Founded by producer Manfred Eicher in 1969, ECM has to date issued more than 1200 albums spanning many idioms. After establishing an early reputation with standard-setting jazz recordings by Keith Jarrett, Paul Bley, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and others, ECM began to include contemporary composition – including Steve Reich’s landmark “Music for 18 Musicians” – in its programme in the late 1970s; Eicher’s own background, as a musician active in both jazz and classical music, provided an unusually broad vantage point from which to survey, and influence, the genres.
ECM New Series was launched in 1984, originally to introduce Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa”, and has since become a broad platform for a wide variety of composed music from the pre-baroque era to the present day. The New Series continues to issue premiere recordings of Pärt’s works, including the recent “4th Symphony”, with further discs from the Estonian composer in preparation. Other regularly featured contemporary composers include Valentin Silvestrov, Tigran Mansurian, Erkki-Sven Tüür, Heinz Holliger, Giya Kancheli, György Kurtág, Meredith Monk, and Heiner Goebbels. A long line of distinguished interpreters has included Kim Kashkashian, András Schiff, Gidon Kremer, Thomas Demenga, the Hilliard Ensemble, Thomas Zehetmair, Carolin Widmann, Rolf Lislevand, Till Fellner, Herbert Henck, Alexei Lubimov, András Keller, Miklós Perényi, John Holloway, Trio Mediaeval, John Potter’s Dowland Project and the Rosamunde Quartett with Anja Lechner – amongst many others. The New Series is also a platform on which newer names may be encountered, such as label debuts by Swiss clarinettist Reto Bieri and Italy’s Duo Gazzana, as well as a first solo recital by Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon.
The quality of ECM albums at all levels – from musicianship, production and engineering to cover art – has been widely recognised and the label has collected many awards. ECM has been hailed, by UK newspaper The Independent, as “the most important imprint in the world for jazz and new music.” In 2007 ECM won prizes as both classical label of the year and jazz label of the year (from the MIDEM Classical Awards and the Jazz Journalists Association). In 2008, 2009 and 2010 other double-wins saw Eicher voted producer of the year and ECM label of the year in the Down Beat Critics Poll. Also in 2009, ECM New Series was chosen as label of the Year by UK magazine Gramophone.
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 Chick Corea/Gary Burton duo, the ‘Belonging’ band with Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Palle Danielsson and Jon Christensen, the ‘Magico’ trio of Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti and Charlie Haden... the list goes on.
ECM’s recordings of jazz from across Europe have served to put many musicians on the map. Scandinavian jazz was highlighted in ECM’s early years as Terje Rypdal, Arild Andersen and Jon Christensen were introduced in Garbarek’s “Afric Pepperbird” Quartet in 1970, and Bobo Stenson added to the roster the following year. The label continues to support musicians of the Far North, with Trygve Seim, Christian Wallumrød, Mathias Eick, Tord Gustavsen, Arve Henriksen, and Sinikka Langeland all finding wider international recognition in the last decade.
But the outflung net of ECM production is cast wide, and musicians from most compass points have been drawn to the label. Returning to ECM in 2003 after a long hiatus, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava brought with him pianist Stefano Bollani, now also recognized as a major player (newest Bollani release, the live “Orvieto”, a programme of duets with Chick Corea). Rava’s own “Tribe” now features the next generation of Italian improvising talent, including trombonist Gianluca Petrella and pianist Giovanni Guidi. Clarinettist/saxophonist Gianluigi Trovesi has been heard in many contexts, freely celebrating Kurt Weill, Jacques Offenbach or Monteverdi in a jazz spirit. Pianist Stefano Battaglia’s projects explore a wide range of artistic reference from literature to film. Battaglia’s “Re: Pasolini”, like French pianist François Couturier’s Tarkovsky Quartet draws inspiration from the world of film.
ECM's interests likewise extend across the arts, and the label has released complete soundtracks of Jean-Luc Godard's “Nouvelle Vague” and “Histoire(s) du Cinéma” and a DVD of Godard’s short films, as well as Eleni Karaindrou's music for film and theatre.
Trans-cultural collaboration has been a theme at ECM for decades, with the Codona trio of Don Cherry, Collin Walcott and Nana Vasconcelos amongst the trailblazers (their recordings of the 1970s and 80s have been reissued in the Old & New Masters boxed set series). The music of Anouar Brahem, mirroring the Tunisian oud master’s life and experiences draws upon Arab, North African and European sources. Iranian kamanche player Kayhan Kalhor has been exploring East-meets-East hybrids, in the group Ghazal with Indian sitarist Shujaat Husain Khan and more recently in projects with Turkish baglama virtuoso Erdal Erzincan. Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui came to ECM as the lead singer of Jon Balke’s spirit-of-Al-Andalus celebration “Siwan”. Her own “Arco Iris” transcribes a poetic geography of the Iberian peninsular and touches on fado and flamenco music as well as the Garnati tradition that is at the core of Alaoui’s work.
From the other side of the world, Argentinean bandoneonist Dino Saluzzi has continued to make a personal music outside the style categories and beyond the tango. In a current trio he works with saxophonist brother Felix Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner, telling stories with yearning melodies and textures redolent of both chamber music and Andean folk song.
Charles Lloyd builds a bridge to Greek music on “Athens Concert” and Maria Farantouri crosses it to sing with Lloyd’s outstanding jazz quartet. Jazz, itself a melting pot of musical influences, remains of crucial importance for ECM and while the label has waved a banner for idiosyncratic European improvisers from John Surman to Louis Sclavis and Miroslav Vitous, it has also kept the US jazz tradition firmly in view. Keith Jarrett’s “Standards” trio with Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock has asserted the primacy of the Great American Songbook for the best part of 30 years. Standards, freely played, also provide the basis for the meeting of minds on “Live at Birdland” by Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.
For 40 years Jarrett’s improvised solo piano concerts have established a tradition of their own, documented on recordings from “The Köln Concert” to “Rio”, and in turn influencing successive generations of players.
Acoustic music, painstakingly recorded, has provided the focus of much work on ECM. A second stream, with music incorporating electronics, has also been present almost from the beginning of the label’s history. In the Music Improvisation Company and, later, his own Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Evan Parker blurred distinctions between new music composition and post-free improvising. John Potter and composer Ambrose Field have applied electronic processing to renaissance music and the Kurtágonals trio, with György Kurtág jr. on synthesizers, propose new collage techniques. Nils Petter Molvaer, with the influential “Khmer”, kept one ear cocked to landscapes of dub, hiphop and drum’n’bass. And one of the most talked-about releases of 2011 was “Re: ECM”, an album of sound structures, electronically transforming original ECM recordings. Here, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer shaped music spanning several worlds, including ECM’s world of space-conscious improvisation and composition and the worlds of ambient electronics and minimal techno.
An account of ECM’s activities through four decades is encompassed in the book “Horizons Touched” (Granta Books, London, 2007). ECM’s cover art was the subject of “Sleeves of Desire” (Lars Müller Publishers, Badem, 1996); a second volume of ECM covers, “Windfall Light”/Der Wind, das Licht” was published by Lars Müller in November 2009. A Festschrift, “Der Blaue Klang” based upon a symposium at Mannheim University in the framework of ECM’s 40th anniversary events, was published in 2010. Documentation of ECM also continues in other media. Swiss filmmakers Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer for five years followed Manfred Eicher to sessions around the world. Their documentary, “Sounds and Silence” received its first screenings in autumn 2009; a DVD edition and a soundtrack album were issued in 2011.