Norse to the Future: ECM’s Nordic Tinge

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 08.30.12 in Spotlights


Charlie Haden

Almost since its inception in 1969, Germany’s ECM Records has featured Scandinavian musicians. A symbiotic relationship quickly developed, as the label and its artists grew into a new Nordic style. To be sure, the label has sponsored lots of dashing music that doesn’t fit that mold, from the splintery atonality of the UK’s Music Improvisation Company through Lester Bowie’s puckish The Great Pretender up to Tim Berne‘s or Michael Formanek‘s latest. We could go on and on with the exceptions, but when jazz folk say, “That sounds like an ECM record,” you know what they mean: chambery jazz that starts quietly and slowly builds, a music of icy vistas and pregnant silences, deepened by the house’s signature reverb.

Eventually critics began playing up the local color angle, likening the sounds of Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek or electric guitarist Terje Rypdal to echoes off a frozen fjord. I’m guilty too, and it was geological claptrap. Fjords are enormous: don’t freeze, don’t echo. That said, there was something to be said for regional identity. ECM’s stately spacious stillness can be found in embryo on Jan Johansson’s Jazz På Svenska, piano trio meditations on Swedish folk themes recorded in 1964. (Weirdly enough, American trumpeter Art Farmer’s To Sweden with Love beat Johansson to similar material by a week.)

There was another crucial aspect of the Garbarek-Rypdal Nordic sound: a barbaric Viking-horn side, rude blasts most effective when punctuating that stillness. But either player’s astringent timbre reflected more divergent influences. Some evidence can be found on three Garbarek ECMs — 1971′s Sart with Rypdal, and 1973′s Witchi-Tai-To and 1975′s Dansere both co-led by pianist Bobo Stenson — now collected in an anthology also known as Dansere.

Hearing Garbarek relatively early in his career, his non-local roots are easier to spot. You can hear a love of Albert Ayler in his low-register thrashing at the end of the tenor solo on “Song of Space.” Of course he also dug John Coltrane, and was hardly the only ’60s tenor to mash up those influences. On Carlos Puebla’s song for Ché, “Hasta Siempre,” the tenor’s torrid (as in non-icy) romantic rasp echoes another consolidator, Argentina’s Gato Barbieri, for years a frequent foil to honorary Scandinavian (and local hero) Don Cherry.

But in the midst of all that, Garbarek found the sound that became his signature: an arresting, quavering, nasal saxophone tone of his own. It’s not usual for tenor players with a big vibrant sound to get a more keening or pinched timbre on soprano, but Garbarek can get a remarkably similar sound out of either horn; compare his tenor on “Bris” with his soprano on Carla Bley’s tune “A.I.R.”

Those initials stand for “All India Radio,” drawing a connection between Garbarek’s tone and India’s double-reeds like the shehnai. (His later title Ragas and Sagas speaks for itself.) There may have been another, indirect prompt. Garbarek dug Keith Jarrett before he (and his bassist and drummer, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen) joined the pianist’s “European quartet” in 1974. He’d heard his “American quartet” counterpart Dewey Redman play double-reed Chinese musette, on which he got a similarly piercing western-eastern sound, as on Jarrett’s “Spirit” from 1971′s Birth.

Garbarek and pianist Stenson had close rapport, but nothing on their two albums together melds like the Garbarek-Rypdal unisons punctuating “Song of Space” — a nasty, nyah-nyah effect where vibrating reed and amplified strings sing as one. The guitarist’s sound was so arresting, ECM’s Manfred Eicher offered him his own recording date on the spot. It was the beginning of the label’s fascination with guitar eccentrics.

From Sart‘s wah-wah opening gesture, Rypdal brought a rockier sensibility to the ECM mix. His sustained saturated edge-of-feedback wail had some Hendrix in it, mixed with a jazz-guitar heavy attack, and his lines twisted like windblown trees. His axe sounded great, reverberating loudly into the quiet.

Terje Rypdal’s 1975 double LP Odyssey had been out in abbreviated form on a single CD. It’s now reissued intact, plus a 1976 broadcast with the same electric rhythm section and a 15-piece radio orchestra, as Odyssey In Studio & In Concert. Rypdal’s keening cries and dramatic silences are all over “Adagio” and “Fare Well,” and sound no worse for wear over funk beats and bass vamps on “Midnite” and the marathon “Rolling Stone.” The guitarist liked his electric Miles Davis. The newly-issued radio session isn’t so effectively stark, though it’s entertaining to hear an orchestral overlay on Milesian percolating boogaloo, on “Talking Back” and the electric-Gil-Evans-y “The Golden Eye.” (Like Garbarek, Rypdal had apprenticed with American composer George Russell, who liked his layers.) One thing some folks forget about the ECM sound: it can get pretty wild, Nordic or not.