Further Gems from ECM: revisiting some favourites

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.

5 thoughts on “Further Gems from ECM: revisiting some favourites

  1. One of the wonders of ECM is its breadth, I’ve just had a look at your other two posts and there are definitely some favourites that I share with you. Here are some others which feature another side of the label:

    – Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer – Re: ECM (simple amazing, beautiful)
    – Nils Petter Molvaer – Khmer
    – Jimmy Giuffre – 1961
    – Jon Balke – Siwan (because it features Jon Hassell and Amina Alaoui)
    – Food – Quiet Inlet
    – Eivind Aarset – Dream Logic
    – Chris Potter – Imaginary Cities
    – Codona – 1–3
    – David Torn – Only Sky (tough to choose between this and Prezens)
    – Dino Saluzzi – Andina
    – Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette – Rita and Daitya
    – Marilyn Mazur – Elixir
    – Miroslav Vitous – The Music of Weather Report
    – Misha Alperin – Her First Dance
    – Nana Vasconcelos – Saudades
    – Pat Metheny & Lyle Mays – As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls
    – Ralph Towner – can’t choose a particular album, it’s all so great
    – Thomas Stronen – Bayou, Pohlitz or Time is a Blind Guide

    Finally, you mention a couple of Anja Lechner’s releases with Couturier, but not my favourites which are Moderato Cantabile, Lontano, Melos and Chants, Hymns and Dances. That was a longer list than I intended, but hope it’s of interest!

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    1. Indeed, some of your choices – notably Chants, Hymns and Dances and Siwan – only dropped out of my latest list at the last moment. It’s very hard if you are trying to limit yourself to a fixed number. One I would definitely have included – the Jimmy Giuffre 1961 album – apart from the fact that it wasn’t originally an ECM release, but a reissue, so I felt it was sort of disqualified (as were the earlier Carla Bley and Mike Mantler albums originally released on WATT).

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      1. Yes, but Giuffre’s music was such an inspiration for ECM’s ethos that I believe I’m allowed it. I saw you chose Mette Henriette whose album I love very much, though I’m less convinced by the handful of roiling pieces. Six years ago already, I do wonder what happened to her and why she’s released nothing since such a debut.

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      2. Yes, the Giuffre/Bley/Swallow approach to composition and improvisation anticipated so much of what would appear on the label. As for Henriette, I believe that album features music that had been ten years in the writing, so maybe she works slowly, even without pandemics. And then Manfred Eicher does sometime hold on to recording sessions for some while before releasing them, so that might also be a factor.

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