A wall of shelves filled with master tapes might not be everyone’s idea of an artwork, but it was one of the things that caught my attention in Munich’s Haus der Kunst last weekend, as part of an exhibition titled ECM: A Cultural Archaeology. Here, on shelf after shelf, were boxes of two-inch recording tape carrying the labels of the studios in Ludwigsburg, Oslo, New York, Lugano and elsewhere in which Manfred Eicher, the founder of Editions of Contemporary Music, has recorded Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Arvo Pärt, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jan Garbarek, Bill Frisell, and many others.
It seemed an appropriate installation since attention to the quality of recorded sound was one of the factors that enabled the Munich-based ECM, particularly in its earliest days, to stand out from the herd. Eicher wanted his records to sound beautiful, and he made every effort to get what he wanted. He wanted them to look good, too, and ECM’s artwork – particularly the wonderful graphic designs of Barbara Wojirsch – takes its proper place in the exhibition.
It was nice to see a photograph of the late Don Cherry, who made many important albums with Eicher, on the poster advertising the show. Curated by Okwui Enwezor and Markus Müller, it opened in November and alongside the visual material and the sound installations it included several films related to the label and its artists. Among them were Theodor Kotulla’s See the Music (1971), featuring Eicher in his pre-ECM incarnation, playing bass with the alto saxophonist Marion Brown and the trumpeter Leo Smith; Meredith Monk’s haunting Ellis Island (1981); and Anri Sala’s striking Long Sorrow (2005), in which the alto saxophonist Jameel Moondoc plays while sitting on a window ledge on an upper floor of a Berlin apartment block.
The exhibition was accompanied by a series of concerts which ended on Saturday night with the Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his New York Quartet, featuring David Virelles on piano, Thomas Morgan on double bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. This is the line-up that appears on Stanko’s new album, Wislawa, and although there were a few signs to indicate that they hadn’t played together since the recording last summer, there was also a great deal to enjoy.
I found myself listening closely to the playing of Morgan, who was introduced to Eicher by the late Paul Motian; they appeared together last year on the pianist Masabumi Kikuchi’s superlative trio album for ECM, Sunrise, one of Motian’s last recordings. Thirty-one years old but looking about half that, Morgan is unusual among modern bassists because his playing is modest and unassertive, containing none of the rhetorical gestures that most of his contemporaries use to inject drama into their solos – particularly since bass strings got lighter, the action of the instruments became more finger-friendly, and amplification improved. If Morgan’s improvisations sometimes give an impression of tentativeness, that’s merely because he’s weighing and measuring every note he plays.
It’s 43 years since the first ECM release – Mal Waldron’s Free at Last – landed without fanfare on my desk at the old Melody Maker office in Fleet Street. More than 1,000 albums later, no record company has done more to encourage and facilitate a fruitful expansion of jazz’s frontiers, helping to widen its audience as the music expands into an uncertain but exciting future.
The story of Eicher’s project was told in Sounds and Silence, a film made in 2009 by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer and also on view in the exhibition. It’s worth seeing the whole thing, but here’s a link to a very brief trailer, including snatches of Nik Bartsch and Arvo Pärt: http://bit.ly/3xvKP9