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.