Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday

I have two strong memories associated with the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who is celebrating his 70th birthday today. The first is of discovering his LP Folk Songs, the first of his albums that I bought, and the one that opened up the world of music recorded by Manfred Eicher on the ECM label. The second memory is of listening to a specific Garbarek tune in a particular place, symbolizing for me a moment of European optimism. Continue reading “Celebrating Jan Garbarek on his 70th birthday”

In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

<em>In Movement</em> from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present

I’ve been listening to what will surely be the finest jazz record of the year – and one that I reckon will come to be regarded as one of the classic releases on the ECM label. It’s In Movement, the first release from Jack DeJohnette’s new trio who have been playing together for a couple of years. Now they have produced a very fine album of contemporary jazz, full of historical resonances, on which all three musicians deliver stellar performances. Continue reading In Movement from Jack DeJohnette’s Trio: history, yet very much of the present”

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry

Yet another gem emerged from the cornucopia of ECM Records last month – The half-finished heaven, the fourth album that Sinikka Langeland, the kantele player, singer and composer from Norway has recorded for Manfred Eicher’s label.

It’s a gorgeous record from an artist I first encountered in 2006, when she released her first ECM recording, Starflowers.  Like that album – and The Land That is Not that followed it – The half-finished heaven is an inspiring mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry. Continue reading “Sinikka Langeland’s mix of Norwegian folk, jazz and poetry”

Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher

Records from the ECM label always begin with moments of silence.  The ECM motto is the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence. Moments of silence are as important as sounds in the documentary film Sounds And Silence: Journeys with Manfred Eicher which I have just seen.

Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer followed Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM and outstanding producer of contemporary music, documenting his travels via concert halls, recording studios, and back to the headquarters of  Editions of Contemporary Music in a tower block by the autobahn outside Munich. I have grown to love the music of ECM ever since discovering Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Folk Songs back in the 1980s.  I can’t imagine the last 40 years without the music of ECM. For me, Manfred Eicher is a hero: he has taken me on a 40 year journey that continues still. Continue reading “Sounds and Silence: journeying with Manfred Eicher”

ECM: 40 favourites

Posts here during the last couple of days have celebrated the 40th anniversary of the founding of ECM Records. To round things off I thought I’d put together a list of 40 of my favourite ECM albums, in no particular order. Continue reading “ECM: 40 favourites”

ECM cover art

The first ECM records were recorded in 1969 and released in 1970. ECM had focused on a predominantly European version of jazz, often incorporating folk elements, and attracted players including Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and Terje Rypdal who have made their lifelong home with the label. Recording as well as musical quality was of the highest standard, reflected also in a cover design ethos which featured beautiful photography and creative typography.

The main ECM designer for the first 25 years was Barbara Wojirsch whose playful layouts and combination of fonts and handwritten titles were highly distinctive. Dieter Rehm joined her in the 1980s with a similarly varied approach.

People who regularly return to the same location tend to become sensitive to slight changes in the view, and quickly incorporate them into the philosophy into the familiar picture, so that everything remains intact.  Similarly, those to whom ECM music has become a cultural staple accept variations in the familiar ECM ‘image’with the same nonchalance as changes in the music itself, whose sound values remain unmistakable, however wide-ranging the styles.

This ingrained habit, like a paraphrase of conventional pattems of consumption, has not led to indifference among the many who have grown up with ECM over the years. On the contrary, it has produced a kind of connoisseurship in which visual recognition exists on a par with its counterpart. ECM’s music has taught many people how to listen – and some how to look! When they play the recordings, the modest rectangle in their hands enjoys an attention and affection for a time span few other visual objects can hope to enjoy. That is why rec0rd covers in general, and ECM’s in particular, are worth talking about [… ]

[To begin with, there were]  the many iconic covers that Barbara Wojirsch created with Manfred Eicher and Dieter Rehm during the long years of their association. Her retirement from ECM in 1999 did not mark a sharp break in c0ntinuity. The vocabulary of ECM’s imagery had been invented, and it was rich enough to be adopted by new artists with new points of emphasis, now focused through Eicher’s work with graphic artist Sascha Kleis. Wojirsch’s artistic development took her from expressive typography and photography in the spirit of the 1970s and 1980s to highly personal paintings and pictures. Her manner of preparing the ground – her scrapes, scratches and scribbles – has found a surprising parallel in the paintings of Mayo Bucher, who entered Eicher’s field of vision in the mid-1990s and whose work has appeared on a number of covers based on his paintings since 1997. Also characteristic of new directions for the label is the collaboration with Jan Jedlicka, whose paintings, sketches and photos have been displayed on many sleeves.

The most obvious change over the last ten years has, however, been ECM’s attitude towards photography and its use in cover pictures. Until well into the 1990s, the photographic motifs on ECM’s covers were often narrative and representational, at times even going so far as to illustrate the title of the album, albeit obliquely. Today the photographs resist easy interpretation and classification. Instead, they are photographic objets d’art that reveal their meanings only upon closer inspection, luring the viewer into an enigmatic labyrinth of interpretations. Other photographs recall stills from motion pictures – ‘unfinished’ images that relate to what has just preceded them or is about to follow, and to the continuum of cinema, the medium perhaps closest to music itself. [Manfred] Eicher used this pictorial approach in his choice of covers from a very early date, but only intermittently. His affinity to photography and the cinema has led him to cultivate a closely related field where an extended family of artists, photographers and graphic designers now join forces with the ECM producer to contribute to the label’s imagery, creating a visual pendant to the music in its collection of covers.

Many things have changed. Today ECM’s photographs are mainly black-and-white, with colour used sparingly or as a jarring accent, while uniformly austere typography also contributes to a visual identity. Even so, ECM’s covers are ‘beautifuI’, yet complex enough to disclose their full meaning only to those who seek to listen visually: ‘Think of your ears as eyes’.
– Lars Muller, from Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM

Barbara Wojirsch  and Dieter Rehm (design)


A larger collection of  Barbara Wojirsch and Dieter Rehm covers can be viewed here.

Jim Bengston (photography)

Roberto Masotti (photography)

Caroline Forbes (photography)

The shapes in the photograph still please me and I am always reminded that if you stay out on the hillside long enough something will change and not always for the worse.
– Caroline Forbes

Christoph Egger (photography)

Jan Jedlicka (artwork/photography)

Gerald Minkoff  (photography)

Surrogate Cities

Confucius said that an image is worth more than 10,000 words. I am allowed only 250. Perhaps I should be relieved. This photograph, taken in January 1990 in Moscow, seems to me in perfect tune with the title of Heiner Goebbels’s disc Surrogate Cities, whose musical armature is interwoven with the words of Heiner Miiller, Hugo Hamilton and Paul Auster. The picture is of a Soviet swimming pool, a heated one, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin, a pool that no longer exists. On the site, before the Revolution, there stood a basilica, which Stalin demolished with the intention of  substituting a colossal hollow statue of Lenin (on the scale of NewYork’s Statue of Liberty), whose outstretched hand was going to contain a library. But the ground was unsuitable, and the foundations were filled with water and turned  into a swimming pool. One evening when I was walking there, a swimmer emerged from the dark depths (he can be seen in the lower left of the shot) and seeing my camera asked: ‘Are you from the New York Herald Tribune?’  I answered ‘N0’ and he vanished. When communism collapsed the swimming pool vanished too, because the Orthodox clergy wanted to reconstruct the basilica on the site.You can still get sprinkled with water there, but now it’s holy water. As Paul Auster says in In the Country of Last Things: ‘When you live in the city, you learn to take nothing for granted.’ That is why I always know that I am seeing everything – and hearing it – for the first time; but also for the last time.
– Gerald Minkoff

Muriel Olesen (photography)

The light touch of foot-soles as a woman dances at the centre of the ritual maze, a fragile flower with petals of chalk, a propitiatory choreography traced each morning on the ground.  As if in echo, the faint coughing of a white tiger from the zoo nearby. Rustlings, variations, in persistent notes that extend through the air and disappear into the night. Silences and erasures. A few magical movements will make both the pattern and the music reappear on the doorstep at dawn to greet the ephemeral beauty of the new day. Black the dress, black as as a monsoon cloud suspended over those white furrows, alreadyworked, henceforth fertile: Monodia . . .
– Muriel Olesen

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40 years of ECM: Just Music

Just Music, the second ECM release

Forty years ago today the Mal Waldron Trio started to play in Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg.  They were recording the first album, Free At Last!, issued early the following year on the new music label founded by Manfred Eicher.   Since then, ECM has issued over a thousand albums spanning – and blurring the boundaries between – many idioms. Personally, I can’t imagine the last thirty-odd years of my own musical journey without ECM.

I remember the first ECM vinyl LP that I bought, in the days of independent record shop browsing, in the sadly-missed Decoy Records on Deansgate in Manchester. It was Folk Songs by the trio of  Jan Garbarek, Charlie Haden and Egberto Gismonti. I’d been going to the shop for a while, mainly to explore the blues, r&b and what’s now called Americana upstairs. But gradually I began to spend more time downstairs flicking through the jazz albums and educating myself in a genre that had opened up for me with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. The ECM albums, with their distinctive covers, drew me again and again; sometimes I bought one just because the cover art suggested that what was inside would be more of a certain sound I was searching for – like a landscape stretching to a far horizon. So titles like Paths Prints, Photo with Blue Sky and Places (that road snaking to the horizon!) were added to the collection.

Is there any other label like ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music)? Is there any other producer alive as significant as  Manfred Eicher?

Reading Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM, it seems that, as much as the label’s remarkable musicians have contributed to its success, the part played by Manfred Eicher is hugely important. Not only in defining the purity and clarity of the ECM sound, but also in bringing together musicians from differing geographical backgrounds and musical traditions – ‘ far-flung sound worlds’ – to create a truly new European contemporary music.

In Horizons Touched there is a perfect example of how such collaborations may come about, as told by Eicher himself:

‘I first heard the Officium defunctorum by Morales at Seville cathedral in the 1970s.  When I listened to it again twenty years later, while driving through the jagged lava fields of Iceland, I was enormously moved…The sky like ash or lead.  The luminous sound – night before one’s eyes.

While working…in Iceland, I listened alternately to the Hilliard Ensemble’s recording of Gesualdo’sTenebrae Responses and the chants of saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Suddenly Morales seemed like a southern continent with northern birds of passage skimming in broad circles overhead – on the shores of the basalt sea...What remained was the idea.

And that is how the recording of Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble in the Provostry of  St Gerold came about – Officium, a recording that presents new and far-flung sound worlds.’

ECM is renowned for its meticulous approach, not just to the recording process, but also for the distinctive quality and design of the album packaging. Eicher again:

‘I believe the producer’s role is to capture the music he likes, to present it to those who don’t know it yet. It’s a very important and difficult task, which must be dealt with reponsibility and integrity. If you work in that direction, caring for the sound, getting some precise information or inspired sleeve notes in a booklet, working on the pictures for the record cover, then a kind of symbiotic unity is at work, and people feel you have been producing the record for good reasons. So you can touch them, beyond cultural borders, they understand and appreciate what you have to offer them. It’s all about taking risks, but still being generous and rigorous.’

Hundreds of records made under his artistic direction include those of Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Dave Holland, Egberto Gismonti, Anouar Brahem, Pat Metheny, Paul Motian, Charles Lloyd, John Surman, Ralph Towner, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson and Tord Gustavsen. Whilst for ECM New Series he has produced recordings by composers Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, Heinz Holliger, Meredith Monk, Gavin Bryars, Steve Reich and John Adams.

Manfred Eicher

Manfred Eicher

Eicher’s own background, as a musician active in both jazz and classical music, gave him an unusually broad vantage point from which to survey the genres, and the producer has been credited with helping to bring form to improvised music and a sense of ‘improvisational’ flexibility to recordings of contemporary composition.

The label has documented jazz and improvised music from both sides of the Atlantic and brought together many musicians in new and influential combinations, amongst them the ‘Belonging’ band with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, and the ‘Magico’ trio of Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek and Egberto Gismonti.

Scandinavian jazz was emphasized in the early years and Eicher is still finding musicians from the Nordic zone. The last decade has seen the arrival of Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, Matthias Eick, Tord Gustavsen, Arve Henriksen, and others. Southern Europe has also been explored: Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava brought with him pianist Stefano Bollani, now also recognized as a major player. From Greece, Savina Yannatou has explored folk musics of the Mediterranean and the wider world, and ECM has produced the work of Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou, including the soundtracks for films by Theo Angelopolous.

The ECM tradition of cross-genre collaboration has opened my ears to many new musics. Apart from Officium, there have been albums by Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, the jazz/poetry/folk collaboration of  Starflowers which brought together Finnish folk singer Sinikka Langeland with the jazz musicians Arve Henriksen, Trygve Seim  and Anders Jormin. And in 2009 there was the stunning Siwan, initiated by Norwegian pianist and composer Jon Balke, inspired by the music and poetry of medieval Al-Andalus, and featuring Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and baroque strings.

And finally, my favourite record of all time is also ECM’s biggest selling record: Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert.  This is the one I would want on a desert island. It is entirely wonderful, but what happens at 7 minutes 20 in is, I believe, the most transcendental moment in recorded music.