A Consideration of Mercurial Balm and On the Dance Floor
By Brian Arsenault
What, then, to make of these envelopes of ECM released CDs which keep appearing in my mailbox?
Oh, the envelopes are plain enough. Unadorned brown wrappers as if the contents might be Viagra from India or girly magazines shipped discreetly from 1960. Instead, CDs cluster inside from bands with unlikely names such as Food and album titles as curious as Resume and Ronin.
Jazz for the most part, I guess. Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava performs On the Dance Floor with the PM Jazz Lab after all. But I often struggle to wrap my American rock ’n roll, bluesy head around ECM fare much more than what I’ve grown up with as American Jazz. The difference seems as great as that between a Hemingway novel and any of Dostoevsky’s works.
It’s true that I named Nik Bartsch’s Ronin one of my favorite albums of 2012 but that was because I found it so mesmerizing, not because I hummed along or tapped my foot. The sound poetry of the album seemed accessible if abstract, mysterious yet somehow familiar.
There seems to be such seriousness of purpose in these ECM recordings. So serious in fact that, as with the novels of Thomas Mann, I wonder if we aren’t dealing with art that is a little cold and remote, however accomplished. The sounds produced by, say, Food, an ever changing group of musicians centered by saxophonist Iain Bellamy and drummer Thomas Stronen.
I want to yell, “Hey, I’ll take my music a little muddier as in earthier, thanks.” Less cerebral. It’s no sin to dance and feel good. Well, maybe if you’re a Baptist . . . And how about some laughter or at least a little lightness of spirit.
Still, there’ll be an achingly beautiful sax riff or a trumpet burst as glorious as a soaring cathedral in Food‘s Mercurial Balm. Not for long, though. Here come the electronics that on the surface don’t much appeal to a dinosaur listener like me. Yet those electronic percussion sounds will emerge from a seeming cacophony to a surprisingly melodic passage.
Is this where jazz is going? Or music itself? Have we explored all the passages of conventional instruments, harmony, even symphonics? Must we now move on to instruments I can’t pronounce, or to absolutely new uses of commonplace instruments like the slide guitar. Listen to Prakash Sontakke’s steel guitar taken to Mars on the title tune of Mercurial Balm, for example.
Are they reaching for “the twinkling of the stars” or making a music of the beeps and boops and other quickly becoming familiar sounds of the computer age? Or are those two things the same? I’m not sure.
Then along comes “On the Dance Floor” and I go “Here’s something that will connect” because it’s Rava’s interpretation of the music of Michael Jackson. Now I’ve never been a huge Jackson fan (Rava admits he wasn’t either for a long time) but you can’t be alive in America and not have heard a lot of Jackson music over three or four decades. At least I’ll recognize most of it.
Surprise. No, I can’t figure out what Rava is doing with “Thriller,” can’t even hear it at times. But Rava can produce these wonderful round trumpet notes and the playing of the whole band is often beautiful. Wait, was that a tuba solo just there? No, no tuba in the band.
And is the gap between European classicism and American pop just too great? Again, I’m not sure.
With ECM recordings, I feel at times I’ve become a vanquished listener. Europeans are supposed to be more sophisticated than us Americans, right? And maybe so. There’s a kind of German technical perfection at its best in the quality of ECM recordings. That’s no small thing if you’ve ever driven their cars.
There’s something important going on at ECM. I’m just not always getting it. But it’s worth the effort. For now, though, I think I’ll go listen to Jimi do Bob Dylan. That’s a view from the watchtower that I do get, even though it couldn‘t have been imagined until Jimi just did it.
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