Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Stages of a Long Journey

Stages of a Long Journey
By Eberhard Weber
ECM 1920

As a marketing hook, the tribute concert has become a staple of jazz festivals and concert halls. One can envision programming organizers starting their plans for each season by figuring out what birthdays and round number anniversaries they can work with. The recent occasion of Stuttgart favorite son Eberhard Weber’s sixty-fifth birthday may have gone little noticed in America’s old media, but it was marked by an ambitious concert program during the city’s Theaterhaus Jazztage fest, recorded live and recently released as Stages of a Long Journey.

On hand are an impressive group of musicians, including ECM label-mates pianist Wolfgang Dauner, percussionist Marilyn Mazur, Gary Burton on vibes, and Jan Garbarek on soprano and tenor, together with the large ensemble of the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. Weber has had a long association with ECM, and like his label, he has covered a great deal of stylistic ground, which is well reflected in Stages.

The disk begins with what might be the most symphonic track, “Silent Feet.” Starting from Weber’s bowed bass, building with the entrance of Mazur’s percussion, “Feet” almost recalls the work of Gary McFarland, especially as it features Burton’s vibes, as well as Garbarek’s pungent soprano.

Burton’s vibes are even more prominent on the following “Syndrome,” Carla Bley’s composition given an up-tempo swinging treatment in a quintet format, with Rainer Brüninghaus in the piano chair taking an appropriately fleet bop solo. It is followed by a delicate but satisfying duet between Weber and special guest Dauner on the Jerome Kern standard “Yesterdays.”

The Birthday Suite accounts a good portion of the program, consisting of three of Weber’s best known compositions, with transitional passages in between. “The Colors of Chloë” uses the symphony to full effect on a slow building, dramatic opening, before segueing into a more jazz oriented passage, with solo space for Weber, Burton, and Garbarek. Weber gives his composition “Maurizius” a moodier, bittersweet arrangement, with Garbarek’s soprano sounding plaintive. It concludes with the starkly orchestral “Yellow Fields,” punctuated by Burton’s vibes, Garbarek’s expressive tenor, and Brüninghaus’s flowing piano lines.

Perhaps the most unlikely collaborative effort is the trio of Weber’s bass, Reto Weber (no relation as the liner notes stress) on his percussive invention the hang, and beatbox Nino G. They actually blend into a percussive whole reasonably well, in “Hang Around,” undoubtedly the highest energy performance of the night

In a way, Weber’s birthday celebration encapsulates his own career and to a large extent that of his label, with “Syndrome” corresponding to ECM’s more jazz oriented sessions from artists like Burton, “Seven Movements,” his duet with Garbarek representative of the spacier sessions led by artists like the Norwegian reedman, and “Hang Around” pointing to more recent forms of experimentation. As such, it is an entertainingly varied program that pays fitting tribute to a rewarding artist.