50 Years of ECM Records

50 Years of ECM Records

In Manhattan in early November, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater, the quietly intrepid jazz, classical, world and new-music label ECM Records celebrated 50 years by mostly showcasing its very active present. That was to its credit. If successful, genuine art never feels dated when it’s old, then new art also dutifully calls upon the past.

So Larry Grenadier, who played from his recent solo-bass LP, The Gleaners, could have reminded you of legacy ECM artists like Arild Andersen or Eberhard Weber. After hearing the saxophonist Joe Lovano hook up with flugelhornist Enrico Rava on the former’s Ornette Coleman homage “Fort Worth,” you might have been enticed to pull an Old and New Dreams LP off the record shelf later that night. Egberto Gismonti, Craig Taborn and Nik Bärtsch nodded to ECM’s holdings of monumental solo-piano performances. And on the evening went, featuring more than 30 artists in all.

It was a brilliant exhibition of musical tastemaking, by a lodestar who couldn’t be there but sent his regards. The musician and producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM—Edition of Contemporary Music—in Munich in 1969, and has spent the ensuing decades guiding it with an impeccable blend of artistic freedom and stylistic focus. Think of an especially gorgeous art museum, architected in a modernist or Brutalist style: Outside, from afar and by reputation, this building boasts a mighty consistency of feeling; but inside, delving into its galleries’ individual artworks, you’ll find stunning diversity.

To celebrate ECM’s jazz catalog (and TIDAL’s comprehensive offerings of it), we selected a handful of special tracks that sidestep much-covered landmarks like Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert and Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life. Instead, this piece features a few recent triumphs, in addition to three unsung gems that have been reintroduced to the market via streaming.

“Alabama”
Jack DeJohnette/Ravi Coltrane/Matthew Garrison: In Movement (2016)

The son of jazz immortal John Coltrane and spiritual-jazz trailblazer Alice Coltrane, the saxophonist Ravi Coltrane has, rather astonishingly, earned his profile on his own terms. (To say it another way, I’d still be writing about him if he had a different surname.) But when he does decide to engage directly with his legacy, the results can be stirring.

The release In Movement, by a trio that appeared at Jazz at Lincoln Center, finds Coltrane invoking his heritage before the first note of music is heard. It features the bassist Matthew Garrison—son of Jimmy Garrison, who played bass in John Coltrane’s Classic Quartet—along with Jack DeJohnette, on the short list of the greatest living drummers. John Coltrane’s “Alabama” is on the short list of the most affecting compositions in the jazz repertory.

An elegy for the four little girls murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, it receives a worthy interpretation via Coltrane’s solemn and wailing saxophone, Garrison’s electronically saturated bass work and DeJohnette’s textural drumming. The original recording was captured at Birdland only two months after the horrific event. Here, you can feel the absurd injustices that occurred in the murders’ decades-long aftermath, and the fury provoked by that absence of accountability.

“Nope”
Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017)

The pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who performed alongside Wadada Leo Smith in New York, is the sort of jazz-rooted artist who might more accurately be called a conceptualist. Film scoring, technology, hip-hop, visual art and other disciplines have entered his orbit, though his best work tends to take place within the visceral confines of the working band. Case in point: this sextet, which, like his great trio, is a marvel of rhythmic communication. “Nope,” off Far From Over, a pointed pushback against the tyranny of Trump, is a matchless blend of jazz postmodernism and weighty hip-hop/neo-soul beats.

“Worried Woman”
Andrew Cyrille/Wadada Leo Smith/Bill Frisell: Lebroba (2018)

In the mid-1980s, the drummer Paul Motian, saxophonist Joe Lovano and guitarist Bill Frisell coalesced as a bass-less trio that, through its work for ECM, became one of the most stealthily influential units in jazz’s past 40 years. Motian is no longer with us, but at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a pair of groups spoke the Motian Trio’s language of shadowy rhythm and lyrical melody delivered in breathy sighs: Lovano, pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Carmen Castaldi, whose Trio Tapestry is a highlight of ECM’s 2019 schedule; and the trio of Frisell with two historic avant-jazz royals, the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and drummer Andrew Cyrille. The concept of music-as-atmosphere doesn’t get more immersive, and the combination of Frisell’s glowing guitar timbre and Smith’s Miles-ian conversation is what audiophile systems were made for.

“Blues for Your Mama”
Robin Kenyatta: Girl From Martinique (1970)

A gift to sample-savvy cratediggers, this relatively concise, hugely funky cut comes from the lone ECM LP by Robin Kenyatta, a little-known but potent name in jazz history. He followed a not-uncommon trajectory for jazz musicians who came of age in the 1960s, collaborating with titans of the avant-garde (Andrew Hill, Bill Dixon) before making groove-jazz LPs of varying degrees of unabashed commerciality. “Blues for Your Mama,” recorded with a European quartet that includes ECM staple Arild Andersen on bass, splits the difference between raw rare-groove and dynamic post-Coltrane blowing.

“Malibu Reggae”
Jack DeJohnette’s Directions: Untitled (1976)

DeJohnette’s output on ECM in the 1970s and ’80s—often an inspired meld of the avant-garde, postbop and jazz-rock—is music that proves how the jazz canon, with its early and mid-20th-century focus, can do the art form a disservice. On LPs like Untitled, DeJohnette and such cohorts as the guitarist John Abercrombie argued that the baby-boomers were a tremendous and explosive jazz generation, and that fusion could be a canny, resourceful invention. Compared with other album highlights—say, the tour de force opener, “Flying Spirits”—“Malibu Reggae” might seem like a trifle. But its three minutes say deep things about great musicians’ ability to subsume au courant radio sounds into a jazz band’s chemistry. It also, like many ECM releases of this era, bucks the stereotype that the label trades in pensive atmosphere exclusively. In other words, it’s music to party by.

“Happy”
Contact Trio: New Marks (1978)

On New Marks, released by the ECM subsidiary JAPO, this guitar-focused edition of Germany’s Contact Trio seems to connect the dots between a few dozen bands that rock-record-geeks swear by—including several that followed this unit by decades. Featuring guitarist Evert Brettschneider, bassist Alois Kott and drummer Michael Jüllich, this opening cut alone implies fusion, avant-jazz, progressive rock, math rock, the early-music influences of the Canterbury scene, the noodling psychedelia of the Grateful Dead, the ambient tendencies of some post-punk and more. Beyond the specifics of style, what impresses most is the interplay—nimble and airtight yet wide open, like the ECM aesthetic on the whole.

For more ECM music, see these playlists featuring some of the label’s most renowned jazz recordings: ECM Jazz: Selected Highlights I, II and III.

Image of Matthew Garrison, Ravi Coltrane and Jack DeJohnette (from left) by Ayano Hisa for Jazz at Lincoln Center.

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