The Best Bassist You Never Heard Of
Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (b.1946 - d.2005) was a legendary Danish bassist and the first call for any major jazz soloists touring across Scandinavia. Busy since his teenage years, he played alongside such legends as Bud Powell, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Tete Montoliu, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Albert Ayler, Teddy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, Tootie Heath, Philip Catherine, Joe Pass, Kenny Drew, Johnny Griffin and Phil Woods. At 17 years old, he turned down an offer from Count Basie himself, preferring steady home gigs at the Club Montmartre and Danish Radio Orchestra. He worked with free-jazzers Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, John Tchai, and Albert Ayler. In 1975 he backed Dizzy Gillespie, and finally Count Basie. In 1985, he recorded Aura with Miles Davis.
He died less than a year ago, putting an end to an impressive catalog of jazz recordings. Relatively few of these were solo sessions, and This Is All I Ask was one of his last and most significant. It is one of only a few with widespread US distribution (Verve), so it shouldn't prove hard to find. In light of his well-documented career, it's never too late to discover the genius of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, heretofore referred to as NHØP. By the way, that's not the letter O or number zero. It is the Danish letter Ø, pronounced "ir" as in bird or hurt. It is considered a "close-mid front rounded vowel" common to other languages. In Danish, Ø is also a free-standing word meaning island. Just try and name an American bassist with initials that cool!
Anyway, back to jazz. NHØP frequently used his solo opportunities to showcase his Scandinavian musical heritage. "O Tysta Ensamhet (Quiet Solitude)" is a traditional Swedish song and "I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro (Tranquillity in the Woods)" is a traditional Danish song, but beautifully arranged for a jazz combo by NHØP. The latter features Oscar Peterson on piano, lending the tune even more lyricism. "Just In Time" is an upbeat post-bop scorcher. "Summer Song", a breezy, Brazilian masterpiece, is one of the strongest songs of the set. "Fantasy in D Minor (inspired by Bela Bartok)" is a rich, resonant, haunting bass solo showcasing NHØP's mind-boggling musicality. This is music, not some kind of novel presentation of an atypical solo instrument. This is music of the first order.
Great jazz simply must swing, and NHØP most certainly does. His competitive advantage lies in his distinctively Danish musical conception. Though difficult to describe exactly, music from Scandinavian, Nordic, and Baltic countries has always been considered deeply emotional and melodic. Even the famed "cool schools" of New York City and West Coast can't really touch these ancient sonorities.
This Is All I Ask is mainly a trio affair: bass, guitar, and drums. Guitarist Ulf Wakenius is a prodigious, bop-infused improviser. His harmonies are lengthy, lightening-fast, and well-conceived. His solos are so imaginative, and NHØP gives him such freedom, that Wakenius can become overpowering at times. Aside from Oscar Peterson, guest musicians include altoist Phil Wood on a few tracks, and a couple female vocalists, but let's keep this straight: you came to hear Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen tear it up on the bass. He impresses as always, and leaves you wanting more. You can't help but feel, however, the CD would be better and more consistent if everyone but the trio just got out of the way. NHØP was noticeable more proficient than his sidemen, but this was his project, a rare chance for him to do whatever he chose. You'll just have to call it eclectic and indulge his humility. Perhaps that "is all he asked."
High quality jazz. Especially recommended to fans of jazz bass, Danish music, or contemporary bop.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.