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Music Review: Arild Andersen, Tommy Smith, Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – Celebration

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In October 2010, a very lucky audience was privileged to hear a concert commemorating some of the amazing music released by the ECM label over the past 40 years. There have been a number of significant events associated with this milestone, and Celebration is one of the finest. Manfred Eicher’s vision to release music of the highest quality, and to release it with an attention to detail unmatched in the industry is a truly one of a kind story. Only a handful of former “indies” have made it this far, and none of them have retained their founder’s personal vision quite the way ECM has.

For this concert, Arild Andersen is lead soloist, and his double-bass playing is a marvel. He is joined by the tenor sax of Tommy Smith, who also directed the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. The Stevenson Hall at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland is where the event took place, and the sound is magnificent.

Six compositions by six musicians who have been integral to the history of ECM were chosen for the program. It is certainly hard to argue with the importance of Dave Holland, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Trygve Seim, Keith Jarrett, and Arild Andersen himself to the history of not only the label, but to jazz itself. Listening to this concert, one is reminded of just how much Mr. Eicher and his label opened up the genre over the years.

In 1969, “jazz” meant either trying to “outdo” the powerful redefinition of the boundaries, ala John Coltrane’s successors. The other side was fusion, which was being created by Miles Davis and others. There were also the “traditional” outfits, who playing what we now call the “nostalgia circuit,” allowing their fans to relive the glory days of swing.

ECM brought a whole new sensibility to the music. Manfred Eicher’s ears were wide open, and he heard a whole new form of music. The music released on ECM proved to be a very viable product in the marketplace. Yet, while sales are obviously a consideration, the label has never seemed to be focused on them. Manfred Eicher has taken chance after chance on artists that he obviously saw something in, “commercial” or not.

This concert certainly reflects that sensibility. The set opens with “May Dance,” written by Dave Holland. What really stands out is the tenor sax of Tommy Smith on this track. And when the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra comes in, they lift the piece to a whole new level.

The momentum builds with the next track, Jan Garbarek’s “Molde Canticle (Part One)” The interplay between Andersen’s double-bass and the Orchestra is incredible. I must say that the funky “rubberband” sounds of Arild Anderson’s playing in contrast to the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra offers up an amazing experience in diversity.

Chick Corea was certainly a “name” artist when he came to ECM, but that did not stop him from pursuing his own, very distinctive music. He is a performer who has never been content to rest on his laurels, as “Crystal Silence” amply displays. Once again, the interplay between the bass and full orchestra is outstanding. One of the most emotionally engaging moments of the entire concert comes as the song closes. You can literally hear a pin-drop as Arild Andersen’s bass takes things out in a most captivating fashion.

The whole performance feels this way. And that may be the key to the success of ECM as a record label all these years. Regardless of any criticisms, commercial success, (or failure for that matter), the label has always reflected the love of music of its founder. Celebration is an album that manages to honor the history of the label and some its greatest artists, while at the same time offering an opportunity for all of this music to be reinterpreted in a most satisfying manner. Celebration is a triumph for everyone involved.

About Greg Barbrick