Clearly labelled

Music - Richard Cook celebrates 30 years of Manfred Eicher's ECM Records

Jazz records have often been defined not so much by their players as by their labels. Prestige established the fast-taste blowing session, a bunch of guys jamming on some standards and the blues. Blue Note offered meticulous hard bop, a detailed orthodoxy. Pacific Jazz purveyed sunny, Hawaiian-shirted sessions that sounded like a cool breeze blowing in from the beach. When the independent labels began to die out in the 1960s that tradition seemed to be dissolving with them, but a German bassist, Manfred Eicher, started a company in 1969 that surpassed all others in its creation of an identity. He called it ECM, a mysterious acronym which actually stands for the unremarkable Editions of Contemporary Music.

Thirty years later, it remains the most uncompromised and distinctive entity of its kind. Eicher still goes entirely his own way, beholden to no major corporation and allied with different companies only for the purposes of distribution. Jazz was his original impetus, but his catalogue now boasts a plethora of recordings from numerous other disciplines. Some of his musicians - in particular, the saxophonist Jan Garbarek - have even evolved their way out of jazz altogether under his patronage. ECM has been called a litany of names over the years - dry, donnish, cold and miserable, and those are just the polite ones - but Eicher's achievement remains extraordinary. In an industry that is ruthless about prizing commerce over art, he has taken the reverse position and made it work.

ECM gets its celebratory flourish this month at a festival called "Selected Signs", held in, of all places, Brighton. Its location is explained by the initiative of the festival director Michael Tucker, who teaches at the university and is ECM's most dedicated proselytiser. If the label's most typical feel is a landscape locked in a northern European winter, at least the south coast in November ought to throw up a few grey vistas. The roster of musicians on hand suggests much of Eicher's esperanto: Garbarek, the accordionist Dino Saluzzi, the British free players Evan Parker and Barry Guy, the international freebop of Dave Holland.

When he began the label, Eicher started with a record by the American pianist Mal Waldron, yet quickly followed it with discs by British, German and Norwegian players. Mixing America with Europe was almost unheard of at the time, but it was soon obvious that Eicher didn't want to stop there. He nurtured such young talents as Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny along with senior performers such as Marion Brown and Paul Bley, an eclecticism that any American label of the time would have considered comical. What united these styles and backgrounds was the immense refinement of Eicher's studio sound - usually denoted by a sumptuous use of reverb - and the painstaking presentation, in designs that looked more like the covers of abstract novels than jazz album sleeves.

Keith Jarrett's album The Koln Concert is the disc that has kept Eicher's operation intact. Sales of this unlikely hit - originally four vinyl sides of a single solo-piano concert - are allegedly in the millions, enough to pay for numerous less nourishing projects. As he goes into his fourth decade, though, Eicher seems to be even less willing to take anybody else's shilling. The label has its own dynastic traditions by now, represented by artists such as Garbarek, Jarrett and the guitarist John Abercrombie, who've been there for most of its existence. It has steadily diversified into contemporary composition and Eicher's own sort of world music. Complainers suggest that the ECM formula takes all the blood and breath out of whatever it touches, and there are surely records in the 600-strong catalogue that are little more than immaculate conceptions. But the label still maintains an astonishing strike-rate of excellence. In 1999 alone, I would count at least two ECMs - Abercrombie's Open Land and Bley's Not Two, Not One - in the year's best-of list.

Where other recordings often diminish a live music, Eicher's are distillations, where any excess of anything is simply evaporated. It is a process that inevitably works best on music that has starkness as one of its characteristics, but if you want a simple hard bop or fusion record, there are plenty of other places to go.

"Selected Signs" runs until 27 November and features an exhibition of ECM cover art as well as concerts. Details on 01273 643010

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people