June 13, 2024

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Review: Eberhard Weber – A German Jazz Story – 2023: Video, Book cover

Eberhard Weber is a central figure in the evolution of European jazz. His autobiography is a lively read, and the sections describing his stroke and his subsequent rehabilitation are vivid and candid.

Eberhard Weber is a virtuoso who revolutionized jazz bass playing. He brought his instrument from the far corner of the stage into the spotlight – and turned it into a solo force. He began his career as a jazz bassist in the 1960s, and his band Colours, with the saxophonist Charlie Mariano, became one of the most successful jazz groups in Europe. His record Colours of Chloë (made for ECM) was a cult album in ist time. Weber went on to perform with many the big stars of the international jazz scene, including Wolfgang Dauner, Gary Burton, Pat Metheney and Jan Garbarek. He was also a key member of the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble. Playing the five-string instrument, both in acoustic and electric form, he also became a master of the solo recital, using electronics to accompany his own dexterous improvisations.

Weber has not been able to play the bass since he suffered a stroke in April 2007 during a sound check with the Jan Garbarek Group at the Berlin Philharmonic Hall. But he had already created an oeuvre that is second to none. The charismatic bassist made jazz history with his explorations, both in terms of his own instrument and with his range of creative musical companions. His remarkable “resumé” is at the same time a humorous and exciting testimony to a vital period in German jazz history. This is the first English translation of the original autobiography published in German by Sagas in 2015.

This is a characterful and consistently entertaining, even compulsive, read. Translator Heidi Kirk has done a fine job in bringing over into English the no-nonsense cadences and dry humour of Weber’s Résumé: Eine deutsche Jazz-Geschichte (sagas. edition 2015). The book is handsomely produced, with the pleasing range of (mostly photographic) illustrations having more clarity or “punch” to them than in the German edition. As there, a discography details Weber’s work on ECM as both leader and guest.

However: while the discography has been brought up to date – with the addition of the 2021 ECM release of a 1994 solo concert in Avignon that is Once Upon A Time – there is still no treatment of the considerable body of Weber’s work to be found on other labels. This is as unfortunate as Weber’s suggestion in the text (p 53) that the ground-breaking Dream Talk he made in 1964 with Wolfgang Dauner (p) and Fred Braceful (d) “isn’t available anymore”. In fact, it it has been reissued in both CD and LP formats. Weber’s early work for MPS includes excellent sessions with, e.g., Hampton Hawes, Stéphane Grappelli, Joe Pass and Monty Alexander while his latter-day non-ECM work ranges from Old Friends with the German All Stars, including Klaus Doldinger and Albert Mangelsdorff, to such Eastern-inflected sessions as Percussion Orchestra Meets Phong Lan Orchestra Hanoi with Christy Doran and Reto Weber and Crossing The Bridges with Chico Freeman and the Ustad Shafquat Ali Khan Group.

He does not reserve the same phlegmatic perspective throughout, however. Very quickly he is in his stride venting his irritation with, variously, radios which are left to play incessantly, musicians who make pointlessly derivative or repetitive records, vague and emotional descriptions of music, drummers who play on after the end of the song, people who drink too much beer to appreciate music properly… Weber is an entertainingly cranky host. If we are expecting a serious reflection on the nature of his music in the manner we might expect from other, more self-absorbed characters, he dispels that notion from the outset. In one anecdote, Dave Pike, the vibraphonist leader of the Dave Pike Set, tells a journalist in front of Weber and the rest of the band that “music is an island of beauty.” Weber and the others can’t contain their hilarity and soon bring Pike back down to earth.

Later in the book, when Weber is describing his time working in the US with Gary Burton, he notes that Americans and Germans have different attitudes towards their work and their relationships with their peers. When he talks about a “European measuredness,” the whole book suddenly clicks into focus because Weber is nothing if not measured. He describes his decision to leave his well-paid job, with the encouragement of his new wife Maja, in order to throw his full weight behind a bid for success as a professional musician in just six lines. Maya’s sudden and unexpected death is dealt with (or not, more accurately) in three lines. He hints at the depths of his grief, but only hints. He is measured to the point of reserve.

So, what we do not get here is a detailed analysis of his musical canon and personal life. That story will have to be written by another. What we do get, though, is an absolutely fascinating account of starting out in jazz in post-war Germany and ultimately working as an extremely successful international musician. Throughout, the things we might expect to be emphasized are not; an approach which seems entirely in keeping with Weber’s obvious humor and sense of proportion.

One chapter describes the hegemony of the free jazz movement in West Germany in the late 1960s, a movement so powerful that musicians had no choice but to join it if they wanted to work, no matter how absurd the demands it placed on them. Weber is scathing of the lack of beauty and skill in the music and ruthless in his and his friends’ sending up of its deep pomposity. At one point his trio are stopped in the middle of a free jazz festival recording and berated for playing something coherent  – “This is a free jazz meeting. You can’t play harmonies. It’s not allowed!” Bemused, they revert to thrashing the music out “full blast and full tilt” and are duly congratulated for it.

After several thousand words on his very mixed feelings towards free jazz, Weber remembers to mention that he recorded an LP, intercontinental, with Joe Pass. This event is noted without any kind of fanfare or self-congratulation which is odd because, firstly, it is a great record and, secondly, Weber had yet to release anything of any kind of impact or acclaim. Lots of people would have been delighted. Weber is, again, measured.

This book is at its best when Weber perhaps inadvertently tells us something genuinely fascinating. The account of him and a luthier friend fitting an additional string to his bass is eye opening. Five string basses existed in orchestras, but with an extra B string below the low E. Weber chooses instead to add an extra string at the top of the register, so his bass is tuned E A D G C. This explains a lot about his tone, shows his mastery of understanding of stringed instruments (his discussion of wolf tones is effortlessly erudite) and also his extreme pragmatism, as he works hard to make his admittedly rather poor-quality instrument work for him. An antidote to the gear-fetishists, he describes with candor how working with the limitations of his instrument—the dead spots, the buzzes—forced him to find ways of accommodating them which other people mistook for musical creativity.

Another interesting section is when he talks about his wife Maya designing the covers for many of his records as well as covers for several other ECM artists. Many people will agree that the covers of The Colours of ChloeSilent Feet and other classic Weber recordings added significantly to their charm and appeal. That Maya Weber drew and painted them makes them more alluring yet.

We learn a little about what it was like to work with Manfred Eicher in the early years of ECM, but it would have been good to hear more about how Weber developed his unique sound-world on, particularly, The Colours of Chloe, but also on his subsequent records as a leader between 1973 and 1984. However, we do learn a little about his feelings on being a band leader (he didn’t especially like it) and his relief to slip into a second-amongst-equals role in the Jan Garbarek Group.

It is a rare musician whose autobiography is filled with humility and humor. Weber ends lamenting that he never took up a professorship and, with it, a pension. He concludes that he never really knew what he was doing anyway so could not have explained it, a statement that is clearly untrue and maybe illustrates the difference between competence and genius. That his sole interest was in the playing and making of music shines off every page of this book. He implies time and again that talking about music is pointless. To play was the point. In a moment of uncharacteristic emotion, Weber talks about the excitement of taking a solo. “I loved when it was my turn!” So did we, Eberhard, and so do we still.

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