In 2018 I wrote up the following at the request of Manfred Eicher. It was easy to do, for I know most of the cited records well. While I did try to track some of the label’s history and present the recordings in chronological order, this is not an olympian overview, but rather just some of the music I know and appreciate on the label.
Four years later I might move things around a bit, but I am letting the 2018 list stand as is, although I did clean up the grammar in a few places. New: For fun I selected nine pieces (marked ****) that I simply could not do without.
Jimmy Giuffre, 1961 “Jesus Maria”
Manfred Eicher was inspired by the records Jimmy Giuffre recorded with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow for Verve. Eventually Eicher reissued the discs on ECM in 1990. On Carla Bley’s “Jesus Maria” the harmony is beautiful and rather “classical” sounding. Without drums the dynamic potential of each instrument is unleashed. The sounds just seem to suspend in the air. In its way, this is classic ECM several years before the label was founded.
Paul Bley, With Gary Peacock “Long Ago and Far Away”
Two early ECM releases were tapes purchased from Paul Bley. Bley, Gary Peacock, and Paul Motian would all continue to crucial to the sound of ECM from then until now. On this 1963 version of “Long Ago and Far Away” they collectively bend this old Jerome Kern standard as far as it can go.
****Paul Bley, Ballads “So Hard it Hurts”
Paul Bley’s next “in-house composer” after Carla Bley was Annette Peacock, who’s elliptic compositions seem to emerge fully-formed from an alternate universe. Bley said of this moment that was trying to play as slowly as possible, and on “So Hard It Hurts” he offers far fewer notes than Mark Levinson or Barry Altschul. Some kind of magic holds the emotion together. I listened to this track repeatedly in high school. Even though this is other Bley tape simply purchased by Eicher, the minimal but striking packaging by Barbara Wojirsch points a clear direction for the future. (No Bley disc of the 60’s looks like this.)
Marion Brown, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun “Afternoon of a Georgia Faun”
Eicher liked avant garde jazz if there was enough space for the tones to speak. “Georgia Faun” isn’t really meant for the streaming era. You really should have to put the platter on the record player, place the needle, take a toke, and settle back for the journey. There are a lot of heavyweight musicians present, but none of them really play their instruments in normal fashion. Special mention goes to Jeanne Lee’s death-defying singing. A period piece, but a fun and important period piece nonetheless.
Terje Rypdal, Terje Rypdal “Keep it Like That – Tight “
Eicher would become the most important producer of European jazz artists. This crew of Norwegians worked with George Russell and Don Cherry before embracing rock, fusion, and other contemporary currents. “Keep it like That – Tight” is a funky number that was recorded only a year and a half after Bitches Brew. The undulating drumming of Jon Christensen and the shredding improvisations of Jan Gabarek and Rypdal stand the test of time.
Keith Jarrett, Facing You “Starbright”
Jarrett is arguably the signature ECM artist, someone who understood Paul Bley, European classical music, and contemporary pop music in equal measure. While Jarrett’s ECM debut is a landmark album and produced by Eicher, it’s not as well-engineered as any other future ECM solo piano recording. Facing You is a little dry, which works well for Jarrett’s astonishing take on stride piano, “Starbright.”
Chick Corea, Return to Forever “Return to Forever”
ECM documented a fair amount of fusion when that music was still fresh. Recorded in 1972 but not released until 1975, this disc remains a bit anomalous in the Corea catalog, lighter in affect than any of Corea’s other fusion releases. Airto’s dances on his cymbal behind Flora Purim’s vocal doubling Corea’s electric piano. Stanley Clarke was a very young virtuoso on both electric and acoustic bass. It’s shame that the great Joe Farrell didn’t play any tenor saxophone here.
Dave Holland, Conference of the Birds “Four Winds”
Holland is from England, and there’s something of Ornette Coleman filtered through a cheerful English folk sensibility in “Four Winds.” Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, and Barry Altschul were like-minded NYC folk that all played a lot with Holland in that era. All four members eagerly tear into this invitation to unfettered improvisation, which by any standard is a free jazz classic.
Jan Garbarek-Bobo Stenson Quartet, Witchi-Tai-To “Desireless”
Garbarek, Stenson, Palle Danielsson, and Jon Christensen all developed crucial relationships with Eicher. Thanks to ECM, many 70s and 80s American musicians were influenced by Scandinavians, a course of events impossible to imagine a few years earlier. A long and rhapsodic version of Don Cherry’s “Desireless,” a kind of acoustic fusion reimagining of strategies pioneered by the John Coltrane quartet, is perfect for a reverberant studio production helmed by another key ECM figure, engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug.
Bennie Maupin, Jewel in the Lotus “Mappo”
This moody date is a companion piece to a key group from the early 70s, Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi. Maupin’s compositions and arrangements are strikingly beautiful. Hancock offers pleasingly avant-garde piano on “Mappo,” making one wonder about the potential of an alternate universe where Hancock spent some time as an ECM artist.
John Abercrombie, Timeless “Lungs”
Abercrombie’s debut was a update on the classic organ trio and just tough as hell. The guitarist and virtuoso Jan Hammer trade nasty pentatonic patterns in a combative death match and Jack DeJohnette burns bright. Abercrombie would go on to be another signature ECM musician.
****Kenny Wheeler, Gnu High “Heyoke”
Wheeler wrote shapely melodies over complex harmony and blew powerful jagged rhapsodic trumpet. This is one of Keith Jarrett’s comparatively few appearances as a sideman and more’s the pity, he sounds so loose and inspired. The rhythm section of Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette has gone into the history books. It might be hard to find a significant younger jazz musician from the era who wasn’t inspired by Gnu High.
Enrico Rave, Quartet “Lavori Casalinghi”
Rava’s beautiful trumpet tone declaims almost-familiar Italianate melodies with support by the incomparable Roswell Rudd and one of the best European rhythm sections from this era, J.F Jenny-Clark and Aldo Romano. The burning jazz improvisations in the middle of the long-form composition are wholly successful.
Richie Beirach, Elm “Snow Leopard”
There needs to be at least one tune on this list that begins with a classic ECM sonority, Jack DeJohnette’s uptempo ride cymbal unaccompanied by any other musicians. Elm is one of Beirach’s best records, and the virtuoso chromatic interplay with DeJohnette and George Mraz was cutting edge at the time.
****Keith Jarrett, Eyes of the Heart “Encores (A-B-C)”
The end of Jarrett’s group with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Paul Motian. It was a live concert with plenty of dysfunction. Most of the first two sides of the LP is wandering piano before Dewey finally comes in blows the house down during the last minutes of “Pt. 2.” The third side of encores offers a gospel number with incandescent Motian chaos followed by a bluesy swinger with excellent Jarrett soprano and more brilliance from Dewey, Charlie, and Paul.The fourth side of the two-LP set was left blank, perhaps as a salute to unfinished business.
Sam Rivers, Contrasts “Zip”
Freebop trio with Dave Holland and Thurman Barker. Rivers’s tenor is knotty and so damn swinging. I’m not sure if this the finest of the many great Sam Rivers albums with a similar line-up, but it is the only one for ECM and by far the best sonically. The great George Lewis makes it a quartet on the rest of the album.
Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”
Part of the job of jazz musicians is to reflect their time and place. The title track is a long suite of Americana with crowd noise and overdubbing. Charles Ives in 1980? In some ways it is dated, but John Hughes movies are dated, too. I selected this track partly to honor the importance of Lyle Mays to the Pat Metheny Group sound, this is the only disc they released as co-leaders.
****Old and New Dreams, Playing “Happy House”
This collective of Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell proves that the magic of the greatest Ornette Coleman groups also resides with the other masters who truly understood the language. I picked “Happy House” just because it is first, but really any track on any Old and New Dreams disc is going to be fabulous. The divine melodies and rhythms just fall out of this band.
James Newton, Axum “Mälak ‘Uqabe”
Newton’s rich flute is often in the intersection of very old, very new, and the blues. This virtuoso recital benefits from a classy ECM production. It’s too bad Newton and some of his other late-70s/early-‘80s New York associates didn’t work more with Eicher.
****Steve Reich, Tehillim “Tehillim Parts I & II”
In the 80s Eicher began recording fully notated music under the imprint “New Series.” Although conducted by George Manahan, in some ways Steve Reich and Musicians was closer to a rock group than a traditional classical ensemble, with ringers like Jay Clayton and Glen Velez helping make the syncopations happen. My first exposure to “Tehillim” was a signal event in my development.
****Codona, Codona 3, “Clicky Clacky”
This world music supergroup of Colin Walcott, Nana Vasconcelos, and Don Cherry recorded three discs that are all quintessentially ECM. Perhaps it is not really to Codona to choose the goofy “Clicky Clacky” for this overview, but I have always just loved it so very much.
****Charlie Haden and Carla Bley, The Ballad of the Fallen, “The Ballad of the Fallen” (and the rest of the medley, concluding with “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”)
The second Liberation Music Orchestra album remains my favorite. In high school I couldn’t get enough of the superb medley on Side A. Carla Bley’s arrangements of the old Spanish themes are pure and unfussy, a perfect starting point for solos by Mick Goodrick, Don Cherry, Gary Valente, Mike Mantler, and Steve Slagle. Bley herself gets a stuttering cadenza and the whole thing is driven by the incomparable Paul Motian.
Keith Jarrett, Standards Vol. 1 “All the Things You Are”
There were really very few swinging standards on ECM for about the first fifteen years. Jarrett changed that with powerhouse new trio featuring like-minded free spirits Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. “All the Things You Are” was already a property of Lennie Tristano and Paul Bley, so it was only correct for Jarrett to put his own kind of furious lyrical virtuosity on it as well.
****Pat Metheny, Rejoicing “The Calling”
Metheny collaborates with the original Ornette Coleman rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins for one of his best albums. There’s something really special about the way the bass and drums fit inside the room on swinging material on side A. Turning the platter over, “The Calling” is more Ayler than Ornette, and for me one of the greatest pieces of free jazz ever recorded. While Metheny and Haden have played plenty of other noisy music, there’s nothing else like it in Higgins’s discography.
****Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Third Decade “Walking in the Moonlight”
There was always a humorous side to the AECO, and they let it all hang out in this celebratory disc. “Walking in the Moonlight” is straight up hilarious, a kind of old fashioned sentimental ballad penned by Roscoe Mitchell’s father. It’s so out of tune in exactly the right way.
Paul Motian, It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago “In the Year of the Dragon”
The trio of Motian with Bill Frisell and Joe Lovano was just at the beginning of a long career. “In the Year of the Dragon” is a serious swinger. Even without bass the groove is fierce. Motian sounds just incredible.
Paul Bley, Fragments “Memories”
There aren’t usually liner notes on ECM jazz albums, which is one reason why streaming them is a bit more acceptable. However, if you have a chance, seek out Steve Lake’s excellent and historically informed notes for this inspired grouping of old and new friends. “Memories” is not a composition, it’s pure improvisation, lonely and gorgeous. It is absolutely impossible to imagine this happening in quite this way without the presence of Manfred Eicher.
Bill Frisell, Lookout for Hope “Lonesome”
Frisell’s new group with Hank Roberts, Kermit Driscoll, and Joey Baron would help define a new era of appropriating rock and country for jazz musicians. While “Lonesome” is a “country” kind of texture, the middle of the great ensemble is a mixture of competing energies, more like “jazz.”
Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires Second Sight “Twister”
For a time Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine were a very important rhythm section. They might be heard to best advantage in Johnson’s playful group with Bill Frisell and John Scofield. Scofield’s “Twister” is almost a version of “Twist and Shout.” It’s high comedy but the drum groove and the bluesy guitar solos are serious matters indeed.
Gary Peacock, Guamba “Requiem”
Peacock’s flexible phrasing is especially well recorded on this mysterious quartet disc with Palle Mikklebourg, Jan Garbarek, and Peter Erskine. Pairing the best of US and European musicians was a frequent Eicher strategy. It’s hard to imagine this group coming together without the producer’s involvement. This was another favorite disc in high school, I listened to side A over and over.
Dave Holland, The Razor’s Edge “5 Four Six”
Holland’s groups with Steve Coleman have proven to be wildly influential with musicians. The whole disc is great but Kenny Wheeler’s glorious chorale “5 Four Six” with burning trumpet over marching drums (Marvin “Smitty” Smith) remains my favorite track.
Gavin Bryars, After the Requiem “After the Requiem”
While he began as an experimental musician, Bryars evolved into a composer of gorgeous contemplative harmony. “After the Requiem” is a meditation for strings and Bill Frisell.
Keith Jarrett, Dmitri Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 “Prelude and Fugue 15 in D flat”
Jarrett’s command of European classical repertoire is the basic scaffolding that underlies his skill at improvising evening-length concerts of solo piano music. Jarrett had recorded some Bach for ECM, which was fine, but the Shostakovich set garnered real notoriety and will probably prove to be Jarrett’s most important classical release. Shostakovich’s preludes are always enjoyable but the fugues can be rather academic. However, in Jarrett’s hands, the fleet D-flat fugue is a marvel of virtuosic invention.
Ingrid Karlen, Variations Galina Ustvolskaya: Sonata for Piano No. 3
Ustvolskaya almost made outsider art. Her third Sonata starts in notably bland and unstable fashion, Hindemith on a bad day, but then as the journey unfolds you realize there is no exit from the maze. Russian despair taken to one extreme.
Joe Maneri, In Full Cry “Tenderly”
A standard might be a good introduction the stylings of Joe and Mat Maneri. John Lockwood and Randy Peterson complete a real microtonal blues band. In Full Cry is powerful document of a vital Boston scene.
György Kurtág, Marta Kurtág, Kurtág: Játékok J.S. Bach: Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, BWV 687
Husband and wife join forces on one piano to play a glorious arrangement of a famous chorale prelude. Perfect music, very old yet somehow still new. The digital era allows us to make a playlist of the Kurtág/Bach arrangements, not that we should ignore the wonderful original Kurtág compositions also heard on several ECM discs.
Paul Bley, Gary Peacock, Paul Motian, Not Two, Not One ”Not Zero: In Three Parts”
35 years after Paul Bley with Gary Peacock the trio with Motian recorded again. It’s not more mature exactly, certainly not better. Probably it is simply more stubborn. The pianist in particular had become essentially intractable; it was the drummer who had grown into one of the musicians of the age. Still, these musicians created this style and will own it in perpetuity. It is a treasure to have a last well-produced document of undeniable chemistry.
****Andras Schiff, Peter Serkin, Mozart/Reger/Busoni: Music for Two Pianos Mozart Sonata for 2 pianos in D, Allegro con Spirito.
Mozart may not always be thought of as an exciting composer for jazzheads, but the two-piano sonata in D major is charismatic contrapuntal masterpiece that should be accessible to all. I haven’t heard a better performance than this loving traversal, every corner is turned with grace and heat.
Alexei Lubimov/Keller Quartet, Alfred Schnittke/Dmitri Shostakovich: Lento Schnittke Piano Quintet, Moderato
Lubimov is a major virtuoso with idiosyncratic taste. Among his several wonderful discs for ECM is the stunning tragic-comic Alfred Schnittke Piano Quintet with the Keller Quartet. The opening piano phrases are perhaps not that far from Paul Bley…
Art Ensemble of Chicago, Tribute to Lester “As Clear as the Sun”
Sadly, the celebrated ensemble was now reduced to a trio of Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors Maghostut and Don Moye. It was still a vital group, however, and “As Clear as the Sun” is a perfect example of the circular-breathing frenzy Mitchell has spent years perfecting.
Sylvie Courvoisier, Abaton “Ianicum”
A provocative two-CD set offers a disc of Courvoisier compositions and a disc of collective improvisations with Mark Feldman and Erik Friedlander. Improvised music keeps getting closer and closer to a fully-notated modernist ethos and this set was a good marker in that development. The harmonies in “Ianicum” are lovely.
Valentin Silvestrov/SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony/Andrey Boreyko, Symphony No. 6 3. Adagietto
Eicher has shined considerable light on Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov. Like Schnittke, Silvestrov reckons directly with the past, with a harmonic sensibility that can combine the obvious with the vaporous in high Eastern European fashion. A literal response to the famous Mahler Adagietto seems improbable, but Silvestrov digs deep and creates music that ends up like no other.
Keith Jarrett, Radiance “Part 1”
There are hours and hours of Jarrett solo concerts on ECM. Some of it is overkill, at least for fellow jazz musicians, many of whom tired of his gospel vamps and minimal harmonies all the way back around the time 1975’s The Köln Concert became a best-seller. Recorded in 2002, Radiance was a surprise, offering atonal fantasies that give a serious listener plenty to grapple with. I vividly remember buying the brand new CD on a whim, going home to put it on, and saying to myself, “Well…he’s still one of the greatest of all time.”
Till Fellner/ Kent Nagano/Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal, Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto 1. Allegro Moderato
It is quite a journey to travel from producing Marion Brown’s group of NYC improvisors rattling little instruments to overseeing Beethoven symphonic releases competitive in the general market. Like Lubimov and Schiff, Fellner’s clean and probing style has found a sympathetic platform with ECM. The orchestra under Nagano is lean and flexible, offering a kind of chamber music approach to what might be the greatest Beethoven concerto.
Sofia Gubaidulina, Canticle of the Sun “The Lyre of Orpheus”
Gidon Kremer and the Lockenhaus Festival have had a productive relationship with ECM. Gubaidulina’s vibrant “The Lyre of Orpheus,” composed in 2006 when she was 74, ends up as a kind of chamber concerto for Kremer. String orchestra and a battery of percussion surround the violinist’s signature sonority. It’s an atonal landscape, but the narrative thread is clear and builds to a devastating climax.
Kim Kashkashian/Lera Auerbach’s Arcanum “1. Advenio”
Kashkashian’s ECM recitals have helped established her as one of the significant violists of our time. While essentially a modernist and abstract piece, Arcanum shows there is still plenty to work with when a composer of Auerbach’s subtlety harnesses the ancient forces of tonality. Auerbach is a dynamite pianist as well.
Miranda Cuckson/Blair McMillen, Béla Bartók/Alfred Schnittke/Witold Lutosławski Lutosławski, Partita 3. Largo
It is comparatively unusual for Eicher to record New York classical musicians in standard repertoire but there is certainly no reason why he shouldn’t: Cuckson and McMillen are both in the top echelon of the town’s freelancers, musicians who seemingly can play anything. The original instrumentation of Lutoslawski’s Partita helps disclose Bartókian affinities in the rhythmic sections, and perhaps even a hint of American blues in the “Largo.”
Gavin Bryars, The Fifth Century “Eternity is a Mysterious Absence of Times and Ages”
The whole cycle of choral songs The Fifth Century is beautiful, but a standout track is “Eternity is a Mysterious Absence of Times and Ages,” which just suspends and sustains, the voices and horns melting and moving imperceptibly through the void. It’s hard to believe these foggy sounds are saxophones, they seem to emit from mother earth herself. Just a couple of weeks ago Donald Nally, the PRISM Quartet and The Crossing just won a Grammy for “Best Choral Performance.”
Slightly out of sequence, two ECM releases I had something to do with:
Masabumi Kikuchi Black Orpheus “Pt. 1”
Masabumi was the real deal, a 20th-century scoundrel/genius/artist in solitary and stubborn pursuit of his greatest work. I was honored to contribute liner notes to this posthumous release, which might be considered his epitaph.
Billy Hart, All Our Reasons “Nostalgia for the Impossible”
For a time Eicher was not as involved with NYC jazz. However, in the last decade that has changed drastically, with important releases by a host of friends and colleagues: Tim Berne, Judith Berkson, Theo Bleckmann, Mike Formanek, Anat Fort, Vijay Iyer, Aaron Parks, Chris Potter, Craig Taborn, Mark Turner, David Virelles, and others.
The Billy Hart quartet began as a fairly straight-ahead ensemble, but one day Billy came to rehearsal and said we needed to begin playing “multi-directional” music in the style of late Coltrane with Rashied Ali. That was all the excuse I needed to bring in a piece somewhat in the Paul Bley/Carla BleyAnnette Peacock tradition, “Nostalgia for the Impossible.” I don’t think we ever played it better than in the studio with Manfred right there intently listening to the sounds.