Album review

Kenny Wheeler: ‘Gnu High’ and Nana Vasconcelos: ‘Saudades’ (ECM Luminessence Series)

Kenny Wheeler: Gnu High rec. 1975 and Nana Vasconcelos: Saudades rec. 1979

(ECM Luminessence Series (on vinyl). Double review by Phil Johnson)

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ECM’s new Luminessence series of audiophile vinyl releases from their esteemed back catalogue is a class act all round: thick cardboard gatefold sleeves featuring freshly commissioned liner notes accompany satisfyingly heavy platters whose sound quality is every bit as good as we are entitled to expect from a label with a reputation for crystalline clarity. The choice of the two launch titles is also inspired, pairing two historically important recordings with markedly contrasting virtues.

Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Gnu High’ is a solid gold classic from 1976 with a nonpareil band of Keith Jarrett on piano (his last date as a sideman), Dave Holland on double bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums. As Nick Smart’s strikingly insightful notes reveal, this was also trumpeter Wheeler’s breakthrough recording following a period of restless experiment, and his first as a leader for ECM in what was to become one of the great recording careers of both the label and jazz in general.

‘Saudades’ (from 1980) by the equally individualistic percussionist Nana Vasconcelos pairs the leader’s berimbau and subsidiary battery of instruments with arrangements for a small string orchestra composed by Egberto Gismonti, Nana’s Brazilian compatriot and an equally important fellow traveller for ECM over multiple decades. While an extended exposure to the berimbau – an iconic Afro-Brazilian folk instrument whose one or two strings are played percussively with a bow – is best appreciated by devotees, Gismonti’s arrangements, played by members of the Radio Symphony Orchestra Stuttgart conducted by Mladen ‘Bobby’ Gutesha, are revelatory, with eerie glissandi swerving in and out of Nana’s various instrumental and vocal effects. Once again, the sleeve notes (by Steve Lake) help to tease out a myriad of associations, from the genesis of the ideas for the recording in a kind of suck-it-and-see ECM multi-act German tour in 1977, to the correspondences with the vocal music of Stockhausen, Robert Wyatt and Meredith Monk.

By comparison, ‘Gnu High’ is all of a piece: beautifully apt and emotive Wheeler melodies structured over an extended Side One suite, ‘Heyoke’, and Side Two’s ’Smatter’ and ‘Gnu Suite’, and played with dizzying improvisatory freedom and rhythmic bounce by the superstar band. Jarrett’s extended solo on ‘Heyoke’ is among his best ever, while Holland and DeJohnette combine to produce a constantly shifting pulse for Wheeler’s pure-voiced flugelhorn to float over, centring the music with his inimitable sense of abiding melancholy.

Both albums sound superb but are notably different in acoustic emphasis; the Wheeler was recorded in a six hour live session at Generation Sound Studios in New York, while ’Saudades’, which includes substantial multi-tracking, is a product of the legendary Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg, a regular ECM location. Future Luminessence releases include Gary Burton’s ‘The New Quartet’, and also ‘Old and New Dreams’, both scheduled for 23 June. As an opener for the series, these first two recordings set a very high bar.


23 June 2023 Gary Burton’s ‘The New Quartet’ and ‘Old and New Dreams’ (Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell)

Autumn 2023 : Keith Jarrett’s ‘Bremen Lausanne’

Early 2024 : Garbarek’s ‘Afric Pepperbird’

Being discussed with no firm dates: Garbarek albums such as ‘Madar’, ‘Making Music’ and ‘Luminessence’ (with Keith Jarrett)

LINKS Buy Gnu High

Buy Saudades

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