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:Rarum Anthology Series by Various Artists

Since 1969, creative improvisational music has had a home thanks to the auspices of producer Manfred Eicher and his Editions of Contemporary Music (hint: that’s the long way of saying ECM). Now notice that I said "improvisational music" here instead of "jazz," as some have and a few continue to question whether or not the majority of the music heard on ECM is of a jazz nature at all. That whole Pandora’s box is not really of concern for our purposes here, but better still it is suggested that one ponder the diverse range of musical styles represented by the ECM catalog.

Now through the efforts of the label’s latest endeavor, there will be opportunity again to look back with affection on highlights from the catalog’s 32-year history. The first eight releases in the :rarum series have recently been released and each one focuses on the selected recordings of some of ECM’s most notable artists. The thing that puts an interesting twist on what sounds like just another retread is that each artist was consulted and asked to make the selection of what pieces would be included, in addition to offering insightful commentary which is included along with each package’s booklet. Furthermore, archival photos are featured along with newly remastered sound of the 24-bit variety, the entire contents then wrapped up in a colorful cardboard digipak.

Not at all surprising, the multi-talented Keith Jarrett contributes the first set of the series (:rarum vol.1- ECM 014 168) and over the course of two discs the breath and scope of his marvelous talent are painted with broad strokes. Selections for solo clavichord are up first and are decidedly baroque inflected by design, yet entirely improvised. Through multi-tracking, we get five tracks from the Spirits album where Jarrett plays all the instruments and the moods range from subtle new age textures to overt world beat grooves. Disc one then wraps up with three cuts that feature the ubiquitous quartet that Jarrett led with Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen. Again, the emotive spirit is palpable, be it the carefree exuberance of "The Windup" or the melancholy introspection of "My Song."

The second disc in the Jarrett set includes further examples of his solo brilliance, be it at the piano, on soprano saxophone (two pieces with overdubbed pipe organ from Invocations/The Moth & The Flame), or on pipe organ (a cut from Hymns/Spheres). Quite sagaciously, he opts for three tracks featuring the standards trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, including "Bob-Be" and "No Lonely Nights" from the critically acclaimed and widely admired At the Blue Note boxed set. All in all, a stunning survey of Jarrett and one that truly doesn’t go for the obvious, but does sample Jarrett’s immense range as an artist.

Just a quick look at the photos that accompany the booklet to :rarum vol. 2 (ECM 014 165) and you get the idea that saxophone great Jan Garbarek is all about musical diversity (a few familiar faces would include Nana Vasconcelos, Eberhard Weber, Charlie Haden, Egberto Gismonti, and Ralph Towner). His two-disc set is all over the map, making a detailed description in this limited space somewhat of a challenge. Suffice it to say that the clarion call of Garbarek’s searing horn from the opening "Skrik & Hyl" speaks in the kind of cathartic tone that characterizes all of the saxophonist’s work, although some might find his pinched tones a bit of an acquired taste ("Iskirken" is a perfect example of Garbarek’s genius for microtonal improvisation- i.e. finding the spaces in between the spaces).

The best tracks are those that put Garbarek with larger groups and particularly with guitarists- be it John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, David Torn, Ralph Towner, or Egberto Gismonti. The second disc is without a doubt the more varied of the two, including performances from the superb Magico trio, a few with Keith Jarrett, and a smattering of the "world music" offerings that were among Garbarek’s most unusual and rewarding works of the past twelve years. It’s all a lot to digest, but it’s ever so delectable in small servings.

The first of two promised sets (:rarum vol. 3- ECM 014 200) devoted to the works of Chick Corea opts for the pianist’s ensemble recordings, namely his Return To Forever group and the "Now He Sings, Now He Sobs" trio with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes. In addition, there are two cuts apiece from the legendary duet albums with vibist Gary Burton- Crystal Silence and In Concert: Zurich- October 28, 1979. "Sometime Ago," "La Fiesta," "What Game Shall We Play Today," and "Mirror, Mirror" are all considered modern day standards and their inclusion here is not surprising. Picking and choosing from the trio with Vitous and Haynes, Corea goes for five selections from a 1981 studio date and three additional from 1984’s Live in Europe. Genius abounds here and the fact of the matter is that each one of the albums sampled should really be part of any comprehensive collection.

Considering his recent immersion into the world of academia, :rarum vol. 4 (ECM 014 195) offers up an improved view of Gary Burton that points to his innovative approach to four-mallet vibe technique. Furthermore, it should make clear that his legacy for the label has been far too long ignored and in light of his current releases, there’s a freshness to his ECM oeuvre that has rarely been equaled since. Between 1973 and 1976, Burton led some fantastic groups with guitarists Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny helping to mold a unique ensemble sonority. Always one with an ear for creative composition, Burton also included in his repertoire works by Michael Gibbs, Carla Bley, Metheny, and Eberhard Weber (check out here "The Colours of Chloe," "Dreams So Real," and "Ictus").

Skip ahead to the early ‘80s and once again Burton was at the top of his game with a new set of youngsters ready to take the helm, first being alto saxophonist Jim Odgren (who seems to have disappeared), then pianist Makoto Ozone and saxophonist Tommy Smith. "Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love" is one cut from the 1982 release Picture This that has never been heard before on CD, although this only whets the appetite for a full reissue of the aforementioned album and its companion set Easy As Pie. "La Divetta" from the Whiz Kids album and both "Syndrome" and "Ladies in Mercedes" from the splendid Real Life Hits feature the Makoto Ozone edition of the band and top off a wonderful recap of a particularly fruitful period in Burton’s recording career.

Before he became so divergent that it was all but impossible to decipher the creative muses of Bill Frisell, the guitarist spent a productive stint with ECM making his way through the ranks first as a sideman with drummer Paul Motian beginning in 1981. As such, it’s fitting that the first three selections from :rarum vol. 5 (ECM 014 198) find Frisell with Motian on the drummer’s albums Psalm and It Should’ve Happened a Long Time Ago. Rounding out the sideman appearances are tracks with Jan Garbarek, Kenny Wheeler, Paul Bley, and Gavin Bryars. As for his own threesome of ECM projects, the best moments are well represented with three apiece from 1984’s exquisite Rambler (featuring Kenny Wheeler, Bob Stewart, Jerome Harris, and Paul Motian) and 1987’s Lookout For Hope, which first spoke of the blossoming quartet with Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron. Erudite choices all around then from Mr. Frisell and something that you can really sink your teeth into.

It’s somewhat misleading to consider :rarum vol. 6 (ECM 014 196) as exclusively a selection of numbers from the catalog of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. As it were, we also have tracks that come from the solo projects of trumpeter Lester Bowie and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell. There’s also a bit of sadness in the fact that the group as originally incarnated no longer exists, with the 1997 departure of Joseph Jarman and the 1999 death of Bowie. The opening "Charlie M" grooves in a swinging fashion that provides the quiet before the cathartic and orgasmic storms of "Magg Zelma" and "Odwalla/Theme." A tip of the hat to Bowie’s genius, "Rios Negroes" from 1981’s The Great Pretender is a nice reminder of the great musical legacy that he left us. But then there’s so much to be heard when it comes to the AEC’s catalog that this set really only scratches the surface.

Like his label mate Jan Garbarek, the work of guitarist Terje Rypdal seems to illicit strong feelings one way or the other. In other words, you either dig him or you don’t. Unless your tastes gravitate toward the adventurous, :rarum vol. 7 (ECM 014 201) is probably the one set in the series you might want to seriously consider sampling before considering a purchase. There’s a dark quality to the fuzzed out tones of Rypdal’s guitar work that recalls the fusion experiments of John McLaughlin circa 1973 (just listen to the opening "Silver Bird Is Heading For the Sun"). The several performances with a trio including bassist Bjorn Kjellemyr and drummer Audun Kleive seem to be the most cohesive and less dated sounding, but again this is heady stuff that only the most daring will truly enjoy.

Finally, we come to :rarum vol. 8 (ECM 014 214) and like the Rypdal set I have a few reservations which make this package less than a complete success for this reviewer. Pianist Bobo Stenson is a harmonically advanced soloist who seems to present in the preponderance of the selections he’s chosen a one-sided view of his work, as nothing gets much above a ballad to medium tempo, save for a wild and free "Untitled" from the 1971 release Underwear. Furthermore, five of the thirteen cuts come from trio sessions of recent vintage that can all be easily had by visiting the local record shop. It’s all just a bit too mundane and inexplicably surprising considering that Stenson himself had the final say on the pieces chosen.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
  • CD Title: :Rarum Anthology Series
  • Genre: Ambient Jazz
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: ECM
  • Rating: Four Stars
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