THE DOZENS: ECM - THE FIRST DECADE by Ted Gioia

The ECM record label, founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969, continues to expand our musical horizons after almost four decades. Few labels have covered a wider range of sounds—both geographically and stylistically—while still remaining true to a holistic aesthetic vision. The label’s longevity and impact are all the more remarkable when one considers its apparent immunity from commercial trends, industry fads, and external pressures. In an age of acquiring and merging, marked by a gradual and irreversible corporatizing of the music ‘business,’ ECM constantly reminds us of the value of an “independent label” run by people who put artistry above all other considerations.

Below are twelve of my favorite tracks from ECM’s first decade of operation.


Dave Holland: Conference of the Birds

Track

Conference of the Birds

Artist

Dave Holland (bass)

CD

Conference of the Birds (ECM 1027)

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Musicians:

Dave Holland (bass), Sam Rivers (reeds), Anthony Braxton (reeds), Barry Altschul (percussion, marimba).

Composed by Dave Holland

.

Recorded: New York, November 30, 1972

Albumcoverhollandbirds

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jazz was exploring new horizons during the 1970s, dancing on the divide between consonance and dissonance, Europe and African-American elements, traditions and anti-traditions. Sometimes the experiments faltered but at other moments they coalesced into something fresh and never before heard. Conference of the Birds is one of those magical recordings where everything clicks. This performance sounded inspired and sui generis when I first heard it, and still captivates me today. I could try to trace the influences. Do I detect a Celtic tinge? Am I crazy when I actually hear the birds singing in this piece? Never mind, just listen and enjoy one of the great tracks of the decade.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: In Front

Track

In Front

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Facing You (ECM 1017)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Composed by Keith Jarrett

.

Recorded: Oslo, Norway, November 10, 1971

Albumcoverkeithjarrettfacyou

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Here on the opening track of his first solo piano recording, Keith Jarrett announces a new era of jazz keyboard music. Even today, decades later, we can hear the repercussions in contemporary piano stylings. Jarrett helped shape a new language for improvised music, demonstrated the marvels of his conception and touch, explored novel paths of thematic development, and recalibrated the roles of the left and right hands in piano jazz—all in the course of a 10-minute performance. My favorite moments: the funky ostinato groove that kicks in right before the four minute mark, and then the shimmering resolution that dawns two minutes later. Jarrett still had his first solo concert records—the edifices of Bremen, Lausanne and Köln—ahead of him, but here at age 26 he had arrived, no longer the young prodigy of jazz, but a mature artist charting the future.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Jan Garbarek: Witchi-Tai-To

Track

Witchi-Tai-To

Artist

Jan Garbarek (soprano sax)

CD

Witchi-Tai-To (ECM 1041)

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Musicians:

Jan Garbarek (soprano sax), Bobo Stenson (piano), Jon Christensen (bass), Palle Danielsson (bass).

Composed by Jim Pepper

.

Recorded: Oslo, Norway, November, 1973

Albumcoverjangarbarek-witchi-taito

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

No record label has done more to establish the unique voice of European jazz -- not as an adjunct to American trends, but as a legitimate source of innovation -- than ECM under the direction of Manfred Eicher. But here Jan Garbarek and the exceptional rhythm section of Bobo Stenson, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen dig deeply into the ultimate American roots music. The Native American-inspired jazz of the late Jim Pepper is still all too little known and appreciated, although it has found a devoted audience that will not let his vital music be forgotten. Garbarek and crew offer an impassioned rendition of Pepper's best-known composition. Stenson starts in a wistful vein, but the energy level gradually increases . . . until Garbarek enters and wails with passion. His work in the upper register is as close as the saxophone can get to a human cry.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Pat Metheny: Midwestern Nights Dream

Track

Midwestern Nights Dream

Artist

Pat Metheny (guitar)

CD

Bright Size Life (ECM 1073)

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Musicians:

Pat Metheny (guitar), Jaco Pastorius (bass), Bob Moses (drums).

Composed by Pat Metheny

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Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, December 1975

Albumcovermethenybright

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Bright Size Life may have been recorded in Ludwigsburg, Germany, but the spirit of the American heartland permeates its tracks. In addition to "Midwestern Nights Dream," other Metheny compositions from this seminal release include "Omaha Celebration" and "Missouri Uncompromised." The guitarist is joined on this exploration of aural Americana by New York-born drummer Bob Moses and Finnish- American Jaco Pastorius, raised in Pennsylvania and Florida. Missouri native Metheny leads the way with dreamy, free-floating chords that gradually entice his cohorts into musical dialogue. One of Metheny's great virtues as a guitarist is his complete freedom from clichs and trite licks. His improvised lines always grow organically from the music, invariably sounding natural and unforced. Although he is a master of technique, his music never sounds technical. Not since Wes Montgomery has a guitarist shown such consistent ability to enter into the inner life of a song. Only 21 years old when this track was recorded, Metheny was already making music as expansive as the Midwestern night sky.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Chick Corea: Song for Sally

Track

Song for Sally

Artist

Chick Corea (piano)

CD

Piano Improvisations, Volume 1 (ECM 1014)

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Musicians:

Chick Corea (piano).

Composed by Chick Corea

.

Recorded: Oslo, Norway April 21 and 22, 1971

Albumcoverccoreapimprov1

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

When Herbie or Miles or Wayne jumped on the fusion bandwagon, they often confused their loyal fans, who struggled to connect Kind of Blue with On the Corner or make their way from "Dolphin Dance" to "Chameleon." But for Chick Corea, the chasm between his straight-ahead acoustic and crossover electric styles demanded less of a leap. Only the smallest nudge was necessary to go from (for example) Corea's work with Stan Getz to his Return to Forever efforts. This memorable ECM track is a case in point. Corea always wrote great melodies, whether he was playing for fusion fans or jazz purists. He always put that "Latin tinge" into his keyboard work. He solos are always smartly conceived and played with Corea's immediately recognizable touch at the instrument. Corea's biggest-selling releases from the era were made for the Polydor label, but the great ECM disks -- with the Circle ensemble, the collaborations with Gary Burton, the first Return to Forever LP, and two outstanding volumes of solo piano improvisations -- rank among his most cherished works. "Song for Sally" from the first volume of Piano Improvisations is one of my favorite tracks from this period.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Ralph Towner & Gary Burton: Icarus

Track

Icarus

Artist

Gary Burton (vibes) and Ralph Towner (guitar)

CD

Matchbook (ECM 1056)

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Musicians:

Gary Burton (vibes), Ralph Towner (guitar).

Composed by Ralph Towner

.

Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, July 26 and 27, 1974

Albumcovertownerburton

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

Both of these musicians had fully assimilated the modern jazz tradition before joining forces for their Matchbook sessions on ECM. Burton had worked with Stan Getz and George Shearing, and had been one of the first to test the fusion waters, with his Duster release on RCA back in 1967. Towner had also tried his hand at fusion -- he appeared as a guest artist on Weather Report's I Sing the Body Electric almost three years prior to Matchbook -- and had even made his mark as a pianist before focusing on guitar. But the constraints of the standard post-bebop vocabulary were too confining for these players, who wanted to assimilate a variety of sounds (folk music, classical, ethnic, and avant-garde, among others) into their ever expanding musical melting pots. "Icarus" is one of Towner's finest compositions. He had already recorded it with the Paul Winter Consort and on his ECM solo release Diary, and he would draw on it again with the band Oregon and in other settings. The composition evokes a transcendent, yearning ambiance -- this is nothing less than a musical soundtrack for a personal vision quest. Here is the mythical Icarus while still in ascendancy and heading for the stars, and Towner and Burton enter fully into the emotional maelstrom of the flight.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Egberto Gismonti: Baião Malandro

Track

Baião Malandro

Artist

CD

Sol Do Meio Dia (ECM 1116)

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Musicians:

Egberto Gismonti (piano), Nana Vasconcelos (berimbau).

Composed by Egberto Gismonti

.

Recorded: Oslo, Norway, November, 1977

Albumcovergismontisoldia

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Egberto Gismonti concludes his Sol Do Meio Dia recording with a suite of four compositions, finishing with his amazing "Baião Malandro." Many know Gismonti as a guitarist, but this keyboard performance captures some of the most invigorating piano work in the ECM catalog. A savvy jazz player once told me that the secret to success was to steal from other players, but only from those who play other instruments -- so no one can trace your sources. Gismonti does just that -- but he steals ideas from his own guitar conception. Imagine treating the piano like an 88-string guitar, and you get some idea of what this song sounds like. A bravura performance full of drama and fireworks.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Paul Bley: Closer

Track

Closer

Artist

Paul Bley (piano)

CD

Open to Love (ECM 1023)

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Musicians:

Paul Bley (piano).

Composed by Carla Bley

.

Recorded: Arne Bendiksen Studio, Oslo, Norway September 11, 1972

Albumcoverpaulbleyotlove

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

Solo jazz piano was a lost art during the 1960s. Most of the leading keyboardists of the era preferred to work in a trio setting, or in the context of larger combos. But this all changed in the early 1970s, a turbulent period when the entire jazz piano vocabulary was in process of redefinition and reconfiguration. Only a few months before Paul Bley undertook this seminal session, Keith Jarrett had entered the same studio in Oslo and recorded his monumental Facing You solo piano project. Around this same time, Chick Corea also made a pilgrimage to Norway where he spent two days recording his Piano Improvisations albums. These works forged a new path for jazz, one in which European and African-American elements sought a renewed symbiosis, and where the conflicting paradigms of freedom and lyricism entered into a fruitful dtente. Bleys introspective work on Closer which, despite the name, was the LPs opener still sounds fresh and provocative a generation later. Every note carries an ineffable rightness, and Bleys rich piano tone never sounded better.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Enrico Rava: The Pilgrim and the Stars

Track

The Pilgrim and the Stars

Artist

Enrico Rava (trumpet)

CD

The Pilgrim and the Stars (ECM 1063)

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Musicians:

Enrico Rava (trumpet), John Abercrombie (guitar), Jon Christensen (drums), Palle Danielsson (bass).

Composed by Enrico Rava

.

Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, June 1975

Albumcovereravapilgrim

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

"Contemporary Italian jazz can be said to have begun with Enrico Rava," critic Michael Zwerin has written. Rava is still recording for ECM more than three decades after the release of The Pilgrim and the Stars, and though his work has continued to evolve and mature, this early outing demonstrates the core virtues of his style -- a warm, inviting tone, especially rich in the lower register; great phrasing with lots of variety; a fluent technical command of the instrument; and very smart use of space and dynamics. Kudos (again) to ECM for hunting out deserving musicians such as Rava and bringing them to the attention of the global jazz audience.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Keith Jarrett: Bremen, Germany, July 12, 1973, Part I

Track

Bremen, Germany, July 12, 1973, Part I

Artist

Keith Jarrett (piano)

CD

Solo-Concerts: Bremen / Lausanne (ECM 1035/37)

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Musicians:

Keith Jarrett (piano).

Compsed by Keith Jarrett

.

Recorded: Bremen, July 12, 1973

Albumcoverkeithjarrett-soloconcerts-bremen-lausanne

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jazz musicians have always emphasized improvisation in their work. But few have taken this reliance on spontaneous creation to the lengths Keith Jarrett has assayed in his solo concerts. He pioneered the (still rare) concept of an entirely improvised piano recital, wholly inspired by the muse of the moment. But if the concept is exciting, Jarrett's execution of this ambitious idea is even more impressive. The ECM recording of Jarrett's 1973 Bremen concert represented the first attempt to capture this type of work on tape and present it on record. This disk may not have sold as well as the The Kln Concert from 1975 or matched the scope of Jarrett's massive Sun Bear Concerts (originally released on ten LPs) from 1976, but for sheer musicality and inventiveness it is hard to top the recital in Bremen. Here is piano music that is rich in complexity, subtle in detail, and completely free of clich. One of my desert island disks.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians

Track

Music for 18 Musicians

Group

Steve Reich

CD

Music for 18 Musicians (ECM New Series 1129)

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Musicians:

Steve Reich (piano, marimba),

Shem Guibbory (violin), Ken Ishii (cello), Elizabeth Arnold (voice), Rebecca Armstrong (voice), Pamela Fraley (voice), Nurit Tilies (piano), Steve Chambers (piano), Larry Karush (piano, maracas), Gary Schall (marimba, maracas), Bob Becker (marimba, xylophone), Russ Hartenberger (marimba, xylophone), Glen Velez (marimba, xylophone), James Preiss (metallophone, piano), David Van Tieghem (marimba, xylophone, piano), Virgil Blackwell (clarinet, bass clarinet), Richard Cohen (clarinet, bass clarinet), Jay Clayton (voice, piano)

.

Composed by Steve Reich

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Recorded: No date given, album released in 1978

Albumcoversreich18

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

The ECM label would eventually push far beyond its jazz roots, but its willingness to tackle new sounds and idioms is perhaps best exemplified by this 1978 release by composer Steve Reich. The classical music world has claimed this extended, hour-long performance, and it is deservedly lauded as a major statement of the minimalist aesthetic. But any attempt to link this music to categories such as "classical' or "jazz" misses much of the point of this visionary composition, which defines its own soundspace. The slow pace of harmonic change creates a hypnotic effect that is unmatched, in my opinion, by any other work of modern music. Reich relies heavily on mallet instruments -- played by seven members of the ensemble -- but tempers them with four female voices, creating a tension between soft and hard, stubborn insistence and gentle persuasion, that transforms the aural space.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


The Art Ensemble of Chicago: Folkus

Track

Folkus

Group

The Art Ensemble of Chicago

CD

Nice Guys (ECM 1126)

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Musicians:

Lester Bowie (trumpet, percussion), Joseph Jarman (reeds, percussion), Roscoe Mitchell (reeds, percussion), Malachi Favors Maghostut (bass, percussion), Famoudou Don Moye (drums, percussion).

Composed by Famoudou Don Moye

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Recorded: Ludwigsburg, Germany, May 1978

Albumcoverartensembleniceguys

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

When the Art Ensemble of Chicago showed up at a studio in Ludwigsburg, Germany to record for ECM, it was as surprising (at least to jazz fans) as the Berlin Wall coming down. To many advocates of Free Jazz, ECM was the Evil Empire, dismissed as a reactionary attempt to infuse too strong a dose of European influences into the jazz vocabulary, thus watering down the music's inherent vitality. (Phew, that was a mouthful.) Such rhetoric may seem a little overheated today, but back in the 1970s the current pluralistic, open jazz environment had not yet been established, and those at the cutting (bleeding?) edge tended to believe that jazz presented a linear progression that allowed no turning back! But here we found the leading avant-garde band of the era showing up as "nice guys" and joining hands with their European brethren -- in a release appropriately named Nice Guys.

But the Art Ensemble didn't get too nice -- and things get very edgy if you try saying this song title after your second drink at the nightclub. The lengthy "Folkus" track includes all their usual stock-in-trade: lots of dissonance, minimalist interludes, criss-crossing horn lines, background-music-as-foreground-music, and enough percussion instruments to fill a museum of membranophones and idiophones. Not nice enough, perhaps, for many ECM fans, but a historic moment by any measure . . . and an event signaling both the end of ECM's early years and the arrival of the new postmodern jazz world of peace and brotherhood.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia


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An Interview with Manfred Eicher by Stuart Nicholson