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Monday, December 2, 2019

ECM 50 years - A Calm Sea with the Occasional Storm (Part I of III)

Over the next three days we are celebrating ECM's 50th year anniversary.

By Stef

As a young man, I went on my weekly round of the records shops to find new vinyl albums. This was - obviously - in the pre-internet time, so as a listener the amount of information you got on new releases was very limited, especially because of the lack of local language jazz magazines, and the lack of availability of the American ones. Record stores were the only option for new discoveries, including the possibility to listen to records before buying them. This was also a time without dedicated radio stations: public broadcasting offered either classical music or popular music and private radio was still rare. In the late 70s and early 80s there was one label that was essential to me: ECM. In my record store in Belgium, the German quality label even had a separate section next to the Jazz section. All ECM albums were together, under a clear ECM label, as if they were outside the realm of jazz. This was then just testimony to what has been labeled the "ECM sound", and which the label's boss, Manfred Eicher, always denied existed. Ignoring the "sound" discussion for the moment, there's no denying the unique "branding" that Eicher gave to his label: the unity of the package, the unity in the cover art, the choice of top-level musicians and a top-quality sound.

The imagery of the ECM label took jazz out of its usual habitat. Instead of smoke-filled lounges and late-night bars, the natural environment for jazz (as perceived by my young mind), ECM presented images of wide horizons, clouds, seas and nature. In my opinion this also reflected the music, and the so-called non-existent "ECM sound". Says Eicher: "The water is wide. In my mind, I often bring the music we do together with water music. I see a sea, a big ocean. And it’s extremely calm. Then, two and a half minutes later, the waves start moving and it becomes a storm. It changes, and the tide changes. That is inside ECM I think. A continuous movement of undercurrents and unexpected drifts, winds coming from different directions to become a central storm. But sometimes the sea is tranquil, and stays tranquil." (Excerpted from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, published by Granta, 2007)

ECM replaced the tobacco-darkened ceilings of jazz clubs with skies and seas without limits. Instead of close and intimate and soulful warmth, the imagery projected distant and abstract and intellectual austerity, to a large extent accentuated by the icy sax of Jan Gabarek or the piercing guitar of Terje Rypdal, filling the open outdoor space and resonating without end. At ECM "jazz" becomes a personal spiritual transcendence instead of a physical community experience. On the downside, ECM brings jazz stripped of its natural sense of nervousness and agitation, stripped of its communal soul and clearcut feeling such as anger and joy. Its sound has more aesthetic pretenses than a willingness to reach deep soulful emotions. Purity wins against rawness. It is more cerebral than physical. The studio sound replaces the live experience. Nordic winters and fjords come to mind instead of the summer heat of Chicago. But it also eschews the power and the physicality of the musicianship of artists like Brötzmann and Kowald. Precision, sophistication, measure and control are key ingredients. One of my friends at that time, a music student says dismissively: "that is not jazz you're listening to". What did I know and what did I care. I loved it. This was my music. And now, listening again to some of ECM's music, its sound also has a sweetness that makes my teeth ache (Matthias Eick, Jan Garbarek, Trygve Seim).

In a paradox to this austerity and wide skies, the typical music of ECM evolves into a blend of expansive chamber jazz, adventurous yet romantic at the same time, away from the rhythms and themes of bop, integrating improvisational elements in a more classical direction in which compositional structure and instrumental mastery find each other. And if that definitely holds true for some of the label's core musicians, such as Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, John Surman, Dave Holland, Steve Kuhn, Ralph Towner or Enrico Rava, ECM always managed to add new and unknown names to its catalogue, or to give more established musicians with strong musical ideas also a chance. In the former group we find bands like "Dans Les Arbres" or the duo Vilde Sandve Alnaes and Inga Margrete Aas, and in the latter the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie and Old & New Dreams. The third ingredient is world music, again refined, polished, instrumentally brilliant and compatible with jazz, with wonderful albums by Anouar Brahem, Egberto Gismonti and Shankar to name just a few. Close to that extension, we get the more new age sound of Stefan Micus and Colin Walcott. And to Eicher's credit, he brought these musicians together, and encouraged them to create music together, offering us new and unheard genres and sub-genres. That is how Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden met. That is how Anouar Brahem, John Surman and Dave Holland met. And the list goes on. 

In fact, the breadth and scope of music on the ECM label is much wider than can be captured in the contested idea of an "ECM sound" as a genre per se. Despite the wide reach of all this music, there is still a core ECM sound that sets it apart. Some say that Eicher has had the luck to sign Jarrett and sell millions of albums, allowing him to expand his business. Yes, but at the same time, he was the one who approached Jarrett and asked him to release his music through ECM. Eicher reversed the roles. He never waited for musicians to approach him. He takes the first step. He selects them. In an interview with The Guardian, Eicher says "Our concept is still more or less the original idea of producing music that I love and that I would like to introduce to people. That's all it is, and it has not changed and will not change because it's the only thing I can do." (The Guardian, 17 July 2010)

The other critical name on most ECM albums is Jan Erik Kongshaug, the Norwegian sound engineer who worked with Eicher almost from the start and whose influence has been significant. He was active in over 700 albums released through ECM. He passed away in November. ‘The most beautiful sound next to silence’ was the original ECM slogan, in reference to John Cage. For sure, Kongshaug's name will forever be linked to his. An incredible legacy. 

So many years later, there are many albums that I listen to frequently. The Jarrett albums on the list below, Old & New Dreams (guaranteed to bring me in a good mood), Jack DeJohnette's New Directions, Bengt Berger's Bitter Funeral Beer, Egberto Gismonti. Many of the albums that I listened to fourty years ago, I would never listen to again today. Those include many Garbarek, Towner and Metheny albums. Times change, musical tastes evolve too. But the catalogue is impressive. The moments of sheer musical joy too. Despite my current criticism, ECM has been a significant part of the joy of listening throughout my life, and has produced wonderful music, both mainstream and adventurous. I hope my list below and the suggestions by the colleagues may guide interested readers. 

How many jazz labels get older than 50? Not many. Verve, Blue Note. Others come and go. 

We wish the label all the best with its anniversary. And our sympathy and thoughts to the family and colleagues of Jan Erik Kongshaug.

Here is my top-50 list of ECM for the last 50 years. 
  1. Keith Jarrett - The Survivor’s Suite
  2. Carla Bley - Escalator Over The Hill
  3. Old & New Dreams
  4. Bengt Berger - Bitter Funeral Beer
  5. Jack DeJohnette - New Directions
  6. Old & New Dreams - Playing
  7. Wadada Leo Smith - Kulture Jazz
  8. Keith Jarrett - Eyes Of The Heart
  9. Keith Jarrett - Nude Ants
  10. Rypdal/Vitous/DeJohnette
  11. Dans Les Arbres
  12. Egberto Gismonti - Sol Do Meio Dia
  13. Art Ensemble Of Chicago - Full Force
  14. John Surman & Jack DeJohnette - Invisible Nature
  15. Barre Phillips - End To End
  16. John Surman - Upon Reflection
  17. John Abercrombie - Gateway
  18. Terje Rypdal - Odyssey
  19. Codona 1
  20. Codona 2
  21. Codona 3
  22. Louis Sclavis - L’Affrontement des Prétendants
  23. Colin Walcott - Grazing Dreams
  24. Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti - Magico
  25. Pat Metheny - 80/81
  26. Lester Bowie - The Great Pretender
  27. Louis Sclavis - L’Imparfait des Langues
  28. Anouar Brahem - Astrakan Café
  29. Jack DeJohnette - New Directions In Europe
  30. Don Cherry & Ed Blackwell - El Corazon
  31. Chick Corea - ARC
  32. Charlie Haden - The Ballad of the Fallen
  33. Shankar - Vision
  34. Circle - Paris Concert 
  35. David Torn - Son Of Goldfinger
  36. Masqualero - Bande à Part
  37. Anouar Brahem - Barzakh
  38. Jan Garbarek & Ustad Fateh Ali Khan - Ragas And Sagas
  39. Don Cherry - Donna Nostra
  40. Tomasz Stanko - Litania
  41. Nils Petter Molvaer - Khmer
  42. Anouar Brahem, Surman, Holland - Thimar
  43. David Torn - Presenz
  44. Egberto Gismonti - Dança das Cabecas
  45. Jon Balke & Amina Alaoui - Siwan
  46. Charles Lloyd - Sangam
  47. Vilde Sandve Alnaes & Inga Margrete Aas - Makrofauna
  48. Miroslav Vitous Group - Remembering Weather Report
  49. Marilyn Mazur & Jan Garbarek - Elixir
  50. Jøkleba - Outland
... and yes, "Escalator Over The Hill" is by a sublabel of ECM, but it's worth mentioning too. You can question the order on the list, and I'm not always sure either, but I can recommend those albums for sure. 


James Allen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Very well written! And a great list that really shows there's so much more in the ECM-catalouge than what it is being critizised for... Looking forward to part II and III.

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Thanks for this thoughful introduction. Appreciated!
One minor point, though. You wrote: "... that Eicher has had the luck to sign Jarrett...".
Actually there is no contract betwen Eicher and Jarrett. At least not one which is fixed on a piece of paper. There was only a 'hand-shake' between these two men. Another sign of Manfred Eicher's integrity as a producer and a welcome reminder that even in the music industry there's a place for trust.

MJG said...

"How many jazz labels get older than 50? Not many. Verve, Blue Note."

More to the point how many last that long under the direction of one man? Whatever you may think of the music, and I think a lot of a lot of it, Eicher's contribution is astonishing.

Stef said...

Thanks for the comments and information. We deleted the spam message :-) and thanks for sharing the non-written arrangement between Eicher and Jarrett. I wasn't aware of that. Such levels of trust are more than rare.

Colin Green said...

I don’t think anyone signs to ECM other than for individual albums. Indeed, in the world of jazz and free jazz, does anyone sign long term or exclusive contracts anymore? Not for many years I’d have thought.

John Farrow said...

Thanks a lot for this stupendous, mouth-watering list. I know about 60% of the artists and maybe 10 % of the albums. I look forward to, with the help of Spotify, making some new discoveries.

Anonymous said...

Great summary. Everyone will have their own favourites no doubt. Ut surely there's a place for

Jack DeJohnette's - Special Edition
Rypdal Vitous DeJohnette -To Be Continued
Leo Smith -Divine Love
Keith Jarrett - Belonging
Ralph Towner - Solstice
Ralph Towner - Sound and Shadows
Enrico Rava - Quartet
Enrico Rava - New York Days Rome Nights
Edward Vesala - Lumi
Edward Vesala - Nan Madol
Jan Garbarek - Triptykon
Jan Garbarek - Dis
Jan Garbarek - Witchi Tai To
Arild Andersen - Live At Bellevile
Kenny Wheeler - Deer Wan
Kenny Wheeler - Music for Large and Small Orchestra
Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra - Ana
Azimuth - The Touchstone
Azimuth With Ralph Towner - Depart
and so many more

Anonymous said...

Forgot to mention one essential release from 40 years ago

Sam Rivers - Contrasts

Ernst Grgo Nebhuth said...

Colin has the point. But in case of Jarrett one has to remind that he's exclusively with ECM since decades. Whereas most other musicians on the ECM rooster do release recordings also on other labels.

Anonymous said...

By all means great, but "Escalator Over The Hill" is a JCOA album.

James Allen said...

Three of my favourites not mentioned yet are:
The Struggle Continues by Dewey Redman,Ruta and Daitya by Keith Jarrett and Jack deJohnette and Stella Malu by Katrina Krimsky and Trevor Watts.

Gennaro said...

Thanks Stef for your excellent selection!
I would like to add a special mention for the ECM first ever release:
... what do you think about it?

Snowbrain said...

Excellent article; can't wait for parts 2 and 3. As one who discovered ECM in the mid-1970s, I must add some of my all-time favorite ECM recordings: 1) Abercrombie's Timeless with Jan Hammer and Jack DeJohnette, 2) Egberto Gismonti's Solo, 3) Ralph Towner's Solo Concert, and 4) Pat Metheny Lyle May's As Fall Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls.

Unknown said...

ECM has top quality musicians. Devoted to beautiful music and producing quality recordings since the beginning.