Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Marcin Wasilewski Trio & Nik Bärtsch's Ronin...

Last week we took a short but well earned break in Edinburgh from our respective workplaces, and a good relaxing time blessed both with fine weather and live music was enjoyed by us both. Turning our backs on the North East during the weekend of the Gateshead International Jazz Festival was an unintentional statement about how un-alluring this event is becoming, and in any case it was a pleasure to get away and be part of a palpably more refined civilisation. Music certainly wasn't the reason for the trip north, but on the Friday we caught Colin Steele's Melting Pot in the opulent surroundings of the Voodoo Rooms. With a glittery ballroom setting that would probably lend its self well to cabaret, trumpeter Steele led his funky soul-jazz outfit through two sets of high quality bar music. All of the individuals in this long-established group are key figures in Scotland, and I've seen them all playing live many times over the last two decades. It was nevertheless a revelation to hear Steele, Phil Bancroft and Kevin McKenzie playing outside of their normal musical territory. It was also notable that they sounded a hell of a lot more interesting in this genre bound setting than they do playing their own rather dull contemporary stuff. Surely not the impression they intended to make, but being the person I am I noticed it anyway. Bancroft was a revelation with his in the pocket Joe Henderson-esque persona, and even the legendary local songstress Subie Coleman impressed with her earthy soul tinged stylings. In context it was perfect late night music in an ideal venue, and the facts that it was only 10 minutes walk to our hotel and that my good friend Andrew (who lives in the city) joined us made it a great way to spend a Friday night.

Meanwhile back in Gateshead, the one gig I actually wanted to attend was conveniently scheduled for 2:30PM on the final Sunday afternoon. Called simply the ECM double bill, this gig in the intimate setting of The Sage's Hall 2 was a showcase for two of the influential German label's rising stars. First off was the trio led by young Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski, already high on my list of important contemporary voices after several impressive discs for ECM, including a series of recordings which injected new life into Tomasz Stanko's already brilliant career. Wasilewski put simply is a rare talent. Readers of this blog will probably know already how much I love the raw and passionate sound of ECM from the '70s, and it even takes its name from one of the best albums of that decade. This trio conjured memories of that era, in particular the brilliant string of early discs recorded by what later became Keith Jarrett's 'Standards' trio. Their music carried the same incendiary charge, and you could truly say that they were on, in and around every second of it. The free from ballads had no hint of cliché, even if they did sound unmistakably 'ECM-ish', and you only had to see the studied concentration and pained expressions of the performers to know how much the performance meant to them.

As with all great gigs, Wasilewski left me wanting more, but sadly this was a double bill and there was a strict guillotine. After a short break it was the turn of Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch to present his own unique brand of electric jazz-rock-funk minimalism ('Zen Funk', as he calls it). The volume was several notches louder than Wasilewski's performance, and the improvisational element of the music several leagues below. Yet it was in a very different way just as impressive a perfomance. Even though I've heard all of Bärtsch's discs, both on ECM and his own label, I was taken aback by the impact his band made performing the music live. In the studio their 'moduls' straddle a fine line between intriguing complexity and tedium, but on stage there was a visual element that brought the music to life. Bathed in the glow of around a dozen strategically placed pink fluorescent neon tubes for much of the show, the visual aspect of the performance certainly appealed to Louise too.

Bassist Björn Meyer may have looked like he was auditioning to replace Flea in the Chilli Peppers, but the truth was that he had a very clearly defined role in this most precise and through composed music. Detailed textures, clockwork precision and suddenly exploding drama inspired by martial arts action were all group priorities asserted at the expense of conventional improvisation. By comparison with the relatively conventional Wasilewski this was the shock of the new. To a slightly lesser extent it left me wanting to hear more, and other than enjoying this event as I did, what really mattered was the indications about the health of ECM records, now in its 40th year and almost as old as me. The label has defined a sound and continues to trade on that sound whilst expanding into new territories. 'Zen Funk' may ultimately be a cul-de-sac, but Wasilewski's musicality was as timeless as it was awe inspiring. That's why this is still a label to watch, and anybody dismissing it as predictable and airbrushed is not only missing the point, but also the music.

Plenty more gigs to come, including another trip to Edinburgh to see the ICP Orchestra in a few weeks time. I'll also dig out an old review of Bancroft and McKenzie and post it later this week...

Fred Grand