468
    

Larry GRENADIER – The Gleaners – ECM 2560 – (2/22/19) 42.10: *****:

(Larry Grenadier, bass)

“The Most Beautiful Sound Next To Silence” has been the motto of ECM records, the iconic label of European Jazz which has released more than 1600 recordings in what soon will be half a millenium. We might be able to extract a musical cosmogony from the motto. What was the Urklang, the original tone, which broke the silence that must have begun to get a little heavy. I submit that the bass issued the fundamental tone. The bass acts as the aesthetic Schwerpunkt of the label, opening so many classic ECM recordings, a recapitulation of the original low rumble that arises like a benevolent thunder and holds within it the promise of rhythm, timbre, resonance and finally the human voice and its simulacra, the horns and reeds.

Some reader might be surprised to learn that Manfred Eicher was a bassist. He certainly champions the instrument and enlarges its expressive dimension in a variety of ways. It is no surprise then that many of the greatest bassists of our generation are long-time ECM recording artists. I think of Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, Gary Peacock, Eberhard Weber, Jaco Pastorius, and Arild Andersson. Under Manfred Eicher’s direction, these musicians became band leaders, and the bass moved from accompanying instrument to organizing principle. Within the most popular instrumental ensemble, the piano trio, the bass was no longer subservient to the piano but stood in the patented equilateral relationship that was first explored in the famous Bill Evans trio with Scott LaFaro.

Barre Phillips Journal VioloneAs it happened the first solo bass record was not on ECM. Even by the standard of those heady days y heady days, Barre Phillips Journal Violone (1968) was an astonishing  record: a solo bass record, free of electronics, and completely improvised. “Extended technique” was a term that was routinely attached to this record and to subsequent efforts by the bass virtuosi.  This generally came to mean ambitious use of the bow, double stops, glissando, etc. Jazz listeners accustomed to the walking bass solo or the low standards of arco playing established by some of the beboppers (notably Paul Chambers) were duly impressed by this whole new arsenal of bass techniques (none of it unknown to conservatory-trained bassists).

Manfred Eicher immediately grasped the implications of this record and it was on ECM that Journal Violone II appeared a decade later. In the meantime, a  record appeared doesn’t have quite the boldness in conception of the Barre Phillips but which is more agreeable to the ears, the 1976 ECM record by Dave Holland, Emerald Tears. Unlike his predecessor, Holland is more grounded in the idiom jazz. There is much to praise about this authoritative solo statement which demonstrates the highest level of virtuosity and boundless melodic inventiveness. The majestic tone of his instrument made this an audiophile test record for a generation. But neither this nor the Barre record hold together well a generation later. Emerald Tears has a high percentage of redundant material, a sense of reaching but not quite grasping something beyond the instrument’s capacity for communication. In subsequent efforts at solo bass recordings, there is always the same problem. The more “extended technique” is the operable term, the less likely we are to find successful forms which deliver a completely satisfying recital. (There are another half dozen of ambitious  solo bass efforts on ECM by Eberhard Weber, Miroslav Vitous, Anders Jormin)

Yet all at once, ECM doubles down on the solo bass ideal with two releases within a single year. Amazingly, Barre Phillips is back nearly 50 years after his debut with a solo project called End to End. Give a musician half a century to mull over what he wants to say on an instrument, and it is no surprise that he will make a very different recording. It is a fine recording, too, and not just as  measure of how much evolutionary history is documented on one label.

Portrait Larry Grenadier

Larry Grenadier

But the other solo bass record surpasses End to End, as good as it is, in every regard and is the best chance for a solo bass record to reach out to an audience beyond bassists and ECM aficionados. This is the 2019 releases by Larry Grenadier entitled The Gleaners. The cover departs from ECM’s typical studied neutrality. Rather  than blurred images or shadowy abstraction, we have a very real and majestic tree, presumably an oak, standing in sunshine. Evoked immediately is wood, of course, but also solidity, abundance of both pleasure and productivity. We subsequently learn from the liner notes that the album is inspired in part by the Agnes Varda film The Gleaners and I. 

Beyond title song, The Gleaner, and perhaps Gone Like the Season Does (Rebecca Martin) , no overt connection to the film comes into view. Instead, we have an even split between original numbers and songs by Wolfgang Muthspiel, (two bagatelles), John Coltrane’s Compassion, a Paul Motian tune, Owl of Cranston, and a deeply ruminative My Man’s Gone Now. The Bassist has taken seriously the problem of setting each tune in such a way as to distinguish it from all others. He does so by alternating between arco (bowed playing) and pizzicato, adding an overdubbed second bass on a couple of tracks. His bowing technique far exceeds the standards in the jazz world, although standard among classically-trained bassists. The recording features superb intonation, precise harmonics that achieve a scintillating shine in the ample acoustics of the room, and deeply felt double-stops that neither wobble nor scratch. Jazz arco playing has had some questionable practitioners over the years, probably going back to Paul Chambers who made a frightful squawk on over-long solos in the heady Blue Note days. I still find outstanding bassists who would be well-advised to leave the bow aside. The exceptions, Georg Breinschmid and Edgar Meyer, hold the technique to the highest standards. Grenadier uses it to outstanding effect on the first tune Oceanic with some sawing that recalls the vigor of Edgar Meyer. Pettiford modestly evokes the great master of the melodic bass solo. The handsome voice of the instrument shines through in utterances of varying length and punctuation. It is the straightest piece on the record. The title track, The Gleaner, is a short tune exploring odd intervals played with harmonics. Wobegone sets up an rocking ostinato of octaves and then adds a second and third voice to achieve a dancing folk tune effect. Gone Like the Season Does leaves jazz behind for a simple tune and an improvisation in the same spirit. It is a deeply affecting treatment, among the finest solos that I have heard on the bass in any context. At 4:30 it achieves a sort of Schubertian perfection along with his pastoral evocations.

The Coltrane Motian Medley returns to darker bowing. Whole notes abound, harmonics alternate with low rumbles. Scrambling passages seem to be an effort at conjuring up something. One wouldn’t be surprised to hear an Estonian choir break in with modal lamentations. Instead, we get Motian’s Owl, which is, contrary to the name, a return to sunlight. The bass flutters and slides through a series of passages which are held up by resounding lower register open notes. This song more than others seems to connect this session to earlier ECM recordings.

Lovelair proceeds as series of upwardly inflected inquiries. It reinforces a persistent pattern of allowing each phrase breathing space. In this case it also expresses a halting, hesitant quality, a sort of self-questioning.

Vineland works the double-stop over simple changes drawn from American roots music. The bass is as fleet as a cello. Not a single jazz gesture is referenced in this odd piece which ends as if the tape had run out. The short Bagatelles present themselves as modest puzzles, offering a brief melodic premise and, after a short cogitation, an equally simple answer. But there follows a true masterpiece in the Gershwin My Man’s Gone Now. The lyrics always haunt this particular tune:

My man’s gone now
Ain’t no use a listenin’
For his tired footsteps
Climbin’ up the stairs
Old man sorrow’s
Come to keep me company
Whisperin’ beside me
When I say my prayers

The bassist’s footfalls are gentle and ambiguous. Uncertainty and brooding over a heavy fate are carried along on energetic bursts of resolution but plunge back to earth where they started. Grenadier uses glissando to great effect here in deepening the expressive voice-like quality of the blues singer. It is a memorable treatment of a great tune.

Just to end the session in ECM territory rather than in Americana, the editors append a short Novel in a Sigh which features some exhalations of no special importance. Perhaps it is the rustle of the winds through the leaves of the cover’s oak tree reminding us that there are things both above and beyond us. There is unlikely to be another solo bass record that tops this one for a long time.

—Fritz Balwit

ECM Records Logo

ECM Records