Unless it was something new by the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Dave Holland, you could play me an ECM I’ve never heard, and chances are I could guess the label without being able to identify the players. The giveaway would be that reverberating silence between phrases, no doubt meant to signify a catch in the throat. The familiar joke about ECM—all of Manfred Eicher’s records tell a story . . . usually the same one—dates to the early ’70s, when the German label, buoyed by an unlikely vogue for Keith Jarrett’s solo-thons, cornered a massive share of the dwindling U.S. jazz market with album after album whose chill cover landscapes and general air of weighty contemplation were more Rilke and Hesse than Miles and Coltrane.
Eicher wasn’t to blame for new age, but ECM was the slippery slope. The inevitable cool-down after free jazz, black power, and Bitches Brew, ECM was like ’50s West Coast all over again, replete with white guys as the stars and big numbers among Ph.D.’s.
Though ahistorical in the larger drift, West Coast bequeathed lasting pleasures, and so has ECM—not all of them by the AEC or Holland. The latest batch includes two winners—one that epitomizes the virtues of the ECM aesthetic and one that shatters the mold. Over the decades, exciting ECMs have resulted from confrontations between label regulars and avant-garde strays who banded together without coaxing from Eicher: Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition, from 1979, for example, with David Murray, Arthur Blythe, and Olu Dara bringing a jolt of energy from that era’s lofts. Like 2002’s Cat and Mouse, John Abercrombie’s Class Trip teams the guitarist with violinist Mark Feldman and drummer Joey Barron, from John Zorn’s downtown inner circle, and bassist Mark Johnson, an ECM mainstay.
Never really cresting above medium tempo, Abercrombie’s tunes permit Barron to tap dance on his cymbals for a change and Feldman to display a romantic sweep he often keeps under wraps in open-ended settings. The riffy “Swirls,” a ballad for his late parents called “Jack and Betty,” and the title track, an adagio with hints of a march and a waltz, are especially attractive coming one right after another toward the end. Violin and guitar engage in a lot of what sounds like spontaneous interplay, most notably on the perfectly titled “Descending Grace,” and Feldman has a knack for catching Abercrombie’s phrases while they’re still airborne. But Abercrombie is clearly the catalyst. Starting off with Michael Brecker and Billy Cobham in the jazz-rock band Dreams in the late ’60s, a few years before making his ECM debut with a funkless organ trio featuring Jan Hammer, Abercrombie once seemed to be following a career path similar to John McLaughlin’s, minus the swami and the major-label bucks. The guitarist he most resembles now is Jim Hall, not so much in tone or attack as in melodic continuity and irresistible momentum. He fits the profile of many on Eicher’s midlist, mature but still-evolving figures in danger of being taken for granted. Though I might wish for more grit and less gloss in the mix, I’m glad somebody’s recording him regularly.
Along with the French leader’s reeds, the basic instrumentation on Louis Sclavis’s Napoli’s Walls is Maurice Collington’s trumpet, Vincent Courtois’s cello, and Hasse Poulsen’s guitar. But rarely do we hear the four of them all at once. A blow-by-blow risks giving the false impression of pastiche, musical Punch and Judy, or Frank Zappa at his most annoying. “Kennedy in Napoli,” for example, is dedicated to Charles Mingus and sports a larky reference to what sounds more like “Night Train” than anything by Mingus but flies by too fast to say for sure, quickly giving way to (among other things) a speedy pocket trumpet with EFX and a percussive jangle of a guitar solo that lifts Derek Bailey’s weird science. “Divisazionne Moderna,” in two parts, begins stately, with some improvised Monteverdi from bass clarinet and cello. But part two is a gallop underneath an electronically processed nonsense vocal that’s more Kurt Schwitters than scat and is followed in turn by real-time Gallic crooning and a (sampled?) German beer-garden sing-along.
It all works, because a rigorous virtuosity is evident even in the passages that sound discontinuous and slap-happy. The unifying force is the muscular ripple of Sclavis’s four horns (primarily bass clarinet and soprano saxophone), together with his compositional use of samples and manipulated acoustics—the most successful integration of electronics I’ve heard yet on a so-called “jazz” record, neither tediously academic nor dumbed-down for the dancefloor. Napoli’s Walls was occasioned by the photographer Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s installations on the walls of ancient public buildings in Naples. The CD booklet shows us some of these; I’m not the guy to ask for an opinion, or for an explanation of how Sclavis’s pieces correspond to them. What I can tell you is that this music calls up its own jolting imagery, even more so than Sclavis’s score to Charles Vanel’s 1929 silent film Dans la Nuit, which ECM released in 2002. Reviewing a rare New York performance by Sclavis last year, Gary Giddins called his work on bass clarinet “the most consistently impressive since Eric Dolphy’s,” and praised him as “not merely an imitator of American customs.” Despite frequent echoes, Napoli’s Walls doesn’t resemble anything from Europe, either. It’s not like British scratch improvisation, not like Willem Breuker and Han Bennink’s Dutch dada, and—give Eicher credit—nothing at all like ECM.