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Mathias Eick: The Lyrical Dimension


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Norwegian trumpeter/composer Mathias Eick comes from a musical space that, during the last 30 years, has rightfully earned itself the attributes of a genre. The singularity of his tone, marked by the lyrical quality of his phrasing and underlined by a melancholic solemnity, adds a particular note a the Nordic jazz tradition he shares with Jan Garbarek, Arve Henriksen and Nils Petter Molvaer. A complex musician, Eick also plays double bass, guitar, piano and vibraphone—instruments which continuously stimulate his creativity.

Throughout his life, Eick has been involved in numerous projects, including work with drummer Manu Katche, bassist Lars Danielsson and Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla. He is also a longtime collaborator with the experimental Jaga Jazzist, with whom he toured North America in 2011. Together with his quintet, Eick has recently released his second album as a leader, Skala (ECM 2011), on which he furthers the reflexive line of expression opened in 2008 with The Door (ECM), bringing a new rhythmical dimension which—through the use of two drum sets augmenting the sonic space—follows his intention to emulate the swing created by Keith Jarrett's European quartet from the 1970s.

All About Jazz: Do you recall the first time you heard music?

Mathias Eick: The first time I heard music was, of course, in our house, because I come from a very musical family. But what I remember very well and what stayed with me, is the first time I heard live music. It was at a Weather Report concert my father took me to. I still remember that, at some point, he was carrying me away from the stage because the sound was too loud. That music made a great impression on me.

AAJ: What is your musical background?

ME: I started playing classical piano when I was five and started with the trumpet at six. We had a music room in our house with all kinds of instruments and, as we had no TV, every time the other kids went home to watch TV, I went to that room and played an instrument. We had a vibraphone, a piano, guitars, trumpets, and a French horn in there. We were five kids and all of us were playing at least one instrument. My father was really into jazz and was also playing all kinds of instruments, and my mother sang in choirs. It is still like that. Last night I was visiting them and my mother went to her choir and my father went to rehears with his swing jazz band.

AAJ: Are there any stations in your musical development you would like to comment upon?

ME: Up to the age of eleven I was listening mostly to traditional jazz like Dixieland and swing stuff, and early Chet Baker. Then a guy gave me a record with Clifford Brown and Max Roach, so I started listening to bebop for like five years. I developed through the different periods of music. Later, in my teens, I was listening to Pat Metheny, and also discovered Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorius. In those days pop music like Steely Dan also exploded in a way.

AAJ: What instrument were you playing at that time?

ME: At that time I was playing double bass. When I was ten I used to play trumpet with my father's band, but then I started with double bass and had gigs that helped me make some pocket money. That was easier achieved with a double bass than with a trumpet. Then I started studying music. It was a clear thing that I was going to go to the Trondheim Music Academy. My elder brother was already studying there and although there was a period when I was wondering about going to Berklee [College of Music, in Boston, USA], I knew that it was better to stay in Norway because of the network you were able to build with the other musicians. And besides, it is a really good school. So I studied trumpet and also double bass at the Trondheim Music Academy.

AAJ: Was there a clear line of development along which you decided what instrument you were going to focus on?

ME: In a way the trumpet has always been a part of me, like an extension of my body; that was clear to me pretty early, because it felt quite natural. It was the closest thing to my heart.

AAJ: You have a very wide musical range and are involved in more parallel projects, like Jaga Jazzist and singer/songwriter Thomas Dybdahl. How do these collaborations affect your own musical persona?

ME: In the time when I was studying music, I learned that you had to play a lot to find yourself and your own path in music and in the music business, so I decided to play as much as possible for a period of ten years. I was involved with seven, eight or even ten bands at one time. It was quite stressful, but with each of them I saw the opportunity to learn something new. During the last couple of years I have been scaling down, so now I only play with my own band and Jaga Jazzist, which is of course a very special project. We are like childhood friends, we've played together for 15 years and they are the most ambitious band I have ever been in. We wanted to rule the world in a way: travel everywhere; do the biggest tours; the biggest arrangements. That also taught me how to run a band, so four years ago, when I started my own band, I knew what to expect, what to appreciate, and how to manage it. It is like running a small company.

AAJ: Which aspect of your musical expression is potentiated by your collaboration with Thomas Dybdahl?

ME: That is something really special. It was in 2003 or 2004 when I first heard a solo album from Thomas Dybdahl. I still remember, I was sitting in the Jaga Jazzist band car as the song "Stay Home" came on. I thought it was amazing, and I sort of heard myself playing that piece with him right away. I copied his address from the CD cover to write to him and tell him how much liked it, but never did. I was hoping that one day I would get to work with him. And then a few years later, he called me and told me that he would like to do something together. We reworked the piece and I put in my trumpet solo and made it a little more lyrical. He is such a great guy to work with because he really appreciates when people come up with good ideas. We rehearsed for one week and then we made a six-week tour together. The video on YouTube is from that tour.

AAJ: Would it be fair to say that the work with Thomas represents, to an extent, your romantic side, the lyrical aspect of your musical expression?

ME: Absolutely. I am, more than the average musicians, quite focused on the lyrical dimension of my music. Even when I am rearranging old pieces, I am trying to bring the lyrical part to the front. An then, of course you need the contradiction with other, more sober sounds and noises, but if you know how to combine them it can be really beautiful.

AAJ: Is there such a thing as a master plan, where you know where you want to get, or it is more a matter of chance?

ME: Yes, you can do that but, at the same time, it is not easy to plan the future when it comes to music and emotions because things change really fast. What you can do is to build some frame around it and say, for instance, I don't want to repeat myself too much or try not to copy others, and inside this frame I will develop. Of course, it took me quite a few years to figure out how to do it. When it comes to the practical side it is easier. I had this dream for ten years to make a record with Manfred Eicher at ECM, in Germany. I saw it coming nearer and when the time was right I knew what I had to do. But then again it is interesting to see what the next step is going to be because now I am writing a lot of music for theater and I had a commissioned work for the VossaJazz Festival in Norway.

AAJ: You said somewhere that Skala represents a natural link in your development as an artist. Please discuss your line of development and what particular station this album represents.

ME: One thing is the composing part and another thing is the band. The previous album, The Door, was a really quiet, reflective record in a way, and I didn't want to repeat that. Therefore, it became interesting to try another direction. Skala has more musicians and more energy and more arrangements. So, from the compositional point of view it is more complex. It took a few years to break the barrier and release The Door. Whatever you do is just like a blueprint of where you are in your life and if you put that into an historical context, then you can try and incorporate some of those aspects into your music. Actually this is what I have been trying to do for many years, puttin myself into this picture. Because you have Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvær, Jon Hassell and Kenny Wheeler, and all those trumpet players I am surrounded by, and I didn't want to sound like a copy of any of them. That was a big challenge, so it was good to break that barrier and start playing.

AAJ: Is your music taking a more narrative, more explicit form of expression now, or is it only a phase in your general development?

ME: Skala is more conservative than The Door, more approachable to some extent. You know, The Door was the result of many years of experimenting and searching.

AAJ: I was wondering if you were influenced by minimalism in "Oslo"?

ME: "Oslo" is one of the most pop-ish songs on the album, where the lyrical trumpet intro kind of hides the conservative part, but the inner growth you are sensing may come from the fact that there's a lot of energy in that piece. The other thing regarding the energy was that when I started a band I didn't want to have a quiet, low-playing orchestra. I wanted to be with people who really took off and played out. I wanted them to be expressionists. There are no rules or regulation that say that you have to play soft or quiet.

AAJ: What is the extra dimension the second drum set brings to the sound?

ME: It is not that much a matter of having more or louder drums, as it is a matter of making the sound wider and deeper. When we had only one drummer, I used to play bongo drums on the solos. I think that whenever you make music you need to keep in mind that the sonic landscape needs to be three-dimensional and you are part of it. There are so many layers there that you can dig into. The inspiration for that is actually the quartet Keith Jarrett had in the second half of the seventies, with Jon Christensen, Palle Danielsson and Jan Garbarek, who used to play percussion when Keith Jarrett took a solo. I wanted to recreate that swing.

AAJ: You play more instruments, even on Skala, what side of you do they represent?

ME: It is more like a matter of habit, a spontaneous thing. As a child I was used to play many instruments, and these days, even during the sound checks, I still try one thing or another. As I said, the trumpet is a part of me but I love playing bass and I love piano and I love playing vibraphone; there's not much thinking about it, it just comes as a natural thing.

AAJ: Sometimes, your solo playing gives the impression of sheer loneliness, and I don't mean lack of musical synergy. Is this what you feel when you play or is it the characteristic of your tone that's your trademark?

ME: Yes, it is the trademark, I should say. But then again, you know, music is all about emotions and one of my biggest goals was to get in touch with my emotions so that I could express them through the instruments I am playing. Of course, listening to the music is a subjective act, but in those moments I am alone with my feelings and I am trying to express them in the best way I can.

AAJ: Where does your trumpet tone come from?

ME: It comes from everything I have been listening throughout the years, I guess, not only trumpet players, but music in general. I have been listening a lot to Jan Garbarek and Bill Frisell. It is also a result of me trying not to sound like any of them.

AAJ: Do you have a feeling of belonging to the Nordic jazz community?

ME: When we got the contract with ECM in Germany I became a member of the ECM community, and that's what I wanted to achieve. Because I am from Norway people will put me into the Nordic category. But I do not think too much about it. On the other hand, I understand that when we are out in the world people think that we have a common trace and we sound the same. The common trace there, I think, is the emotion we put into our music rather than a certain stylistic brand.

Maybe I am part of the Nordic ideology, in the way we all think about music. In Norway you don't have to play music in order to survive. We are not doing concerts because we need to pay the rent. We play music because we think that it is a lot of fun to play with great musicians. If you live in a society where you have to play every day in a small club or other places where people don't listen to you, the mentality is totally different. As a composer, for instance, in Norway you can survive without making music you don't want to make, you can take your time and come up with something real good after five years if you want. There's no existential pressure there.

AAJ: Do you have any idea why you guys up there in the North have broken the barrier and came to accept and acknowledge emotions, and not only in music?

ME: One practical or logical explanation is that there is a lot of support system so you can actually apply for scholarships or a time of study. So you can take your time and really approach a form of art in depth and attach to it the right kind of emotion. Norway is a rich country and the system has already a tradition in supporting culture and creativity, which now starts paying out even on the emotional level.

AAJ: What are your short- and long-term plans?

ME: My short term plan is that I am going to New Orleans on Monday with my girlfriend for two weeks. It is mostly for holiday but I am also going to check out the roots of jazz. Another plan is to play a concert in Oslo with my band and to write music for a brass orchestra, probably in January. Then I plan to start recording a new album this winter. Next summer I hope that we can tour USA and Canada for the first time. The five-year project is to start focusing in the solo project and make it bigger and also play more in Germany and in Europe.

Selected Discography

Mathias Eick, Skala (ECM, 2011)
Iro Haarla, Vespers (ECM, 2011)
Jaga Jazzist, One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010)
Lars Danielsson, Tarantella (ACT Music, 2009)
Mathias Eick, The Door (ECM, 2008)
Manu Katché, Playground (ECM, 2007)
Jacob Young, Sideways (ECM 2007)
Iro Haarla, Northbound (ECM, 2005)
Jacob Young, Evening Falls (ECM, 2004)

Photo Credits
Page 1: John Kelman
All Other Photos: Richard Wayne

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