Although not billed as such, this album is the third of what has become known as American ex-pat vibraphonist Tom van der Geld’s four “Children at Play” recordings, captured between 1973 and 1980. Path was recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany a year and a half after van der Geld’s previous Patience, during February 1979, with a trio consisting of the leader on vibraphone, Roger Janotta (returning from the earlier record) on flute, soprano sax and oboe and the surprising addition of Bill Connors on guitar – in his only recorded appearance with van der Geld.
Each of the Children at Play recordings has a completely different configuration and this one, featuring Bill Connors, showcases the group’s most famously prominent player. Bill Connors (b. 1949) provides a distinctively different foundation for Path than the previous two van der Geld records experienced. And “foundation” seems a particularly apt summation as Connors’ is not only the most dominant voice heard on the record, but his personal style of the time most often directs the unfolding of the music’s proceedings.
Connors, who made a name for himself – rather too briefly – as the guitarist in Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (Hymn to the Seventh Galaxy), tired of rock and similarly-styled electric eclectics by 1974 had set out to learn and study classical guitar.
The guitarist specialized in mostly quasi-classical acoustic sounds thereafter, as heard on his first solo album, the classic Theme to the Guardian (ECM, 1974). Connors recorded several more ECM records under his own name and as part of Jan Garbarek’s band before coming to Tom van der Geld’s Path, and finds a particularly suitable match for his unusually interesting guitarisms.
Unlike Patience, which seemed to emanate from the quietude of unspoken human emotion, Path is imbued with more of an organic or elemental sense of environment, something that is more perceptive and reactive and less expressive of some deeply held thought or emotion.
Like so many other ECM recordings in particular, this is that brand of music so often considered, rather unfairly, to be that “chilly” Euro-style that’s not quite jazz, not quite classical and not quite so easily pigeonholed as to be a genre unto itself, unless “ECM-like” damns with faint praise in that general direction.
Calling the five extended pieces featured here “compositions” is stretching the point a bit. Tom van der Geld is credited as a composer on “One” (on which he is barely audible), the pretty “Eevee” (dominated by Jannotta’s poetic flute intonations), the nearly Flamenco-like “Michi” and “Joys and Sorrows,” while Bill Connors is credited as composer on “Joujou.” None of the tunes has a striking melody or even the barest hint of a melodic refrain. But melody is rather less of a point here than musical invention.
To these ears, chemistry and improvisation are beside the point here too. While there are certainly elements of both on display, in the end, neither contribute forcibly to solidify the music. Often it seems to be one or two of the players stating their piece, seeking a reaction from one or two of the others. Very rarely are all three instrumentalists heard at once, and never in a predictable format.
The improvisation seems so controlled as to be written (no doubt, the classical influence) and as stark a contrast to the free-flowing “compositions” as you can get. What these three remarkably conversant players are doing is blurring the lines of demarcation – forcing the listener to reconsider that which is composed and that which is created on the spot.
It’s a “path” that takes several talented hands and considerably open minds to forge and that “road less traveled” is certainly well appreciated by listeners who can think outside of standard, scripted genre classifications.
Path is not available on CD or digital download and has been unavailable on LP for many years. Like Patience, Path can be heard - for the moment - at the Book of Prayer blog.