Late 1969: an era when album release dates often turned out to be pretty vague. In any case, the first disc stamped with the ECM logo (Edition of Contemporary Music) was Free At Last by Mal Wadron, a pianist and cult figure in the American libertarian scene who had settled in Munich two years beforehand. In the soundbooth was the Bavarian violinist and double bassist Manfred Eicher, previously a member of the Berlin Philharmonic.
“Honestly, it was all very innocent at first”, recalls ECM’s founder. “I was just a musician with some classical training, listening to classical music and jazz and I preferred to stop playing double bass so I could be a producer, and get closer to the music. I didn't want to limit myself to one instrument. I didn't want to travel around the world as a soloist, either. By becoming a producer, I could get right up close to the music, to sculpt it. A musical sculptor. But that didn't happen all at once. For one thing, when, as a musician, I was recording as part of my orchestra, I could never stop myself from going behind the console to re-listen to the recordings. And besides, I never liked what I heard. When I became a producer myself, recording jazz musicians, I immediately wanted to bring the idea, the philosophy and the concentration of recorded chamber music to what I was doing. A clarity in the approach. In the concentration. In the dynamic, even. Something that was lacking from jazz records at the time. Back then, that didn't really exist.”
In 1969, the German producer was obviously not the guru he has now become fifty years later: an entire half-century of alternative jazz. When ECM was created at the end of the 60s, this type of jazz was criticised from all angles. Free, avant-garde, rock, electronic -- all terms which Eicher has managed to combine over the years, and the plethora of albums, with a more European sound, be they classical or folkloric, but also with elements of world music (even though this simplistic and limiting term referring to every kind of music across the globe did not yet exist).
Watching -- and especially listening to -- five decades of ECM sound unfold, you discover a whole different world, seemingly connected to every other musical world, but particular in its penchant for often contemplative and weightless sound. The plurality of this jazz is enriched by its exposure to sounds from all corners of the world, building on the tradition and legacy of the genre. The motto The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence is what ECM has stuck to over the past 50 years: Manfred Eicher isn't so much out of time but rather operates in a time parallel to our own, transforming ECM into an otherworldly planet of musical beauty where jazz resounds differently. And it's often for ECM that Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and so many others have recorded their strongest albums.
Here’s a small selection of videos from these past 50 years with some unmissable core artists from the label. First up, Keith Jarrett in a trio with double bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette on the 25th of July 1993 at the Open Theatre East in Tokyo with I Fall in Love Too Easily:
Here in 2001 in Montreal, the saxophonist Charles Lloyd offers up an inspired version of Lotus Blossom by Billy Strayhorn (which he recorded the previous year for ECM for his album The Water is Wide with Geri Allen on the piano, Marc Johnson on the double bass, Billy Hart on drums and John Abercrombie on the guitar:
Another landmark in ECM's history: the duo formed by pianist Chick Corea and vibraphonist Gary Burton, here in concert in Tokyo in 1978 for the sublime Children's Songs, a highlight of their 1973 Crystal Silence:
Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal is another pillar of the ECM label, having recorded around twenty albums for them. In this clip from 1992, he is joined by fellow countrymen Bjørn Kjellemyr on the double bass and Audun Kleive on the drums:
And finally, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær, whose album Khmer was a hit for ECM in 1997, here two years later in Leverkusen in Germany alongside Eivind Aarset, Audun Erlien, Anders Engen, Rune Arnesen and Pål Nyhus aka DJ Strangefruit: