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  • C. Michael Bailey wrote on January 02, 2013 report


    You have certainly outdone yourself here. This article serves as a a grand overview of ECM...and your writing reflects that you had a good time doing this...Bravo and Salute!


  • John Kelman wrote on January 02, 2013 report

    Wow, Michael, thanks, as ever, for the overly generous words. I did, indeed, have a blast, but am glad the piece serves as more than just a review of the event.

    Happy New Year!!

  • William Thompson Haight II wrote on January 02, 2013 report

    Many thanks for this article. I have been an enthusiast for the label for nearly 40 years, and would love to spend a few days at this exhibition. I'm left with the impression this installation is possible only in Munich; but also with the hope it might travel (since a trip to Munich by February for me would be impossible). Any chance of that occurring?

    Many thanks for all your excellent work, John.

  • John Kelman wrote on January 02, 2013 report

    Thanks Wil (nice to hear from you, been a long time! how've you been?)

    I've not heard any suggestions of the exhibition going on the road. It would certainly be possible, though if you include the film screenings and live performances, it would be hard to put the whole thing on the road....still, just the exhibition itself? That might be good if they could pick a few major cities.

    But while the exhibition is done with the cooperation of the label, it's an independent thing - and was not created at its instigation - so it would really be up to the co-curators to decide whether or not they wanted to try and put it on the road.

    In any case, I'd certainly recommend picking the book up. If you have Horizons Touched, it's a great addition.

    Thanks for the kind words, and again, great to hear from you!


  • Geoff Anderson wrote on January 02, 2013 report

    Nice piece. I've been a huge ECM fan since nearly the beginning. The CODONA records are particular standouts. This ECM retrospective was a great idea. It would be nice if someone can take it on the road, as one of the comments below suggests. In the meantime, I'll just get happy with some ECM vinyl. Thanks for the thorough review.

  • John Kelman wrote on January 03, 2013 report

    Thanks for taking the time to write, and for the kinds words, Geoff. Yeah, those Codona records are still something, 30+ years later, aren't they?

  • David Rothenberg wrote on January 04, 2013 report

    Bravo John, this is just the kind of comprehensive music writing that is so hard to find in today's world.

    David Rothenberg

  • John Kelman wrote on January 04, 2013 report

    Thanks, David. Coming from someone like yourself, that's high - and very, very much appreciated - praise.

    Happy New Year!

  • toby williams wrote on January 05, 2013 report

    '...justifies its position, like the label or not, as the single most important label in the history of recorded music.'
    really? 'more important' than Blue Note or DG? (to name but two): your WORSHIP of ECM is both amusing and ridiculous (do you EVER give any of their releases a poor review?!)

  • John Kelman wrote on January 05, 2013 report

    I don't throw a term like "most important" around lightly, or intend to diminish the importance of labels like DG, Blue Note or Impulse! for that matter. Here are the reasons:

    1. I cannot think of another label that has existed for 40+ years with a single producer at the helm for the vast majority of its releases, giving it a very specific identity ;

    2. None of these labels has had a single producer who jas been engaged as a truly active producer. No disrespect to others, but most producers are not engaged in a hands-on way in the creative process during recording. They're there to render opinion, to be sure, to ensure everything goes off without a hitch, on time and on budget - all essential components, to be sure. But few are as explicitly involved in the creative aspect as Eicher, from pre- through post-production. There are some smaller labels that fit the description, but certainly neither Blue Note nor DG can be said to have had an active producer for over four decades, one who brings a personal aesthetic to the music.

    3. Neither of these labels are as stylistically unfettered as ECM; has Blue Note released anything in the sphere of Stephan Micus, Steve Tibbetts, CODONA or Eleni Karaindrou? Has it released anything that would compare, stylistically, to recordings like Nils Petter Molvaer's Khmer, Ralph Towner's Solstice or Garbarek/Hilliard's Officium? Has it released classical recordings like Alexei Lubimov's recent, stunning Debussy Prludes, Reich's seminal Music for 18 Musicians or Arvo Part's equally important Tabula Rasa? Has it released a body of solo piano work, from Jarrett's Facing You and Bley's Open, To Love, to more recent ones like Craig Taborn's Avenging Angel? Has DG released avant-jazz records like Art Ensemble of Chicago's Urban Bushman, modern mainstream records like Charles Lloyd's Hyperion with Higgins or recordings of jazz/improvised music, for that matter, on any kind of scale? The answer, of course, is: no. Great labels, both, to be sure, but labels that have a limited purview. And, again, neither under the leadership of a single man who brings his own artistic vision to the label, as do the artists - and, in most cases, in perfect synchronicity.

    4. Neither label has created an identity so immediately recognizable, nor a reputation for quality so strong that it has the sizable fan base ECM does, people who will, more often than not, check out a recording on the label because it's on the label, whether or not they know the artist, and whether or not the style is something that might normally appeal to them. Yes, Blue Note had/has its fans, but few so absolutely loyal across the board; just witness the purist balking at recent decisions to release records by Norah Jones, Al Green, Van Morrison and Jeff Bridges.

    I don't worship the label, regardless of what you might think. I am a big fan of the label, for all the reasons above and more. Since hearing my first recording on the label nearly 40 years ago myself (yoikes!), I've connected with the label's aesthetic, its approach to pristine sound recordings, and its ability to constantly surprise, whether it's introducing a new artist to me like Savinna Yannatou, put artists I know in unexpected contexts, like Enrico Rava doing a tribute to Michael Jackson or Robin Williamson combined with improvising musicians like Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri, or bringing together a group of musicians I already respect in new, bold and stunning contexts, like Codona,or the Magico trio of Garbarek, Gismonti and Haden. No other label has introduced me to music I'd not otherwise have heard to this extent, or stretched my personal boundaries on what music can be to the point that I'm now not instantly judgmental when an artist takes a right or left turn and does something entirely out of character - and that applies to music coming from any label, by the way, so ECM has also helped me break down my own preconceptions when it comes to new music.

    I am, indeed, a big fan of the label, Toby, but it's not merely being sycophantic; instead, it's something that's built incrementally, over the decades, and if the above arguments don't make sense on an empirical level, then there's not much more I can say.

    As for positive reviews? Well, if it makes you feel any better (!), there is one ECM recording I think is absolute, unadulterated shite, and that's The Epidemics, from 1986, co-led by Shankar and Caroline, and featuring Steve Vai, Percy Jones and Gilbert Kaufman. '80s synth pop, and the one record from the label I don't own, as I've never been able to listen to it in its entirety, in a single listen. It's the only time I've ever wondered what Eicher was thinking (though he didn't produce it, so at least that gives him a bit of a skate).

    So, Toby, I appreciate your writing in and giving me the opportunity to explain my position. I'm absolutely and unapologetically an ECM fan, I'll be happy to acknowledge that, but not without strong, empirical and well thought-out reasons that make it much more than worship. I cannot think of a single other label that has accomplished what this label has, for so long and on such a stylistically unfettered scale. Find me another that matches the criteria above, and I'll actually be in your debt, because it'll mean I'm missing out on something truly great.

  • Patrick Ripley wrote on January 10, 2013 report

    John, your article and subsequent reply to Toby was spot-on. Today, you can find an almost endless stream of "record labels do not matter" articles and blog postings. Well, one still matters. As an ECM fan for almost 40 years, it truly is the best. Yeah, I too, have The Epidemics on lp. I've listened to it all the way through a few times when it came out. (They should give out awards for that kind of thing.) Their worst still sets the bar higher than some label's best.

    Patrick Ripley

  • John Kelman wrote on January 10, 2013 report

    Thanks, Patrick, for taking the time to write and for the kind words. I was not going to lower myself to Toby's level and respond in kind; instead, I figured I'd try to lay out exactly why I think, as you so rightly say, this label matters, and that while I am absolutely a fan, I am by no means a fanboy :)

    PS: And, oh yeah, good for you re: The Epidemics. You've got a stronger stomach than I do :)

  • Guy Grundy wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    One facet of the ECM success story which is rarely mentioned is the actual quality of the vinyl pressings themselves.I've been listening to ECM recordings from the very beginning and well remember their ad line: "ECM..the sound of silence" (referring to the total lack of surface noise).For people with a passion for both Jazz and Hi-Fi the quality of the pressings was simply incredible.

  • John Kelman wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    Thanks for writing in, Guy. However:

    The ad line actually was "The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence," taken from a CODA magazine review in the 1970s. While you are absolutely correct about the German vinyl pressings (the American ones were less consistent, especially towards the end of the 1970s) being superb, the review was actually speaking to the music, not the vinyl - though, of course, those relatively noise-free vinyl issues sure made it easier to appreciate that beautiful sound, didn't they?

    Thanks again for taking the time to write in and contribute to the discussion.

  • Guy Grundy wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    Thanks John for correcting me...interesting to hear it was the German pressings which were so good. I lived in the UK at that time and the quality of those pressings was indeed sensational and certainly helped in listening to many of the early artists on ECM where "quiet" passages were quite the way, when did the phrase Chamber Jazz to describe ECM appear and did ECM ever object to this description?


  • John Kelman wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    Hey Guy,
    My pleasure; always happy to set the record straight... :)

    WRT pressings, did the UK press its own, or were they simply distributing German pressings? I could be wrong on this one, but thought that, in Europe, the pressings were all from one source. In North America, separate pressings were done because of high import costs. The quality varied widely, as ECM went through a number of distribution deals ranging from Polygram to Warner Bros. The problem that began in the late '70s was pretty endemic to the North American record industry in general - with the oil shortage, in order to keep costs line many record companies began pressing thinner (lighter) vinyl, to the degree that, by the late '70s, vinyl was often so thing that you could flip it around by shaking it with one hand. The result was vinyl that sounded bad, was very prone to noise and degraded easily and quickly. For us North American folks, getting ECM as a German pressing was the real deal.

    Now, I am not sure about the entire UK history of vinyl,but I do know, as someone who worked briefly for a record store in the mid-'70s and was the buyer for the store's jazz and import section, that British imports were generally held in similarly high esteem. Getting a British import of Hatfield and the North or Henry Cow on Virgin was palpably superior to the domestic pressings. So if the UK was pressing its own ECM titles, I suspect they were either as good or darn close (never owning one, I can't say).

    Also, beyond the vinyl, the German imports were superior because they used heavier cardboard for the sleeves, better inner sleeves (*if, in the case of North American titles, there even were inner sleeves!) and were often laminated. The North American cardboard was, for the most part, cheaper and thinner and, again I could be wrong on this as it's been a long time, I don't recall any North American pressings of ECM titles being laminated like, for example, Gary Burton's Ring was.

    Sorry for rambling, hope this was of some value.

    As for your other question, I can't recall when the term chamber jazz arose, but it certainly was not a term that was coined for ECM initially. The term had been used before, to describe Third Stream music that was of more intimate, less orchestral nature (just as is the case in classical chamber music). Some of George Russell's music, Claude Thornhill, Gil Evans and very much Jimmy Giuffre and the Modern Jazz Quartet all had music that was called chamber jazz long before ECM was in existence.

    As for the label's view? I don't think it really minds the use as long as it's an accurate and relevant description. calling Eberhard Weber's The Following Morning or Arild Andersen's Hyperborean chamber jazz is a fair way to describe; calling the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Pat Metheny Group's First Circle is not. I think the only term that I know of that is not looked upon kindly by Eicher is "fusion," as it refers to electric music.

    I wrote liners for a proposed two-cd box that, originally meant to collect Abercrombie&Towners Sargasso Sea and Five Years Later (to this day never released on CD), was ultimately scuttled (for reasons unknown), but when i turned in the liners to Steve Lake (and, btw, I was paid even though they were not used), the only change he asked me to make was to remove the term "fusion" when referring to some of the music on Abercrombie's Timeless. Consequently, when I was asked to do the liners to last year's three-disc reissue of Terje Rypdal's Odyssey, I was specifically careful NOT to use that term :)

    I've come to understand why Eicher so dislikes the term, and as far as the label being happy/unhappy with how writers categorize the music, I think it's pretty much common sense: if it makes sense, it's fine; if it doesn't, it's not.

    Hope this helps.

  • Guy Grundy wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    Hi John

    Appreciate your reply....I'm pretty sure all UK ECM albums were imported direct from Germany.Who can ever forget the dark green center,clean font and that heavy vinyl? (I'm sure Steve Lake will know.It's his 1975 review in Melody Maker,THE music paper at the time in the UK of Terje Rypdal's Odyssey which introduced me to ECM).Moreover as you state in your reply not only were these German pressings sensational but the materials used were also top notch.I distinctly remember the inner sleeve had a double layer.. and the gatefold/album covers were substantial.It all,the whole product just screamed quality and attention to detail.For those of us around at the time,this approach was simply unheard of and another reason why ECM records became such an iconic brand and label.

    I completely understand your view regards the word "Fusion".I've always thought it a lazy and clumsy way of explaining a musical style.I have to admit though in the early seventies I was a great admirer of this particular form.I could not get enough of the first Mahavishnu Orchestra,the early Weather Report,The Eleventh House,Isotope,Return to Forever and their like ( and there,sadly were many) but it became increasingly obvious that this definition,this form of music had a limited shelf life as each artist and each composition sounded all too alike and each artist appeared to want to merely out do each other through speed of note and complexity of musical composition.Thankfully (in this writers opinion) that particular Fusion/Jazz Rock movement fizzled out...and happily ECM and Jazz moved on.

    I have to say it makes me chuckle that you confess to utterly disliking a specific ECM record in your reply to Toby ( by the way don't be too dismissive of his post..he has an opinion.. and frankly In recent years I've also thought on occasions that the ECM direction/output has become a tad of the "Emperors Clothing" variety)

    As to your disliking,I've always found it impossible to like Annette Peacocks ECM release " An Acrobats Heart" ..which is rather strange for me as her wonderful X-Dreams album ( chock full of seasoned British studio musicians)is still one of the highlights of Jazz fusion.Just as an aside and to illustrate how daft the musical climate had become in those fusion times,I do remember the cover of one particular Melody Maker had Alphonse Mouzon claiming he was the world's best drummer BECAUSE he played in platform boots as opposed to Billy Cobham who played in sneakers! Funny old world..

    Forgive me, I'm staring to ramble...

    I cannot imagine my life without Jazz music ( Hard Bop being my preference) but in reality it's only a four letter word which conveys a myriad of styles.Some I adore and some I simply hate..but you know John,that's what I love about Jazz.


  • John Kelman wrote on January 13, 2013 report

    Hey Guy,
    Just to be was manfrdd's issue with the term fusion, not mine. Inner Mounting Flame was a life-changer, as we're other recordings of the time. I think, however, that just as progressive rock stopped being about the first word in the phrase and began solidifying into something that was less a out progressing and more about adhering to a now-defined SWR of parameters, fusion fell prey to the same traps. Desn't make the great records any less so, but I do understand why Manfred didn't want Timelas I be categorized, even though there were certainly plenty of references in abercromie's playing to, amongst other things, McLaughlin.

    Anyway, funny you should say that about the Peacock, as I absolutely love each their own.

    As for Steve lake, NME and the UK scene, growing up, as I did ( and still living in) Ottawa, Canada, I was much more connected to the UK scene than some of my American counterparts. I bought NME and Melody Maker, bought (first for me, then for that store) a lot of great British progressive music from the time. And, in fact, a lot of British prog, like Genesis, gained its first real foothold in North America in this neck of the woods - Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City.

    Anyway, nice charting with you, and I didn't take particular offense at atoby's comments, other than th suggestion that I worship to label. I've always admitted to being a fan of the label's overall aesthetic....but worship? A strong word. There is, however, no doubt that the label, for a number of reasons, some of which you identified in your last post changed the way music was presented to us, and for me, I'm gratefu, that it did. Now, 40 years later and about 12 years into a change of life that has brought me to writing about music, I figure I get th opportunity to give a littl e back ... To ECM, but also to a lot of other labels and musicians who've been an important part of my life. I'm a lucky guy to have the access I do, and I never forget it.