Manfred Eicher: "You Can't Record Everybody"

There has never been a record producer like Manfred Eicher, founder and sole proprietor of ECM records, the German-based jazz (and sometimes classical) label that celebrates its 50th anniversary this month.

Eicher doesn't quite win the all-time prize for longevity. Edward Lewis started Decca (UK) in 1929 and owned it until 1980. David Sarnoff controlled RCA from 1919–1970. William Paley did the same at Columbia from 1938-1988. But unlike those other, financially heftier titans, who deferred to department heads and studio producers, Eicher has supervised every single one of ECM's albums—more than 1600 of them—signing the musicians, sometimes creating the band, ordering (sometimes suggesting) the tracks, almost always manning the sessions in person, even approving (in many cases, designing) the distinctive, minimalist covers—all while remaining an independent company.

The closest parallel in jazz is Blue Note Records, which Alfred Lion founded in 1939 and ran with an iron fist, assembling a rotating roster of house musicians who played in a similar, or at least tightly compatible, style. But Lion retired in 1967, and the label passed to a series of corporate owners, at one point going dormant except for reissues. (In its current revival, under Don Was, it is owned by Universal Music.)

The comparison with Blue Note is instructive because, in many ways, ECM stands as its aesthetic opposite. Blue Note in its heyday catalogued the experimental reaches of late-1940s bebop (from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool) and the backbeat-driven, two-horn harmony slick of late-1950s post-bop (Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane's Blue Train). By contrast, ECM has explored the quieter, more complex, almost spiritual side of jazz. Blue Note embodied the hip modern jazz of the New York scene; ECM has presented a headier, in some ways more European perspective.

Both tendencies can be overstated. Blue Note waded deep into the avantgarde in the 1960s (Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor), and ECM has recorded its share of dissonant African Americans (the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Ornette Coleman-inspired Old and New Dreams). If you own a well-curated selection of Blue Note and ECM albums, you've covered a large chunk of the range of post-World War II jazz.

What's often overlooked is that the two labels didn't merely reflect but in a sense created the two directions in new music. As is true with book publishers, movie studios, art dealers, and other purveyors of mass culture, most record labels release albums by the biggest stars or (in the case of small labels) the best musicians they can afford. However, a small number of these companies craft an identity for themselves; they publish a certain type of author, hire certain types of directors, exhibit a certain type of painter. Blue Note (in its heyday) and ECM (since its inception) are that kind of jazz label. And with their growing dominance in the marketplace, their owners turned the music that they liked into a dominant style, which in turn influenced other musicians and listeners and labels, cementing the notion—in the case of these two labels, very different notions—of what modern jazz is or should be.

The difference between the labels stems from the different backgrounds and tastes of their founders: Lion, a Jewish-German émigré who came to New York in the 1930s and fell for the boogie-woogie then raging; Eicher, born in Bavaria in 1943, who studied violin from age 6 then switched to jazz bass when he turned 16.

"Miles Davis' Kind of Blue was the jazz album that captured my attention," he said in an email interview from his office in Munich. "Previously, most of my listening had been to classical music. Hearing Miles and Coltrane and Bill Evans and Paul Chambers changed my priorities." He started listening to a wide range of the new jazz taking hold in the States in the late 1950s and early '60s—Evans's Village Vanguard albums, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come and The Empty Foxhole, Paul Bley's Touching and Closer, Chick Corea's Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, Art Farmer's To Sweden with Love, Jimmy Giuffre's Fusion and Thesis (which Eicher later licensed and released on ECM, as a revelatory single album titled 1961).

Still, his tastes—reflected in the albums he would produce—have rarely drifted very far from his classical roots. "At the core is a chamber music ideal, whether improvised or composed," he said. "I prefer smaller groups, intense listening, thoughtful interplay."

He stressed, however, that the distinction between classical and jazz shouldn't be overdrawn. "'Classical influence' is not something I'm particularly looking for in jazz players," he said, "but since at least Duke Ellington, awareness of classical music and contemporary composition is inescapably part of the jazz tradition."

Well into his 20s, Eicher pursued a career as a musician, but in the late 1960s he worked as a production assistant on some studio recordings by Deutsche Grammophon, learning lessons from the engineers about microphone use and editing. He produced a couple of jazz records for a small label, then took out a loan, for the equivalent of $4000, from a record-shop owner to start his own company—which he called Edition of Contemporary Music, soon abbreviated as ECM.


Around this time, pianist Mal Waldron—who'd played with John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, and Billie Holiday, among others—had settled in Munich after leaving the States in the mid-1960s. "Mal was a presence in Munich," Eicher recalled. "I would often see him at the Domicile and other clubs in town. And, of course, he had a rich musical history." So Eicher asked if he'd front a trio for ECM's first album, which came to be titled Free At Last. The session was recorded on November 24, 1969, at Bauer Studios in nearby Ludwigsburg, where Eicher continued to record albums for many years after. He pressed 500 copies; it eventually sold 14,000. (This month, ECM is issuing a double-LP, pressed from the original analog tapes and including several bonus tracks that weren't included in the initial release.)

Galvanized by success in getting the album made, Eicher started writing letters, in appealingly halting English, to some of his American idols, asking them to record for his label. It was a fallow time for jazz, so many of the musicians—Paul Bley, Chick Corea, Anthony Braxton, and others—agreed. Their albums all sold well, especially by jazz standards.

dbtom2's picture

And created a playlist. Thank you Mr. Kaplan.

Before ECM titles became available on Tidal, the were the only label I was purchasing (CD format). I didn't mind - the quality seemed well worth it. It's a little harder now to pull the trigger on a music purchase when so much of it is instantly available to stream. Now that i know Mr. Eicher a little better - thanks to this piece - maybe I can justify some new CDs that way.

Wish I hadn't read the part about Garberek's sax sound. His music (and Pat Metheney's) brought me to ECM in the first place.

Enjoyed this. Thank you.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Keep your eye on the print magazine. A review of the latest / last Garbarek / Hilliard Ensemble live recording is coming before long.

MFK's picture

Thanks for this great article. I'm sure the comments will be indundated with readers' favourite ECM releases. My picks: John Abercrombie, Timeless, w/Jan Hammer, Jack De Johnette and Chick Corea, Return To Forever. Stan Clarke's bass playing is mind blowing.

mmole's picture

...on "Timeless" and would add "Gateway" and "Gateway 2" with Abercrombie, DeJohnette, and Dave Holland. As a matter of fact, all of the Abercrombie albums on ECM are first rate.

Gone too soon.'s picture

"Blue Note in its heyday catalogued the experimental reaches of late-1940s bebop (from Thelonious Monk to Miles Davis's Birth of the Cool) and the backbeat-driven, two-horn harmony slick of late-1950s post-bop (Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane's Blue Train). By contrast, ECM has explored the quieter, more complex, almost spiritual side of jazz. Blue Note embodied the hip modern jazz of the New York scene; ECM has presented a headier, in some ways more European perspective..."

More complex? Nah, but in fairness you do follow all this up with, "Both tendencies can be overstated". Nonetheless, I'll never like the way you write about jazz; you genuinely do seem to believe the European aesthetic to be superior. You've said stuff like this before. Whatever- when you don't get it you just don't get it and no one will begrudge you enjoying music on your terms. "Backbeat driven, two harmony slick"- can you be any more reductive or condescending (at least you didn't say "streetcorner" or "jive")? Or, for that matter, wrong...

Fred Kaplan's picture

I don't mind if you don't like the way I write about jazz, but I'm gobsmacked that you think I prefer "the European aesthetic" and that I've "said stuff like this before." Stuff like what? To clarify matters, I think I've made it pretty clear over the years - and even in this article - that this isn't true.

Pete Young's picture

Was Collin Walcott really British? ("British tabla player Collin Walcott") Wikipedia has him down as "North American", but his website biography doesn't mention his birthplace.

TNtransplant's picture

Okay, after I wrote the above subject title, realized list included British bassist Holland's album -- which is a masterpiece, a totem of 70's jazz, and perhaps one of my top 10 favorite albums of any genre. Very interesting observation regarding the Motian/Moran/Potter recording vs. live. Didn't hear that group but did hear Motian/Frisell/Lovano a couple of times at the Vanguard so need to re-listen to 'Time and Time Again'.

Great top 10 favorite list as well. Agree with above comments on the omission of Abercrombie, might have slotted in Timeless or Gateway instead of one of the Jarrett choices. And maybe pick the first DeJohnette Special Edition though as I recall that also did a poor job of capturing David Murray's sax and bass clarinet.

Oh, and I would have tried to squeeze in an Egberto Gismonti title, possibly Magico. (Despite your misgivings any ECM list really does need to include at least one album with Garbarek!)

But aside from the Holland (who has been based* in the US so long doesn't really count) how about a supplementary list of favorite 'Euro' ECM titles?

And while much has been written about ECM, and of course Blue Note over the years, I don't recall much mention of another wonderful European-based label documenting 70's jazz: Black Saint/Sout Note. Future project?

* sorry couldn't resist

Jim Austin's picture
Black Saint/Sout Note. Future project?
Great label(s). Not a bad idea. Jim Austin, Editor Stereophile
TNtransplant's picture

Yeah, I know there was supposed to be a distinction between the more avant-garde Black Saint and Soul Note but it seemed a bit arbitrary to me towards the end...

And after thinking about it a bit, there was a fair amount of crossover between artists appearing on both ECM and Black Saint/Soul Note (Bley, Haden, Murray, Frisell, Motian, Enrico Rava, etc.) as well as Steeplechase, and interesting contrast in the recording aesthetics favored by the principals of those respective labels.

Further, how those differences are captured/resolved (or not?) by different brands and/or components at varying price points within the same brand's product line using "real" or "meaningful" musical examples.

This is present to some extent, at least informally, in almost all reviews but could it be standardized in some fashion to serve as a basis for occasional panel listening sessions with a few of your review staff to better understand their individual perspectives/biases?

Kind of a counterpart to complement JA(1) measurements...

Jim Austin's picture

The thing I listen for most in a system is the clarity of expression of the intentions of the musicians and the recording engineers. That is my "absolute sound." So I get what you're saying here.

Each of our writers brings their own aesthetic, standards, and voice. I don't want to impose on that too much--but the notion of a review as a sort of listening journal, with specific musical examples, is ubiquitous at Stereophile. It is something I expect from every review.

Jim Austin, Editor

JP Thomas's picture

I've enjoyed Fred's jazz writing on Slate, and thought this was a great bird's eye view of the ECM story.

I also enjoyed Ethan Iverson's recent pick list of 50 ECM favorites (on the Tidal website). He tried not to double up on artists very much, so certain classic and/or influential albums aren't present (like Metheny's "Brigth Sized Life"). I found the list more valuable for the picks I wasn't familiar with in any case. The classic stuff I'm mostly aware of. Iverson's list is here: