Where One Man's Vision Has Prevailed for Three Decades

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Record companies specializing in jazz have come and gone for nearly a century. Some have simply established random release programs, issuing the best, the most available or the most commercial music they can find. Others have functioned as divisions of majors, occasionally producing important series of recordings--Columbia in the 1950s and '60s comes to mind.

Only a few companies, however, have established a significant, identifiable sound, one that is often directly reflective of a specific musical point of view. In the '50s and '60s, Blue Note, under the direction of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, was an obvious example. But so too was the Candid label, for its brief period of existence in the early '60s, when it was guided by critic Nat Hentoff.

And there are numerous others. To name only a few: Bob Koester's remarkable blending of traditional music, blues and avant-garde at Chicago-based Delmark; Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen's effect on smooth contemporary jazz at GRP; Verve's reflection of the musical tastes of Norman Granz; the bebop chronicling of Savoy and Prestige; and the West Coast jazz displayed on Contemporary and Pacific Jazz.

ECM Records has also been a unique force in its 31 years of existence. Founded in Germany by Manfred Eicher, the company has managed to produce recordings that despite their utterly individual qualities, have remarkably constant attributes. The sound is always excellent, the packaging is always high quality, and the music--whether from Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Jan Garbarek, Ralph Townsend or Chick Corea--is directly expressive of the creative wishes of the performers. ECM has gone through various phases over the course of releasing more than 700 albums, including an extensive catalog of classical music. But in all cases, Eicher's insistence upon technical quality and creative freedom has prevailed.

Three new ECM jazz releases are good examples:

* * * 1/2 Dave Holland, "Not for Nothin.' " This is the third CD from the quintet (sometimes identified as Prime Directive) that the bassist has led since 1997 as a performing and recording ensemble. The English-born Holland's resume includes gigs with Miles Davis (most notably on the "Bitches Brew" sessions), with Corea (in the group Circle), and with a line of major contemporary jazz artists encompassing Paul Bley, John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette, Steve Coleman, Herbie Hancock and Metheny.

Far from being a super sideman, however, Holland has--since the '80s--led a number of intriguing groups, ranging from small units to big bands. But it is with this quintet, with its unusual instrumentation of saxophones (Chris Potter), trombone (Robin Eubanks), vibraphone (Steve Nelson), drums (Billy Kilson) and bass, that he has produced some of his most insistently provocative recordings.

"Not for Nothin' " breaks no particular new ground. Once again, the focus in the nine selections (five by Holland, one each by the other members) is the alternation among wide-open individual improvisation, the textural contrasts offered by varying instrumental combinations, and recurring explorations of rhythm. The magic is in what Holland and his players do with this relatively familiar format, with Potter, in particular, delivering brilliantly.

Holland speaks of "collective communion" when he describes this group--the pleasure of creating "something bigger than yourself." He has to be happy with the results he and his talented companions have achieved in this entertaining outing.

* * * 1/2 Charles Lloyd, "Hyperion With Higgins." The partnership of saxophonist Lloyd and the late drummer Billy Higgins was one of jazz's magical associations. Although the ever-driving rhythmic voltage so characteristic of Higgins' playing might have seemed out of context for Lloyd's floating free style, the two always came together in completely sympathetic fashion. Perhaps because the polarity of their approach to rhythm, they seemed to blend into a cohesive, internally reflective musical team.

The tracks trace to the same 1999 sessions that produced Lloyd's previous release, the superb "The Water Is Wide." Once again, the quintet consists of Lloyd, Higgins, guitarist John Abercrombie, pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier. Again, the quality of playing is extraordinarily high, different only in the selections being a bit livelier in tempo and expression. Highlights include the unusual five-part "Darkness on the Delta," with a solo tribute by Abercrombie to blues legend Robert Johnson, the colorful traces of Brazil in "Dancing Waters" and the warm reference to John Coltrane in "Miss Jessye."

The keystone of the performance, however, is the ineffable connection between Lloyd and Higgins. Even as he approached his final days (he died in May), Higgins still managed to sit in briefly with Lloyd during a tribute concert for the drummer at South-Central's Bones and Blues club. In both cases--this album and that final performance--there was the sort of symbiotic musical connection that happens too rarely. It's fortunate, therefore, that ECM has preserved such a fine example of this wondrously engaging partnership.

* * * Charlie Haden, "Charlie Haden/Egberto Gismonti In Montreal." Haden's versatility never ceases to amaze. Name a musical genre, and the bassist has probably taken a crack at it in one way or another. In 1989, he was honored at the Montreal Jazz Festival via a series of concerts in which he was teamed on successive nights with one demanding musical companion after another--from Bley and Gonzalo Rubalcaba to Geri Allen and his own Liberation Music Orchestra. The Brazilian guitarist/pianist Gismonti was another.

The tracks rove across stylistic boundaries. Some--especially those in which Gismonti concentrates on his eight-string guitar--are atmospheric and trance-like. Other pieces--Haden's "First Song," for example--combine bass and piano into luxuriously harmonic, jazz-tinged settings. And Gismonti's work on a few of his own melodic numbers, including "Pelhaco," cannily combine bebop articulation with sudden bursts of rhapsodic passion.

Is it jazz? Call it an aural expression that eludes definition. But it certainly is music that could only have been made by players who understand the essential qualities of the jazz experience, enhanced by Haden's capacity to move freely without regard for musical boundaries or restrictions. It's part of what makes him one of the jazz world's most compelling artists.

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