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by Craig Nixon

CARLA BLEY. The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu. Watt 34, 55:53.
CHARLES LLOYD QUARTET. Rabo de Nube. ECM 2053, 75:05.
MANU KATCHÉ. Playground ECM 2016, 69:21.
BENNIE MAUPIN. The Jewel In The Lotus. ECM 1043, 44:23.
DEWEY REDMAN QUARTET. The Struggle Continues. ECM 1225, 44:34.

Over the course of almost forty years, and over one thousand releases, Munich-based ECM Records has demonstrated a remarkable record of consistency, one that has been oft-emulated by many younger or shorter-lived labels established in its wake. The current crop of new releases and important reissues emphasize the diversity that has long been a hallmark of the label's catalogue. The past two years have seen the label concentrate more heavily on its New Series releases, but jazz is far from gone from the ECM roster, as these five discs will attest.

The addition of Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu to Carla Bley's Lost Chords quartet of saxophonist Andy Sheppard, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Billy Drummond proves to be a move that elicits some of her most careful and measured music to date. Though one wouldn't ever expect a hot "blowing date" from Bley, the five (plus one) "bananas" that comprise "The Banana Quintet" are as calm and deliberate as perhaps Bley has ever been.

The five movements (a sixth banana serves as a short coda) practically serve as a concerto for Paolo Fresu, who is in fine form throughout. A trumpeter scarcely comes to mind that owns a tone as clear, precise and thoughtful. Fresu was added at the gentle urging of Andy Sheppard, the saxophonist sensing a like-mindedness between himself and the trumpeter. The hornsmen are indeed of a piece, but the star turn here belongs to Fresu, whose air-infused tone is nothing short of mesmerizing. Three other unrelated pieces comprising the set's second half are no also-rans, either. The lovely "Liver of Life" was Carla's first foray into two-horn writing, "Death of Superman Dream Sequence #1 - Flying" was originally composed for an aborted commission by the Italian Instabile Orchestra, and "Ad Infinitum" has been in Bley's book as long as the title would suggest.

The Lost Chords are a building-block group, beginning as a Bley/Swallow duo, then adding Sheppard (the Songs With Legs trio) and finally becoming a quartet with the addition of Billy Drummond. Much like folding ingredients slowly into a sauce, Sheppard and Drummond have each carefully inserted himself into the group's overall sound - which is, of course, built on the long-standing partnership of Carla Bley and Steve Swallow. In a liner interview Carla speaks of trying to "erase the last wisps of expression" from her playing. Knowing Bley, one would assume tongue was firmly in cheek with this statement, as "The Lost Chords Find Paolo Fresu" contains some of the composer's most expressive and unabashedly beautiful music to date. A winner, ranking very near the top of Bley's prolific catalogue, as she nears a half-century as a composer.

Now 70 years old, tenorist Charles Lloyd has re-invented for himself a new career with a dozen releases for ECM, after years of silence. Still concentrating on the tenor and rhythm format that has characterized most of these records, Lloyd's quartet has received an infusion of new energy with the lineup of pianist Jason Moran, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Eric Harland. Rabo de Nube captures a concert set recorded in Basel and released on the cusp of Lloyd's milestone birthday.

While the trio here is certainly stylistically different than that of Lloyd's first date for the label, which featured ECM regulars Bobo Stenson, Anders Jormin and Jon Christensen, the man himself remains much unchanged. "Migration Of Spirit" is classic Lloyd - a spiritual incantation that would not have been out of place on "A Love Supreme," even though the trio adds some unexpected rhythmic twists. This is a younger, freer band than on the previous discs. They're not afraid to take chances - witness the first track, where after the leader's opening solo what appears to begin as a solo turn for Moran quickly evaporates the idea of a piano solo altogether. Moran's discs as a leader, mainly for Blue Note, have been a high point for that label's sometimes lackluster new releases. He's not afraid to show his influences, and here calls on Andrew Hill and Muhal Richard Abrams, as well as a few brief nods to Keith Jarrett.

Drummer Eric Harland is actually more restrained here than expected - check his discs as a sideman with Greg Tardy, where Tardy and Harland stretch the energy level and entire idea of straight-ahead jazz to its very breaking point. Newcomer Reuben Rogers is bluesy and on point in several solo turns.

Well recorded at a 2007 Basel concert, Rabo de Nube is a fine document of Charles Lloyd's new quartet with no evidence of slow down from the leader at 70.

A press release somewhere referred to drummer Manu Katché's previous ECM disc Neighbourhood as a "hit record." Perhaps as close to a hit record as the label will get, the buzz continues with his latest release "Playground." And yes, you can even purchase a Manu poster from ECM, as well. A little name recognition could never hurt an independent creative record label, and Katché's got it in droves, having been at the kit on high profile gigs with Peter Gabriel, Sting, Joni Mitchell and a host of other pop and film projects.

The leader's neighbourhood is nothing if not varied, with the Norwegian front line of saxophonist Trygve Seim and trumpeter Mathias Eick, Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, and the drummer himself, of French/African heritage. Each of the sidemen have appeared on other recent ECM projects, Seim and Eick on Seim's own discs, and the piano/bass team as part of trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's quartet. Together they form a tight, stylish quintet sound, very much in the label's mode, if not just a little short on substance. The leader's rock chops give no cause to overpower this group, and it's indeed Katché who makes the strongest impression here.

While reissues have been rare in the label's catalogue, two gems have recently seen their first CD releases, Bennie Maupin's The Jewel In The Lotus, from 1974, and Dewey Redman's 1982 quartet session The Struggle Continues. While most of ECM's releases are permanently in print on CD, these two gems are making a welcome return.

Maupin's date from early '74 gathers most of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi" era group - Hancock himself, bassist Buster Williams, drummer Billy Hart, percussionist Bill Summers, with trumpeter Charles Sullivan and drummer Freddie Waits sparingly added. Recorded while the Mwandishi sextet was still a working unit, the music on Maupin's date is a totally different affair than anything done by the Hancock group. Herbie at this time had moved heavily into electronics and was leaning toward funk, but Maupin's disc is an ECM affair at heart. Save for some spare Fender Rhodes from Hancock, the disc is totally acoustic and miles apart from Hancock's Crossings, Sextant and Mwandishi records of the same era.

Framed by several beautiful tone poems, the music in between does heat up a little, Hancock (in his sole ECM appearance) getting off a star turn on the second track. This was actually an important, if under-rated, appearance for Herbie whose acoustic piano was seldom heard in this era. Maupin's composing is heartfelt and thoughtful, sometimes making use of multi-tracking his own winds, primarily flute, bass clarinet, tenor and soprano. The multi-wind "Past+Present=Future" feels like a precursor to later pieces such as Marty Ehrlich's multi-tracked "After All." Beautifully recorded in what was then a rare New York session for producer Manfred Eicher, this restores to the ECM roster a long sought-after disc.

Tenorist Dewey Redman's quartet date, The Struggle Continues, is another session that has been pining for silver release, rarely heard from since its 1983 waxing. Following two excellent records for the label with Old And New Dreams, as well as several with Keith Jarrett's "American quartet," the Texas tenor convened a classic tenor and rhythm date, with the under-rated Charles Eubanks on piano, a young Mark Helias on bass and compadre Ed Blackwell on drums.

Redman, who died in 2006, had seen personal problems limit his playing somewhat during his later years, but was in top form for this session from early 1982. The set is wide-ranging, from straight blues to bebop to balladry. Blackwell was the obvious choice for the drum chair, but the under-heard Charles Eubanks and a young and feisty Mark Helias are more than up to the task.

Redman himself had hardly sounded better, his sound an amalgam of classic Texas tenor styles filtered through the almost pervasive influence of his tenure with Ornette Coleman. Too long gone, this is a disc that makes a welcome re-entry and serves as a fitting tribute to Dewey Redman's legacy.

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