In honor of the 50th Anniversary of ECM, the collective was asked to provide three favorite ECM recordings and tell us why they are special. The most common comment that folks made was that narrowing down to listing three ECM recordings is basically impossible. Some suggested a top 10 … or even top 100. Anyway, here are the picks: (Please note, there is no order to sequence of writers.)
Arvo Part – Tabula Rasa (1984)
Possibly the most beautiful music ever recorded. If you've never heard it, preparations are in order. Be alone. Shut off your phone and maybe the lights. Melancholy never sounded so warm. Orthodoxy never sounded so inviting. It's impossible to think of Arvo Part as anything less than a holy man after hearing this recording.
Dave Holland Quartet – Conference of the Birds (1973)
An absolutely essential recording. The Holland / Braxton / Altschul axis never sounded better – then throw in Sam Rivers as the wild card & the magic never stops happening. Shortly after, it would be Holland / Rivers / Altschul taking this thing out further than could've been expected – but Conference smokes those later recordings – and even Braxton's Arista records! One of my Top Ten Free Jazz Records ever.
Steve Reich – Music For 18 Musicians (1978)
I spent an entire winter one year sleeping to this CD on repeat. The music spins it's web of chordal changes via sixteenth-note intervals in ways that lulled me to sleep within minutes – but pulled me back out just as easily to hear some subtle shift before dropping back into dreamland. It was a weird time – and I don't think I really got decent sleep the whole season, but my dreams were a nice strange escape from my daily work life. Thanks Steve Reich for helping me get to sleep during the hard times; and for keeping me aware of the possibility of change, the only constant in the universe.
Old and New Dreams — Playing (1981)
Charles Lloyd Quartet — Fish Out of Water (1990)
A good example of the recently departed Jan Erik Kongshaug’s exemplary engineering and the famous ECM Steinway which he’d have retuned for each session, here played with characteristic clarity by Bobo Stenson. A recording that captures every stutter and cymbal decay from Jon Christensen’s kit, the skeletal bass of Palle Danielsson and Lloyd’s sinuous tenor and flute, a soundscape described by Manfred Eicher at the time as resembling a painting by Giacometti.
Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz, Dave Holland, Bill Frisell — Angel Song (1997)
Wheeler’s piercing trumpet/flugelhorn and bittersweet melodies in a sumptuous mix with Konitz’ weeping alto and the watery strains of Frisell’s guitar, all anchored by some sturdy bass work from Holland. The ensemble was put together at Eicher’s suggestion, one of his many inspired combinations.
Marion Brown - Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (1971)
Brown's lone ECM album is a stunner, the first half builds up an almost cinematic suspense that explodes like a glass vase shattered on a marble floor, the shards scattering and aggregating in ways that are unpredictable. A classic of the genre and a must have for collectors.
Dave Holland Quartet - Conference Of The Birds (1972)
A well known and loved album by many, this second offering from the prolific Holland/Braxton partnership finds them paired with frequent collaborators Barry Altschul and Sam Rivers. The track sequencing alternates layers of saccharine and tart, with the title track finding Braxton and Rivers weaving aural magic on flutes.
Steve Reich - Music For 18 Musicians (1978)
Mathematical yet terrestrial in ways few albums of this kind are. Definitely my favorite Reich album and one of the greatest pieces of minimalism ever put to tape. The development of it's structure from beginning to end is hypnotizing, and it remains all time favorite of mine.
Joe Maneri / Mat Maneri / Barre Phillips - Angles of Repose (2004)
With only two recordings, both on ECM, Maneri / Maneri / Phillips is in the running for my favorite grouping of musicians I've ever heard. The atmosphere can be ascetic, hermetic, pastoral, resembling a kind of pain, sorrow, or joy flowing over a dam of stoicism. Sonic knight-errants. Making dolmen music. Both intellectually and spiritually arresting. I think about Joe's vocalizations a lot.
Dave Holland / Barre Phillips - Music From Two Basses (1971)
Two bassists both at the intersection of the sublime melody and rhythm of the music before and the wandering structures and timbres of the music after free. Emotive and exploratory. Has the low-end ever seemed so lyrical?
Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips - Sankt Gerold (2000)
Modular groupings improvising modally and freely, transversing tonalities. Each playing at the height of their technique. Reverent, of each other, the locale, the music. Ascendant.
Kenny Wheeler - Gnu High (1976)
My introduction to ECM, and a record I bought for the cover alone. The star studded line up consists of Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Holland. The soloing of every musician on this album is gorgeous and deeply introspective. It's a personal affair and this record is a gift that keeps on giving with every listen.
The Art Ensemble of Chicago - Urban Bushman (1982)
For me, this is the definitive album by the Art Ensemble. A live album which contains the multiplicity of musical ideas that span their career. Moments of serene beauty are found alongside sections of intense instrumental and vocal concoctions, leading to a catharsis that is not easily found elsewhere. While this may not be the ideal introductory Art Ensemble album, it truly is their magnum opus.
Robin Kenyatta - Girl from Martinique (1971)
This rarely discussed album is a unique and beautiful release within the impressive 1970's ECM catalog. This recording session is a fantastic fusion of American and European jazz forms, as Robin Kenyatta and Fred Braceful provide soulful roots that are expanded upon by the intricate playing of Europeans, Wolfgang Dauner and Arild Andersen. Kenyatta's saxophone solos and Dauner's clavinet playing are exceptional features of this album that create a pleasantly memorable experience.
Anouar Brahem, Dave Holland, John Surman – Thimar (1998)
I originally bought this because Dave Holland was on it. Anouar Brahem, however, blew me away. Serene, almost chthonic, and spacious.
Arvo Pärt – Te Deum (1993)
I usually do not go for church music, nor does it appear on this blog with much frequency. This album, however, is absolutely stunning. Pärt is a treasure.
Tomasz Stanko – Matka Joanna (1995)
This might not be, hands down, Stanko’s best on the label, but I do find myself returning to it over and over again. As we came to expect from the trumpeter and his comrades (on this recording, Bob Stenson, Anders Jormin, and Tony Oxley), the music is dark, pensive, and compelling progressive jazz.
More than forty years ago when my listening habits gravitated from prog-rock to jazz (in the broader sense of the word), ECM was my gateway, my favorite label and default choice, simply because the immediate availability of all its releases, compared to scarcity of releases by more established, American labels.
Dave Holland / Barre Phillips - Music from Two Basses (1971)
Classic ECM, offering a duet that was unthinkable by other labels terms and the album that cemented my love to the deep-end notes of the double bass. Still sounds fresh and invigorating and its inventive, wise and intense dynamics are timeless.
Terje Rypdal - After the Rain (1976)
My favorite guitarist in ECM catalogue. Rypdal’s solo album, accompanied only by the wordless vocals of his wife, in his most personal and touching album. You can hear the seminal influence of his atmospheric, sustained guitar sound on generations of guitarists.
Jan Garbarek - Dis (1977)
Quintessential ECM, suggesting a spin on its chilly Nordic image. Norwegian sax legend, guitarist Ralph Towner playing-experimenting with tones and overtones of the winds of the North Sea. Untimely music that that exposes you to the most beautiful and intimate sonic sensations.
Wadada Leo Smith - Kulture Jazz (1995)
I love this record. So simple, soulful, direct. Mbira, singing/chanting, trumpet, flute. The quality of every sound is very present.
Anouar Brahem (w/Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Django Bates) - Blue Maqams (2017).
I have found this record indispensable since it came out. On permanent rotation. A perfect balance of structure and improvisation; each tune has a distinct identity, yet all the pieces feel of a piece. They produce an atmosphere.
Paul Bley / Evan Parker / Barre Phillips - Time will Tell (1995)
I put this record on mostly for the first, memorable track, “Poetic Justice,” with Parker’s contribution just perfect. It never fails to remind me of what interplay should sound like.