Label Watch: ECM Records

As a label, ECM is a fixture in the world of jazz, classical and the music in-between. It has never allowed itself to be reduced to names like Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek or Arvo Pärt; its cosmos is constantly expanding.
ECM. When you hear the name of the label, the first thing that comes to mind is European jazz with a sound all of its own. Secondly, you think of the stellar sound engineering, which label boss and producer Manfred Eicher has made ECM’s trademark. The Edition of Contemporary Music, which was established in Munich in 1969, was not set up by a European musician, but by the American pianist Mal Waldron, who was living in the Bavarian capital at the time. Contrary to what the title suggests, »Free at Last« from 1970, recorded with his trio in Studio Bauer in Ludwigsburg, was not a free jazz record. Waldron’s modern jazz was rather more reserved and introspective. More of that was to follow soon.  With the seventh catalogue title »Afric Pepperbird«, an artist came to ECM who was to shape the label until the Nineties. The Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, initially a proponent of hard bop and other wild jazz styles, developed into a figurehead of the »ECM sound« over the years. The music broke away from jazz conventions, but unlike free jazz, Jan Garbarek relied less on the anarchic removal of formal boundaries. He concentrated on flat sounds, slow, often elegiac melodies, recorded with a resonant recording style that was very clean and slightly reverberant at the same time. No stuffy jazz club atmosphere… instead, the music felt like it came from a wood-panelled concert hall or a medium-sized church. 

Spatial sound for loners

The »Köln Concert« by US pianist Keith Jarrett from 1975 became synonymous with ECM, a live album recorded under adverse conditions in Cologne’s opera house, on which Jarrett once again approached jazz in a completely different way to Garbarek. This was because Jarrett really improvised »freely«, with spontaneously developing melodies or repetitive patterns that could not automatically be assigned to jazz. And it was all very harmonious and catchy, which contributed to his success far beyond jazz listening circles. Even though Jarrett had made his breakthrough two years earlier with the »Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne« with similarly spontaneous approaches, the »Köln Concert« became ECM’s cash cow. With 4 million copies sold, it is considered the best-selling jazz solo album of all time.  Bassist Eberhard Weber is at least as important a name for ECM. In addition to his fusion of classical music and epic jazz, such as on his début album »The Colours of Chloë« from 1973, he is regarded as the pioneer of the ECM sound with the unusual sound of his instrument, a malleable, springy electric double bass. His work is still unique in jazz and a highlight of the ECM cosmos. Even if this clear and controlled aesthetic eventually became too much for some listeners, an anticipation of things that have long been taken for granted can be seen in this approach: The systematic work on sound has meanwhile taken on a dimension in music that shapes entire genres. 

»The systematic work on sound has meanwhile taken on a dimension in music that shapes entire genres.«

But even the less inclined cannot ignore ECM. That’s because the label hosts a number of jazz greats, including guitarists as diverse as the »Big Three« Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and John Scofield, who grew up with the label (Frisell, Metheny) or have long been associated with it (Scofield). Or the rather low-key John Abercrombie, who released on ECM until his death in 2017 and could even coax poetry out of guitar synthesisers. Also loners on the six strings like David Torn or the Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal can be cited as examples.  ECM took an interest in eccentric musical positions early on. The stylistically dazzling pianist Carla Bley is just as much a part of the label as the performance artist Meredith Monk, who straddles the line. The latter recently released a large box set of her albums. A major work of minimal music, Steve Reich’s »Music For 18 Musicians«, also appeared in its first recording on ECM from 1978. And one of the great piano cycles of the 20th century yet to be discovered, Hans Otte’s »Buch der Klänge« (Book of Sounds), which ties in with minimalism, was interpreted with sensitive elegance by pianist Herbert Henck. 

Musical outsiders from Eastern European countries 

Since the 1980s, the label has also evolved into an address for musical outsiders from Eastern European countries, led by the Estonian Arvo Pärt. The latter’s album »Tabula Rasa« signalled the start of the ECM New Series sub-label in 1984 and expanded the spectrum to include voices of New Music who, after the avant-garde, had often found their way to harmonically grounded styles – above all the Georgian Giya Kancheli and the Ukrainian Valentin Silvestrov – or, like the Hungarian György Kurtág, put forward a very idiosyncratic, modern design. Another Hungarian, the pianist András Schiff, has contributed to ECM’s list of reference recordings for Beethoven and Bach. Schiff recently released a recording of Bach’s works entitled »Clavichord,« J. S. Bach’s preferred keyboard instrument.  ECM may appear monolithic as an institution at first glance – and because of the uniformly restrained cover design – but the label has never stood still. Among the younger names at ECM, Danish guitarist Jakob Bro, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch and German-Iranian singer Cymin Samawatie are some of those who have left their mark on the still independent label in the sense of continuing the development of the tradition. But even Keith Jarrett, who later thanked the success of the »Köln Concert« with public disdain for his work, did not contribute a new album until 2022: the »Bordeaux Concert«.