By Ken Micallef
Manufactured in Germany at PALLAS and branded with a “180g Audiophile High Quality Pressing” sticker on every jacket, ECM’s current vinyl releases align with label boss/producer Manfred Eicher’s long-standing commitment to expressive, experimental, left-of-center jazz. Unlike most labels that release jazz titles, ECM presses a goodly number of its new stock on vinyl, which holds true for their recent RE:solution reissue series as well. Some but not all ECM releases are accompanied by download cards. All pressings are dead quiet, and mostly as flat as a Flat Earther’s little head.
Excellence has been an unswerving thread throughout ECM’s lengthy discography, in both its performances and quality of pressings since the label’s inception in the late 1960s. If you’re not a fan of or are unfamiliar with ECM’s contributions to jazz at large, consider this partial list of the label’s outstanding achievements.
- Paul Bley Trio Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (1970)
- Bobo Stenson Underwear (1971)
- Chick Corea Return to Forever (1972)
- Terje Rypdal Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away (1974)
- Dave Liebman Drum Ode (1974)
- John Abercrombie Timeless (1974)
- Paul Motian Tribute (1974)
- Keith Jarrett Belonging (1974)
- John Abercrombie / David Holland / Jack DeJohnette Gateway (1975)
- Collin Walcott Cloud Dance (1975)
- Keith Jarrett The Köln Concert (1975)
- Enrico Rava The Pilgrim and the Stars (1975)
- Kenny Wheeler Gnu High (1976)
- Pat Metheny Bright Size Life (1976)
- Jack DeJohnette’s Directions Untitled (1976)
- Jan Garbarek / Bobo Stenson Quartet Dansere (1976)
- Edward Vesala Nan Madol (1976)
- Paul Motian Trio Dance (1977)
- Dave Holland Emerald Tears (1977)
- Terje Rypdal Waves (1977)
- Kenny Wheeler Around 6 (1979)
- Jack DeJohnette New Directions in Europe (1980)
- Bill Connors Swimming with a Hole in My Body (1979)
- Pat Metheny 80/81 (1980)
- Gary Burton Quartet Easy as Pie (1980)
- Miroslav Vitous Group Miroslav Vitous Group (1980)
- Arild Andersen Lifelines (1980)
- Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition Tin Can Alley (1981)
- Dave Holland Quintet Not for Nothin’
- Enrico Rava Easy Living
- John Abercrombie Cat ‘n’ Mouse
- Dave Holland Big Band What Goes Around
- Keith Jarrett / Gary Peacock / Jack DeJohnette Inside Out
- Charles Lloyd Hyperion with Higgins
- Art Ensemble of Chicago Tribute to Lester
- John Abercrombie Class Trip
- Marilyn Crispell Trio Storyteller
- Evan Parker Memory/Vision
- Miroslav Vitous Universal Syncopations
- Dave Holland Quintet Extended Play: Live at Birdland
- Jon Balke Diverted Travels
- Wasilewski / Kurkiewicz / Miskiewicz Trio
- Tord Gustavsen Trio The Ground
- Marc Johnson Shades of Jade
- Manu Katché Neighbourhood
- Keith Jarrett / Gary Peacock / Jack DeJohnette The Out-of-Towners
- Paul Motian Trio I Have the Room Above Her
- Bobo Stenson Goodbye
- Paul Motian Band Garden of Eden
- Eberhard Weber Stages of a Long Journey
- Enrico Rava Tati
ECM’s catalog is one of the most revered in jazz. From the label’s earliest recordings, producer Manfred Eicher created a sound as singular as anything from Blue Note, Riverside, Contemporary, or Prestige. Yet many of the label’s ‘70s and ‘80s titles remain under some fans’ radar, perhaps due to myopic American tastes or general rarity of the pressings. ECM is an example of a stellar European jazz label whose artists also incorporate many strains and styles beyond jazz. ECM’s artists draw on native folk music, chamber music, 20th Century classical, avant-garde, electronic, and jazz of all stripes. And though ECM boasts many jazz stars, the label remains a robust presence with such new-to-the-label artists as Tord Gustavsen, Ricardo Villalobos, Vijay Iyer, David Virelles, Ches Smith, Mark Turner, FOOD, and Jakob Bro, among others.
Unlike some of my grumbling musician friends, I believe ECM’s dedication to capturing the music of uniquely talented musicians in Eicher’s distinctive production esthetic has never faltered. Since the ‘90s ECM has drawn on talent closer to its German base. So you’re not likely to hear retro hard bop ala Eric Alexander or the blatantly complex compositional styles of such New York based players as Dave Binney or Rudresh Mahanthappa. ECM’s current releases present envelope-pushing sounds that constitute modern jazz un-beholden to demographics or geological locations. ECM continues to pursue the atmospheric production and cerebral, forward-thinking music the label has pursued since day one.
Arve Henriksen, Cartography
Trumpeter and former Rune Grammafon artist Arve Henriksen represents the new breed of ECM artist. Perhaps more easily identified as an ambient or world-music-shape-shifter, Henriksen’s sinewy, spooky, reed-like trumpet spans genres, continents, and eras. His music is thoroughly contemporary, but timeless. Listening to Henriksen blow dry slivers of sound over ghostly sonic terrain recalls a weightless dope-fueled journey through some twilight Turkish bazaar. Supported by a large ensemble which includes live sampling, “beats programming,” upright bass, synthesizer, choir samples, and “treatments,” as well guitar and drums, Cartography recalls the music of fellow trumpet traveler Jon Hassell, yet with a more disembodied electronic sheen.
In “Recording Angel” (which is also the title of a wonderful book: “The Recording Angel: Music, Records and Culture from Aristotle to Zappa” http://www.amazon.com/The-Recording-Angel-Records-Aristotle/dp/0300099045), Arve creates a totally insular world, as if peering through a looking-glass. In one track as a strange, dark, forlorn female vocal hovers overhead, large bass tones echo and decay. Flute whispers somewhere in the distance. You hear Arve’s lips on his trumpet mouthpiece, every tiny motion clear and clean. Almost too clean, like a surgical knife slipping under the skin. Chants wail in the distance like buzzing mosquitoes.
“Assembly” combines solo trumpet, choir samples, beats, organ samples and “field recordings” into a disturbing collage of sounds. Trumpet slurs. Deep synth bass tones ache. Odd rattles, wood sounds, metal on metal, tinkling bells, and rubbing grooves coalesce into a nightmarish noir world. “Loved One” offers yet more mysterious and enigmatic sounds.
Have you ever made a long journey by car through the western US? Mid-summer; endless drive; heat; sweat. You awake from a nap in the backseat. “Where am I?” That’s the constant mental refrain of Cartography, a dark, brooding place where sounds both human and synthetic collide with memories and dreams.
Mathias Eick, Midwest
Speaking of traveling the US, Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick makes an imaginative journey from Hem, the Norwegian village of his birth, to the plains of North Dakota in the aptly named Midwest. Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians travelled by sea to the American Midwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries — taking their music with them. In similar fashion, Eick and his lineup of violinist Gjermund Larsen, pianist Jon Balke, drummer Helge Norbakken, and bassist Mats Eilertsen blend native folk sounds that recall everything from horse hooves and Cajun beats to Arabic-tinged melodies and Midwest hoedowns. There’s a touch of Bruce Hornsby’s corn-fed heartland in the music’s purpose-built genre-sourcing and occasionally forced influences, but the performance is an honest one.
The original inspiration for the album was sparked by a grueling North American tour: “I’d been out on the road for a long time and was feeling homesick,” Eick said. “Then we reached the area called the Rural Midwest (sic) and I suddenly felt as if I was home. I had a sense of why the early settlers would want to build their farms there. It reminded me very much of parts of Norway.”
The title track’s searing trumpet, unfurling piano, and simple melody is certainly Midwestern in intent. The music bounces like a barn-dance jig, followed by the mood altering middle-eastern inflections of a lone violin. “Hem” recalls a chamber performance by hirsute hipsters, and I think: “lifestyle music.” Irish, Arabic, and Indian influences swirl together like a beat-maker with a happy sampling finger, only these are flesh-and-blood musicians in what I assume is a live performance.
Though Eick’s musicians perform with soul and sincerity throughout Midwest, I can’t help but feel I’m listening to a well-crafted soundtrack to an online travelogue. The twinkling piano and demure flute of “March” produces feelings of intimacy, but also an unsettling rise in my throat like an undigested kernel of corn wrestling for position. Further tracks “Dakota,” “Lost,” “Fargo” and “November” make me think, “winsome.” Of calm, soothing terrain with the possibility for high jinks. “Mindfulness” seems apropos.
I feel the need to look at the online Deepak Chopra phrase generator, Wisdom of Chopra. And as if to confirm that I am truly “in the moment” I read: “The invisible is the ground of quantum self-knowledge.” Isn’t music essentially invisible? Are we not all on a journey to absolute “self-knowledge” while making the world safe, if not for our children, for Keith Richards?
Jakob Bro, Gefion
I became an instant fan of guitarist Jakob Bro when covering the 2011 Copenhagen Jazz Festival for Downbeat magazine. Bro, who appeared on a handful of drummer Paul Motian’s latter Electric Bebop Band albums and also works with trumpeter Thomasz Stanko’s quintet, borrows sounds and textures from the school of Bill Frisell – and shatters them. Bro’s guitar sound is spidery, spectral, luminous, gauzy; his music a gorgeously slow expose of tone, texture, rhythm and color. Gefion, like Bro’s earlier releases, is essentially the sound of maneuverable stillness. The beautifully paired rhythm section of Morgan and Christensen only heighten and expand Bro’s otherworldliness.
From an audiophile perspective, Gefion is one of the finest examples of an upright bass recording I’ve ever heard. You not only hear but feel every inch of Morgan’s instrument, his hands on the bass’s neck, the neck responding, the deep fullness of the instrument’s large hollow cavity, the taut strings bouncing and reverberating over the full range of the upright. I’ve not heard any digital recording sound this natural and resolving, and very few analog LPs!
Opening track “Gefion,” is oddly frigid yet warm, bass and guitar probing notes cautiously, carefully. Guitar lines expand and float, bass searches for a goal, drums plot an almost silent course. There’s much silence both between and in the notes of Gefion, the trio playing with notes that seem to glow. The music is largely formless, like the sound of lava flowing or clouds moving, and just as evocative. Nothing is hurried. Tension rises, takes hold for a moment, then ceases.
The spectral guitar tapestry of “October” is supported by booming bass notes and the high rez rubbing of cymbals and mallets on drums. “Ending” provides more of a familiar groove then opens up like sunlight cracking the dawn. “And They All Came Marching Out of the Woods” is jewel-like, ethereal, lovely.
For those wondering, Gefion is “a goddess associated with plowing, the Danish island of Zealand, the legendary Swedish king Gylfi, the legendary Danish king Skjöldr, foreknowledge, and virginity,” states Wikipedia. Take your pick, I’d say.
Pat Metheny, 80/81
For fans of this all important, double-LP jazz document, a “behind the scenes” podcast is now available at PatMetheny.com
Along with other insights, Metheny says, “I just loved all four of them [Charlie Haden, Jack DeJohnette, Michael Brecker, and Dewey Redman]. They were kind of all my favorites in a way. And that was what got me writing the music for that record …was just hearing their sounds in my head.” Recording 80/81 “was just an unbelievable experience… a really magical recording session that, for at least a couple of us, was life-changing. I know that Mike Brecker always talked about that record as for him, there was ‘everything before 80/81 and there was everything after 80/81.’”
80/81 for many is the record that put Pat Metheny on the map not only as serious jazz guitarist but as a serious composer. Side I is comprised of “Two Folk Songs,” revealing Metheny’s penchant for high-flying acoustic guitar sounds. Side II contains both “The Bat” and “Turnaround,” Real Book standards that every budding jazz musician holds dear. Side IV offers “Every Day (I Thank You)” and “Goin’ Ahead,” the entire cast kicking ass and taking names, as we used to say.
80/81 is a fine performance and retains its dynamic, in-the-moment sense of five master musicians – three now deceased – at the top of their respective games. Why reissue it now? The album doesn’t show up at used record stores very often, for one thing. And when found, you can bet it’s been played to death. Luckily my original pressing is pristine.
I found slight differences between the two pressings. The jackets are identical. The new ECM record label is slightly darker than the older, decidedly green label. The older pressing sounds slightly darker as well, but also more present, and perhaps fuller. The new pressing has more sonic sheen, more tartness, but that may simply be because it’s a new pressing. As expected with what I assume is a digitally-sourced pressing there is plenty of upper transient air and clarity. Bass is also clear and Jack DeJohnette’s titanic drum sound is warm, fat, and very dynamic. Ultimately, one pressing isn’t better than the other, only different.
80/81. Just in time for 2016.
And a final thought from Wisdom of Chopra: “Freedom is the womb of the progressive expansion of possibilities.” Of course it is.
About the Author
When not rustling words for DownBeat, Electronic Musician, Bass Player and Modern Drummer magazines, Ken Micallef feeds his vinyl LP habit, photographs New York City’s remaining neighborhoods, and reviews audio equipment for PFO. A native of Detroit, Michigan, Ken currently resides in Greenwich Village, New York City, a swift subway ride to the city’s well stocked and overpriced used vinyl stores. His LP prizes often find their way to his Facebook page, Jazz Vinyl Lovers, where love of jazz and the occasional turntable photo keeps heads turning and the conversation buzzing.
Raised in the Deep South, educated as a commercial artist, Micallef is also a regular contributor to Autodesk’s lineshapespace.com online business magazine, where Smart Buildings, Industry 4.0, and the Internet of Things provide grist for the mill of future design and cloud-based and 3D manufacturing.
Ken’s current rig includes Shindo electronics, DeVore Fidelity and Snell speakers, a Kuzma turntable and various cartridges.
Financial Interests: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.ts: Ken contributes to several music-related media outlets including Positive Feedback Online and Digital Audio Review.