On Monday 12th February, ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher was presented with a Royal Academy Of Music Honorary Fellowship, an award bestowed on ‘only 100 distinguished individuals who have rendered signal service to the institution or to the music profession in general’, in the words of the RAOM’s website.
After the ceremony, Eicher joined Royal Academy Deputy Principal and Dean Mark Racz for a rare and illuminating onstage interview, as the ECM label approaches its 50th anniversary in 2019.
The evening was a fascinating insight into the musicianship and philosophical approaches of a great and singular producer. Eicher began by saying that he had always ‘been inspired by the music of London and England’, a statement borne out by the fact that ECM has released work by John Taylor, Iain Ballamy, Kenny Wheeler, Norma Winstone, Django Bates, Evan Parker, John Surman, Kit Downes, Andy Sheppard and many more British artists, some of which were in the audience at the RAOM.
Eicher revealed that – at his mother’s prompting – he began his musical life playing the violin, but moved over to double bass when he heard Paul Chambers’ work with the Miles Davis Quintet. A period of time as a studio player gave him insights into the psychology and intentions of a recording musician, and, when Eicher made the switch to producing, his aim was simply to ‘make the musicians sound better’, and his main role ‘being a good listener – the first listener – and a musical partner’.
He also wanted to capture ‘what we don’t know yet’ and said the main reason he was interested in recording was ‘to be able to experience new things’. Jack DeJohnette once went a step further, calling Eicher ‘more like a film director than a producer’. This statement was echoed by Eicher’s description of ‘constructing’ an album, from sequencing the tracks to mastering. He even said that he pays special attention to the length of gaps between tunes, getting just the ‘right amount of air’.
Eicher discussed the famous ECM sound, saying that it goes way beyond the use of reverb and mic placement – his aim is rather to hear all the overtones of the instruments. A playback of Kenny Wheeler’s gorgeous ‘Angel Song’ perfectly emphasised this aspect – every instrument had its place on the stereo spectrum, and not a note was wasted.
Racz asked Eicher if two days of recording and one day of mixing represented an ideal timescale for capturing a jazz album – Eicher responded that this was sometimes sufficient but that the idea of ‘neutral territory’ was more important, for the musicians to share a space ‘away from home’ where they could totally focus on creativity, whether concert hall, recording studio or church. A playback of Arvo Part’s spectacular ‘Fratres’ featuring Keith Jarrett on piano and Gidon Kremer on violin perfectly emphasised this. Eicher explained that it was the first time the two musicians had met and played together.
Playbacks of Evan Parker’s ‘Poetic Justice’ and Kit Downes’ ‘Seeing Things’ led Eicher to conclude the event with a heartfelt tribute to the late pianist John Taylor, and also to British jazz in general. This was a fascinating evening.