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Field Studies: Don Was, President of Blue Note Records, Picks His Top Five ECM Albums

Mathieu Bitton

When Don Was took the helm at Blue Note Records not quite a decade ago, it looked from the outside like a trusted industry vet moving up from the control room to the board room. That wasn’t the way he saw it, though.

“I always considered the record company the enemy, to be honest with you,” he told me at the time, for a business profile in the New York Times. “In my experience they were people who didn’t do what they said they were going to do.”

A major exception to this bias, Was would be the first to tell you, is Manfred Eicher, the founder of ECM Records, which has maintained an independent ethos and identity for more than half a century. So when the Australian music website ZoneOut asked Was to name his five favorite ECM albums, he happily obliged — just as ECM founder Manfred Eicher weighed in on his Top Five Blue Note Albums. (A disclaimer: ZoneOut is owned by Universal Music Australia. WBGO is republishing these lists with permission, and received no compensation for doing so.) 

“Manfred Eicher is one of my heroes,” Was declares in an accompanying note. “Having run a record company for 10 years now, I appreciate and admire the way he’s maintained a succinct ethos for 50-plus years. Manfred’s a committed visionary with the courage to fight to the death for his aesthetic. The catalog he created at ECM is unparalleled and choosing five albums to single out is an impossible task. Ask tomorrow, you’ll get five different answers.”


Gary Burton / Chick Corea, Crystal Silence (1973)

Having been a fan of both Gary and Chick since their earliest recordings, this outing – the first in a series of wonderful releases by this duo – absolutely blew my mind when it first came out. The telepathy between the two of them is stunning! Crystal Silence sounds as fresh as it did 50 years ago and features some of their finest playing ever.

Purchase at Bandcamp or the ECM Store

Charlie Haden, Jan Garbarek, Egberto Gismonti, Magico (1979)

I loved Charlie Haden – he was a beautiful guy and a soulful and tasteful musician. He shined in this setting and Manfred and Jan Kongshaug got a wonderful sound that captured the fullness of Charlie’s tone. There is so much to be learned from his playing!

Purchase at the ECM Store

Dino Saluzzi, Andina (1988)

Dino Saluzzi is much more than a bandoneon maestro — his songs are little films, and this solo performance tells engaging stories and oozes atmosphere. Great on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Purchase at the ECM Store, or stream on Soundcloud

Art Ensemble of Chicago, Nice Guys (1979)

The AEC cut some beautiful records for ECM. This one is my favorite: it’s an eloquent studio album that captures the exotic essence of the band.

Purchase at the ECM Store

Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, Matthew Garrison, In Movement (2016)

This exquisite release, which features Ravi Coltrane and Matthew Garrison, showcases Jack’s harmonic brilliance along with his rhythmic prowess. Manfred and James Farber really captured the elegance and power in Ravi’s tone. In fact, the whole thing’s a sonic masterpiece.

Purchase at Bandcamp or the ECM Store

Also see: Manfred Eicher, Founder of ECM Records, Picks His Top Five Blue Note Albums

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.