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Book Review

Eberhard Weber: A German Jazz Story


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I can’t play the bass. But I know how it’s done!
—Eberhard Weber
Eberhard Weber: A German Jazz Story
Eberhard Weber translated by Heidi Kirk
182 Pages
ISBN: 978 1 80050 082 2
Equinox Publishing Ltd

There are many musicians whose playing we can recognise in an instant; something about their phrasing, note choice and tone combine to give an unmistakable flavor to their playing which means we know them immediately. Horn players in particular are often described as having a unique sound and the same goes for guitar players. However, there are comparatively few bass players who, the moment we hear a phrase, we recognise. Eberhard Weber is one.

A virtuosic and original player, Weber was at the center of the European jazz-rock movement and, through his early work as a leader and his early adoption of amplification in bass, helped to define the ECM house sound. Through his fertile period leading his band Colours and as a long-time associate of Jan Garbarek, Ralph Towner and Gary Burton, his playing continued to grow and evolve over a long career.

Given his enormous influence, a biography is overdue. This autobiography was published in German in 2015 and then in an English translation in 2021. If this book had been written by an enthusiast of Weber's work, there would no doubt have been much analysis of the music, especially the landmark recordings for ECM in the 1970s, but it wasn't. it was written by Weber himself and unsurprisingly gives a very personal perspective on his life and career. What an unusual and engaging perspective that is.

Weber's career was cruelly cut short by a stroke in 2007 when he was 67. Had that not occurred, he may well have been still playing now as a member of the pantheon of great octogenarian jazz musicians. That he is not is a great loss to the world of music and, you sense, to Weber himself, though he dispatches the story of his stroke without a shred of self-pity or sentiment. The first chapter ends with the now partially paralyzed Weber being replaced in the Jan Garbarek Group and stoically realizing that his hopes of continuing his career are over.

He does not reserve the same phlegmatic perspective throughout, however. Very quickly he is in his stride venting his irritation with, variously, radios which are left to play incessantly, musicians who make pointlessly derivative or repetitive records, vague and emotional descriptions of music, drummers who play on after the end of the song, people who drink too much beer to appreciate music properly... Weber is an entertainingly cranky host. If we are expecting a serious reflection on the nature of his music in the manner we might expect from other, more self-absorbed characters, he dispels that notion from the outset. In one anecdote, Dave Pike, the vibraphonist leader of the Dave Pike Set, tells a journalist in front of Weber and the rest of the band that "music is an island of beauty." Weber and the others can't contain their hilarity and soon bring Pike back down to earth.

Later in the book, when Weber is describing his time working in the US with Gary Burton, he notes that Americans and Germans have different attitudes towards their work and their relationships with their peers. When he talks about a "European measuredness," the whole book suddenly clicks into focus because Weber is nothing if not measured. He describes his decision to leave his well-paid job, with the encouragement of his new wife Maja, in order to throw his full weight behind a bid for success as a professional musician in just six lines. Maya's sudden and unexpected death is dealt with (or not, more accurately) in three lines. He hints at the depths of his grief, but only hints. He is measured to the point of reserve.

So, what we do not get here is a detailed analysis of his musical canon and personal life. That story will have to be written by another. What we do get, though, is an absolutely fascinating account of starting out in jazz in post-war Germany and ultimately working as an extremely successful international musician. Throughout, the things we might expect to be emphasized are not; an approach which seems entirely in keeping with Weber's obvious humor and sense of proportion.

One chapter describes the hegemony of the free jazz movement in West Germany in the late 1960s, a movement so powerful that musicians had no choice but to join it if they wanted to work, no matter how absurd the demands it placed on them. Weber is scathing of the lack of beauty and skill in the music and ruthless in his and his friends' sending up of its deep pomposity. At one point his trio are stopped in the middle of a free jazz festival recording and berated for playing something coherent—"This is a free jazz meeting. You can't play harmonies. It's not allowed!" Bemused, they revert to thrashing the music out "full blast and full tilt" and are duly congratulated for it.

After several thousand words on his very mixed feelings towards free jazz, Weber remembers to mention that he recorded an LP, intercontinental, with Joe Pass. This event is noted without any kind of fanfare or self-congratulation which is odd because, firstly, it is a great record and, secondly, Weber had yet to release anything of any kind of impact or acclaim. Lots of people would have been delighted. Weber is, again, measured.

This book is at its best when Weber perhaps inadvertently tells us something genuinely fascinating. The account of him and a luthier friend fitting an additional string to his bass is eye opening. Five string basses existed in orchestras, but with an extra B string below the low E. Weber chooses instead to add an extra string at the top of the register, so his bass is tuned E A D G C. This explains a lot about his tone, shows his mastery of understanding of stringed instruments (his discussion of wolf tones is effortlessly erudite) and also his extreme pragmatism, as he works hard to make his admittedly rather poor-quality instrument work for him. An antidote to the gear-fetishists, he describes with candor how working with the limitations of his instrument—the dead spots, the buzzes—forced him to find ways of accommodating them which other people mistook for musical creativity.

Another interesting section is when he talks about his wife Maya designing the covers for many of his records as well as covers for several other ECM artists. Many people will agree that the covers of The Colours of Chloe, Silent Feet and other classic Weber recordings added significantly to their charm and appeal. That Maya Weber drew and painted them makes them more alluring yet.

We learn a little about what it was like to work with Manfred Eicher in the early years of ECM, but it would have been good to hear more about how Weber developed his unique sound-world on, particularly, The Colours of Chloe, but also on his subsequent records as a leader between 1973 and 1984. However, we do learn a little about his feelings on being a band leader (he didn't especially like it) and his relief to slip into a second-amongst-equals role in the Jan Garbarek Group.

It is a rare musician whose autobiography is filled with humility and humor. Weber ends lamenting that he never took up a professorship and, with it, a pension. He concludes that he never really knew what he was doing anyway so could not have explained it, a statement that is clearly untrue and maybe illustrates the difference between competence and genius. That his sole interest was in the playing and making of music shines off every page of this book. He implies time and again that talking about music is pointless. To play was the point. In a moment of uncharacteristic emotion, Weber talks about the excitement of taking a solo. "I loved when it was my turn!" So did we, Eberhard, and so do we still.

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