In the last couple of days I’ve been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of my 40 favourite ECM albums, in no particular order.
This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is the most transcendental moment in recorded music (IMO). Recorded live on 24 January 1975 at the Cologne opera house. The concert was part of a European solo tour begun in 1973 on which Jarrett returned to acoustic piano after years with Miles Davis,who had insisted on electric piano, which Jarrett hated. Jarrett recalled in a documentary:
Köln … there were just so many negative things in a row. I hadn’t slept in two nights. The piano I had ordered did not arrive in time for the concert. The one in the hall was substandard and badly tuned. I nearly refused to play, and only changed my mind at the last minute. Almost as an afterthought, the sound technicians decided to place the mikes and record the concert, even if only for the house archive.
When Jarrett played the first four notes, a ripple of laughter went through the auditorium: he was quoting the opera house’s intermission bell. But just as quickly, the reaction turned into awed silence as he turned the banal and familiar into something gorgeous and mysterious. On the record, the concert would be cut into four segments, but that night he played two separate ‘movements’ lasting about half an hour each, plus a six-minute encore.
Charles Lloyd: The Water Is Wide (2000)
The title track is just sublime. The album features Charles Lloyd in the company of one of his dearest friends, drummer Billy Higgins, who would pass away less than a year after the album’s release. Guitarist John Abercrombie is joined by pianist Brad Mehldau and bassist Larry Grenadier. The session includes two spirituals, “The Water Is Wide” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The latter features just Lloyd and Higgins, starkly setting the melody against a hypnotic drum chant. Lloyd’s closing “Prayer,” written for Higgins during a life-threatening episode back in 1996, features just the composer, Abercrombie, and guest bassist Darek Oles. These tracks have deep personal meaning and spirituality.
Jan Garbarek: Visible World (1995)
Quintessential Garbarek, full of world music influences and spacious themes. “The Creek” is the standout track – a beautiful and uplifting folk melody.
Anouar Brahem: Astrakhan Cafe (2001)
Astrakan Café reaches deep into the music of the Balkans, with Barbaros Erköse on clarinet and Indian and Turkish percussion from Lassad Hosni. Erköse is a Turkish clarinetist of gypsy origin. His low, warm, rounded tones blend perfectly with Brahem’s oud. Highlights include the two title tracks which have their roots in Russian and Azerbaijan music; “Ashkabad,” an improvisation on a melody from the folk music of Turkmenistan and “Parfum de Gitanie,” which takes a fragment from Ethiopian sacred music and slows it to the point of stillness.
Keith Jarrett Trio: Changeless (1992)
For me, this stands out from all the rest of the excellent Trio albums simply because it isn’t a standards album: consisting entirely of Jarrett originals, this is like one of his solo concerts translated into the group format. Each of the first three selections is built upon a constant revolving theme, evolvings like a Jarrett solo piano improvisation. “Dancing” has a swaying Latin beat in the percussion and bass; “Endless” is full of lyrical invention at a slower tempo; “Lifeline” is catchy and hypnotic; and the fourth number, “Ecstasy,” grows out of “Lifeline,” closing the album perhaps inevitably with a drawn-out, peaceful piano tremolo. Bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette go with the flow.
Tord Gustavsen: The Ground (2004)
Amazingly, this album reached the top of the charts in Norway. It’s quiet chamber jazz, in the mould of Bill Evans. All tunes are composed by Gustavsen, and have blues and gospel chords. There’s some Satie (the exquisite “Tears Transforming”), a dash of flamenco (“Sentiment”), and a heaping of tango (“The Ground,” “Being There”), with Gustavsen’s piano substituting for the bandeon. It’s soothing music that ebbs and flows like the ocean on a warm summer night.
Stephan Micus: On The Wing (2006)
Born in Germany, Stephan Micus has travelled in virtually every Asian and European country as well as in Africa and the Americas, fascinated by the variety of musical cultures around the world. He studies with local master musicians and has learned to play numerous traditional instruments, many of them unknown in the Western world. I find I am constantly playing his honest, spiritual music. Here, Micus employs Middle Eastern and Asian instruments, from the Iraqi mudbedsh (a single reed instrument made from cane) to the long-necked and bowed Turkish sattar and the Egyptian nay. In addition, he uses the reed flute of the Balinese gamelan orchestras called the suling, the Japanese harmonica known as the sho, the double-reeded hné from Burma, the shakuhachi, sitar, and the hang from the Caribbean. A beautiful album.
Jan Garbarek: Rites (1998)
Two contrasting CDs make up this double album: the first opens to a slowly-emerging, mysterious chant and continues through a series of meditative, spiritual melodies, including a new take on ‘It’s OK To Listen To The Gray Voice’. The second disc, from its opener ‘It’s High Time’, consists of dances, gospel shouts, waltzes, and all manner of joyful ceremonies, including the suite that comprises ‘We Are the Stars’, Garbarek’s own composition for sax and choir, and ‘The Moon Over Mtatsminda’, composed and performed by the Georgian conductor Jansug Kakhidze without Garbarek but blending perfectly with its intense spirituality and beauty. Don Cherry’s ‘Malinye’ (see Codona, below) is a moving tribute to the trumpeter that features Garbarek accompanied only by percussion and accordion.
Shankar: Song For Everyone (1984)
Song for Everyone features Zakir Hussain on tabla, Trilok Gurtu on percussion, and Shankar’s own manipulation of a drum machine providing rhythmic pulse. The interplay between Shankar’s plangent chords, Trilok Gurtu’s tabla and Jan Garbarek’s soprano saxophone on the title track is one of ECM’s greatest moments. ‘Paper Nut’ has Garbarek’s wailing sax over an infectious, insistent rhythm.
Andy Sheppard: Movements in Colour (2009)
I wrote about this album earlier in the year and it has become one of my favourite albums of 2009. It’s Andy’s first CD on ECM and several tracks are named after, or inspired by, paintings. The Quintet here features John Paricelli on guitars, Arild Andersen on double bass, Kuljit Bhamra on tabla and percussion and Eivind Aarset on guitar and electronics. A distinctive feature of the album’s sound is the percussion of Kuljit Bhamra. This is music from a very happy place, especially ‘Bing’, ‘May Song’ and ‘We Shall Not Go To Market Today’.
Jon Balke & Amina Alaoui: Siwan (2009)
A truly wonderful album, one of the highlights of 2009. It’s a gorgeous blend of Gharnati music from the Spanish Al-Andalus period (730-1492), Scandinavian improvised jazz and European baroque music. Siwan, the title of keyboardist and composer Jon Balke’s latest album for ECM, is derived from a written language known as Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to transcribe Ladino, spoken by the Sephardic Jews of Al-Andalus. The word siwan means ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance’ and Balke has created music that balances different cultures and time periods. Earlier post here.
Sinikka Langeland: Starflowers (2007)
I’ve been entranced by Starflowers since I first heard it in 2008. It’s a haunting album by the Norwegian/Finnish singer Sinikka Langeland, with extraordinary accompaniment from Scandinavian jazz musicians such as Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim and Anders Jormin. All the lyrics sung by Sinikka Langeland on the album are from Norwegian poet Hans Børli,who lived as a woodcutter, writing his poetry by night, alive with his experiences of the Norwegian forests.
Agnes Buenas Garnas: Rosenfole: Songs From Norway (1988)
I remember how stunned I felt listening to this for the first time. Here Jan Garbarek takes medieval Norwegian folk songs sung by Agnes Buen Garnas and complements them with minimal touches of tenor or soprano saxophone, to produce a hauntingly beautiful album. Garbarek and Garnas weave their magic on songs like the cloud dance ‘Maalfri Mi Fruve’, the chantlike ‘Rosensfole’ enhanced by shakers and t saxophone, and ‘Venlete’ with its Native American Indian percussive and sparse synthesiser decorations from Garbarek. Mesmerising and haunting.
Keith Jarrett Quartet: Belonging (1974)
Keith Jarrett’s first recording with his ‘European’ quartet – Jan Garbarek (sax), Palle Danielsson (bass), Jon Christensen (drums) – opens with the insistent piano chords of ‘Spiral Dance’ that whirls you into an album which moves between gospel-touched workouts like ‘Long As You Know You’re Living Yours’ and the energising ‘The Windup’ and slower, more reflective pieces. A milestone in 1970s jazz and in the ECM story.
Jan Garbarek: Folk Songs (1979)
This occupies a special place in my heart – it was the first ECM album I bought, and the first time I heard Jan Garbarek’s plangent saxophone. It’s a collaboration by bassist Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek on tenor and soprano, and Egberto Gismonti (guitar and piano) in which all three partners excel, producing airyand atmospheric music that crosses the boundaries between jazz and world music, with Gismonti introducing beautiful Brazilian themes topped off with Garbarek’s lyricism.
Keith Jarrett Quartet: My Song (1978)
The finest, and, in the haunting title track, most moving representation of Jarrett’s European Quartet. This album is the most rewarding of the Jarrett-Garbarek collaborations and Jarrett contributed all six compositions. Beautiful, and evocative playing, Garbarek’s singing tone meshing perfectly with Jarrett’s cascading piano. I have to admit, though, that I find the frenetic ‘Mandala’ out of place in an album full of yearning and beauty.
Anja Lechner & Vassilis Tsabropoulos: Gurdjieff Chants, Hymns and Dances (2003)
What genre of music is this? It’s easier (and best) just to enjoy this CD than to attempt to classify it. Tsabropoulos is a classical pianist who has recorded several albums for ECM New Series, Anja Lechner is a cellist. Together they present a programme of compositions by Tsabropoulos, which take as their inspirational starting point ancient Byzantine hymns, and music by the Armenian-born philosopher-composer Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. The pieces draw upon melodies and rhythms, both sacred and secular, of the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. It is a project that blurs the dividing lines between East and West, between composition and arrangement and improvisation, and between contemporary and traditional music. Typical ECM, you might say.
Anouar Brahem: Thimar (1998)
A collaboration between Brahem, oud, John Surman soprano saxophone and bass clarinet and Dave Holland, double bass. It’s a superb fusion of jazz tradition with Arab classical music. Holland’s bass takes on a rich and lyrical dimension, Surman brings folk and jazz interests to the mix, while Brahem (as composer ) takes uson a journey that starts somewhere between Europe and North Africa and arrives at a still, quiet and spiritual place.
Dollar Brand: African Piano (1969)
Not an artist you’d associate with ECM, but in 1969 this solo set was recorded in a Scandinavian jazz club. It’s a typically intense and committed performance from the man subsequently known as Abdullah Ibrahim. I picked this up a long time ago on vinyl after having discovered him through the African Marketplace album. After that rambunctious introduction, this austere blend of South African folk melodies and modern jazz sensibility bound together with a muscular, rhythmic pulse required a bit of adjustment, but I grew to appreciate the spiritual sincerity of the artist, cherishing many more albums and live performances.
Codona: Codona 2 (1980)
Codona was a remarkable and inventive fusion group consisting of Don Cherry, Collin Walcott, and Nana Vasconcelos. Collin Walcott played sitar, tabla, sanza, timpani; Don Cherry featured on trumpet, melodica, doussn’gouni; and Nana Vasconcelos utilised every conceivable kind of percussion. They released three self-titled albums on ECM in 1978, 1980 and 1982, and it’s very hard to pick just one. But number 2 features the wonderful Cherry composition, ‘Malinye’. Fabulous music, and if you like it, Don Cherry released an album (not on ECM) in 1989, called Multikulti.
Bobo Stenson: Cantando (2008)
Again, very difficult to pick just one Bobo Stenson Trio album, but this most recent one, featuring a new line-up that we saw play at the RNCM earlier this year, is excellent. Bassist Anders Jormin is still here after 20 years, but long-time drummer Jon Christensen is replaced by the young Jon Fält who is more physical and probing. Only one piece is an original. The other works here are by highly diverse composers, from Ornette Coleman to Alban Berg, from Astor Piazolla to Don Cherry. Cherry’s ‘Don’s Kora Song’ begins with clipped cymbal from Fält and the insistent rhythm of Jormin’s bass before Stenson joins in, moving from rumbling low notes into Cherry’s lyrical melody.
Charles Lloyd: Jumping the Creek (2005)
Another absolutely essential album for me, particularly for the opening song, ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, which, over 13 minutes, builds from spare, skeletal phrases to gorgeous full-blown lyricism. The band – pianist Geri Allen, bassist Robert Hurst and drummer Eric Harland – is outstanding. ‘The Sufi’s Tears’ features Lloyd on taragato, a soprano saxophone-like instrument used in Middle Eastern and Indian music. Accompanied only by Robert Hurst’s bowed bass, the mournful melody gradually gives way to a dancing improvisation. Magnificent.
Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (1976)
A great collection of Jarrett solo performances on six CDs, all of it improvised off the cuff in five Japanese concerts in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo, and Sapporo. Standout passages are in the Kyoto concert, where Jarrett gets into a gospel mode, and the Sapporo concert.
Charles Lloyd: Sangam (2006)
This wonderfully percussive set was recorded live as part of a tribute for the late Billy Higgins, Lloyd’s long-time drummer. It features Zakir Hussain (tabla) and Eric Harland (drums). Lloyd plays everything from tenor and soprano to flutes, taragato, piano, and some percussion. On the opening track, the interplay between Harlan’s drums and Hussain’s tablas is truly outstanding. But the high point of the set is ‘Guman': shakers are heard, then Lloyd on piano begins a riff of a single, short, low repeated note that continues through the track. Hussain sings an unearthly vocal and the music gradually becomes more complex and dense. Throughout the set Lloyd extends complete freedom to the percussionists, allowing the music to unfold. It’s utterly compelling and gives true meaning to the term ‘Sangam': confluence and coming together.
John Surman: Road to Saint Ives (1990)
Another musician whose work has given me great pleasure is John Surman. This album is entirely a one-man production, from composition to instrumentation, with Surman building layers of sound over keyboard and percussion using bass clarinet and soprano and bass saxophones. The album has special resonance for me since it is designed to be a portrait of the landscape and spirit of Cornwall. Tracks that haunt the memory include ‘Perranporth’,and ‘Piperspool’.
Jan Garbarek: It’s OK To Listen to the Gray Voice (1985)
Another landmark Garbarek album for me, on of the early ones I acquired after starting to collect his work. There’s some excellent bass from Eberhard Weber, particularly on ‘The Crossing Place’ and classic Garbarek melodies on ‘Mission: To Be Where I Am’ and ‘One Day in March I Go Down to the Sea and Listen’. The guitarist is David Torn, and he gives some tracks a more aggressive edge.
Keith Jarrett: Spirits (1985)
Keith Jarrett regards this as one of his most important recordings, a set of musical invocations that is pure improvisation. It’s a deeply personal work on which he alone plays all the instruments – recorders, Pakistani wooden flute, tabla, various percussion instruments, guitar, saxophone, piano, and chant. The haunting music was recorded simply by Jarrett at his home in 1985 with no engineer present.
Jan Garbarek: I Took Up The Runes (1990)
One of the best Garbarek albums and a quintessential ECM release. Accompanied by Eberhard Weber on bass Rainer Bruninghaus on piano, with percussion by Nana Vasconcelos and Manu Katche, this is a superb blend of jazz and Scandinavian folk themes. The centrepiece of the album is the five-part suite, Molde Canticle’. Utilising a beautiful Nordic folk tune,this is one of Garbarek’s best compositions. The opening track is version of Sami singer Mari Boine Persen’s ‘Gula Gula’.
Keith Jarrett Quartet: Personal Mountains (1979)
The European Quartet recorded live in Tokyo in 1979, though not released for ten years. It’s a varied set, ranging from turbulent R&B to elegaic passages, with superb interplay between Jarrett Jan Garbarek, on tenor and soprano sax, Palle Danielsson on bass, and Jon Christensen on drums.
Christian Wallumrod: The Zoo Is Far (2007)
This is music by a sextet consisting of Wallumrod on piano, Arve Henriksen on trumpet, Per Oddvar Johansen on percussion, with three string players on Baroque harp, violin and cello There are 24 short pieces that draw on Baroque sources, including Henry Purcell Fantasias, Norwegian sacred music, and Pakistani music. It’s fascinating and haunting music with unexpected textures.
Don Cherry: Dona Nostra (1993)
A great album with Don Cherry on straightforward trumpet, Bobo Stenson on piano and Lennart Aberg on sax. There are two Ornette Coleman songs, otherwise the music consists of group originals.
Egberto Gismonti: rarum: Selected recordings (2004)
The rarum series provide excellent compilations of ECM artists in different settings. Egberto Gismonti has appeared on so many ECM releases, apart from those as leader, making this an excellent career overview. From Rio de Janeiro, he has delved deep into his country’s magical music that absorbs and transforms the many cultures that have met there.
Enrico Rava: New York Days (2008)
This album from veteran Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava who can sound amazingly like Miles Davis, was well-received earlier this year. It was recorded in New York,with Stefano Bollani on piano and a bunch of American jazzers. The original compositions pay homage to both Davis and Duke Ellington. His best album for a long time.
Rabih Abou-Khalil: Nafas (1992)
I love Rabih Abou-Khalil’s albums, especially the classic Blue Camel. This is the only collection he has recorded for ECM, and it is one of his best. From Beirut, Rabih Abou-Khalil here plays flute and oud, supported by nothing more than Arab drums in most of the songs.
Stephan Micus: Towards The Wind (2002)
Another beautiful album from the master solo musician. The opening track, ‘Before Sunrise’, features a fine solo performance by Micus on the Armenian bass duduk, which he studied with the master, Djivan Gasparyan. Micus also plays the kalimba, shakuhachi, a Chinese sattar, and a talking drum from Ghana. The music that Micus has made for over thirty years and seventeen albums crosses and transcends all borders, and does so with a genuine respect for all cultures.
Anouar Brahem: Le Pas du Chat Noir (2002)
All of Anouar Brahem’s albums are exquisite, this opne particularly so. It’s a aprtnership between Brahem’s oud and Jean-Louis Matinier’s accordion. His music, though strongly Arab-inflected, has the spare, chamber feel. He’s a contemplative player, and this melding with piano and accordion suits his style perfectly. The interplay between musicians is delicate, with many moments of great beauty, like the exquisite piano on ‘C’est Ailleurs’ or the filigree touches between accordion and piano that decorate and nudge along many of the tracks.
Jan Garbarek: Madar (1992)
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Manfred Eicher as producer at ECM is the way he puts together musicians from vary different backgrounds and genres. Madar is an example of this: here Jan Garbarek is accompanied only by Anouar Brahem on oud and Ustad Shaukat Hussain on tabla. Garbarek’s tone is yearning and passionate, perfectly complementing the middle eastern mood on a set of group originals, two of which are actually based on traditional Norwegian melodies.
Jan Garbarek: Ragas and Sagas (1992)
And here’s another example: a superb collaboration between the Scandinavian Garbarek and musicians from the Indian sub-continent. Some of Garbarek’s finest playing is here, augmented by the resonant voices of Deepika Thathaal and Ustad Fateh Ali Khan as well as outstanding tabla work by Ustad Shaukat Hussain, and, guesting on drums on the deeply spiritual ‘Saga’, Manu Katche. This is a mesmerizingly recording.
Hilliard Ensemble & Jan Garbarek: Officium (1994)
And finally, to complete a trio of magnificent and unprecedented collaborations recorded in just two years: Garbarek improvises around the four male voices of the Hilliard Ensemble to produce one of ECM’s best-selling albums Chants, early polyphonic music, and Renaissance motets by composers like Morales and Dufay form the basic material, beautifully recorded in an Austrian monastery, the voices seem to swell in waves, with Garbarek’s soprano sax soaring in the monastery acoustic, or echoing the voices unobtrusively and sparingly.
Trygve Seim: Sangam (2004)
A second album in the list entitled Sangam (‘confluence’ in Sanskrit, a term that could describe many of the albums that ECM has issued over the years, blending traditions and musicians from diverse backgrounds). This one is Norwegian saxophonist Trygve Seim’s second album as a leader, in which he seamlessly blends elements of jazz, contemporary composition, and various folk traditions. ‘Destined to be one of ECM’s classics’, John Fordham predicted in the Guardian; ‘At times Trygve Seim sounds like no sax player you’ve ever heard – more like wind in the trees, or wooden flutes… ‘. The centrepiece of the recording is the four part suite, ‘Himmelrand i Tidevand’ (‘The Edge of the Sky and Tides’) which adds two trombones and a string ensemble to the mix. To me this sounds like an indefatigable northern brass band on a journey, pausing every now and then to take stock of the landscape and the state of the world, sometimes in a mood of melancholy, at other times filled with joy. [This choice was added on 20.11.2011 – see comment below]