The Cutting Edge of ECM

Return of the Avant-Garde

The Cutting Edge of ECM

Could 1969 have been any more of a momentous year in popular music? Rock festivals reached their apex—and their nadir—at Woodstock, the Isle of Wight, and Altamont. Led Zeppelin, CSN, King Crimson, and Blind Faith made their recording debuts. Significant LP releases included the Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Who’s Tommy, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow. Miles recorded Bitches Brew that year, and Charlie Haden formed the Liberation Music Orchestra.

But it was an album by pianist Mal Waldron, Free at Last, that quietly signaled one of the biggest musical milestones of 1969, the inception of producer Manfred Eicher’s Edition of Contemporary Music, aka ECM Records. It was the first salvo in nothing less than a revolution in recording. One wing of that revolution, occasionally overlooked, was the Munich label’s promotion of avant-garde jazz. That wing has had its quiet moments, but the ECM vanguard has recently been on the move again.

Over the past 47 years, ECM has issued more than 1,500 titles, most with the subdued, minimalist, and strikingly consistent cover art reflecting the visual aesthetic of Eicher and his designers, particularly Barbara Wojirsch, Dieter Rehm, and Sascha Kleis. That distinctive packaging sensibility, which carried over into the CD era, is one of the markers by which millions of consumers identify ECM. But give a free-association test to a variety of ECM aficionados and you’ll turn up other touchstones, including specific artists (Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Arvo Pärt), musical classifications (“icy Nordic jazz,” “minimalism,” “Euro-folk-world-music fusion”), and recording sonics (“pristine,” “atmospheric,” and “the most beautiful sound next to silence,” an ECM motto derived from an early review of its records).

All of those references and qualities are essential to the ECM brand: Jarrett vaulted ECM into the mainstream in 1975 with the double-LP Köln Concert, the best-selling solo album in jazz history, with sales of more than 4 million to date; Norwegian saxophonist Garbarek epitomized a certain reflective, cool-even-when-hot approach to arranging and soloing, and his million-selling 1994 collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble was a landmark in the fusion of jazz and early music; Eicher’s advocacy for Estonian classical and sacred composer Pärt led to the advent of the ECM New Series imprint in 1984; countless ECM musicians–including Garbarek, Charlie Haden, guitarist Steve Tibbetts, violinist/vocalist Iva Bittová, Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Indian violinist L. Shankar, the ensemble Oregon, and Brazilian percussionist Naná Vasconcelos—have blurred genre boundaries; and Eicher’s well-documented commitment to meticulous production values and crystal-clear, spacious audio reproduction has for decades set a lofty standard for recorded sound. As Eicher told Cormac Larkin in a 2015 interview for The Irish Times: “From the very beginning I was paying a lot of attention not only to what musicians I will record but how it will be recorded. I didn’t want it to sound like Blue Note or Impulse. I wanted to be more specific on chamber musical details, because that’s what I learned.”

Still, all those defining hallmarks tend to obscure ECM’s role as a longstanding haven for cutting-edge jazz composers, experimental sound explorers, and free improvisers. The emphasis of the catalog has ebbed and flowed, and ECM’s comfort zone might be one of beautiful melodies, lush harmonies, smooth textures, emotional equanimity, and meditative, even elegiac moods, but the label has been, and continues to be, home to many of the most important veteran radicals, thorny noisemakers, and defiant rule-breakers who changed the course of jazz after bebop, as well as a host of avant-garde progeny who continue to advance the movement more than 50 years after Bill Dixon’s “October Revolution in Jazz” festival in Manhattan.

This fact was crucially important in the 1970s when jazz, and especially the avant-garde, suffered from least-favored status, with minimal attention and support from the major record labels. Consider some of the names that show up on ECM releases in that first decade: Marion Brown, the Music Improvisation Company (Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Hugh Davies, Jamie Muir), Circle (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Barry Altschul, Anthony Braxton), Robin Kenyatta, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, Old and New Dreams (Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Ed Blackwell), Steve Reich, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Leo Smith, Sam Rivers, and Carla Bley (via her Watt label); many of those musicians would enjoy enduring relationships with Eicher and his label.

The ECM jazz lifeblood might seem to run more conspicuously through the music of Jarrett and other pianists such as Paul Bley, Steve Kuhn, and Ketil Bjørnstad, guitarists Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, and Terje Rypdal, saxophonist Garbarek, trumpeters Kenny Wheeler, Enrico Rava, and Tomasz Stanko, and bassists Arild Andersen and Eberhard Weber. But while there have been significant stretches when ECM jazz releases have been dominated by those and other more recent mainstays (Bob Stenson, Tord Gustavsen, Charles Lloyd, Anat Fort, Dino Saluzzi, Stefano Bollani, Gianluigi Trovesi), there have always been wild cards to belie the notion that there is one, hegemonic “ECM sound.” As Eicher told the Irish Times, “If people think that we ask musicians to record for us because we want to sculpt their sound in a certain kind of way, that’s nonsense. We choose musicians for their music.”

ECM’s edge might sometimes be masked by its prettiest sounds, but fans of “outside” music have always been able to find myriad titles—a Roscoe Mitchell record here, an Evan Parker album there, the Jack DeJohnette Special Edition sessions, the surprising releases of Incredible String Band cofounder Robin Williamson, the trippy electronica-jazz of Nils Petter Molvær and the band Food—to feed their free-jazz and weird music jones. Those who hanker for electric guitar music that bursts through conventional boundaries rejoice at the fact that ECM embraced Bill Frisell early on and provides a forum for the likes of Rypdal, Steve Tibbetts, David Torn, Eivind Aarnset, and Wolfgang Muthspiel.