To ‘cross the Rubicon’ is to pass the point of no return. Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen has been a strong and supportive presence on a dozen ECM sessions to date, in contexts ranging from the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble to the bands of Nils Økland, Mathias Eick and Jacob Young. By temperament a team player, with Rubicon he steps boldy forward to present his own music, with an international ensemble. The album features a cycle of pieces originally written in response to a commission from the VossaJazz Festival, and premiered there in 2014. After fine-tuning the material on tour, Mats brought his septet to Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, where Manfred Eicher produced Rubicon in May 2015. “An album is a different context from live performance, Mats says, “and in the studio I recognized a need for more focus. We recorded a lot of material and then, with the help of Manfred, selected the music that worked best.”
The Rubicon band rounds up Eilertsen associates from diverse projects. Mats has played extensively with Norwegian guitarist Thomas T. Dahl and Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori in the Skydive Trio. Saxophonist Eirik Hegdal is an associate from days at the Trondheim Conservatory where the band Dingobats was founded. Dutch pianist Harmen Fraanje and Mats first collaborated when Eilertsen was living in the Netherlands; in recent years they’ve played together in a trio completed by Thomas Strønen. Vibraphonist Rob Waring, originally from New York, and a resident of Oslo since the early 1980s, has worked with Mats Eilertsen in singer Elin Rosseland’s trio. And Mats and Trygve Seim also have plenty of shared experience, including work in The Source with Øyvind Brække and Per Oddvar Johansen (documented on the band’s eponymously-titled 2005 ECM recording). Seim was drafted into the Rubicon band as a last minute substitute for Tore Brunborg at the Voss festival, but his individual voice as a player was rapidly integrated into Eilertsen’s musical conception. Indeed, part of the success of the project is the way in which Mats’s writing reveals its own identity while framing and guiding the soloists and finding fresh colours in the juxtaposing or blending of their sounds.
“I liked the idea of having both piano and guitar,” says Eilertsen, “and Harmen Fraanje and Thomas Dahl work together really well, in a way that many other guitarists and pianists couldn’t. And then I wanted to add Rob Waring’s vibraphone as another colour, because I really like that ringing, overwhelming, mallet percussion sound.”
A sense of space remains in the music. “That was the challenge for me as a composer and leader, to retain a clear signature in the material while leaving enough room in the pieces for the individual improvisers to feel that they can contribute to the music. I tried to give the players the kind of freedom that I like to have when I join somebody’s musical project. I wanted to create a musical environment in which the players would feel inspired. In concert, there were extended solo sections from the musicians that hooked up at different places.” Of these, Harmen Fraanje’s piano feature “Crossing The Creek” has been retained. Added to the programme is the improvisation “Wood And Water”, which features Mats’s bass, Rob Waring on marimba, and Eirik Hegdal on clarinet, in an intermingling of woody tonalities. Elsewhere, Hegdal’s reeds are contrasted effectively with Trygve Seim’s. “Eirik is such a resource to have in a band,” Eilertsen enthuses. “He plays a whole range of instruments, has really good ideas for orchestration and instrumentation, and knows how to blend into any formation in a humble way…” In general in Rubicon, the art is in the blending, and in the changing instrumental colours. It is not demonstrably a ‘bass player’s album’, though there is plenty of soulful and lyrical bass to be heard already from the opening “Canto” onwards, but Eilertsen has always been a very musical player committed to the context at hand.
Reflecting on his musical journey so far, Mats Eilertsen notes that his artistic development “hasn’t been a straight line. There have been lots of detours and expeditions in the dark, finding musical ideas that I’ve wanted to carry along with me. It feels to me that there is so much music still to be played. In the last few years, much of the music I’ve played has been very melodic, low-keyed music. There was no plan, that’s just the way it happened. Looking back at the beginnings, it wasn’t like that at all.” (Mats’s early years included textural and electronic experiments with the first edition of Food, improvised chamber jazz with the group Parish, and fiery performances with Sonny Simmons.) “But I don’t feel like I’ve abandoned any musical areas, and I still like to do many different things…” The idea of exploring other sound combinations has been furthered in recent performances in which Mats’s trio, with Harmen Fraanje and Thomas Strønen, has been joined by the singers of the Trio Mediaeval