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Live Review: ECM 50 in New York

An all-star crew of more than 30 musicians celebrates the innovative German label’s golden anniversary

Giovanni Guidi, Joe Lovano, Enrico Rava, Dezron Douglas, and Nasheet Waits at the ECM 50 concert
Left to right: Giovanni Guidi, Joe Lovano, Enrico Rava, Dezron Douglas, and Nasheet Waits at the ECM 50 concert at Frederick P. Rose Hall, New York, Nov. 1, 2019 (photo: Luciano Rossetti ©PhocusAgency)

To say that there is a single ECM Records sound is to oversimplify a catalog that now encompasses more than 1,600 albums. One suspects that if the late Jan Erik Kongshaug, who engineered hundreds of those albums, were still with us, he’d coolly dispute such a statement with a nuts-and-bolts response, pointing out the many different models of microphones he used over the years, how he placed them in different positions in different studios and enhanced their output with different types of reverb units. All true enough. But even so, a few general, long-established traits of the label that Manfred Eicher has helmed since 1969 are undeniable: an emphasis on the space around and between instruments, whether it be defined solely by room ambience or bolstered by artificial means; a focus on capturing the intellectual interplay between musicians, or the thought processes within one musician, and treating the rhythmic feel they create or imply as a byproduct of those processes; a certain aesthetic refinement, even when the volume rises.

All of these traits were on display November 1 at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall for the first of two all-star concerts honoring ECM’s 50th anniversary, the culmination of a year of celebratory performances around the world by various artists on the label’s distinguished roster. (Eicher himself wasn’t in the house, but he sent a note of congratulations and thanks that was read to the audience before the show began.) On this evening, over approximately three hours, 32 musicians combined to play 20 pieces. Although ECM’s work in the classical and new-music realms was represented—Meredith Monk played the still-striking meditation “Gotham Lullaby” from her 1981 debut for the label, Dolmen Music, and cellist Anja Lechner paid homage to the 18th-century German composer Carl Friedrich Abel—jazz was first and foremost, appropriately given both the surroundings and ECM’s history.

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Mac Randall

Mac Randall

Mac Randall has been the editor of JazzTimes since May 2018. Prior to that, he wrote regularly for the magazine. He has written about numerous genres of music for a wide variety of publications over the past 30 years, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Vanity Fair, The New York Observer, Mojo, and Guitar Aficionado, and he has worked on the editorial staffs of Musician, LAUNCH (now Yahoo! Music), Guitar One, Teaching Music, Music Alive!, and In Tune Monthly. He is the author of two books, Exit Music: The Radiohead Story and 101 Great Playlists. He lives in New York City.