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Eberhard Weber: Positive Pragmatism

Eberhard Weber: Positive Pragmatism

Courtesy Nadia F. Romanini & ECM Records


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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."

What'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."

Hospitalisation, A New Life and Opening Up

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."

Another Loss: Maja Weber

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.

Weber's ECM Legacy

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.

Weber's Inimitable Sound

Weber has 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).

Dealing With Loss: Changing Gears

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."

Fortunately, for Weber, he's been as skilful a composer as he has been a player. Still, with performance now a thing of the past, for Weber to continue in music, there was a rather significant problem. "When I realized I couldn't play bass anymore, Maja said to become a composer because people seemed to like my compositions. Then I analyzed my compositions, and I realized that whenever I wrote, it was always together with my bass. In other words, the sound of my bass is always very important. So suddenly, I realized I can't play bass anymore, and to be just a composer or an arranger, I really couldn't compete with all these young guys, who are so capable of doing everything. I realized I needed my bass, and so the question then was what to do."

Fortunately, Weber had already been considering something that would now prove serendipitous. "Before I did my album Pendulum (ECM, 1993), I was somehow afraid that I wouldn't have enough material for it because I didn't have a solo program yet to go on tour. It wasn't finished yet, and I thought that I had to do something to find out if I had enough ideas to make a record.

"So I asked Jan [Garbarek]'s sound engineer because he's a maniac. He used to record everything for himself on a DAT recorder. He recorded all the concerts for private reasons only; he didn't sell anything. He just wanted to have everything for himself. So I said to him, since I play all of these solo interludes between songs—sometimes five, six, seven, nine, twelve minutes—'Could you please cut them out for me and let me listen to what I did?' so I could maybe get some ideas for what to do. As it turned out, I finished Pendulum without them; I did not need all those tapes, and so I put them aside somewhere in a cupboard."

Flash forward nearly two decades, when Weber needed some of his own playing as grist for writing a new record. "And then I thought, I have all these recordings; maybe I could look through them and see if there's something I could use," Weber continues. "And so I started to listen to them. Unfortunately, I discovered that my DAT recorder was broken, and this media's now obsolete; you can't even repair the players anymore. But my brother-in-law still had one, and I asked him to take the DAT tapes and burn them onto CDs, which he did, so then I had all these CDs that I could listen to."

While Weber has done solo bass recordings before—in addition to Pendulum, which relied on looping and other technologies to create an album more orchestral in scope, and Orchestra (ECM, 1988), on which Weber scored for a brass ensemble on some tracks—Résumé represents an entirely different approach. Here, Weber took solos culled from a quarter century of performances with Garbarek and—with the addition of keyboards, judicious editing and, on a handful of tracks, guest contributions from the saxophonist and longtime Weber drummer, Michael DiPasqua—composed around these bass solos to turn them into something that he could never have envisioned at the time he first performed them as improvised interludes linking two songs in a Jan Garbarek Group set list.

"I had no real concept of how to use these interludes," Weber explains, "because, as you can imagine, one tune might end in A-flat minor, so I had to start in that key and develop something into the next tune, which might, for example, be in D major. So then I listened to all these recordings, one after the other—which was torture, of course; you start to hate yourself [laughs]. And then I realized I couldn't just put them one after the other. When you play on a tour and you do 20, 30 or 40 gigs, there is ultimately not so much variation because you're coming out of the same piece and going into the next one. It's never the same note for note because it's improvised, but the mood is kind of the same. You realize, during a tour, for example, that you very much like what you played the previous night and think about what else you can do with it the following night.

"So," Weber continues, "some of these solos were, in a certain way, very similar, and I realized I couldn't do what I wanted to do, which was to hang one after the other. And then I had another idea of bringing somebody else in who could play interludes between my solos. At this point, I wouldn't say I was desperate, but I lost interest in the work because I couldn't find any solution.

"Then, one year later Manfred Eicher told me, 'Why don't you start again?'" Weber continues. "And finally, after a year, I had this thought—this idea—and I started, and then while working with it, I developed some ideas of what to do. I also learned how [using music editing software] to copy solos, because there was so much editing to do here and there. I analyzed all these solos: one was a fast piece; one was a slow piece; one was more about sound. I selected them in colors, more or less. The solo from Hamburg, for example, started very fast, and then there was a slow part that goes fast again. I decided to eliminate the fast part because I didn't like it, but the slow part was very nice. So I cut out the slow part and tried to discover what else I could do with it."

"And, of course, I had a computer at home, and you don't need a mixing board anymore," Weber continues. "You can do it all at home. It's great. So I started to build things up, and I added my keyboards—a little piano, a little bass, a little violin, a little oboe, whatever. I started to become very satisfied and, in fact, became really excited and couldn't stop working on it. I have a lot more tunes ready, so if there's a question of doing a second album, it's already finished. The compositions are done; they just need final mixing."

The tracks on Résumé are simply named after the towns where the solos were first performed. "If I remember correctly, the earliest is from the late '80s, 1989 or something from around that time," says Weber, "and the last is from 2007. It's kind of interesting because it's the last track on Résumé, and it's the last recording that exists for me because the solo was recorded about two weeks before my stroke, and there are no other recordings. So this track, 'Grenoble,' is the last recording that exists anywhere of me playing bass."

With actual performance now a thing of the past, it's great news, then, that not only has Weber managed to find a way to continue writing and release an album that is still centered around his distinctive bass playing but he also already has the sequel to Résumé largely in the can—though he's yet to add any guest performers because, as he explains, doing so for Résumé was not an easy process.

"There was another big problem with the current album," Weber says. "I had the idea, right away, of someone playing on the record. But then I realized—I was almost shocked—that there was no space. Because, when you play a solo [live] you don't want to be boring; you want to entertain the people. So you play and you play, and there's never any space. So in some pieces, I had to find there some bars, perhaps, that I could double up or triple up—maybe one or two bars—I could extend them and copy, copy, copy. I could copy several bars to make a piece which he [Jan Garbarek] could play to, and it worked out. Nobody realizes that it's a loop underneath the solos."

Garbarek's contributions may be relatively brief, entering, for example, halfway through "Amsterdam" to deliver a solo built around a looped segment, meshing almost seamlessly with Weber's arco bass on the gentler "Tübingen," and contributing a delicate selje flute to the closing minutes of "Bath." But not unlike his relatively brief contributions to Elixir (ECM, 2008) by Marilyn Mazur, the Danish percussionist on another Garbarek Group alum, the saxophonist's contributions to Résumé lend the record added shape and color.

"This has not, however, been planned out for the second album," Weber says. "I would have to find space in case I wanted to ask somebody else to play again. On the other hand, I've never liked to repeat myself too often. So the big question now is having enough ideas; I'm sure Jan would volunteer to play another piece for me on a new album, but the real question is whether I should do it. I've given it some time for thought. When I publish that, there is a second album ready; it might be thought that Jan has already played on tracks that weren't used on Résumé, which is not the case. Anyway, it's very open, and I haven't decided yet; we're going to wait at least one more year, as I don't want to overdo it."

The Return of Michael DiPasqua

The other guest on Résumé is Michael DiPasqua, a drummer who was quite active on ECM in the 1980s, appearing on Garbarek's Wayfarer (ECM, 1983) and It's OK to listen to the gray voice (ECM, 1984) (on which Weber also performed) as well as Weber's Later That Evening (ECM, 1985)—with guitarist Bill Frisell, pianist Lyle Mays and multi-reedist Paul McCandless—which stands out as one of the bassist's finest group records after the dissolution of Colours, a milestone in a career filled with milestones. But following his flurry of activity in the mid-'80s, DiPasqua disappeared from sight until Endless Days (ECM, 2002), Weber's first group recording since his 1985 trio recording, Chorus.

"Mike gave up playing," Weber explains. "He married an Austrian woman, the two of them wanted to stay together, and he didn't want to be on the road anymore for private reasons, so at some point he gave up playing because he inherited The Subway chain for Florida from his father. So he now controls the majority of Subway restaurants in Florida; in other words, we don't have to play a benefit concert for him, that's for sure [laughs].

"We'd fallen out of touch," Weber continues, "only speaking rarely, and at some point I thought, 'Hmm, I like his playing a lot,' so I contacted him, and I spoke to his wife, and she said, 'Oh yeah, he misses playing.' She even said that if Jan needed another drummer, he would practice like hell and play again because he really did miss it. He was a great drummer, and I reactivated him for Endless Days. He hadn't played for 14 years, and he told me that he practiced a lot for that session. But he also said he was frustrated because in 14 years, you lose a lot of technical ability; but I thought that he managed to do it all really nicely.

"And then I thought, again, why shouldn't I ask them to play on Résumé," Weber continues. "He said, 'Yes, I can try,' but in the end, it's been even longer since he last played. Now he is saying that he doesn't think he will continue playing. He realizes now that the young drummers, they play the hell out of the drum set, and he just can't keep up with them."

And it's a shame, because DiPasqua may not have the chops of some of the young up-and-comers, but he had/has a touch that made him not only the ideal player back in the '80s but also the perfect choice to add some percussion work to Résumé's up-tempo "Bochum" and more ethereal yet still grounded "Lasize." "Michael may not have the chops he had 20 years ago," Weber concludes, "but the musicality is still there, and you can hear it on the record—the experience."

Much of Résumé was done in Weber's home studio, with Garbarek and DiPasqua's contributions coming in as files recorded in their own home studios. "I did everything at home," says Weber. "I did a rough mix for myself, but I know my equipment is not good enough to be professional. So I asked Manfred to take my hard disk to a real studio where it could be mixed professionally. So we were in the studio together; Manfred was there—even Michael was there—and we all mixed it together. Mike stayed with me because I have a guest room in my house. And then he went home."

But if Weber has been forced to face the inevitable consequences of aging, so, too, has the considerably younger DiPasqua, who will just be turning 60 later this year. "Now comes another sad story," says Weber. "Mike went home, and we talked about staying in contact, but I didn't hear from him anymore, and I wondered what was wrong. I wrote e-mails that he didn't answer. Slowly, after little while, he wrote that he was with his wife in the Caribbean, and he had a heart attack. Actually, his wife informed me that Mike suffered from several heart attacks, and he was reanimated something like five times. He's much better now. They rescued him, but he died five times. Some people seem to think that the dying process is not so bad—you see the light at the end of the tunnel or whatever. Mike said that he did notice he was dead five times; he said he obviously realized he was going to die and says it was an experience he would not recommend [laughs]."

But Weber maintains both a positive and pragmatic viewpoint: "If it happens, it happens. It was a nice life. And I had lots of good experiences, lots of fun. So I don't regret anything. If I could look down on me later—which of course I can't—I would say it was not so bad, what I did."

Résumé's Follow-Up...and the Future

So with the next album more or less complete, what's next for Weber? "I do have about 100 solos, meaning about 15 hours of music altogether," he says. "I have listened through most of it, and as I said, I hated myself throughout the years when I played, but there must be a few other things which could be used. The technician once told me that he had another 400 tapes, but he moved in with a new girlfriend to a very humid house and tried to put on these old DAT cassettes. It turns out that there are cracks, and he believes that these 400 tapes are ruined. I asked him to try again, but I haven't contacted him lately, so I don't know whether he's been able to do anything or not.

"Who knows how long I'm going to live is the other question, of course; I'm 72—in a short while, 73—and that's a considerable age. But 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 I will find will be. I still believe in myself. As long as I can still think and talk, there will be something to come at some point."

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