A Shot of the Auteur Label

The Last, Great Trip to KCSB’s Music Library

Santa Barbara offers so many amenities all its own, but when I leave in a couple months, I think I’ll miss one local resource more than anything: KCSB’s music library. This surely doesn’t come as a surprise to readers who’ve followed me on my many textual forays into the station’s filled-to-bursting shelves of jazz, folk, rock, classical, hip-hop, blues, and otherwise. But you can’t find a large chunk of the library’s most sonically fascinating stock filed under one particular genre; you can only find it by keeping an eye out, in any section, for a certain kind of consistently plain yet distinctively striking album spine design. I speak, of course, about the recordings of Editions of Contemporary Music (ECM).

Colin Marshall

I’ve praised ECM in this space before, as has The Indy’s own Josef Woodard in his column, Fringe Beat. In fact, I’ve even urged him to come back to KCSB’s airwaves — yes, he was once a KCSBer — on The Indy’s KCSB show, Poodle Radio, thus bringing this all full circle somehow. But Joe has me beat in the fandom department, having written an essay for the anthology Horizons Touched: The Music of ECM. Not to accuse the label’s majesty of inspiring only one book; its cover images alone have brought about Lars Müller’s Sleeves of Desire and Windfall Light. And let’s not forget Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer’s recent ECM-centered documentary, Sounds and Silence.

What about ECM inspires such enthusiasm, such devotion? I would submit that it all comes down to the strong personality and idiosyncratic sensibility guiding the ship — the presence of an auteur, if you will. Manfred Eicher, musician, producer, Jean-Luc Godard collaborator, and ECM’s founder and helmsman, launched the label as a European jazz-only outfit back in 1969. Over the ensuing decades, its geographic scope widened a little and its stylistic scope widened a lot; in came classical, avant-garde, modern orchestral, early, and even sacred music. Still, something intangible links an ECM recording of a Norwegian saxophonist from 1972, an ECM recording of a Turkish oud player from 1989, and an ECM recording of an Estonian choir from last week, and it’s something beyond Eicher’s formidable Teutonic mien, something beyond that neato sleeve design.

Most of the vinyl in KCSB’s library dates from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, meaning that the station received original pressings of quite a few albums from the late ‘70s/early ‘80s period some ECM-philes consider the label’s golden age. In search of examples, I wedged myself in between the shelves and first pulled out Three Day Moon, a record from San Franciscan bassist Barre Phillips that ECM released in 1978. Rarely brought up as a name in the ECM headline, but undeserving of the obscurity, Phillips joins forces on this album with Terje Rypdal on guitars, Dieter Fiecthner on synthesizers, and Trilok Gurtu on percussion — ECM-like names if there ever were any — to craft just the sort of slightly darkened but always dreamlike soundscapes I expect from the label’s vintage.

Exactly as well known as Phillips isn’t, the Art Ensemble of Chicago rode in on ECM’s flagship. I happened upon their 1980 Urban Bushmen in the stacks, a deluxe double album showcasing the band’s signature layers of trumpet, saxophone, and percussion that make full use of what a sound engineer might call the “dynamic range,” capturable with ECM’s always-advanced recording technology. (Eicher, an audiophile as well as a musicophile, runs perhaps the ultimate audiophile’s label.) Some people think of ECM as a source of “quiet” music, and to any extent, they’re right, but I think of it more as a source of music whose artists know when to take it low — and know even better when to take it high.

But even the ECM artists who sound outwardly mild don’t let the richness of their sound suffer. On his 1979 record Swimming with a Hole in My Body — with, for my money, one of ECM’s better covers ever — Bill Connors, by himself, plays acoustic guitars and nothing else. In this era, you encounter many ECM records by solo players who lay down a sound that, while you could call it “soft” or “relaxing,” you’d be too impressed by the complexity of it all to fall asleep to it.

Despite my countless ECM-listening hours logged, I’d never before heard anything from the Everyman Band. Hence my impulse to pull out their 1982 self-titled debut and get on the turntable as soon as I spotted it. Alas, the young experimental fusion quartet recorded only two albums, both in the 1980s, and both for ECM. Alack, only their second release, Without Warning, remains available for any kind of purchase! I would complain, but I really have to give ECM a break on this one. Having released over 1,200 albums — no, that isn’t a typo — they can’t be expected to keep them all in print, all the time. (But they do a lot of reissues.)

KCSB’s jazz broadcasts over the years have always, sooner or later, given ECM its due. Some focus sharply on the label, while others meander their way to one of its releases every now and again. But my final trip through KCSB’s music library makes me ask the question: what show wouldn’t benefit from a periodic shot of ECM? Certain critics have called the label cold, stark, and austere, but, hey, that sounds refreshing to me — just like a stiff sonic drink.

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