Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Alfred Lion’s and Francis Wolff’s Blue Note records was widely recognised as one of jazz’s premier labels. Fans bought their records unheard because the label stood for something tangible. The main thrust of the label was simple, singing themes and direct storytelling solos. Today, collectors eagerly seek out original vinyl copies for five and six figure sums while reissue programs, often including previously unreleased material, continue to this day. Books have been written about the label and its cover art while both have been the subject of degree and doctoral theses. Discographies have detailed every recording session and every release. But what of tomorrow? What label will talked about, written about and listened to in the same way as the old Blue Note label is today?
Chances are it might be a label that emerged just as Blue Note was being swallowed up by the huge United Artists conglomerate at the end of the 1960s. ECM began as a tiny operation in Munich run by Manfred Eicher, who had studied at the Berlin Academy of Music and had begun to make a name for himself as recording assistant with the classical label Deutsche Grammophon. After borrowing 16,000 Deutschmarks to get started, he released his first album Free At Last by Mal Waldron in 1969 to modest sales and favourable reviews.
Today, ECM – an acronym for Editions of Contemporary Music – has a catalogue in excess of 1600 albums and has been in business longer than any other independent label in the history of jazz. While in the past there have been, in addition to Blue Note, other important independent jazz labels such as Norman Granz’s Verve, Bill Grauer and Orin Keepnews’ Riverside, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz, the Ertegun brother’s Atlantic, Bob Weinstock’s Prestige, Lester Koenig’s Contemporary, Teddy Reig’s Roost, Morris Levy’s Roulette and Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy that all made their mark on the ledger in some way, all were eventually taken over, changed direction or simply folded. In contrast, ECM has retained its independence and its strong sense of identity for over 50 years.
The range of music Eicher has recorded is astonishingly broad, with more than 1200 titles made under his personal direction that range from American jazz in tune with the restless rhythms of New York City, European jazz in all its diversity to music that is beyond the kind of convenient category demanded by an industry that likes its products to come plainly labeled.
For some, ECM recordings have acquired the cache of expensive designer clothes, not just because the albums exude top-of-the-range quality, but when you’ve got that really expensive hi-fi, you want a benchmark of recorded sound to go with it. ECM represents a musical genre of its own − many of the record stores that still survive have their own “ECM” section devoted exclusively to ECM artists. Others are drawn to ECM because of the way the albums look, the cohesion between the music and the cover art that envelopes it have long established its identity within the marketplace. But whatever the attraction of the label for its fans, they all agree ECM is the most adventurous, fascinating and absorbing label in jazz and contemporary music today.
Yet despite the ultra-modern image ECM cover art exudes − the eye catching cover photographs, the immaculate sans serif typography − it comes as a surprise to discover their offices are above a shop unit in a grey Munich industrial estate rather than in one of those glittering shrines to modern technology of the sort you find in Seattle − all glass and trendy aluminium architecture with, at the very least, a small man-made lake and water fountain out front.
But ECM is less about a place, more about a state of mind. Like the paintings of the 19th century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, an ECM recording is as much about internal landscapes as external ones. There’s a resonance to the music that invites contemplation, challenging you to dig deep into the music to broaden your taste preferences.
The central thrust of the label’s musical direction remains a personal reflection of Eicher’s musical aesthetic, “My preference is towards that which has to do with lucidity, transparency and the movements of sound. It’s not only the notes but the thought behind them that matter,” he once famously said.
Eicher is unconcerned with boundaries or categories − if the music in question has an integrity and originality that appeals or moves him, he will record it. Commercial considerations do not come into the equation. Along with American heroes of contemporary jazz, Eicher has promoted the work of European jazz musicians, as well as encouraging cross stylistic collaborations among ECM artists. Thus bassist Dave Holland and the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem not only co-exist in the same catalogue, but on the same album, linked by the fact they are both wonderful musicians. Such a collaboration, which also includes British saxophonist John Surman, reflects Eicher’s creative role as producer in coming up with the unexpected by drawing together musicians from different continents and backgrounds to collaborate and exchange musical ideas in order to create a new musical language of the moment, yet without robbing them of their own individual voices.
Eicher is one of a select band of record producers that might include a Walter Legge in the classical field, a Teo Macero in jazz and a George Martin in popular music who have shaped the aesthetics of recording and the music they record. The rise of the technician-as-artist in the recording process gathered momentum following the Audio Engineering Society’s first meeting at the RCA Victor Studios in 1948 to “establish audio engineering as a separate profession.” Gradually those engaged in the recording of sound became recognized as artists in their own right, a point today routinely acknowledged through credits on album covers.
The results of this process, notes H. S. Becker in his paper Arts and Crafts, emerged in two ways: the first as a change in aesthetic conventions in judging the crafted (or process of recording) as expressive rather than utilitarian and the second as a change in the status of the crafted from the technical to the artistic. An ECM recording exemplifies both these elements – when you buy an ECM recording, you are immediately aware you are buying into the notion of recorded music as artistic expression, from the packaging and art work through to the way the music reveals itself upon playback, emerging from total silence.
Each year, every year, the label releases some twenty to thirty albums and many of them are bought by fans of the label simply because they are ECM recordings. In 1979 the label earned the first of many Grammy Awards with In Concert – Zurich, October 28, 1979 by Chick Corea and Gary Burton for “Best Jazz Instrumental Performance,” and in 1978 Eicher recorded Steve Reich’s groundbreaking Music for 18 Musicians, a direction that culminated in the launch of the ECM New Series in 1984 with Arvo Pärt’s Tabla Rasa that immediately turned heads in the classical world. A forum for fresh approaches to both new music and the standard classical repertoire, the New Series has enabled Eicher to produce works from the likes of Heinz Holliger, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, John Adams and Giya Kancheli. In January 2007, ECM was voted Label of the Year by European classical magazines and broadcasters at the MIDEM Classical Awards.
On November 17, 2017, the entire catalogue of about 1600 albums arrived on Amazon, Spotify, iTunes, Tidal, Deezer and Quobuz and other streaming platforms. The label had been one of the last holdouts of the digital age, Eicher, rightly in the view of many, insisting in the integrity of the album, fearing that his carefully produced albums as-things-in-themselves would be reduced to selected highlights. In the end pragmatism won out, the label finally acknowledging that for younger people, Digital Natives, music did not exist at all unless it existed on a streaming platform. In a statement announcing the move, ECM said that “although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP, the first priority is that the music should be heard. The physical catalogue and the original authorship are the crucial references for us: the complete ECM album with its artistic signature, best-possible sound quality, sequence and dramaturgy intact, telling its story from beginning to end”. The exponential rise in vinyl album sales in recent years suggest many music lovers shared these sentiments.
In 2019, ECM celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Mal Waldron’s Free At Last, the first album in the ECM catalogue, numbered ECM 1001. To mark the occasion, the label re-released the album as an “Extended Edition”, with an additional album’s worth of material plus a luxury brochure. Sadly, concerts planned to celebrate ECM’s 50th year during 2020 were hit by Covid — but the releases kept coming, as ever opening doors to new musical experiences. “It is clear ECM is a European company,” says Eicher. “My cultural experience is where I’m coming from, it’s my approach to music. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, ‘You wish to see, listen; hearing is a step towards vision.’ That dialectic is something we have used as a leitmotiv in our catalogue. For me it says everything.”