Jazz is often called “America’s classical music,” but a 77-year-old man in Germany has spent most of his life debunking that claim, with formidable success.

Few in the general public recognize the name Manfred Eicher. In the jazz world, however, he is regarded with reverence. His record label ECM, based in Munich, has transformed the landscape of contemporary jazz over the last half-century, and proves it year after year by winning polls, earning awards and accolades, and—perhaps most surprising—making money with music that other labels wouldn’t consider releasing.

Eicher has been named the best record producer in jazz for eight consecutive years in the Downbeat Critics Poll, perhaps the leading indicator of insider jazz reputations. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the voters.) During that same period, ECM has won the top spot as the best jazz record label. In the most recent poll, both Eicher and ECM again won their categories by a comfortable margin—gaining roughly 50 percent more votes than those in second place.

Eicher has been doing this for decades. His run is impressive enough on its own merits but almost incomprehensible when one considers that most voters in these polls are American arbiters of taste in a U.S.-dominated field with little historical connection with Germany. In fact, jazz was all but forbidden in Germany when Eicher was born there in 1943.

Few were paying attention when Eicher launched ECM in 1969. The acronym stood for “Edition of Contemporary Music,” though I’ve never heard any jazz fan use that full title. For music lovers, ECM would eventually stand for many other things: impeccable audio fidelity, high production standards, and stellar musicianship, but most of all, a vision of contemporary music unconstrained by geographic borders and genre pigeonholes.

Almost from the start, the label’s unconventional music conveyed an ethos of mystery and transcendence. Under ECM’s auspices, improvisation seemed less a jazz technique than a quasi-sacred ritual. On an early album for the label, pianist Keith Jarrett even added a personal statement that implied he was channeling a divine creative force through his fingers. The label built on this mystique by adopting one of the strangest mottos ever used to sell records: “The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence.”

Eicher had partners in his startup, but there was never any doubt about who provided the artistic vision behind ECM. He is the closest thing that jazz has ever had to an auteur—the term used in the movie world to designate a director who puts a personal stamp on every aspect of a film. “I’ve had great luck in being able to do what I want, without answering to anybody, with no corporate boss in the back,” Eicher explained in an interview to commemorate the label’s 50th anniversary. “We’ve been able to keep it going all this time.”

Critics point out that Eicher did have considerable help from an impressive roster of jazz stars—from Keith Jarrett to Pat Metheny—and no one can deny the extraordinary talents of ECM artists, but these musicians weren’t well known before they collaborated with Eicher. He seemed to possess from the start an uncanny sense of which settings and projects might bring out the best in these musicians—some, such as Jarrett, famously eccentric and difficult.

Jarrett was 25, a brilliant but unfocused talent, when he connected with Eicher. A onetime child prodigy, Jarrett faced a challenge that derails many of the most gifted: he could do almost anything, adapt to any situation, but hadn’t yet found an identifiable personality as a creative artist. He had demonstrated his virtuosity in three high-profile bands—led by Miles Davis, Charles Lloyd, and Art Blakey—but sounded like a different musician in each of those ensembles. His early leader dates were wildly uneven and included an embarrassing Dylanesque album called Restoration Ruin, on which Jarrett sang and played ten different instruments. The record label even provided a chart on the back cover to demonstrate the range of this novelty act. Jarrett soon abandoned his ambitions as a folk-rock singer.

Almost from the moment Jarrett partnered with Eicher, though, a different artist emerged, in concert and on vinyl. Jarrett was still working in a jazz-rock fusion style when he met Eicher, and he even persuaded the producer to release Ruta and Daitya, a duet album with drummer Jack DeJohnette featuring spacey electric music. But Eicher had not been present at the Ruta and Daitya session; he merely supervised its mix and release. Based on this project, few would have predicted the amazing trajectory that Jarrett’s career would take over the next few years, a period that culminated with his surprising triumph as the best-selling piano soloist in the world.

Eicher’s first studio collaboration with Jarrett took place in Oslo a few months after the desultory Ruta and Daitya sessions, and now the electric keyboard was gone—never to return on a Keith Jarrett ECM project. Instead, Eicher planned to record Jarrett for the first time in a solo piano format. The resulting album, completed in a single day, was the seminal Facing You, justly considered one of the most significant piano recordings in jazz history. Somehow, Jarrett had found a way to integrate all the disparate parts of his musical personality—from boogie-woogie grooves to rhapsodic neoclassical eruptions—into a seamless whole. In time, people would describe this kind of synthesis as the “ECM sound,” but back then it struck many listeners as a one-of-a-kind project, beyond category.

Soon after, Eicher and Jarrett embarked on an even more daring endeavor—based on a decision to record long solo piano concerts relying almost completely on the inspiration of the moment. There would be no set program, no song titles, no preplanned agenda, and the results would be different every night. The release of the full results of two of these recitals, Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne, proved that Facing You was no fluke. Jarrett was aiming for nothing less than a redefinition of jazz improvisation.

And then with the follow-up, The Köln Concert from 1975, Jarrett tapped into something magical that seemed to transcend the entire jazz category. I still remember visiting a record store near my college campus the week that the album was released. I had just seen Jarrett in concert and was closely following the trajectory of his career, then built on a cult following among jazz insiders—so I was surprised when the clerk at the checkout counter put The Köln Concert on the turntable and played it for the entire store. Customer after customer asked about the name of the record, each purchasing a copy. Within a few minutes, the store’s stock was sold out. I had no idea that this could happen with a jazz album, let alone a solo piano recording by a little-known artist. Not long after, I read that The Köln Concert had become the biggest-selling solo piano album in history.

Eicher now had the cash and prominence to do almost anything he wanted in jazz. Just about any other record producer in this situation would sign a dozen major stars to the roster and give the big labels a run for their money. But Eicher, in total defiance of music-industry conventional wisdom, brought in dozens of virtually unknown artists instead. They aren’t unknown nowadays, but only because Eicher again demonstrated his uncanny sense of who had the potential to rise to the highest rung of jazz artistry—and what settings might help make it happen.

The ECM albums of the 1970s and 1980s now seem a who’s who of rising stars and timeless performances. Again, I remember my reaction to a typical new release from the label—which inevitably found me staring at some oddly designed album cover with no liner notes, no familiar songs, and not even a photo of the band. I’d ask myself: Who are these musicians? Do I really want to hear a band of unknown Norwegian or Polish improvisers? Do I need an album of music for cello and pipe organ by two obscure dudes in Switzerland? Am I interested in the current state of electric bass in Germany? But it’s testimony to how much I respected Eicher that, despite my tight student budget, I usually bought the album anyway. And many others did the same.

Almost at the same time that The Köln Concert was released, Eicher introduced an even less well-known artist to the studio, 21-year-old guitarist Pat Metheny. The resulting album, Bright Size Life, also helped launch the career of a second future jazz superstar, Jaco Pastorius, who played electric bass on the project. Eventually, both Metheny and Pastorius would reach a level of acclaim on their instruments comparable with Jarrett’s. Here again, Eicher, operating out of an office in Munich, had identified rising talents on the American jazz scene that dozens of U.S.-based labels had missed.

Yet Eicher’s impact on European jazz may ultimately prove to be his most significant contribution to the art form. When he launched ECM, the general rule for success for a non-American jazz musician was to move to America; no stay-at-home European star had risen to global stardom in the idiom since the 1930s, when guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stéphane Grappelli had achieved fame and acclaim as members of the Quintette du Hot Club de France. In subsequent years, a few other European jazz players had enjoyed international renown—George Shearing, Toots Thielemans, Marian McPartland, and a handful of others—but only after moving to America.

That changed in the 1970s and 1980s, and almost entirely through Eicher’s efforts. Before ECM signed Jan Garbarek in 1970, even serious jazz fans would have struggled to name a single Norwegian jazz musician—but a few years later, Garbarek wasn’t just a sax hero but the protagonist of a new Nordic sound, austere and plaintive, as if nothing could be more natural than post-Coltrane horn-playing that evoked frigid fjord landscapes.

Garbarek might be the most prominent example, but dozens of other European artists found themselves benefiting from Eicher’s tireless advocacy. During its first decade, ECM released recordings by Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stańko, Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, German bassist Eberhard Weber, Swedish pianist Bobo Stenson, British singer Norma Winstone, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava, Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen, and Finnish drummer Edward Vesala, among others. Most jazz fans had never heard of them before their ECM debuts, and none of these musicians would ever sell as many albums as Jarrett or Metheny, but Eicher didn’t seem to care. Rypdal, for example is still recording for ECM—49 years after his debut on the label—and he’s never had a hit record. But he is an intensely creative artist with a cult following. For Eicher, this has served as sufficient justification for featuring Rypdal on more than 20 albums.

This upsurge in European jazz may be ECM’s most lasting legacy, but the label was also willing to cross the Atlantic and promote the careers of Brazilians Egberto Gismonti and Naná Vasconcelos, Dino Saluzzi from Argentina, Canadian-born expats such as Paul Bley and Kenny Wheeler, and U.S.-born jazz artists Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, and Gary Burton. Many ECM releases feature bands with individual members from different countries or continents, something increasingly common in the jazz world today but a rarity before Eicher produced so many cross-border projects. How fitting that the jazz idiom, which had spearheaded civil rights and been the first public setting to break down segregation in the United States, should now do the same in promoting international cooperation—and how intriguing that a German-based label was doing this, not an American one.

Producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM in 1969. (PHOTO BY KAUPO KIKKAS, COURTESY OF ECM RECORDS)
Producer Manfred Eicher founded ECM in 1969. (PHOTO BY KAUPO KIKKAS, COURTESY OF ECM RECORDS)

I’ve focused a lot on nationalities here, but many critics will tell you that the key identifier of ECM isn’t the musicians’ diverse passports but a certain shared aesthetic—something they call the “ECM sound.” According to this stereotyped view, ECM specializes in a ruminative chamber music ambiance, retaining the improvisational flexibility of jazz but drawing more heavily on the vocabulary of classical composers. True enough, many ECM albums meet this description, understated and nuanced and more suited for the concert hall than a juke joint. You will never mistake Marcin Wasilewski’s Trio album (ECM) for, let’s say, Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack (Blue Note). But this generalization fails to recognize the sheer range of ECM sounds, which stand out more for their unpredictability and freedom from musical clichés—bluesy, funky, or whatever—recycled by Eicher’s less visionary competitors.

Terje Rypdal, for example, often gets described as an ultracool Nordic improviser, but if you listen to his music with care, you will hear more Jimi Hendrix and heavy metal than classical guitar stylings. Swiss keyboardist Nik Bärtsch, who has recorded a half-dozen albums for ECM, is even harder to pigeonhole. He sometimes describes his music as “Zen funk”—and I can’t come up with a better descriptor of his unique grooves, somehow both intense and relaxing. On Egberto Gismonti’s Meeting Point and Keith Jarrett’s Arbour Zena, Eicher allowed his jazz stars to compose original music for orchestra, and on the haunting Officium release, he matched up saxophonist Jan Garbarek with early-music vocal group the Hilliard Ensemble. Each of these projects possesses a bold, individual personality and gives the lie to any accusation that one ECM formula fits all occasions. If Eicher has a recipe book, it’s the largest one in music, encompassing the entire planet.

When challenged about his alleged “ECM sound,” Eicher rejects the notion curtly. “If people think that we ask musicians to record for us because we want to sculpt their sound in a certain kind of way, that’s nonsense,” he once remarked. “We choose musicians for their music.” But this hasn’t stopped critics from trying to classify or even mock the label’s approach. According to one joke circulating in the jazz community, ECM actually stands for “excessively cerebral musings.”

In fact, even the sounds that ECM supposedly avoids show up sooner or later on its recordings. Back in the 1970s, critics of the label often contrasted it with the vital, avant-garde music of the new generation of African-American improvisers in Chicago. But before the decade was out, Eicher had signed up the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the acknowledged leaders of this alternative style, and released one of the group’s finest albums, Nice Guys. Conventional wisdom also holds that ECM was hostile to atonal or avant-garde music, but from the start Eicher backed eclectic and unforgiving experimental albums such as Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (1970), Circle’s Paris Concert (1972), and Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds (1973)—the latter two featuring Anthony Braxton, perhaps the era’s most iconoclastic saxophonist.

By the same token, ECM was supposedly the antithesis of the jazz-rock fusion movement, so popular back in the 1970s, but Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (1975) release on the label is one of the defining albums in the genre. The Jewel in the Lotus, released by saxophonist Bennie Maupin in 1974, features almost the same band that played on Herbie Hancock’s fusion funk crossover album Head Hunters, issued by Columbia the previous year. The biggest difference is that Eicher allowed Maupin to play in a less radio-friendly style and take chances that the honchos at CBS would almost certainly have vetoed.

ECM would eventually make even more far-reaching moves in the classical music world. Eicher had already made inroads with albums by Steve Reich and Meredith Monk, among others, but in 1984 he initiated the “New Series,” focusing specifically on classical music. Eicher saw these two idioms, jazz and classical, as symbolic representatives of the creative tension between form and content. “One line deals with music created primarily through improvisation,” Eicher explained to interviewer Josef Woodward. “The other line starts from the carefully realized score. Both approaches are important to me—form and freedom. I benefitted from one and the other.”

Given Eicher’s advocacy of contemporary music—which, you may recall, are what the C and M in ECM stand for—it made sense for the label to champion living composers. So it’s not surprising to find Eicher releasing music by Arvo Pärt, John Adams, György Kurtág, Gavin Bryars, Eleni Karaindrou, and other contemporary figures. But in time, ECM expanded its horizons to encompass the full range of the classical tradition. Some of my favorite ECM recordings are straight, unadorned readings of the standard repertoire: András Schiff performing Schubert, Keith Jarrett playing Shostakovich and Mozart, Kim Kashkashian adapting Bach’s cello suites for the viola. My son, a pianist and Bach fanatic, will argue that András Schiff’s Well-Tempered Clavier on ECM is even better than Glenn Gould’s famous recordings. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but taken in aggregate, Schiff’s voluminous output for ECM is extraordinary, including 12 hours of Beethoven alone, along with top-tier renditions of Schumann, Janáček, and others.

Virtuoso pianist Keith Jarrett, an artist central to the label’s success (PHILLIP HARRINGTON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
Virtuoso pianist Keith Jarrett, an artist central to the label’s success (PHILLIP HARRINGTON/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

Remember that Eicher did all this during a period when most of the major labels in classical music were cutting back and dumbing down their offerings. Deutsche Grammophon, once the gold standard for classical music, is now a pale shadow of its former glory. Currently, its website is promoting a recording called Beethoven: The Piano Sonatas in Under 15 Minutes. Comparing that with the 12-hour Schiff project tells you everything you need to know about the relative position of these two labels. One might even make the case that ECM has become the most trusted classical music label—an extraordinary achievement for an indie company whose name is, for most listeners, still synonymous with jazz.

In the 50-plus years since ECM was founded, the major music labels have bungled almost every jazz initiative—hiring and firing managers, signing and dumping artists, following hot trends in jazz, only to abandon them months later. And yet, over this same period, ECM has released almost 2,000 albums, and the range of sounds and styles covered makes generalization almost impossible, and perhaps even pointless. How has Eicher not only survived, but thrived, when conventional wisdom tells us that it’s impossible?

Eicher has rarely articulated the core principles that undergird ECM recordings and that have ensured the label’s long-term success, but they’re evident to anyone who pays close attention to the decisions that he’s made and music that he’s recorded.

First, the only trend he follows is a rejection of trends. ECM may have laid the groundwork for the New Age music movement with The Köln Concert, and could have made a king’s ransom (at least for a few years) if Eicher had followed up with albums of meditation or moody ambient music, but this never happened—and for the simple reason that the label always ignores changing fads and fashions. By the same token, ECM recorded seminal projects in minimalist music, jazz-rock fusion, and other new styles at a time when these were in their ascendancy, but never tried to build on that momentum. Frankly, I doubt that ECM has ever commissioned audience market research or conducted a focus group—a waste of time, Eicher would probably say, for an arts organization that leads rather than follows. But if the label did survey customers, it would merely learn that this immunity to trends actually enhances its allure.

Second, ECM supports the musician’s artistic vision over the course of an entire career. Many ECM artists have stayed with the label for decades without ever winning a Grammy or scoring a hit album. In fact, many hardly generate airplay on jazz radio stations. And when, against all odds, an ECM recording does find a large crossover audience, there’s no apparent pressure on the artist to follow up with similar projects. Music lovers have come to trust the label for this reason; they know that Eicher himself is a music lover, not a cash-driven corporate exec. He operates with his artists on a basis of trust and loyalty, and this inspires the same among listeners, who know that they can rely on his honesty and judgment.

Third, the label breaks down divisions—geographical, genre-driven, generational, and any others—that block the creative process. No label has done more than ECM to foster musical collaborations across national and regional boundaries. But these are hardly the only barriers breached by Eicher, whose aesthetic vision rejects any categorization not driven by artistic aims. These might be as banal as the marketing labels applied by the music industry or as significant as ethnic and racial divisions that shape world events. He does not permit such considerations to influence his decisions.

Fourth, ECM aspires to the highest audio quality. Many indie labels have cut corners on sound standards. Some will even tell you that a lo-fi aesthetic is a sign of authenticity. That’s not ECM, where every instrument and texture is captured with a pristine clarity that makes you feel as though you’re sitting in the concert hall. ECM could have earned a following among consumers because of this alone, catering to the audiophile market. This care extends to details that most music industry execs never think about—not just microphones and their placement, but which piano tuner is used, the personality of the room, and so on. New York Times critic Jon Pareles once described this approach as “acoustic enhanced realism.”

Fifth, Eicher has faith in the music—and only the music. If there’s one frustration that jazz fans have with ECM, it’s probably how little information the label provides. ECM albums rarely come with liner notes. Eicher, for his part, gives few interviews, and he seems to have little interest in discussing his life’s work. Even the engineers on the sessions are taciturn to an extreme. But these factors all contribute to the attitude that music speaks for itself.

In aggregate, these represent extraordinary principles to follow, let alone maintain, over a half-century. Yet the most revealing aspect of the ECM story is something outside the company’s control: namely, how willing—even eager—music fans have been to support a label that operates with such unflagging standards and integrity.

This success runs in the face of everything we’re told about how to market serious music and the arts. During the same 50 years that ECM has flourished, the main institutions and businesses in the cultural sphere have emulated the entertainment industries. They have chased trends, jumped on bandwagons, dumbed down offerings, and made everything as bite-size and digestible as possible. Yet the organizational leaders championing this populist agenda come and go, while ECM—almost alone in the music business—doesn’t need to change, because its core values are built on a clear understanding that art is different from entertainment.

Entertainers work to please the audience—after all, that’s the definition of entertainment—but genuine art requires the audience to adapt to it. That’s why the artistic experience is more powerful than mere entertainment. It forces the audience to go places and experience things they may have never anticipated. The artistic experience is broadening and expansive, while entertainment is narrowing and repetitive.

So the real surprise is not that ECM—which adheres to precisely that uplifting vision of the arts—has succeeded but that so few others have learned from its success. If ECM and Eicher have one last challenge to surmount, perhaps it is this: teach others how to do the same.

Top Photo: Courtesy of ECM Records


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