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ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher: The Free Matrix

Paul Bley
Tomasz Stanko
Don Cherry
Manfred Eicher in the studio
Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Swallow and Paul Bley 1961
(L-R): Jimmy Giuffre, Steve Swallow and Paul Bley; New York, 1961
Art Ensemble of Chicago

In 1969, a 26-year-old musician and jazz aficionado named Manfred Eicher founded a tiny independent record label in Munich he called Edition of Contemporary Music, or ECM. Over the next four decades, those three letters would become synonymous with an aesthetic that balanced limitless creativity with staunch consistency.

Eicher’s sveltely produced music, the result of lean recording sessions and atmospheric dollops of reverb, was outmatched in style only by its packaging-liner-note-less albums with minimalist covers that can’t help but remain timeless. Add to that an international roster including some of the brightest musicians and composers of an era that has been unjustly maligned in jazz history-players like Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Jan Garbarek, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian, many of whom were given their leader debuts by Eicher-and ECM becomes a paramount record company in the tradition of Blue Note and Impulse. Yet the label has also been committed to European classical music, world music and genre-defying experimentalism.

The following conversation between Steve Lake and Eicher, excerpted from the new Granta book Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, covers the label’s contributions to jazz’s longest-running movement-free improvisation and the avant-garde. It also reveals the genius of an entrepreneur who understands keenly how artistic freedom and the airtight logistics of good business should coexist.

Introduction by Evan Haga


Steve Lake: From the beginning of ECM’s history, the idea of free playing, free improvising or spontaneous composition is one of the themes that runs through the label. From the start, it’s one of the threads. I’d like to talk about your earliest involvement with that area of music, as listener, player and producer. Let’s start with Bill Evans. The influence of his trio on ECM pianists has been widely noted. There you had a group dealing with form and improvisation in a refined and elegant way. But at least two players in the band had a foot in the free camp as well. Scott LaFaro was also playing with Ornette Coleman at the time, as on Free Jazz and Ornette on Tenor. And Paul Motian was getting ready to bust out into the free zone, looking beyond Bill Evans to Paul Bley and Albert Ayler and John Gilmore, and wanting to be a part of that music.

Manfred Eicher: Paul Motian was already “free” in the Evans trio, changing the Philly Joe Jones approach of time into a more elastic, melodic pulse. A little later on, when I met with Paul Bley’s music and encountered Cecil Taylor and other musicians of the so-called New York “October Revolution,” it broadened my interest in all sorts of music. And it was also Scott LaFaro who showed me, in his very melodic playing, about freedom in jazz. And his dialogue in that Ornette Coleman recording of Free Jazz, with Charlie Haden-it’s wonderful, the contrast and the symbiosis. Ornette was already a catalyst for this kind of stream: His approach was lyrical no matter how burning and intensively he played. In a way, like Scott LaFaro, who was very sophisticated in his choice of notes and lines, and in his phrasing, and always, above all, melodic.

Steve Lake: A fountain of melody.

Manfred Eicher: In the band Ornette brought together for Free Jazz, he was obviously looking for an arco player-like Scott LaFaro-as well as long notes and depth of field, in the Wilbur Ware sense. Here was Charlie Haden, so that was a challenging juxtaposition. This Ornette disc was a wonderfully inspiring encounter in my young years.

Steve Lake: Did you discover Paul Bley through Haden and Ornette?

Manfred Eicher: No. There was a young trumpet player in Stuttgart who was leading the 7th Army Jazz Combo. His name was Jim Knapp.

Steve Lake: The same James Knapp who later recorded with his group First Avenue for ECM in the 1980s?

Manfred Eicher: Yes. He had the early Paul Bley albums, which electrified me. And through him I realized that my way of seeing and hearing things needed to be shaped and sharpened. I also met the American drummer Fred Braceful, then living in Stuttgart, who was playing with Wolfgang Dauner and Eberhard Weber. He became quite a close ally of mine.

Steve Lake:You played and recorded with him in Bob Degen’s trio for Calig, and he also appeared on a couple of early ECM discs-Dauner’s Output and Mal Waldron’s The Call.

Manfred Eicher: It was Fred who introduced me also to the Music Improvisation Company: “There’s a band playing in Berlin you must hear.” This was towards the end of the ’60s, and that was how I came into contact with the band with Evan Parker and Derek Bailey that was introduced on a record in our early days at ECM. That was a very, very inspired musical unit, and at that time I was also still playing myself and trying to play free music. And so I did some concerts with Marion Brown and Leo Smith.

Steve Lake: A period documented in Theo Kotulla’s film See the Music. How did you come into contact with Marion and Leo?

Manfred Eicher: I really don’t recall how I met with them. I think Leo Smith I met also through Fred Braceful. Braceful was a very special musician. He played the drums but he was not a “drummer” as such. He was a very sensitive person, who understood the paths of Paul Motian or Ed Blackwell better than any of the European drummers did at that time. Also back then, I saw Rune Carlsson in Warsaw, the great drummer who played with Albert Mangelsdorff, and with Zbigniew Namyslowski and Tomasz Stanko and Gunter Lenz, that led to that great Krzysztof Komeda record Astigmatic … I traveled all around in Europe, listening to a lot of music. I had contact in Denmark in the North with Albert Ayler-not personally, but I was deeply moved by his music with Don Cherry, Gary Peacock and Sunny Murray. In contrast to a lot of other free music, Ayler’s was always a poetic approach. That’s also how I heard Paul Bley with his crystal-clear touch. No matter how free he was playing, whether it was on the Blood album or Barrage, when Paul came into action, the music suddenly got a new nuance, flavor, sound and approach, and I always found myself in the middle of the music because his tone, no matter on which piano he played, had its special electricity, a quality that Bill Evans of course also had, and which Glenn Gould had, a quality Chick Corea has and which, later, Keith Jarrett developed. But I could always recognize Paul among all the piano players-his sense of timing and the way he accompanies and plays with the soloists. He was an inspired catalyst, whatever the context. He was a musical idol for me then.

Steve Lake: If you look at the two German-based companies that have made an impact on the development of improvised music-there’s ECM on the one hand and FMP on the other … The FMP line seems, to my ear, and of course I’m generalizing here, to be more closely aligned to the Cecil Taylor sound-on-sound approach, while ECM’s approach has developed from the more spacious, more open ways of Paul Bley and Don Cherry.

Manfred Eicher: That’s the way I see it too, but I also liked very much the concept of Free Music Production, and attended their events and meetings at the Quasimodo and the Quartier Latin in Berlin and was very much inspired by Pharoah Sanders and Sonny Sharrock and Gunter Hampel and all those original players, and of course Peter Kowald and [Peter] Brötzmann. That was a fantastic movement, but I heard it more as a movement for music played live. So they followed that stream of Cecil Taylor, and I kind of differentiated. I didn’t feel that only this or that was possible. I got a lot of impulses from this energy, but for me, for my own nature and the way I heard music, I wanted to do it more poetically. But let’s not forget the intense and complex recordings that were also flying out of ECM’s productions-like Sam Rivers, Circle, the Art Ensemble, Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, and later Hal Russell, Joe Maneri and, again, the always developing Electro-Acoustic Ensemble of Evan Parker.

Steve Lake: The timeframe of a record can be a canvas on which something can be painted. While some free music sets out to create form by improvised means, other variants are much more concerned with process than structure.

Manfred Eicher: Well, to use that analogy, on ECM you could find Jackson Pollock and Rothko at the same time. You could have Cy Twombly-to whose work I felt particularly close in the 1960s-and Tàpies, and Yves Klein and Fautrier. The whole thing is actually a net that has no frame-a canvas without an edge-the music is open ad infinitum.

Steve Lake: Was there anything polemical or provocative about calling the company ECM-“Edition of Contemporary Music”-at a time when “contemporary music” triggered thoughts of Boulez, Stockhausen and Nono, rather than improvisation?

Manfred Eicher: Driving around in Munich one evening, it struck me how much I was influenced by the series that Mr. Goldschmidt made for Wergo, with music of Boulez, and Poulenc, and Penderecki and many others. Although I did not want to go myself into that field of music as a producer at that time, nor as a player, I was absolutely inspired by this. Also by Stockhausen: From the Seven Days, for instance. I made a trip to Paris to hear that music there. And even though I was then more in contact with jazz as a player and a listener and felt that new directions were coming from it, I was really touched by the contemporary music. I thought if we have a company we should have a name that is what we want to say today, and it’s not “jazz,” it wasn’t the jazz tradition I was setting out to document, so what is it? The idea of “Edition” was coming from painting, from galleries, and I thought about the book editions coming from Gallimard and so on. “Edition of Contemporary Music” sounded OK, but needed to be shortened. And so, ECM seemed quite good to me as a logo. Sounded musical. And the next morning it still sounded good.

Steve Lake: Don’t you think that the vocabularies of contemporary music and the jazz that has developed out of the free area are often very similar? You can hear a piece by, say, Elliott Carter or Helmut Lachenmann and experience it almost as free playing, although the process is almost the opposite.

Manfred Eicher: It’s good that the process doesn’t limit the feeling of freedom for the listener. The process is very different, but often the result, the effect you create, can be similar. There’s such a big difference between Coltrane and Gidon Kremer, for instance, but having experienced Coltrane’s intensity, when I heard Gidon Kremer in ’77 with his first offering of the Bach sonatas and partitas-that combination of rawness in tone and great artistic sensitivity could be compared to Coltrane.

Steve Lake: And when you hear Heinz Holliger playing the Elliott Carter oboe concerto, that absolutely is like hearing Coltrane or Pharoah!

Manfred Eicher: And when you hear his circular breathing it’s close to Evan Parker, and you also hear Jan Garbarek. I remember Jan was very moved when he heard, years later, Holliger’s Mehrklänge pieces.

Steve Lake: If you look at all the ECM jazz musicians it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t have some kind of roots in this stylistic period we’re talking about. Garbarek and Evan Parker might sound very different today, but their starting point is actually the same. Coltrane above all, and then Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler. What they’ve done develops from this set of influences.

Manfred Eicher: It’s true. And I would say they haven’t changed in their essential personality, the way I know them and hear them. Even though they modified little things and became better and better players. They’re still absolutely personal in their sound, and consequent in what they do. So there’s a real connection.

Steve Lake: Even someone like Eberhard Weber, who seems to be in denial about his improvised period, and makes a point of apologizing for it, and for the excesses of the ’60s generally-this has become one of his onstage raps-obviously he was part of that history, too. With Wolfgang Dauner especially, and their actionistic improvised gestures, in the spirit of happenings, as well as more eruptive free playing.

Manfred Eicher: The record we did with Dauner, Eberhard, Fred Braceful and Jürgen Karl for the Calig Verlag in pre-ECM time was a very free direction, and Eberhard Weber was into actions and performance, and he was working for a film production company as a cameraman, looking through the lens with suspicious curiosity. And he performed free music very convincingly. That improvising capacity is in him. It’s in all the good players. Whether you call it free improvising or motivic playing. Like in classical music, with all these great players like Kim Kashkashian who have deep cultural roots: Kim is of Armenian descent, and from there you connect to other areas. Jan Garbarek is a born improviser, very much in tune with his country’s past, with his folk music, his roots. And this is also understood in Turkey or in Israel in the same way as it is understood in Taiwan. So there is some universal component in this. All these players-whether from Iran like the kamanche player Kayhan Kalhor, or the wonderful musicians we know from Greece, like Savina Yannatou and her group. Also, the composer and musicologist Eleni Karaindrou is a very spontaneous improviser, who of course brings things into form at the end.

Steve Lake: Don Cherry called Albert Ayler “a total folk musician”-that was his understanding of what Albert Ayler was doing. Ayler’s cry does seem to reach for the dark sounds that are common in all these cultures, the duende that Lorca wrote about.

Manfred Eicher: All those kind of tunes like “Ghosts” (Eicher sings the theme) … The way he phrased his themes, as well as the way he shapes his timing, allowed him to travel into different areas, making the music universal and artistically at a very high level.

Steve Lake: Many of the young players on ECM continue to go back to these same sources. Trygve Seim obviously knows his Ornette and Ayler well, just as he knows his Garbarek. Susanne Abbuehl is inspired by Jeanne Lee and interprets Sun Ra on her new album. The young players in the Scandinavian band Parish are obviously aware of Jimmy Giuffre’s early groups, in the freely contrapuntal way they interact. This depth of reference is part of the special cachet of this label. You don’t often find this sort of awareness on, say, Concord or Blue Note or Verve today, you don’t find these colors.

Manfred Eicher: Our spectrum is wide…

Steve Lake: The Water Is Wide, like the title of Charles Lloyd’s album.

Manfred Eicher: It’s almost a line for ECM: The water is wide. In my mind, I often bring the music we do together with water music. I see a sea, a big ocean. And it’s extremely calm. Then, two and a half minutes later, the waves start moving and it becomes a storm. It changes, and the tide changes. That is inside ECM I think. A continuous movement of undercurrents and unexpected drifts, winds coming from different directions to become a central storm. But sometimes the sea is tranquil, and stays tranquil. We had a period when there was a certain sameness, maybe, or weakness even, but it was needed-as in the Keith Jarrett solo concerts, his great concerts, where you hear all these long waves, and you hear the parts where he needed to reload his energies to fly into the storm.

Steve Lake: Do you believe that, that there really was a period of sameness?

Manfred Eicher: I would think there was, when I remember some of the album covers-and it was not only the covers. Probably also for a while the music needed to find its next wave, and this was not always guaranteed. But at the end it was an organic evolution: We overcame this period.

Steve Lake: Jan Garbarek said once, “The jazz standards are not my standards.” Can you say d’accord to that?

Manfred Eicher: Yes, d’accord. … When you’re an American player who grows up in the area of that songbook and travels to the Berklee school or through the scales of Slonimsky, you probably would like to do a lot with those scales and use them in a very sophisticated way. But as a European, I don’t have the same contact to this music. Although I enjoy listening, it’s not the same sensuality I receive from a more open approach to music where there’s more space. Then I find I enjoy Lennie Tristano and Thelonious Monk, in retrospect, much more than I thought I would. And especially Paul Bley again: At that time, with Jimmy Giuffre, his was almost a Webern-esque climate. As a fragmentary approach to the well-chosen note or chord, the idea that only this note or phrase counts, restricting the number of notes and thinking about those notes before you play-Bley was the best at this. He knew when the time was right to play or not-and then disappear, as this wonderful trio with Steve Swallow and Jimmy Giuffre documents.

Steve Lake: Yes-the Fusion and Thesis albums, which three decades later you remixed and reissued as [the Jimmy Giuffre 3’s] 1961, and then Free Fall.

Manfred Eicher: And the “Footloose” trio with Swallow and Pete LaRoca. All these records that they made are masterpieces, in my opinion. They are the masterpieces of improvised music, where improvisation and form took place at the same time. And then came the great Ezz-thetic with George Russell with Eric Dolphy and Joe Hunt and David Baker … also Don Ellis sounded great in this context. I say also because later he played a completely different kind of music. The record Essence that Ellis made, with Paul Bley, Gene Stone and Gary Peacock was beautiful too, with Paul Bley playing a masterful bridge on “Angel Eyes,” which gave me, at that time, the same goose bumps feeling I’d experienced from the great music of Anton Webern.

Steve Lake: Over the years I’ve quite often heard you invoke particular records as being important. I don’t know how many times you’ve told me that something has the spirit of Coltrane’s “After the Rain,” or “Alabama.”

Manfred Eicher: “Alabama,” yes! The playing of McCoy Tyner there and Jimmy Garrison when he plays the arco bass in his soulful way. Wonderful. And “After the Rain.” So I was always brought back to these pieces, or to Miles. But at the same time, we needed the energy of free playing, of Don Cherry or the Art Ensemble of Chicago and that was extremely important, and from a very different springboard again, but still connected to this kind of musical family.

Steve Lake: I remember the Art Ensemble’s People in Sorrow being played a lot in the ECM office in the mid-’70s.

Manfred Eicher: Yes, yes, and all the great records that came out of the period when they were living in France. Their film music, and the record where they play Monteverdi variations [Les Stances à Sophie]: fantastic. And adventurous in their very special intonation, too, because classical musicians would never play it like that. That sound that Lester Bowie and Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman had, that they introduced together with Malachi Favors and later with the great drumming of Don Moye, it was remarkable. And with Lester and Malachi now gone, that sound no longer exists, unfortunately.

Steve Lake: What was your first encounter with the Art Ensemble?

Manfred Eicher: I got the first records on Delmark and Nessa. The Jarman album on Delmark, As If It Were the Seasons, I listened to that all the time. And I wanted to see them, so I traveled to Paris and met with them, and slowly we began to work together. The Nice Guys album was the first recording, in 1978. It was also interesting to bring engineer Martin Wieland into this music. At first he was a little uncertain about it: “What is this?” It was new to him, but as he began to get a feeling for it, and went over the first borderline to somehow know what they were doing, he later was very much accepted by the Art Ensemble. And it was also just very nice to see them in this ultra-conservative area where the Studio Bauer was located, outside Ludwigsburg.

Steve Lake: Urban Bushmen in the German provinces.

Manfred Eicher: Yes, there was something surreal about finding the Art Ensemble of Chicago in a hotel in Asberg, opposite the famous and very well-guarded jail. And it was the time of the Baader-Meinhof group, as well. Anyway, the Bauer studio had a good room for free and not-so-free music.

Steve Lake: Back to Cecil Taylor for a minute. Although, as you say, this record company has traveled a different route, quite a large number of ECM musicians have actually worked and recorded, elsewhere, with Taylor. From Mike Mantler to Mat Maneri, John Surman, Louis Sclavis, Barre Phillips, Evan Parker, Barry Guy, Gianluigi Trovesi and the entire Italian Instabile Orchestra, to name but a few. Two musicians who have played quite a bit with him are trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava. A number of the players who have been through the trial-by-fire of the free thing, though by no means all, are returning in their later years to a stronger sense of form. In that sense, the career paths of Stanko and Rava are very similar.

Manfred Eicher: Roswell Rudd’s another one. It’s true, but that may be because of time. For me, form is more important again now, and a precise approach in [an] almost Kurtág-like way, to mention a man who is also coming from Webern but has his own clear voice. I think it is interesting when you have been through all these movements and then try and sharpen the things you say in your language, or refine your language. It is amazing how Rava and Tomasz Stanko developed their sound and their articulation over all these years. When I met them their focus was on playing, not so much on form and composition. They were excellent players and expressed other things at that time. Now they define their sound also through their way of writing.

Steve Lake: Maybe there’s also the point that it’s appropriate behavior to be shouting for attention as a young person, less appropriate when you’re over 60.

Manfred Eicher: Possibly, yes. But then the time has changed, when you think about what we thought in the 1960s and what a crazy, creatively open time it was. Today things are done much more easily, in recording, too, but recordings don’t necessarily sound as characteristic now: Perhaps they sound better in a mainstream sense. The general quality level is up, yet few things stand out. See, for instance, the way everybody wants to have the same engineers, use the same studios and, particularly, imitate any sound that has proved to be successful.

Steve Lake: Did free jazz have a political meaning for you in the 1960s-as it did for some players-or was your interest in it purely sonic? Were you exclusively interested in the musical material, or did you consider its wider implications as well?

Manfred Eicher: I felt at home in this music because it was in tune with my thinking-the way I thought about society and life. But then I feel very much at home in music, because music is freedom to me-no matter how strict the form.

Excerpted from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, edited by Steve Lake and Paul Griffiths, published by Granta, 2007 Originally Published