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Eberhard Weber: Positive Pragmatism

John Kelman By

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I'm vain enough to say that when I'm forced to do something, I'm sure that I will find something. I've no idea what that something will be. I still believe in myself. As long as I can still think and talk, there will be something to come.
There are plenty of positives about getting older: wisdom, maturity and a more balanced outlook are just three of them. But it would be unrealistic to suggest that there aren't a few negatives thrown in there. When bassist Eberhard Weber woke up in his hotel room on the morning of April 23, 2007, in Berlin, Germany, where he was to perform with the Jan Garbarek Group—having played in numerous groups with the Norwegian saxophonist since Photo With Blue Sky, White Cloud, Wires, Windows And A Red Roof (ECM, 1979)—little did he know that the smallest sign of something amiss would lead to a life-changing, life-threatening experience.

"It was the beginning of a big tour," says Weber. "We had about 100 or 120 concerts in the future, and this was our fifth or sixth concert. "I left my hotel in the morning, and I didn't feel anything weird, but when I got out of the elevator, I felt like I had chewing gum underneath my foot, and I looked, and there was no chewing gum. So I walked around. Once in a while, I stumbled a little bit but not really seriously; I'd shake my foot and wonder what was going on. I even went to a restaurant and ate there and then went back to the hotel."

Had Weber known what was going on—that he was in the early stages of having a stroke—he might have gone to the hospital earlier, and things might have been different. "I can only say that I felt something, but I didn't know what it was," Weber continues. "The easiest comparison is to something everybody knows, which is when you are getting a cold or a flu. You don't feel it immediately; you think, 'Ooh, something is weird.' This was the kind of feeling I had, but I couldn't really say what it was."

So Weber continued with his day. "I even did the sound check," Weber continues. "I went to the sound check in the afternoon because everything was set up by the roadies, and I sat down and I played. I could play sort of normally, but I realized there was a little trouble with intonation. So I said to the guys, 'Let's play this very, very delicate melody,' to see if I could do it. I was not able to play it in tune; my left hand was already on its way out. So I said, 'OK, I'd better go to the hospital and find out what it is.'

"I went there," the bassist continues, "and they said, 'You're going to have to stay,' and I said, 'I can't; I have a concert tonight [laughs],' and they said, 'No, it's better if you stay here.' So I went back to the hotel, and, because I was already in a suit for the show, I changed, packed my stuff again into my heavy suitcase, went back to the hospital and said, 'OK, here I am. What can I do?' And I just lay down. Later on, I went to bed around 10 o'clock, and then I don't remember anything. I just remember the next time I woke up, at a regular hospital time, around 6:00 or 6:30 a.m., I realized I couldn't move my left leg anymore or my left arm. So it happened some time when I was asleep."

Eberhard Weber— ResumeWhat's most unfortunate is, had Weber detected something sooner and gotten to the hospital earlier, something might have been possible to prevent it. "The hospitals expect you to come in as soon as possible to do some diagnosis and give you some fluid and so on," Weber explains. "At the time, there was a maximum time limit of three hours, after which they couldn't do anything. By then it's getting more dangerous. And since I didn't feel it right away, I only went to the hospital around five o'clock, but this chewing gum thing that I felt was at half past eleven—more than five hours, so they couldn't really do anything.

"I was hit on the right side of my brain," Weber continues, "meaning it impaired the left side of my body. Good luck, so to speak, in the bad luck, because when it's on the left- hand side of the brain, you usually lose your language and partly your memory."

Weber was hospitalized in Germany for two and a half months before returning to his home in the south of France, where he continues regular physiotherapy. "It happened on April 23rd, 2007, and I went home on Friday, July 13," says Weber. "They did everything they could, and after about two months, I could get out. Now it's difficult to walk, but I can do it with a stick. I can drive because I have an automatic gearshift, so I don't need my left foot. My problem is that because I'm handicapped, it's difficult to walk, difficult to go shopping, difficult to do normal things. I usually need someone to help me. I can do things at home a bit, but very slowly. I learned that, to a certain degree, with a stroke you can't change anything. I have therapy three times a week, but the therapist tells me—and I know he's correct—that we can only keep the status quo. We can't improve; we can only prevent things from getting worse."

Weber's stroke has been public knowledge for some time, but this is the first time that the bassist has chosen to speak about it at length. It comes on the heels of a new release, Résumé (ECM, 2013), that's a remarkable achievement, considering that Weber is no longer able to play his instrument. Even more remarkable than the feat of making the record is Weber's strength, pragmatism and positivity. Losing the ability to play an instrument, for some, would be the end of the world. And Weber certainly went through a couple years after the stroke thinking— hoping—that his strength would return. "My left-hand side doesn't function that well anymore," Weber explains. "It's difficult to walk. It's difficult use my hand. So at some point I had to say, 'That's it,' and I had to stop. But I continued to believe for some time, to practice a little bit here and there with my bass, right after my stroke. But one or two years after my stroke, I realized that even if I were to get better, I would never get back to my original state."



But if the stroke and losing the ability to play weren't enough, Weber had one more tragedy to come. "Because my wife [Maja] couldn't stand that I gave up, I did it more or less for her [practicing the bass], but after she died last year [in 2011], I said, 'Now it's time to say goodbye.' It made no sense to continue fooling myself about my disability."

Maja Weber will be known to fans of Weber's music because, with rare exception, it's been her distinctive artwork that has graced Weber's ECM discography, beginning with his debut for the label, 1974's classic The Colours of Chloë, straight through to Résumé, which does not have her design on the front cover but which contains one of her drawings inside the CD booklet. "We were together 42 years," says Weber. "She died just a few weeks before our 43rd anniversary. It was a liver tumor, and it was clear right away that it could not be operated on. More and more, we come into these situations. It's only when you get older that you realize they're getting close."

Just as Maja Weber's artwork will always be associated with Weber's ECM discography as a leader, despite the relatively small number of albums under his own name—just 13 over a 38-year period—the bassist's distinctive sound will be forever associated with the record label that was just five years old when Weber was first approached to make a recording. His discography may be diminutive, but it's been marked, since the very beginning, by a rare and remarkable consistency in quality, creativity and vision.

In addition to ten ECM recordings with Garbarek, beginning with Photo with Blue Sky and ending with Rites in 1998, Weber has appeared on other significant recordings for the label, including two by vibraphonist Gary Burton; one each by then up-and-coming guitarist Pat Metheny (who cites the bassist as an influence, to this day) and pianist Mal Waldron; and two particularly seminal recordings with guitarist Ralph TownerSolstice (1975) and Sound and Shadows (1977), in a quartet with Garbarek and Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen that has achieved something of a legendary status despite its relatively brief existence.

Like his recordings as a leader, including three releases with the group that became known as Colours, perhaps Weber's best-known group—featuring saxophonist Charlie Mariano and keyboardist Rainer Bruninghaus (another Garbarek Group regular) and including Yellow Fields (1976), Silent Feet (1978) and Little Movements (1980)—every recording graced by Weber's presence has, in some way, been defined by his inimitable sound. Relatively early in his career, Weber began experimenting with customized electric double basses, instruments that allowed him to adopt a tone that was simultaneously organic and processed.

Eberhard Weber— ColoursHe's been playing custom- built, five-string instruments since the mid-1970s, but he isn't particularly interested in discussing their specifics. "I almost get angry when people ask me, 'What kinds of strings do you use?' And then they get offended because I say, 'I don't know.' My last bass was built in Israel by an Israeli luthier, and he puts strings on it. I never asked what ones they were. I never asked him. These things just don't matter; I'm absolutely sure that anybody who has talent—take any wonderful violin player—he could play a concert, even on a school violin, and he would certainly sound OK. It doesn't have to be a Stradivarius." It's certainly true that were others to pick up Weber's bass, they would not sound anything like the bassist who, in addition to appearing on roughly 30 ECM recordings, was a charter member of the multinational United Jazz + Rock Ensemble— a group that included, among other significant players, Charlie Mariano, trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff, keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner, guitarist Volker Kriegel and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. During his early days as a session player, Weber also appeared—surprisingly, perhaps, but retrospectively crucial to his overall development—on albums ranging from mainstream guitarist Joe Pass' Intercontinental (MPS, 1970) and Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell's Poema en Guitar (MPS, 1967) to French violinist Stephanie Grapelli 's Afternoon in Paris (MPS, 1971) and fellow German, trumpeter Manfred Schoof's Reflections (Mood, 1983).

Still, while it may seem sad that Weber can no longer play the instrument that has been such a defining part of his life, he has a very clear response: "I'm very, very often asked by people: do I suffer because I can't play anymore. And I have to say, 'No, I don't suffer at all.' I'm not depressed. And I don't need it. My bass is still set up in my studio, and I can touch it, but I haven't touched it, certainly not in the last three years. I don't even look at it. I don't need it. It's the past for me."
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