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Arild Andersen - remembering Mingus

 

                             

 

Even heroes stand on the shoulders of giants. The Norwegian double bassist Arild Andersen has been winning admirers worldwide since the 1970s with the full-toned, extraordinarily articulate playing he displayed on a series of albums his quartet recorded for the ECM label.

 

As a young musician he learned from several exemplars of his chosen instrument, including Gary Peacock, Ron Carter and the tragi-heroic Scott LaFaro. One major figure of the double bass keeps coming back to him, however: Charles Mingus. Andersen was a teenager when he went to see Mingus’s band play in Oslo in 1964. It’s a gig that’s stayed with him, not least because, fifty years on, first Oslo and then London jazz festivals invited him to recreate it.

 

Later this year Andersen will join the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in a programme of Mingus’s music, having previously featured live and on disc with the orchestra in a celebration of his long connection with ECM Records. And before that, starting tomorrow, he plays four Scottish concerts with his trio featuring saxophonist Tommy Smith and drummer Paolo Vinaccia, a group where there’s a certain Mingus influence, although audiences might not easily detect it.

 

“I remember going to see Mingus every night during a residency he played at the Village Vanguard in New York when I was living there in the early 1970s,” says Andersen, who had the thrill of following in Mingus’ footsteps when he took to the same stage that hosted the 1964 Oslo concert in recreating it and when he led his own band at the Town Hall in New York, scene of a legendary Mingus recording.

 

“There was something they did that intrigued me: the band would be playing really wildly – it was chaos at times actually – but somehow they would land on a cue absolutely together. I wondered how they did this. So I watched them every night and finally I understood what was happening, and I’ve used the same device in bands ever since. Although we’re not quite so chaotic in the trio, we use it there, too, but I’m not going to tell you what it is!”

 

Andersen went on not only to play on the same stages as Mingus but also to work with three of the musicians in the Mingus band from that 1964 concert – drummer Dannie Richmond, pianist Jaki Byard and saxophonist Clifford Jordan. He has also worked very successfully with another Mingus alumnus, trumpeter Ted Curson, in a career that has seen him play alongside saxophone legends Stan Getz, Johnny Griffin and Dexter Gordon as well as fellow Norwegian, Jan Garbarek.

 

Playing with Dannie Richmond, who served with Mingus for over twenty years, Andersen realised that he might be closer to Mingus than he’d previously suspected.

 

“They’re technical points, really, but I noticed several things happening when I was playing with Dannie, especially the way he changed tempo, that were obviously developed during his years with Mingus,” says Andersen. “I must have picked things up without realising it because although I loved Mingus’s music – he was a great composer - I wasn’t aware of listening to him as a direct influence as a bass player.”

 

This, he says, was partly to do with the records that were available in Norway during the time when he was developing his bass technique. While LaFaro, who died in a car accident aged just twenty-five in 1961, sang out from the recordings he made with pianist Bill Evans and was clearly a virtuoso, the Mingus that Andersen heard early on was possibly restricted, he says, by the disciplines that bebop rhythm sections worked under.

 

“I remember him being an amazing character onstage on that Oslo concert,” he says. “And then watching him in New York and then seeing the 1964 concert again – it was filmed at the time and has been shown on television quite a few times – I was able to see and hear just what a fantastic bass player he was. He really drove the rhythm but he also played like a horn player in the higher register. I like to do both of those things too.”

 

The trio with Smith and Vinaccia actually has its roots in Scotland, having formed after the Aberdeen-based Norwegian consulate commissioned Andersen to compose a suite celebrating the centenary of Norway’s independence from Sweden in 2005. The commission called for a duet and having known Smith since they appeared together on a Channel Four television series recorded in Edinburgh when the saxophonist was a teenager, Andersen thought it would be appropriate to involve a Scottish element.

 

Oslo-based Vinaccia joined a year or so later and the trio became an instant success, winning enthusiastic reviews worldwide for its debut album, Live at Belleville. A second album, Mira, followed in 2013.

 

“They’re very different records but they’re two sides of the same group,” he says. “Mira was conceived as a ballads album, quite restrained, and we can play that way in concert as well as playing with the energy you hear on the live album.”

 

From The Herald, May 11, 2016

 

Building the ECM sound

 

Arild Andersen remembers the first time he encountered the man behind the most stylish and influential record company in jazz over the past forty years, ECM Records founder, Manfred Eicher.

 

“It would have been September 1970 and he travelled up to Oslo by train from Munich,” says Andersen, one of the world’s greatest double bass players who guests on the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s tribute to ECM this weekend. “That’s a long way by train. And he stayed in this hotel right by the railway station, really cheap and nasty, not at all the sort of place you might associate with someone with the sort of refined taste that ECM has become known for across the world.”

 

These were very early days in ECM’s development. A few months before, Andersen had been playing with fellow Norwegian, saxophonist Jan Garbarek at the Bologna Jazz Festival in northern Italy. Garbarek’s quartet at the time – featuring Andersen, guitarist Terje Rypdal and drummer Jon Christensen – had been co-opted into American pianist-composer and then-Scandinavian resident George Russell’s sextet for the gig and afterwards Eicher visited Garbarek in their dressing room.

 

“Jan said that this German guy had offered to make an album by the quartet,” says Andersen. “That sort of offer just didn’t happen back then. The Norwegian jazz singer Karin Krog had made a couple of albums and Jan’s quartet made this limited edition pressing ourselves of 500 copies of a live recording, which now sells for about £3000 in Japan. But making an album wasn’t like it is today when it’s so easy to make a CD. This was a really big deal for us.”

 

To save money, a room had been booked in an Oslo art gallery that let musicians rehearse there after ten in the evenings. However the acoustics made recording a farce and drummer Christensen was sent to discover if the capital’s Arne Bendiksen studio might be available. It was and the next night, as well as the Garbarek quartet’s landmark Afric Pepperbird album being recorded, a meeting took place that would turn Oslo into European Jazz Central for a time.

 

In the studio’s sound engineer, Jan Erik Kongshaug, Eicher had found someone whose ideas about recording clarity matched his own. Before long, pianist Keith Jarrett arrived to make the ground-breaking Facing You album. Chick Corea and Gary Burton flew in to record the classic Crystal Silence, with Corea adding his Piano Improvisations 1 & ll to the ECM catalogue there, and Andersen was present every time.

 

“Manfred would call me and say he had Keith Jarrett or Chick Corea coming to town to record and ask if I’d like to come along to the studio to give my thoughts on how things were sounding,” says Andersen. “When Keith Jarrett recorded Facing You, it was obvious that something really special was happening but nobody could have known then that this label was going to occupy such an important position in jazz all these years later.”

 

Andersen himself was directly involved in five of ECM’s first twenty releases, recording with saxophonist Robin Kenyatta, pianist Bobo Stenson’s trio and Rypdal’s own group as well as making another album with Garbarek, Sart, which along with Afric Pepperbird presents a very different style of music compared to the saxophonist’s output of recent years. In fact, so close did Andersen and Eicher become that they both made their first trips to New York at the same time in the early 1970s, agreeing to meet at Kennedy Airport before taking a taxi together into Greenwich Village. There, as darkness fell, they discovered that the musicians who had offered to put them up separately were both out working.

 

Fortunately, help was at hand in the guise of singer Sheila Jordan, who quickly offered Andersen and his wife a room nearby, and drummer Paul Motian, who saved Eicher finding another cheap hotel or, worse, a park bench and further additions were made to the ECM catalogue, with Andersen again lending an extra pair of ears in the studio.

 

“That was the trip when Manfred recorded Ralph Towner’s Trios/Solos, another very important ECM album, and maybe Return to Forever’s first album,” says Andersen. “I’m not sure of exact dates but I do remember Stanley Clarke, who was playing with Return to Forever at the time and about to become a big star, finding out that I didn’t have my bass with me. He said, Have this one, I have another one that I take on the road, and he went off on tour, leaving me to baby sit his bass, which I played on gigs with Joe Farrell and some other people for about six weeks.”

 

By the mid 1970s ECM had become established globally, with Eicher’s insistence on recording clarity and a signature record sleeve artwork style appealing to hi fi buffs and a wider audience drawn from rock and classical music as well as jazz. It had also become home to a future world jazz superstar, guitarist Pat Metheny, as well as musicians from the freer end of jazz who responded to Eicher’s attention to detail by, in cases such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, recording some of their best work.

 

“People talk about Manfred having too much control over recording,” says Andersen. “But for the musicians during the 1970s, to be given a great sound in the studio meant that we were able to use the space between notes to create an atmosphere, instead of when you’re playing in a club and you leave a space in the music all you hear is people talking and you feel you have to play all the time. Later, there was more energy in the studio and it became more like a live gig, but from my experience with Manfred, if you knew what you wanted to record, he would let you record it and make it sound as good as possible. I think if you weren’t fully prepared, he would then push you in a certain direction but he’s incredibly supportive as well as being fully focused on the music. He was always telling us to take chances and if they didn’t work, he’d say, well, we don’t have to use that track.”

 

Forty years on from their first meeting Andersen and Eicher remain friends and although he doesn’t have a contract – nobody does, he suspects – with ECM, he still regards the label as his home. As well as recording with his own working groups, the latest of which is his trio with SNJO director Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinaccia that recorded the acclaimed Live at Belleville album, Andersen has gone to Eicher with a variety of projects that have subsequently appeared on ECM, sometimes at the expense of his own wardrobe. The album If You Look Far Enough, which featured Andersen alongside guitarist-pianist Ralph Towner and Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, began life as a solo album that Eicher sanctioned on the proviso that Andersen hand over a particularly smart jacket that Eicher coveted.

 

Having now appeared on dozens of albums for Eicher, as well as being present for many landmark recordings, Andersen has a view of ECM that makes him ideally placed to celebrate the music associated with the label. Except, he says, he’s never been the featured soloist with a big band before and he’s scared witless.

 

“It’s really great to have all these nice songs to play but I’ve never practised for anything the way I’ve been practising for these gigs,” he says. “I know all the originals, of course, and even played on some, including Ralph’s Piano Waltz, which I played with John Abercrombie. But the way they’ve been orchestrated is incredible, really brilliant and actually quite difficult for someone like me who’s used to playing the tune and then just improvising. Trygve Seim, who has re-orchestrated his lovely Ulrikas Dans, e-mailed me and said he was planning to get help from a big band expert and I emailed back, saying, No, just stay with your own beautiful way of working, don’t make it complicated. It’s a new experience and I’m looking forward to it. I just hope I can play my parts and if I can’t, we’ll just have to go out and get drunk.”

 

He’s joking, of course; knowing Andersen’s abilities, the drinks are more likely to be toasts celebrating his and SNJO’s latest success.

 

From The Herald, October 14, 2010.

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