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ECM musicians reveal what it's like to work with Manfred Eicher.

Manfred Eicher, founder of the ECM label, has been standing in the recording studio for nearly 50 years, and the more than 1,500 albums he has produced have brought him together with some of the most influential musicians of his day.  So when Eicher curates his own »Reflektor« festival at the Elbphilharmonie in spring 2020, it would obviously go way beyond the scope of things if he invited everyone he has worked with over the years.

However, some of his longstanding musical partners appear regularly at major concert venues around the world anyway, including the Elbphilharmonie and the Laeiszhalle of course. We took the opportunity to talk to them about their relationship with the exceptional producer from Munich.

Manfred Eicher at the Elbphilharmonie
Manfred Eicher at the Elbphilharmonie © Daniel Dittus

Reflektor Manfred Eicher

In the »Reflektor« series, selected artists are symbolically lent the keys to the Elbphilharmonie. That means: they curate the programme. Manfred Eicher is in charge from 3-6 February 2020.

View the programme

Gidon Kremer

Manfred Eicher introduced ECM's sister label »ECM New Series« in 1984 with a legendary recording of Arvo Pärt's »Tabula Rasa«, and the then 37-year-old Latvian violinist Gidon Kremer played a central role in the album's production. In addition to the title piece, Kremer also recorded Arvo Pärt's »Fratres« for violin and piano. Manfred Eicher chose jazz pianist Keith Jarrett as Kremer's keyboard partner in this piece, making this record one of Jarrett's first accomplished classical outings before he achieved worldwide success five years later with his reading of the Goldberg Variations.

Gidon Kremer in the Grand Hall
Gidon Kremer in the Grand Hall © Daniel Dittus

It's a marvellous experience working with him in the studio. He hears things that even my ears don't always hear – and I have pretty sharp hearing.

Gidon Kremer

The two friends Eicher and Kremer continue to work together, with more than 15 albums featuring Gidon Kremer released on ECM to date. In addition to Arvo Pärt, the violinist has devoted himself chiefly to contemporary composers from Russia and Eastern Europe, such as Sofia Gubaidulina, who lives near Hamburg, Giya Kancheli from Georgia and Russian composer Victor Kissine.

The Eicher/Kremer cooperation has also called for some risk-taking on several occasions. In 2005, for example, Eicher released a lavish recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin on ECM New Series. And it was for ECM that Gidon Kremer chose to record the only album featuring his piano trio, where his partners are the young Georgian Khatia Buniatishvili and the cellist Giedre Dirvanauskaite.

Carla Bley
Carla Bley © Peter Purgar

Carla Bley Trio

Although jazz pianist Carla Bley did not make her official ECM debut until 2013, in the shape of her trio album, her connection with Manfred Eicher and his label goes back over 40 years. Carla has always released her music on her own label, WATT; but ECM has been the European distributor for her records since the 1970s. And the renowned pianist has been friends with Eicher for just as long – he was »always welcome to sleep on my couch« when he was visiting New York.

The longstanding contact between Bley and Eicher also makes its mark on her current trio line-up, where she is partnered by Steve Swallow on the bass and sax player Andy Sheppard: two jazzmen from separate generations who have previously recorded albums with Manfred Eicher independent of the Carla Bley Trio.

Andy Sheppard at the Laeiszhalle
Andy Sheppard at the Laeiszhalle © Claudia Höhne

I would never do things the way he does. But as I believe he has better taste than me, I did what he told me, and I was really happy with the results.

Carla Bley

Recording together with Manfred is definitely a motivation for a lot of musicians. He gets everyone involved to really focus on the music.

Andy Sheppard

Only recently did Andy Sheppard record a pair of albums under his own name with Manfred Eicher producing, and the saxophonist describes the recording sessions as »very intensive, but incredibly productive«. The two albums, entitled »Movements in Colour« and »Sourrounded by Sea«, were allotted three days each, and Sheppard says that Eicher aims »to capture every single moment with enormous concentration«.

Back in 1969, American bass player Steve Swallow received a request from Manfred Eicher, sent by expensive airmail, asking him to record an album with him; this was before the ECM label was even officially set up. It took another ten years before »Home« was finally recorded. Since then, Swallow has been a regular guest on numerous ECM albums starring, for example, Gary Burton or Carla Bley's ex-husband Paul Bley, and he and Eicher remain soulmates to this day.

Text: Julian Conrad, last updated: 4 Nov 2019

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