As some of you might have heard, the legendary Munich label ECM finally jumped on the streaming bandwagon. Yes, Manfred, I wholeheartedly agree that the beautiful music your label publishes demands to be listened on CDs and LPs, but these are harder and harder to take on a plane. With iPod Classic not sold anymore and iTunes morphing into Apple Music, music lovers will soon be left with only 3rd party solutions to keep actual music files on their smartphones. So thank you, herr Eicher, for allowing us to stream your whole catalog in 96 kbps Ogg Vorbis Spotify streams. (Did Keith Jarrett sign off on that btw? Nevermind, I know he didn’t. )
The New York Times recently published a list of their 21 “essential” ECM albums, and I agree with many of their picks. But at the end of the day they are just The New York Times, so what would they know? Here are my favorite ECM albums, which you should listen to at once. My list is of course highly subjective, but my taste is known to be notoriously better than NYT’s. In no particular order:
Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous, Roy Haynes—“Trio Music Live In Europe” (1984)
This album, recorder live in Switzerland and published in 1984, captures Chick Corea’s trio with Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous and the legendary Roy Haynes in fantastic shape. Corea’s rhythmic style is perfectly matched by Vitous' virtuosity and Haynes' explosive madness. The album contains great interpretations of standards, as well as compositions written by each musician (notably the fantastic “Mirovisions” which closes the record), but the real gem of “Trio Music Live in Europe” is Corea’s solo piece, which he starts by a heretic interpretation of Scriabin’s Prelude No. 2 (Op. 11), and then transitions into a wild improvisation.
It is, in essence, everything I love about Chick Corea. The untamed energy of rhythm, a complete disregard for the tradition of piano as a classical instrument, and free mixing of musical styles. The man is the Tarantino of jazz piano. ❤️
Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock, Jack DeJohnette—“Standards, Vol. 1” (1983)
Of all the legendary “Standards” albums by Jarrett’s famous “standards trio,” this one remains my favorite. Partly for nostalgic reasons (this was the very first time I heard Jarrett’s piano), partly because it’s perfect in every conceivable way.
Rumor has it that when they recorded the “standards” no one understood why would you release a double album consisting solely of standards. Wasn’t this a bit boring? Turns out it wasn’t, turns out it was a beginning of one of the most famous trios in the history of jazz music. Keith Jarrett Trio, as it’s become known as, was all about subtlety and playful improvisation, building tension and emotions with delicate details, careful articulation and subdued dynamics. Here, in their masterful interpretation of Bobby Troup’s “The Meaning Of The Blues” which opens their first “standards” album, you can hear it all.
If only the pianist kept his mouth shut, right?
Pat Metheny Group—“Offramp” (1982)
Pat Metheny was already cool in 1982. He released “Bright Size Life” with Jaco Pastorius and Bob Moses a couple of years earlier, and the record made him and his bandmates famous in the jazz world. He had a great sound, kinda fusion but somehow more fresh. And he played the guitar—not saxophone, and not trumpet. And he was avant-garde enough to be interesting, but pleasant and easy-to-listen-to enough to become a staple of music libraries of people who don’t really care about music, but want to have “tasteful” albums in their “tasteful”, post-modern homes.
This was the very key to success for his new band—the unimaginatively named Pat Metheny Group—which he formed with Lyle Mays, Steve Rodby, Nana Vasconcelos and Dan Gottlieb. But before Pat Metheny Group became stale and boring, they released a couple of great albums, and my favorite of those is “Offramp.” It’s fantastically played, very eclectic in its musical influences, but most importantly it contains “Are you going with me?”, which might just be the most famous composition of the group.
It’s not only about the amazing sounds of Mays' synthesizers and Metheny’s guitar, but also the expressive improvisation that spans almost 9 minutes without anything that could resemble a theme. It’s a record that really changed the way I think about music. Brad Mehldau says it’s his favorite, too.
Keith Jarrett—“Sun Bear Concerts” (1978) and “Rio” (2011)
6 hours and 35 minutes, that’s how long this album is. Originally released as a 6 CD set costing around €60, can now be yours for €9,99/month, and you can have it in your car and in your pocket—exciting times we live in. But I digress.
This is a mostly unknown set of concerts recorded in Japan in 1978, a couple of years after the famous Köln Concert, which established Jarrett as a solo piano improviser emperor (at least it did for me). There are five concerts here, recorded in Kyoto, Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo and Sapporo, and the 6th CD contains just encores. Here’s one from Sapporo:
As you can hear, the record captures Jarrett’s “rhythmic” and “percussive” phase, reminiscent of his Köln sound, but more… free? (“Free” as in “free jazz”). It’s amazingly good, although I admit I’ve never been able to listen through the whole 6 hours. A challenge for my Christmas roadtrip perhaps?
Anyway, now that we can just click on our laptops browsing through ECM’s entire catalogue, it’s exciting to observe how Jarrett’s solo concert sound and style evolved. There’s the “percussive” phase I mentioned that started the whole “solo piano improvisation for over an hour” thing with Köln concert being the most famous and prominent example of; there’s the “classical” phase which covers Paris and La Scala concerts, and of course the absolute masterpiece which is Vienna concert (1992); and then there are his new concerts, like “The Carnegie Hall Concert”, “Paris/London (Testament)”, and “Rio”.
“Rio”, to me, is a special one, because of how mature an improviser it presents. “Rio” is melodic and playful the way “standards trio” very often is, classical the way his late eighties/early nineties concerts were, and rhythmic just like the first concerts. “Rio” captures Jarrett at his very height of improvisational skill, a virtuoso musician with seemingly infinite imagination. Easily one of my favorite albums ever.
Tomasz Stańko Quartet—“Soul of Things” (2002)
It’s amazing that ECM, being such a prestigious and high-profile label, was always open to artists from, hm, unusual countries, Poland included. ECM helped to promote some of Poland’s greatest names in jazz, and Stańko is definitely the biggest of them all.
I remember I used to hate Stańko’s music, because he felt boring and too mainstream (he was always the “default” jazz musician in Polish media), until I saw him live in Warsaw, and later in Bergen, and later in Munich.
He was once asked by a talk show host in Poland whether he heard that his music is considered perfect music for sex, to which he answered that if that’s true then he considers his work to be done. Well if there’s any album of his that would make for great sex music (wait wat?), it’s the Soul of Things.
Dave Holland Quintet—“Extended Play: Live At Birdland” (2003)
Dave Holland’s “Extended Play” is my go-to record I play to people who say what I claim is jazz doesn’t really sound like jazz. Dave Holland Quintet sounds like jazz. In fact, it sounds like a miniature big band, with Robin Eubank’s trombone ❤️ and Chris Potter’s saxophone, with Steve Nelson’s marimba and vibraphone, and Billy Kilson’s drums. Dave Holland himself doesn’t have to do much here. He plays great, and his compositions are of course awesome, but we’ve heard them before and Holland doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore. However, on “Extended Play” we hear that the new jazz, the kind that went through “free” phase, the kind that abandoned be-bop, hard-bop and post-bop sound, the kind that outgrew fusion, can be very fresh and yet still sound like… jazz.
It’s also my go-to energy-bomb album. Nothing has the energy of “Metamorphos”. Except for Shostakovich’s 11th symphony of course, but that’s too long.