Every few months I receive a package from ECM. It will usually contain a packet of promotional essays and magazine quotes, plus one or two CDs. The CD packages will have a dark, motionless piece of cover art, a booklet with a few photos of the musicians in the studio, and a list of the song titles and musician credits on the back, always in the same font. Somewhere in most of the booklets is the credit Produced by Manfred Eicher.
Back in the early 80s when I was getting started listening to jazz, it seemed like many of the newer titles worth hearing were on ECM. What typified ECM for me back then was its label dark green, with a logo and typeface which seemed businesslike, perhaps a bit stern. Something about it announced, in a quiet way, that this was serious business. No immediate gratification here. It would have been annoying if the music hadnt justified the image, but, often enough, it did.
Some of those ECM affairs were not so somber. One record in my local librarys collection was the Art Ensemble Of Chicagos Nice Guys, whose first cut started with two minutes of abstract tone painting and then inexplicably broke into a happy reggae tune. Most of the time, though, these records seemed to ask for a different sort of listening than what was on the radio. There were the efficient pop-classical duos of Gary Burton and Chick Corea, the carefully-echoed Missouri landscapes of Pat Methenys early records, the dry, well-miked ride cymbal and abrupt tom eruptions of Jack DeJohnette, the lengthy expeditions with only a date and place name for titles of Keith Jarretts live albums, complete with audiences who seldom failed to allow at least a half minute of silence before applauding.
Several of those folks had played with Miles Davis. Also, as I learned more recently from a few books and websites, one of the records that started it all, Jarretts Facing You, came about when a Miles tour took Jarrett to Eichers base in Norway. On a day off in the middle of a month of backing Miles on his grungy, ominous funk journeys, Jarrett and Eicher put 40 minutes of material onto tape which would lead to an altogether different strain of jazz. Some, like Jarrett, would spend the rest of their careers in this area, while others, such as Corea and John McLaughlin, have done some of both.
Flash ahead a few decades. In 2003, ECM was kind enough to add me to its mailing list after I did a piece on one of its artists (bassist Miroslav Vitous) for this website, as well as a few supportive reviews. Now, rather than picking the things I want from the library, all of them (except for a few titles obscure enough that they choose to make them available only by request) show up, whether by artists I follow or by those who are less familiar. Also, the green labels are gone. Instead, what typifies the label for me these days (in addition to the typeface) is the five seconds or so of silence at the beginning of every CD.
Some of the old standbys (Burton, Metheny) have gone to other labels. Some are still there especially the prime mover of the label, Jarrett. (Getting his most recent solo CD, Radiance, in the mail was one of those moments I remember when this whole reviewing hobby starts to seem like an unnecessary drain on my time.) Eicher has also had his eye on a new generation of artists, so several of the CDs that arrive are by young piano trios, some of whom sound enough like Jarrett that I find myself mentally inserting the moans and whoops after each piano phrase that usually turn up on Jarrett recordings.
When the most recent ECM mailer showed up last week, it started seeming to me that quite some time had gone by since Id given one of them much attention. So I gave the two enclosed CDs an initial listen (one seemed worth further attention, another a bit too far on the derivative side) and then started catching up on some older mailings Id filed away.
One of those was a Marc Johnson release, Shades of Jade. Back in the early 80s, the challenge of listening to ECM was just to wrap my ears around a song longer and less immediate than what would have been on a Beatles album. These days, trying to understand the compositions thoroughly (rather than picking up on the ones I like and leaving the rest) requires making mental notes, sometimes even writing things down. Also, dealing with a new jazz CD requires getting acquainted with a new set of musical personalities. I still havent warmed up to everyone on this Johnson outing, but one who gets across to me is drummer Joey Baron, who has a cymbal as dry as DeJohnettes and plays quite a bit less for long stretches, only to suddenly burst out with random enthusiasms.
The label, its founder and many of its artists (and listeners) are getting older. For now, though, its still here, and still making its quiet but persuasive argument that listening and a bit of mental exertion can be worth the trouble.