The controversial label ECM Records
ECM Records defined a style of music that evokes a sense of space, contemplation and nuance -- ECM producer Steve Lake and musicians talk about the controversial label.
When anyone talks about ECM records, they refer to an ECM sound. No one can quite describe it, but everyone agrees that there is one central architect: ECM producer and founder, Manfred Eicher.
"It is Manfred Eicher's company, and is very largely his taste," says British music scholar Paul Griffiths. "I'm not sure there is such a thing as an ECM sound, but there's certainly a kind of ECM repertory, a kind of constellation which has some central figures like Keith Jarrett or Arvo Pärt or Jan Garbarek. But, it is a defined space."
"Horizons Touch: The Music of ECM" reveals the breadth and depth of the label by gathering interviews and comments from over 100 ECM artists. It was edited by Paul Griffiths and ECM producer Steve Lake. Lake was a music critic and free-jazz enthusiast for England's "melody Maker" magazine when he became enthralled with the label.
"I felt listening to ECM that someone had walked into the room and turned the light on, you know? I was hearing clarity in the interaction and the transparency of the sound in a way that I felt hadn't really been documented before. I thought there was something new going on here, a new way of approaching the music," recalls Lake.
Founded in 1969, ECM, which stands for Editions of Contemporary Music, began as a jazz label. But, it quickly evolved into a web-like matrix that keeps expanding and interconnecting. That is why ECM can move from the free-jazz chamber masterpiece of Dave Holland's "Conference of the Birds" to the austere and rarified world of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt.
In an essay in "Horizons Touched," Michael Tucker poses that the idea of "North" modulates most of ECM's productions. Critics constantly talk about ECM artists, especially those from Scandinavia, like Jan Gabarek and Nils-Petter Molvaer, as channeling the sounds of the fjords and snow-capped landscapes.
Steve Lake recalls, "I remember being with those guys in London in about 1974 or 1975; they were on their first British tour, reading all of these fjord descriptions in the press about them at that time. There were literally tears rolling down their cheeks, sort of falling off of their chairs laughing at the idea."
But, in an interview two decades later, ECM guitarist Terje Rypdal realized while riding his horses through the mountains, that the landscapes of Norway have indeed influenced him.
"And it just hit me then, what I saw there was what I was actually hearing: music in it. The mountains could just be big major chords, like an E major chord, with a big sound."
There is no doubting that there is a contemplative, moody, atmospheric side to ECM. While artists like the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Evan Parker, and Jack DeJohnette might be tearing down the sonic walls, there is a deeper mood and ambience that permeates even those albums.
David Darling recalls when he recorded his first solo cello album for ECM: "So I get to Stuttgart, Germany and (Eicher) says, 'OK, do anything you want,' so I started playing (a funky, syncopated piece) and he walked out of the recording studio and said, 'Well, I'm not so interested in that sheisse.' But, he said this much, which has been with me all of my life which is, 'I want you to go as deep as you can go.'"
There are some conspicuous absences from the interviews in "Horizons Touched," among them bassist Dave Holland, minimalist composer Steve Reich, and guitarist Pat Metheny. Metheny's career was launched by ECM, and his recordings remain among the label's most popular, but he differs with most of the book's contributors, in his regard for Eicher's production style.
"I think his philosophy is to make you feel really bad, so you play good. His thing was also involved a lot in intimidation, and stuff like that, which can be effective. He could intimidate me right now. He is a very intimidating kind of guy, because he is very smart," says Metheny.
Despite Metheny's misgivings, ECM has long running relationships with artists from all walks of music, lifestyle, and temperment. Cheif among them is pianist Keith Jarrett. He is the iconic figure on the label. His solo piano concerts are among the most popular and influential releases on ECM. He has also recorded pipe organ albums, classical works, a flute and percussion album, and just about anything else that inspires him.
"I doubt whether I would have done all of the things I did, ever, without his being behind me. We don't see eye to eye on lots of things, but agree that its about the music. And let's face it, that is not what most producers are doing. Manfred is a classic producer that loves music and is very opinionated. So am I, and we do good work together," says Jarrett.
Jarrett is the perfect musician for ECM records, and "Horizons Touched" is filled with many of them. Eicher says, "We need this kind of people, who have so much integrity, and strengths to go through all they have to go through to be still able to formulate and conceive music, as they do, which touches us, which moves us, and which makes us think we want to hear more."
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