Field Studies: Manfred Eicher, Founder of ECM Records, Picks His Top Five Blue Note Albums

Oct 16, 2020

Manfred Eicher is the founder and producer at ECM Records, but the word that best describes his role at the label might be “auteur.”

For more than 50 years, Eicher has provided the vision and direction for the label, while often obsessing no less over the particulars of a given recording session. And if invoking auteur theory feels like a stretch, consider that Eicher himself has often compared albums to cinema — an inclination that manifests in both the “ECM sound” (famously, at once reverberant and pristine) and the visual aesthetic of the label’s cover art (iconic enough to be subject to parody).

As many have noted, the closest parallel to Eicher’s achievement at ECM is that of Alfred Lion at Blue Note, from its start in 1939 up until his retirement in 1967. Eicher holds Lion’s example in high esteem, and he has a relationship with many of the albums in the Blue Note catalog.

So when the Australian music website ZoneOut asked him to name his five favorite Blue Note albums, he had no problem providing thoughtful answers — just as current Blue Note president Don Was selected his Top Five ECM Albums. (A disclaimer: ZoneOut is owned by Universal Music Australia. WBGO is republishing the list with permission, and received no compensation for doing so.) 

Last year, Jazz Night in America celebrated ECM’s 50th anniversary with help from the Big Ears Festival — and we were aware at every turn that we were really just scratching the surface. The same feels true of Eicher’s bouquet of Blue Note albums below, though he provides astute insights on every single pick.

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Ornette Coleman, The Empty Foxhole (1966)

Ornette’s Atlantic albums were so striking that they still overshadow other Coleman discs from the 1960s — including Blue Note’s live recordings from Stockholm’s Golden Circle, and this studio date from 1966. It has Ornette on alto sax, trumpet and violin, Charlie Haden on bass and 10-year-old Denardo Coleman on drums.  It’s a recording that effectively elevates feeling above technique, and it has a purity and a naïve freshness that endures somehow, vibrant as folk art.  Some great tunes here too, including “Zig Zag” and especially “Faithful.”  We introduced the Marcin Wasilewski Trio to this album; they subsequently made “Faithful” the title track of one of their own recordings.

Purchase at Amazon, or stream on YouTube

Anthony Williams, Spring (1966)

An impressive band on Tony Williams’ second Blue Note album, recorded in 1965, with Sam Rivers and Wayne Shorter on saxophones, Herbie Hancock on piano and Gary Peacock on bass. Among other admirable qualities, this album provides one of the best early instances of Peacock’s innovative approach, and you can hear him much better than on Albert Ayler’s ESP-Disk albums released around the same time. In this well-crafted music, Gary is a lead voice from the first moment, interacting with the saxophones, as well as with Williams’ fanatically detailed brushwork.

Purchase at the Blue Note Store, or stream on YouTube

Chick Corea, The Song of Singing (1971)

Featuring the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul, this was recorded in 1970, about six months before ECM’s A.R.C. album. Chick was on fire, creatively, in this period, expanding his artistic reach in many directions. And of course, Dave and Barry were a wonderful combination, too. The three of them were about to be joined by Anthony Braxton to form the great but short-lived band Circle and record Paris Concert.

Purchase or stream here

Don Cherry, Complete Communion (1966)

It’s hard to choose between Complete Communion, Symphony for Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn? Recorded within the space of a year in 1965 and ‘66, the albums form a trilogy. At the start of the cycle Gato Barbieri is the tenor player, at the end it’s Pharoah Sanders, and on the middle album it’s both of them. Complete Communion lays out the basic concept. Don’s lyricism and sense of space, and his open ear to the sounds of the world, and Ed Blackwell’s dancing rhythms are the keys to everything. The musical evolution from here to El Corazón and Old and New Dreams is not quite straightforward but poetically logical.

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Pete La Roca, Basra (1965)

I had loved the combination of drummer Pete La Roca and bassist Steve Swallow on Paul Bley’s Footloose (1963), and on Basra (1965) Pete and Steve reunited to explore more outgoing music, joined by the ever-inspiring Steve Kuhn on piano and Joe Henderson on tenor.  Among the many Blue Notes with Henderson, this one stands out for its spirit and energy. La Roca disappeared from the scene for a long time to study and then practice law. After his return, he played with John Abercrombie and there was talk for a while about a recording project with Pete, John, and Kenny Wheeler – which remained unrealized, unfortunately.

Purchase at the Blue Note Store

Also see: Don Was, President of Blue Note Records, Picks His Top Five ECM Albums