Jazz fans have been waiting for ECM Records to come to streaming services since streaming services were invented. To say that ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is a well-respected label with decades of great albums doesn’t begin to describe the importance of this boundary-breaking, innovative and badass label. Even to call it a “jazz label” does a disservice to the variety of sounds put out by ECM since its start in 1969 Munich. Even the ECM art style and design is iconic. While the decision is slightly controversial and even ECM doesn’t honestly sound that stoked about it, these 1600 titles being gradually rolled out are a gift and a blessing to jazz fans.
If you’re not familiar with the label, where do you start with this new smorgasbord of weird jams and tasty tunes?
First of all, how about the best-selling solo album in jazz history?
Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert was recorded in 1975 at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany. The story is that the staff accidentally got a crappy rehearsal baby grand piano instead of the high-quality concert grand Jarrett had requested. To quote Wikipedia, “The instrument was tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and the pedals did not work properly. Consequently, Jarrett often used ostinatos and rolling left-hand rhythmic figures during his Köln performance to give the effect of stronger bass notes, and concentrated his playing in the middle portion of the keyboard. ECM Records producer Manfred Eicher later said: “Probably [Jarrett] played it the way he did because it was not a good piano. Because he could not fall in love with the sound of it, he found another way to get the most out of it.”
Sleep-deprived and besieged by difficulties on all sides, Jarrett adapted and came out with some of the most unique, powerful, and beautiful pieces of music this world has ever heard. Did I mention that, other than a brief concluding piece, it’s completely improvised? It’s just as much a blues or gospel record as it is jazz and that unqualifiable air is what makes it so alluring and downright pleasurable to listen to. Jarrett often vamps over just one or two chords for minutes at a time but instead of inviting boredom, the songs become modal meditations, sucking you in deeper with every little flourish. Jarrett’s grunts, groans and weird little vocalisms are strange and funny at first but later begin to feel like essential little details that only deepen the well of idiosyncratic beauty here. Every single college student had this album playing in their dorm in the late seventies – a lot of them probably just to impress chicks, but it goes to show the power of this album that solo instrumental piano could be so popular and accessible.
On a personal note – during one of the most stressful times in my life, I basically shut out all music other than this album, which I had recently discovered. It was my constant companion – when I was studying for hours every day, when I was walking to class through the fog in a big, strange, and new city, when I was wondering where I was going (both with my life and to which country I’d move.) For me, it will always be associated with that intense time of my life. There’s honestly no other album that I have the same sort of connection with and I’m so happy y’all can stream it and enjoy it with me now.
If you’re looking to get into avant-garde jazz, one of your first stops should be Dave Holland Quartet’s 1973 classic Conference of the Birds. Free-jazz reed masters Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers, along with drummer Barry Altschul, join Holland on his debut as a leader and the result is both progressive and oddly accessible. The songs are open, the improvisation is free and there are no changes on this album but the moods are clear, Holland’s compositional hand is stronger than ever and these expert improvisors created something that has stood the test of time.
Guitarist John Abercrombie’s 1975 debut studio album, Timeless, can serve as a nice introduction to Jazz Fusion. It mostly avoids the masterbatory excesses that would soon come to define the subgenre while still maintaining an adventerous spirit. Mahavishnu-Orchestra-member and dude-who-later-wrote-the-Miami-Vice-Theme Jan Hammer matches Abercrombie’s energetic guitar with spacey synths, organ and piano while the incomparable Jack DeJohnette lays down the beat.
Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians was his first piece for a large ensemble and man, it is something else. First performed in 1976 and released on record by ECM in 1978, it was a shot across the bow that showed all that musical minimalism could offer. Just 11 chords, first as repetitive pulses then 11 pieces based on those chords. The repeated cadences are technical but never cold. Instead, a warmth permeates the composition as the marimbas, xylophones, piano, clarinets and wordless vocals dance over each other with rhythmic grace. The syncopation and quick patterns often produce hypnotic psycho-acoustic effects on the listener as the continuous eighth-note pulses come in and out of phase with each other. David Bowie said it was one of his favorite albums, calling it “Balinese gamelan music cross-dressing as minimalism.” It makes great music for work or study but if you put on some headphones, close your and focus on it, it’ll take you to a whole ‘nother place.
Those are just a couple albums that I was excited to stream but they’re the tip of the iceberg with this fantastic label. Don’t forget classic albums by master modern guitarist and iconic hairdo Pat Matheny, deep piano genius Paul Bley, or badass trumpeter/not-the-hockey-guy Don Cherry. And we’re pretty much only talkin’ the 70’s here! ECM is still putting out great tunes from the likes of pianist Vijay Iyer among others.
Don’t take my word for it! Check out recommendations from The New York Times! Check out this playlist from Four Tet with a couple dozen of his favorite songs from the ECM catalog! Read Stereogum’s resident jazz expert Phil Freeman’s thoughts and recs! Tom Whitwell’s favs! Pitchfork’s Eric Harvey’s favs! Did you know you can search spotify by label? Just type “label:ecm” up in that search bar!