Let's begin by wishing Eberhard Weber a happy birthday. The German bassist, a cornerstone artist of the European jazz label ECM for nearly all of its four decades, turns 70 on Friday. In blending compositional, instrumental and improvisational skills with Euro-classical undercurrents and textured works of rich but relaxed lyricism, he has been a prime architect of ECM's atmospheric sound.
Weber has been ailing in recent years as the result of a stroke, but his past is represented by a new triple-disc box set called Colours. This isn't a career retrospective, but a package of three fascinating ECM albums cut over five years by the Weber-led quartet Colours. Like much of Weber's work, these recordings — Yellow Fields (1976), Silent Feet (1978) and Little Movements (1980) — have drifted in and out of print over the years.
Yellow Fields set the Colours group — Weber, American reed player Charlie Mariano, Norwegian drummer Jon Christensen and extraordinary German keyboardist Rainer Bruninghaus — in motion, although its approach to subtle textures and ambient orchestration was established on Weber's 1974 ECM debut, The Colours of Chloe.
Weber makes little fuss with his playing. His own adjustments to the bass (the use of extra strings along with the design of a solid-body electric double bass) greatly increases its vocabulary, as shown by the ballet-like exchange between Weber and Christensen's percussion tapestries on Yellow Fields' title tune. Similarly, the soprano saxophone and Indian reed playing of Mariano on all three albums exhibits an alternately ghostly and playful tone that recalls ECM mate and longtime Weber collaborator Jan Garbarek.
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The exchange of drummer Christensen for Soft Machine alumnus John Marshall on the latter two albums was Colours' only personnel switch. Marshall's approach on Silent Feet (arguably Weber's finest hour) is light and expressive, allowing the music to open up. Credit much of that expansion to Bruninghaus. His limber skirmishes with Weber and Marshall mirror the melodic soundscapes that another then-blooming ECM artist, Pat Metheny, would soon run with. Coincidentally, Silent Feet was cut almost concurrently with Metheny's second ECM set, Watercolors, which featured Weber as bassist.
The Colours band sound starts to reveal familiarities on Little Movements. The piano couplets are repeated like mantras, echoed by the moody mix of keyboards and Weber's arco bass playing, along with the more melancholy shades of Mariano's soprano sax and flute. All beautifully mingle on Little Movements' exquisite The Last Stage of a Long Journey.
But let's not stop here. How about a full reissue of Weber's work? The Colours box makes a great birthday treat, but it beckons for a return of all the bassist's out-of print recordings to full, visible and Colours-full glory.