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Founded in 1969 by classically-trained German bassist Manfred Eicher, ECM Records is primarily a jazz label, but has also issued some stunning 20th century classical music. While the best sellers in the ECM catalogue have come from established artists like Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Eicher’s eclectic taste has also brought us some lesser known talent deserving of wider recognition.
The ECM catalogue includes more than 1,600 albums, the majority of which are produced by Eicher, who has won Grammys for some of his classical productions. “An album is like a film or a play, presented in a certain way, with an overall sense of rhythm, dynamics and a story being told,” Eicher told DownBeat magazine.
Much has been said about “the ECM sound.” Some critics call it meditative or even spiritual. Still others refer to the earthy and folkloric qualities of ECM recordings. Many ECM albums are recorded at Talent Studios in Norway, a quiet and spacious distance from the often intense New York jazz scene.
Eicher has earned the respect of the musicians he records. At the age of 76, he shows no sign of slowing down. When DownBeat’s Josef Woodard asked him, “What’s next?,” Eicher replied, “Tomorrow.”
Let’s now examine some of the rare gems in the massive ECM catalogue.
“Inception” — Dave Holland
Way back in 1983, bassist Dave Holland released “Life Cycle,” an album of solo cello music that straddles the fence between the jazz and classical genres. Holland is a consummate musician who has extended the melodic possibilities of the bass. Holland’s work with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton, and as a leader of many bands demonstrated his multitude of gifts as a composer and improvisor. This solo work shows he can also stand alone and deliver.
“The Cure” — Keith Jarrett
In sharp contrast to many of Keith Jarrett’s fertile improvisational efforts, “The Cure” finds Jarrett’s trio creating a mesmerizing soulful groove on this live 1990 recording from NYC’s Town Hall. Sometimes less is more!
“Smatter” — Kenny Wheeler
In 1976, Toronto-born trumpeter Kenny Wheeler offered this lyrical piece on the album “Gnu High.” Wheeler, who passed away in 2014, went on to release many more titles for ECM, but most of them were far more eclectic and less accessible than this beautiful, spirited track.
“Caroline No” — Charles Lloyd
Charles Lloyd’s signature plaintive cry on tenor sax transforms this pop hit written by Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys into a legitimate jazz experience. Since the late 1980’s, Lloyd has recorded 16 albums for ECM. His 2010 release “Mirror” finds him in the company of great young musicians, including pianist Jason Moran. There’s no trace of a generation gap in the music presented here.
“Everything I Love” — Peter Erskine
Veteran drummer Peter Erskine currently divides his time between recording, performing, and teaching at USC. This brilliant reworking of Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” comes for Erskine’s 1992 release titled “You Never Know.” Note the great interplay between Erskine, English pianist John Taylor and Swedish bassist Palle Danielsson.
“So Green” — Gary Peacock
Known best for his work with Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, bassist Gary Peacock has 13 albums out under his own name, including eight on ECM. His 1980 “Shift In The Wind” album found Peacock in the company of pianist Art Lande and drummer Eliot Zigmund. Peacock’s many years of Zen meditation is reflected in the beauty of “So Green,” a spacious but complex Lande composition.
“Making Music” — Zakir Hussain
Tabla master Zakir Hussain’s 1987 ECM album defies description. The title composition combines Hindustani classical tradition with jazz sensibilities. Hussain is joined by Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute and guitarist John McLaughlin on this delightful record.
“Foujita” — Marc Johnson
You’ll be swept away by the warmth and melodic beauty of bassist Marc Johnson’s “Foujita.” It features telepathic interplay between the bassist and his wife, pianist Eliane Elias. This 2012 release is a true gem.
“A Window Facing South” — Iro Haarla
Iro Haarla is a Finnish pianist, harpist, and composer. She’s a classically trained pianist presenting genre-defying music on her forward-looking 2011 album, “Vespers.”
“Loving You” — Manu Katche
Known for his work with rock legends Joni Mitchell and Sting, French-born drummer extraordinaire Manu Katche has five pure jazz albums on ECM. “Loving You” is one of several relaxing melodic Katche originals from his eponymously titled 2012 ECM release.