Norwegian trumpeter and erstwhile member of leading lights of the Scandinavian nu-jazz scene Jaga Jazzist, Mathias Eick is something of an upstart in the jazz community. A few years back he was awarded with The International Jazz Award for New Talent and he proceeded to trot all over the world collaborating with figures as varied as maverick French-Ivorian drummer Manu Katché and experimental black-metal act Ulver on over 50 often vastly different recordings.
So when celebrated jazz imprint ECM asserts that its release of his second solo album Skala “will appeal to an audience beyond “jazz”, you could be forgiven for thinking that Eick would draw on that experience of wildly diverse genres to create a crossover melting-pot of a post-jazz record. It is clear from the start, however, that proceedings — instrumentally at least — are to remain pretty low-key and traditional. Piano, bass and drums (albeit two sets of them) are the core backdrop for Eick’s sleek and breathy trumpet stylings, with little deviation from that formula and no room for the jittery electronics that jolted nu-jazz away from its roots. If the sounds are nothing new, however, Skala nonetheless holds a unique indie crossover appeal. His tools may be familiar, but it is in the structures and sensibilities, the unashamed focus on melodies and hooks, that Eick’s experience beyond jazz can be discerned.
The titular opening track engages with jazz history — both ECM’s and Norway’s — by evoking Jan Garbarek’s echoing wide screen melancholy in the interplay between Eick’s trumpet and Tore Brunborg’s saxophone, but the tumbling sway of the piano accompaniment reminds more of Radiohead than anything else, and the simple verse sections give way to a delicious repeated hook that is a pure pop chorus. Eick is an unflashy virtuoso: rather than going in for extravagant tangential free-jazz solos, every note feels carefully judged and restrained, his trumpet essentially filling the role of vocalist in what, if that substitution were to be reversed, would often pass for pretty standard piano-led indie tunes. Eick’s front line contributions are often breathtakingly beautiful and are delivered with an evocative poise, but because of his relatively contained role, the eight tracks on Skala are dependent for their success on how far from the standard backing template his accompanying band are allowed to stray. If Skala has a failing, it is that sometimes the answer is not far enough. “Day After” subsides on plonking chords that progress minimally, although it is rendered wonderful nonetheless by Eick’s lilting refrain, and “Biermann” suffers from a soporifically sludgy rhythm section, and when Andreas Ulvo on the piano does inject a degree of energy, Eick himself is guilty of shying away from the majestic build-up you feel the song needs.
More often than not, however, the whole band rises to the occasion. “Edinburgh” manages to capture the Scottish capital’s winding, jumbled architecture in its skittish toppling clatter, the aching shimmer of “June” splinters into a sparkle of fragile harp, and “Joni” is a warm and wide-eyed tribute to Joni Mitchell. The highlight, though, comes when Eick veers closest to emulating the vibrancy of Jaga Jazzist on the appropriately named “Oslo”. Overlapping foghorn blasts from a dark mist herald a slithering icy beat and glacially looping piano, before plunging into a shuddering breakdown that finds Skala at its most abrasive and energized.
Eick’s 2008 debut The Door was bare, volatile and bleak; more surprising but less compulsive than Skala. If that was his moody rock record, this is his polished pop one, and in their own ways both are well worth a listen. After the last note of “Biermann” has faded here we still hear a gust of Eick’s breath gently rustling spittle droplets against bare metal, providing a sudden moment of unguarded intimacy that is perhaps missing from this crisp and glossy affair. But then this aloofness is partly what makes Skala so accessible: these are jazz tunes that are catchy. Mathias Eick’s second album may not be hugely progressive stuff, but it is hugely enjoyable.