ECM Records: Still Beyond Category in 2022

Digging into some of the influential jazz label’s latest titles

ECM Records collage (Image: ECM)

ECM Records stands out in the Jazz world for its artistic vision, as well as the way the recordings sound.

Founded in 1969 by Manfred Eicher, the label’s offerings provide “the most beautiful sound next to silence” as CODA magazine put it in 1971. The label records classical music, (Mr. Eicher trained as a classical double bassist and worked for a time for Deutsche Grammophon) and it records Jazz. But much of the music released on ECM is simply beyond category, to borrow a phrase Duke Ellington used, albeit before the label was founded. 

For years, music from the extensive and important ECM catalogue wasn’t available to stream legally over the internet. But that changed in November of 2017 and new audiences can now discover the music. 

This year saw the release of a number of notable recordings on ECM. Among these is a piano trio recording by the English organist and pianist Kit Downes called Vermillion, produced by Manfred Eicher. Beautifully recorded in Lugano by Stefano Amerio, this quiet program, mostly originals, has depth and gravity enough to draw the listener in and suspend time. On the last piece, the Jimi Hendrix song “Castles Made of Sand,” they perform the neat trick of making it sound like they’d written it for the recording session. The hushed quality of the playing, the distinctive writing and the glorious sound captured at the session help make the case for hearing this on a decent stereo. 

 

AUDIO: Kit Downes “Castles Made of Sand”

Another ECM recording released in 2022 is The Next Door, by The Julia Hülsmann Quartet. 

The moods range from the prancing swing of Made of Wood and Open Up, and the noir-ish tonalities of Empty Hands to the questing melody of Polychrome and the stark serenity of Sometimes It Snows In April. This German pianist plays with such a sure touch – and her band mates are so well prepared for the recording – that both the more searching and the more melodic tunes share a certain inevitability and unfold effortlessly. This is a standout recording. 

 

 

The American tenor saxophonist Mark Turner released a striking recording on CD in late March of this year, called Return From The Stars. The leader is joined by Jason Palmer on trumpet, drummer Jonathan Pinson and bassist Joe Martin for this date, and there’s no piano or other instrument playing chords. That provides a very open sound, and an opportunity for something a bit unusual in music in this day and age: Counterpoint. Thematic material written for Turner’s Tenor and Palmer’s trumpet are a compelling frame for these pieces and help the improvisation cohere and focus. Look for this to be available on vinyl later this year. Bravo! 

 

VIDEO: ECM Podcast #7: Mark Turner Return from the Stars

Israeli saxophonist Oded Tzur begins his recent release Isabela with “Invocation.” I had to listen carefully, but it’s a Raga, a melodic approach the saxophonist has been studying of late. The Sebastião Salgado cover photo shows the contrasting textures of a small bit of water and shore, which seems an apt visual metaphor for the two timbres the leader conjures on tenor saxophone: an unusually sumptuous woodwind sound, and a breathier cry. The recording is fairly quiet, but effortlessly becomes urgent when it serves the music. Drummer Johnathan Blake, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays like a man who listens for a living, and Petros Klampanis plays bass with a quiet majesty. Nitai Hershkovits caresses the piano.

 

 

Pianist Keith Jarrett is one of the brightest stars in ECM’s firmament. After a long and productive career including the best selling solo piano recording ever released, he withdrew from performing as the result of a stroke in 2018. Since then, the label has released music from select concerts, and a concert recorded in July of 2016 in Bordeaux is forthcoming. ECM has released an excerpt, and it’s beautiful; the sort of improvised rhapsodic solo piano he’s known for and ECM is known for capturing. It’ll be worth the wait. 

 

AUDIO: Keith Jarrett Bordeaux Concert – Part III

On September 9th, Enrico Rava and Fred Hersch released a duet recording called The Song Is You. 

The trumpet player and pianist had performed only a few times together, just prior to recording this music. Mr. Hersch had never recorded for the label. On a recent interview for The ECM Podcast, the warmth each musician expressed for the other is of a kind one would expect from childhood friends rather than recent collaborators. The album reflects this affection, and the musical rapport which results makes this a recording to savor. You’ll need a quiet room to experience these two masters:  like most of what ECM releases, it’s the antithesis of car radio music. The first piece, co-written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Chico Buarque, sets an impossibly high bar: It was originally written and recorded by Jobim as an instrumental called “Zingaro (gypsy)”. It was later recorded with lyrics by Chico Buarque, as “Retrato em Branco e Prieto (Portrait in Black and White).” Because it’s so well constructed and alluring, it’s been recorded many times. This version is quietly ravishing, an example of master improvisers playing a song, rather than merely playing their instruments. Seven pieces follow: one each by Rava and Hersch; one freely improvised selection; two by Thelonious Monk and a pair of standards.  There’s not a wasted note on the album. As is usual for ECM, the release is produced with care by Manfred Eicher. The engineer Stefano Amerio has done such an expert job of capturing the warmth of the instruments that reviewers differ on whether Enrico Rava is playing trumpet, flugelhorn or both on the sessions. Rava plays trumpet, but the confusion is completely understandable given the warm, spacious sound of the room and Amerio’s superb engineering. 

 

 

ECM has released well over 1500 recordings in 53 years, many of them quite influential. 

The fact that it still releases so much music of this variety and consequence makes it unique among record labels worldwide. The artistic vision on offer, along with the label’s devotion to recording quality continues to make ECM exceptionally valuable to music lovers heading into the holiday season.

 

VIDEO: Sounds and Silence- Travels With Manfred Eicher

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David Beckett

A Realtor in Burlington, Vermont, David Beckett has been a friend to Jazz since 1983. David airs a long running Jazz radio show at WWPV FM and serves as a Jazz Director and music librarian at the station. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBeckettVT

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