhance his harmonic and tonal production. In hindsight one can see this piece as a textbook example of techniques Steve Lacy and Evan Parker would soon be using to great effect, Lacy in his various “Duck” pieces and Parker in his Chronoscope recordings en route to forming his mature solo style.

The total running time of Solo (France) 1971 stands at a little over half an hour, which seems short of a full live performance and begs the question if the tapes ran out or haven’t fully surfaced. In fact, their origin adds to yet another lingering confusion: Tricentric’s release notes indicate that the recording “comes from a reel to reel tape in Mr. Braxton’s possession in a box labeled ‘Ghent’” and that “research by Hugo DeCreen suggests that this is indeed a solo concert from France 1971, and that the Ghent solo concert was in 1973.” Regardless, the downloaded tracks from Tricentric bear the words “Solo (Ghent) 1969 to 1971” in both the album folder and the individual tracks’ album title fields.

Until the details get sorted out, it’s perhaps best to put aside the discography nerd in you–and just enjoy the music.

–Tom Orange

AMN Reviews: ECM’s Early Avant-Garde Recordings

Last week’s launching of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records back catalog on a variety of digital music streaming platforms (including Apple Music, Amazon and Spotify) has generated some well-deserved attention. “Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP,” the label declared in a press release, “the first priority is that the music should be heard.” Listing several forms of online music piracy, the label argued, “It was important to make the catalog accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.” In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them on your own terms.

In its nearly fifty years of operation, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) has managed several remarkable achievements like few if any other independent labels. First, it attained a degree of commercial success, through recordings like Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Officium, that in turn enabled risks on less accessible projects. Second, and understandable for a producer like Eicher who cut his teeth as a recording assistant for the iconic Deutsche Grammophon label, ECM engendered a crossover between the genres of broadly improvised and composed music that succeeded in ways Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” approach could have only imagined. Third, it forged its unique aesthetic and approach to artist selection and recording methods that together yielded a characteristic “ECM sound” definitional in many ways to both an historical period and an ongoing style of music.

It’s also crucially important to recall how dire the straits were for jazz in the 1970s when ECM embarked upon these achievements–jazz in general, but avant-garde jazz particularly. Blue Note made a few mid-1960s ventures into the avant garde, like Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, but otherwise hewed closely to a hard-bop tradition central to the Ken Burns view of jazz history. With the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Impulse label struggled with flagging sales and failed efforts in quadrophonic LP releases. Most of the avant garde survived either in a DIY mode of performance and recording or else took to academia.

Thus in the early 1970s, while the trademark ECM sound and graphic design style were still emerging and shaping themselves, the label served as a significant forum for some of the most important avant-garde artists of the moment and beyond. So here are my selections of seven noteworthy ECM releases from the label’s first three years (only two of which also appears in the list of “21 essential albums” put together by the New York Times), including some undisputed classics as well as some overlooked or even forgotten recordings that deserve attention.

Marion Brown, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM 1004, 1970)

Brown is arguably the most criminally neglected saxophonist of his generation. Like his predecessor Ornette Coleman, Brown’s approach to the alto sax was both firey and lyrical, with a tone and harmonic sense steeped in the southern blues. An alumnus of Coltrane’s Ascension session, Brown went on to record and release leader dates with Impulse and ESP-Disk, then emigrated to Europe like so many of his compatriots in the late 1960s, returned to the States, reentered academia and ultimately took up painting. His back catalog of over 30 recordings as a leader or co-leader remains almost entirely out-of-print, many of which never even made it to CD.

Afternoon is not only unique in Brown’s catalog but is perhaps unique among the entirety of jazz recordings. I was certainly among those somewhat disappointed upon giving it a first listen years ago, largely because the roster of all-star performers–including Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Andrew Cyrille and Jeanne Lee–never seems to rise to the occasion. Many otherwise unknown names were included among the performers as well, and this was partly the point: Brown’s approach here is to treat large ensemble, broadly-structured collective improvisation as something akin to a regional folk music.

In the album’s liner notes, Brown describes the title piece on side one as “a tone poem [that] depicts nature and the environment in Atlanta,” and thus its nod to Claude Debussy should not go unnoticed. “Djinji’s Corner” on side two, as David Grundy explains in his thoughtful commentary, “adapts a practice from Ghanaian music, in which a core of skilled musicians is supplemented by community members with lesser ability.” The overall effect is, again, quite unique in the literature of recorded “experimental jazz,” as Grundy explains:

Brown’s music is very much preoccupied with feelings, and moods–all those subjective qualities which at once account for music’s sensual and unique power, and risk reducing it to something ephemeral and purely subjective–but it is preoccupied with these in a thoughtful way, as part of a theoretical, intellectual consideration that encompasses the social and the spiritual in a fairly direct manner.

Music Improvisation Company, ST (ECM 1005, 1970)

This group remains a real watershed in the history of British experimental improvised music. In July 1969, as Ben Watson explains in his book Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey was joined by Hugh Davies, Evan Parker, and Jamie Muir for a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, under the group name “The London Instrumental and Electronic Improvising Group.” (The performance was eventually released in 1975 on Incus Records run jointly by Bailey, Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley).

A year later, after a second (June 1970) BBC 3 radio session, the four were joined by vocalist Christine Jeffery to record for ECM (late August 1970), and the results remain today as a singular entry in the ECM catalog. While Bailey and Parker had cut their teeth in London’s 1960s improvised music scene, Davies and Muir had backgrounds in the visual arts, bringing together a unique collective sensibility. Bailey’s mature instrumental style and approach, focusing on what might be thought of as a rejection of nearly all traditional or conventional means of sound production on the guitar, were already formed by this point. Meanwhile Parker took a parallel approach to saxophones, deploying an arsenal of extended techniques that, as the 1970s progressed, he would selectively hone and augment to forge his highly original and celebrated style.

One crucial technique Parker had yet to develop at this point, however, was circular breathing, which he has since attributed to his time with MIC and the need he felt to compliment the sustained sounds Davies was producing in these group sessions. An electro-acoustic instrument builder, Davies played organ on the first BBC session but abandoned it for the ECM date to focus on electronics and live sound processing. Completing the mix for this session were percussion from Jamie Muir, who went on to a brief live performing stint with King Crimson (during the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic years), and Christine Jeffery, whose incredibly expressive range of vocals blends seamlessly with the other sounds generated in the group.

Part of what’s enjoyable about this kind of music are the moments where it’s unclear who or what is making a given sound. This is especially difficult to do with vocals, and Jeffery deserves special praise in this regard. There are, to be sure, extended moments of the quiet or near-silence characteristic of the later ECM sound, but again Ben Watson aptly summarizes why this is such an engaging recording and unique in the ECM catalog: “Everything the Music Improvisation Company play refuses the ‘gorgeousness’ offered by electronics–echo, automatic harmony, constant shimmer–instead foregrounding manual intervention, human decisiveness, collective activity, repartee.”

It’s also well worth noting that while the group was short-lived, it does mark the beginning of the evolving cast of players Bailey would go on to host for live performances and subsequent Incus releases under the abbreviated moniker “Company,” yielding 18 recordings from 1977 to 2001.

Jan Garbarek Quartet, Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1007, 1970)

Before he came to typify the “icy,” “ethereal,” or even “Nordic” ECM sound, Garbarek was a firey player whose solos often went into the tonal extremes of precursors like Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri. At the age of 20, Garbarek cut Til Vigdis, his debut record for the Norwegian Jazzforbund label, which featured a side-long cover of “Mr. J. C.,” a perhaps deliberate misreading of Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P. C.” Live recordings from that time also display Garbarek’s group covering the Pharoah Sanders compositions “Upper Egypt” and “Capricorn Rising.”

Recorded a year after but appearing a year before the George Russell Presents The Esoteric Circle session was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, Afric Pepperbird is thus the quasi-official debut of the Garbarek Quartet–with Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arlid Andersen on bass and Jon Christiensen on drums. It’s certainly a lineup that would become a Scandinavian super-group in relatively short order, featuring what would also soon become permanent members of the ECM artist family.

Stylistically though, while Garbarek would exhibit some extreme playing in his early days, he couldn’t be mistaken for a card-carrying “extremist.” Pepperbird’s A-side concluding centerpiece, “Beast of Kommodo,” is a perfect example of late-1960s, modal free improvisation, with Andersen’s 9-count bass line and Rypdal’s two-chord vamping setting the harmonic palette. Garbarek enters with some gentle, long tones in the upper-middle register of the tenor; in the tune’s first three minutes he only breaks into altissimos and polyphonics briefly, and much of the rest of his soloing is reasonably with the tune’s harmonic parameters.

Pepperbird is well worth the listen, alone and in the context of his other early ECM releases under solo or joint leadership: Sart, Triptykon, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere.

Robin Kenyatta, Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008, 1970)

Early in his career, alto saxophonist and flautist Kenyatta earned some important credits in his avant-garde pedigree, including recording sessions with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Alan Silva. He then flirted, like many of his peers, with more mainstream recordings in the 1970s, including a series of leader dates for Atlantic Records.

Girl From Martinique is Kenyatta’s one and only ECM release, a quartet session that includes the little-known Fred Braceful on drums (a friend of Eicher who, according to Evan Parker, facilitated the Music Improvisation Company session discussed above), Arlid Andersen again on bass, and German fusion keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner, who contributes some extensive workouts on the clavinet. Built by the German Hohner company (also famous for harmonicas), the clavinet was an electrified clavichord that Sun Ra pioneered early on. On a medium-tempo ballad like “We’ll Be So Happy,” for example, the interplay of flute and clavinet within a traditional quartet format is delightful and, to my ears, completely unique.

Circle, Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19, 1972)

Circle was not merely an avant-garde supergroup, but it also marks the return of Anthony Braxton to the world of performing and recording, without which he might have well continued that short period, after his time in Paris and upon his return to New York in early 1970, when he had given up on music and made his living hustling games of chess in Washington Square Park.

Although Braxton was a late addition to an already existing trio–Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on percussion, documented on an ECM recording from 1971–it’s useful to consider this group in the long history of Braxton’s quartets, in which he performed and recorded some of his most important work. One would have to begin charting this history with his two recordings for BYG/Actuel, which featured Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall–and only imagine what that quartet would have achieved had it been able to continue.

Still, this was clearly a group effort, with songwriting credits distributed fairly evenly (or tipped slightly in Holland’s favor), along with the inclusion of two standards: Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and the venerable “There is No Greater Love,” which co-author Isham Jones turned over to Woody Herman in 1936 and was covered as recently as 2003 by Amy Winehouse. And while arguably more experimental Circle ventures exist on other recordings, particularly on the two double-LPs Blue Note released a few years later under Corea’s name, Paris Concert remains the group’s definitive document before artistic differences (Corea found a more conventionally expressive group in Return to Forever) contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Paul Bley, Open, To Love (ECM 1023, 1973)

Not simply one of Bley’s best recordings in an extensive catalog of over 100 recordings as a leader (and another 100 as a sideman or co-leader), Open, To Love is perhaps one of the greatest solo piano recordings in any genre. It’s also worth nothing that by this time Bley had already released several recordings featuring his work on synthesizer. Nevertheless, Bley was always unique among his avant-garde piano contemporaries. Having come through the school of hard bop, he never embraced the pyrotechnics, virtuosity or athleticism that could aptly describe pianists as different as Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Instead he worked a lot with sustain, tone and touch, allowing melodic lines and even single notes to hang in the air and overlap each other, and thus making him a quintessential ECM artist. In this regard his nearest ancestor in the jazz tradition might be Thelonious Monk, with whom he also shares an interest in dissonant intervals while otherwise having a rather different approach to melody.

In an equally characteristic approach to song selection and repertoire, Bley here includes only two of his own pieces: of the remaining five compositions, three are by his ex-wife Carla Bley, and two are by his soon-to-be ex-wife Annette Peacock. Hardly unique among his recordings in this regard, and to give just one example, he performed Carla Bley’s hauntingly beautiful “Ida Lupino” on no less than ten different recordings between 1964 and 1995. One might see this as an obsessive inability to let go of the past, but I prefer to take it as a sign of acknowledgement and generosity: these are wonderful compositions that deserve every airing they can get.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference Of The Birds (ECM 1027, 1973)

Not routinely considered an avant-gardist, Holland of course has the virtuosity to excel in any musical context. Yet his one-off quartet project can be viewed through two different lenses: as a revamped Circle, with Sam Rivers replacing Chick Corea in the original lineup; or as a Sam Rivers Trio augmented by the inclusion of Anthony Braxton.

This latter view has more staying power: at the start of the 1970s, with his Blue Note recordings and some extensive touring with Cecil Taylor behind him, Rivers began to use the trio format as one of his preferred vehicles. Rivers initially worked through a variety of rhythm sections, until this recording brought Holland and Altschul firmly into the orbit to form his regular working trio by 1974. So memorable was this trio that Pi Recordings released a live two-disc 2007 reunion concert in 2012.

The opening moments of the lead track, “Four Winds,” make it obvious why Rivers stayed with this rhythm section: Holland and Altschul swing like mad, and especially at a blistering tempo. Like Braxton’s “Composition 23B” that opens his New York, Fall 1974 album, the free-bop of “Four Winds” shows how, contrary to its reputation for being too cerebral and serious, avant-garde music can be full of exuberance, delight and just plain fun. Rock critic Robert Christgau even wrote at the time, “the title cut is so exquisite it makes my diaphragm tingle.”

Conference is also noteworthy as the only recorded collaboration between Rivers and Braxton. With ample aesthetic affinities between them despite their clear differences in tone and style, one can only wonder at what could have resulted from further collaborations. Alas, we only have this brief slab or magic, particularly on the title track where, after an opening solo from Holland, Rivers and Braxton both state the theme on flute (an axe Braxton kept in his arsenal far less frequently than Rivers), with Braxton quickly moving to soprano saxophone and Altschul finishing the track on marimba.

— Tom Orange