ECM has a lot to answer for

In the Telegraph Ivan Hewett nominates the collaboration between Tunisian oud virtuoso Dhafer Youssef and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kristjan Jarvi as one of his five worst classical moments of 2014. I wasn't at the Barbican concert which Iven Hewett describes as a "toe-curling example of vapid 'cross-over'”. But it is a judgement which chimes with me, because I would have to nominate Dhafer Youssef's Birds Requiem as among my least satisfying CD purchases of 2014. Birds Requiem is released on the Sony owned Okeh label, which has been rejuvenated in an attempt to grab market share from ECM. Ignore the subtle Okeh logo, and Birds Requiem would pass as an ECM release. The monochrome artwork is pure ECM. As is the music - ethnically correct easy listening which never leaves the formulaic groove that fellow Tunisian oud virtuoso Anouar Brahem's recent work for ECM is also stuck in. Don't get me wrong, I respect and admire ECM. But many of their recent releases indicate that Manfred Eicher's innovative label is now flying on autopilot. Which means that ECM's Moderato Cantabile from Anja Lechner and François Courturier - music which offends nobody and goes nowhere - is also among my five least satisfying CD purchases of 2014.

Gustavo Dudamel's BBC Proms Mahler Seventh is another of Ivan Hewett's five worst classical moments. Writing of this performance he says: "It takes a really searching, insightful conductor to make sense of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. Dudamel here is just out of his depth". Yes, Mahler Seventh is great when in the right hands, and, by the same token, so is musical fusion. I was travelling in Egypt at the time of the recent terrible massacre of schoolchildren in Pakistan, and, by coincidence, was reading Rock & Roll Revolution: A Muslim Rock Star's Revolution by the Pakistani rock star, advocate of inter-faith dialogue and pioneer of 'Sufi rock' Salman Ahmad. With a CV that includes performances at the UN in New York and at the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Concert to celebrate laureate Al Gore, Salman Ahmad has been compared to Bono. It is a comparison which cuts both ways, because Ahmad likes to mix with the establishment great and good, and the big break for his band Junoon came through Coca-Cola sponsorship. But Salman Ahmad's views on how fusion can work in the right hands are worth reading:

Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan] broke the traditional mould of the qawwali singer when he collaborated with Peter Gabriel, Michael Brook, and Eddie Veder of Pearl Jam. Nusrat's feelings about fusion music actually sprang from a deep spiritual conviction. Nusrat was a living exemplar of unity in diversity. Long before 9/11 and the subsequent war on terror and talk of a clash between Islam and the West, Nusrat sang ecstatically about the Oneness of God and love for humanity. Years later, when I met Peter Gabriel he told me that it was Pete Townsend of The Who who had turned him on to the King of Qawwali. Talking to Nusrat about his brilliant album with Michael Brook, Night Song, the Sufi singer told me that he loved fusion because the Quran says that God loves diversity. The most powerful way to celebrate and express diversity, Nusrat felt, was through music.
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ECM has been recording music that I consider unoffensive but vacuous for a long time now, at least back to its first records with Vassilis Tsabropoulos as well as Anouar Brahem's Le Pas du Chat Noir in the early millennium. However, when reviewing this music at Amazon, I’ve often found that this very same music that to me seems mindlessly pretty fluff, in fact has had quite an impact on other listeners, who call it sublime, revelatory, etc. Well, different strokes for different folks, I guess.

Is it just me, or if ECM’s output slowing? They must be taking quite a hit from internet filesharing; most fans of the label I know don’t buy the records any more unless, as I mentioned here before, they want the vinyl as decor.

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