Ellen Andrea Wang - taking the bass down Route 66
Ellen Andrea Wang’s road to Damascus experience happened, not in Syria but in the Czech Republic. The minister’s daughter from Oppland in southern Norway had gone to Prague as a violinist to play in a music festival but when she returned home she had a different member of the violin family in her luggage.
“I’d always been fascinated by rhythm and I loved the idea of playing in a band that had bass and drums, rather than in an orchestra,” says Wang, who brings her band Pixel to Aberdeen Jazz Festival this weekend. “I’d never tried to play a double bass before but something made me buy this one and I decided that I would quit playing the violin and become a bass player. I don’t know why but as I began to play it, I felt comfortable with it. It was as if I’d found my voice.”
So the violin that the then seventeen year old had been playing for ten years went back in its case for keeps. Her violin studies did give her some advantages as a novice bass player, though.
“I wouldn’t say it was an easy transition but because both instruments have fingerboards without frets I was able to transfer some of the techniques from violin to bass,” she says. “The finger positions are quite different, of course, but I was super-motivated and I practised a lot.”
It wasn’t just her bass playing that Wang was practising, however. Part of her reason for becoming a bass player was that she wanted to sing, too, and as anyone who has ever tried to sing and play double bass at the same time will confirm, this is no easy challenge.
Fortunately, she was the only bass player in town, at least of her age, and the offers to play in bands at high school duly came along. Both her parents play piano – her mother plays classical, her father jazz – and in a house where music was always in the air, there were lots of records for Wang to listen to and get a musical grounding from. Growing up, she quickly became aware of Norway’s jazz heritage and has taken inspiration from musicians including the exceptional bassist Arild Andersen.
Within two years of beginning to play bass she was applying to the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo. She was, she says, amazed to be accepted but then she did do what she laughingly describes as “my hit” – the rhythm ‘n’ blues standard Route 66, complete with vocal - for her audition.
In Oslo she came under the supervision of Bjørn Kjellemyr, the classically trained double bassist who brought his own sound on bass guitar to records by leading Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal.
“Bjørn has been a great mentor to me and to all his students,” says Wang. “He really takes an interest in what his students are doing and he’d come along to concerts I was playing and offer advice or helpful comments. I spent seven years at the Academy because I did a bachelor’s degree in double bass and then a masters in bass and voice, and Bjørn’s encouragement was invaluable.”
It was while she was at the Academy that Wang had her first experience of international touring as a professional jazz musician, travelling across Europe and the Far East with drummer Pål Thowsen’s Norwegian Songs trio. She also played with Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg, who composed and produced Miles Davis’s Aura album, and in 2010 she formed Pixel with three of her fellow Academy students, drummer Jon Audun Baar, saxophonist Harald Lassen and trumpeter Jonas Vemøy.
“When we first got together our inspiration was Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come,” she says. “I was listening to that album a lot because I loved Charlie Haden’s bass playing on it especially and I couldn’t imagine ever being able to play like that. It was a real door-opening experience for me. But I also wanted to sing and so we added ideas from all of our influences, from pop and rock music, which I’ve always liked too, and we developed this more modern sound. We don’t sound like Ornette at all now and sometimes we don’t know what’s going to happen but there’s a lot of melody and rhythm and energy in the music. It’s definitely jazz but it’s jazz that rock audiences can relate to.”
Pixel is just one of the projects Wang is involved with. She also leads her own trio and after Aberdeen she goes off on tour with session drummer supreme Manu Katché’s band with fellow Norwegian and fellow Aberdeen Jazz Festival guest, saxophonist Tore Brunborg.
“I’m really excited about playing with Manu Katché,” she says. “I always want to get better and the only way to do that is to play with musicians who are better than you.”
From The Herald, March 20, 2015.