David Sylvian and ECM

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

David Sylvian, former frontman for the highly influential post-punk band Japan (1977-1983), surprisingly held certain jazz artists in high regard. Upon starting his solo career, Sylvian brought with him his unique vocal talents, strong songwriting abilities and his unrelenting interest in experimentation. His new solo direction offered textures and moods strikingly different from those of his former band.

Brilliant Trees, 1984

On his first few albums he tapped the virtuosity of some well-known musicians from the ECM label. Sylvian’s output displayed some similarities to the subdued ECM aesthetic. It was oftentimes quiet, dark and very personal. His tastes in composition and arranging also displayed many similarities to the Munich-based label. Mixed use of acoustic and electronic instruments to create a unique soundscape was standard at ECM. It was Sylvian’s own velvety voice which kept his music instantly recognizable and undeniably his own. His use of brass in some of his early albums helped to establish and reinforce his maturity as a composer and major artist in his own right.

Mixed use of acoustic and electronic instruments to create a unique soundscape was standard at ECM.

In 1984’s Brilliant Trees Sylvian begins the process by adding the distinguished trumpets of Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler to the mix. From the buoyant opener “Pulling Punches” with its slap bass fills, there is a concerted effort to use brass for coloring. The moodier “Ink in the Well” uses trumpet to an even greater effect, allowing a freer interplay with the leader.

On “Weathered Wall” we hear trumpet played with effects. Along with a mix of drums, keyboard, tape and the leader’s vocals this track displays a hallmark — a truly unique sound to Sylvian. Effects-laden trumpet is again heard on the heavy-synth “Backwaters” and the longer title track.

Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities, 1985

By 1985 Sylvian had already changed his colors, reaching for something totally different. His album Alchemy – An Index of Possibilities again employed the trumpet talents of Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler. Comprised of three long tracks we hear Sylvian laying down a clear foundation for Eno-esque atmospherics, something he would return to in later years.

Gone To Earth, 1986

On 1986’s double album Gone to Earth we hear vintage ECM-style musings of Kenny Wheeler on the second track “Laughter and Forgetting”. A trumpet solo on “Wave” is played competently with effects in what has already become a Sylvian staple. Ten of the 17 tracks are dedicated to instrumentals where long compositions take on an ambient air.

Secrets of the Beehive, 1987

1987 produced what is sometimes referred to as Sylvian’s greatest and most personal achievement, Secrets of the Beehive. On this mostly acoustic album we hear the trumpet of Mark Isham. His horn sounds like a rising phoenix on the excellent track “Orpheus”. Although we hear Isham’s solo trumpet only briefly on this album it’s effect is lasting and adds to the well-rounded arrangements supplied by the critically-acclaimed composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. There is a muted appearance by Isham on the lazy “Let the Happiness In”. His trumpet meanders slowly down a path with the leader’s vocals creating a relaxed environment.

Sylvian’s early sound displayed an uncanny similarity to the ECM aesthetic.

Although Kenny Wheeler appears on 1999’s Dead Bees on a Cake, the 80s witnessed most of Sylvian’s arrangements for brass. His most recent albums explore a more minimalistic and clinical approach, quite opposite of his earlier recordings. Sylvian’s early sound displayed an uncanny similarity to the ECM aesthetic. The addition of brass in these pioneering, early-career sessions cement Sylvian’s compositions in this world — one distinctly made by human endeavor.

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