[27 October 2008]
At the grand old age of 28 (a mere stripling in jazz years..), Norwegian trumpeter/Jagga Jazzist mainstay Mathias Eick has taken the valve between his teeth and recorded his first album as leader. As belated entrances go, this has to be one of the year’s best, or at least most perfectly realised. Not so many ECM artists have moonlighted with a band as removed from Manfred Eicher’s toned-immaculate vibe as alt-rockers Motorpsycho, or freely cite Metallica (as well as the more discernible likes of Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Aphex Twin) as an influence, yet Eick represents a younger, leaner side to the label, and the amorphous arc of his talent is something to be heard.
Not that he’s a stranger to the label, having accompanied colleagues as singular as Finnish harpist/pianist Iro Haarla (whose highly acclaimed Northbound echoes inside Eick’s compositions) and Franco-African drummer Manu Katché, but The Door is the ECM aesthetic at its most glacially distinct. Though the press release namechecks Miles Davis, Tomasz Stanko, and Clifford Brown, Eick’s voice is at once entirely Northern and entirely his own, a crepuscular, vaporous whorl as genetically Scandinavian as a Bergman tableau. In lieue of over-improvisation, he loses himself in reverie, ruminations of such ravishing melancholy they’ll have you rationing your listening in case you exhaust them unduly.
There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about Eick’s melodic cues (whether on trumpet, guitar or vibraphone), but therein at least partly lies his strength; from where, and through what collective-unconscious ooze does “Cologne Blues” emanate? Its familiarity insinuates itself with the remorse of ages, yet – present and correctly pristine production notwithstanding - might just as easily have telegraphed its constancy from the reel of some long-archived soundtrack. And if you’ve never heard pedal steel in a jazz context, the dusky pangs of Stian Carstensen may come as a minor revelation, so disciplined in application, so measured in their timing and so concentrated in effect they elevate a honky tonk standby to high art.
High art this music may be, yet its immediacy is striking, bound up with the narrative drive of Eick’s trumpet, and afforded longevity by the invention and subtextual muscle of Jon Balke’s piano. When he’s not transcribing Eick’s disconsolation, or – through the more circumspect melancholy of “October” – leading from the centre, he’s multiplying the scenarios, quick-wittedly foraging in the depths of the same emotional tundra Eick melts from above. Just as crucial to the equation is drummer Audun Kleive: with the title track and “Stavanger” in particular, and to a lesser extent on “Williamsburg” and “Fly”, it’s the aggressiveness of his empathy with Eick which lends these compositions much of their cumulative charge. And it’s Kleive who moves the pieces imperceptibly yet inexorably towards resolution, to the kind of exhilerating finales which have Eick’s trumpet aching in perpetuity, or else breaking off, free-skidding into choked yelps.
If there’s a flaw in The Door, it lies in the strength of its opening salvo, an usustainable flow of raw communication which dissipates as it plays out. Perhaps Eick should’ve apportioned the dynamism and intensity of those first three tracks more equitably, but then that might’ve diminished the law of first impressions. If those do indeed count, Mathias Eick is destined for as long, rich and triumphantly plaintive a career as any of his pedigree’d compatriots.