The term “Euro-Jazz" is used pejoratively in the US, meaning “they don’t swing." It is in fact a euphemism for “white." While in Europe, on the other hand, it has become a sort of badge of post-colonialist honor, and the “ECM Sound" personifies it.
Paul Motian’s recent ECM album “Garden of Eden" exists in space more than time. It would work as an alternate soundtrack for the movie “2001, A Space Odyssey." Based in Munich, ECM Records has been releasing über-intellectual, spacey music made by a variety of races and nationalities since 1969 – the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Pat Metheny, Dewey Redman, John Surman, Tunisian oud player Anoar Brahem, Moldavian pianist Misha Alperin, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer Egberto Gismonti.
First imported to the US by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, 4/4 swing seems to be increasingly politically incorrect. ECM has been relying less and less on American grooves. A groove is an African concept, not taught in European conservatories until maybe a decade ago. A groove is the basis of what is called “swing," and swing is not native to Europe.
Django Reinhardt swung, but he was a Gypsy. Igor Stravinsky’s composed swing into “The Rite of Spring," but it took flocks of fly-specks in the score, and a plethora of tempo-changes to do it. Now it has come full circle - there is a French jazz band (not on ECM) with the in-your-face name: “Antigroove Syndicate."
The ECM Sound tends to hover like a Scandinavian winter night, motionless as a zen master meditating. Listening to the Jan Garbarek, or to the Swedish tenorman Trygve Seim, for example, you wonder if the sun will ever rise again. ECM artist the Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch leads a group called Ronin, which means a samourai warrior, and which makes what might be termed post-Reichian minimalism - Steve Reich also recorded for ECM. Bartsch calls it “funk zen."
At the root of what has become ECM’s franchise sound are Gil Evans’s impressionistic arrangements for Claude Thornhill’s dance band in the 1940s. Evans described them as “a sound that sits there like a cloud." The sound was deployed by Miles Davis, who hooked the cloud to the slots of the likes of Philly Joe Jones and Tony Williams. Davis’s misty 1969 album “In A Silent Way" was a giant step in the de-emphasis of the groove. It is no coincidence that ECM was founded the same year.
ECM’s founder and producer Manfred Eicher has been accused of being responsible for “New Age" music, but that’s probably a bad rap. Though the fact remains – musicians everywhere are shunning vigorous African-American-based grooves. More and more sets in clubs start with a dirge rather than a medium bounce. Recently, I’ve heard, for example, Bill Frissel, Joe Lovano, and Branford Marsalis energetically avoid a walking bass and a ding-ding-de-ding on the ride cymbal for entire one-hour sets. What little pulse there was was camouflaged behind odd time signatures. We are not living in groovy times.
You have to admire a respected veteran bebop drummer like Paul Motian choosing to make such a flagrant “antigroove" album. This does not sound like a drummer’s record. Motian is the sort of drummer Chet Baker was talking about when he said that you need a very good drummer to sound better than no drummer at all.
Motian’s first track, Charles Mingus’s “Pithecanthropus Erectus," is the ECM Sound brought to orgasm. The implied time Motian is famous for reaches under to support and massage the haunting melody, and to trigger stirring improvisations by saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby. If only Euro-Jazz sounded like that more often.
With its trademark heavy reverb, the ECM Sound can be supremely pessimistic. Echoing the current bad news, it is stark and hypnotic and pertinent like a play by Samuel Beckett. Africa seems very far away. Does the antigroove really lead to the “Garden of Eden?"