The Eric von Essen you never knew

When somebody dies too young, the way Eric von Essen did in 1997 at the age of 43, you always wonder what he could have accomplished if he‘d lived. In von Essen’s case, few had any idea of what he‘d already accomplished.

On the Los Angeles scene and jetmaps beyond, select musicians and listeners knew he was a borderless, unsurpassably nimble bassist; some knew he had composed many multipathed works for the rarefied improvising chamber group Quartet Music, of which he was the unofficial music director until its 1990 breakup. Only his friends had watched him shift easily to piano and cello and chromatic harmonica and anything else he found lying around, or had a clue that in the last years of his life he was writing music capable of bringing new moisture to the shriveled house plant that mainstream jazz had become.

One such friend was violinist Jeff Gauthier, one-quarter of the Quartet Music tetrahedron that also included guitarist Nels Cline and Nels’ twin, drummer Alex Cline. After Gauthier started talking to the Clines and others about von Essen‘s music, especially about the scores Eric a had collected with uncharacteristic neatness into a notebook with Krazy Kat on the cover, he couldn’t imagine a world that could slog onward in ignorance. The quest to turn up the lamplight was the prime motivation for Gauthier last year when he started his own label, Cryptogramophone (, designed to document a highly skilled segment of the improvised-music world with audiophile studio values and stylish packaging. A substantial hunk of the label‘s early catalog would be devoted to not one, not two, but three discs packed with von Essen tunes played by people who missed him.

Three CDs dedicated to a nearly unknown quantity? An outsider might be tempted to examine Gauthier’s cranium for excess apertures. The musicians, though, didn‘t blink — there was enough first-rate material, no question. The more difficult concern was what and who would have to be left out.

”We chose different groups to reflect Eric’s different styles,“ says Gauthier. ”The musicians superimposed their interpretations to a certain extent, but Eric‘s intent came through very strongly.“

Judging from the just-released The Music of Eric von Essen Volume 1, the first in the series, the man’s intent was ambitious: to avoid hyperintellectuality, self-indulgence, weirdness — the qualities that for 40 years have separated most jazz (even the best and truest) from the realm of ”popular music.“ He wanted to remodel the tradition as a vehicle for sophisticated but democratic communication. He wanted to tell his stories.

The opening ”Silvana,“ with its simple, reflective theme, partially realizes von Essen‘s longtime desire to collaborate with drummer Peter Erskine, whose snowy ticking gently urges on Dave Carpenter to carve out some ebony bass and Alan Pasqua to lilt and uplift lace curtains of piano. Stacy Rowles’ trumpet and Larry a73 Koonse‘s guitar hush the air over ”Love Song for Kirsi,“ which seems to come and go in a moment of pure humility as pianist Tom Garvin lays out a new white tablecloth. ”Nowhere“ is the kind of quietly bold romantic ballad, like a ’40s movie theme but more delicate, that‘s made for the touch Alan Broadbent brings to the ivories.

There’s more physical stuff, too: a couple of thought-provoking not-really-blues (”Blues for Carin‘“ and ”Blues Puzzle“), a tribute to the brilliant harmonic sense of Benny Golson (”Benny“), and ”Peacemaker,“ a bouncing-off-the-walls Alex Cline–booted rumba with guitarist Nels Cline flittering around the edges of control and David Witham’s piano exploiting the harmonic implications of Joel Hamilton‘s flexible bass. The weightiest emotional package arrives courtesy of the Quartet-Music-minus-Eric (and plus Michael Elizondo) rumination ”Departure“: An end-of-phrase guitar note winds up a half-step lower than you expect; one chord resolves in unexpected resignation while another is ”suspended“ in both senses; sometimes an essential element just seems to drop out. Yeah.

It’s fresh. You‘ll notice right away, while appreciating how easy it is to hear, that you haven’t heard anything much like it. Simple melodies are supported by shifting substructures. Genres are harmonically ungenred. And mainly, ways are found of expressing feelings without thinking about anything except how notes and rhythms will serve those feelings. Composer and musicians have to know a lot about music to do that.

Von Essen‘s mother was a classical dancer from India; he spent years in Bombay absorbing his licks from the Eastern perspective. While studying composition at UCLA in 1977, he met Nels Cline; their duo performances, which began with a few von Essen themes inspired by Keith a Jarrett, Wayne Shorter and Ralph Towner, eventually expanded into Quartet Music. Though von Essen hailed from a younger generation, he also gained the respect of many bop-era musicians, who often called on him for gigs and recording sessions. When talking about him, players tend to use the word genius. So if he was that good, why isn’t he famous?

”He was the kind of person who was so sensitive that it was difficult for him to cope with the harsh realities of life,“ says Alex Cline. ”He frequently had a kind of hard, off-putting demeanor, very critical and uncompromising. People got to know what his problems were, and didn‘t want to deal with him. He wasn’t good at promoting himself. He wanted to get there on merit, not make compromises on his personality or identity. He didn‘t become a bandleader. He was unwilling to play the game.“

”He got to a point where he had no compunctions about saying what he felt to the most wizened jazz guys, because their bitterness and lack of commitment were depressing to him,“ says Nels Cline. ”He would tell them when it wasn’t happening. People would ask me, ‘How can you be friends with that guy?’ But I never saw that side of him.“

”He had a dark sense of humor,“ says A. Cline. ”He was a big fan of Krazy Kat, W.C. Fields, The Honeymooners — those were the things that helped him get through.“

But there was another side to von Essen. ”Eric was incredibly bright, and in spite of the fact that life was difficult for him, he had a lightness about him,“ says Gauthier. ”It was completely obvious to anyone who met him that he lived and breathed music.“

”I found him a delight,“ says veteran pianist Tom Garvin, who first ran into von Essen when the bassist was playing in one of the piano-and-bass duos that were featured at Linda‘s Restaurant in Hollywood. ”I never had him show up late, and we must have worked hundreds of jobs together. He was extremely supportive and encouraging of my music, and he’d surprise me by learning my tunes almost immediately. He was the favorite bass player of other piano players, too, especially Jimmy Rowles and Lou Levy. Eric was very, very intelligent. Among musicians who are broader, more well-read, there‘s a certain byplay and wit. With Eric, there was a lot of that.“

Von Essen had a hard time keeping those dark and light sides in a manageable balance, a fact of which he was acutely aware. He originally wanted the current CD’s cover drawing by his sister Neila — dancers walking a tightrope over a rugged abyss — to appear on a Quartet Music release many years ago.

”The drawing reflected the way he was living his life,“ says Gauthier. In fact, overuse of various mood-altering substances, on and off over a long period of time, taxed von Essen‘s slight body to the limit and beyond. He died of heart failure during his latest period of teaching music in Sweden, the country of his father’s birth.

”He lived a lot longer than I thought he was going to,“ says N. Cline. ”I was on the road when I heard. I kind of lost it and started throwing stuff around my room, started playing his tunes on guitar. Then I got a call from some woman in the bar who asked if I wanted ‘company.’ I was super upset, then I just started laughing. It was like some kind of Eric prank.

“He was a classic romantic, filled with feelings and irony and warmth and contradictions. He was the most gifted person I was ever close to.”#

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