By Mike Zwerin
11 May 2002 - Founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969, ECM Records has
followed a policy of only recording new music he considers important.
Until this one, there have been no commercial reshuffles of any kind.
The first eight reissues from the Munich-based independent are grouped
together as :rarum - a best-of mix from the 1970s through the
1990s chosen by the musicians themselves.
The music still
sounds deep and remarkably undated. Eicher's goal was "to record
jazz with the same sensitivity and attention to detail as classical
music." He had played both classical and jazz bass and he knew
the difference. With its excellent engineering, generous use of space
and Saxon cool, it became known as the "ECM Sound." Despite,
or perhaps because of, its depth, it parented a not-so-deep trendy
elevator music called "new age."
Eicher was "never interested" in trends. "Just
chapters," he called them: "Soon everybody turns the page."
His policy was that some of his catalogue sells, some not, and one
supports the other. Some of it sold very well - notably Keith
Jarrett's Koln Concert, Jan Garbarek's Officium and
Pat Metheny's American Garage. All three helped spawn trends -
solo piano, Gregorian chants on the pop charts, and new age,
respectively. Their sales subsidized releases by John Surman, Nana
Vasconcelos, Carla Bley, Egberto Gismonti, David Darling, the Berlin
Contemporary Jazz Orchestra and others. It has been called "aesthetic
:rarum - with its colon and small
"r" - reminded me that somebody once irreverently said that
the firm's initials stand for "Excessively Cerebral Musings"
(the official name is "Editions of Contemporary Music").
What they considered an overly in-your-face Euro-attitude (read white)
turned some Americans off - even though Eicher also recorded the Art
Ensemble of Chicago, Mal Waldron, Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton.
"most beautiful sound next to silence" - ECM's motto - has,
as Jerome Reese wrote in Musician magazine, "echoed its way into
the collective consciousness, and had an incredible impact on jazz and
improvisation - heck, on most music." On the guitar in
particular. The company invented a sort of up-market version of the
rock guitar hero. Metheny, Ralph Towner, Kevin Eubanks, John
Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal, Mick Goodrick,John
McLaughlin and Bill Frisell were some of those involved.
is the only one of them collected so far. Described as "eclectic"
and "loopy," his blues-based, country-tinged guitar
featuring advanced electronics fuses with just about everything else.
The New York Times called him "the most widely imitated guitarist"
of his generation. It is a rare musician who covers so much territory
in such depth. His complexity, contradictions and even his dissonance
fuse into a consonant sound for sore ears.
The ECM Sound is
constructed on what people have been known to consider an excess of
reverb, a/k/a echo. "Reverb is used only to draw your final
landscape in a mix," Eicher (defending himself) explained to
Musician. "Lester Bowie likes to play trumpet into an open piano
- with the strings resonating. Terje Rypdal jumps into the fjord with
the mountains resonating. Or Jan Garbarek stands on the cliffs with
his saxophones, without playing, and the waves resonate. A 'natural'
recording just doesn't exist. If sounds and music go through
microphones and wires, there might be something mysterious once in a
In the shadow of Milt Jackson for so long, Gary
Burton has often been taken for granted. Burton's major investment
seems to have been in his group sound. Its continued elegance is
Corea led a major league piano trio with Miroslav Vitous, bass,
and Roy Haynes on
drums in the early 1980s. On the chosen tracks (a lot of Monk), three
sensitive musicians with good chops play together and a half.
selection suffers from being a (the only) double album. Less would
have been more. There could be more of his Standards Trio, with which
he is habitually poetic.
All in all, the first batch of
reissues in the :rarum collection substantiate Eicher's
enlightened business philosophy: "You cannot think about art as
rate of return. You plant the seeds, watch the plant grow, prune it,
transplant it, encourage it. It often takes my seeds years to blossom."
ECM Records Web Site
has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for
the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The
Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book entitled "Parisian
Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor