For much of its 40-plus-year history, the electric-guitar avenues of the European label ECM have been occupied and industriously tended to by John Abercrombie and Terje Rypdal.
Abercrombie is a native New Yorker who has weaved his music in and out of jazz tradition while borrowing from — and reshaping — the atmospheric colors that have come to define "the ECM sound."
Norwegian Rypdal expresses his electric playing in chamber-like compositions, more rockish and abstract impulses and richly textured guitar sounds that define the openly Nordic qualities of the music put out by ECM.
What we are presented with this summer are a pair of recordings by both that essentially bookend the entire ECM history, thus marking its extraordinary evolution. Abercrombie's new album, Within a Song, shakes up his quartet lineup by enlisting a modern jazz giant. Rypdal's three-disc album Odyssey: In Studio and in Concert, the latest entry in ECM's "Old and New Masters" series, restores Rypdal's complete 1975 album Odyssey (previously available only in a hard-to-find import edition that omitted nearly 24 minutes of music) while adding a wonderful, previously unreleased radio concert from 1976.
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Within a Song alters Abercrombie's quartet makeup by replacing violinist Mark Feldman with tenor sax great Joe Lovano (also new is bassist Drew Gress). Together with drum holdover Joey Baron, the new foursome offers an evocative and often hushed sound. From the moment the album kicks in with Where Are You, the combination of Abercrombie's light but immensely expressive guitar tone and the deep, wispy sway of Lovano's sax moan recall the great latter-day trio recordings of another ECM great, Paul Motian (a trio that, perhaps not coincidentally, included Lovano).
The highlight is a respectful take on the Miles Davis Kind of Blue classic Flamenco Sketches that prefaces the tune's bluesy melody with a touch of flamenco. The resulting mix then blurs the edges, letting the two styles and two jazz eras bleed into one another.
In contrast, the new, unedited Odyssey is a monster. The opening Darkness Falls lets Rypdal's guitar work flood in, as if from a hilltop. You can almost see it approach. The rest of the album shifts between layers of pastoral cool and massive, jagged expression. The piece de resistance, though, is Rolling Stone — the lengthy piece omitted from previous CD editions of Odyssey. Its construction is essentially transparent. The listener can discover guitar lines that recall John McLaughlin's electric work with the Mahavishnu Orchestra (but taken at a slower, more purposeful pace) woven one atop the other. Colored by Brynjulf Blix's orchestrations on organ, the resulting music waxes and wanes with an epic, enchanting sweep. The music sounds as rapturous as when Rypdal first designed it 37 years ago.