My latest review for All About Jazz is of a private concert recently given by Mathias Eick at the residence of the Norwegian Consul General’s New York City residence in advance of this year’s jazzahead! festival in Bremen. Click the photo to read more:
Mathias Eick trumpet
Gjermund Larsen violin
Jon Balke piano
Mats Eilertsen double bass
Helge Norbakken percussion
Recorded May 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
So many of ECM’s finest trumpeters also happen to be skilled travelers. Tomasz Stanko and Enrico Rava in particular have hopped the globe in search of inspiration, life experience, and musical expansion. Yet few, among the possible exceptions of Nils Petter Molvær and Per Jørgensen, have gone so deeply inward and emerged with such painstaking lyricism as Mathias Eick. Midwest was inspired by a North American tour, during which time Eick recalls feeling very homesick: “Then we reached the area called the Rural Midwest and I suddenly had the strange feeling that I was home. It occurred to me that some of the early settlers must have felt this way, when they looked at the rich soil of the plains and saw that this was wonderful land for farming. Parts of the Midwest remind me strongly of parts of Norway including the southeast of Norway where I grew up.” Even with this, and the migratory tunes that comprise this album, in mind, the journey on which we are led is far more psychic than geographic. Joining his caravan are violinist Gjermund Larsen (last heard on the Christian Wallumrød Ensemble’s Outstairs), pianist Jon Balke, bassist Mats Eilertsen, and percussionist Helge Norbakken: a continent unto themselves.
The word “lyrical” gets rehashed a lot to distinguish jazz that is “pretty” versus that which is “raw.” Yet no rule says that the two must be exclusive. In fact, Eick has forged just such an alloy on this album, and you can hear it in everything from his tone to his soulful interactions in and among the band. Eick has clearly worked hard to establish an identity on the trumpet, because we can hear it the moment he sounds his first note. In this vein the title track pans us into the emotional thick of things, blessing the land with the gentle rain of cymbals and the tilling of piano. Eick and Larsen set an album precedent by way of their give and take, threading the ether with a sound so lucid it’s almost dreamy. Larsen’s folk inflections do, in fact, make Midwest as much of what it is as its bandleader. Their harmonizing in “Hem” is just one example of this successful blend. The latter tune further epitomizes the sheer magnification of detail that has overlaid Eick’s playing and composing since his leader debut, The Door. More than ever, he is like the master photographer, who puts his eyeglass to every questionable grain and tinkers behind the scenes to get just the right emulsion before presenting the finished, developed image. That said, his pictures are often moving than still. Much of this movement can be found in either the emotional journeys at hand (cf. “March”) or in the contributions of individual musicians. Eilertsen pulses through “At Sea” like the power of recollection incarnate in one of two more straightforward thematic vehicles. The other, “Dakota,” also emphasizes the wonderment and space Balke brings to the palette, while Norbakken sends harmonic minnows into the periphery.
“Lost” is, along with the title tune, an emblematic one. Its evocation of slippage across space and time heightens Eick’s apparent dislocation even as it deepens his newfound connections to faraway soil. A lovely solo from Balke, nestled in a reed-bed of cymbals and bass, adds to the feeling. So, too, does “November,” by which we arrive at the bittersweet yet inevitable farewell, a taking stock of things learned and gained, those things long left behind and others soon to be, and still others waiting for return. It is the realization that the pleasure of going home is always darkened by the sadness of departure.
If Eick has so far crafted a distinct melodic solar system on ECM, Midwest is a galaxy unto itself. Fresh, spiraled, and classic to the core, it’s sure to be one of the label’s most enduring statements of all time.
(To hear samples of Midwest, click here.)
Mathias Eick trumpet
Andreas Ulvo piano
Audun Erlien electric bass
Torstein Lofthus drums
Gard Nilssen drums
Morten Qvenild keyboards
Tore Brunborg tenor saxophone
Sidsel Walstad harp
All compositions by Eick
Recorded December 2009 and January 2010 at Cabin Recorders, Bugges Room, and Pooka Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Even Enersen Ormestad and Audun Ofstad Borrmann
Mixed May 2010 at Rainbow Studio by Jan Erik Kongshaug, Manfred Eicher, and Mathias Eick
Produced by Mathias Eick and Manfred Eicher
Mathias Eick follows up his melodically charged leader debut, 2008’s The Door, with something delectable. This time he fronts an expanded, smoother band that includes saxophonist Tore Brunborg within a nest of Scandinavian talent. Ever at their center is Eick, whose threefold role as composer, performer, and arranger takes on fuller idiomatic body.
Skala shares key aspects with its predecessor. It is another set of eight originals, which too can be divided into three acts of two, three, and three scenes, respectively. Act I likewise opens with the title track and, like its earlier counterpart, only seems to grow more translucent as instruments are added. Yet the similarities end there, for the music is something else entirely. Here is a musician who not only has listened deeply to others on the path to enriching his compositional breadth, but has also listened to himself, taking into the account all the work done before so as to tattoo new shapes into the same skin. And so, while his trumpet draws more smooth, echoing rainbows, the sky it inhabits is groovier in color. Channeling the catch and release of the Jan Garbarek Group at its best, he activates a unified band sound. Brunborg’s tenor, burnished like a well-shined shoe, steps confidently into the optimistic expanse set before him and assures us that all the wrongs of the past will turn to gold in the morning sun. All along, the pliant bass work of Audun Erlien keeps things moving toward “Edinburgh,” in which Eick strays just enough to stretch his palette, the band expanding and contracting in anticipation of his gorgeous marginalia.
“June” begins Act II with a haunting plot twist, joining the pianism of Andreas Ulvo and Sidsel Walstad’s harping in peaceful communication: proof that even the album’s darkest hour keeps its finger on the pulse of luminescence. “Oslo” counters with majesty, throwing itself into a groove akin to those of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. Concise and self-assured, its inner workings reveal Eick’s communal spirit, which felt distant behind The Door. “Joni” (as in Mitchell—one of Eick’s many popular touch-points) makes for a flowing companion. The Lyle Mays-like pianism drops a screen for Eick, who doubles on marimba in a display of cinematographic imagination.
Act III awakens with the stretch of urban reflection that is “Biermann” and ends with “Epilogue,” the latter a catalyst for escape. Between them is “Day After,” which looks at the world through rose-colored glasses and jumps from the peak of Brunborg’s solo into bliss. Building molecules from atoms, the reedman muscles its way between clouds, a lightening bolt in search of its originary spark.
It would be no exaggeration to say that on this album Eick has brought back the luscious aesthetics of those seminal ECM records from the 70s and 80s, when Solstice and the Pat Metheny Group were charting territory so new it could only seem familiar. Skala is proof that a silver lining needs no cloud to shine. A treasure, through and through.
(To hear samples of Skala, click here.)
Mathias Eick trumpet, guitar, vibraphone
Jon Balke piano, Fender Rhodes
Audun Erlien electric bass, guitar
Audun Kleive drums, percussion
Stian Carstensen pedal steel guitar
Recorded September 2007 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Peer Espen Ursfjord
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Mathias Eick
Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick makes his ECM debut with The Door. Label mainstays Jon Balke (piano) and Audun Kleive (drums), along with Nils Petter Molvær associate Audun Erlien (bass), forge a memorable session of lyrical crystal.
The Door can be divided into three parts. The first begins with the title tune and ends with its follow-up, “Stavanger.” Both mark their passage by way of Balke’s unmistakable threading. Strumming the inner strings like a giant zither, he welcomes the rhythm section’s appliqué as might a stained glass window welcome light. Over this, Eick draws his arcs into neighboring lands. Both tracks achieve a remarkable thing: sounding sparsest when the band volumizes its playing, and densest when it treads quietly. Such are the unexpected turns of the album’s flight path, which cleaves trumpet through Balke’s flurry of snowflakes, catching every nuance of the band’s thermal and disappearing in a pinpoint of light just above the horizon line.
For the central three songs, Stian Carstensen (last heard at the bellows on Trygve Seim’s Different Rivers) augments the band with pedal steel guitar. His fluid keening maps the backdrop with its feline prowl and adds a visceral, mournful edge. Of this portion, “October” is a thematic highlight, if not also a low shadow. Situated between “Cologne Blues” and “December,” it scans a city in blackout, working through painful memories in want of the positives that engendered them to begin with. Despite the frigid climate, there is also great movement, a rolling and crashing of waves that recalls The Sea.
The final act is comprised of three further scenes. “Williamsburg” is, like the album as a whole, a tessellation of form and content, which through the voice of Eick’s horn unravels clock parts and rearranges them as a holistic composition. The easygoing nature of this track settles into the album’s moral tinge. “Fly” reaches even higher, soaring into fadeout with the crackle of parchment. This leaves only “Porvoo” to make sense of the traces. Its trio of horn, piano, and brushed cymbals imagines a protracted spelunk into the depths of a solitary mind.
On that last point, what amazes about Eick’s music is the hermetic seal of its arranging. Regardless of how many instruments accompany him, he stands alone. His soulful soliloquizing embraces the listener with its performative strengths, patterning the world over with tree branch and sky. And while the overall narrative seems blanketed in snow, beneath that wintry crust its mementos are still dissolving from last year’s thaw. The effect is sure to please fans of Molvær and Manu Katché, both of whom lead without being lead, saying everything through contact of body and technology.