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ECM turns 50
On another wavelength

The label’s own musical language allowed ECM to sign international stars like pianist Keith Jarett.
The label’s own musical language allowed ECM to sign international stars like pianist Keith Jarett. | Photo (detail): © ECM Records/Henry Leutwyler

From a niche label to one of the most successful record labels in the world: not only has Munich’s ECM Records produced many international jazz and classical music stars in the last half century; it has also helped to shape the world of music.

With their modern layout and creative typographical design, the record covers could easily be mistaken to be volumes of poetry. The elegant, artistically sophisticated aesthetics are the hallmark of the ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) record label headquartered in Munich. Founded in 1969, the label has recorded popular artists like Carla Bley, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Anna Gourari. Once a modest avant-garde jazz label, today ECM is one of the most successful record labels in the world, and not just for jazz, but for classical and contemporary music as well. Under the direction of its founder, producer Manfred Eicher, ECM has won “Label of the Year” and “Producer of the Year” eleven times in the International Critic’s Poll published by US magazine DownBeat in recent years. The 1,600 album catalogue includes bestsellers like Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert recorded in 1975, by now the all-time best selling piano album in any genre with around four million copies sold.  It also features the magically simply tonal language of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, a recording of all of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas by András Schiff and the chamber and orchestra music of Austrian composer Thomas Larcher.
ECM’s record covers could easily be mistaken to be volumes of poetry. ECM’s record covers could easily be mistaken to be volumes of poetry. | Photo: © ECM Records

On another wavelength

ECM’s storied history began in 1969, a historic year in which rock classics like the Beatles’ Abbey Road and the Who’s Tommy were released. Professional double-bass player Manfred Eicher decided to begin producing music under his own label with the financial backing of entrepreneur Karl Egger. Egger also provided the premises for the budding label he helped found and lead with Eicher as managing directors. Their first release was the album Free at Last by American pianist Mal Waldron recorded on 24 November, 1969.

Once an accompanist of great jazz singer Billie Holiday and a member of bassist Charles Mingus’ band, Waldron was living in Munich at the time and his edgy, unique colorations and style was just what the fledgling label needed. The album’s title, Free at Last, reflects the final words of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech from 1963 and also refers to the pianist’s musical preference: free jazz. The title also came to stand for ECM’s program: free music produced by a small company completely independent of the large corporate labels. As US American magazine Jazz Times put it: "It's doubtful that anyone who heard Free at Last in its day took particular notice of its fledgling label, but an unheeded message is still a message: We're on a different wavelength."
Mal Waldron, Isla Eckinger, Manfred Eicher and Clarence Becton at the recording studio. Mal Waldron, Isla Eckinger, Manfred Eicher and Clarence Becton at the recording studio. | Photo: © ECM Records/Manfred Scheffner

Musical language and aerial art

This different wavelength, the label’s own musical language, would later allow ECM to sign international stars like pianist Keith Jarett. Manfred Eicher wrote the already famous musician a letter outlining his ideas of how he thought Jarett’s sound should be captured and included a test copy of his current productions. So on 10 November, 1971, Jarett agreed to record his solo album Facing You with ECM in Oslo. In addition to top seller The Köln Concert, Jarrett’s The Melody at Night, with You (1999) is one of ECM’s most successful releases. With around 800,000 copies sold, it is in fifth place behind Pat Metheny’s Offramp, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s Officium and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, all of which have sold roughly 1.1 million copies.
Professional double-bass player and ECM’s founder Manfred Eicher Professional double-bass player and ECM’s founder Manfred Eicher | Photo: © Bart Babinski ECM has helped hone the ears of many listeners around the world with its “aerial art” aesthetics, as the label sees music - a language of sound that leaves the maximum amount of air between notes.  The label also publishes music that sensitively links different worlds, such as those of the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem. In contemporary jazz, ECM has also shown a great nose for the extraordinary in the past years with releases from trumpet players Ralph Alessi and Avishai Cohen and clarinettist Louis Sclavis. Eicher says he is particularly interested in "music on the edges".  Because: "We have to learn to listen again - with open ears. Even to music that seems strange to us at first".
 

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