Review: Eberhard Weber Jubilee, Stuttgart

Michael Tucker reports on two nights of concerts featuring Jan Garbarek, Pat Metheny, Gary Burton, Paul McCandless and others in honour of the German bassist's 75th birthday

Ten years ago, Eberhard Weber celebrated his 65th birthday with two nights of gala concerts at Stuttgart's Theaterhaus, featuring the innovative bassist himself along with a lineup including Wolfgang Dauner, Gary Burton, Jan Garbarek, Rainer Brüninghaus and Marilyn Mazur. The music was recorded and later issued by ECM as Stages Of A Long Journey. Shortly after the release of that album in spring 2007, Weber (pictured right) suffered the serious stroke which brought his playing career to what can only be called a tragically untimely end. In the years that followed, Weber would receive further recognition from his peers: in 2009, in Berlin, he received the Albert Mangelsdorff Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz. But he would also experience further tragedy, with the death in 2011 of his wife Maja – his life-long muse, whose artwork features on the covers of all Weber's ECM albums up to Stages Of A Long Journey.

Losing both your professional livelihood and your wife in such a short space of time would surely be enough to finish off many a person. But Weber is a remarkable man. Since 2012 he has released two new albums on ECM, Résumé and Encore, fashioning compelling compositions from some of the many solos of his which were recorded live from 1990 to 2007, while he was touring with the Jan Garbarek Group. Not only that: he has written a characterful book about his life in jazz: Résumé: Eine deutsche Jazz-Geschichte (sagas. editions, 2015). At around 250 pages and with over 50 illustrations and his full ECM discography, this is a German jazz story, or history, that merits translation into English as soon as possible.

Weber's book and new Encore CD were much in demand during The Great Jubilee Concert - two nights which the Theaterhaus Stuttgart devoted to a celebration of his 75th birthday. Both nights (Friday 23rd and Saturday 24th January) found the 1800-seat venue packed out; both nights generated standing ovation after standing ovation; both nights witnessed many a member of the audience wiping their eyes on more than one occasion, such was the bittersweet nature of the event. Martin Mühleis, head of sagas productions and the man behind much of the 2005 celebrations, deserves great thanks for generating and helping to deliver such an extraordinary sequence of music in tribute to Weber, including a specially commissioned 35-minute suite by Pat Metheny, with whom Weber had played and recorded back in the 1970s (and who gives “very special thanks” to Weber in the sleeve to his 2004 The Way Up album for Nonesuch).

Friday night began with 45 minutes of speeches, building up to the presentation to Weber of the prestigious Jazzpreis Baden-Württemberg, Sonderpreis Für Das Lebenswerk, graced by a fine speech by trumpeter Manfred Schoof in homage to Weber's many achievements over the past half century and more. Sitting at the side of the stage, Weber acknowledged warmly (and also with some much-appreciated humour) both his peers and the audience, and then introduced the music. This began with his long-time playing companion, Jan Garbarek (pictured left), improvising on soprano over three reflective sequences of recorded solo bass improvisations from Weber, embracing both yearning arco drones and gentle pizzicato ostinato figures. “I can manage without my bass, it's his playing I really miss” volunteered Weber, before introducing his next guests: the SWR Big Band, led by the Norwegian Helge Sunde and with Gary Burton as featured soloist. The SWR have a fine reputation, and deservedly so: over the years, they have worked with such luminaries as Frank Foster, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Clark Terry, Bill Holman and Bob Mintzer. They kicked off with a bold yet sensitive arrangement of one of Weber's most memorable pieces, Touch, from the 1975 Yellow Fields album featuring Charlie Mariano, Rainer Brüninghaus and Jon Christensen. With its tuba-led introductory theme and hovering flute and brass voicings setting up Burton's typically flowing figures, the piece developed beautifully.

Ralph Towner had been set to appear but, most unfortunately, fell ill at the sound check and was indisposed for the two concerts: I spoke to him the morning after the second concert and was happy to hear that he was on the mend and able to contemplate flying home to Rome. Gary Burton covered some of Towner's parts, while the guitarist's old running mate in Oregon, Paul McCandless (pictured right), delivered terrific, beautifully modulated solos on both oboe and soprano as the concert moved on with three further Weber numbers, each introduced by him: Tübingen, Maurizius and Street Scenes.The mellifluous, unfolding melodies of the hypnotic, quasi-minimalist Maurizius were given fresh resonance in a searching arrangement by Michael Gibbs, who conducted the piece, while Street Scenes (from Weber's solo Pendulum album of 1993) got full-on treatment from all the soloists and the SWR, providing a charged ending to part one of the concert.

Part two began with Metheny's tribute to Weber, the 35-minute suite Inspired. Featuring the SWR  again, with Helge Sunde back in charge and Danny Gottlieb on drums – his striking solo matching great outings from Burton, Metheny and bassist Scott Colley – the music was rich in both singing melody and stomping section work, pianissimo tenderness and rocking power. It built continuously upon and around a sequence of video clips of Weber playing solo five-string electrobass (arco and pizzicato) which were projected large behind the big band while played through a superb sound system. The piece held one's attention from first note to last, with the motifs ranging from the nudging ostinato figures in the opening of Weber's Seven Movements from his 1988 Orchestra album, to the near-Gregorian clarity and dignity of Part 3 of his Chorus suite from 1984, which closed the piece. Weber left the stage, to watch from the front row (the next night, he remained on stage) and be reminded of just how much poetic sensitivity, just how much melodic invention and propulsive joy he had been able to offer the world.

I had heard a little about this project earlier and confess I had worried about potential pitfalls, but in the event, there were none. On the contrary: Pat Metheny (pictured left) had edited the video clips with astonishing precision; the band covered each and every shifting voicing and dynamic angle with passionate assurance, while Metheny himself contributed two superb solos, the second (on his guitar synthesizer) carving out that blues-charged but also country-streaked territory he has long made his own, while also dovetailing superbly with Weber's strong and funky bass motifs. On the second night, when Weber remained on stage, there was a particularly moving, even summarising, moment when Metheny, relishing the grooves coming from the video clips, turned briefly to Weber, flashing a characteristic mile-wide smile in appreciative joy. (Later, he made a present of the extensive score of Inspired to Weber.)

The evening could have ended there and then and people would have gone home more than happy. However, once the roars of approval for Metheny's Inspired had subsided, Burton, McCandless and the SWR Band moved on – or rather, moved back: way back down the alley, to the mellow, finger-clicking grooves of Benny Golson's classic Killer Joe. Not only that: Weber picked up a mallet with his good right hand and joined Gary Burton (who played his customary double mallets all evening) to offer some well-received bars of the engagingly simple melody (pictured below). After a while, Manfred Schoof came on to jam; the next night, Metheny did the same, and Weber stretched out a touch more on the vibes. Each evening, the crowd went crazy.

Both concerts concluded with an appropriately brief version of Weber's poignant Notes After An Evening, from the Pendulum album. The Romanian bassist Decebal Badila (born 1968) joined the SWR in 1997, two years after releasing his first solo album, Nothing But Bass. He performed with sensitive precision throughout the concerts, on both electric and acoustic bass, and his concluding, finely measured pizzicato solo drew especial applause from Weber.

And that was that. All Weber had to do now was sign many a copy of his new CD and book and – as the much-loved native of the Stuttgart region that he is – prepare for yet more radio, TV and newspaper interviews. And, of course, somehow find time to speak to the many friends, colleagues and relatives ­– such as ECM chief Manfred Eicher and the drummers John Marshall, Michael Di Pasqua and Niko Schäuble – who had come from near and far in order to honour the great man. A truly special event, this.

Stuttgart 2015 concert photos by A.T. Cimarosti

Your Comments:

Posted by James Lithgow, 6 February 2015, 15:18 (1 of 1)

From way out on the West Coast of Canada we wish Weber all the best and say thanks for some of the best music.
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