By GRAHAM REID
Audiences often explain an era as much as the music which is the aural touchstone. If, as is often said, the best music writes itself into our autobiographies, then the authors of those books should be considered.
The energetic, probing bebop jazz of the late 40s and 50s appealed to an excitable and unsettled audience back from the killing fields of Europe and Asia, and the exploratory jazz-rock fusion of the 70s was a musical cipher for audiences which had grown up in peacetime - Vietnam excepted, which fuelled much black free jazz - and had the luxury to embark on the intellectual quest the music provided. It's said that when the times get tough the songs get soft. And maybe some styles have proved the opposite is also true.
The ECM label gained its mandate in the 70s because it arrived when there was a large, educated and musically literate audience comfortable with the proposition that jazz was not an exclusively African-American music (if it ever had been) but existed in different forms, notably in Europe, where the classical tradition was strong.
ECM jazz in the early days appealed to those for whom improvisation, European art music and the classical traditions were simply different modes of expression, not mutually exclusive schools of thought.
It was no coincidence the label's German founder, Manfred Eicher, trained as a classical producer. He believed jazz musicians weren't getting the same clarity of recording, and so in came ECM with a pristine sound often characterised as frosty (like the chilly saxophone of Jan Garbarek) and possibly even over-earnest. (Yep, sometimes). The joke was that on their days off from recording in the Oslo studio, Eicher would take the musicians to the Edvard Munch Museum. Just for the laughs, you understand.
This is unfairly reductive, because ECM also recorded the feisty and difficult free jazz of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the silver sheen of Pat Metheny's guitar, Don Cherry's Afrobeat, the slithery slo-mo sound of guitarist Bill Frisell and much more.
Most of these - not the free-jazz punk of Lask, however - found an audience, and to cater for the label's maturing, musically curious following, Eicher created the ECM New Series of contemporary classical music.
It's biggest seller has been Officium which paired saxophonist Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble, as seen at this year's international arts festival in Wellington.
But jazz has remained the backbone of ECM, and in a new batch of releases there are examples of the label's customary boundary-pushing material, but also a sense of stasis for one senior statesmen, which is perhaps to be expected (though not necessarily welcomed) on a label in its third decade.
Bassist Dave Holland's Not For Nothin' is disappointing. On a series of somewhat ordinary compositions - first up a generic Afro-Cuban flavoured piece entitled Global Citizen - Holland and his band, which includes trombonist Robin Eubanks, go through their professional paces.
But there is little sense of discovery, and the disappointment is less in the material than what might have been. The musicians sound constrained, and anyone who remembers Holland in the 70s and early 80s - or Eubanks. who was a boundary-breaking post-bop player in New York in the 90s - will feel shortchanged. Unless this is for an audience which has matured to the point of conservatism.
Much more adventurous is guitarist John Abercrombie's Cat'n'Mouse, with his quartet of violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Joey Barron and bassist Marc Johnson, a dream team of cutting-edge players. There are dark romantic tendencies in Feldman's playing, Abercrombie variously swings or heads for the boundaries on the freer pieces, and the rhythm section interlock adeptly, both Barron and Johnson being highly melodic players.
On Convolution, Abercrombie embarks on a sonic flight which recalls the best of the fusion years, Soundtrack rides a delicious violin melody, Third Stream Samba and Show of Hands are essentially free improvs (but adeptly melodic), and On the Loose is like a sonic colour chart over a lively bouncy rhythm. An excellent album.
And finally the Tomasz Stanko Quartet's Soul of Things I - XIII, led by the 60-year-old Polish trumpeter and accompanied by that rarity on ECM albums, a liner essay (excellent, too).
On this, his third ECM album, Stanko constructs a series of 13 miniatures which form a loose suite, and explores all the individual and group tonalities of this acoustic group. Pianist Marcin Wasilewski has the lightest of touches when required, and the whole thing veers between the sublime and the swinging.
Let's hope these last two find the audience they deserve.
By GRAHAM REID