I grew up listening to jazz from the 1930s and ’40s, thanks to my father’s LP collection and his devotion to the big-band dance music featured every Saturday evening on Ottawa’s CFMO-FM. When I finally found a friend who liked jazz, he played me Charlie Parker recordings from the early ’50s. Looking back, by the time I turned 16, in 1970, the closest I’d come to experiencing contemporary improvised music was a recording called Two of a Mind, a set of duets created by saxophonists Paul Desmond and Gerry Mulligan in 1962.
Living in a part of Canada dominated at the time by people of Anglo-Saxon stock, I didn’t hear a lot of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Herbie Hancock in my social circle.
So it was a revelation when I discovered a series of nightly jazz radio programs on the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster. Some nights, the music was stuff my father would’ve liked, but a couple of hosts featured current recordings. My world changed.
Within a couple of nights of listening to contemporary music by artists like Davis, Chick Corea, and Wayne Shorter, I could hear the link between artists my father loved—Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Artie Shaw prominent among them—and contemporary artists like Parker, Desmond, and Mulligan. I thought this was something everyone recognized. Imagine my surprise at the odd look my high school music teacher gave me when I told him I heard the whole sweep of jazz history as a continuum. He was about to school me in jazz prejudice, but he was also about to plant the idea of a future in my head.
“Most people don’t listen to the Dorsey brothers and Ornette Coleman back-to-back,” he told me.
Their loss, I thought.
The most exciting music I heard in those late-night jazz listening sessions on CBC Radio all seemed to come from one label: ECM Records. Bit by bit, I learned ECM was an independent label based in West Germany, run since 1969 by a former bassist named Manfred Eicher. Very quickly, the list I kept of musicians I needed to check out began to grow: Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal, Ralph Towner, and above all, Keith Jarrett. Even more interestingly, those early ECM artists led me to other artists and an entire galaxy of compelling music I wanted—no, needed—to explore.
In a rare interview in 2008, the notoriously media-shy Eicher told me that his approach to recording during ECM’s first 15 years was heavily influenced by his love for Davis’s Kind of Blue and the Riverside Records recordings pianist Bill Evans made between 1959 and 1964. Much has been made of the so-called ECM sound, a term often used to describe a dry soundstage with noticeable reverb and an overall feeling of spaciousness. When we spoke, Eicher insisted that his favored sound engineers—including Jan Erik Kongshaug, Martin Wieland, and James Farber—“never step in the same river twice.”
“There is no ‘standard ECM production,’” he insisted. “The sessions are as different as the people participating in them.”
That much is indisputable. But what’s evident in those early recordings is the care Eicher, as producer, applied. If ECM’s recordings from the first 15 years sound similar, it’s in the way they consistently stand above the majority of the jazz recordings of that era.
When I interviewed him, Eicher also stood apart in his refusal to fully embrace digital technology. He sidestepped the digital-versus-analog debate, deferring to the technical knowledge of his engineers, but his dislike for what CDs and streaming have enabled was evident. He preferred LPs and was particularly enamored by the 12″ × 12″ format and its capacity to hold high-quality conceptual graphics without encasing them in “layers of plastic.”
Fifteen years ago, Eicher told me he longed for the day when ECM could address what he recognized as a “niche” by issuing the label’s catalog on vinyl. “There is a clear dividing line between what works in analog format and what works in digital,” he said.
Eicher’s viewpoint has finally reached critical mass, and ECM is reissuing some of the label’s most popular early recordings as part of a new deluxe vinyl series called Luminessence.
Among the first of these reissues are two of my favorites from the label’s early years: Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s Gnu High (ECM 1069), recorded with a stellar quartet in 1975, and the eponymous album by Old and New Dreams (ECM 1154), a quartet featuring trumpeter Don Cherry, saxophonist Dewey Redman, bassist Charlie Haden, and drummer Ed Blackwell. It was recorded in 1979.
Recorded by veteran engineer Tony May at New York City’s Generation Sound, Gnu High was Wheeler’s fourth album and his ECM debut. As the trumpeter told me years later, he viewed the inclusion of his all-star bandmates—pianist Keith Jarrett, bassist Dave Holland, and drummer Jack DeJohnette—as a mixed blessing. Even three decades after its release, jazz festival bookers were still reluctant to pay him a headliner fee unless he was accompanied by someone like Holland or DeJohnette.
At least those nearsighted festival promoters couldn’t ask Wheeler to hook up with Jarrett again; among its other virtues, Gnu High offers listeners the final opportunity to hear the pianist perform as a sideman. In fact, calling him a sideman doesn’t begin to encompass his role on Gnu High, and the recording should be required listening for anyone who doubts Jarrett’s ability to subvert his ego in service of someone else’s musical vision.
Old and New Dreams is a more typical ECM release, recorded by Kongshaug at Talent Studio in Oslo. To some fans of Ornette Coleman’s quartet and quintet recordings from the late ’50s and early ’60s, the band represented a return to the sound they loved. By the mid-’70s, Coleman had abandoned acoustic instrumentation in favor of electric guitars and basses. In place of New Orleans native Blackwell, Coleman began using a much freer drummer, Texas native Ronald Shannon Jackson, occasionally pairing him with Coleman’s young son, Denardo. Little did fans know that Coleman saw it all as a continuum. He had attended rehearsals by Old and New Dreams and would eventually record once more with some of its members.
Having these two new heavyweight vinyl releases—along with other old ECM favorites like Gary Burton’s New Quartet, multi-instrumentalist Naná Vasconcelos’s 1980 self-titled debut, and the highly anticipated three-LP live set, Solo Concerts: Bremen Lausanne, by Jarrett—is a great opportunity to dive back into some recordings that cemented the label’s reputation.
Ironically, at least in Canada, ECM’s original LPs from that era were frustratingly noisy. My memory isn’t sharp enough to recall if I exchanged my original Bremen Lausanne set, but I know I returned a couple of others. If my original Jarrett did get exchanged, I found no satisfaction: my existing copy remains annoyingly flawed.
Based on the quality of the two reissues surveyed here, all is forgiven. They sound great.
To reacquaint myself with the joys and depth of these seminal albums, I employed some new bookshelf speakers that engendered almost as much anticipation as the new ECM reissues. Back in October 2021, I reviewed a pair of Focal Alpha 50 Evo studio monitors ($598 per pair, all prices in USD). I loved those speakers so much that I bought a pair for my desk. Now, Focal has released the handsome Vestia N°1 ($1198 per pair). Measuring 15.25″H × 8.6″W × 10.25″D and weighing 15.4 pounds, this is the smallest speaker in the Vestia line. A two-way, bass-reflex design, the Vestia N°1 employs a 6.5″ midrange woofer whose Slatefiber cone is made from recycled carbon, and a 1″ TAM tweeter, which has an inverted dome made from an aluminum-magnesium blend. The speaker is vented front and back.
The manufacturer claims a frequency response of 56Hz–30kHz (±3dB), sensitivity of 89.5dB (2.83V/1m), and nominal impedance of 8 ohms with a 4.5-ohm minimum. Focal recommends amplifiers with 25–120Wpc output into 8 ohms.
I connected the Focals to my NAD D 3045 integrated amplifier, which is rated at 60WPc into 8 or 4 ohms, with AudioQuest Type 5 cables. Completing the sound chain: my Pro-Ject Debut Pro turntable and an NAD PP 2e phono preamplifier.
At 45, Wheeler had already had a long, interesting career behind him when he recorded his first album for the nascent ECM. Born in Toronto in 1930, Wheeler began studying cornet at the age of 12, and attended Canada’s Royal Conservatory of Music for a year in 1950, focusing on composition. In 1952, faced with an inevitable future teaching music at the secondary-school level, he followed the advice of friend (and future DownBeat magazine editor) Gene Lees and took a ship to the UK. Although his emigration had been fueled by the desire to avoid what he saw as a life of drudgery, he wound up working for the British postal system until he found his footing in England’s jazz community.
Eventually, some small gigs came his way, but his breakthrough occurred in 1959, when he was recruited by veteran British bandleader Johnny Dankworth. Working with Dankworth allowed him to develop his composing and arranging skills, but he continued to feel frustrated as an instrumentalist until he stumbled upon London’s Little Theatre Club, a 50-seat venue on St. Martin’s Lane that had become home to the burgeoning musical forays of experimenters like Evan Parker, Howard Riley, Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey. By the mid-’60s, those who gathered there were wrestling with the advancements of American peers like Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, and Albert Ayler. Wheeler loved the freedom and found improvising in the moment therapeutic.
By the mid-’70s, Wheeler was widely recognized as a leading soloist—prized for his ability to combine unexpected harmonic progressions within knotty improvisation and for his gorgeous, slightly acerbic tone. What’s more, Wheeler set himself apart with compositions tinged with melancholy.
All these characteristics are present in abundance on Gnu High, and the trio of compositions provide such rich fodder for Jarrett that at times, it can seem like it’s the pianist’s recording. In fact, it’s a shame that Jarrett’s decision to focus on his own music, combined with Wheeler’s aversion to recording with musicians outside his circle, didn’t permit the two to work together again.
Putting that disappointment aside, Gnu High stands as the high point in Wheeler’s recording career; no mean feat, considering the consistently fascinating music he continued to make until his death in 2014. His playing is exceptional throughout, and in his highly balletic interval leaps and elegantly moving harmonic progressions you can hear the roots of contemporary masters like fellow Canadian Ingrid Jensen, Dave Douglas, and others.
The record’s production is extraordinarily well balanced, with DeJohnette’s crisp cymbal work and Holland’s beautifully defined bass playing sounding exceptionally clear. But, while Holland’s contributions—particularly his solo on “Gnu Suite”—are rich and well textured, the little Vestias could definitely benefit from the addition of a subwoofer to fully realize the potential of Eicher and May’s work.
Needless to say, when I turned to Old and New Dreams, the same issue arose with Haden’s playing, particularly on “Song for the Whales,” in which he mimics the dark tones and high-pitched calls of orcas and other creatures.
But Old and New Dreams covered a broad swath of sonic territory, including Cherry’s tart pocket trumpet and Blackwell’s well-tuned traps. On “Togo,” Blackwell dances lightly across his set, a tribute to the African nation, which was expressing its independence under charismatic leader Gnassingbé Eyadéma at the time. The speakers also displayed their clarity on Redman’s “Orbit of La-Ba,” where he switches to musette, the highest-pitch horn in the oboe family. Heard frequently after Redman joined Jarrett’s band a few years after this album was recorded, the piping, untempered tone of the musette can be divisive among listeners. Here, it stands as a reminder that Old and New Dreams was ahead of the trend toward discovering so-called world music.
Throughout, the small speakers rendered everything with exceptional clarity, but I was still eager to push them a bit harder with a related vinyl recording from the same era: Soapsuds, Soapsuds (Artists House AH9406). Recorded by Kevin Herron at New York City’s Hit Factory, the album features five duets by Coleman and Haden, ample opportunity to hear how the speakers could reproduce the bassist’s rich, resonant tone.
With the NAD’s volume set slightly above the listening level I normally find comfortable, the little speakers held up remarkably well. About what I expected, knowing how well my older Focals handle loud music. Haden’s bass could still sound bigger, true, but clarity was not an issue. Considering Focal recommends using the N°1s in a space smaller than 325 square feet, it’s fair to say they would provide a very solid listening experience, even in larger rooms, especially if you didn’t want to annoy the neighbors with a heftier bass presence.
Focal offers bespoke stands that tilt the Vestia speakers slightly backwards so that their drivers are time-aligned. Finish options include dark or light woodgrain, as well as high-gloss black. The Vestia N°1 is yet another Focal loudspeaker that I can recommend highly.
. . . James Hale