Iconic ECM Records Celebrates 50 Years

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ECM founder Manfred Eicher (second from left) in the studio with Cuban-born pianist David Virelles (center), Adam Cruz, and Thomas Morgan – during the group's session for the 2017 album "Gnosis." Photo © Bart Babinski

ECM, the most interesting and diverse record label I know, turns 50 this November. ECM stands for Edition of Contemporary Music and was founded by Manfred Eicher, who continues to lead the label today. It released its first album in 1969—Mal Waldron’s Free At Last­­­­—and has since followed the uncompromising vision of its founder in producing the best in jazz and contemporary classical music.

ECM has issued many records that have been important to me. The first ECM record I owned was Keith Jarrett’s 1972 first solo piano album Facing You. Track 3 off the album called “Lalene” captivated me. I will also never forget the time when bassist Charlie Haden visited me on Morning Becomes Eclectic in 1984, bringing with him a new vinyl copy of Arvo Pärt’s new album Tabula Rasa, which we premiered. Featuring pianist Keith Jarrett and violinist Gidon Kremer, this ECM debut made the Estonian composer famous throughout the world. I still find the music on this album astonishing. (Pictured at left, Keith Jarrett and Manfred Eicher in the mid-1970s. Photo © Roberto Masotti.)

When I hosted Morning Becomes Eclectic back in the day, ECM vinyl bore green labels. I once noticed that all three turntables (this was before CDs) in master control had ECM LP’s on them. I snapped a photo and sent it to ECM’s headquarters in Munich, hoping that Manfred Eicher might see it. I also attended an all-ECM concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1976, where I recorded my first published interview, with bassist Eberhard Weber. I loved his album The Colours of Chloë.

Speaking of bass players, founder Manfred Eicher (pictured at right in an archival photo) was a concert bassist and has released solo acoustic bass albums by Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, and, more recently, Larry Grenadier. What other record executive would be so passionate, so crazy, as to release albums of solo bass music? It signals Eicher’s total commitment to music and the artists who make it. And much respect for upright bass players.

ECM also presents music with audiophile recording and beautiful production. The cover art is never flashy, often black and white, impressionistic, and minimalist. Vinyl pressings play quietly and don’t pop with surface noise. ECM uses the best recording studios for enhanced sound—Rainbow Studio in Oslo, Avatar Studios in NYC,  Studios La Bouissonne in France, Tonstudio Bauer in Ludwigsberg, Germany, and Tritonus in Stuttgart. These state-of-the-art recording palaces create what Coda magazine once called, “The most beautiful sound next to silence.”

Something I wrote in a 2011 label spotlight on ECM bears repeating on this 50th anniversary:

The ECM sound: silence, space, a quest for the mystical in sound, and utter devotion to artistic individuality and creativity. Manfred Eicher has absolute respect for the artists he signs and produces. Every artist on the label benefits from the best recording studios, engineers, grand pianos, equipment, everything. No wonder a stickler like Keith Jarrett would stay at ECM for over 40 years. ECM is a rara avis.

ECM’s most popular release is Keith Jarrett’s 1975 live album The Köln Concert, which Jarrett ironically thought was a total disaster until he and Eicher listened to the playback. Jarrett was sick to his stomach and nauseous and didn’t like the piano at the venue. Both artist and producer were amazed when they heard what had been captured. The concert turned out to be magical, entrancing, and the album sold millions of copies.

I’ve put together this playlist of some favorite ECM tracks for your enjoyment.

The list below (in no particular order) highlights just a few from ECM’s 1,600-strong catalog that I have loved. These albums stand testimony to the diversity and brilliance of ECM.

ECM artists reflect on the label and its founder, in honor of ECM’s 50th birthday: