‘In Munich I used to frequent a record shop where the owner liked jazz, and he gave me some money to make some recordings. It was all quite accidental, and I’d no idea about business or money. I’d worked as a production assistant with Deutsche Grammophon, and I’d already met, in New York, musicians like Chick Corea and Paul Bley, so I started calling them.’ – Manfred Eicher in interview with the author
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of the very first album on the ECM label. As it happened, it wasn’t by Corea or Bley (though they did follow soon afterwards), but by another north American pianist, Mal Waldron, and it was entitled – perhaps appropriately for Manfred Eicher, the double-bassist and production assistant who founded ECM and who’s still happily at the helm half a century later – Free at Last. It was the first of a great many jazz piano trio albums released by ECM, but it would be wholly incorrect to typecast the label as specialising in that format, or indeed in jazz, since Eicher dislikes the idea of borders, musical or cultural, and cherishes diversity. (Indeed, probably more than any label over the last 50 years, ECM has very successfully challenged the hackneyed notion that jazz must be north American in provenance or style.) So, despite the extraordinary success of certain artists and composers the label has fostered – most notably, perhaps, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Steve Reich and Arvo Pärt – ECM is known for its audacious support of artists from all over the world working in very different idioms, quite often difficult or impossible to categorise. You can get some idea of the sheer range of material released over the years from alist of favourite albumsI posted when Eicher made the back catalogue available for streaming in November 2017.
Given this wide variety of musics (and, very occasionally, albums featuring poetry or film soundtracks), you might think it would be hard to pin down ECM’s identity as a label, but the opposite is true. What makes ECM what it is is surely Eicher himself. He’s justifiably proud of his independence (’I’ve turned down offers from major companies wanting to buy us up, but money is important only in that allows us to make recordings we feel need to be done for artistic reasons… For me, producing is a way of playing. Why would I give that up?’), and to an unusual degree the releases and the way they are presented to the world reflect his personal tastes. Most obviously there is the look and sound of the albums. The artwork is recognisably distinctive in its elegance, its clarity and its preference for photographs of landscapes, cityscapes or inanimate objects rather than mug-shots of musicians. (There is even a book, ‘Windfall Light’, devoted to ‘the visual language of ECM’.) And then there is the oft-noted ‘ECM sound’ – rich, crystal-clear, deeply resonant – pioneered by Eicher himself: ‘I wanted to record more as if it were chamber music, with more detail, more focus on the overtones; to give an impression of air in the music, like you get in a concert hall or church. So both the venue where you record and how you position the musicians and microphones are very important. As a beginner I had to experiment a lot, but people started to notice our sound.’
Fifty years on, and around 1600 albums later, ECM is still going strong, discovering and promoting new musicians and composers while continuing to work with others who’ve been associated with the label for decades. (Eicher does not go down the exclusive-contract route with musicians; each album is to some degree regarded as a one-off, even if the artist has already had many released on the label.) Since I posted the piece listing my favourite ECM albums in 2017, there have continued to be dependably fine albums released both on the original label and on the ‘New Series’ offshoot initiated with the release of Pärt’s Tabula Rasa to support contemporary composers and provide grade-A new interpretations of renaissance, baroque and classical music. So by way of celebrating ECM’s 50th anniversary, I decided to follow up my original list by selecting some favourites (in alphabetical order) from the releases I’ve heard from the last couple of years or so. I hope you find something there that blows you away too.
Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian: When Will the Blues Leave
Anouar Brahem et al: Blue Maqams
Kit Downes et al: Dreamlife of Debris
Giovanni Guidi et al: Avec le temps
Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far from Over
Joe Lovano, Marilyn Crispell, Carmen Castaldi: Trio Tapestry
Enrico Rava, Joe Lovano et al: Roma
Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase
Trygve Seim et al: Helsinki Songs
Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer: The Transitory Poems
Reto Bieri & Meta4: Quasi Morendo (Brahms, Pesson, Sciarrino)
Danish String Quartet: Prism II (Bach, Beethoven, Schnittke)
Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (Bach, Schnittke, Kancheli, Shchedrin, Pärt, Rihm)
Kim Kashkashian: JS Bach – Six Suites for Viola Solo
Thomas Zehetmair: Sei Solo – JS Bach Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo
All quotes are from an interview I conducted with Manfred Eicher a few years ago for a piece in Aesthetica magazine. The photography of Eicher with Keith Jarrett is by Roberto Massotti, courtesy of ECM. At the end of January, there will be several concerts celebrating ECM’s 50th at London’s Royal Academy of Music, which made Eicher an Honorary Fellow in 2018 (the only such award bestowed to date on a producer). Details of the concerts are here. You can listen to extracts from the albums listed at the ECM website.