Hmm, an assignment a couple of years ago to review a clutch of compilations of material chosen by the artists from their own ECM discographies makes interesting reading now. The :rarum series was another Manfred Eicher masterstroke, obvious in its simplicity, briliant in its execution.
My comments on each of the releases would be little different had I written the reviews today, despite systematically re-appraising the label with hours of engrossed listening over the last 12 months. I guess I'll just never really 'get' Carla Bley, no matter what...
ECM :rarum Series
CARLA BLEY :rarum XV (ECM 014208-2)
PAT METHENY :rarum IX (ECM 014163-2)
PAUL MOTIAN :rarum XVI (ECM 014204-2)
JOHN SURMAN :rarum XIII (ECM 014197-2)
In much the same way as Blue Note at its height, ECM could be said to be a designer record label. Closely identified with a sound inseparable from a visual aesthetic, both labels also represent an ideal of excellence that other industry also-rans aspire to. Now in its 35th year, Manfred Eicher’s ECM operation has discovered a clever new way to look back on past achievements. Already amounting to some 20 volumes, the :rarum series offers artists closely associated with the label an opportunity to select career highlights from their work, remastered and presented in lavish but minimalist digipaks and sold at a special price.
In the case of Paul Motian, his selections are reassuringly similar to the ones I would have made. Almost half of the tracks selected feature the neglected reedsman Charles Brackeen with either David Izenzon or J-F Jenny Clark on bass. Their music sounds as fresh as the collaborations with Surman or Paul Bley sound stereotypically ‘glacial’. Later groupings with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano are well represented, and a duet with Keith Jarrett from ‘Conception Vessel’ reaches remarkable heights. This is a thoughtful selection from one of jazz’s less obvious heroes, and I can’t think how fitting it is that motian’s tacky Electric Be-bop Band never had the opportunity to desecrate Eicher’s hallowed vaults.
To my mind Carla Bley is perhaps one musician who has spent an entire career occupying the same realms as the Electric Be-bop Band. Maybe I just don’t get her humour, but there’s no denying that she is an ECM stalwart with legions of fans. Her :rarum collection offers a welcome opportunity to reassess my pretty entrenched views, and Larry Goldings’ spirited organ solo on ‘Baseball’ (from 4x4, 1999) caused an unexpected early frisson. Old ideas soon reasserted themselves, however, with the record settling into a painfully arch cycle of pastiches that momentarily please but ultimately melt like sugary confections. The wonderful ‘Walking Batteriewoman’ briefly bucks the trend, but only very briefly.
Pat Metheny is another ECM artist whose work I can find problematical. Capable of brilliant American-pastoralism and dazzling post-Jim Hall wizardry, it’s tempting to recommend readers to skip this collection and buy ‘Bright Size Life’ instead. Yet the bland airbrushed fusion and guitar-synth noodling that I find so unsatisfactory seem to be the very things for which he is most celebrated. This collection represents the full stylistic spread of his ECM work, warts and all. Apart from the title track of the aforementioned 1975 masterpiece with Pastorius and Moses, ‘Bright Size Life’, the collection offers tracks from more adventurous Metheny albums such as ‘80/81’ and ‘Pat Metheny with Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins’. Given the unique devotion Metheny seems to inspire, fans will probably have the complete albums already, but with extensive new liner notes written by Metheny explaining his choices of music, this collection I guess becomes especially desirable for completists.
Perhaps it’s somewhat strange that John Surman is the only European in this quartet of discs, given the label’s heavy reliance on non-American artists. Surman’s career nicely mirrors that of the label - from his fiery roots with The Trio to the more cerebral approach that is now equal parts ‘new music’. Spare, lyrical, pastoral ad always open to stylistic cross-fertilisation, Surman is in many ways the English equivalent to Jan Garbarek. Don’t look to this collection if you get off on Carla Bley’s humour. By and large this is pretty earnest stuff, but always played convincingly from the heart. Personal favourites include ‘Figfoot’ by the Adventure Playground quartet, the blistering ‘Number Six’ from Miroslav Vitous’ band of 1980 that included a pre-Marsalis Kenny Kirkland, and ‘Mountainscape VIII’ by The Trio, with guest guitarist John Abercrombie. Rich pickings throughout, and warmly recommended to anybody not up to speed on Surman’s impressively varied body of work.
In summary, the most obvious thing to say about these collections is that they offer no new material, and if you own many of the recordings then the compilations will probably have little appeal. Remastering of already pristine sound recordings is a far less compelling reason to splash out on them than the opportunity to learn how each artist views their own body of work. Ultimately it is the decision to let the artists decide which pieces of music to present that is the marketing masterstroke which makes the :rarum series more interesting than the earlier ECM ‘Works’ series. It only remains to be seen whether or not Mars Williams will ever get the chance to do a ‘:rarum’ on Hal Russell’s back catalogue. Sadly, I think we’ll be waiting some time.
(Jazz Review, March 2004)