Manfred Eicher and ECM

Record labels come and go, and even those that survive rarely maintain their independence. The ECM label has been around for almost forty years now, and during that time every other jazz label of note has changed ownership at least once. Blue Note, Fantasy, Pablo, Concord, even the giants RCA and Columbia, have been bought and sold, the largest whale-sized mega-labels apparently just as susceptible to these disruptions and transitions as the smallest fish in the sea. But ECM has retained its independence through it all, and not just in terms of who owns the business, but even more obviously in the company’s unwavering commitment to an artistic vision and a set of values.

Manfred Eicher, the founder and creative force behind ECM, has probably exerted as much influence on the jazz world as is possible without playing an instrument. He not only has been the visionary producer guiding important recordings by Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, and Bill Frisell, among others – but he was also a strong advocate for these musicians before they were widely known in the music world. Time and time again, Eicher has championed musicians off the beaten track – geographically as well as stylistically – and given visibility to brilliant artists who, without Eicher, might never have been able to reach a global audience.

Taking chances on lesser known musicians in this way seems like a risky approach. But somehow Eicher takes out all the risk – at least for the fans purchasing ECM’s recordings. Over the years, I have often bought an ECM release, despite knowing little or nothing about the musicians featured – but I have done so with confidence. ECM has such high quality standards and such a firm commitment to artistry, that I know in advance that is unlikely I will be disappointed by what I hear. And I may just encounter something fresh and exciting that I would never otherwise have discovered. How many jazz labels have ever instilled this degree of confidence in their judgments? How many still are able to do so? Today the answer is, sad to say, very few.

Eicher keeps a low profile. I understand that he hasn’t given a media interview in English in more than five years. Indeed, the ECM label prefers to let its music speak itself. (When was the last time you enjoyed the liner notes on a ECM release?) But Stuart Nicholson, one of the most astute jazz critics writing today, recently returned from Germany where he spent some time in conversation with Eicher. We are delighted to publish this interview on In conjunction with this interview, I am offering my choices for a dozen essential tracks from ECM’s first decade. Finally, Stuart is also sharing with us his Jazz Letter from Europe, which is the first of what we hope will be an on-going series.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 25, 2007 · 0 comments


Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

With the passing of Oscar Peterson, we have lost one of the last representatives of the great post-war generation of pianists who redefined the role of the keyboard in jazz music. We will almost certainly never again see such a concentration of creativity and individuality as the jazz world experienced during the late 1940s and 1950s when most fans first heard the music of Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, Bill Evans, Lennie Tristano, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Ahmad Jamal, Dave Brubeck, and George Shearing. Most of these pianists are now gone. We will need to be content with appreciating their artistry through recordings and the occasional surviving video -- and in our cherished memories of seeing them perform in person.

Oscar Peterson was perhaps the easiest of these musicians to appreciate. His strong sense of swing and virtuoso technique could even move listeners who had little appreciation of the jazz idiom. The virtues of his work were so striking and obvious that it is something of a puzzle how otherwise astute critics could so easily ignore them. Miles Davis, in a famous put-down, once commented that Peterson sounded as if he had to learn how to play the blues. The late Martin Williams – one of the most astute critics ever to write about jazz – dismissed Peterson’s work as a “stockpile of clichés . . . He seems to know every stock riff and lick in the history of jazz.” For both Davis and Williams, the sheer abundance of Peterson’s work, the dramatic and rapid-fire manner he tossed off melodic ideas, somehow made him suspect. Peterson was the improvisatory equivalent of a fire hose, and these critics wanted a small bottle of Evian water.

But there is a place in every art form for fireworks and bravura gestures. Peterson was the most dramatic pianist of his generation, and to see him at top form was an exhilarating experience. I recall guitarist Joe Pass (a great virtuoso in his own right) once noting that if you wanted to play fast with Oscar, he could play fast; and if you wanted to go faster, Oscar could go faster -- Pass shaking his head at this point, like the fan at a NASCAR event who has just seen some death-defying move on the track. To play fast and clean and true is a litmus test for jazz musicians. It always has been and always will be. And among jazz players of his era, no one played faster or cleaner or truer than Oscar Peterson.

Here are some of my favorite Oscar Peterson moments: his driving two-hand boogie work on “Blues Etude”; a surprisingly restrained and introspective solo version of Ellington’s “Lady of the Lavender Mist” from an early Pablo release; his duets with Dizzy Gillespie and Roy Eldridge and several other trumpeters from this same period; his sensitive contributions as an accompanist on a number of classic Verve recordings; his underrated Nat-King-Cole-ish vocal work; and his various collaborations with the great Joe Pass. If you haven’t heard the latter combination in a while, check out this clip of Peterson and Pass playing “My One and Only Love.”

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 24, 2007 · 3 comments


Remembering Frank Morgan (1933-2007)

The jazz world is mourning the loss of alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, who passed away on Friday after a battle with colon cancer. Morgan would have turned 74 this coming Sunday.

Thirty years ago, Frank Morgan had disappeared so completely from the jazz scene that Leonard Feather and Gene Norman assumed he was dead when they began working on a reissue of his recordings from the 1950s. But Morgan, like so many others of his generation, found his career eclipsed by an out-of-control drug habit that ravaged his personal life and resulted in long years of incarceration.

This was a tragedy that was all too typical of the West Coast scene of the period. Morgan would later recall that one of the finest bands of his career was a San Quentin ensemble from 1962, which also featured Art Pepper, Jimmy Bunn and Frank Butler. (In the near future, I will be publishing on my account of another drug-and-prison casualty of the era, the great trumpeter Dupree Bolton.)

Morgan was one of the last survivors of the thriving Central Avenue scene that served as the center of the Los Angeles jazz world until the late 1940s. Morgan’s father, guitarist Stanley Morgan, ran a popular after hours clubs in the area, the Casa Blanca. Many jazz legends, including Charlie Parker and Erroll Garner, participated in jam sessions at the Casa Blanca, and young Frank Morgan got a chance to match musical wits with the world class talent while he was still a teenager.

Morgan was a master of the bebop vocabulary, but he made only a handful of recording before disappearing into California’s penal institutions. When he tried to resurrect his career in the 1980s, Morgan had to start from the bottom rung. Even jazz insiders were mostly unaware of Morgan and what he could do on the horn. But a talent this large would not stay hidden for long. Even before he secured a recording contract, he shook up the audience at a Duke Ellington tribute concert on the UCLA campus where Morgan stole the show as a virtually unknown player in the midst of an all-star lineup.

His subsequent recordings garnered glowing reviews, and Morgan found himself gaining the recognition in his fifties that should have been his in his twenties and thirties. He recorded extensively, toured regularly, and in 1991, at age 57 he won the Down Beat Critics Poll as best alto saxophonist.

We had grown used to Morgan beating the odds. His comeback in the 1980s seemed almost a miracle to those who had written him off as a casualty of the scene. After a stroke in 1998, doctors told him he would never play again, but he was performing again within six months. But Frank Morgan finally succumbed last Friday. We will miss his presence, but continue to celebrate his legacy.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 17, 2007 · 1 comment


Introducing the 'Dozens'

In the coming days, I will introduce you to some of the more interesting features on our brand new site. One of my favorites is our on-going series known as The Dozens. Some of you may be familiar with ‘playing the dozens’ – an African-American tradition based on informal, taunting exchanges. Our approach to the ‘dozens’ is a bit different. We select twelve exemplary jazz recordings based on a theme, and submit them for your enjoyment and debate. We have already published a number of these celebrations of the jazz art form (see complete list here). Some are straightforward (Steve Greenlee selects twelve essential John Coltrane performances), while others are whimsical and fun (Alan Kurtz’s celebration of the masterpieces of crime jazz). But they are always prepared with fastidious care, and the deep expertise that our writers draw from a lifetime of jazz listening. You will see more of the ‘dozens’ in the future, and from time to time I will draw attention to them in our blog.

For a description of other features, go here.

This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia

December 12, 2007 · 0 comments


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