I’m old enough to remember that, in the 1970s, the Munich-based label Edition of Contemporary Music (ECM) was notable for both the quality of its recordings and how quiet its vinyl pressings were. The label’s earliest LPs released in the US were pressed in Germany, but in 1978 ECM signed a US-distribution agreement with Warner Bros., and those records were pressed at plants in the US and Canada. While some collectors and audiophiles give the German pressings a slight edge, ECM’s North American pressings were still of good quality, and the label’s recordings set a high standard. At some point, PolyGram took over US distribution, after which pressing quality varied.
ECM returned to vinyl in 2009, issuing new recordings on both CD and 180-gram LPs, and reissuing titles from its back catalog on LP. (You’ll find some of those titles by going to this link and clicking on “Sort/Format/LP.”) ECM says that for the recordings reviewed here, “In all three cases original analog LP masters were used, with no digital steps in between (so AAA).” The LPs are stamped at Pallas, in Germany, one of the finest pressing plants in world. I compared several recent reissues of older ECM recordings that I own in earlier vinyl editions and on CD.
One of the earliest releases in this group is Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (1972), his third outing for ECM, following the two volumes of his Piano Improvisations. This time he was joined by Flora Purim on vocals and percussion, Joe Farrell on reeds, Stanley Clarke on bass, and Purim’s husband, Airto Moreira, on drums and percussion. Corea took the title of the LP as the name for this group, which the following year recorded another album, Light as a Feather, for Polydor. Later in the decade, Corea used the name for his highly popular, more frenetic fusion band.
I compared the new pressing of Return to Forever (ECM 1022 ST) with a Japanese CD from 2004. This music has more dynamic range than did later editions of this band, with shifts of volume and tempo used to great effect. The title tune begins with Corea playing quiet arpeggios on electric piano. On vinyl, the e-piano has a fuller, more bell-like sound. When Purim’s voice enters, it’s more forward in the mix -- when Farrell plays flute with her, the two sounds are more clearly separated.
This quiet intro segues into a louder section, and on vinyl the drums have more power and the dynamics are more dramatic than on CD. Purim’s voice is again out in front, and Farrell’s flute solo has more conviction. It’s also easier to hear Moreira’s drum accents, and his ride cymbal sounds sharper and more immediate. When the music again quiets, the difference in volume is more audible and satisfying on LP.
Corea would return to “Crystal Silence” the next year on a duet album of that title with vibraphonist Gary Burton. For this first recording of the tune, his electric piano announces the theme; on vinyl the notes vibrate with an inner glow, Farrell’s soprano sax sounds more full and three-dimensional, and I found it easier to pinpoint both instruments on the stage and thus visualize them in my listening room. Moreira’s percussion -- bells, woodblocks, other sounds -- rings out more impressively, whereas on CD it seems to be flattened out. Stanley Clarke’s bowed bass lines sound grittier, with a rounder tone, on LP.
Purim’s charming Portuguese accent gives a lift to Neville Potter’s lyrics to “What Game Shall We Play Today” and “Sometime Ago -- La Fiesta.” The former closes side 1 and is the briefest track on the LP, but “Sometime Ago -- La Fiesta” runs more than 23 minutes and takes up all of side 2. On vinyl, the elements that help sustain interest in so long a track are brought out more fully: The music feels larger, Moreira’s percussion is brighter and thus more ear-catching, and Clarke’s double bass is better defined, with stronger attacks -- I can hear the strings vibrating against the fingerboard. In the early minutes of the piece, Moreira’s percussion is behind Corea and Clarke but still clearly audible; on the 2004 CD, his contribution is flattened out. About five minutes in, Farrell joins in on flute and Clarke bows his bass. Moreira emphasizes the change in dynamics with cymbal splashes. Again, what sounds reserved on CD is fleshed out and three-dimensional on LP, especially about eight minutes in, when the band plays the Latin-flavored melody and Purim begins to sing. Her voice is out in the room, the instrumentalists arrayed behind her, giving the music more space to open up in.
“Sometime Ago -- La Fiesta” has a wonderfully developed flute solo from Farrell, sizzling and fiery drums from Moreira, and fluid, rhythmically sharp playing from Clarke. Moreira’s Brazilian percussion, which becomes key to the performance as it develops, rings out more convincingly on LP and sustains longer. Farrell switches to soprano sax, and the instrument’s tonal character is much easier to hear on vinyl. Throughout, the small details that make the music on Return to Forever so impressive -- Moreira’s deft touch with dynamics, Clarke’s resolute, driving playing, and Corea’s exquisite feel for melody -- jump out and come alive.
In January 1975, pianist Keith Jarrett had already released an impressive list of recordings as a leader, including several for ECM, when he appeared at the Köln Opera to record a solo concert. The conditions for playing were not ideal. The piano was substandard, and Jarrett was having back problems. But he turned adversity into sublime improvised music, and the result is still, more than 40 years later, ECM’s and Jarrett’s most popular recording.
I have an early German vinyl pressing of The Köln Concert on two LPs (ECM 1064/65), as well as a CD from the late 1990s. The four tracks are titled Part I, Part II a, Part II b, and Part II c. Part I, the first half of the concert, takes up side 1 of the first LP; Part II is divided across the remaining three sides.
The CD has a warm, clean sound, but when I switched to the early German pressing, it was easier to visualize the dimensions of the piano. I felt that each note sounded more lifelike, with a bigger sound more layered with harmonics. In addition, I could hear occasional rustlings from the audience, and such small details as Jarrett shifting his position on the piano bench and depressing the instrument’s pedals. Those qualities are even more pronounced on the new vinyl -- perhaps because my copy hasn’t yet been played dozens of times, perhaps because the new pressing is superior, or maybe both.
For whatever reason, the sound on the new vinyl is more realistic and fully realized than on the old. Both LP versions sound more vibrant than the CD, but the new vinyl is especially effective at conveying the dimensions of the 1300-seat hall in which this music was created. When Jarrett pauses on a note or chord, I can hear it reverberate off the walls in a way that seems to place me among the audience. Jarrett’s long lines and flurries of notes have more time to ring out luxuriously and blend into each other to create more harmonic complexity.
A few minutes into Part I, Jarrett uses one of the pedals as a percussion instrument, and the sound has more heft on this pressing. A little later he attacks the keyboard with more force, then plays more quietly; the new vinyl gives a better picture of his use of dynamics to create a musical narrative. A rollicking gospel section sounds even more joyous on the new vinyl, the notes rolling out more effortlessly than on CD, and more clearly than on the earlier vinyl.
Part II begins with Jarrett playing a single-chord vamp against a happy melody that bounces along without becoming syrupy. On the new pressing, the notes of the melody roll out fully, and the piano resonates more convincingly than on the earlier LP, which now sounds somewhat reserved. The piano sounds flatter on CD, and the notes don’t sustain as long, which robs them of the tonal excitement audible from either LP. I also noticed that when Jarrett grunts or sings while playing, it’s easier to hear on the newer pressing.
When Jarrett shifts abruptly to a more contemplative improvisation, he goes from a single-note vamp in the left hand into a long series of rich chords. On the new vinyl it’s easier to hear the individual notes comprising each chord, and the melody lines are more focused, with a better-defined high end. A shift to a softer passage has a stronger impact because the vinyl conveys the shift in dynamic range more forcefully, and a later crescendo of Chopin-like intensity is more dramatic.
On CD, the segue from Part II a to Part II b is seamless, whereas with vinyl I have to swap out LP 1 for LP 2. While the music’s uninterrupted flow is of course more natural on CD, both LPs are better in every other way, especially the new pressing. Notes sound more natural and the music is more engaging; I feel closer to Jarrett’s piano, and can hear more nuances of the music.
Side 4 is devoted to Jarrett’s encore, which lasts less than seven minutes but brings the concert to a satisfying close. Jarret begins with harmonically simple chord changes, then builds atop them beautifully engaging melodies. The new pressing lets the chords ring out longer, so that melody lines can interact with them. The strength of Jarrett’s attacks in loud passages now has greater impact, and when he plays more quietly I can better appreciate how he was working to control a less-than-ideal piano.
The Köln Concert has a reputation in some quarters for being the kind of mood music that led to new age recordings. But its emotional and musical integrity, and the intensity of Jarrett’s musical invention, make it worth returning to -- it continues to repay attentive listening. Even if you have an earlier pressing, I suggest you pick up this new one.
Guitarist Pat Metheny had already recorded two LPs for ECM when, in 1978, with the eponymously titled Pat Metheny Group, he introduced his new band: himself on guitar, with keyboardist Lyle Mays, bassist Mark Egan, and drummer Danny Gottlieb. The year before nearly the same quartet, but with Eberhard Weber on bass, had recorded Watercolors under Metheny’s name. In the years to come, Metheny and Mays would be the constants of the various iterations of the Pat Metheny Group, with other players coming and going, but this album made it official that this was a working band.
My CD of Pat Metheny Group (ECM 1114) is an early release, manufactured when most CDs were still pressed in Germany and Japan; my LP is a US pressing from ECM’s Warner Bros. years. When I played track 1, “San Lorenzo,” first on CD and then on my early LP, I realized that I’ve used the CD only for convenience, playing it only when cooking or doing something else. The LP presents the instruments in a wider, more layered way that lets me hear them more clearly. Metheny’s electric guitar, chorused but muted to create an unusual bell-like effect against Lyle Mays’s autoharp, is more fully presented, and Mays’s piano sounds bigger and harmonically richer. Egan’s electric bass has a fuller, rounder tone, with a firmer attack, and Gottlieb’s drums more inner detail.
When I then listened to “San Lorenzo” on the new pressing, all of those qualities were in stronger relief. Egan’s bass was even more impressively present, each note registering solidly, and the drums had more tonal accuracy. The ride cymbal sizzled more, and Mays’s synthesizer was more naturally integrated into the music. The recording’s artificial reverb was easier to hear, and chords strummed on guitar and autoharp had a more open, epic quality.
“Phase Dance” is the kind of Metheny-Mays composition that at first seems somewhat lightweight, but its constant switching from major to minor and its beguiling melody pull me in every time. I’ve heard it so many times over the years, but it never fails to reveal new things to me. The CD is, as I said earlier, a convenience; the new LP is, again, a step above the earlier one I own. Egan’s drums come out farther on the track, and Gottlieb’s bass is even fuller and more impressively detailed -- an important improvement, as it pulls the piece together. The new LP also conveys the dynamics of the arrangement much more solidly -- the group’s shifts to somewhat quieter passages come through with greater impact. Metheny’s impressive technique in his quick triplets and trills is more obvious, and his tone sounds more focused.
On the new LP, Gottlieb’s kick drum has better low-end clarity and greater impact behind Egan’s sharp-toned bass lines and Metheny’s rich guitar in “Jaco,” the leader’s tribute to the great bassist Jaco Pastorius. Gottlieb’s hi-hat is more focused in the high end, and Metheny’s chord changes as the song builds mesh better with Mays’s synth lines. Metheny’s shimmering arpeggios in “Aprilwind” hang in the air with more sustain, letting the notes blend and build in complexity.
I can better hear the chorus added to Egan’s bass lines in “April Joy,” and Mays’s acoustic piano has more resonance in support of Metheny’s clear melody lines. The guitarist’s fastest lines are easy to track and never lose momentum. During a quieter interlude, Mays’s synth restates the themes from “Phase Dance”; the sound of this passage is just a little hollower in the earlier pressing.
The older pressing is slightly brighter than the new one, but this reissue is more balanced, and the result is a more natural sound that gives all instruments equal weight. The new Pat Metheny and Keith Jarrett LPs I cover here sound different and, to my ears, more pleasing overall than the earlier vinyl editions. Perhaps it’s the result of better-quality vinyl, or improvement in some other step in the mastering and/or manufacturing of the LPs.
Whatever the reason, if you already own these records on vinyl and they’re recordings you still love, you’ll want to own them in these new 180gm pressings, which are clean and dead quiet. The reproductions of the original cover art are very good, and the jackets are of decent middleweight cardboard, similar to the originals.
. . . Joseph Taylor