The least famous participant in Universal Syncopations is the leader, bassist Miroslav Vitous. The other players are among the most prominent in the world on their respective instruments: Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin and Jan Garbarek. The album was recorded over a two-year period in two different studios and then assembled by Vitous, producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug. This process may explain why the sonic quality is not quite up to ECM's high standards.
Despite the presence of such strong, distinctive personalities, Universal Syncopations is undeniably a Miroslav Vitous album, unified by his individual vision. The foundation is a transcendental hook-up between Vitous and drummer Jack DeJohnette. Neither keeps time. Instead, they whirl and fidget and throb and shower sparks of energy and create powerful updrafts that carry this music aloft. Vitous wrote or cowrote all nine tunes, which contain gently persistent hooks of provocative ideas within wide-open vistas.
In such a context, Jan Garbarek excels. On pieces like the breezy "Bamboo Forest," he is less expansive than on his own albums, but his soprano saxophone is piercingly, concisely definitive. Both "Sun Flower" and "Miro Bop" set up Garbarek and Corea in abstract relationships of rarefied, fragmented call-and-response. "Beethoven" places Vitous and Garbarek in analogous but starker juxtaposition while DeJohnette clatters and intermittently detonates.
The synergies among Vitous, DeJohnette, Garbarek and Corea are so productive that the three least satisfying pieces are the ones that add the trumpets of Wayne Bergeron and Valerie Ponomarev and the trombone of Isaac Smith. Their weight interferes with the way this music dances on air. These three pieces are also where John McLaughlin replaces Corea, and it is puzzling that he is kept so far in the background, his vast guitar resources so underutilized.