Record company owner, producer
Manfred Eicher is the founder of Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) Records, a label he formed in 1969. At ECM, Eicher became the label’s producer, helping to create an eclectic style of music that drew from European chamber and classical music traditions but was played in an improvisatory fashion by jazz musicians from around the world. While the fusion of classical and jazz music had been attempted prior to ECM, the albums initially released on Eicher’s label made a significant impact by adhering to the improvisational characteristics of jazz.
The music released on ECM also helped to reinvigorate the jazz world with recordings by such previously little-known or unknown North American and British musicians as trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, bassists Dave Holland and Charlie Haden, saxophonist Charles Lloyd, keyboardist Chick Corea, vibraphonist Gary Burton, guitarists Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, and Bill Frisell, drummers Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, and pianist Keith Jarrett. ECM also released recordings by German bassist Eberhard Weber and such Scandinavian artists as saxophonist Jan Garbarek, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and guitarist Terje Rypdal. Eicher was also instrumental in introducing Western jazz audiences to such musicians as bandoneon player Dino Saluzzi, Indian violinist Shankar, Brazilian guitarist and keyboardist Egberto Gismonti, Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, and Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem.
Eicher grew up in Germany in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He began playing violin when he was six years old. He received classical training at the Academy of Music in Berlin and spent a great deal of time listening to jazz recordings and attending European jazz festivals. After graduating with a degree in double bass and composition, he played with the Berlin Philharmonic. His classical musical training and love of jazz combined when he perceived that most recorded jazz of the late 1960s lacked the sonic qualities he desired. “There was this interactive feel in improvised music all the time, but very often it didn’t come through on record. It’s very difficult to record jazz—to get all this intensity in a transparent way,” he told an interviewer from Schwann Spectrum. At that time, he held the production of Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue as an example of how an improvisatory jazz group should sound on record. According to the Schwann critic, “He wanted the music to be recorded with the same intensity with which it was played—he wanted jazz musicians to receive the same careful treatment that a string quartet recording Schubert received as a matter of course.”
In the late 1960s Eicher borrowed money from a Munich record-store owner to record the album Free at Last by American pianist Mai Waldron. ECM originally pressed 500 copies of the album and eventually sold 14,000 copies. The album that established ECM as a jazz label, however, was Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s debut Afric Pepperbird. The album was recorded in the Arne Bendiksen studio in Oslo, Norway, where Eicher eventually recorded Paul Bley’s Open to Love, Corea’s Improvisations, and Jarrett’s Facing You. The successful relationship between Garbarek’s instrumentation and Eicher’s production on Afric Pepperbird emboldened Eicher to approach other artists he wanted to record. He subsequently wrote letters in broken English to American artists he had observed supporting established jazz acts, including pianists Corea, Jarrett, and Bley. Each musician responded positively and recorded solo piano albums for ECM that were received well by critics and audiences.
Adopting a critic’s description of the sound of ECM recordings—“the most beautiful sound next to silence”—as the unofficial ECM motto, Eicher began recruiting and recording acts with a degree of success. Real financial success began with the 1971 release of Jarrett’s Facing You, and with Return to Forever, the album featuring Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, and percussionist Airto Moreira. In 1975 ECM released Jarrett’s Köln Concert, which, through consistent sales, eventually sold more than three million copies. Eicher also conceived of pairing the relatively unknown pianist Corea with vibraphone player Gary Burton for several successful recordings. One of his next discoveries was Metheny, whose albums sold well both in Europe and in the United States.
ECM’s success is attributed to Eicher’s vision of a music in which aesthetic concerns take precedence over commercial considerations, as well as his contribution to the stark production quality that became
Born on July 9, 1943, in Lindau, Germany. Education: Graduated from Berlin’s Academy of Music.
Formed record label Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM), 1969; released best-selling Keith Jarrett album, The Koln Concert, 1975; launched New Series label for composed music, 1984; sold more than 250,000 copies of New Series release Officium by Jan Garbarek and the Milliard Ensemble, 1994; compilation of ECM cover art, Sleeves of Desire: A Cover Story, published, 1996.
Awards: German Record Critics Award for lifetime achievement, 1986; Special Jury Prize, Locarno Film Festival, for co-directed film Holozan, 1990; Commander of the Royal Order of the Polar Star, King of Sweden, 1999; V Class Order of the Cross of St. Mary’s Land, Estonia, 1999; Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, the University of Brighton, United Kingdom, 2000; Grammy Award, Classical Producer of the Year, 2001; Grand Prix du Disque, France; Edison Award, Holland.
Addresses: Record company —ECM Records, Postfach 600 331, 81203 Munich, Germany.
known as the “ECM sound.” Eicher has consistently denied the existence of a uniform sound for ECM recordings, however, and in interviews has attributed the success of ECM and companion label ECM New Series to the quality of the music and musicianship. He has repeatedly asserted that he listens to music as a musician and not as a businessperson. The ECM sound made it the first jazz label since the famed Blue Note label in the 1960s to be regarded by jazz fans as a guarantee of readily identifiable musical and production quality.
ECM solo piano recordings by Jarrett and the three recordings by Codona—a group comprising Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos, and Collin Wolcott—are believed by many critics to be among the most impressive jazz music of the latter twentieth century, though some critics disparagingly credit these recordings as respectively inspiring the more commercial releases within the New Age and world music genres. Eicher refuted such claims to the New York Times critic Joshua Rosenbaum: “We are not responsible for the banality or superficial sentiment in so-called New Age music. We leave it up to the sensitive and intelligent listener to make a differentiation.”
Other critics, such as Albert Murray, note that the European flavor of ECM recordings has diminished or eliminated altogether the African and blues roots of jazz to create a music that was primarily cerebral. Responding to these negative criticisms, Eicher told Rosenbaum: “Since we are a European company, we have from the beginning focused on the element in music that was more influenced by, say, Schubert than by the fields of Africa. And yet the poetic elements in the music of the Art Ensemble of Chicago are not lost on me.” In fact, ECM has recorded many albums featuring African American musicians, including works by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, saxophonist Lester Bowie, trumpeter Don Cherry, and drummers Ed Black-well and Jack DeJohnette. Much of the music recorded on ECM, however, has ignored such African American jazz traditions as bop and post-bop, instead focusing on jazz-rock fusion in the tradition of trumpeter and band leader Miles Davis’s late 1960s output, as well as on the improvisatory music of such artists as pianist Bill Evans.
ECM’s success with its distinct version of jazz helped Eicher to expand into the music of classical composers with the ECM New Series label in 1984. This label features such contemporary artists as Estonian composer Arvo Part and vocalist-composer Meredith Monk, as well as Steve Reich, Veljo Tormis, Gyorgy Kurtag, Alfred Schnittke, Giya Kancheli, Heinz Holliger, Gavin Bryars, and John Adams. New Series has also released several of Keith Jarrett’s interpretations of Bach, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Josef Haydn. The label’s biggest success, however, was Officium, a collaboration between Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble vocal group. Recorded in an Austrian monastery, the album sold close to one million copies. In 2001 Eicher received a Grammy Award for Classical Producer of the Year for his work on the recordings Morimur, a collaboration between Christopher Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble; Heinz Holliger’s opera based on Robert Walser’s macabre version of Snow White, Schneewittchen; Andras Schiff’s recording of keyboard music by Leos Janacek, A Recollection; the Rosamunde String Quartet rendition of Haydn’s The Seven Words’, and Thomas Zehetmair and the Camerata Bern’s Verklarte Nacht/Shoenberg, Bartok and Veress.
Eicher also has produced or conceived music for films by Jean-Luc Godard, including Eloge de I’Amour, The Old Place, JLG, Helas Pour Moi, Allemagne Neuf Zero, Nouvelle Vague, Histoire du Cinema, and Forever Mozart. He has released Eleni Karaindrou soundtracks for director Theo Angelopoulos’s films Eternity and a Day, Ulysses’s Gaze, and The Suspended Step of the Stork, as well as Karaindrou’s Music for Films. In addition, Eicher produced the music for Xavier Koller’s Academy Award-winning film Journey to Hope. In 1990 Eicher co-directed Holozan, a film adaptation of the Max Frisch novel and the winner of the Locarno Film Festival Special Jury Prize.
The ECM and ECM New Series catalogs are admired also for the austere and minimalist original artwork that graces the album covers, some of which were packaged as O-cards, the cardboard slipcasing that surrounds the plastic compact disc jewel box. Many of the ECM covers are collected in the book Sleeves of Desirei A Cover Story, which was published in 1996. Prior to compact discs, ECM pursued a policy that mandated the use of virgin vinyl—fresh vinyl rather than vinyl manufactured from recycled record albums that sometimes contained paper from the original albums’ labels—as well as pressings on full vinyl rather than flimsier, less-expensive vinyl. The result, according to a Schwann Spectrum critic, is a “pristine sound—brisk, accurate, deep, and clear” that complements the “music that was as adventurous as it was tonally beautiful.”
As producer; ECM
Jan Garbarek Quartet, Afric Pepperbird, 1970.
Chick Corea, Return to Forever, 1972.
Keith Jarrett, Facing You, 1972.
Ralph Towner with Glen Moore, Trios/Solos, 1972.
Dave Holland, Conference of the Birds, 1973.
Eberhard Weber, The Colours of Chloe, 1974.
John Abercrombie, Timeless, 1974.
Paul Motian, Tribute, 1974.
Keith Jarrett, The Koln Concert, 1975.
Egberto Gismonti, Sol Do Meio Dia, 1977.
Collin Walcott, Don Cherry, and Nana Vasconcelos, Codona, 1978.
Pat Metheny, Pat Metheny Group, 1978.
Steve Reich, Music for 18 Musicians, 1978.
Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden, and Ed Black-well, Old and New Dreams, 1979.
Charlie Haden, Ballad of the Fallen, 1982.
Kenny Wheeler, Angel Song, 1997.
ECM New Series
Arvo Part, Passio, 1988.
Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble, Officium, 1994.
Andras Schiff, A Recollection, 2001.
Christopher Poppen and the Hilliard Ensemble, Morimur, 2001.
Heinz Holliger, Snow White, Schneewittchen, 2001.
Rosamunde String Quartet, The Seven Words, 2001.
Thomas Zehetmair and the Camerata Bern, Verklarte Nacht/Shoenberg, Bartok and Veress, 2001.
Carr, Ian, Keith Jarrett: The Man and His Music, DaCapo, 1992.
Gioa, Ted, The History of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1997.
Kernfeld, Barry, editor, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Volume One, A-K, Macmillan Press, 2002.
Kirchner, Bill, editor, The Oxford Companion to Jazz, Oxford University Press, 2000.
Black & White, February 2000.
Independent, April 6, 1999.
New York Times, August 13, 1995.
Schwann Spectrum, Fall 1994.
“Manfred Eicher,” ECM Records, http://www.ecmrecords.com/ecm/bio/manfred.html (April 30, 2002).
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