AMN Reviews: ECM’s Early Avant-Garde Recordings

Last week’s launching of Manfred Eicher’s ECM Records back catalog on a variety of digital music streaming platforms (including Apple Music, Amazon and Spotify) has generated some well-deserved attention. “Although ECM’s preferred mediums remain the CD and LP,” the label declared in a press release, “the first priority is that the music should be heard.” Listing several forms of online music piracy, the label argued, “It was important to make the catalog accessible within a framework where copyrights are respected.” In other words, if you can’t beat them, join them on your own terms.

In its nearly fifty years of operation, ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) has managed several remarkable achievements like few if any other independent labels. First, it attained a degree of commercial success, through recordings like Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert and Jan Garbarek’s Officium, that in turn enabled risks on less accessible projects. Second, and understandable for a producer like Eicher who cut his teeth as a recording assistant for the iconic Deutsche Grammophon label, ECM engendered a crossover between the genres of broadly improvised and composed music that succeeded in ways Gunther Schuller’s “Third Stream” approach could have only imagined. Third, it forged its unique aesthetic and approach to artist selection and recording methods that together yielded a characteristic “ECM sound” definitional in many ways to both an historical period and an ongoing style of music.

It’s also crucially important to recall how dire the straits were for jazz in the 1970s when ECM embarked upon these achievements–jazz in general, but avant-garde jazz particularly. Blue Note made a few mid-1960s ventures into the avant garde, like Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, but otherwise hewed closely to a hard-bop tradition central to the Ken Burns view of jazz history. With the deaths of John Coltrane and Albert Ayler, the Impulse label struggled with flagging sales and failed efforts in quadrophonic LP releases. Most of the avant garde survived either in a DIY mode of performance and recording or else took to academia.

Thus in the early 1970s, while the trademark ECM sound and graphic design style were still emerging and shaping themselves, the label served as a significant forum for some of the most important avant-garde artists of the moment and beyond. So here are my selections of seven noteworthy ECM releases from the label’s first three years (only two of which also appears in the list of “21 essential albums” put together by the New York Times), including some undisputed classics as well as some overlooked or even forgotten recordings that deserve attention.

Marion Brown, Afternoon of a Georgia Faun (ECM 1004, 1970)

Brown is arguably the most criminally neglected saxophonist of his generation. Like his predecessor Ornette Coleman, Brown’s approach to the alto sax was both firey and lyrical, with a tone and harmonic sense steeped in the southern blues. An alumnus of Coltrane’s Ascension session, Brown went on to record and release leader dates with Impulse and ESP-Disk, then emigrated to Europe like so many of his compatriots in the late 1960s, returned to the States, reentered academia and ultimately took up painting. His back catalog of over 30 recordings as a leader or co-leader remains almost entirely out-of-print, many of which never even made it to CD.

Afternoon is not only unique in Brown’s catalog but is perhaps unique among the entirety of jazz recordings. I was certainly among those somewhat disappointed upon giving it a first listen years ago, largely because the roster of all-star performers–including Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Andrew Cyrille and Jeanne Lee–never seems to rise to the occasion. Many otherwise unknown names were included among the performers as well, and this was partly the point: Brown’s approach here is to treat large ensemble, broadly-structured collective improvisation as something akin to a regional folk music.

In the album’s liner notes, Brown describes the title piece on side one as “a tone poem [that] depicts nature and the environment in Atlanta,” and thus its nod to Claude Debussy should not go unnoticed. “Djinji’s Corner” on side two, as David Grundy explains in his thoughtful commentary, “adapts a practice from Ghanaian music, in which a core of skilled musicians is supplemented by community members with lesser ability.” The overall effect is, again, quite unique in the literature of recorded “experimental jazz,” as Grundy explains:

Brown’s music is very much preoccupied with feelings, and moods–all those subjective qualities which at once account for music’s sensual and unique power, and risk reducing it to something ephemeral and purely subjective–but it is preoccupied with these in a thoughtful way, as part of a theoretical, intellectual consideration that encompasses the social and the spiritual in a fairly direct manner.

Music Improvisation Company, ST (ECM 1005, 1970)

This group remains a real watershed in the history of British experimental improvised music. In July 1969, as Ben Watson explains in his book Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation, Bailey was joined by Hugh Davies, Evan Parker, and Jamie Muir for a broadcast on BBC Radio 3, under the group name “The London Instrumental and Electronic Improvising Group.” (The performance was eventually released in 1975 on Incus Records run jointly by Bailey, Parker and percussionist Tony Oxley).

A year later, after a second (June 1970) BBC 3 radio session, the four were joined by vocalist Christine Jeffery to record for ECM (late August 1970), and the results remain today as a singular entry in the ECM catalog. While Bailey and Parker had cut their teeth in London’s 1960s improvised music scene, Davies and Muir had backgrounds in the visual arts, bringing together a unique collective sensibility. Bailey’s mature instrumental style and approach, focusing on what might be thought of as a rejection of nearly all traditional or conventional means of sound production on the guitar, were already formed by this point. Meanwhile Parker took a parallel approach to saxophones, deploying an arsenal of extended techniques that, as the 1970s progressed, he would selectively hone and augment to forge his highly original and celebrated style.

One crucial technique Parker had yet to develop at this point, however, was circular breathing, which he has since attributed to his time with MIC and the need he felt to compliment the sustained sounds Davies was producing in these group sessions. An electro-acoustic instrument builder, Davies played organ on the first BBC session but abandoned it for the ECM date to focus on electronics and live sound processing. Completing the mix for this session were percussion from Jamie Muir, who went on to a brief live performing stint with King Crimson (during the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic years), and Christine Jeffery, whose incredibly expressive range of vocals blends seamlessly with the other sounds generated in the group.

Part of what’s enjoyable about this kind of music are the moments where it’s unclear who or what is making a given sound. This is especially difficult to do with vocals, and Jeffery deserves special praise in this regard. There are, to be sure, extended moments of the quiet or near-silence characteristic of the later ECM sound, but again Ben Watson aptly summarizes why this is such an engaging recording and unique in the ECM catalog: “Everything the Music Improvisation Company play refuses the ‘gorgeousness’ offered by electronics–echo, automatic harmony, constant shimmer–instead foregrounding manual intervention, human decisiveness, collective activity, repartee.”

It’s also well worth noting that while the group was short-lived, it does mark the beginning of the evolving cast of players Bailey would go on to host for live performances and subsequent Incus releases under the abbreviated moniker “Company,” yielding 18 recordings from 1977 to 2001.

Jan Garbarek Quartet, Afric Pepperbird (ECM 1007, 1970)

Before he came to typify the “icy,” “ethereal,” or even “Nordic” ECM sound, Garbarek was a firey player whose solos often went into the tonal extremes of precursors like Pharoah Sanders and Gato Barbieri. At the age of 20, Garbarek cut Til Vigdis, his debut record for the Norwegian Jazzforbund label, which featured a side-long cover of “Mr. J. C.,” a perhaps deliberate misreading of Coltrane’s tune “Mr. P. C.” Live recordings from that time also display Garbarek’s group covering the Pharoah Sanders compositions “Upper Egypt” and “Capricorn Rising.”

Recorded a year after but appearing a year before the George Russell Presents The Esoteric Circle session was released on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label, Afric Pepperbird is thus the quasi-official debut of the Garbarek Quartet–with Terje Rypdal on guitar, Arlid Andersen on bass and Jon Christiensen on drums. It’s certainly a lineup that would become a Scandinavian super-group in relatively short order, featuring what would also soon become permanent members of the ECM artist family.

Stylistically though, while Garbarek would exhibit some extreme playing in his early days, he couldn’t be mistaken for a card-carrying “extremist.” Pepperbird’s A-side concluding centerpiece, “Beast of Kommodo,” is a perfect example of late-1960s, modal free improvisation, with Andersen’s 9-count bass line and Rypdal’s two-chord vamping setting the harmonic palette. Garbarek enters with some gentle, long tones in the upper-middle register of the tenor; in the tune’s first three minutes he only breaks into altissimos and polyphonics briefly, and much of the rest of his soloing is reasonably with the tune’s harmonic parameters.

Pepperbird is well worth the listen, alone and in the context of his other early ECM releases under solo or joint leadership: Sart, Triptykon, Witchi-Tai-To and Dansere.

Robin Kenyatta, Girl From Martinique (ECM 1008, 1970)

Early in his career, alto saxophonist and flautist Kenyatta earned some important credits in his avant-garde pedigree, including recording sessions with the Jazz Composer’s Orchestra, Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Roswell Rudd and Alan Silva. He then flirted, like many of his peers, with more mainstream recordings in the 1970s, including a series of leader dates for Atlantic Records.

Girl From Martinique is Kenyatta’s one and only ECM release, a quartet session that includes the little-known Fred Braceful on drums (a friend of Eicher who, according to Evan Parker, facilitated the Music Improvisation Company session discussed above), Arlid Andersen again on bass, and German fusion keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner, who contributes some extensive workouts on the clavinet. Built by the German Hohner company (also famous for harmonicas), the clavinet was an electrified clavichord that Sun Ra pioneered early on. On a medium-tempo ballad like “We’ll Be So Happy,” for example, the interplay of flute and clavinet within a traditional quartet format is delightful and, to my ears, completely unique.

Circle, Paris Concert (ECM 1018/19, 1972)

Circle was not merely an avant-garde supergroup, but it also marks the return of Anthony Braxton to the world of performing and recording, without which he might have well continued that short period, after his time in Paris and upon his return to New York in early 1970, when he had given up on music and made his living hustling games of chess in Washington Square Park.

Although Braxton was a late addition to an already existing trio–Chick Corea on piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Barry Altschul on percussion, documented on an ECM recording from 1971–it’s useful to consider this group in the long history of Braxton’s quartets, in which he performed and recorded some of his most important work. One would have to begin charting this history with his two recordings for BYG/Actuel, which featured Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall–and only imagine what that quartet would have achieved had it been able to continue.

Still, this was clearly a group effort, with songwriting credits distributed fairly evenly (or tipped slightly in Holland’s favor), along with the inclusion of two standards: Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and the venerable “There is No Greater Love,” which co-author Isham Jones turned over to Woody Herman in 1936 and was covered as recently as 2003 by Amy Winehouse. And while arguably more experimental Circle ventures exist on other recordings, particularly on the two double-LPs Blue Note released a few years later under Corea’s name, Paris Concert remains the group’s definitive document before artistic differences (Corea found a more conventionally expressive group in Return to Forever) contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Paul Bley, Open, To Love (ECM 1023, 1973)

Not simply one of Bley’s best recordings in an extensive catalog of over 100 recordings as a leader (and another 100 as a sideman or co-leader), Open, To Love is perhaps one of the greatest solo piano recordings in any genre. It’s also worth nothing that by this time Bley had already released several recordings featuring his work on synthesizer. Nevertheless, Bley was always unique among his avant-garde piano contemporaries. Having come through the school of hard bop, he never embraced the pyrotechnics, virtuosity or athleticism that could aptly describe pianists as different as Keith Jarrett and Cecil Taylor. Instead he worked a lot with sustain, tone and touch, allowing melodic lines and even single notes to hang in the air and overlap each other, and thus making him a quintessential ECM artist. In this regard his nearest ancestor in the jazz tradition might be Thelonious Monk, with whom he also shares an interest in dissonant intervals while otherwise having a rather different approach to melody.

In an equally characteristic approach to song selection and repertoire, Bley here includes only two of his own pieces: of the remaining five compositions, three are by his ex-wife Carla Bley, and two are by his soon-to-be ex-wife Annette Peacock. Hardly unique among his recordings in this regard, and to give just one example, he performed Carla Bley’s hauntingly beautiful “Ida Lupino” on no less than ten different recordings between 1964 and 1995. One might see this as an obsessive inability to let go of the past, but I prefer to take it as a sign of acknowledgement and generosity: these are wonderful compositions that deserve every airing they can get.

Dave Holland Quartet, Conference Of The Birds (ECM 1027, 1973)

Not routinely considered an avant-gardist, Holland of course has the virtuosity to excel in any musical context. Yet his one-off quartet project can be viewed through two different lenses: as a revamped Circle, with Sam Rivers replacing Chick Corea in the original lineup; or as a Sam Rivers Trio augmented by the inclusion of Anthony Braxton.

This latter view has more staying power: at the start of the 1970s, with his Blue Note recordings and some extensive touring with Cecil Taylor behind him, Rivers began to use the trio format as one of his preferred vehicles. Rivers initially worked through a variety of rhythm sections, until this recording brought Holland and Altschul firmly into the orbit to form his regular working trio by 1974. So memorable was this trio that Pi Recordings released a live two-disc 2007 reunion concert in 2012.

The opening moments of the lead track, “Four Winds,” make it obvious why Rivers stayed with this rhythm section: Holland and Altschul swing like mad, and especially at a blistering tempo. Like Braxton’s “Composition 23B” that opens his New York, Fall 1974 album, the free-bop of “Four Winds” shows how, contrary to its reputation for being too cerebral and serious, avant-garde music can be full of exuberance, delight and just plain fun. Rock critic Robert Christgau even wrote at the time, “the title cut is so exquisite it makes my diaphragm tingle.”

Conference is also noteworthy as the only recorded collaboration between Rivers and Braxton. With ample aesthetic affinities between them despite their clear differences in tone and style, one can only wonder at what could have resulted from further collaborations. Alas, we only have this brief slab or magic, particularly on the title track where, after an opening solo from Holland, Rivers and Braxton both state the theme on flute (an axe Braxton kept in his arsenal far less frequently than Rivers), with Braxton quickly moving to soprano saxophone and Altschul finishing the track on marimba.

— Tom Orange