ECM Records: What Makes Them So Special

ECM Records always represented, to me, the apex of creative instrumental music. Along with Impulse! Records, home of John Coltrane, and Arista’s Freedom Series, ECM represented to me the fact that music could be made that went beyond any category you could throw at it.

Visit the ECM Page, with videos, playlists, links to articles and the ECM Review Archive.

by Marshall Bowden

As a saxophonist and pianist in jazz bands in junior high and high school, I was excited about the two routes that jazz seemed to be taking in my deveopmental period: electric fusion and free jazz. I loved some of the post bop fifties and sixties jazz that I heard: Dexter Gordon, Art Blakey, the first Miles Davis Quintet with Coltrane, Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones, but I had a special excitement about newer, funkier, and more avant garde musicians: Chick Corea, Lookout Farm, electric Miles, Herbie Hancock, Carla Bley, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others. I would read about a new ECM release in downbeat, maybe Henry Threadgill, and it would sound like music that I had to hear right away.

One of the threads that runs through ECM is that of freely improvised music, music that flows through the ether, pulsing with the electric beat of life and is downloaded by musicians who are open to each other, to the universe, open to love (to borrow a phrase from the title of Paul Bley’s stunning album). There’s always a sense that the music could have been played by a lone musician sitting by the water’s edge or hiking a landscape of rolling hills and mountains. Listening to some of these groups I can’t help but think of Herman Hesse’s Wanderings, where he talks about the landscape he sees roaming around the German countryside:

I want nothing, I long for nothing,
I hum gently the sounds of childhood,
And I reach home astounded
In the warm beauty of dreams.

Another thread is that ECM has been a magic label for pianists. It draws them like moths to a lantern on a summer night, and it always has: Mal Waldron, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Bobo Stensen, Marcin Wasilewski, Tord Gustavsen, Steve Kuhn, and many others. There’s something special that happens when a pianist gets into the studio with ECM founder and main producer Manfred Eicher at the boards.

Trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith called Eicher “one of the 20th-century’s greatest producers and engineers, a thinker who developed an aesthetic that’s reflected in ECM’s records. That aesthetic is the way Manfred hears the music.” The way that Manfred hears the music is as it rises and falls, created from and receding back towards silence. The spaciousness comes from a focus on the horizon rather than what is right in front of the listener. The musicians may be focused on different kinds of moods and communication, but Eicher is focused on the music as an element of the environment, and he makes it into a highly important element that we notice with heightened perception because he shows us that it is alive.

In the 1980s Eicher started The New Series, a series of recordings devoted to modern notated music. It’s what people would call ‘serious’ or ‘modern classical’ music, chamber or orchestral music. While that might seem like a dilution of brand for a label whose history had always been with jazz and improvised music, it has proven to be merely a window into the ways that musical expression is universal regardless of form or instrument. Eicher looks for an exchange of energy between musical forms: improvisational music is approached with all the performance ideals of composed music (attention to intonation, tone, careful recording and production) while composed music sessions approached with more of an air of chance and the moment can convey more emotion and seem less like airless museum pieces.

Stuart Nicholson wrote that ECM “is less about a place, more about a state of mind. Like the paintings of the 19th century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, ECM is as much about internal landscapes as external ones. There’s a resonance to the music that invites contemplation, challenging you to find a deeper aspect of yourself. The central thrust of the label’s musical direction remains a personal reflection of Eicher’s musical aesthetic.” () ECM recordings are often described as ‘meditative’ or ‘contemplative’ precisely because they resonate with something deep inside of listeners. Most of the music, even that which is louder or more kinetic, still often seems to resonate deeply and soulfully.

There is a thread of thought in the jazz community that identifies ECM as a European-dominated, overly intellectuallized, predominantly white purveyor of ‘chamber jazz.’ But the fact is that the label’s roster and their artistic styles is wildly variable and includes a number of influential African American musicians such as Mal Waldron, Marion Brown, Jack DeJohnette, Bennie Maupin, Dewey Redman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Anthony Braxton, Don Cherry, Charles Lloyd, Billy Higgins, Sam Rivers, and James Newton.

Although most ECM recordings have been available for years on CD and the company made its catalog available for streaming in 2017, it is still a vinyl-centric label, in the sense that it was always meant to be experienced in the vinyl format complete with warm analog sound and an artistic cover. No liner notes, just musician and production credits and recording dates and places. Sometimes one would like to have had the thoughts or the notes on process of the musicians or even some thoughts from Eicher himself, but the albums arrive with no hint as to their content or expectations, holding the mirror to our own aesthetics, preferences, and ideas.

As a record collector I buy pretty much any ECM recording I come across that’s in pretty good condition at a reasonable price. It’s amazing how even though the jackets frequently show quite a bit of wear and tear, the records themselves are often almost flawless even when they are relatively inexpensive. It’s a sign that most ECM records were treasured parts of whatever collection the original owner had. I know of one vinyl dealer who, through necessity, sold most of his ECM records back in the 90s and now is steadily buying them back for his personal collection.

The reason that ECM recordings still do so well digitally is that they are all about the music. There is something special about handling the vinyl and the album jacket, but even as downloaded files on a computer or flash drive, the music still casts its spell. That will ensure the survival of the many recording dates that Eicher and recently deceased ECM engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug presided over. These were shared living moments with a musician or a group of musicians in the act of creating something that would not be duplicated. It is our great fortune to be able to share in those moments from a time and place that seems as distant as the stars.

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