Of course, when it comes to music, “pretty” is not synonymous with “mainstream,” “lightweight,” or “boring.” Jarrett, Garbarek, Towner, Frisell, and others have proven that many times over. Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch has offered further evidence with the ECM recordings of his Ronin and Mobile bands during the past decade; borderline minimalist in their patterns, they boast beautiful melodies but roll aggressively on quirky, funky, edgy percussion. Then there’s pianist Marilyn Crispell. When she first became affiliated with ECM, nearly 20 years ago, releasing 1997’s Nothing Ever Was, Anyway: Music of Annette Peacock with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Paul Motian, Crispell had long flown beneath most people’s radar despite having performed and recorded extensively with the groundbreaking Anthony Braxton Quartet and making dense, energetic recordings, deeply influenced by John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor, for such labels as Leo, Victo, and Music & Arts. That she should be welcomed into the ECM fold to record solo, duet, and trio albums—often gorgeous but never compromising her creative urgency—indicated that Eicher had kept his ear trained on the forward-leaning musicians of the U.S. as well as those in Europe.
In the 21st century, you wouldn’t build a serious collection of progressive or free jazz without essential titles from such labels as Pi, Tzadik, AUM Fidelity, Cuneiform, Firehouse 12, ACT, Thirsty Ear, Clean Feed, TUM, and Intakt. But ECM belongs on that list as well. The label holds up its end of the avant-garde bargain by continuing to extend its reach—beyond European jazz, beyond contemporary classical, beyond early music, and beyond chamber-folk fusions—and maintaining its ties to the legacy of free improvisation of the 60s, the AACM in Chicago, and the downtown New York scene of the 80s and 90s, and giving a high-profile platform to American musicians who might be critically acclaimed at home but who deserve the proverbial wider attention.
In just the past three years, ECM has issued notable recordings by trumpeters Ralph Alessi and Avishai Cohen; saxophonists Tim Berne, Mark Turner, and Chris Potter; pianists Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, and David Virelles; and bassist Michael Formanek, to name a few. And a list of the best avant-garde jazz recordings of the past two years would have to include saxophonist Tim Berne and Snakeoil’s You’ve Been Watching Me, David Torn’s solo Only Sky, Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s duo a cosmic rhythm with every stroke, Formanek and Ensemble Kolossus’ The Distance, drummer Jack DeJohnette’s live Made in Chicago (with Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams), and drummer/percussionist Ches Smith’s The Bell, with Taborn and violist Mat Maneri.
The personnel ranges from pioneers and 40-plus-year veterans of free jazz to upstart renegades of the new century and is consistent with Manfred Eicher’s complaint to writer Stuart Nicholson, in a 2001 issue of Jazz Times, about the “boring neoconservative 1970s and 1980s,” especially vis-à-vis the 1960s, when “There was still something called magic.” If the neoconservatives were all about reconnecting with the tradition, read “blues, swing, and bebop,” Eicher seems committed to sustaining the 60s “new thing” of experimentation and playing outside the lines.
In the 2007 book Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, Eicher, in conversation with writer-turned-ECM-staffer Lake, notes that the label’s prodigious output has sometimes been like a tranquil sea. “We had a period when there was a certain sameness, maybe, or weakness even, but it was needed—as in the Keith Jarrett solo concerts, his great concerts, where you hear all these long waves, and you hear the parts where he needed to reload his energies to fly into the storm.” But he also alludes to “a continuous movement of undercurrents and unexpected drifts, winds coming from different directions to become a central storm.”
If the most radical undercurrents have now and then been virtually undetectable, fathoms deep below the surface, they’ve nonetheless stayed swirling in the darkness, ready to storm up again. Even when the jazz releases reinforced the facile notion of an “ECM sound,” the New Series was cultivating and bringing to the fore edgy, experimental classical and chamber music, and as Eicher told Lake, “The vocabularies of contemporary music and the jazz that has developed out of the free area are often very similar.” It could be that the avant-garde current of violist Kim Kashkashian, pianist Anthony de Mare, violinist Gidon Kremer, and composers Heinz Holliger, Heiner Goebbels, and György Kurtág has fed and helped renew the label’s avant-garde sensibility that allows space for Tim Berne, Vijay Iyer, and others.
Clearly, ECM’s commitment to cutting-edge jazz is on an upswing. Still, the field is wide open, perhaps more now than ever, and perhaps thanks to ECM’s advocacy. One can hopefully imagine what the ECM treatment—from the label’s trademark spacious, meticulous production to its international distribution and promotion—would do for, say, pianists Matthew Shipp, Myra Melford, Kris Davis, and Satoko Fujii, saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Ingrid Laubrock, clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist William Parker, or guitarist Mary Halvorson. No doubt Manfred Eicher will have a few surprises up his sleeve as ECM approaches its golden jubilee in 2019.