One of the highlights of 2018 for me was a visit to the Royal Albatross Centre on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin, New Zealand. It’s the site of a breeding colony – one of only two known in the world – of this magnificent seabird, where you can watch them effortlessly soaring in the air above the harbor, tending their young in hillside nests, and interacting with each other in ways that often seem comical to a human observer.
Whether he’s ever observed anything similar, Norwegian bassist Mats Eilertsen and his trio perfectly capture those moods in “Albatross,” the third track on their new release And Then Comes The Night. It’s an early entry on my jazz favorites playlist for 2019.
As is its delightful followup track, Eilertsen’s “After The Rain.” It features prominently the strong melodic sense of pianist Harmen Fraanje and the interlocking play of Eilertsen, Frannje and drummer Thomas Strønen. Both of these are short and upbeat pieces on an album that for the most part is somber and thoughtful.
It opens and closes with variations on a piece called simply “22,” which Eilertson composed in stunned reaction to the mass shooting in Norway on July 22, 2011, on the island of Utøya. “It wasn’t conceived as a homage,” he says. “It was just what I did that day.” The piece isn’t an elegy, either; to me it plays more as a tribute to the human spirit, as bad a cliché as that is. I find it deeply affecting, and have to say I prefer the second variation, on which all three begin the piece simultaneously rather than the opening track with a solo introduction by pianist Frannje.
Those tunes are the most conventional on the disc. But these, along with “Sirens” and “Solace,” as well as the more freely improvised pieces, all feature delicate interactions among the trio members. As Eilertsen notes in the one-sheet, “There is almost no theme-solo-theme playing on this album. It’s more like a river or whirlpool of moods that carries you with it.” I like that choice of words, especially “whirlpool.” “Sirens” in particular fits that description, with Strønen’s skittering percussion and Eilertsen’s thrumming pizzicato laying a contrasting bed under Fraanje’s flowing keyboarding.
The song “Then Comes The Night” that provides the album title sounds totally improvised, as does the longest track, the mysterious “Perpetum.”
The album was recorded by Manfred Eicher at Auditorio Stelio Molo in Lugano, Italy, where plenty of ECM albums are recorded. It has such a big, open sound to it, and the way the trio played without headphones, just listening to each other and how they sounded in that space with its natural reverb, seems to have affected their interactions. The percussion on “Perpetum” in particular makes use of that reverb. The centerpiece is an older Eilertsen composition “The Void,” which has a composed piano part around which the rhythm section improvises superbly. Eilertsen plays long droning lines on arco bass, as Strønen makes full use of his kit’s varied surfaces, but neither provides a solid rhythmic bass, leaving Fraanje to fill the emptiness with the pensive tune.
The Mats Eilertsen Trio is touring behind this album throughout Europe in January and February with concerts in France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Norway. Details on their website.