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.
On record, a little of the Eicher vibe can go a long way (and I say this while also acknowledging with gratitude that my life has been irrevocably altered by numerous ECM releases). But on a concert stage in the moment, it’s a different matter, as the warmth that passes between the players is palpable. You could feel it as guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan tossed little jewel-like phrases to each other during a lovely rendition of Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago”; as Vijay Iyer, switching between Fender Rhodes and acoustic piano, communed with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith on the ominous “Rite”; and as saxophonist Joe Lovano and pianist Marilyn Crispell explored the many possibilities within the minor/major-seventh chord over Carmen Castaldi’s percussion on “Seeds of Change.”
Later on, pianist Ethan Iverson—wearing a T-shirt with vintage ECM logo—joined with saxophonist Mark Turner for a take on the former’s composition “Showdown.” Back in the summer at Newport, I’d heard Iverson play the tune by himself in dramatic, cathartic style; Turner’s tenor gave the same melody a new sweetness and a sense of deep acceptance. The subtly barbed byplay of trumpeter Avishai Cohen and pianist Fabian Almazan on “Shoot Me in the Leg” was notable too, as was the very ECM move that Cohen pulled: walking over to the piano and aiming his horn under the lid at the strings below (the resonance, y’know).
Because ECM has been responsible for so many memorable solo piano recordings (Keith Jarrett’s mystical opuses like Facing You and The Köln Concert being only the most famous), it was fitting that pianists took sole possession of the spotlight several times during the show. Egberto Gismonti opened the evening with a medley of “Infância” and “Forrobodó” that was by turns bouncy and rhapsodic. Craig Taborn imbued an improvisation based on his Avenging Angel album with icy intensity. And Nik Bärtsch, dressed in his usual loose black martial-arts-studio garb, tapped out a stark Morse-code message that ended up beaming us straight to the Crab Nebula in “Modul Five.” Another captivating solo spot was bassist Larry Grenadier’s; his “Oceanic” offered a combination of bow work and natural harmonics that at times seemed to stretch the limits of the possible.
The groups that wrapped up the concert’s two sets nodded to the label’s illustrious past while also suggesting directions worth pursuing in the future. For the title track of their 2016 In Movement album, drummer Jack DeJohnette, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, and electric bassist Matthew Garrison built from quiet abstraction to a heavy funk-infused groove to end the first half. When Garrison kicked on his distortion pedal, the sound probably got as close to Black Sabbath as has ever been heard in Rose Hall (though my inner metalhead wished it were louder).
For the night’s final segment, trumpeter Enrico Rava—celebrating his 80th birthday this year—reunited with Lovano, pianist Giovanni Guidi, and bassist Dezron Douglas for a reprise of two songs from their live album Roma, one of the outstanding jazz releases of 2019; Nasheet Waits more than ably filled the shoes of Gerald Cleaver, the drummer on that album. As Lovano and Rava’s lines loosely danced around each other, sort of together, sort of not, echoes of Dewey Redman’s Old and New Dreams (who recorded two albums for ECM 40 years ago), and of the classic Ornette Coleman Quartet that inspired it, weren’t hard to hear. Not surprisingly, their closing tune was Lovano’s “Fort Worth,” which namechecks the hometown of both Redman and Coleman, and left the audience with a savory and welcome taste of the blues.
One minor quibble: JALC’s offstage announcer was experiencing serious pronunciation difficulties. We got a “Jack DeJohnette” that sounded more like “Jack Déjeuner,” a “Nasheet Wait” (or perhaps Waite, like the singer of “Missing You”?), and an “Andrew Surreal” (for Cyrille)—to mention just three examples. On a milestone occasion like this, you don’t want to leave the crowd questioning your seriousness; the musicians, and the music, deserve better.