By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The SFJAZZ Center continues it’s packed 2019-2020 season schedule this weekend with four nights celebrating the 50th anniversary of Berlin-based jazz label ECM Records.

Founded in 1969 by German record producer Manfred Eicher, ECM (which stands for Edition of Contemporary Music) would become a new imprint that for the next decade and beyond rivaled the golden era of such famed jazz labels as Blue Note, Verve and Riverside in terms of both the quality of music and the distinctive photographic cover designs. ECM would issue records for a host of ’70s jazz greats including pianists Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, bassists Dave Holland and Charlie Haden, vibraphone master Gary Burton and a host of guitar virtuosos including Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal and Ralph Towner.

While jazz made up a bulk of the output from ECM Records, the label also issued important modern classical releases from minimalist composer Steve Reich and avant gardist Meridith Monk as well as world music recordings by Indian violinist L. Shankar and Brazilian artists Naná Vasconcelos and Egberto Gismonti.

The four-night run of the 50th anniversary will feature both veteran musicians who made an early mark with the label and rising young players who have become leading lights in the jazz world. Thursday night the festival kicks off with a performance by Armenian piano virtuoso Tigran Hamasyan. A precocious talent who was drawn to the sounds of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Art Tatum at a young age, Hamasyan was playing festivals and winning awards by his early teens. But as he grew older, he incorporated elements of classical, jazz fusion, Armenian folk and even indie rock into his compositions, releasing both his ECM debut Luys i Luso with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir and the electronic-influenced Mockroot in 2015.

Since then, the prolific musician has issued a double CD recording with a quartet, a mostly solo piano album and the soundtrack for the film They Say Nothing Stays The Same. For this concert in the SFJAZZ Center’s Miner Auditorium, Hamasyan shares the stage with frequent collaborator and fellow ECM artist, vocalist Areni Agbabian. Meanwhile, another internationally renowned pianist, Israeli keyboard phenom Shai Maestro, will hold forth in the Joe Henderson Lab for two sets with his powerhouse trio.

On Friday, the festival continues with two talented trumpet players leading their respective quartets. Israeli trumpeter Avashai Cohen has been playing in front of audiences since the age of 10, moving from a stint with the Young Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra to studying on a full scholarship at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and eventually becoming a part of the fertile New York jazz scene. In addition to his numerous recordings as a leader, Cohen has recorded with the world music/jazz group Third World Love and had a six-year stretch playing with the SFJAZZ Collective.

Cohen and his quartet will be joined in Miner Auditorium by veteran avant-garde trumpet player and composer Wadada Leo Smith. A member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since the late ’60s, he played with like-minded musical adventurers saxophonist Anthony Braxton, multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill and future member of the World Saxophone Quartet Oliver Lake. More recently, Smith formed the Miles Davis electric era tribute band Yo Miles! with guitarist Henry Kaiser and his Golden Quartet, a group that at various times has included such luminaries as drummers Jack DeJohnette and Pheeroan akLaff, Art Ensemble of Chicago bassist Malachai Favors and pianist Anthony Davis. Smith’s epic 2012 four-disc orchestral set Ten Freedom Summers that was inspired by the civil rights movement made the composer a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize that year. For his return to SFJAZZ, Smith presents the world premiere of Appassionata, a multi-movement work focusing on Anita Hill, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sept. 11 attacks. In the Joe Henderson Lab on Friday, respected bass player and San Francisco native Larry Grenadier (Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau) plays two rare solo sets, drawing on his ECM album The Gleaners.

Saturday’s programming shifts the focus back to the piano with lauded bandleader, composer and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer bringing his trio to Miner Auditorium. While he trained to play classical violin starting at age 3, Iyer would gravitate towards the piano as he got older, teaching himself to play by ear before immersing himself in mathematics and physics for his undergraduate degree at Yale. Another player in the ECM roster with Bay Area ties, Iyer was pursuing a doctorate in physics at UC Berkeley before abandoning science in favor of music.

He played local drumming legends including E. W. Wainwright and Donald Bailey (who had backed organ great Jimmy Smith on a string of classic Blue Note albums in the late ’50s and early ’60s) before eventually moving back to New York to play with saxophonist Steve Coleman and genre-smashing ensemble Burnt Sugar before eventually founding his own trio. He has since released a string of celebrated albums through ECM including his 2015 trio effort Break Stuff, a sextet recording with coronet/electronics player Graham Haynes and the new live duo concert document made with fellow keyboard virtuoso Craig Taborn. Iyer appears with his current trio featuring longtime bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Jeremy Dutton.

The big draw Saturday might be the intimate show in the Joe Henderson Lab with jazz drumming giant Peter Erskine leading his own group. Erskine first made his name playing with the big bands of Stan Kenton and Maynard Ferguson during the mid 1970s, but came to global fame after joining Joe Zawinul’s wildly popular fusion supergroup Weather Report in 1978 at the height of the band’s success. He would also join Weather Report bassist Jaco Pastorious in his Word of Mouth Band before moving on to work with the NYC session group Steps Ahead and as a leader and co-leader of numerous bands, notably several all-star recordings with the likes of guitarist John Abercrombie and bassists Marc Johnson and Miroslav Vitous. On Saturday, he will take the stage with his quartet featuring tenor saxophonist George Garzone, pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Darek Oles (the 7 p.m. show is sold out, but tickets are still available for the 8:30 show).

On Sunday, the ECM 50th Anniversary fest comes to a close with a solo performance by aforementioned Brazilian hero Gismonti. Already an established artist in his native country after releasing a string of adventurous albums on EMI/Odeon that mixed Brazil’s popular and folkloric traditions with classical music. He recorded his first album  for ECM — Dança das Cabeças — in 1976. Showing of his prowess both as a composer and a musician (he played piano as well as custom-built 10-, 12- and 14-string guitars), the record also featured his longtime collaborator Naná Vasconcelos on percussion. Gismonti would make a number of spellbinding recordings for the label over the decades that followed, working with saxophonist Jan Garbarek, percussionist Collin Walcott, guitarist Ralph Towner and Ornette Coleman bassist Charlie Haden. His solo show at the Miner Auditorium is sure to dazzle. Another San Francisco native, trumpet player Ralph Alessi, closes out the Joe Henderson Lab with two sets leading his current quintet. For more information on the festival including ticket prices and showtimes, visit the SFJAZZ website.

ECM 50th Anniversary
Thursday-Sunday, times and prices vary