Manfred Eicher & ECM Records: Lucidity, Transparency and the Movements of Sound

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Manfred Eicher
By W. Patrick Hinely
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Manfred Eicher

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Every musician wants his or her work enshrined on compact disc—and now good, bad and indifferent albums swamp the market. In an idealized past, things seemed so much simpler.

In the ’50s and ’60s, Alfred Lion’s Blue Note was widely recognized as one of jazz’s premier labels. Fans bought the label’s records unheard because Blue Note stood for something tangible. The main thrust of the label was jazz fundamentalism—simple, singing themes and direct storytelling solos. Today, collectors eagerly seek out Blue Note’s back catalogue. But what of tomorrow? What label will talked about, written about and listened to in the way the old Blue Note label is today?

One contender is ECM. At the end of the ’60s, just as Blue Note was being swallowed up by the huge United Artists conglomerate, a tiny operation in Munich run by Manfred Eicher, who had studied at the Berlin Academy of Music and had begun to make a name for himself as a recording assistant with the classical label Deutsche Grammophon, released its first jazz album. Eicher called his new company Editions of Contemporary Music. Today ECM boasts a catalogue of some 700 albums.

“Of course, I never imagined we would become as successful as we have done,’ said Eicher, who is a youthful-looking 58. “To begin with we made and released one record then another, but it did not take 700 releases to realize there was some significance in this music.”

Yet despite the ultra-modern image ECM cover art exudes—the eye-catching photographs, the immaculate sans-serif typography—it comes as a bit of a shock to discover their offices are an industrial unit in a dreary Munich business park rather than in one of those glittering shrines to modern technology of the sort you find in Seattle—all glass and trendy aluminum architecture with, at the very least, a small man-made lake and a water fountain out front. Instead it’s a business lot that’s nationality neutral. You could be standing in a similar parking lot looking at a similar building in London, Paris or Rome.

Yet ECM is less about a place, more about a state of mind. Like the paintings of the 19th century Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, ECM is as much about internal landscapes as external ones. There’s a resonance to the music that invites contemplation, challenging you to find a deeper aspect of yourself. The central thrust of the label’s musical direction remains a personal reflection of Eicher’s musical aesthetic. “Our approach has a lot to do with the example of chamber music, and with a kind of poetic approach to music,” he explains. “My preference is toward that which has to do with lucidity, transparency and the movements of sound. It’s not only the notes but the thought behind them that matter.”

The range of music Eicher has recorded is astonishingly broad, moving from American jazz in tune with the jagged but endless rhythms of New York City to European jazz evoking the stark imagery of Scandinavia and nature near the Northern Lights. Although ECM has become associated with certain trademark attributes of sound, no one can accuse the label of playing safe; it covers a broad spectrum of jazz, from Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory to a collaboration between an Argentinean bandoneon player, a Danish trumpeter and a bassist from Oklahoma: Dino Saluzzi, Palle Mikkelborg and Charlie Haden.

This inclusive vision has had its share of critics, many of whom fail to realize ECM is mainly, but not exclusively, a jazz label. Eicher is unconcerned with boundaries and categories—if the music in question has integrity and originality that appeals to him, he will record it. Thus bassist Dave Holland and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem coexist not only in the same catalog, but on the same album without apparent incongruity, linked by the simple fact they are both brilliant musicians. “I was trained in chamber music and came to jazz through the music of Bill Evans,” Eicher explains. “I have tried to remain true to what I see as jazz—and that means music that suggests adventure. Today we are in a neoclassical time, but that isn’t adventure to me. Originality is what I look for, something that moves me.”

From the outset, Eicher paid scant regard to conventional notions of what was and what was not “commercial.” He simply followed his own instincts about whom he should record and how to record them. “I can’t think of any record label or any producer like Manfred,” says Jon Christensen, virtually the house drummer at ECM since the late ’60s. “When you are recording for ECM there should be no hit tunes! He really is not concerned with whether a record will sell, but he is concerned a record should be the best it can possibly be.”

In particular Eicher believes that the care in recording orchestral and chamber music he had learnt in the classical world should be applied to jazz. “I liked the sound quality of the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, and the attention to detail in recording classical music, which wasn’t always the case in jazz,” Eicher explains, “but I never tried to copy the American way of doing things. I wanted to do things from my perspective.”

That perspective put sound quality at the top of the list of imperatives. Eicher was concerned about careful microphone placement to capture the subtle and harmonious interplay of the instruments. “I didn’t put the drummer in a room at the end of the studio,” he explains. “We allowed a certain amount of controlled leakage to get an accurate sound picture.”

From the very first ECM album, Free at Last recorded in 1969 by pianist Mal Waldron, the music was not a dry re-creation of a moment in time. Instead the recorded sounds contained a vibrancy and reverberation that assumed a life of its own. The record was not simply an artifact but a means of conveying what Eicher calls “sound sculptures.”

One of the key albums of ECM’s early period was the label’s seventh release, Afric Pepperbird, recorded in Oslo in 1970. That album introduced of one of the label’s most enduring stars, Jan Garbarek on tenor saxophone, together with Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arlid Andersen on bass and Jon Christensen on drums. Yet the beginning was far from promising. “We started recording in an art museum outside Oslo than Jan recommended, because he had good experiences there, but after two hours we gave up,” says Eicher. “So we got a studio the following night and this session was one that went remarkably well.”

But even then, there were some humorous hitches in recording the album, as Jon Christensen recalls: “There was an elevator going from the first floor to the studio and Jan Erik the engineer had to call down, ‘Stop the elevator, we’re recording now!’ Then Terje fell asleep! But it worked out well. Manfred had taken the train from Munich and stayed with Jan to save money, but then things developed and now over 30 years have gone past!”

The record was a defining moment in European jazz. Afric Pepperbird projected a specific European identity in contrast to much European jazz that was based on the American model. “After we recorded it we knew we had something special,” reflects Eicher. “It was not in the way of American jazz; it was Scandinavian. The musicians play a different blues and it’s not of urban America. They have been brought up in different surroundings with a different music tradition. They know isolation and they know stillness and they know tranquility because that is all around them.”

Afric Pepperbird also marked the beginning of an enduring relationship between Eicher and recording engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug that gradually established a new benchmark for recorded sound in jazz through a series of solo piano albums including Chick Corea’s two volume set Piano Improvisations, Paul Bley’s Open, to Love and Keith Jarrett’s Facing You. “It wasn’t an idea of trying to do something different,” Eicher says, “it was an idea of doing something precise and with respect to the music we were going to record. We started something that I would say was a very personal approach to sound. We developed something which became later an identity, but at the very beginning we didn’t have a concrete idea what this sound should be; it was the music that more or less set the idea of the sound. We had to capture the sound of the musicians and not impose a sound on the musicians.”

ECM first gathered momentum at a significant period in jazz history: when the music business was devoting most of its attention to rock and neglecting jazz. Along with Jarrett, Bley and Corea, Eicher recorded musicians such as Don Cherry, Marion Brown, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Robin Kenyatta, Julian Priester, Pat Metheny and Bennie Maupin.

In the pre-CD era, recordings were pressed in premium quality vinyl and presented in sleeves whose design quickly established a visual signature for the label. Eicher, who has an abiding interest in cinematography and would later codirect the feature film Holozän that won the Special Jury Prize of the 45th Locarno Film Festival in 1992, turned to Barbara and Burkhart Wojirsch to create cover art that was, in essence, an aesthetic entry point to the music.

“As a passionate moviegoer I have always been interested in photography,” says Eicher. “Barbara and Burkhart, and after Burkhart’s [premature] death, Barbara and I, developed an idea to go for a certain kind of cover design. It was not intended to be different from others but we wanted something more austere, sparse and maybe a little more clarity to the direction of how the music could be enveloped. It was never the idea to illustrate the music but more to be a counterpoint to the music.”

Unlike Francis Wolf, whose influential photography for Blue Note portrayed pieces of frozen music through black and white photos of the artists themselves, ECM sleeves often use black and white images of water and clouds like film stills from a prolonged pan where the camera’s gaze is directed to a deserted landscape or seascape. The photographs have an enigmatic and often austere beauty and a timeless quality.

In 1975 came the label’s biggest hit, Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett—something that was totally unexpected. “We had no idea it would be so big,” Eicher recalls. “It just kept selling and selling and sales are now in excess of four million. Yet the night it was recorded everything seemed against a good recording.”

Keith Jarrett takes up the story: “Everything was wrong. It was the wrong piano; we had bad food in a hot restaurant; and I hadn’t slept for two days. We almost sent the recording engineers home. Manfred said, ‘Why don’t we record it anyway since they’re here?’ But I knew something special was happening once I started playing. I remember going on stage thinking there’s no place I’d rather be than sitting at the piano—finally! Sometimes when your resistance is low ideas come. And that piano, being a different instrument than I would normally play, I played it differently.”

While the label had several albums that had sold well up to that point, including Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and Jarrett’s own Facing You, the Köln Concert well and truly put ECM on the map. Yet while there had been independent jazz-based labels in the past, such as Blue Note, Norman Granz’s Verve, Bill Grauer’s Riverside, Dick Bock’s Pacific Jazz, the Ertegun brother’s Atlantic, Bob Weinstock’s Prestige, Lester Koenig’s Contemporary and Herman Lubinsky’s Savoy that all made their mark on the ledger, they were all eventually taken over, changed direction or simply folded. In contrast, ECM has retained its independence and strong sense of identity since 1969.

Although Eicher acts a producer for most of the label’s releases, it’s not simply a case of agreeing on a few tunes and twiddling a few knobs in the control booth. “He is always very innovative, very creative,” says Arlid Andersen. “He can hear immediately a take which is not happening and he was not afraid to tell anybody, whether they were Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea. His memory for what is going on in each tune is amazing. ‘Ah, is this really what you want to record?’—that’s his famous saying! And it makes you think twice about what you are putting down. He pushes the band or the musician in a direction that might be uncomfortable to begin with, but if you check it out it could open new doors for you. Sometimes, you can go into the studio and come out with something completely different from what you thought you were going to record!”

Eicher’s maieutic role is like a midwife aiding the birth of artistic truth. “I am with the musician in his solitude,” he says. “I never say this is right or this is wrong. I say, ‘Are we in the right moment?’ The musician makes the final decision and the music always starts before the microphones are set up. We then capture the sound we receive through the microphones and the wires, but we have to get something out that the musician recognizes as himself—and this is a big job.”

A typical ECM recording session will take two or three days. Often, Eicher will meet with the artists the night before and talk through things over a meal. He also does the editing and mixing and although musicians can attend, he admits the results “are not necessarily democratic.” More than most, Eicher is aware that technical mastery in jazz is just a small part of a bigger picture. Today a musician must also be able to create an original and effective context in which to function creatively as well as having something original to say. Here Eicher comes into his own, encouraging musicians to record in a variety of performing situations, sometimes with musicians they have never encountered, which often forces them to extend their expressive personality.

“There are many instances of this in our catalog,” says Eicher. “I think Solstice, the recording with Ralph Towner which to me is a classic recording in the early ECM days, with Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber, Jon Christensen, Jan Garbarek. Then the recording with Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden, Folk Songs—these recordings were also based on a high risk; whether it would work or not. In the case of Keith Jarrett and Jan Garbarek there was already an affinity toward each other; still the other people had to fit in the band, Jon Christensen and Palle Danielson. We did two studio recordings and a wonderful live recording in the Village Vanguard [Nude Ants], and later on we released a record from Japan which is called Personal Mountains. I think this band was incredibly influential as far as a lot of musicians in America were concerned, and I do not regret that I did take the risk to make the attempt to bring these musicians together.”

Such albums reflect Eicher’s creative hands-on role as producer in coming up with something different and unexpected, drawing together musicians from different continents and backgrounds to collaborate and exchange musical ideas to create a new musical language of the moment, without robbing the musicians of their own individual voices. And it is the individual voice that has a particular fascination for Eicher, who pits the “boring neoconservative 1970s and 1980s” against the 1960s, a time when he says, “There was still something called magic. A work of art was not a sign of something, it was the sign itself.”

One suspects that Eicher, who still retains the essence of the shoulder length hair he sported over 30 years ago—albeit neatly trimmed to collar length—is still inspired by the adventurous spirit of the ’60s. “I am, I think, an open-minded person,” he smiles. “I want to present an idea I feel, or that my colleagues feel, as good—unlike the general tendencies of record companies, which attempt to fabricate things in order to please an audience. Nowadays we see more and more business people taking charge: packaging and marketing are the key words. But that's not what it is about. We need to trust our instincts, have something to tell and say it with the force of our convictions.”

Each year, every year, the label releases some twenty to thirty albums, many of which are bought by fans of the label simply because they are ECM recordings. This remarkable brand loyalty enabled the launch of the ECM New Series in 1984 that immediately began turning heads in classical music. A forum for fresh approaches to the standard classical repertoire, Eicher has produced works by the likes of Heinz Holliger, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich, John Adams, Giya Kancheli and successfully introduced the Estonian composer Avro Pärt, whose 1993 album Te Deum was a top five classical hit, while Officium, a collaboration between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, has now sold in excess of a million copies worldwide.

In classical music as in jazz, Eicher continues to open doors to new musical horizons. “It is clear ECM is a European company,” he says. “My cultural experience is where I'm coming from, it's my approach to music. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, ‘You wish to see, listen; hearing is a step towards vision.’ That dialectic is something we have used as a leitmotiv in our catalogue. For me it says everything.”

Originally published in June 2001

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