ECM Records  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

ECM (Edition of Contemporary Music) is a record label founded in Munich, Germany, in 1969 by Manfred Eicher. ECM is best known for jazz music, but has released a wide variety of recordings, the artists associated with it often refusing to acknowledge boundaries between genres. ECM's motto is the Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence, a phrase taken from a 1971 review of ECM releases in CODA, a Canadian jazz magazine.

The label has been distributed in the USA by Warner Bros. Records, PolyGram Records, and BMG—and since 1999 by Universal Music, the successor of PolyGram.


The first ECM release was Free at Last in 1969 by American pianist Mal Waldron. For some years the label specialised in jazz, releasing recordings by pianists Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Paul Bley, and Art Lande; saxophonist Jan Garbarek, vibraphonist Gary Burton; drummers Jon Christensen and Paul Motian; guitarists Pat Metheny, John Abercrombie, Ralph Towner, Bill Connors and Terje Rypdal; bassists Eberhard Weber, Charlie Haden and Dave Holland; and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The label's output shares a certain common aesthetic framework, including a crisply nuanced recording sound, repertoire consisting mostly of original compositions by the artists, most of which did not swing in the conventional sense, and often stark and minimalist photographic cover art. Some detractors characterized the sound as cold and the music, and presentation, as Eurocentric. Others have credited the label's early aesthetic approach as a precursor, for better or worse, of the new-age music movement.

There is a clear link between some ECM recordings and so-called world music, especially the folk recordings by Jan Garbarek and the work of Steve Tibbetts and Stephan Micus. Other examples of ECM's world music are records by Codona, Tunisian oud musician Anouar Brahem, Indian violinist L. Shankar, Jon Hassell, and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos.

The ECM New Series was created to document Western classical works—the first of these was the world-premiere recording of Arvo Pärt's “Tabula Rasa.” (ECM 1275/817 764/78118-21275) issued in 1984. it has released work by various composers, from the early (such as Thomas Tallis) to the contemporary (such as John Cage, Elliot Carter, and Steve Reich). Keith Jarrett, better known as a jazz musician, recorded several classical works by Bach, Mozart, Shostakovich, and others for the New Series. Several works by the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard are on the ECM New Series label.

On many releases, the jazz and classical sides of ECM are combined: for example, Garbarek's Officium (1994) features him playing saxophone solos over the Hilliard Ensemble singing Gregorian chant, early polyphony and Renaissance works. Garbarek's work with guitarist Ralph Towner draws on, and is as apparently influenced by, 20th century chamber music as by any overtly jazz-oriented material. John Potter, formerly of the Hilliard Ensemble, has recorded works by John Dowland with jazz saxophonist John Surman and others, and Surman's Proverbs and Songs is a suite of choral settings of Old Testament texts, recorded in Salisbury Cathedral. The label has also released unique works that fit into no obvious genre at all (like the records of composer Meredith Monk).

In 2002 and 2004 ECM released a series of compilation CDs titled :rarum. Twenty of the label's artists were asked to compile a single CD of their work for the label (Garbarek and Jarrett's compilations are double CDs). Artists who contributed to this series are Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, Bill Frisell, Art Ensemble of Chicago, Terje Rypdal, Bobo Stenson, Pat Metheny, Dave Holland, Egberto Gismonti, Jack DeJohnette, John Surman, John Abercrombie, Carla Bley, Paul Motian, Tomasz Stanko, Eberhard Weber, Arild Andersen, Jon Christensen.

Manfred Eicher continues to take an active interest in the music released by the label, acting as producer on most of its recordings. The typical ECM session is just three days—two days to record, one day to mix. Eicher in general dislikes overdubbing. Most of the records have been recorded with Jan Erik Kongshaug (of Talent Studios and later Rainbow Studios) in Oslo, Norway, as sound engineer. All ECM releases display a SPARS code, denoting the type of recording technology used, even though it has fallen out of favor in the recording industry.


The label is world-renowned for the design of its album covers. This has been profiled in two books thus far, Sleeves of Desire and Windfall Light, both edited by Lars Müller. It is interesting to note that while newer CD releases frequently use o-sleeves that cover the traditional jewel box, the inlay cards never use two-sided printing or clear trays.

Selected recordings

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