Feature by John Shand
Ask Australia’s improvisers which international label they would most like to record for and I suspect Germany’s ECM would win an easy majority. Cue many disappointed local players, because none has had that honour – unless we claim the Mike Nock of 33 years ago as an Aussie. Until now.
Nearly a decade into the life of his trio with fellow guitarists Ralph Towner and Wolfgang Muthspiel, Slava Grigoryan has finally broken Australia’s duck. The trio traipsed into Lugano’s Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera – a studio/concert venue akin to the ABC’s Eugene Goossens Hall – in August of 2012, and the resultant Travel Guide was released last October.
Stories about ECM boss Manfred Eicher’s role in the recording process are legion and legendary, and were partly documented in the wonderful DVD Sounds and Silence. I have interviewed some 40 ECM artists across the decades, and most hail him as the finest producer with whom they have worked, while a few recoil from the level of interference they have encountered.
‘I, too, had heard very different stories,’ says Grigoryan, ‘and obviously knowing what he’s done it was a very daunting prospect. But from the word go during our session I felt that absolutely everything that he said made complete sense… He also was very nurturing, very supportive, which was a lovely thing to experience. And of course it was amazing to see what he did with Stefano [Amerio], the engineer, on the third day: the editing, mixing and mastering day, where he really starts working on his instrument. It was extraordinary to be in the control room and see how everything is put together sound-wise, and how much involvement he has in that. It’s basically all him… We just sat there smiling like little kids. He just did it all, and it was so effortless and so easy.’
The trio, in which Grigoryan plays classical and baritone guitars, Austria’s Muthspiel plays electric and ECM stalwart Towner (of the US) plays classical and 12-string, prepared for the session with five days of rehearsal in Basel. ‘For this trio that was like an intensive camp,’ says Grigoryan. They worked on new or newish material composed by Towner and Muthspiel, and arranged either by each composer or the trio.
‘Ralph, in particular, has very much adapted his writing for the three of us, specifically,’ says Grigoryan. ‘They’re very much tailored parts, and actually they’re very classical in terms of what we have to look at, material-wise in front of us. Of course then there are the open, free sections where everyone improvises. But the actual composition part of it is very scored out; is very specific.’
Other pieces were more open in approach. The guitars used on a piece might be specified, as on the Muthspiel pieces where Towner plays 12-string, or that arrived at collaboratively. Grigoryan’s baritone (pitched between a conventional guitar and a bass) is especially effective at adding a distinctive warmth on some pieces. ‘Particularly when Ralph’s sparkling away on the 12-string, and you’ve got the thickness form Wolfgang’s electric, it’s a lovely blend,’ observes Grigoryan.
The trio drove down to Lugano, arriving in time to do some set-up work on the evening before the session began. A hallmark of Eicher’s success as a producer has been microphone choice and placement, and he has told me that he never walks into a studio with preconceptions. He listens to the music and then decides what to use where.
‘On the first morning,’ Grigoryan recalls, ‘when we were actually starting to play and getting a sound happening, he spent a lot of that time moving around the auditorium, and listening to the sound that we were making as a group on stage. Then the mikes were adjusted and changed according to the sound in the room.
‘The unusual thing about this album was that there was no separation and we were all on stage in a very good-sounding chamber music venue. No headphones, no separation, all the mikes were open, and there’s no chance of anyone coming in and doing any fix-ups on their own. From that perspective it was a very classical approach as well, and I guess the reason why it was slightly unusual was that of course we’ve an electric guitar in the mix. I found it amazing that sonically it worked so well, because Wolfgang had to be substantially lower in the [live] mix to what we’re normally used to in a concert environment. But it worked brilliantly, and we were all very comfortable. He was very comfortable with it as well, so all credit to him as an electric guitarist! I think just having such a beautiful space to play in much a huge difference.’
A high level of professionalism was taken for granted, so that rather being able to warm up or ease themselves into a piece it was expected that the first run-through of the first piece would be a take. ‘From that perspective it really is like a performance – like a radio broadcast, really,’ says Grigoryan. ‘Knowing that you’ve got two days, and a lot of repertoire to go through, and a lot of different sound set-ups, you have to be ready to get in there and play it and move on to the next piece.’
Eicher was neither interfering nor austere. The mood he created was one of encouragement and calm professionalism. ‘It was very inspiring to be in that presence,’ Grigoryan says, ‘and to have four nights of being together and talking and learning.’
After two days of recording Eicher really came into his own on the post-production day, where he was actually working the desk in conjunction with the engineer while the players watched and listened. Grigoryan was impressed with how streamlined the process was, with negligible editing and very little change to the original stereo imaging – in part because of the way the trio had been recorded. Eicher would ask them how they felt about the playing at certain points, and all decisions were unanimous because the right one was always obvious.
‘Being in the control room on the last day was amazing,’ says Grigoryan. ‘A couple of times in my head I’d go, “That’s sounding a little bit woolly, and I’d be doing this”, and Manfred would do the exact opposite, and the result was astonishing. It was amazing to see that, because it just shows how wrong it’s easy to be in those situations, and just very inspiring and educating. I think next time when I’m in a studio I’ll definitely approach and look at things differently from that one experience. It was a very profound one.
Read John Fordham’s review of Travel Guide in The Guardian
Travel Guide on the ECM website
More from John Shand on AustralianJazz.net (and on his own website johnshand.com.au)
Listen to a track on the ECM website