I can’t stop listening to a new jazz trio album from Norwegian bass maestro Mats Eilertsen. I find it stunningly beautiful, and it’s no surprise that it comes from the superb German label ECM Records (Editions of Contemporary Music). ECM—perhaps against all odds of any commercial success—has championed bass players from its start, thanks to Manfred Eicher, the musical ubermensch who founded ECM way back in 1969. Eicher is himself an accomplished bass player, good enough to join the Berlin Philharmonic’s formidable bass section with Herbert von Karajan conducting.
Classical music normally only features the contrabass as one part of the bass section in big symphonies by Beethoven and other composers. (The only bass concerto I know is by a little-known German composer named Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.) But in improvised music such as jazz, the bass plays an important role. The bass player locks down the harmonic outlines of the music, helping to create a road map for the other musicians to follow. The foundation provided by the bass is an essential factor in creating musical cohesion for the group. The upright bass also has a very personal sound. After all, the bass player embraces the bass, which resonates into his or her chest and heart.
On his new album And Then Comes the Night, Mats Eilertsen leads on bass, and the interplay between the trio is perfection, with equal weight given to the piano (Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje) and the drums (Norwegian drummer Thomas Strønen). Strønen’s drumming shimmers and swirls around Eilertsen’s bass and Fraanje’s piano. The interplay heard in trios like this one is a special type of telepathy—it’s the opposite of a horn player leading a rhythm section, with the horn player out front and the others just backing him or her up.
The music on And Then Comes the Night might not actually strike a lot of people as jazz. You won’t find the commonly used ii-V-I (2-5-1) bebop chord progression. The improvisations are far more abstract than “straight ahead jazz.” I would compare the tone colors and improvisations to Debussy, Takemitsu, or impressionist painting. This music offers a different mental gestalt and listening experience than most jazz, by inviting you in to muse and dream. Such abstraction makes albums like this special as well as part-and-parcel of the ECM sound and musical philosophy. People used to say that ECM was European jazz, in that it didn’t swing like more familiar American groups. But that’s why it’s wonderful—it doesn’t try to imitate or emulate the American style.
And Then Comes the Night is an album that reveals new sonic delights upon each listening, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want to explore more music fronted by acoustic bass players, ECM has also issued excellent albums by bassists such as Anders Jormin, Arild Andersen, Michael Formanek, Gary Peacock, and the visionary Algerian-French bassist Michel Benita. ECM has even released solo bass albums by Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips, and, recently, Larry Grenadier. What sort of a madman would do that? Bean counters at record labels will say these solo bass albums are only for fanatics and will never sell. I like it that ECM and Eicher take the long and uncompromising view, that over time these unique solo bass odysseys will sell and justify themselves. They are works of art that will stand the test of time.
It’s unfortunate that bass players—like Rodney Dangerfield—get no respect. There’s an old joke that whenever the bassist starts a solo, people in a club will begin talking. But I’ve loved and written about bass players for a long time. In fact, my very first interview was with the ECM artist Eberhard Weber way back in 1976, to celebrate his beautiful album The Colours of Chloë. He was in Los Angeles with other ECM artists for a show at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, then stopped in Santa Barbara to continue the tour. I interviewed him in Santa Barbara and my story was published in 1977 in a short-lived magazine called Hittin’ The Note. Anyway, belated thanks, ECM and Eicher, for your love of bass players, too.
The Mats Eilertsen Trio performs the track “Soften,” recorded live in Copenhagen: