LJF 2015: ECM artists

John Watson saw a host of artists associated with ECM, the controversial German imprint once dubbed 'the jazz label for those that don't like jazz'

Any major international jazz festival is likely to feature artists associated with the German independent label ECM, because some of the most creative – and controversial – musicians from the jazz world figure in its catalogue.

The 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival was no exception, and I have already reported on the superb concert given by Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski , whose trio performed at Milton Court with Swedish saxophonist Joakim Milder as a featured guest. Fellow Jazz Journal correspondent Andy Hamilton has also enthused about the performance at The Forge in Camden by improvising group Dans Les Arbres.

On the first weekend of the festival, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch – leader of the group Ronin - brought his new line-up Mobile Extended to Kings Place. I wasn’t able to attend that concert (that’s the nature of festivals, you often wish you could be in about four places at once), but I did catch an engaging taster when the band appeared for just one quite lengthy number during the afternoon in the Clore Ballroom at the Southbank Centre, as part of BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Line-up show.

The lights at a Ronin concert are usually set somewhere between extremely dim and completely dark, and sure enough at the Southbank the lights went down . . . to fairly dim. Other than that, I couldn’t honestly perceive any difference between a Mobile Extended performance and a Ronin performance, especially as both groups include Sha (pictured right) on the mellow bass clarinet and the grunting contra-bass clarinet. It was rhythmically hypnotic, blending minimalist grooves with intermittent tonal shifts.

Bassist Miroslav Vitous, who has made many excellent recordings for ECM as well as being a founding member of Weather Report, was at Milton Court on the Thursday, where he performed with Czech pianist and composer Emil Viklicky. There was a curious programming clash with fellow ECM artist pianist David Virelles, who was at Kings Place at exactly the same time. I was engaged in photographing Maria Schneider and her Orchestra at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall that evening, so I was spared the dilemma of choosing between them.

On the final weekend of the festival, saxophonist Andy Sheppard (pictured left) brought his excellent Surrounded By Sea project to Kings Place, the glowing embers of his soft tenor saxophone sound drifting beautifully over the sweeping landscape of electronic effects produced by Norwegian guitarist Eivind Aarset.

They gave two shows – I caught the first, which ended with a completely unexpected and absolutely delightful encore, the Lennon-McCartney hit And I Love Her. I heard later that the second show of the evening was rather rushed and compressed.

On the final Saturday of the festival, Norwegian bass master Arild Andersen brought his new group to Kings Place for a tribute concert to Charles Mingus. Andersen himself opened the concert with a quite spectacular bass solo, full of drive and passion, but his intensity was not always matched by his band – technically adept, but lacking the wild edge that makes so much of Mingus’s music memorable. This was the Mingus of the tightly-controlled Ah Um recording, rather than more anarchic albums such as Oh Yeah! That said, the Andersen concert was still hugely enjoyable, and their version of Better Git It In Your Soul was immensely powerful.

Albanian singer Elina Duni (pictured right) - with two ECM albums to her credit, the most recent being Dallendyshe – followed the Andersen concert with a performance in Hall Two at Kings Place.

Her vibrant opening song was absolutely riveting, full of the passion and energy which critics of the ECM catalogue so often claim is absent from the company’s recordings. Sadly, I had to leave after that one number, because I had an essential date with the legendary American singer Sheila Jordan in a late night show at Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho.

Few may think of the amazing 87-year-old Sheila Jordan (pictured below) as an ECM artist, but she has certainly recorded for the label, including the acclaimed 1979 disc Playground, with pianist Steve Kuhn and an ECM LP I have in front of me as I write: The George Gruntz Concert Band '83, a treasured recording which features a magnificent line-up including Marcus Belgrave, Tom Harrell, Dave Bargeron, Julian Priester, Howard Johnson, Charlie Mariano, Dino Saluzzi, Mark Egan and Bob Moses. At Pizza Express, Sheila had a very fine UK trio: pianist Brian Kellock, bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Steve Brown.

Sheila and her musicians had an absolute ball, as she played with words, improvising – as she always does – on subjects around the whole room, including her (alleged) nervousness at performing in a club where singers were listening. She also made a point of singing a line that she “was not a diva” . . . could that have been a dig at the antics of Cassandra Wilson, who had turned up 90 minutes late for her Royal Festival Hall show? Surely not.

On the final night of the festival a German pianist with several excellent ECM discs to her credit, Julia Hülsmann, was heard with her quartet and singer Theo Bleckmann at Milton Court, performing mainly repertoire associated with composer Kurt Weill. Hulsmann’s recent CD A Clear Midnight has rightly won critical acclaim for her treatment of the composer’s repertoire, but I found UK trumpeter Tom Arthurs’ articulate soloing at this concert to be the most engaging element of the performance. A slightly subdued way to end the 2015 festival, perhaps, but beautifully performed.

And finally to the one who always gets away from photographers like myself: Keith Jarrett. ECM’s most famous artist was at the Royal Festival Hall on the final Friday of the festival, though if you relied on the festival’s printed programme (which failed to list the concert) you wouldn’t have known it. It was an early sell-out, but doesn’t Serious (the festival promoter) think about fans seeking returns?

I was otherwise musically engaged that night, but I heard later that Jarrett’s solo pieces were short, immaculately played, and not particularly inspired. Thankfully, his finest albums overflow with inspiration.

Photos by John Watson

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