With the premature death of bassist/multi-instrumentalist/composer Eric von Essen, Los Angeles lost one of the main proponents of its burgeoning improvising scene. Fortunately, Jeff Gauthier and Cryptogramophone Records have dedicated significant time and effort to ensure that the music of von Essen sees the light of day and that, at the very least, he receives the attention posthumously that he never saw when he was alive. The Music of Eric Von Essen Volume I
is the first of three volumes of music, played by different ensembles, that is as much a promotion of the LA scene as it is the diverse music of von Essen. It is a success in both respects.
Von Essen’s compositions span the spectrum of improvised music. "Benny", performed by trumpeter Stacey Rowles’ quintet, is clearly rooted in the music of Benny Golson, loosely based around his classic tune, "Whisper Not". "Silvana", an early outing by Peter Erskine’s current trio with pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Dave Carpenter, is a contemporary piece that is deceptively challenging, with its repetitive bass line and singable melody. It is, in fact, a characteristic of von Essen’s writing that simple, accessible melodies hide harmonic devices that are a challenge to the performer and listener alike.
The rest of the album shows off other facets of von Essen’s writing. "Love Song for Kirsi", a beautiful ballad, is so complete in itself that Rowles and the quintet are content to play the song through twice, once with Larry Koonse’s guitar leading, then flugelhorn. "Blues Puzzle", featuring pianist Alan Broadbent’s trio, is a clever twelve-bar that eventually leads into a light, straight-ahead swing with a particularly fine bass solo from Putter Smith, echoing von Essen’s own sense of melodic invention.
The album kicks into high gear with "Peacemaker", featuring a quartet led by Cryptogramophone’s ubiquitous guitarist Nels Cline. As always Cline shows his chameleon-like ability to fit into virtually any context, this time doing post-bop that is reminiscent of some of John Scofield’s early work with Hal Galper. "For Me (And Myself Alone)" continues the comparison with an harmonically-rich jazz waltz that is all the more intriguing for its superimposed 4/4 feel, another characteristic of von Essen’s writing.
The CD closes off with a reunion of sorts, of von Essen’s group Quartet Music, with Michael Elizondo filling the bass chair. Violinist/producer Jeff Gauthier, Nels Cline and percussionist Alex Cline take on "Incomplete Circle", an Egberto Gismonti-informed piece which, for all its shifting time and harmony, moves along naturally and effortlessly. Nels Cline, once again, shows the breadth of his ability, this time on classical guitar, while Elizondo and Gauthier effortlessly navigate the changes. "Departure" is a beautiful piece that could easily fit into the Oregon songbook.
For all the diversity in von Essen’s writing, there are characteristics which identify it as the work of a single composer. While there is precious little documented evidence of von Essen’s talent as a performer, thankfully we have The Music of Eric von Essen Volume I
, as well as two subsequent volumes, to keep his memory alive, and expose his compositions to a larger audience. Engaging and filled with surprises, The Music of Eric von Essen Volume I
will hopefully bring attention to von Essen and to the world-class performers of his music.