Sometimes it really pays off to revisit an artist’s music. In the case of Eric von Essen, the West Coast bassist/multi-instrumentalist/composer who passed away prematurely at the age of forty-three, it is fortunate, indeed, that Cryptogramophone Records saw fit to revisit his music not once, not twice, but three times by releasing three compilations of von Essen music, recorded by the cream of the crop of West Coast musicians; the sad truth is that while von Essen was something of a musician’s musician, a composer’s composer, he never fully received the kudos that was his due during his lifetime. The Music of Eric von Essen Volume II
features more material, culled from the same 1999 sessions that produced The Music of Eric von Essen Volume I
, with the same cast of characters. By shifting the order of the groups interpreting the material, Cryptogramophone subtly changes the emphasis, and provides further insight into this formidable body of work.
Starting with trumpeter Stacy Rowles’ Quintet, "Bud for John" and "K." may be the most mainstream of the compositions. Guitarist Larry Koonse delivers a perfectly swinging solo on "Bud for John"; "K.," a tender waltz, is yet another example of von Essen’s penchant for superimposing a 4/4 feel over the traditional jazz waltz.
Pianist Alan Broadbent’s trio provides the closest link between von Essen and Bill Evans. "Show Tune" even follows the Evans format, with a harmonically rich piano solo opening the tune before the rhythm section enters. "I Just Wanted to Talk to You," another beautiful waltz, features rich counterpoint between Broadbent’s left and right hand; bassist Putter Smith and Kendall Kay keep the groove going in the most subtle of fashions.
Things take a left turn with the introduction of two tracks by the reformed Quartet Music group, with Michael Elizondo filling the bass chair left absent by von Essen. It is with this group that von Essen got to introduce much of his more contemporary music through the 1980s and early 1990s on a series of contemplative and adventurous recordings. A sister group to Oregon, Quartet Music shared a similar disposition for a somewhat folksy approach; but whereas Oregon owed much to what ultimately became known as world music, Quartet Music sat firmly in jazz. Of the two pieces included here, "Petit Rayon" features a rising theme that is made all the more intriguing by Jeff Gauthier’s violin, and the unusual voicings of Nels Cline’s acoustic guitar. "9/8/29," named for Gauthier’s 29th birthday, is an extended piece that builds gradually over its ten-minute length, and may be the most abstruse piece in the collection.
The next two tracks, "Seule" and "Pauo’s Song," feature drummer Peter Erskine’s current trio with pianist Alan Pasqua and bassist Dave Carpenter. Their approach to the material is largely impressionistic; they showcase von Essen’s atypical approach to harmony; deceptively complex, yet completely accessible.
This volume closes with two pieces played by Nels Cline, this time on electric guitar, and brother Alex on drums, with Joel Hamilton on bass and David Witham on piano. Nels Cline comments, in the liner notes, how Miles Davis’ Quintet of the 1960s was a model for von Essen; the loose, open harmonic format with shifting time is heard to great effect on "BC/Jezebel." "Marry Me" is a romantic ballad that is, quite simply, timeless in its poignancy.
Impeccably recorded, The Music of Eric von Essen Volume II
continues to assert the importance of von Essen, years after his passing. With the number of West Coast players who regularly include his pieces in their repertoire, one can only hope that it will simply be a matter of time before he takes his rightful place alongside other jazz composers of consequence. Thankfully Cryptogramophone, a label dedicated to the promotion of music and artists of significance, have seen fit to pay tribute to the late artist with this series of recordings.