Certain record labels encapsulate an era which leaves an imprint in one’s psyche. In the late 60’s there was Island, started by Chris Blackwell who later brought us Bob Marley, as well as very British groups, such as Traffic, who had very long hair.
In the late 60’s and early 70’s we also had CBS, who wanted to Fill (Y)Our Heads With Rock. These were the ‘Sounds of the Seventies’: Taj Mahal, It’s A Beautiful Day, Miles Davis, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a veritable cornucopia of delights. They also brought us Soft Machine, of whom I wrote last time.
CBS has since turned monolithic and corporate, and is owned by Sony.
Although I didn’t know it then, another record label was founded in 1969 and it is one which, once I discovered it, I have never lost faith with.
I first came across ECM one Sunday night in the early 80’s. It was past my bedtime but I regularly listened to BBC Radio 2’s Jazz Hour, or whatever it was called, on my stacking hi-fi with headphones on. The programme was presented (probably) by Humphrey Littleton, a distinguished Brit with a distinctive Old Etonian voice and a jazz background as a trumpeter. Usually the tracks were introduced, or commented on after, but that night I was transfixed by an ethereal choral sound, yet it wasn’t. It was almost singalong, yet it wasn’t. And Humph played an entire side of the album without speaking, it’s singularity sucked me in and I was totally captivated.
The album was Fluid Rustle by Eberhard Weber, a German bass player and composer who had been an inspiration for (even) Jaco Pastorius, The line up was Gary Burton, who I’d seen back in the sixties when he had long hair, on the vibraphone and marimba, American Bill Frisell on guitar and balaika, and Bonnie Herman and Norma Winstone, a revered British jazz vocalist, on wordless vocals.
I knew this was one album I had to have, no matter what. And it lead me onto a musical path I have rarely strayed from. European Jazz had been a turn off for me in the sixties and early seventies, all that free-form squiddley-squaddly was not in tune with my biorhythms or something of that time.
But this spacey stuff, giving room for thoughts that strayed beyond what was being played, mood music but definitely not muzak, seemed to be what I had looked for. I explored the catalogue, especially Eberhard Weber. I don’t play any instrument, to my eternal regret – painting and writing have been my main creative outlets without monetary motive. Ah, but if I did, it would be the bass.
And through Eberhard I discovered Jan Garbarek, the Norwegian saxophonist who can conjure up the emptiness of fjords, and guitarists Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Terje Rypdal and Pat Metheny. And Keith Jarrett, whose Kőln Concert provided Manfred Eicher with his first hit record.
ECM is the nearest thing music has to a cult. And its founding guru and presiding genius, who masterminds the cross-genre collaborations that are a feature of its output, who has produced almost all of is 1,000 releases, devising if not actually designing most of the starkly elegant covers, is the enigmatic 63-year-old Manfred Eicher.
To refer to ECM simply as a record label feels like a perverse understatement. Founded in 1969, ostensibly as a jazz label, ECM has come to embody a feel and an approach to the meeting of jazz, classical, contemporary and world music that is difficult to quite define, but – once you’ve encountered it – instantly recognisable. From Estonian minimalist Arvo Part to Black Power icons the Art Ensemble of Chicago, from the film soundtracks of Jean-Luc Godard to the piano sonatas of JS Bach, the defining, overarching element in all ECM’s music is the label itself.
Elegant, moody, austere and profoundly European, the ECM vibe comes with an element of seductive difficulty – a sense that the effort of the listener will be both required and rewarded that it can be peculiarly compelling, even addictive.
I have over 100 ECM albums. I have also been to many concerts by ECM artists, the last one of which was Pat Metheny’s gig here in Jakarta on 22nd October 1995. There were only 3 expats in the audience, one of whom this week gave me a copy of a pirated CD with 13 Pat Metheny albums on, only five of which I hadn’t got a digitalised copy of.
And the one album I want for my desert island has to be the first one I heard, Fluid Rustle.
(Listen to it here, but you’ll have to use a proxy browser if you’re in Indonesia.)