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Various Artists: Selected Signs III-VIII

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Some albums, especially many of those issued by the venerable German label ECM, unfold like movie soundtracks. The magnificent six-CD set Selected Signs III-VIII unfurls like an epic trilogy without the moving pictures. With gentle shifts in genre and a stunning narrative arc, the collection offers a whole new dimension of label founder Manfred Eicher’s vision, and provides a glimpse into the limitless possibilities of what can be done with the music he has long championed.

The two previous iterations of Selected Signs were more or less samplers of the ECM catalog. Selected Signs III-VIII consists of music carefully curated for the recent exhibition ECM-A Cultural Archaeology at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, which showcased the label’s music, graphic art and photography. That an exhibit such as that could exist is a testament to Eicher’s vision. His records look, feel and sound as though they are part of some greater whole, and indeed they are. This is made crystal clear throughout these six CDs.

Combing through this set is a bit like stepping back from a single painting and realizing it is part of a vaster mural. That pieces as disparate as Steve Reich’s pulsating, minimalistic “Music for 18 Musicians,” Meredith Monk’s unsettling “Scared Song” and Ornette Coleman’s classic “Lonely Woman” (performed here by trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Ed Blackwell) can live together in such harmony is a revelation.

It also says something about the program’s curators, whose role in this is akin to that of a DJ who assembles a mixtape. But this is much grander. The curators combed through ECM’s massive oeuvre and pulled together seemingly unrelated strands in order to make a cohesive whole. They avoided obvious choices-Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, say, or Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert-and dug deeper.

These six discs aren’t organized strictly, but they’re more or less given themes. The event begins with a presentation of modern classical music, including Tigran Mansurian’s mournful string-quartet piece “Testament” and movements from Arvo Part’s quietly beautiful Tabula Rasa, alongside updated treatments of Bach, Haydn and Shostakovich, nonconforming pieces such as Heiner Goebbels’ macabre, theatrical “Hörstück II,” and sacred vocal music, including the one non-ECM piece in the project, an excerpt of John Tavener’s gorgeous (if repetitive) “Funeral Canticle,” which was used to great effect in the Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life.

Yet this is no mere sampler. Full suites are incorporated where the programmers deem appropriate. To wit, there are 12 movements from Eleni Karaindrou’s Concert in Athens (featuring chamber, tango, waltz and orchestral pieces); 10 tracks from Andrey Dergatchev’s ominous, disturbing score to the Russian thriller The Return; and nearly all of trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer’s icy jazz-electronica album Khmer.

ECM’s pioneering European jazz aesthetic takes over for the final two discs, traversing a wide span that roams from pianist Tord Gustavsen’s Chopin-influenced “Prelude” and the Jimmy Giuffre 3’s “Jesus Maria,” to a solo performance from trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and an innovative take on John Coltrane’s “Spiritual” by the Steve Kuhn Trio with saxophonist Joe Lovano. The set contains some nice surprises, too, such as “Zone” by trumpeter Ralph Alessi’s recent quartet with pianist Jason Moran, a beautiful tune called “Telepathy” by the little-known Colin Vallon Trio that will undoubtedly inspire listeners to investigate the Swiss pianist further, and two-and-a-half minutes of wolf growling.

Full of surprising juxtapositions and hidden gems, Selected Signs III-VIII is a monumental achievement by a vitally important cultural institution. By design or not, this sweeping survey from ECM invites listeners, too, to dig deeper-and perhaps do some mixing and matching of their own.

Originally Published