Grammy Award-nominated producer Manfred Eicher has enjoyed some of his biggest successes at the helm of the independent ECM label by going with his instincts as a musician to make recordings other producers would have rejected as commercially unviable.
Eicher, a classically trained bassist who recently garnered his ninth Grammy nomination for classical producer of the year, an award he won in 2002, turned around the fortunes of his fledgling label in 1975 by releasing jazz pianist Keith Jarrett's live spontaneously improvised two-album set, "The Koln Concert," which has sold nearly 4 million copies, making it the best-selling solo album in jazz history.
Two years earlier, Eicher encountered much skepticism when he released the first of Jarrett's live solo recordings, the three-LP "Solo Concerts: Bremen/Lausanne." Eicher recalled that Jarrett's former Columbia Records producer sent him a letter saying it's "impossible to put out a record like that .... who really wants to have it?"
"I said to myself, 'I want to have it,' and this record became a big success," Eicher said.
The record industry may be in decline, but Eicher's musical vision has steered his Munich, Germany-based label on a steady course with more than 1,200 releases offering an eclectic mix of modern jazz, classical music from Gregorian chants to contemporary compositions, and transcultural or genre-bending groups that the German producer brought together himself.
"We consider ourselves not part of the industry, but we do music for the people," said the 70-year-old Eicher, interviewed at his hotel while visiting New York for a recording session. "I don't want to do music that is not speaking to me in a personal way just for the sake of marketing." He says he's looking for musicians who have "developed and created their own music and their own sound."
Eicher applied that approach when he launched ECM's New Series devoted to written music in 1984 with "Tabula Rasa," introducing Estonian composer Arvo Part to a global audience. The special long-term relationship that has made Part the world's most performed contemporary composer is being recognized at the Grammys.
"I did not realize that we are at 30 years of the New Series already, but I'm very pleased that Arvo Part is twice nominated for the Grammy — with 'Adam's Lament' as both best contemporary classical composition and best choral performance," Eicher said.
The four recordings cited for Eicher's nomination reflect the breadth of the New Series, which features both established and lesser known artists performing works spanning the centuries. These include Part's "Adam's Lament"; "String Paths," the first ECM recording dedicated to Bulgarian Dobrinka Tabakova's compositions, also a Grammy nominee for best classical compendium; Beethoven's "Diabelli-Variationen" performed by world-renowned pianist Andras Schiff, and "Canto Oscuro," a recital by pianist Anna Gourari with selections ranging from Bach to contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina.
The New Series is also prominently represented in the recently released six-CD box set "Selected Signs III-VIII," which Eicher intuitively compiled to create "sound environments" for a multimedia exhibition, "ECM — A Cultural Archaeology," at Munich's Haus der Kunst contemporary art museum last winter.
"Each of the six albums takes the listener on a journey through aspects of music on ECM," Eicher said. "The hope really was that the listener would make new musical discoveries, and also hear even familiar music in new ways."
The exhibition traces ECM's history back to 1969 when Eicher borrowed $4,000 to record American pianist Mal Waldron's "Free at Last." He called the label Edition of Contemporary Music and from the start paid meticulous attention to achieving state-of-the-art sound quality.
Eicher chose not to turn "Selected Signs" into a best of ECM collection, omitting its most familiar jazz recordings. Instead, the set includes offerings from European and American jazz improvisers such as trumpeters Tomasz Stanko and Wadada Leo Smith, composed music from Bach and Haydn to Steve Reich and John Taverner, and extensive segments of film music by Russian Andrey Dergatchev and Greek Eleni Karaindrou.
Eicher compares his role to that of an auteur filmmaker like his friend French director Jean-Luc Godard. He's involved in every aspect of record making: choosing the artists, painstakingly supervising the recording session, mixing and editing, and selecting the distinctive photographs and abstract paintings that have made ECM covers the theme of art exhibitions.
"A good producer should be able to have his own imprint in a production but not stand in front of the music," Eicher said. "You have to serve the music and make sure that the technology is not overwhelming the musical progress."
Like other ECM artists, Jarrett has no long-term contract, only a handshake agreement that has lasted since 1971 when he recorded the studio solo piano album, "Facing You."
"It's like having a friend who is in charge of putting out your work," Jarrett said. "It's all about the music. ... There's no other producer I could have worked with and had as much done. My life would not have been the same."
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