Romantic, wistful, and melancholic—the definitive ECM record
Genre: Jazz fusion with classical influences
Release date: 1974
Format: 12” vinyl
Catalog number: ECM 1042 ST
Eberhard Weber – electric and acoustic bass, cello, ocarina, backing vocals
Rainer Brüninghaus – keyboards and vibraphone
Ack van Rooyen – flugelhorn (track 3 and 4)
Peter Giger – drums (tracks 3 and 4)
Ralf Hübner – drums (track 2)
Gisela Schäuble – backing vocals
|The Colours of Chloë||
|An Evening with Vincent van Ritz||
|No Motion Picture||
Total running time:
ECM is not a label I have much affection for. Too often their music (all in the ECM style, because there is only one, and ECM’s CEO-cum-producer-cum-dictator Manfred Eicher ensures every record conforms) comes off as bloodless and soporific, without any spark of energy or vitality. However, in their early years in the 1970s, ECM did do some groundbreaking, compelling records, and this, the debut album of German double bass virtuoso Eberhard Weber, is probably the best ECM recording ever made.
Like most of the prominent continental European musicians of his generation, Eberhard Weber learned to play not in dingy rehearsal rooms or smoky bars, but in the conservatory, where he received an extensive classical music education. With his typical modesty, he downplays his early musical accomplishments, but he was already an in-demand jazz bassist in Germany by the early 1960s, and recorded as a sideman for keyboardist Wolfgang Dauner several times, starting in 1964. Eberhard Weber was one of the first musicians to electrify the double bass, and designed his own instrument in the early 1970s. The Colours of Chloë, his first album as a bandleader, represents the crystallization of his experiments with the electric double bass (first heard on the Michael Naura Quartet album Call in 1971) into a fully realized musical vision.
Compared to the American bands that invented jazz and dominated the genre since its inception, Eberhard Weber’s style is distinctly European, rooted in classical musical vocabulary and compositional techniques, but with elements of progressive rock as well. Instead of blues progressions or Tin Pan Alley standards, the music here models its primary themes off of Romantic-era program music, but on a more intimate chamber-music scale without the usual nineteenth century symphonic grandiosity (which also helps the relatively quiet and subdued, even in electric form, double bass stand out).
Eberhard Weber circa 1974. Believe it or not, he still wears that moustache to this very day.
The centerpiece of this record is Weber’s bass playing, which must have come as something of a shock to listeners of the time, having come several months before Jaco Pastorius’ first recording with fretless bass on the obscure live album Pastorius/Metheny/Ditmas/Bley, and Weber’s technique, while nowhere near as fast and virtuosic as Pastorius’, is if anything even more radical. He doesn’t just play on the note but around it, over it, and beneath it, exploiting the continuous fingerboard of the upright bass and the power of electric amplification for richly expressive vibrato, glissandos, and microtonalities. His bass lines, far from typical jazz walking bass or root-based rock lines, are lyrical and flowing, voicing the underlying chords in unexpected and fascinating ways, avoiding what Miles Davis called the “butter notes” of the root and third. The tone of his upright bass is smoother and darker than that of a fretless bass guitar, at times resembling a bass singer as much as a stringed instrument.
From this remarkable bass style the rest of the music unfolds, simple in arrangement yet complex in composition, and drenched in an atmosphere of pensive, longing nostalgia that many other ECM artists imitated but never quite captured. The focus is always kept on the bass; Rainer Brüninghaus’ electric piano, while it gets at least one lead in every piece, is not allowed to run away with any of them. Drums, too, are well-played but never ostentatious; of the two drummers, I prefer Ralf Hübner for his firmer, more rock-style technique as opposed to Peter Giger’s more “top-heavy” playing dominated by the cymbals but both do the job quite well.
One thing ECM has always done well is sound quality, and this album is no exception. The German vinyl pressing sounds excellent and captures the fine tonal qualities of all the instruments very well. Ralf Hübner’s kit in particular sounds wonderful, with a rich, deep resonance to the toms and snare at no sacrifice to capturing the details of his cymbals, which sound so perfectly captured you can almost hear the brushes hit them. The only instrument whose sound leaves anything to be desired is the bass when Weber takes out the bow and plays arco, which sounds a bit thin and reedy and struggles to be heard over the backing cellos, but this could be attributed to the primitive state of pickups for bowed instruments in the 1970s as much as the actual recording.
If I am to single any aspect of this album out as a major flaw, it’s the ambient interludes. They seem to be here to reinforce the classical vibe of this album, but they are too minimalist and simplistic and take up far more time than they deserve. They are quite homogenous, being mostly built around long chords from the bass (played with the bow) and backing cellos played by members of the Südfunk Symphony Orchestra and Eberhard Weber himself, and possibly a mellotron in there as well. Weber and Gisela Schäuble do some wordless backing vocals, but neither of them can really sing so they’re washed out into a textureless blank sheet of voice-like noises indistinguishable from the ocarina accompanying them—they don’t hit notes so much as they make tones that are in the correct pitch. The intro “More Colours” has the most interesting music in this vein, having more thought put into its harmonies and letting pizzicato bass and piano do a brief duet, but not enough for six and a half minutes, and the segues bookending the title track and “An Evening with Vincent van Ritz” add another four minutes or so—all in all, there would be enough room for one or even two more pieces if the minimalist bits were trimmed down, and this airy chordal fluff comes off like padding to bloat the LP to a “proper” 40-minute length.
However, the two main compositions on the first side are exceptional. The biggest highlight of this album is the title track, which is Eberhard Weber’s most famous composition, and not without good reason. Emerging seamlessly from “More Colours”, this piece is built around two melodic themes that will instantly take up residence in your head after the first listen. As it launches into the main improvisational section, the music starts off gentle but builds in loudness and intensity, weaving jumbled and altered versions of the main themes into the improvised lead work, the drums going faster and faster until it builds into an explosive (by ECM standards, anyway) recapitulation that brings the piece full circle. The improvisation doesn’t last any longer than it needs to and the whole composition feels perfectly paced and packaged. The version of this piece by the Gary Burton Quartet (with Eberhard Weber on bass and future legend Pat Metheny on guitar) is also a must-hear.
“An Evening with Vincent van Ritz” is the shortest and most traditional piece on the album, a more or less straight bebop composition built around chord changes over a driving, swinging rhythm, featuring Ack van Rooyen on the flugelhorn—an instrument sort of like a trumpet but softer and less aggressive, like a soprano-register French horn, and it makes for a beautiful pairing with Weber’s bass, against which a trumpet might sound rather shrill. Weber’s playing is more conservative than normal, mostly using his instrument’s lower register and focusing more on rhythm, but he still plays lots of melodic licks and unexpected turns. Van Rooyen puts in a very proficient, if not particularly groundbreaking performance, using fairly conventional bebop solo techniques with lots of fast runs up and down the scale and trills on long notes. This piece, being quite short (about three and a half minutes if you cut off the useless ambient segues) and more “normal” than the others, functions as something of a scherzo to lighten the mood at the end of the first side.
Any such levity is immediately banished for the epic finale “No Motion Picture”, which takes up the entire second side of the album, coming very close to twenty minutes. This piece is almost like a classical rondeau, with a quite lengthy main theme alternating with a number of improvisational digressions that all lead back to the main theme to set the stage for the next digression—but the main theme is slightly different each time, whether it be through a modification of the underlying bass line or the addition of new sections. Ack van Rooyen is gone except for a few short stabs near the end, but Brüninghaus augments his usual electric piano with acoustic piano, vibraphone, and analog synthesizer. For once, the fluffy textural stuff is actually integrated into the main body of the work, though it still sags a bit early on when the music slows to an absolute crawl and those blankly ethereal vocals waft over it ineffectually, though it picks up again by the five-minute mark. Around the midway part, there is a quite lengthy, absolutely gorgeous acoustic piano solo, completely unaccompanied, rich with subtle crescendos and other uses of dynamics, haunting in the way it alternates between sentimental warmth and forbidding iciness, and it ends with a seamless, elegant restatement of the piano melody that opened the piece to re-introduce the main theme—it would do a real classical composer proud. From there it loses its focus a bit, meandering in several directions before reaching a very abrupt ending, but it manages to hold my attention for the full nineteen minutes and change, which is more than most compositions of this length manage.
The surprise success of this album, which sold well in the United States despite its strongly European character and attracted the attention of Gary Burton, who invited Weber to tour the US with his group, made Eberhard Weber’s career and he went on to produce many more albums for ECM as well as numerous projects as a sideman (including appearing on two albums by Kate Bush of all people) until a major stroke crippled him in 2007, but none are remembered as fondly as this (in my opinion, his 1976 album The Following Morning, which goes much further with its classical influences to the point of eschewing percussion entirely, is just as good, but it was way too “out there” for most jazz listeners). This album is strongly recommended to jazz, classical music, and progressive rock fans as well as appreciators of stringed bass instruments. Those who like their music loud and fast might find that this album wears on their patience, but what it lacks in force it makes up for in subtlety. A definite jazz classic.