ECM's New :Rarums, Part 1: The Bassists

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After almost two years, ECM Records has returned to its :Rarum series with twelve new compilations. The ideas that have distinguished the series are threefold:

  • give the artist total freedom to select every track on each compilation
  • present extended notes and performance photographs as fresh documentation
  • remaster the recordings for clearer sound

All three are virtuous aims, especially the first. The sound quality is the least important reason to check out the new recordings, since these tracks started out pretty solid in the first place.

In the near future I will cover nine releases, but rather than overwhelm readers with a massive heap, I've chosen to break the set down by instrument. It's as good a method as any to get at what makes each player's work distinctive. Stay tuned for the rest...

This time around, the bassists: Dave Holland, Eberhard Weber, and Arild Andersen. Each has recorded over twenty records on ECM as leader or sideman; each has established himself as a distinctive voice on the instrument. Holland hails from the UK, Weber from Germany, and Andersen from Norway. But those distinctions don't matter much here, because the other musicians involved and the choice of material in each case is not limited to any single country.

(Note: see below for links to other Rarum reviews.)

Dave Holland
Rarum X: Selected Recordings

First in both number and impact is Dave Holland, who has been associated with the label since 1971 and recorded his first record as a leader ( Conference of the Birds ) in 1972. Fourteen discs later, Holland has become something of a darling of the international jazz press—thoroughly reflected in listeners' ears as well—and indeed in the views of many writers for this publication. His latest two quintet records, along with a big band effort, immediately shot through to international prominence.

All those statistics and heapings of praise don't particularly serve the nuances of Holland's music, which has ranged from rather difficult free jazz to quite accessible mainstream efforts. Conference of the Birds brought the bassist, hitherto best known as a member of Miles Davis's various ensembles, into the company of Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul, and Sam Rivers. The first three would join Goerge Lewis as part of Braxton's essential Quartet (Dortmund) 1976 (Hatology, 2001 reissue). The title track from Conference, ironically enough, closes out Holland's :Rarum with a measured 4'33" of English country lyricism.

Each of the ten remaining tracks has its own particular appeal. They can be broken down into three from his current quintet, five from collaborations with various M-BASE players (including a dominant Steve Coleman), a cello solo, and the blistering opener with the Gateway trio, "How's Never," from 1994's Homecoming. (As an aside, it's interesting to see that drummer Jack DeJohnette chose the same track for his own :Rarum collection. Guitarist John Abercrombie, whose guitar is just plain wild and funky here, did not, however.)

Holland prefers a clean tone and constantly seeks out space between collective improvisation, restrained lyricism, modern post-bop, and dirty funk. The more energetic features are born out in the Gateway piece and "Nemesis," from Extensions (1989). His quintet emphasizes interlocking phrases (and roles), best realized in "The Balance" and "Shifting Sands," both soft and lyrical group statements with notable extended solo spots.

The highlight of the record (and a piece that will forever be dear to my heart) is "Equality," from the quartet Dream of the Elders (1995). Cassandra Wilson sings the Maya Angelou poem of the same name in a context of overlapping washes of reverberant sound... the result: goosebumps all around.

Eberhard Weber
Rarum XVIII: Selected Recordings

German bassist Eberhard Weber stands in stark contrast to Dave Holland in many ways. His efforts alongside a collection of largely European and American improvisers tend to have a significantly more open and reverberant sound, soft and gentle, realized both through nuances in performance and electronic processing.

Indeed, Weber's most obvious distinction is his use of the upright electric bass since the '70s, which allows him to plug right into the box and dramatically affects his timbre. Especially on the early recordings, Weber's bass tends toward a bright, woody sound without the depth and textural richness that usually characterizes its acoustic relatives. But that was a clear early choice and it has enabled the artist to forge ahead in the middle ground (traditionally reserved for regular lead instruments). Weber's virtuosity on his chosen instrument most definitely doesn't harm his output, either.

Weber organized thezse tracks in chronological order, placing the quartet "Nimbus" (from Ralph Towner's 1974 Solstice ) up front. The guitarist milks every last overtone out of his harmonics out of the twelve strings on his guitar, setting up an brief bowed/plucked bass solo where Weber seems to reside midway between the overt textures of the more familiar acoustic kind and the sheer clarity of the then-novel electric variety.

Two late '70s tracks alongside Pat Metheny (duo & quintet) dip dangerously close to velveeta, though I suspect legions of Metheny fans would outspokenly disagree. Sheer open harmonies and acoustic resonance characterize "Silent Feet," followed on its heels by three soft collaborations with Bill Frisell. Frisell's own rounded tone serves as a fine complement to Weber's then maturing sound.

Weber speaks in the liner notes about "the emancipation of the bass," and his (not actually final) solo "Closing Scene" (from 1993's Pendulum ) makes dramatic use of the features enabled by the upright electric axe. Delay and echo serve as a means for the bassist to accompany himself in a sort of in- the-moment multitracking. Naturally the approach does not lend itself to dramatic rhythmic flourishes or tight harmonies, but that's clearly not the point. Spend some time with the liner notes and you'll have a much deeper understanding all around about why and how Weber makes his music.

By the time the last two stately, spacious, and almost excessively reverberant pieces close out the record, Weber has made a definitive statement about his role, both within the jazz continuum and as regards innovation on his instrument. Given how idiosyncratic it is, his music certainly has no universal appeal, but if you take it on its own terms there's not much to fault.

Arild Andersen
Rarum XIX: Selected Recordings

(Acoustic) bassist Arild Andersen hails from Norway, which is where all but one of these thirteen tracks were recorded, though with plenty of international imports. For one reason or another, his expansive efforts for ECM have largely drifted below the horizon. Thirteen records as a leader and seven as a sideman certainly bespeak a productive career, represented here by recordings made from the 1975 to 1999.

His thoroughly Scandinavian approach—Andersen played a huge role in defining that region's current jazz styles—is not just defined by a predominance of local musicians, but also by its embrace of modern jazz and modern classical in a frequently chamber-like setting. Indeed, the 26 musicians on this record adequately testify to the breadth of this artist's vision.

The brief two guitar duets here (with Ralph Towner on "For All We Know," from 1991; and with Bill Frisell on "Shorts," from 1982) serve as good as any to illustrate the way Andersen melds various styles into a coherent whole. The Towner duet emphasizes a singing, keening, tremulous upper-register melody bathed in washes of open arpeggiated and chordal guitar accompaniment.

Two tunes later, Bill Frisell's characteristically enormous processed guitar moves forward with absolutely no rush. The bass again carries most of the theme, with the guitar draped above and around. In both cases the melody comes first, the timbres mesh into a blurry resonance, and the bassist takes care to round out each and every note.

Those features come out again and again here, from the dark opening harmonics of "Vanilje" (1985) to the sing-song ease of "305 W 18 St" (1975) and the slow-paced melancholy of "She's Gone" (1999), the most recent piece in the collection, performed in a trio with Greek pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos and English drummer John Marshall. You never know what direction Andersen is going to point the ship, but he certainly has a characteristic way of adjusting the sails. A lot of melody, a lot of vibrato, a lot of resonance, and more than just a pinch of angular harmony.

Visit ECM Records on the web.

For more rarum coverage, see:
2004 Rarums, Part 2: The Drummers
2004 Rarums, Part 3: The Guitarists
2002 Rarums

Tracks and Personnel

Dave Holland — Rarum X

Personnel: Dave Holland; John Abercrombie; Jack DeJohnette; Steve Coleman; Kenny Wheeler; Julian Priester; Steve Ellington; Steve Wilson; Robin Eubanks; Steve Nelson; Billy Kilson; Cassandra Wilson; Eric Person; Gene Jackson; Kevin Eubanks; Marvin Smitty Smith; Chris Potter; Sam Rivers; Anthony Braxton; Barry Altschul.
Tracks: How's Never; You I Love; Inception; The Balance; Equality; Nemesis; Shifting Sands; Four Winds; Prime Directive; Homecoming; Conference Of The Birds.

Eberhard Weber — Rarum XVIII

Personnel: Eberhard Weber; Ralph Towner; Jan Garbarek; Jon Christensen; Gary Burton; Pat Metheny; Steve Swallow; Dan Gottlieb; Rainer Brüninghaus; Charlie Mariano; John Marshall; Bonnie Herman; Norma Winstone; Bill Frisell; Paul McCandless; Lyle Mays; Michael Di Pasqua; Marilyn Mazur.

Tracks: Nimbus; The Whopper; Oasis; Silent Feet; Fluid Rustle; Maurizius; Gesture; Closing Scene /Diary; Her Wild Ways; French Diary.

Arild Andersen — Rarum XIX

Personnel: Arild Andersen; Nils Petter Molvaer; Tore Brunborg; Jon Balke; Jon Christensen; Ralph Towner; Nana Vasconcelos; Bendik Hofseth; Cikada String Quartet; Kenneth Knudsen; Paolo Vinaccia; Knut Riisnaes; Pål Thowsen; John Taylor; Bill Frisell; Alphonse Mouzon; Kirsten Broten Berg; Frode Alnaes; Bugge Wesseltoft; Vassilis Tsabropoulos; John Marshall; Steve Dobrogosz; Kenny Wheeler; Paul Motian; Juhani Aaltonen; Lars Jansson.

Tracks: Vanilje; Svev; The Island; 305 W 18 St; For All We Know; The Sword Under His Wings; Shorts; Gardsjenta; Sagn; She's Gone (from a Norwegian folksong); Printer; A Song I Used To Play; Sole.


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