King’s Place, 90 York WayN1 9AG London
For a man who turns 70 on October 27th, Norwegian bass virtuoso Arild Andersen is showing no signs of slowing down. On the 23-24 October, he joined an all-star cast of jazz legends – Bugge Wesseltoft, Marcin Wasilewski, Paolo Vinaccia, Tommy Smith, Mathias Eick and many more – playing two nights at Oslo’s Victoria Jazz Club. There can’t be many 70-year-olds who choose to celebrate like that.
The soon-to-be septuagenarian also marked the approach of the milestone with a remarkable return to his roots: restaging one of the landmark Oslo concerts that bass giant Charles Mingus played with his sextet on 12 April 1964 – a pivotal moment in both the life and music of the young Andersen and, arguably, a turning point in Norwegian jazz history itself.
To suggest Andersen occupies a unique place among Europe’s jazz aristocracy would be no exaggeration – even though the term ‘aristocrat’ seems at odds with such an earthy, soulful character as his. Few jazz artists alive today have such a wide-ranging and star-studded CV; he was among the first generation of European musicians to play jazz in the 1960s, and his early career saw him forging long-lasting links with fellow Norwegian pioneers including saxophonist Jan Garbarek (whose quartet he played in from 1967 to 1973) and singer Karin Krog – both of whom now enjoy comparable ‘jazz legend’ status.
Over the course of his career, Andersen has performed with a roster of US jazz heavyweights too, including the likes of Phil Woods, Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes, Johnny Griffin, Sonny Rollins, and Chick Corea. This confluence between poetic Scandinavian sounds and the propulsive rhythms of American jazz, coupled with Andersen’s driving, almost Jaco Pastorius-like facility on upright bass, has helped forge his distinctly purposeful ‘voice’ as both a bass player and a composer. But despite his vast litany of performances and collaborations over the decades, it’s the Mingus concert that has stuck with him, marking both the start of his musical journey and the moment that first defined jazz’s place in Norwegian culture.
So what was it about the concert that made such an impression on the 19-year-old aspiring bass player? Andersen takes a breath, and explains: “Most musicians from the Norwegian jazz scene at the time were at the concert; when you see the TV programme and the cameras are going over the audience, you see a lot of the musicians. I was there but I’m not visible in the shots because I wasn’t part of the Oslo scene yet – I was a bit too young. The concert was somehow shocking to all the Norwegian musicians because at that time we had a jazz club, we’d had Dexter Gordon, we had a lot of jazz, but Mingus’ music was so outspoken and so different. Eric Dolphy and that whole band were so lively – and the way Mingus was on stage!”
With a smile audible in his voice, Arild recounts the famous tale of the concert’s opening, when Mingus, confronted with a sliding bass thanks to the venue’s meticulously varnished floor, simply jammed the bass peg into the cracks. He laughs: “Nobody could ever do that! He did it and people started applauding, and that was just the start. It really was a special concert and it has been talked about all over this year. That was the starting point in this whole story.”
Andersen decided he wanted to create a similar shock with his own version of the event, performing 50 years to the day in the same venue last year. He recounts how it came to happen with a wry smile: “I purposely asked some musicians for whom this music would be outside their comfort zone, such as Bugge Wesseltoft. I’ve known him for 25 years now; I took him into my band in 1990, and we’ve been playing on and off so much. So I called him and he said: ‘Well Arild, I am not doing this type of music these days’ and I said ‘That’s why I’m calling you!’ Matthias Eick said almost the same thing: ‘Am I the right trumpeter for this?’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘because we are going to play Charles Mingus’ music but we’re going to fill that music with our personalities – we’re not going to copy more than just the frames’ – so we took the frames, made an arrangement and then it was up to Bugge Wesseltoft to play like Bugge Wesseltoft and for Matthias Eick and the other musicians. It became a big success and the project began to lead itself afterwards.”
And the show hasn’t stopped since then. On 21 November, Andersen will be bringing the band to London as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival– with trumpeter Eivind Lønning in place of Eick and Erlend Slettevoll instead of Wesseltoft – alongside alto saxophonist Klaus Ellerhusen Holm, bass clarinet/tenor saxophonist Petter Wettre and drummer Gard Nilssen.
While other musicians of his vintage might be tempted to consign their instruments to the attic, Andersen is a contemporary master who is just getting started on a new chapter in what has been a long and illustrious life in music. Long may he play.
Cover photo: Roar Vestad/ECM Records