Skip to content

ECM at 50


By the end of the 1960s, jazz had gone right out of fashion. If it was by no means dead in creative terms, it was no longer good business for the music industry. So the arrival of a new jazz record label was quite an event, which is why I can remember quite clearly the first package from ECM arriving on my desk at the Melody Maker‘s offices in Fleet Street, and opening it to extract Mal Waldron’s Free at Last. I knew about Waldron from his work with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and others. But an album from the pianist, recorded in Europe and packaged with unusual care on an unfamiliar label based in Munich, came as a surprise.

Pretty soon it was followed by Paul Bley with Gary Peacock, and then by Marion Brown’s Afternoon of a Georgia Faun. Before 1970 was out further packages had included an album by the Music Improvisation Company (with Evan Parker and Hugh Davies) and Jan Garbarek (Afric Pepperbird). It became obvious that something special was happening under the aegis of ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher.

I guess it was in 1971, with solo piano albums from Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, Terje Rypdal’s first album and two albums of duos teaming Dave Holland with Barre Phillips and Derek Bailey, that the label’s character really became clear. Eicher stood for jazz with a high intellectual content, saw no reason to privilege American musicians over their European counterparts, and set his own high standards in studio production and album artwork. All these things — particularly his fondness for adding a halo of reverb to the sound of acoustic instruments, inspired by how music sounded in churches and cathedrals — were eventually turned against him by the label’s critics. The sheer volume of great music produced over the past 50 years is the only counter-argument he ever needed. His greatest achievement has been to make us listen harder, deeper and wider.

ECM’s golden jubilee is being marked by events around the world. On January 30 and February 1 there will be a celebration over two nights at the Royal Academy of Music in London, featuring the pianists Craig Taborn and Kit Downes, the bassist and composer Anders Jormin and the Academy’s big band playing the music of Kenny Wheeler with guests Norma Winstone, Evan Parker and Stan Sulzmann. I thought I’d add to the festivities by choosing 20 ECM albums that have made a particularly strong impression on me since that first package dropped on my desk half a century ago; they’re listed in chronological order. Although there are many other contenders, I stopped at 19; the 20th is for you to nominate.

1 Terje Rypdal: Terje Rypdal (1971) The guitarist’s debut was an early sign of Eicher’s determination to capture and promote the new sounds coming from northern Europe, and from Norway in particular. Rypdal was one of the first to present himself as a wholly original voice.

2 Paul Bley: Open, to Love (1972) For my money, the finest of ECM’s early solo piano recitals, with Bley examining compositions by Carla Bley (“Ida Lupino”), Annette Peacock (“Nothing Ever Was, Anyway”) and himself.

3 Old and New Dreams: Old and New Dreams (1979) Don Cherry, one of Eicher’s favourites, is joined by Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell in this homage to the music of their former colleague, Ornette Coleman. The 12-minute “Lonely Woman” is astonishingly lovely.

4 Leo Smith: Divine Love (1979) The trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith was among the squadron of American innovators who arrived in Europe at the end of the ’60s and whose influence gradually became apparent in the ECM catalogue. Divine Love is a classic.

5 Bengt Berger: Bitter Funeral Beer (1981) A Swedish ethnomusicologist, composer and percussionist, Berger put together a 13-piece band — Don Cherry being the only famous name — to record this strange and compelling multicultural mixture of jazz and ritual music.

6 Charlie Haden / Carla Bley: Ballad of the Fallen (1983) Fourteen years after the historic Liberation Music Orchestra, Haden and Bley reunited for a second studio album featuring music of resistance.

7 John Surman: Withholding Pattern (1985) A solo album in which Surman developed his skill at overdubbing soprano and baritone saxophones, piano and synths, this opens with “Doxology”, in which Oslo’s Rainbow studio is turned into an English church.

8 Bill Frisell: Lookout for Hope (1988) One of several guitarists whose careers were nurtured at ECM, Frisell recorded this with a lovely quartet — Hank Roberts (cello), Kermit Driscoll (bass) and Joey Baron (drums) — before moving on.

9 Keith Jarrett Trio: The Cure (1991) Includes an eight-minute version of “Blame It on My Youth” in which Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette achieve perfection, no matter how many times I listen to it in search of flaws.

10 Kenny Wheeler: Angel Song (1996) In a dream line-up, the Canadian trumpeter is joined by the alto of Lee Konitz, the guitar of Bill Frisell and the bass of Dave Holland.

11 Tomasz Stanko: Litania (1997) The Polish trumpeter interprets the compositions of his compatriot and sometime colleague Krzysztof Komeda. A wonderful group features the saxophonists Joakim Milder and Bernt Rosengren, with a core ECM trio — Bobo Stenson (piano), Palle Danielsen (bass) and Jon Christensen (drums) — as the rhythm section plus Terje Rypdal’s guitar on two of the tunes.

12 Trygve Seim: Different Rivers (2000) Most ECM music is for small groups, but here the Norwegian saxophonist and composer permutates 13 musicians in an exploration of subtle textures and gestures. The great trumpeter Arve Henriksen is among the soloists.

13 Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (2005) Ever listened to Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and wished there had been more post-bop jazz with that kind of relaxed intensity and melodic richness? Here it is. Tomasz Stanko and Jan Garbarek are the horns, Marcin Wasilewski and Slawomir Kurkiewicz the pianist and bassist.

14 Masabumi Kikuchi: Sunrise (2012) Kikuchi, who was born in Tokyo in 1939 and died in upstate New York in 2015, was a pianist of exquisite touch, great sensitivity and real  originality: a natural fit with Eicher, who recorded him with the veteran drummer Paul Motian and the quietly astounding bassist Thomas Morgan.

15 Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Live (2012) The label that released Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in 1978 is the perfect home for the group led by the Swiss pianist and composer, who explores the spaces between minimalist repetition and ecstatic groove, between gridlike structures and joyful improvisation.

16 Giovanni Guidi: This Is the Day (2015) With equal creative contributions from Thomas Morgan and the drummer João Lobo, the young Italian master leads a piano trio for the 21st century: always demanding close attention but never short of refined lyricism.

17 Michel Benita + Ethics: River Silver (2016) Led by an Algerian bassist, a quintet including a Japanese koto player (Mieko Miyazaki), a Swiss flugelhornist (Matthieu Michel), a Norwegian guitarist (Eivind Aarset) and a French drummer (Philippe Garcia) create music that incarnates the ECM ideal of reflective, frontierless beauty.

18 Roscoe Mitchell: Bells for the South Side (2017) A double album recorded live in Chicago in 2015, featuring Mitchell with four trios — including the trumpeter Hugh Ragin and the percussionist Tyshawn Sorey — who finally come together in a memorable celebration of the legacy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

19 Vijay Iyer Sextet: Far From Over (2017) Knotty but exhilarating compositions, solos packed with substance from Graham Haynes (cornet), Steve Lehman (alto) and Mark Shim (tenor): a statement of the art as it moves forward today.


* The photograph is a still from the 2011 film Sounds and Silence: Travels with Manfred Eicher, by Peter Guyer and Norbert Wiedmer. There’s a chapter containing further thoughts on ECM’s place in the evolution of modern music in my book The Blue Moment: Miles Davis and the Remaking of Modern Music, published in 2009 by Faber & Faber.

57 Comments Post a comment
  1. Andrea Tolin #

    20 – David Torn (with Tony Levin and Bill Bruford) Cloud About Mercury

    January 3, 2020
  2. The Epidemics! Did ECM ever produce such an unqualified disaster?

    January 3, 2020
  3. 20. The Koln Concert. Like the Taj Mahal or a cup of Earl Grey, sometimes obvious is good.

    From: “”
    Reply to: “”
    Date: Friday, 3 January 2020 at 17:00
    To: Simon Wright
    Subject: [New post] ECM at 50

    Richard Williams posted: ” By the end of the 1960s, jazz had gone right out of fashion. If it was by no means dead in creative terms, it was no longer good business for the music industry. So the arrival of a new jazz record label was quite an event, which is why I can remember q”

    January 3, 2020
  4. Eric silbermann #

    As I’ve just taken up the guitar again, I’d have to nominate something by Ralph Towner at number 20.

    January 3, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Ralph Towner ” Diary ” . My introduction to ECM . First hearing him on the Paul Winter Consort ” Icarus ” album ( in essence the core of ‘ Oregon ‘ )

      Next up would have to be Eberhard Weber ” Colors of Chloe ” . Hearing him first on Baden Powell’s ” Solitude on Guitar ”

      Along with Jarret and Garbarek then planting me firmly into the ECM fold

      Not to mention a side trip with ” The Improvisational Arts Society ‘ album that including King Crimson alum … Jamie Muir

      Ahhh …. 46 [ personal ] years of ” the most beautiful sound next to silence ‘ and some of my most profound musical and guitar influences

      January 4, 2020
  5. stewart #

    That’s a tricky one, but I guess it’s Pat Metheny Travels ECM 1252/53, which got me on the search for enlightenment through music which still continues, with great assistance from Mr Williams’ insightful writings.

    January 3, 2020
  6. mjazz g #

    Great label, great list.
    Waldron’s ‘Free At Last’ is a trio date, not solo. Recently reissued in expanded form to celebrate the anniversary.

    January 3, 2020
  7. danmac #

    Eberhard Weber – Yellow Fields

    January 3, 2020
  8. Jonathan Frey #

    Witchi-tai-to (Stenson, Garbarek, Danielsson, Christiansen), 1974

    January 3, 2020
  9. Thanks for this Richard. Some of yours I need to revisit or even hear for the first time. For number 20 I’m torn between Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette’s “Ruta and Daitya” – funky, fragmentary and in places really beautiful and secondly Kenny Wheeler’s wonderful “Gnu High” in which his compositions really stretched Jarrett and made him sound interestingly different.

    January 3, 2020
    • Graham Morris #

      John Surman ‘Road to St Ives’ must beca contender – although there are so many good ECM albums.

      January 3, 2020
      • Graham Morris #

        And surely Stephan Micus is worthy of being in there somewhere – someone who has taught me there is music to be made from so many things.

        January 3, 2020
  10. hamertheframer #

    Thanks for this reminder of just how much fantastic music has been generated via ECM. My first thought for No.20 was Carla Bley’s ‘Escalator Over The Hill’, with such a wild variety of great performances from Charlie Haden, Don Cherry, Paul Motian and many others. It was a huge revelation when I first heard it in 1971. I wanted to run away to join their circus. But now I realise it’s not strictly speaking ECM, not produced by Manfred Eicher, just distributed by them, so you’re probably going to disallow it. So then I thought of Jack DeJohnette’s ‘Special Edition’ with the delicious saxophones of David Murray and Arthur Blythe, but I see that this too was not produced by Manfred Eicher, he’s listed as executive producer, so does it count? If not then I’ll have ‘Dance’ by Paul Motian Trio, with his shuffling, stammering, interwoven rhythms, David Izenzon’s sliding bass and Charles Brackeen’s gorgeous echoing saxophones. So there, I’ve listed three for the price of one! And probably none are typical ECM. But there are lots more.

    January 3, 2020
  11. Trevor Watts Moiré Music Drum Orchestra: A Wider Embrace.

    January 3, 2020
  12. Neil Poole #

    Thanks Richard. I’ll be checking out the two or three on your list that I’m not familiar with. I have very fond memories of ECM albums dropping through the letterbox (yes – I had to pay for mine) and I loved it when New Note sent round their regular invitation to buy cds from the ECM back catalogue at reduced prices.

    We’ve been to gigs down the years featuring most of the artists in your list and I have particularly fond memories of Kenny Wheeler performing Angel Song at the Barbican with Bill Frisell, Dave Holland and the incomparable Lee Konitz. Will we get the chance to see LK play live in London one more time? Someone should tell Serious to book him for this year’s LJF. Come to think of it, I’ll be that person.

    One of my big music regrets is that I never managed to catch Paul Bley playing live. If we can only pick one, I’d have to agree that it’s Open, to love but I have a soft spot for the beautiful Solo in Mondsee.

    If I had to pick one more, it would be Marcin Wasilewski’s January. But then I’d also have to knock at least one of your choices off to make way for Collin Walcott’s Grazing Dreams (with thanks to Geoff Dyer’s But Beautiful for that one).

    Happy New Year
    Neil Poole

    January 3, 2020
    • I was lucky enough to see and hear Paul Bley and Sun Ra play solo piano sets and then duet together at the end. It was at The Teatro Fenice in Venice in Autumn 1977. Quite wonderful! Although I now can’t remember much about the music.

      January 3, 2020
  13. Robin Kinross #

    Thanks for the invitation! A classic from early on (1973) is Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds, with Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul – a quartet of equals, and some blistering, angular playing, with Rivers and Braxton sparring. In between all this, the beautiful title track is calm. But play this to anyone who thinks ECM = dreamy background music.

    January 3, 2020
  14. Dr_Jim #

    The early albums,in particular, are wonderful. My first ECM album was Ralph Towner & Glen Moore ‘Trios/Solos’ (ECM 1025, 1972). The players collectively are Oregon (signed to another label at the time). This acoustic music blends jazz, ambient & contemporary classical styles and is a timeless gem.

    January 3, 2020
  15. richardvahrman #

    2003 ECM 1816

    1993 ECM 1518

    1990 ECM 1418

    1996 ECM 1582

    1993 ECM 1500

    January 3, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Excellent additions if I do say so . And … I do .. especially Egberto Gismonti ( anything )

      A 1000 shames upon my soul for leaving his ” Solo de Meio Dia ” off my list . Which I found because Towner ( & Garbarek ) played on it and Ralph heavily recommended it .

      It never cease to amazes me how one ECM artist always connected to another .. which helps account for the fact that a good 60% of my classical and jazz collection is … ECM

      January 5, 2020
  16. expramtraveller #

    I would nominate the Survivors’ Suite by Keith Jarrett’s American quartet, with Haden, Motian and Redman. Either this or Jarrett’s Köln Concert was my first ECM, and one of the first jazz records I ever bought.

    January 3, 2020
  17. You beat me to it, Richard ( I’ll be posting my own tribute in a couple of weeks). But it’s interesting to compare your list with a similar one I posted back in November 2017 when Manfred decided the music should be made available through streaming; unsurprisingly our lists have quite a few artists in common, but only two albums (Old and New Dreams and Ballad of the Fallen). And there are a few on your list with which I’m unfamiliar so I’ll certainly be checking those out. Oh, and if I had to nominate a favourite for that 20th spot – too difficult, though if I were to choose an artist not on your list, it would probably be either Anouar Brahem or Frode Haltli. Or then again… I give up.

    January 3, 2020
  18. Mick Steels #

    The early years produced some tremendous albums but a recording I keep returning to is Evan Parker’s Memory/Vision

    January 3, 2020
  19. Bren Pointer #

    Really difficult call Richard as there’re so many recordings that have captured me over many years. A couple to mention include Egberto Gismonti Solo, Bill Frisell In Line, Bill Connors Theme to The Gaurdian but my personal number 20 goes to Keith Jarrett Trio Live at The Blue Note…an astonishing recording, the interplay, the intuition between the musicians, the lyricism and the complete and utter joy of music making created by musicians who can not only play but listen in equal measure..

    January 3, 2020
  20. Tim Adkin #

    Several good calls already but a quick mention for 3 collaborative efforts from the 70s: Gismonti’s ‘Magico’ with Haden and Garbarek; Towner’s ‘Solstice’ with Garbarek, Christensen and Weber and finally one by Gary Burton (who seems absent thus far) ‘Passengers’ with, if memory serves, Metheny, Swallow, Moses and Weber.

    January 3, 2020
  21. Graham Morris #

    And surely Stephan Micus is worthy of being in there somewhere – someone who has taught me there is music to be made from so many things.

    January 3, 2020

    Old and New Dreams is a favourite, but I’ll go for Once Upon a Time – Far Away in the South by Dinosaur Saluzzi, which features the wonderful Trumpet playing of Palle Mikkelborg.

    January 3, 2020

      Autocorrect – too smart by half. That should be Dino, of course. And no capital T either.

      January 3, 2020
  23. Scott Fowler #

    Thanks Richard,
    At #20 an album often returned to, Eberhard Weber Silent Feet

    January 3, 2020
  24. Rob #

    Meredith Monk!

    January 3, 2020
  25. Sedat Nemli #

    20: “Home” (1980)
    Steve Swallow; music set to poems by Robert Creeley.

    January 4, 2020
  26. Sedat Nemli #

    And if I’m allowed 21, it would be “Quercus” (2006/2013), by June Tabor, Ian Ballamy and Huw Warren.

    January 4, 2020
  27. Stefan Fälling #

    Thanks Richard for this some I haven´t heard so interesting to take a listen. For the 20th I will choose Pat Metheny “American garage”

    January 4, 2020
  28. saverio pechini #

    Music for 18 musicians , Steve Reich

    January 4, 2020
  29. Gianni Papa #

    Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961
    for a more adventurous choice, possibly Hal Russell NRG ensemble the finnish/swiss tour.

    January 4, 2020
  30. Gregor Forbes #

    Eleni Karaindrou Ulysses’s Gaze

    January 4, 2020
  31. Gregor Forbes #

    Eleni Karaindrou Ulysses’ Gaze.

    January 4, 2020
  32. My No 20 would be Drum Ode from Dave Liebman. His spoken intro set the tone for what followed….
    “Drums and drummers. For me, they’ve been the moving force and inspiration, a reason to live, and celebrate life through playing music. Thanks to the men who play the drums. This music is dedicated to you.”

    January 4, 2020
  33. I created a playlist with all 19 albums on Spotify some interesting things here thanks. My 20 would be Keith Jarrett: Spirits

    January 4, 2020
  34. Caption the Manfred Eicher picture: “Keith’s tour rider is getting bigger than Grace Jone’s” !!

    January 4, 2020
  35. Bob Meyrick #

    My introduction to ECM was via the Goldsmith Street branch of Selectadisc in Nottingham. From 1974 to 76 I lived about five minutes walk away, and the staff were always willing to let me listen to the new releases if the shop wasn’t too busy. Ralph Towner’s “Diary”, Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life”, Eberhard Weber’s “Yellow Fields” were all required purchases, but if I had to choose just one, I’d go for “Ring” by the Gary Burton Quintet with Eberhard Weber. Two bassists of contrasting styles (Steve Swallow playing bass guitar with a plectrum, Eberhard’s bowed electric upright) work well together, and on “Colours of Chloe” one of my all time favourite guitar solos – Mick Goodrick’s perfectly composed gem.

    January 4, 2020

    Wow! The response to your generous invitation to nominate a 20th ECM recording to add to your list says it all about the scope and quality of the label’s output. My choice would be something from Paul Motian. Although the great drummer plays on one of the albums in your list – the Liberation Music Orchestra’s ‘Ballad of the Fallen’ – a recording by the group he led with Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell would be a worthy inclusion, and I would select ‘It Should’ve Happened A Long Time Ago’ from 1984.

    The different instrumentation notwithstanding, I have always thought that Motian’s trio had an affinity with the music that Jimmy Giuffre recorded with his early 1960s trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. That group must have meant a great deal to Manfred Eicher as well since he re-issued some of their Verve recordings on ‘Jimmy Giuffre 3, 1961’ – the only time, I believe (happy to be corrected if it is not the case) that ECM has issued another label’s output; another high-point for the label, I think.

    January 4, 2020

    Sorry – I should have noticed that, as well as ‘Ballad of the Fallen’, Paul Motian also plays on Masabumi Kikuchi’s ‘Sunrise’.

    January 4, 2020
  38. Mike Hodges #

    It would be another by Kenny Wheeler, his ‘Music for Large and Small Ensembles’ which is full of the trumpeter’s characteristically elegiac, joyful yet melancholic writing. It has a stellar (more than) rhythm section comprising John Taylor, John Abercrombie, Dave Holland and Peter Erskine, and Wheeler always managed to utilise seamlessly and successfully players as stylistically varied as the late Duncan Lamont and Evan Parker.

    January 4, 2020
  39. Rick Hanley #

    I nominate Astrokan Cafe by Anouar Brahem because it is the one I play most frequently. But for pure musical quality I can’t separate Points of View (Dave Holland Quintet) and Trio Libero (Andy Sheppard, Michel Benita & Sebastian Rochford).

    January 4, 2020
  40. Chris Walsh #

    Just throw a dart at the catalogue and you can’t go wrong. But my dart hit the first Gateway album.

    January 4, 2020
  41. Paul Tickell #

    Plenty of great music in your list, Richard – and of course in all the comments… I think it is worth mentioning that ECM have also put out some great ‘classical music’ albums from the likes of Part, Kancheli and Kurtag. It is a truly eclectic label.

    January 4, 2020
  42. Ian Cole #

    Just to cheat on number 20. For my 40th birthday back in 1992 my daughter Laura, now a jazz pianist herself, bought me the ECM Jazzbox. Vinyl. In addition to Ballad of the Fallen it had the Keith Jarrett Trio’s Standards vol 1, Charles Lloyd’s Fish Out of Water, Masquelero’s Aero, Jack De Johnette’s Album Album and First House’s (Django Bates, MickHutton, Ken Stubbs, Martin France) Erendira. Not bad, as samplers go!

    January 5, 2020
  43. Gordon #

    Thanks for the interesting first 19 Richard – although outside the jazz idiom, my vote for number 20 is Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa

    January 7, 2020
  44. Michael in the UK #

    Hello Richard,I posted a reply to this yesterday, but while at least one other reply has appeared, mine has not. Maybe I am doing it wrong. I hope I have not said anything to offend you.
    I would like to be able to share my nomination with your other readers (Tord Gustavsen trio). best wishes,
    Michael in the UK

    January 7, 2020
  45. Transki #

    I first started listening to ECM in the late eighties and the voyage of discovery into the label’s output prior to this had a big impact on my musical tastes. Before scrolling down the list I would have thought that more of the seventies stuff would have made any top 20 but can’t find fault with Richard’s list. For me my 20th would be for something by either Paul Motian or Bobo Stenson but seeing as there is only one place on offer I would pick Stenson’s ‘Goodbye’ as it features both!

    January 7, 2020
  46. John Evans #

    My first ECM was Keith Jarrett’s ‘Facing You’: a revelation at the time and a continuing source of pleasure over the years.

    January 7, 2020
  47. Sedat Nemli #

    Re “The Cure”, “Old Folks” is arguably amıng this trio’s most exquisite recodings..

    January 10, 2020
  48. Charlie Seaward #

    Music For 18 – Reich

    January 12, 2020

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Looking back: My 2019 – Post 2, Moments: ECM Celebrating 50 Years at London Jazz – mike collins

Leave a Reply to richardvahrman Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: