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Kenny Wheeler - Gnu High/Naná Vasconcelos - Saudades (ECM Luminessence)

27 April 2023

Like most record labels, the Munich jazz titan ECM started out putting albums out on vinyl. (It was 1969, after all.) But the company embraced compact disks and digital recording early on – the clarity and dynamic range made perfect sense for their spacious, cleanly-recorded sonic aesthetic. Even the label’s CDs from the eighties – the days when record companies just slapped analog masters on disks and called it – sound terrific today. Now, as it so often does in the music business, the pendulum has swung the other way. Consumers want more vinyl, and ECM steps up with the Luminessence series – vinyl reissues from the label’s vast catalog, both common classics and deep cut gems.

Originally released in 1976, Gnu High was the label debut for Canada-born/UK-based flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler. Though relatively unknown at the time, ECM still chose to match him with a trio of heavyweights, all of whom already had or would go on to have long relationships with ECM themselves. Pianist Keith Jarrett has the largest and possibly richest catalog on the label, while bassist Dave Holland forged his identity as a brilliant solo artist at ECM. Drummer and frequent Holland rhythm partner Jack DeJohnette has put out albums on a variety of labels over the decades, but always comes back to ECM. Just to make it even more ambitious, Wheeler and company kick things off with “Heyoke,” an expansive anthem that takes up the entire first side of the record. That’s no problem, though – with the contrast between Wheeler’s soaring elegance and Jarrett’s surprisingly ferocity the axis on which the tune turns, “Heyoke” easily and justifiably commands attention for its entire runtime. “Smatter” condenses the approach into a mere six minutes, while the album-closing “Gnu Suite” stretches back out and gives Holland and DeJohnette as much room to shine as Jarrett and the leader. A landmark album for both Wheeler and ECM.

On 1979’s Saudades, veteran percussionist and singer Naná Vasconcelos attempted something different than his usual rhythmically charged Brazilian jazz. Joined by guitarist and composer Egberto Gismonti and Stuttgart’s Radio Symphony Orchestra, Vasconcelos instead created a new sound world, one in which put Gismonti’s wiry eight-string guitar at the center and the orchestra and his own instruments as ornamentation. On opener “O Berimbau” – Gismonti drives the rhythm, as the leader adds subtle shadings and the strings come in and out when needed. Vasconcelos does get spotlights, with clattering percussion and quirky vocal exhortations adding a sense of whimsy. “Vozes (Saudades)” revolves around Vasconcelos’ voice overdubs, with minimal instrumental accompaniment, but it’s simply a deck-clearing exercise to set up “Ondas (Na ohlos de Petronila),” a near psychedelic swirl that combines everyone’s strengths. “Cego Aderaldo” puts the focus squarely back on Gismonti, who responds with a luminous performance, backed by Vasconcelos’ tabla, before the album ends with the even more stripped down “Dado.” Not jazz, not folk, nowhere near bossa nova, Saudades is raw but still somehow refined, a showcase for music no one else had heard before unless they were sitting in its creators’ heads.