Could 1969 have been any more of a momentous year in popular music? Rock festivals reached their apexand their nadirat 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, and the Art Ensemble of Chicagosthat year, and Charlie Haden formed theLiberation 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 Eichers 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 labels 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 youll turn up other touchstones, including specific artists (Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Arvo Prt), 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-LPKln 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; Eichers advocacy for Estonian classical and sacred composer Prt led to the advent of the ECM New Series imprint in 1984; countless ECM musiciansincluding Garbarek, Charlie Haden, guitarist Steve Tibbetts, violinist/vocalist Iva Bittov, Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, Indian violinist L. Shankar, the ensemble Oregon, and Brazilian percussionist Nan Vasconceloshave blurred genre boundaries; and Eichers 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 forTheIrish 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 didnt want it to sound like Blue Note or Impulse. I wanted to be more specific on chamber musical details, because thats what I learned.
Still, all those defining hallmarks tend to obscure ECMs 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 ECMs 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 Dixons 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 Bjrnstad, 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 theIrish 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, thats nonsense. We choose musicians for their music.
ECMs edge might sometimes be masked by its prettiest sounds, but fans of outside music have always been able to find myriad titlesa 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 Molvr and the band Foodto 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.
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