When the news broke a few days ago that ECM, the illustrious and proudly independent Munich-based music label founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969, was making its remarkable back catalogue available to major streaming services, a film critic friend sent me a piece in the New York Times which singled out 21 ‘essential’ ECM albums. Knowing I’m something of an ECM nut, my pal suggested I do something similar, both for his own use and for my website. At first I was a little reluctant – how could I possibly choose from so many great albums? – but after further consideration I thought ‘why not?’ I’ve enjoyed ECM releases ever since the late 70s when I began seriously buying contemporary jazz records by the likes of Paul Bley (pictured above) – still one of my greatest favourites – Gary Burton, Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett. Moreover, since I’ve come to realise that my own tastes often coincide with Eicher’s, I’ve often made rewarding forays into unfamiliar musical areas – such as contemporary classical music, for want of a better term – which I might not otherwise have explored.
In case you’re unfamiliar with ECM – the letters stand for ‘Editions of Contemporary Music’ – it is famous partly for its wonderfully clear sound (producer Eicher, originally a bassist, was for some years prior to founding his own label a sound engineer for Deutsche Grammophon); partly for its commitment to the music itself (rather than to its profit potential); and partly for its promotion of certain artists who have proven, given the somewhat ‘niche’ nature of their music, extraordinarily successful: the pianist Keith Jarrett, saxophonist Jan Garbarek, the Hilliard Ensemble and the composer Arvo Pärt are the most notable ‘breakout’ or ‘crossover’ names. But the other thing that is particularly pleasing about ECM is its embrace of a truly diverse range of musics. Eicher dislikes any notion of musical borders, and so one can find music from all over the world, taking in jazz, folk, classical, avant-garde and almost anything else you might think of, including the odd film soundtrack (Eicher has a long-standing friendship with Jean-Luc Godard, who’s used ECM music in his movies for many years), even poetry.
In deciding to take up my friend’s suggestion, I decided not to be too hard on myself; so I’ve let myself nominate more than the 21 albums the New York Times chose. You’ll find my recommendations divided into those released as basic ECM titles (and here I’ve stuck to that 21), and those released under the ‘ECM New Series’ brand, which kicked off back in 1984 with the release of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; it’s devoted primarily to music generally categorised as ‘classical’ or ‘contemporary classical’. I’ve put the name of the listed ‘leader’ for each release in bold; and I’ve restricted each leader to one recommendation only, though you will certainly find quite a few musicians involved in more than one album mentioned here.
Paul Motian, with Carlos Ward, Sam Brown, Paul Metzke, Charlie Haden: Tribute (1975) Arguably the finest of many great ECM sets from the master percussionist and composer.
Keith Jarrett, with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian: The Survivors’ Suite (1976) The pianist at his most focused with a magnificent quartet.
Jan Garbarek, with Bill Connors, John Taylor, Jack DeJohnette: Places (1978) An early gem from one of the label’s most enduring stars, here stretching out wonderfully.
Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Ed Blackwell: Old and New Dreams (1979) Exploring the Ornette legacy, four of his finest former colleagues pay tribute, make magic.
Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell: El Corazón (1982) A beautiful, uncategorisable duet session that embraces rather more than just trumpet and drums.
Charlie Haden/Carla Bley, with Liberation Music Orchestra: Ballad of the Fallen (1983) Heartfelt political underpinnings never get in the way of splendidly played, inventively arranged anthems.
Paul Bley, with John Surman, Bill Frisell, Paul Motian: Fragments (1986) A fabulous quartet led by a peerless pianist whose albums were included among ECM’s very first releases.
Dave Holland Quintet: The Razor’s Edge (1987) Virtually impossible to choose from the bassist-leader’s many equally excellent releases of the 80s and 90s.
John Surman Quartet: Stranger than Fiction (1994) A dazzlingly fine quartet led by a master reeds-player at the peak of his powers.
Anouar Brahem Trio: Astrakhan Café (2000) Perhaps the most perfect album yet from the Tunisian oud maestro, though his very different latest may be its equal.
Gianliuigi Trovesi/Gianni Coscia: In cerca di cibo (2000) Sax, accordion, matchless mutual understanding: traditional Italian popular music, and a blast.
Trygve Seim: Sangam (2004) Supremely imaginative jazz-orchestra compositions from a genuinely distinctive saxophonist.
François Couturier, with Anja Lechner, Jean-Marc Marché, Jean-Louis Matinier: Song for Tarkovsky (2006) Meticulously structured compositions which more than do justice to the acclaimed filmmaker.
Anat Fort, with Perry Robinson, Ed Schuller, Paul Motian: A Long Story (2007) ECM has so many great piano trio/quartets to its name, but this one also has Perry Robinson.
Frode Haltli, with Garth Knox, Maja Ratkje, Arve Henriken: Passing Images (2007) Stirring Scandinavian folk – sort of – given a bracingly radical rethink by A-list musicians.
Dino Saluzzi/Anja Lechner: Ojos Negros (2007) Magically elegant duetting for bandoneon and cello that transcends cultural borders.
Norma Winstone, with Glauco Venier, Klaus Gesing: Distances (2008) That superb voice, in exquisitely lovely arrangements of songs old and new.
Craig Taborn: Avenging Angel (2011) A brilliant ECM debut and (Bach apart) the only outing for solo piano on this list.
Amina Alaoui: Arco Iris (2011) The Moroccan-born singer explores the links between Iberian and Moorish music with mesmerisingly beautiful results.
Christian Wallumrød Ensemble: Outstairs (2013) The hugely imaginative keyboardist-composer combines utterly different musics and creates something rich and strange.
Michael Mantler: The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra Update (2014) A highly distinctive composer-trumpeter reworks avant-garde classics from decades earlier.
Yes, I know… your own favourites are not in there. Nor are some of mine. It was painful to leave out albums by the likes of Arild Andersen, Nik Bartsch, Charles Lloyd, Nils Økland, Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko, Bobo Stenson and others, but as it was I struggled to restrict the above list to 21.
But at least I gave myself some extra room for the following ‘classical’ albums released under the excellent ECM New Series branding. The first dozen titles feature (at least partly) music by composers currently alive. Finally, I have also allowed myself not one, not two (Paul Bley allusion, folks!), but a slightly complicated couple of choices of superb interpretations of pieces of music written (or not) by a gentleman by the name of JS Bach.
John Adams: Harmonium (1984)
Arvo Pärt: Arbos (1987)
György Kurtág, with Márta Kurtág: Játékok (1997)
Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities (2000)
Paul Giger: Ignis (2000)
Valentin Silvestrov: Symphony No 6 (2007)
Garth Knox, with Agnès Vesterman: D’Amore (2008)
Betty Olivero / Tigran Mansurian / Eitan Steinberg: Neharót (2009)
Thomas Larcher: Madhares (2010)
Dobrinka Tabakova: String Paths (2013)
Kate Moore: Dances and Canons (2014)
Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (2015)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Goldberg Variations, performed by András Schiff (2003)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Morimur (various pieces) performed by Christoph Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble. If, after a few hearings, you can find anything more sublime and uplifting than this (especially track 21), please do let me know.
Happy listening! And make sure, when checking any of this music out, that you try to listen to it under the best conditions available. The fabled ‘ECM sound’ really is something.