Eberhard Weber has long been acknowledged as a genius in the field of music. He invented the electric bass and added a fifth string to the instrument. His compositions like those of Chick Corea defy being described as entirely jazz, are influenced by classical, but belong to a genre beyond description. Weber speaking to me from his home in southern France, while recuperating from the effects of a stroke, spoke candidly and passionately about jazz music, but in a manner, that easily leaves itself open to misinterpretation when reading mere words on a page, without the benefit of hearing the tone of his voice. It was that candor, and that absence of context and inflection that led to misunderstanding a statement that he made during an interview with another journalist a few years ago, at which time he said, ‘Jazz is dead.’ While Weber acknowledges those were indeed his words, he always wants to make it clear that, as he says, the writer improvised. It is therefore within that context of Weber’s love for music, whether it be in what we typically think of as jazz, classical or some other genre, that I would like to invite you, to join me for a few moments as I speak with one of the brilliant musical personalities, and truly nice men that I have had the privilege to interview.
Perhaps no other remark that Weber made during our conversation so defines the man as when he said, "I like to play my music, and play the music that I like, not necessarily what has to be played." He was explaining what led him to add a fifth string to the bass, because it allows him to have a higher C string, and to play more in what he refers to as a singing quality voice. His remark however characterizes his passion for, and belief that, musicians regardless of their instrument or genre must always strive to be innovative.
In order to understand Weber, and that which contributes to the unique flavor of his music it is first necessary for us to understand something of his background. "I grew up in a classical house, and my father was a music teacher. I am classically trained so to speak, and I like classical music a lot, but I never wanted to become a professional classical musician. (Although) I continued to like classical music, for a long time, I didn’t dare to use classical approaches to music or classical musicians to play with me, because I know their attitude is different from the attitude of the jazz musicians. I am kind of between jazz and classical music. Maybe it is why I continued to develop a kind of music that is my music. Many people tell me that when they hear my music, they immediately know that it is me," he says.
In a manner that is more matter of fact than it is humble or boastful, Weber says, "I never had to sit down and say that I needed to find out how to work with this or that kind of music. I just sat down and tried. I have been lucky that so far it has worked."
Weber makes the point, as he does several times during our conversation that he is not a typical jazz musician, and that is why he has difficulty considering himself to belong to that ilk. He does not have a haughty attitude about his music, but rather considers himself to be rather unorthodox. He acknowledges that for him there is no compulsion to play his instrument every day and that more often that not, when he returns from a tour, he leaves his bass instrument in the corner and it stays there until he embarks on his next tour.
"The typical jazz musician likes to present themselves. They like to play, and want to play every day. The process for them to perform is the important thing. For me it is less about the process, (even though), the process is still important, but it’s not as important for me as the result. I will give you an example. Quite a while ago, I played in a jazz club, during a jam session. We played for half an hour, very beautiful and spontaneous music. Everybody enjoyed it like crazy. After one half hour, it was over, and I thanked the guys and left the stage. They couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t close their mouths, because it was so beautiful, and they wanted to continue, but I said no. I said, ‘I stopped now, because it was so nice. If we continue, we will start to repeat ourselves.’ We had used all of our spontaneous ideas. That describes me the best. I cannot consider myself to be a typical jazz musician, and I am not classical, I am whatever. I am just a musician, whatever that is," says the bassist.
"(Often) the problem when you improvise is that you have so much experience, stuff becomes routine. There is no thinking anymore about the musical arrangements. You just add something to this and that. When you listen to it afterwards, you will probably realize that it is far too overplayed," says Weber.
It is at this juncture that Weber makes the point that jazz musicians must have the insight to know when not to play within a free section of a piece of music, or must know when to limit the extent of their playing.
"Just because I am a bass player, doesn’t mean that I must play. I can say that I (choose) not to play now, because I find that, the piece is wonderful without the bass. This practically does not exist among jazz musicians. On my former album, there were two pieces where I didn’t play the bass at all. I ask you, if you know of any jazz musicians who on their own records did not play. That simply does not exist. I went into the studio with the other guys and they could not believe that I would not play (on these pieces). I didn’t need to, because the music was done, and was full already. It didn’t need any bass, or at least my bass," he says.
Weber’s desire to keep his music fresh carries over into the studio. "When I do a record, I don’t think in the first place about the listener, I think about what I want to release. As you know these days there are millions of albums, at least half of which you could throw away. It has always been my goal to create something that is worthwhile to keep a little longer than a few weeks or a few years. I think that a long time before I compose and release something, there has to be a reason (why certain notes are played when they are, and in a certain fashion)," says Weber.
To further illustrate his point Weber says, "Jazz is played for the moment. You get a bunch of harmonies, and then you say, one, one, one, two, three, four, and then you start to play with whomever. This is considered to be worthwhile music. In my opinion, it might be very exciting, and for the moment, we might enjoy it, because it is based on what we expect, but there are hardly any surprises anymore. This is the main problem (with jazz today), and what I miss. There are not any surprises. The really young jazz musicians these days are rediscovering jazz, are very good and very strong, but I would say that the old guys like Miles Davis and John Coltrane would always play so fresh. Nowadays the young guys try to imitate that (style), and it is not the same. The purists believe that jazz is still very innovative. Jazz musicians today are still creative, but not innovative anymore. There are Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, but where are the others? "
The first instrument that Weber learned to play was the cello. "I gave it up when I started getting interested in jazz. You can’t play jazz on the cello. There are a few exceptions, but they are not so convincing. If they were convincing, there would be more (jazz) cello players. We have the bass and sometimes the violin. The viola and the cello aren’t made for jazz," he states with his typically refreshing candor.
"The first time that I heard jazz was on the radio and it came from the United States. I would say that after the war, the Germans and the Europeans (in general), tried to play like the Americans. In the beginning, I did that too, (however), I found out that there is more to offer. In the beginning when I start to play the bass, I wanted to play real jazz, whatever that is. (As time passed), I wanted other things, and I discovered other reasons and motives. For example when you listen to my latest album Endless Days, it is done with a big orchestra, and I don’t necessarily consider this to be jazz. There is improvisation, of course, but not by the orchestra, it is by the improvisers. I don’t call it jazz, and I know that sounds silly, but I call it music. It is originally based on jazz, but I avoided having the orchestra play any jazz music, because I wanted them to play their own stuff, but have it fit with jazz as well. They aren’t really capable of playing jazz, because they never learned it. "
Making the point that for the recording Endless Days (2001), the musicians in the orchestra seemed to enjoy working with the jazz musicians whose music is jazz based, Weber notes, "As a matter of fact, they want to repeat the same kind of project again in the future. They also seem to be fed up with typical contemporary classical music. They (the contemporary classical music community) have over modernized stuff. Therefore, they are looking for different areas that they can cover, so they work with jazz musicians here and there. It presents other opportunities and other possibilities. "
Looking for other opportunities and other possibilities within music is what defines the now seventy-seven year old Eberhard Weber as a musician and as a composer. For decades, he has been critically acclaimed by his peers and sought out by legendary artists such as Kate Bush, with whom he has worked several times throughout their careers. While at first blush, not knowing Weber, you may conclude that he is more of a critic of today’s music than he is a fan, but that could not be further from the truth. It is in fact his passion for being an innovator and taking music to even greater heights that fuels the flame that still burns within him.
Earlier this year Eberhard Weber released his new, and long awaited CD Stages Of A Long Journey.