In my case, rather than taking the music itself as a basis, I curated selections from (mostly) the first 300 releases that dovetailed with my time on the label and my interactions with ECM’s artists and employees.
If the tone of the writing is adorably naïve, well, Minnesota is a provincial place. When Charles Lloyd comes through town we all turn out and try to meet the musicians in the band and get our CDs autographed, Sharpies in hand. I remain a fan of the label, I do occasional recordings for the company, and in the process I sometimes get to encounter ECM’s musicians and employees as fellow travelers.
Here’s what I wrote to go with the playlist.
My ECM: STibbetts
(From “Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM”) Many call, but few are chosen. Wisconsin-born and Minnesota-based guitarist Steve Tibbetts is one of about three musicians who arrived at ECM by the time-honored route of sending material to the label. A copy of his privately pressed album Yr attracted attention in 1980 and led to an invitation to record, and Tibbetts and percussionist Marc Anderson left US soil for the first time and headed for Oslo.
At different times, Tibbetts’s music has appeared to be close to diverse idioms and sub-genres, from minimal and ambient music to world folklore and alternate rock. But, like so many of the label’s veterans, he goes his own way.
Act 1: The Purchase
It did. Thus began my life as an ECM devotee. Six years later I found myself in Oslo, Norway, eating a goat cheese sandwich across from Manfred Eicher, founder of the label, during our breaks from recording Northern Song. I wanted to talk about the stories behind the ECM catalog. I peppered him with questions. Why were there two different back covers to Bill Connors’ first album? “You noticed that?” said Manfred, incredulously. (I’d already worn out one copy of the album and given two away). I asked him about the Talent Studio recording of Egberto Gismonti’s first album Dança Das Cabeças. Manfred said, “Yes, getting off the airplane Nana and Egberto said, ‘It’s too cold here in Oslo to play, too cold, too cold!” Manfred rubbed his hands together. “Too cold! But the next day we went to the studio and started recording. We recorded and mixed the album in two days. Incredible. Incredible.”
The label and the people who work there shaped my aesthetic in many ways: high production values, detailed recording, and a marketing sensibility shaped by intelligence and dignity. Of course, you can’t talk about the aesthetic of the label without talking about Manfred Eicher, so I won’t, except to say anyone who’s worked in any capacity with the label knows these three thoughts all too well: 1. Manfred will really like this thing. 2. Manfred will not like this thing. 3. Why do I care if Manfred likes this or not?
Thus, my musical consciousness has been slowly warped over the years by the label’s artists, its founder, and its employees.
Saluzzi Manfred called from his office and said, “Come here, listen. Listen to this.” I went in, sat down, and we listened to a test pressing of “Kultrum.” It’s rare to sit and just listen to music, rarer still to sit and listen to an entire album with its producer. Years later I went to see Dino play at the Fine Line Music Café in Minneapolis when he was on tour with Al Di Meola. I introduced myself by handing him a copy of my most recent album and a CD of “Kultrum” for him to sign. Dino didn’t speak much English. He smiled, put both his hands over his heart, and bowed slightly.