The ECM Sound

By Carl Glatzel, Editor

The sounds contained in certain ECM recordings are evocative of the stark, oftentimes abstract, artwork that grace their covers. At the core there is a consistent sound that binds most vintage ECM recordings. It’s one of reflection and meditation rooted in a northern European melancholy. Major players, Ralph Towner, Eberhard Weber and John Surman are the keepers of that flame. For decades these jazz veterans have established and exercised the ECM sound. They’ve managed to create a musical brand unique to their own personal pursuits all the while unifying a label’s output.

Solstice, 1975, allows one to delve deep into the Northern European aesthetic of the ECM sound.

With a multitude of introspective compositions in both solo and group settings, Towner cements himself as a pillar of the ECM sound.

Stepping out of his longtime association with the genre-bending group, Oregon, guitarist Ralph Towner began his long-time association with ECM in 1973. Along with his technical prowess Towner brought with him an established artistic direction and personal sound which meshed naturally with his new label mates. Towner outputted several solo albums which showcase his virtuosity on classical guitar as well as his uncanny talent for writing. With a multitude of introspective compositions in both solo and group settings, Towner cements himself as a pillar of the ECM sound. Some standout sessions are 1978’s Batik with legendary bassist Eddie Gomez, 1979’s Solo Concert with its excellent covers of John Abercrombie’s Timeless and the Bill Evans-associated “Nardis”, 1989’s City of Eyes and 1995’s Lost and Found. Towner continues his visionary association with the label to this day.

Later That Evening, 1982, is one of many excellent outings by Weber in the lates-70s and early-80s.

German bassist, Eberhard Weber, brings a wholly-unique approach to the label. Weber’s background in mainstream jazz changed dramatically with his appearance on ECM in 1973 with his classic recording, The Colours of Chloe. Weber is a true virtuoso in every sense of the word, pushing the envelope on his own instrument and venturing into new sonic territory. He took initiative to re-construct his own instrument to suit his personal playing style, adding one then two strings to his double bass. The resulting effect is near magical — long, fluid lines seemed to dance off the fingerboard giving them a life of their own. His standout recordings usually include his working group Colours. 1975’s excellent Yellow Fields catches the bassist with feet in both reflective and faster-paced settings. On 1976’s The Following Morning Weber’s bass proves to be a subtle beacon in the gray mist that is the 10-minute “T. On A White Horse”. His playing here is indicative of what he brought to the label — a floating, elevated and cerebral sound that relies as much on space as it does technical virtuosity.

Private City, 1987, situates itself in a timeless state—a place that Surman comfortably inhabits.

Last, but certainly not least, is English clarinetist John Surman. Having had experience outside the jazz mainstream before joining the label in 1979, Surman brings a sense of restless exploration. His recordings define the ECM sound in yet another light — one of experimentation and wanderlust. Surman’s playing is akin to that of a medieval minstrel, with storytelling at its core. Armed with soprano, baritone and bass clarinets Surman makes use of overdubs and synthesizers to round out most of his solo efforts. Although he also shines in group settings its his one-man shows that showcase his unique compositional style and depth of playing. Titles such as 1979’s Upon Reflection, 1984’s Withholding Pattern and 1996’s A Biography of the Rev. Absalom Dawe expose his inventive soloing and tasteful use of electronics. Surman’s style lends itself to other genres as well, having ventured into classical territory. Works by Elizabethan lutist John Dowland are among some of his more popular achievements on ECM, offering proof of his flexibility and range as an elite instrumentalist.

Surman’s playing is akin to that of a medieval minstrel, with storytelling at its core.

One may find the only obstacle in truly appreciating the recordings by these modern masters is a lack of time. Time to focus on nuances, time for introspection and time for further investigation.

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