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Bill Frisell  on ECM

ECM: :rarum [sic!]
A Sound For Sore Ears

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 11 May 2002 - Founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969, ECM Records has followed a policy of only recording new music he considers important. Until this one, there have been no commercial reshuffles of any kind. The first eight reissues from the Munich-based independent are grouped together as :rarum - a best-of mix from the 1970s through the 1990s chosen by the musicians themselves.

The music still sounds deep and remarkably undated. Eicher's goal was "to record jazz with the same sensitivity and attention to detail as classical music." He had played both classical and jazz bass and he knew the difference. With its excellent engineering, generous use of space and Saxon cool, it became known as the "ECM Sound." Despite, or perhaps because of, its depth, it parented a not-so-deep trendy elevator music called "new age."

Ironically, Eicher was "never interested" in trends. "Just chapters," he called them: "Soon everybody turns the page." His policy was that some of his catalogue sells, some not, and one supports the other. Some of it sold very well - notably Keith Jarrett's Koln Concert, Jan Garbarek's Officium and Pat Metheny's American Garage. All three helped spawn trends - solo piano, Gregorian chants on the pop charts, and new age, respectively. Their sales subsidized releases by John Surman, Nana Vasconcelos, Carla Bley, Egberto Gismonti, David Darling, the Berlin Contemporary Jazz Orchestra and others. It has been called "aesthetic socialism." .

:rarum - with its colon and small "r" - reminded me that somebody once irreverently said that the firm's initials stand for "Excessively Cerebral Musings" (the official name is "Editions of Contemporary Music"). What they considered an overly in-your-face Euro-attitude (read white) turned some Americans off - even though Eicher also recorded the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Mal Waldron, Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton.

The "most beautiful sound next to silence" - ECM's motto - has, as Jerome Reese wrote in Musician magazine, "echoed its way into the collective consciousness, and had an incredible impact on jazz and improvisation - heck, on most music." On the guitar in particular. The company invented a sort of up-market version of the rock guitar hero. Metheny, Ralph Towner, Kevin Eubanks, John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal, Mick Goodrick,John McLaughlin and Bill Frisell were some of those involved.

Frisell is the only one of them collected so far. Described as "eclectic" and "loopy," his blues-based, country-tinged guitar featuring advanced electronics fuses with just about everything else. The New York Times called him "the most widely imitated guitarist" of his generation. It is a rare musician who covers so much territory in such depth. His complexity, contradictions and even his dissonance fuse into a consonant sound for sore ears.

The ECM Sound is constructed on what people have been known to consider an excess of reverb, a/k/a echo. "Reverb is used only to draw your final landscape in a mix," Eicher (defending himself) explained to Musician. "Lester Bowie likes to play trumpet into an open piano - with the strings resonating. Terje Rypdal jumps into the fjord with the mountains resonating. Or Jan Garbarek stands on the cliffs with his saxophones, without playing, and the waves resonate. A 'natural' recording just doesn't exist. If sounds and music go through microphones and wires, there might be something mysterious once in a while."

In the shadow of Milt Jackson for so long, Gary Burton has often been taken for granted. Burton's major investment seems to have been in his group sound. Its continued elegance is reassuring.

Chick Corea led a major league piano trio with Miroslav Vitous, bass, and Roy Haynes on drums in the early 1980s. On the chosen tracks (a lot of Monk), three sensitive musicians with good chops play together and a half.

The Keith Jarrett selection suffers from being a (the only) double album. Less would have been more. There could be more of his Standards Trio, with which he is habitually poetic.

All in all, the first batch of reissues in the :rarum collection substantiate Eicher's enlightened business philosophy: "You cannot think about art as rate of return. You plant the seeds, watch the plant grow, prune it, transplant it, encourage it. It often takes my seeds years to blossom."

Keith Jarrett on ECM

Related: ECM Records Web Site

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book entitled "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.

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