Innerviews, music without borders

Eberhard Weber
Foreground music
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2001 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

Eberhard Weber

Some musicians choose to buck trends and precepts by taking a vociferous stand. Others do so simply by making music and letting listeners come to their own conclusions. Bass innovator Eberhard Weber falls firmly in the latter category. For nearly five decades, he’s situated his one-of-a-kind, virtuoso electric upright bass talents within a wide variety of solo and group contexts. He maintains a low profile, only emerging as a public persona when he has something new to offer from a musical perspective.

Weber’s 2001 album Endless Days found the bassist exploring classical sounds and structures with a quartet consisting of Paul McCandless on woodwinds, Rainer Brüninghaus on piano and keyboards, and Michael DiPasqua on drums and percussion. During the sessions, he asked the musicians to vigilantly avoid the jazz-oriented mindsets they’re all well-steeped in. He wanted the players to focus on a more austere approach with compositional integrity foremost in mind. In addition to the talents of his gifted sidemen—none of whom is a stranger to classical music—Weber made tasteful use of samplers to replicate orchestral elements to further create a classical grounding for the release.

The disc offers a stark contrast to Weber’s previous two albums, 1988’s Orchestra and 1993’s Pendulum. Both are predominantly solo bass releases, augmented by some looping and other electronic devices to color the soundscape. Feeling satisfied with the breadth of expression on those discs, Weber chose to return to a group approach for Endless Days. A lengthy period of serious reflection followed that decision, during which he opted to modify his chamber jazz approach in favor of emphatically representing his classical leanings.

Weber believes Endless Days reflects the desires of a mature artist. Born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1940, he has long been fond of classical music, but was previously hesitant to step too deeply into that terrain for his own releases. His reticence is certainly the result of modesty, not capability. In addition to recording many diverse albums with neo-classical influences, he’s worked with the likes of Jan Garbarek, Stephane Grappelli, Ralph Towner, Joe Pass, Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Kate Bush. To say he’s well-versed in varied and complex musics is an understatement.

Tell me about the considerations that led to the direction you pursued for Endless Days.

The problem is that I don’t want to add another record to the world that is not necessary to be published, except to make some business. There has to be a musical reason. If there is a good musical reason, I think it might draw more attention and sell, though it is not guaranteed. To make a record without a musical reason, you have to either be a pop star who sells automatically or just be lucky. That wasn’t the only reason I waited seven years to make a record after Pendulum. I was very busy with the Jan Garbarek Group. We play up to 100 concerts a year. The way for me to compose is to have lots of time. So when I’m out on tour for two weeks and then get one week off before more shows, I can’t write at all. I need more time and perspective. I know this is little excuse for taking so long.

There was another thought too: What to do for my next record? My last two records—Orchestra and Pendulum—were solo records just played on my bass. Orchestra had a little brass ensemble on two tracks as well, but the rest was me. I knew I couldn’t continue in this direction, even if people liked it, because I can only duplicate myself. I asked myself “What else is there to do?” I am at an age which is not that young anymore. I am 61. I thought “I have the right to do what I always wanted to do but never dared to do.” When you are young, you have other ideas. You want to show how well you can play and how effectively you can compose. I have had the luck to get this old, so I decided to follow my classical education. I am a classical music lover—not necessarily the contemporary stuff, but the old stuff. I love these kinds of classical sounds and thought I’d like to use them at least once on an album of mine before I die.

When deciding this, I knew I could never compete with any classical composer. That’s not my goal. But I wanted to use sounds the way classical composers do. That’s why I used these kind of stringy and French horn sounds. Originally, there was the thought that I would play with a real orchestra. Then Manfred Eicher from ECM and I discussed it for a long time. He said “Why don’t you do this differently?” It wasn’t necessarily only for a financial reason, but a quality reason. Orchestras are not used to playing the kind of stuff jazz musicians like to play. It requires a lot of rehearsal and recording time, so it’s much easier to do on a synth or sampler. So we came up with that idea. I prepared myself very well, so the quartet on the album already had the background stuff. They heard the strings and classical sounds and added whatever I asked them to add. So it’s not a quartet album. I don’t know how to say what it is. It’s just a composed album with the help of four improvising, creative musicians.

Eberhard Weber

You told the musicians on the new record “You can play everything as long as it doesn’t sound like jazz” to encourage a sense of freedom and openness.

[laughs] I love these provocative phrases. When I told the musicians these phrases they laughed, knowing very well what I meant. “Don’t you worry, it won’t be jazz” they said. They know that improvisation is also jazz, because improvisation doesn’t exist in classical music. So, in the end it was jazz. But I wanted to avoid the typical noodly and doodly jazzy stuff. They immediately understood. It was one of the reasons that Paul McCandless only played a jazz instrument—soprano sax—on the final track “The Last Stage of a Long Journey.” On the other tracks, he plays classical instruments such as bass clarinet, oboe or English horn. The piano player Rainer Brüninghaus is also classically trained with a classical approach. It wasn’t a problem to get them to play less jazzy. When I think back now to the recording sessions, there is more improvisation than one hears. It’s an ideal combination of arrangements and improvisation. Only a few people are able to listen and say what is composed and what is improvised. It’s a unit.

I understand you consciously tried to play down the element of self-presentation on the new album.

It is probably very necessary to present your ego at some point. Solo playing is the most egocentric stuff you can play, but there is a limit. I couldn’t find another way to present my bass that way without copying and multiplying myself. So I had to go back to communicating with other musicians. I was afraid the other musicians might want to present themselves too much, but I think they managed to play freely within my limits. [laughs]

On my records, I always want to be the person who is responsible for what you hear. I do think it is best for the album. Whenever I release a record, it’s my record. It’s not a selfish thought. I may spend a whole year working for other people. So, finally, when I come out with my own album, it should be me with the creative help of other musicians. For instance, on my first album, The Colours of Chloë, there was a drum solo. I told the drummer he could play whatever he wanted, knowing that afterwards I would put a smoothening, choir chord underneath so it has a kind of clamp. So, he could not escape my arrangement or general idea.

I think I’m not a dictator, but I might be occasionally when it comes to my albums. I never give up until it’s perfect. For example, after recording the new album, we couldn’t mix it right away. There was no time. Manfred was using the studio, so mixing was postponed for six months. I couldn’t  stand waiting, so I flew out at my expense to Oslo and prepared the recording with Jan Erik Kongshaug, the engineer. We cut little things out here and there, and made some edits before final mixing. So I’m a perfectionist. It’s absolutely true. Even now, I could go into the studio and say “I want to make this change or that change.” It’s far too late now, and nobody would hear it but me. It is a stupid idea of course. [laughs]

On the other hand, I’m very tolerant as well. I expect that everybody can play what they want. But I’m not tolerant when it comes to myself and what is presented on my album that I have to listen to for the rest of my life. An imperfect situation is what I hate and I would hate myself for letting that happen. There are a few albums I’ve done that I hate myself for because I kept something a musician or producer did that I right away didn’t like but thought at the time “It’s good enough.” Even after 10 to 15 years, I still think I should have done it another way. There are always some doubts when you do a new album though. You wonder whether you succeeded or not, especially when you waited as long as I did for this one—seven years. You’re never really sure if it will be a nice record or not. But even some of the albums I like less than others seem well-received and people understood what I meant.

Elaborate on your philosophy as a bandleader.

The best answer is that if there was such a thing as a second life—which I don’t believe in—I believe I would become a conductor. This explains everything. I like to create the music I hear in my head. As a conductor, you have the ability to squeeze the sounds and interpretation you asked for from 50 to 80 people. On the other hand, when I give it closer thought, I realize I’m not enough of a dictator to conduct an orchestra because it requires a pretty awful person. When you read these biographies of famous conductors, they are all awful people who fail in their private relationships. Often, it seems there is a necessity to be like that. I’m afraid my second life choice wouldn’t be the best one, but I long for it. [laughs]

You’ve said your shift to the electric upright bass enabled you to discover the role of leader—something you believe few bassists experience. How did it do that?

When I started to pick up the bass, it was purely by random chance. I played cello in my high school orchestra. There was a double bass always standing in the corner never being played. One day, the music teacher said “I wish somebody could play this bass.” Since I started becoming interested in jazz—and knowing you couldn’t really play jazz on cello—I volunteered. I said “I will try to play this instrument.” After a little while, I could sort of play it the classical way with a bow. Then I discovered that I wanted to stay with the bass. This was back in the early '60s. At that time in Germany, there were lots of school bands trying to play jazz. I was hired by lots of bands and gave up cello in favor of bass. At the time, I didn’t know that bass would not be enough for me. I’m not a bass player because bass is always a background instrument, even to this very day.

I realized pretty soon that I have to do more than just play bass in the background. So, I developed a kind of playing which only a handful of musicians accepted. I met an older German piano player named Wolfgang Dauner and he accepted my playing. We pretty quickly developed a German Bill Evans-style trio—similar to the one with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, without playing that well of course. [laughs] This was very different from what the other people who played in Germany were doing. After awhile, I quit that band and joined others. I continued developing myself.

In 1972, I got my first electric bass and started playing the kind of instrument I play now. I found that the majority of musicians couldn’t bear that. They are not used to listening to the bass because they think the bass is in the background to support them. They expect it to be quiet whenever they ask for it. During the good old jazz club times, maybe once or twice a night the bass would play a solo, but otherwise the bass player had to do whatever he was asked to do. I never accepted that.

I can say I ruined two bands as a permanent member. [laughs] The first was the Dave Pike Quartet. The other was a band with the German guitar player Volker Kriegel. I worked with both for about two years. I was so dominating in my playing, trying so much to squeeze in my own ideas, that we couldn’t continue. As a result, I had to get my own playground which was my band Colours. This band lasted for about eight years and then the air was out of it and it was time to finish. It’s better to finish at the peak or soon after it, than to wait until the audience notices a decline. So I stopped without knowing who or what else to continue with. It was at the beginning of '82 that Jan Garbarek called me and asked “I want to do another band. Do you want to join it?” I said “Fine. I’m fed up with being a bandleader.” This resulted in my longest collaboration ever. I’ve played with him ever since.

Eberhard Weber

Why were you fed up as a bandleader at that time?

You don’t earn any more money than when you’re a sideman. This is the German situation. We cooperate and everyone gets the same money. Of course, the records are mine, so I get the royalties. But it’s a lot of work to continue keeping a band alive. You have to compose new tunes every one or two years. And when you have a band like Colours for seven or eight years, it becomes difficult to continue staying interesting. Also, don’t forget that when your band works together for a long time and there are younger players, there comes a time when they want to emancipate themselves. For example, Rainer Brüninghaus was somehow fed up with me and wanted to start his own band—this is very normal. When I realized that, I said “I’d rather stop.” I was fed up and wanted to lean back and not be as responsible for everything. It was just fine to join Garbarek.

Tell me about the factors in your decision to transition from double bass to the electric upright.

The regular bass doesn’t have many possibilities. The reason I switched to electric bass is because music became very loud in the late '60s and the double bass couldn’t be heard anymore. I realized I could put pick-ups on my double bass, but found out that when you play at a certain volume, you suffer from feedback because of resonance from the body. So it was only logical to find an instrument which has no feedback. There was a solid body I saw in an antique shop. It was totally broken but I got it repaired. I added a pick-up and thought “From now on, this is my instrument.” I discovered that it was absolutely wrong because I still played the way I played on the double bass.

Initially, I didn’t change the attitude with the electric bass. It took one year before I felt comfortable on this kind of instrument. I found you are a different bass player because now you can lead. You can tell people where to go onstage which you couldn’t do before. The drummer and trumpeter could always lead, but the bass player couldn’t simply because of volume. But even though you can put an amplifier on double bass and it can play loud, it still cannot lead because it still has this kind of background-ish sound that is not meant to lead. But with the instrument I have, you can play background, in the middle or foreground. Whatever you do, it can be heard. So they have to deal with you. Many musicians don’t like that, certainly not the conservative ones.

Frankly speaking, the bass is kind of a silly instrument. How can someone pick an instrument that is not meant to play solos or be a leader? Even Charlie Mingus—he was an excellent bass player, but he didn’t lead from his bass, but from himself, from his ego. And of course, after I had discovered the kind of electric bass I use now, I noticed that I can also lead acoustically in terms of sound with the bass, in a way that even Mingus couldn’t. When someone played full force in his time with the bass, you couldn’t hear it. Nowadays, you can do whatever you want on the bass or any instrument. Sometimes, when I play with a German all-star group which does a sort of jazzy music, the front line complains about my volume because they’re not used to hearing the bass. So I’m in between the lines or in between the seats as they say in Germany. [laughs]

When you’re not recording or performing, you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time with the bass.

No, not at all. I take care of my instrument, but I don’t love it. My instrument is just a device to transport my ideas and feelings. I’m not the type of person who wants to touch their instrument every day. For instance, I’m home now for six days and knowing that tomorrow I have to leave again for the next part of a tour, my car is in the garage. And in the car is my bass. I didn’t touch it. And I don’t need to touch it knowing that it’s not required for technical or musical reasons. I don’t need to touch it because it doesn’t interest me. I can give you another example. I’m only interested in results, not in procedures to get somewhere. In the good old days, when one had the chance to go to jazz clubs and there were jam sessions, some would go onstage, including myself. We would play some free improvisation or modal improvisation for a half-hour or so and it was really dynamic, wonderful and perfect for that moment. Then I would put the bass down and leave the stage. The musicians would look at me and say “What’s going on? Why are you leaving?” I said “Because we just had a nice half-hour and it was perfect. If we continue, it’s only going to be repetition.” So again, I’m not interested in playing, but having results. That’s the big difference between me and other musicians.

Let’s explore your work with Kate Bush. You once said when working with her, “Every note had to be negotiated in advance in order to be sold later.” Describe what you meant.

She called me once when I was in Hamburg. I couldn’t even believe it was her. The hotel had a message from Kate Bush and I called her back. She told me she loved ECM music in general and my music in particular. She wanted me to participate in one of her albums. She sent me a tape of the two tracks she wanted me to play on and asked me to think about countermelodies. So I did that and flew to London where she lived. I thought it would be like the jazz people I work with and that within two hours, the first tune is done and within another hour, the second tune is done. No. It’s very different, which I learned in this, my first appearance in the pop world.

They checked every note—everything, everything, everything. The first tune took six to eight hours. The second one the same. It explained to me why these pop people take so long to produce their albums. They never decide right away what to do. So when I came up with some ideas they said “yes, yes, let’s record it to 48 tracks.” Then I’d have another idea and again, it would be “yes, yes, yes, let’s do it this way.” I recorded dozens of ideas and in the end, only one was accepted. These people have the attitude that it’s only later when they mix that they decide. This is very unusual compared to the older ECM productions in the '70s when I started. Making a record only took three days: two days of recording and one day of mixing. Only later on when it became more complicated with synths and such did it take longer. But pop people take six months or even longer to make a record.

What’s your overall approach when working as a sideman?

I can survive most of the jobs that are offered to me without trembling, hesitating or having too much fear. There is always a little tension when I don’t know the people or the music involved, but I have a routine that lets me survive—unless someone comes up with an insanely written-out part for bass guitar they want me to play note-for-note. Then I’m frank enough to say “Why don’t you call the same player who came up with this? Why do you want me to play it?” Here’s an example: A composer once called me from Los Angeles who said “I have an orchestra piece. Would you participate?” I replied with something very unusual: “Do you want a bass player or do you want me?” There was a silence for a little while on the phone. He said “Of course, I want you.” And that was the last time he called me. [laughs]

Your wife Maja paints the artwork for all of your records. Tell me how you work together in an artistic capacity.

She started to paint when we got married in 1968. I always liked her artwork. She has developed a lot if you compare my first album cover to my last one. There were big steps in between. Because I like her paintings, I never saw any reason why I should ask somebody else to do my artwork. She deserves it. We have been together for 33 years now. She paints 10 to 15 pieces a year. I have a lot of choice. I tell her which ones I like, but there have been situations where I wanted a painting and she said “No, no, no, no—no way!” [laughs] Then, of course, I have no choice and I take something else, after we discuss it. She likes my music and not just because she’s my wife. If it shows through the paintings, it’s fine. I’m not enough of an expert to say if her cover art is an invocation of an album.

You intimated earlier in our discussion that you’ve been thinking about your mortality lately. How often do you dwell on it?

More and more. When you are 30 you think “Oh my God, when I am 40, I will be old.” Then when you are 40 you think 50 is old and so on. My first crisis was when I was 39. I thought “Youth is finally over.” Then I turned 40 and decided it wasn’t over. When I turned 50, I didn’t suffer at all. The first time I definitely felt it is when I turned 60. I thought “There are no excuses anymore. You are approaching the last section of your life.” As long as you’re 50, you can say “I’m still young.” Even at 59. But at 60, this means something. I’m not afraid, but I’m not a youngster anymore. I’m not a young talent anymore.

Are there any spiritual considerations in your reflections?

No, none at all. I have a simple explanation for why: The worst wars are always religious wars. People at war always say “The Lord says I have to do this” and “The Lord allows me to do this.” So, I hate religion.

You’ve called the bass your “life-long occupation” as well as your “greatest adversary.” Elaborate on that.

What I mean is the bass is not my instrument. As I said, in a second life, I want to become a conductor, but I have to stick with the bass because I know that I play the bass more unusually than most other players. I’m not speaking of quality, but difference. I play differently from anybody else. But I’m never satisfied with what I’m doing. So, in a little bit of a funny way, my bass usually beats back and I don’t like that of course. By “beats back,” I mean there are still things I haven’t discovered yet and the bass knows it better than me.

So, your evolution as a musician continues.

Of course. It never, ever stops.

Website:
Eberhard Weber on ECM