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ECM Records’ Manfred Eicher: The Free Matrix

Paul Bley
Tomasz Stanko
Don Cherry
Manfred Eicher in the studio
(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.

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