Already this year, we have seen two elder American jazz labels, Prestige and Blue Note, turn 60 and 70 years old, respectively. In November, the deliciously atmospheric Euro-based ECM turns 40.
The celebration commences with fine new recordings from three of the label's flagship artists: pianist Keith Jarrett, Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and guitar journeyman John Abercrombie.
Jarrett's mammoth three-disc Testament chronicles improvisational solo-piano performances given days apart late last year in Paris and London. Both are full of typically gallant passages. Then, just as the lyricism starts to sound too settled after 23 minutes of the Paris concert, his playing fractures, rumbles and bounds around the Salle Pleyel before briefly coming to a halt. Rapturous applause, of course, ensures.
Personally, 2006's The Carnegie Hall Concert sounds more emotive and complete. And while we're on the subject of the ECM legacy, nothing in the label's solo-piano line stands up to Jarrett's majestic Koln Concert from 1975. But Testament is just that — a beautifully recorded pair of performances that again displays the spontaneous beauty that flows whenever Jarrett sits at the piano with only the sounds in his head to guide him.
The stunner of the bunch is Garbarek's Dresden, another live recording. This one was cut two Octobers ago with a modified version of his long-running quartet. Bassist Eberhard Weber (another veteran ECM recording artist) is gone for health reasons and is replaced here by Brazilian Yuri Daniel. Drummer Manu Katche, who has toured internationally with the likes of Peter Gabriel and Sting, maintains an understandably rockish approach to the performance, which manages to up the urgency level of Garberek's playing without defusing any of its ghostly appeal.
But the true Garbarek foil is keyboardist Rainer Bruninghaus. His tensely orchestrated backdrops are arresting from Dresden's outset as they weave an almost cinematic web around Garbarek's soprano sax squeal on the album-opening Ravi Shankar composition Paper Nut. Similarly, Bruninghaus' piano intro is equally complimentary as it dances around cymbals and, again, the soprano sax, on Twelve Moons. A truly unearthly delight of an album.
Abercrombie's Wait Till You See Her has the guitarist once more working off violinist Mark Feldman on studio sessions marked by studied reserve. Well, most of them are, anyway, including the lusciously quiet title tune and Sad Song. But on Out of Towner, the groove heightens, drummer Joey Baron is unleashed, and the more dynamic fun starts.
Through it all, though, is Abercrombie's remarkable tone — clean, warm but delightfully restless.