Jazz Collecting: Artists & Labels

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

After suffering the impacts of the pandemic, namely unemployment and quarantine, I, like many others, have afforded myself some time. And time is definitely something one can use more of when collecting jazz. So, with this extra time at home I’ve been able to take stock of my personal collection. To be fair, it’s not one of those vast collections where you need a separate listening room or zip code to appreciate. It’s relatively modest but stocked with artists and labels that I believe merit repeated listening.

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Like many other collectors, my entrée into Hard Bop was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on Blue Note Records. My first jazz album purchase was “At the Cafe Bohemia – Volume One”. I have to confess, not knowing much about the genre at the time and being a designer, I chose it simply for its typographic cover—a decision I never regretted. Thank you, John Hermansader.

As for the actual recordings, I’m one of those collectors who, for the most part, sticks to certain labels for the bulk of his collection. ECM and Blue Note Records are great examples of this approach. Rule of thumb, if you find one or two artists you really enjoy on one label there’s a good chance you’ll find more—appreciation through chance discovery. Although with certain artists, Bill Evans for example, labels matter less. If you follow an artist throughout his or her career you’ll find that oftentimes they skip around—usually pursuing the best contract or more creative freedom.

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A true visionary in every sense of the word, Miles Davis trailblazed the far reaches of jazz. His second great quintet, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, represents the quintessential modern jazz group in my book—conceptual, explorative and intelligent.

As with Bill Evans, you’ll find a fanbase that rallies around a particular period in the recording career of an artist. Take the distinguished career of Miles Davis, there are diehard fans of Miles’ first great quintet and their associated record label, Prestige. Others may gravitate toward Miles’ second great quintet on Columbia Records or his later electric outings on the same label. John Coltrane is another artist who produced many divided camps. He had a successful early solo career on Prestige and Blue Note, then moved to Atlantic with his first great quartet in the early-60s, and then Impulse! Records in the mid-60s which found him exploring more avant-garde avenues with personnel that would prove to be in flux.

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The often imitated Bill Evans has made his way back into my collection for over twenty years. One can easily hear echoes of Evans in the works of many contemporary artists. His years on the Riverside label with his first trio are still one of my favorite periods of his—romantic, subtle and introspective. If you’re not already familiar with Evans, try spinning a couple of his critically-acclaimed albums, “Portrait in Jazz” (1960) and “Sunday at the Village Vanguard” (1961).

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity. Bill Evans, one of my perennial favorites, definitely falls into the multi-period, multi-label category. His first trio on the Riverside label, featuring Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums, defined the gold standard for jazz trios. A deft and cohesive unit famous for anticipating each others’ actions. After the untimely death of bassist, Scott LaFaro (one of my personal jazz heroes), Bill Evans began to move around with solo and trio stints on Verve, Blue Note, Fantasy and Warner. There are hardcore first trio fans who only swear by the early Riverside recordings as a measure of Bill Evans’ improvisational genius. As for myself, I can appreciate all his outings, be it solo, trio or third stream. If you find an artist who really hits a chord you’ll follow him or her anywhere.

If you’re a completist, like myself, you’ll collect from every recording period of a favorite artist—oftentimes picking and choosing particular albums based on year recorded, personnel or audio fidelity.

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Keith Jarrett, a virtuoso pianist with an uncanny ability to improvise lengthy solo concerts, gained his global following on the ECM label. Although he led groundbreaking groups, including his long-lived trio, he became best known for his solo output. His massive “Sun Bear Concerts” 1978 box set, showcasing over six-and-a-half hours of very personal music, is an achievement hard to be matched by any performing artist, past or present.

By following an artist from one label to another one can also experience the creative growth an artist achieves. Some Coltrane fans lament his move to Impulse! Records as it would eventually showcase his interest in spiritualism and the avant-garde which, regrettably, shed some of his followers who were only interested in his modal music. Another artist who would truly come into his own because of his association with a particular label is Keith Jarrett. His early career as sideman to jazz masters Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis on various labels would eventually jettison him to a famed solo career starting at Atlantic Records in the late-60s. But it wasn’t till his move to ECM in 1971, for an astonishing 49-year partnership, where he would flourish and rise to international fame with unprecedented live solo recordings such as Solo Concerts: Bremen and Lausanne (1973), The Köln Concert (1975), The Sun Bear Concerts (1976/78), and Concerts: Bregenz/München (1982).

So, be it artist-centric or label-centric, starting and maintaining a jazz collection will always prove fruitful, especially if the listener devotes time to enjoy the fruits.

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The ECM Sound

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

The sounds contained in certain ECM recordings are evocative of the stark, oftentimes abstract, artwork that grace their covers. At the core there is a consistent sound that binds most vintage ECM recordings. It’s one of reflection and meditation rooted in a northern European melancholy. Major players, Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber and John Surman are the keepers of that flame. For decades these jazz veterans have established and exercised the ECM sound. They’ve managed to create a musical brand unique to their own personal pursuits all the while unifying a label’s output.

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Solstice, 1975, allows one to delve deep into the Northern European aesthetic of the ECM sound.

With a multitude of introspective compositions in both solo and group settings, Towner cements himself as a pillar of the ECM sound.

Stepping out of his longtime association with the genre-bending group, Oregon, guitarist Ralph Towner began his long-time association with ECM in 1973. Along with his technical prowess Towner brought with him an established artistic direction and personal sound which meshed naturally with his new label mates. Towner outputted several solo albums which showcase his virtuosity on classical guitar as well as his uncanny talent for writing. With a multitude of introspective compositions in both solo and group settings, Towner cements himself as a pillar of the ECM sound. Some standout sessions are 1978’s Batik with legendary bassist Eddie Gomez, 1979’s Solo Concert with its excellent covers of John Abercrombie’s Timeless and the Bill Evans-associated “Nardis”, 1989’s City of Eyes and 1995’s Lost and Found. Towner continues his visionary association with the label to this day.

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Later That Evening, 1982, is one of many excellent outings by Weber in the lates-70s and early-80s.

German bassist, Eberhard Weber, brings a wholly-unique approach to the label. Weber’s background in mainstream jazz changed dramatically with his appearance on ECM in 1973 with his classic recording, The Colours of Chloe. Weber is a true virtuoso in every sense of the word, pushing the envelope on his own instrument and venturing into new sonic territory. He took initiative to re-construct his own instrument to suit his personal playing style, adding one then two strings to his double bass. The resulting effect is near magical — long, fluid lines seemed to dance off the fingerboard giving them a life of their own. His standout recordings usually include his working group Colours. 1975’s excellent Yellow Fields catches the bassist with feet in both reflective and faster-paced settings. On 1976’s The Following Morning Weber’s bass proves to be a subtle beacon in the gray mist that is the 10-minute “T. On A White Horse”. His playing here is indicative of what he brought to the label — a floating, elevated and cerebral sound that relies as much on space as it does technical virtuosity.

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Private City, 1987, situates itself in a timeless state—a place that Surman comfortably inhabits.

Last, but certainly not least, is English clarinetist John Surman. Having had experience outside the jazz mainstream before joining the label in 1979, Surman brings a sense of restless exploration. His recordings define the ECM sound in yet another light — one of experimentation and wanderlust. Surman’s playing is akin to that of a medieval minstrel, with storytelling at its core. Armed with soprano, baritone and bass clarinets Surman makes use of overdubs and synthesizers to round out most of his solo efforts. Although he also shines in group settings its his one-man shows that showcase his unique compositional style and depth of playing. Titles such as 1979’s Upon Reflection, 1984’s Withholding Pattern and 1996’s A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe expose his inventive soloing and tasteful use of electronics. Surman’s style lends itself to other genres as well, having ventured into classical territory. Works by Elizabethan lutist John Dowland are among some of his more popular achievements on ECM, offering proof of his flexibility and range as an elite instrumentalist.

Surman’s playing is akin to that of a medieval minstrel, with storytelling at its core.

One may find the only obstacle in truly appreciating the recordings by these modern masters is a lack of time. Time to focus on nuances, time for introspection and time for further investigation.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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