Tell No Lies Claim No Easy Victories

March 14, 2011

Edited by Phillipp Schmickl
Impro 2000

ECM 40th Anniversary Catalogue
Edited by Kenny Inaoka
Tokyo Kirarasha

As globalization intensifies, American-birthed popular music forms – most especially Jazz and Improvised Music – have evolved far beyond their initial audiences, confirming one of the hoariest of clichés, that music is a universal language. Creative music of many stripes has for many years been often treated more seriously in Europe and Asia than in North America. Consequently to be truly informed about the breadth of musical sounds it helps to understand other languages besides English. That’s the challenge related to the valuable books here. Neither is published primarily in English, but both can serve as resources for followers of Jazz and Improvised Music, no matter their native tongues.

Tell No Lies Claim No Easy Victories is a celebration of the annual Konfrontationen festival which has taken place in Nickelsdorf, Austria near Vienna since 1979. Contributions to the volume in German, English and French are more a compendium of thoughts about improvisation and musical influences than a potted history of the festival. On the other hand, published in Japanese and English, the ECM 40th Anniversary Catalogue presents complete discographical information about every release put out by the influential German-based label from its first issue in 1969 to December 2009. Putting aside the language issue for the moment, each volume is profusely illustrated with beautifully realized black-and-white and color photographs.

As attractively presented as any catalogue can be, the ECM volume is published by a firm that has put out similar volumes on Blue Note records. Included is an entire section of six-to-the-page full-color photos of every ECM album cover. The remaining pages are devoted to detailed descriptions of every ECM and JAPO CD, LP and DVD then extant with cover pictures, personnel, recording dates and song titles included. Reviews of every disc by 11 commentators – in Japanese –are provided as well

While those who can’t read Japanese may miss out on the commentary, perusing the catalogue reveals many unexpected facets of Manfred Eicher’s label. His supervision and the engineering of Jan Erik Kongshaug may have created the sonically pristine, often imitated, though sometimes near-lifeless ECM sound; but ECM’s characteristic album cover art often masked unexpected efforts.

The catalogue does picture such ECM classics as Keith Jarrett’s Facing You (ECM 1017), The Sun Bear Concerts (ECM 1100) and Standards Vol. 1 (ECM 1255); Pat Metheny’s American Garage (ECM 1155), As Falls Wichita … (ECM 1190), and Offramp (ECM 1216); plus Gary Burton & Chick Corea’s Crystal Silence (ECM 1024) and Jan Garbarek and The Hillard Ensemble’s Mmemosyne (ECM 1700/01 NS); but also noted are other efforts which many would think don’t fit the ECM mould.

Did you know, for instance that German saxophonist Alfred Harth was featured on the second ECM release, Just Music (ECM 1002) and saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey are on the fifth The Music Improvisation Company (ECM 1005)? While it may have seemed at times that the label was churning out endless series of guitar and/or piano dominated Chamber Jazz sessions, the ECM net has always stretched further. The label was recording a variant of World Music as early as guitarist Egberto Giasmonti Dança Das Cabeças (ECM 1089) in 1976; and first dabbled in so-called New music in 1978 with Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians (ECM 1129).

Furthermore ECM did more than provide a home for such accepted Jazz standard bearers as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Enrico Rava, saxophonists Charles Lloyd and John Surman, drummer Jack DeJohnette and pianist Paul Bley, to cite a few examples. Over the years it gave and continues to give exposure to quirkier, underappreciated or far-seeking avant-Jazz standard bearers from Europe or North America such as reedists Louis Sclavis, Gianluigi Trovesi, Hal Russell and Joe Maneri, trumpeter Tomas Stanko, pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummers Pierre Favre and Edward Versala, and Parker’s Electro-Acoustic Ensemble.

In contrast, Austria’s Nickelsdorf Konfrontationen has always been about presenting newer forms of Improvised Music. And the sometimes makeshift sonic conditions under which festival curator Hans Falb presents concerts may cause Eicher and Kongshaug a variant of apoplexy. Tell No Lies Claim No Easy Victories is a reflection of the festival itself. Collated like a scrap book, the text is broken up with posed, portrait and performance, contemporary and historical photographs of musicians who have appeared at Nickelsdorf over the years. Thus you can see what trombonist George Lewis looked like when he played the festival in 1985 or clarinetist John Carter’s jeans and white tie ensemble from 1983. At the same time there are portrait photos of saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell on the cover and bassist Joëlle Léandre inside.

This haphazard arrangement continues throughout the volume. Reminiscences of Nickelsdorf festivals past by the likes of electronics manipulator Christof Kurzmann, drummer Hamid Drake and Mitchell share space with such articles as an extensive discussion about improvisation with Léandre and Schmickl – printed in both French and German –and short biographical studies of brass man Clifford Thornton by his friend saxophonist Joe McPhee and DY Ngoy. Also published in both French and German is Alexandre Pierrepont’s extensive, if somewhat disjointed, musings on the history and influences of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM); while the verbatim dialogue between Falb and Evan Parker while unearthing some interesting gems about improvised music in Europe, reads more like the late-night ramblings of a couple of old friends than anything approaching rigorous scholarship.

Sometimes the choice of language puzzles as well. It’s understandable that the articles by drummer Paul Lovens and pianist Georg Graewe should be in German, their native tongue. But why is an article on the Romanian festival Jazz and More – strongly inspired by the Konfrontationen – in English, whereas the piece that precedes it, dealing with improvised music in Romania is only in German?

Despite these shortcomings, both of these volumes would make valuable if unusual additions to the book shelves of anyone interested in Improvised Music. And if a follower of this music can reads any one or more of the languages used in the books besides English, there are additional bonuses.

–Ken Waxman