Eternal Jazz from the Dane with the Eternal Name
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.
For such an accomplished bassist, NHØP recorded relatively seldom as a leader. The Eternal Traveller is one of the most commonly available since his sudden death last year. Though not his best, it is a fine trio setting, and an excellent introduction to both his musical mastery and his Danish-ness. This CD features Danish musicians, compositions, and the distinctive lyrical approach to jazz improvisation. Even the layout and fonts seem Scandinavian. Pianist Ole Kock Hansen released a similar concept album of his own, Folkervise, back in 1976.
The Eternal Traveller sprints out of the box with Paganini's "Moto Perpetuo (Perpetual Motion)." The song begins with a super-fast metronome click. NHØP joins full-stride and blows your mind with a virtuoso performance. "En Elefant Kom Marcherende" is heralded by children singing, NHØP's young daughters, in fact. Some reviewers have called it "self-indulgent" but in light of his liner notes about personal, national, and musical identities, there is nothing more fitting than family performing a Danish folk song together. Besides, the song is a great trio jam in its own rite. You can practically hear the elephant coming.
"Gik Mig Ud en Sommerdag (I Went for a Walk on a Summer Day)" is a passionate, impressionistic collaboration led by a melodic bass-line. "Det Haver Sa Nyeligen Regnet (It Has Just Been Raining)" sounds like a sacred hymn, and is another good example of NHØP's bass-on-top conception. Another thing you'll notice about NHØP is his sense of longing. Pianist Ole Kock Hansen and drummer Lennart Gruvstedt are accomplished peers. They play just what needs to be played, and get out of the way. The trio clearly belongs to the post-bop school of musical restraint. You know they could kill you at any time, but they choose to let you live.
"Hist Hvor Vejen Slar en Bugt" begins with a 16th note high-hat shuffle, bass harmonics, and big, brash piano chords. Though this version is instrumental, the original lyrics were written by Hans Christian Andersen. The music melds into a loud group statement, then subsides into a subtle passage, then erupts again. The diverse dynamics and tempos provide fertile ground for bold solos. "Jeg Ved en Laerkerede (I Know of a Lark's Nest)" opens with arco bass backed by a southern-gospel-infused piano vamp. NHØP's loses the bow and shows-off his perfect pizzicato as well. This heart-felt, bluesy composition is reminiscent of Keith Jarrett's better works.
NHØP's rumbly arpeggios and Hansen's mini-Moog pervade "Sig Manen Langsomt Haever (The Moon Rises Slowly)", enriching the simple, slow lyrical beauty of this Danish tune. Jazz is typically considered African-American music, but European immigrants were present at creation as well. They were among many contributors to the Mississippi Delta melting-pot which birthed blues, jazz, gospel, and so much more. Listening to The Eternal Traveller feels a bit like a big family reunion. The young ones don't know all the old ones, and the European ones have grown apart from the New Orleans ones, but the family resemblances are unmistakable.
"Dawn," an original NHØP ballad, is as beautiful as a standard. It features an imaginative boppish piano solo by Hansen. "The Eternal Traveller" is the ultimate validation of NHØP as a leader: his imaginative solos within the larger context of his composition.... wow! Just.... wow! "Skul Gammel Venskab Rejn Forgo (Auld Lang Syne)", the familiar New Year's Eve song, oscillates between tear-jerker and hot-jazz, sadness and smiles. "Moto Perpetuo (Perpetual Motion)" finishes the way it started, concluding the set with a breakneck sprint and a final metronome count.
The music featured here is an interesting fusion of ancient melodies with modern jazz improvisation. Though the songs stand the test of time, certain production aspects stick out: close-mic'd piano, electric bass pickup, obvious compression and synthetic delay. The '80s were an unfortunate time for contemporary jazz. The trio itself, however, was timeless.
The Eternal Traveller nearly lives up to its title. Recommended listening for fans of NHØP, jazz bass, trio improvisation, or contemporary Scandinavian jazz.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.