Rose Hall in Jazz at Lincoln Center became something of a spiritual place on Friday night, as 32 of the world’s top jazz artists came together to pay tribute to 50 years of ECM Records. The brainchild of Manfred Eicher, ECM has put out over 1600 records since its founding in 1969 —including seminal works such as Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert— with the overwhelming bulk produced by Eicher himself. A Mendeleev of jazz, Eicher assembled an astonishing periodic table of living legends for this two-night marathon tribute.
The night opened with Brazilian pianist Egberto Gismonti, in beanie and ponytail, playing a solo piece that sounded like a six-hander: an impossible number of overlapping rhythms and melodies, interspersed with moments of melancholic beauty. A murderer’s row of solos, duos, trios and quartets followed. The musicians in Joe Lovano’s trio were each in their own world, yet somehow stitching together a new one: like Frankenstein’s monster, slowly gaining control of each part of the body before finding out they’re Usain Bolt.
Larry Grenadier managed to summon an orchestra of sounds from his almost purple bass – from an old man on his last legs to a New Wave string quartet. Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played what can only be described as a demonic waltz, with Smith sounding like an angry wasp trapped in a bottle (in a good way). The reverb from Avishai Cohen’s trumpet playing directly into the body of a Steinway concert grand made him sound like he was the only musician in the world. But the unexpected highlight of the night was Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch. His solo piece started out like morse code and steadily built to a waterfall of sound. He used the piano for melody and for percussion, tapping, strumming, massaging the strings in ways I had never seen or heard before – like a hunter using every part of his kill.
The fact that Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Craig Taborn, Bill Frissell or Shai Maestro haven’t even been mentioned should tell you how special this night was. The micro-sets were tied together by a thread of almost religious reverence – at least one piece or passage of a piece from each set sounded like a modern-day hymn. A fitting offering to the shrine of ECM and how it has profoundly shaped jazz as an art form.