Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More New (to Me) Sounds, Part II

And now I'll finish the post that I started yesterday. I ended up having so much to say about Alexis Cuadrado that I decided to save a couple of other new favorites for a separate post, so here we go:
  • I mentioned the Swiss pianist/composer Nik Bärtsch in passing in an earlier post, where Holon, his newest recording with the group Ronin, had found its way into regular play in the Kevmobile. From first listen, I was pretty much hooked on what Bärtsch calls "ritual groove music," an amalgam of funky jazz and minimalism, and I picked up his other ECM release, Stoa, in fairly short order. I even threw down some semi-righteous import bucks for an earlier release,Rea, on his own Ronin Rhythm Records. I had every intention of picking up the rest of his back catalogue a little bit at a time (since the imports were a bit pricey), so you can imagine my delight this past week upon finding the entire Bärtsch ouevre at Amazon Downloads. I promptly snagged Aer (yes, that's Rea backwards, but that's not how the music came out) by Bärtsch's other group, Mobile (which shares some personnel with Ronin but includes a keyboard percussionist). He also has a solo piano recording that makes him sound, thanks to string dampening and other techniques, almost like a band all by himself. With the lower prices of the downloads, I'll be able to complete this collection in a much shorter time than otherwise.

    If you're a fan of Steve Reich-style minimalism with unusual sonic textures and cool grooves, Nik Bärtsch is a name to check out.
  • Our other featured musician has also spent some time on the ECM label, but in this case, it was earlier in his career as opposed to now. Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer is someone whose music I had never heard until this past weekend, but once I did, I couldn't stop listening. He's considered a leading figure in the European arm of Nu-jazz, a mixture of jazz and electronica. The album that hooked me was Khmer, his 1998 ECM debut (which doesn't sound the least bit dated). Just imagine if Miles Davis had lived long enough for electronica to become really popular in the U.S., keep the strong sense of melody and the sparse playing, and marinate in some Tomasz Stanko for a while, and throw some skronky guitar into the spaces in the melody, and that will scratch the surface of what Molvaer's music is all about.

    Molvaer didn't stay on ECM for long, migrating to the Thirsty Ear label (home of Matthew Shipp and others who have toyed around with electronics themselves) and putting out a series of albums that sound great from the previews; I'm looking forward to my monthly allotment of eMusic downloads next week. He's also dabbled in film scoring a bit, which makes sense, as a lot of these tunes are very good at telling stories. I'm not sure exactly what the primary element of this music is that has grabbed me so, but I find myself going back to it again and again.

    Is it straight ahead? Not in the least. But as I noted in the Marco Benevento post a few weeks ago, I find that a lot of the "most played" artists in my iTunes at the moment are those of the straight-eighth variety who make "cool sounds." I'm not by any means abandoning the swing, but, as a leader of a very dormant sextet that I would like to see become un-dormant once I recover from my upcoming surgery, I can't help but think that some of the elements of what I'm listening to will work its way into my own music.
There are some other new artists that I'm checking out lately, including one who just recently found me on MySpace and hasn't formally recorded his music yet. I'll have other posts like this one and yesterday's from time to time.

A heads-up to the brick-and-mortars: Let me say from the outset that I realize that the chain megabookstores aren't necessarily meant to be everything-to-everyone CD stores as well, but, with the loss of most of the so-called mall record chains (and a lot of the mom-and-pop stores), they're pretty much all we've got besides the Internet. It so happens that I was introduced to the music of both of the artists featured in today's post because I saw them on the shelf at one of the Big Two bookstores in the past year, because these stores are cool enough to carry some ECM titles. The German label has a distinctive sound (thanks in no small part to the production values of founder Manfred Eicher), and the wide, cardboard-sleeved jewel box covers with the recognizable font make ECM releases stand out on the shelf. For someone like myself who likes the ECM sound (and it is a sound; write "ECM" at the top of a chart, and a smart drummer will instantly know what style to play), I'll gravitate towards those titles while browsing, check them out, and often end up making a purchase.

But here's the thing: In the case of Bärtsch, I'd read an ad for Holon in a recent Down Beat magazine, and I wanted to check it out. But the megabookstore where I saw it had broken listening stations all around, so I couldn't check it out, and, at a list of $18.98, I couldn't afford to experiment, so I came home, listened to it on Amazon Downloads, and liked it so much that I bought it there. And this past weekend, I heard Molvaer's Khmer when I found it out of the blue at the other big bookstore. While I could hear some of the tracks (whereas every other ECM CD in this store seemed to only play track 2--not 1, but 2), I wasn't about to pay $17.98 for it. Again, I went home, visited Amazon Downloads, and it was mine in a click.

Part of me felt bad about this; were it not for the bookstores, I might never have seen Bärtsch's CD in the flesh or even heard of Molvaer. But if the brick-and-mortars are going to price themselves out of the market like that, what's a guy to do? I want these places to stay around, so I can browse and listen and sip coffee, but I can't pay list price for things out of sheer altruism. As cool as it is to have a "real" CD, I'll happily pay ten bucks less for the download in most cases. (Even stranger is the fact that, as I look at Bookstore #2's website just now, I see Khmer for four bucks cheaper--three with my membership. Does it cost that much more to keep an item on the shelf? And if not, how about doing a price-match with your own website to keep the brick-and-mortar customers happy?)

I'll probably have more to say on this subject in a separate post.

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