ECM Stars Convene in Bay Area for Label Spotlight at SFJAZZ

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Scott Colley (let), Ambrose Akinmusire, Brian Blade and Wolfgang Muthspiel perform at the Miner Auditorium in San Francisco on Feb. 26 as part of an ECM label spotlight at SFJAZZ.

(Photo: Aaron Bolzle)

SFJAZZ recently presented its second extended weekend of musicians who record for the ECM label. Doubling down on the success of the inaugural ECM event—held in April 2015—this year’s offerings provided two label headliners per night in the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium on Feb. 23–26.

There was a thoughtful dramatic arc to the overall programming: Acoustic guitar guru Ralph Towner, a veteran of the Munich, Germany-based record label, opened ECM Week 2017 with a solo performance. Seven sets later, fellow guitarist Wolfgang Muthspiel closed out with an all-star quintet—the largest instrumentation of the series.

A sub-current of “enduring friendships” ran throughout the four days, with various reunions taking shape on stage. A case in point: Two-thirds of The Bad Plus and all of the Billy Hart Quartet (which also records for ECM) were collectively represented on the bandstand. But there were also a few notable firsts among the many accomplished musicians.

Opening night provided some veteran presence in Towner, whose ECM debut with his band Oregon was released in 1970, a year after the label was founded by Manfred Eicher. Double bassist Gary Peacock, whose trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron replaced an under-the-weather John Abercrombie and his quartet on Feb. 23, put out an eponymous album with the late pianist Paul Bley on the label that same year.

Towner’s personal blend of jazz and classical traditions was an ideal choice to start the ECM celebrations. Seated on a padded piano bench with his left leg elevated by a foot stool, he began with the melancholic lines of “Blue As In Bley,” a tribute to the aforementioned pianist that can be found on Towner’s latest album, My Foolish Heart, a solo acoustic project.

Before performing the title track, Towner mentioned that he and his peers were greatly influenced by pianist Bill Evans’ version with double bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. The song was followed by a lyrical rendition of “I Fall In Love Too Easily” and the unassuming groove of “Anthem,” the title track from his album from 2001.

Though ECM has a unified visual aesthetic—from its packaging to its recorded sound—the stage personalities of its roster were naturally quite varied. While Towner was conversational throughout his 50-minute concert, Peacock didn’t utter a word.

Instead, the music did all the communicating. Opening with a simmering version of João Gilberto’s “Estate,” Peacock’s trio demonstrated its mastery of slow-yet-flowing tempos and subtle interplay. LaFaro’s “Gloria’s Step,” featured on the trio’s 2015 ECM debut, Now This, commenced with a searching unaccompanied introduction by Peacock and showcased empathic brushwork from Baron.

Compositions from two living tenor titans—Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” and Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy” — were also featured during the set, as was an elegant interpretation of “I Loves You Porgy.”

The theme for Feb. 22 was duos, and the lineup featured the pairing of pianist Ethan Iverson (of The Bad Plus) and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner (himself an ECM artist and, along with Iverson, also a member of Hart’s quartet), as well as cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier (both members of the Tarkovsky Quartet).

The following night featured two pianist-led groups. Craig Taborn played at the SFJAZZ Center previously with the likes of guitarist Bill Frisell and double bassist Dave Holland, but he was making his bandleader debut with his quartet featuring tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Dave King (best known as a member of The Bad Plus).

A grand piano was perpendicular to the back of the stage, and what looked like a Farfisa organ and several other keyboards were set up at a 90-degree angle at center stage. The group dove into an extended suite from Taborn’s recent ECM release, Daylight Ghosts, in which one adventurous composition segued into another without remark. With members doubling on instruments (including King playing some electronic percussion) it was if three different groups were performing simultaneously.

Pianist Aaron Parks’ sublime trio was strictly an acoustic affair, with double bassist Ben Street and drummer Billy Hart. This new trio has already recorded an album, Find The Way (scheduled to be released by ECM later this year).

Parks presented some of his sharp originals, including the sublime “Alice,” which is dedicated to Alice Coltrane. The three closed out with the title track to the new album, which Parks said he heard on a Rosemary Clooney album that was arranged by Nelson Riddle.

For the closing set, King returned to lead his own trio with pianist Bill Carrothers and double bassist Billy Peterson — “the Dave King Trio featuring Dave King” he said in his first of several jokes. Unlike what one typically hears with The Bad Plus, this piano trio explored the Great American Songbook with subtle, sometimes abstract versions of songs such as “Like Someone In Love,” “Body & Soul” and Brain Wilson/The Beach Boys’ “Little Surfer Girl.”

King’s playing was somewhat subdued throughout—compared to his trademark animated style—and he was pleased to announce that this date marked Carrothers’ San Francisco debut. He joked that while he’d been trying to schedule his ECM debut for about 10 years, the label “hadn’t been responding to [his] faxes.” All jokes aside, the drummer will reportedly make his label debut as a bandleader later this year with this sublime trio featuring Peterson and Carrothers.

Austrian guitarist Muthspiel debuted a portion of the band featured on his excellent 2016 album, Rising Grace, which featured Oakland resident Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet and Brian Blade on drums. (At this performance, pianist Gwilym Simcock and bassist Scott Colley filled in for Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier, respectively.)

Muthspiel’s electric guitar and Akinmusire’s trumpet provided the emotional force behind the bandleader’s “Den Wheeler, Den Kenny” (dedicated to the late trumpeter and ECM stalwart Kenny Wheeler) and the jaunty “Triad Song.” Coming full circle, the leader switched to acoustic guitar on his own “Intensive Care,” establishing a through-line back to Towner’s Feb. 23 recital and to the ECM legacy as a whole. DB



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August 2019
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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