A lot of musicians have their ECM Records story, and mine involves biking to a second hand record store on weekends in the 1980s. I would peruse the Jazz section, in search of rare LPs I had heard on the radio that featured exceptional drumming. One of the exceptional drummers was Jack DeJohnette, and one of the records was Timeless, the debut of the late guitarist John Abercrombie with DeJohnette and keyboardist Jan Hammer. I was struck by the album’s evocative cover–the deep blues, the parallel lines, the almost representational landscape–and noticed that the label was ECM. I bought it and started listening.
ECM records formed an important part of my musical education, insofar that the releases exposed me to unusual music beyond the my three go-to musical poles at the time of rock and pop, jazz, and New Age electronic music. Timeless was categorized as “jazz fusion” but that phrase sometimes pigeonholes musical styles. What I heard were sounds that were mapping a style space between traditional swinging jazz and thumping rock. On the album’s final track, “Timeless” Abercrombie plays delicate and gossamer melodies against Hammer’s repeating four-bar progression (including the song’s bass part!) and DeJohnette’s featherweight ride, snare, and kick drum chattering. Back then, I didn’t have a way to describe this sound, nor did I have much experience by which to contextualize it, but I loved it and it spoke to me directly, the way a sunset does. A lot of learning music is like this—slowly absorbing, making your own, and refashioning a language of what is sonically possible.
ECM continues to cultivate interesting music, from jazz and classical to many styles in between. The label, whose motto is “the most beautiful sound next to Silence” has released some of the most compelling multi-stylistic acoustic musics, from Steve Reich to Anouhar Brahem. ECM’s recording process is overseen by the label’s founder, Manfred Eicher, who puts a premium on capturing beautiful sonics. (You can learn more about him in the documentary, Sounds and Silence, which includes some wonderful scenes with composer Arvo Part.) If you’re interested in the highest standard of recorded new music, ECM’s is a vast world to explore.