Four years ago this month, a friend, knowing I was a big admirer of the music put out by ECM, suggested I put together a list of my all-time favourite releases on the label, in response to a New York Times list of 21 ‘essential’ ECM albums published to mark the music then newly available on streaming platforms. I took up his proposal (though whether they were my ‘all-time favourites’ remains a moot point), and it seemed to prove quite a popular read. Two years later, to mark ECM’s 50th anniversary, I decided to update the list; a few days ago another friend asked if I still stood by those lists, as he was looking to seek out some new music to listen to. My reply was yes – I still love all those albums I’d recommended – but later on I recalled how frustrating it had been to omit certain titles and artists from those two selections. I started thinking about the most regrettable omissions, and consequently decided – what the hell! – to put together yet another (complementary and alternative but certainly not corrective) list, just in case you, like my friend, are thinking about expanding your music collection or – given the time of year – wondering about seasonal gifts.
So here, for what it’s worth, is a third list of ECM favourites. This time I’ve left out ‘New Series’ titles (so no ‘classical music’, which certainly doesn’t mean the label’s recent releases on that score aren’t worth checking out) and concentrated simply on ‘jazz’ – except, of course, that ECM doesn’t believe in musical borders, genres or whatever, so the range of styles here is enormous. You’ll find songs and instrumentals, stuff that might be regarded by some as folk, funk, ‘abstract’ new music, solos, duets, trios, chamber jazz, orchestral jazz and much besides. I happen to think all of it is great and worth exploring. I hope you find something to enjoy – and, perhaps, to consider passing on to someone else.
Jan Garbarek–Bobo Stenson Quartet: Witchi-Tai-To (1973)
An acknowledged classic from a classic ECM outfit.
John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette: Gateway (1975)
Another acknowledged classic from another classic ECM outfit.
Anouar Brahem with Richard Galliano, François Couturier, Jean-Marc Larché, Bechir Selmi, Palle Danielsson, Jon Christensen: Khomsa (1995)
The great Tunisian oud player with an international all-star band. Fans of Moufida Tlatli’s films’ soundtracks will enjoy.
Marilyn Crispell, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian: Nothing ever was, anyway: music of Annette Peacock (1997)
Marvellous double-album tribute to a memorably distinctive composer and singer (who makes a brief vocal appearance).
Dominique Pifarely & François Couturier: Poros (1998)
Brilliantly virtuoso if challenging collection of duets for violin and piano.
Tomasz Stanko with John Surman, Dino Saluzzi, Michelle Makarski, Anders Jormin, Jon Christensen: From the Green Hill (1999)
The Polish trumpeter with a starry ensemble guaranteeing lovely textural colours and superb musicianship.
Annette Peacock: An Acrobat’s Heart (2000)
A rare outing by the utterly distinctive composer and singer, in an exquisite string-quartet setting.
Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra: Kyanos (2002)
Nordic jazz from a highly influential keyboardist and composer and a very gifted ensemble.
Orchestre National de Jazz, with Paolo Damiani, Anouar Brahem & Gianluigi Trovesi: Charmediterranéen (2002)
Sadly too-little known excursion into highly imaginative orchestral jazz: Gil Evans fans might explore.
Stefano Battaglia et al: Re: Pasolini (2007)
Jazz, neo-classicism, folk and pleasingly abstract music combined to mesmerising, imaginative effect.
Iro Haarla with Trygve Seim, Matthias Eick, Uffe Krokfors, Jon Christensen: Northbound (2005)
The title tells all: airy, celestial, uplifting, utterly seductive and alluring lyricism. Here’s a later live example.
Dino Saluzzi & Jon Christensen: Senderos (2005)
Reveries by the Argentinian bandoneon maestro, imaginatively accompanied by a hugely sensitive percussionist.
Paul Bley: Solo in Mondsee (2007)
One of the most distinctive and impressive of all modern pianists, improvising as freely and inventively as ever.
Mathias Eick with Jon Balke, Auden Erlien, Auden Kleive, Stian Carstensen: The Door (2008)
Infectiously enjoyable jazz, catchily melodic but with real punch, and the Norwegian leader boasting an endearingly clear, singing tone.
Nik Bartsch’s Ronin: Holon (2008)
Virtuoso togetherness from the Swiss pianist’s band that blends trance-like repetition, funk and surprising subtlety. Here’s a live example of what to expect.
Charles Lloyd Quartet: Mirror (2010)
One of the finest excursions from the veteran saxophonist in his autumnal flowering.
Nils Økland & Sigbjørn Apeland: Hommage à Ole Bull (2011)
Inspired by the Norwegian violinist and composer, a wondrous collection of duets for violin/Hardanger fiddle and piano/harmonium.
Enrico Rava Quintet: Tribe (2011)
Perhaps the most satisfying of the Italian trumpeter’s more recent outings, with trombonist Gianluca Petrella and pianist Giovanni Guidi outstanding among the accompanists. (Here they are live.)
Masabumi Kikuchi Trio: Sunrise (2012)
The mesmerisingly lyrical pianist in tandem with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Paul Motian.
Carla Bley with Andy Sheppard, Steve Swallow: Trios (2013)
The straightforward simplicity is of course deceptive: meticulous and magical playing of materials old and new. Here it is live.
Mette Henriette et al: Mette Henriette – O/Ø (2015)
Highly distinctive miniatures for trio and larger ensemble from a Norwegian composer with a very fresh approach to playing the sax.
Trygve Seim with Tora Augestad, Frode Haltli, Svante Henryson: Rumi Songs (2016)
Supremely expressive and sometimes sublimely beautiful settings of poems by the Persian poet, for soprano, accordion, cello and sax. Here’s a live outdoor performance.
Tigran Hamasyan with Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, Jan Bang: Atmosphères (2016)
The Armenian pianist creates ethereal and memorable sounds with a trio of top Scandinavian musicians. Here’s a live example.
Jakob Bro, Arve Henriksen, Jorge Rossy: Uma Elmo (2021)
Gentle but substantial, searching instrumentals in which the Norwegian trumpeter and Spanish percussionist are given as much space as the Danish guitarist. A brief example here.
Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh, Tyshawn Sorey: Uneasy (2021)
Surely one of the finest ‘piano trio’ albums in recent years, if such a term may be used of such wonderfully interactive musicians (pictured at top). Here’s one track.