Manfred Eicher just turned 73 this past year. Few in the USA know who is or what profound impact he has made on the shape of jazz to come. He started as an acoustic bass player accompanying Marion Brown (alto sax), Leo Smith (trumpet), Fred Braceful (percussion) and Thomas Stowsand (cello) in an obscure performance of a long forgotten session that was what we would call definitely free jazz, pushing the limits of the genre in every sense imaginable. This was not commercial music. In 1969, he took his love of music to begin a fledgling record label in Munich. This new label was christened Edition of Contemporary Music – ECM.
ECM is known for its virtuoso artists, iconic album designs, and soaring improvisational music. Everything fit nicely into what would best be called an “ECM style”. Being listed as an ECM artist bestows onto the artist a degree of self-expression in a community that all of the artists embraced. ECM invented itself as part of this exploratory process, in the art of listening to fellow musicians, of subconscious communication and experiment. Free At Last, its debut release in 1969, featured Mal Waldron, piano, with Isla Eckinger, bass, and Clarence Becton, drums, a free-expression session that was a harbinger of what was to come. And from there, the artists and the ECM style just continued to flow and is still present today and remains just as fresh as that first recording.
The ECM catalog boasts over 1,500 recordings, and has incorporated music beyond improvisation jazz, spanning 11 centuries of music, a vast range of styles and genres. Some of its most well known contributors include some very loyal contributors include Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Carla Bley, Charlie Haden, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Jack DeJohnette and Pat Metheny. For a time it was the home to the late 1970s avant garde movement, Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, AACM, including such luminaries as Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie and George Lewis. Here too we find the 12th century polyphonist Pérotin, Carlo Gesualdo and J.S. Bach or period instruments, but also Luciano Berio and John Adams. There are quite a few outstanding boxed sets available on the label, mostly featuring the improvisational live recordings of solo piano work by Keith Jarrett. Actually, all of the Keith Jarrett catalog is a must-have from his first recording on ECM, Facing You (1972), to his most famous, the 2 LP live recording of totally improvised piano work The Köln Concerts (1975), which sold 4 million copies.
They offered music with a political cause including Charlie Haden’s: The Ballad of the Fallen and Carla Bley’s Escalator Over the
Hill with Paul Haines; and priceless recordings by Paul Bley, Lester Bowie, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Charles Lloyd. ECM attracted many great musicians possessing a singular unique, identifiable voice, such as Gary Peacock, Steve Swallow, Jan Garbarek, Eberard Weber and Miroslav Vitous, but also some daring adventurers, John Surman, Stephen Micus, Louis Sclavis and Rava, and American minimalists, notably Steve Reich. I hold a special place in my collection for the three recordings made on the label by the ensemble Codona Trio, founded by fellow travelers Don Cherry, Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos.
“To begin with I just wanted to record the musicians I liked,” Eicher explains. “I didn’t know such a small label would grow so big.” In his drive to bring avant-garde music to the attention of the largest possible audience, he achieved a remarkably consistent mixture with extremely diverse ingredients, pulling in free jazz, classical, cutting-edge contemporary, ethnic, vocal and meditative strands. This in turn he enhanced with beautifully designed artwork. It has been said that ECM must be “the most beautiful sound next to silence”, Coda magazine.
Manfred Eicher has left his stamp on contemporary music and his body of work will continue on well into the coming centuries. The ECM style is revered in certain music circles and is a certain guarantee of perfection in performance, sound and the visual representation of the art. But above all what remains is that perfect sound, a way of pairing artists and presenting their work, all with homage to one’s limitless imagination.