From a career that started in the early 1960s, Arild Andersen is one of the best bass players in the world and it was great to have the chance to ask him a few questions. He played on many of the early releases from ECM, including works by Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Bobo Stenson. His first three albums as a quartet leader were issued in ECM’s Old and New Master series in 2010. His playing has always kept a balance between richly sonorous melody lines and the ability to hint at the rhythm of a piece through the use of a judiciously placed phrase here and there. So, an obvious question was to ask about his philosophy of playing the bass. “My philosophy is that the bass should be as free as the other instruments and not be locked into a role of playing patterns for instance. Actually, my favourite situation is a band that does not need a bass player – then I can go in and out of the role freely. This is what I do in this trio with Tommy and Paolo. My sound comes from an idea of clarity and sustain so I can hold notes if I want. Many people ask me what pickup, amp, preamp etc. I use to get that sound. It all comes from the fingertips and coordination between left and right hand, and how you set up the bass. One main thing is to play the strings gently and to quote Christian McBride, ‘Don’t pull the string like you are shooting with a bow and arrow’ “.
His most recent CD, ‘In-house science’ is the third released by the trio with Tommy Smith and Paolo Vinaccia and I asked what he enjoyed about this group. “The instruments blend very well and the interplay is a main feature. It also gives room for my use of electronics. In a trio, the energy flows like a circle through the band and musical decisions can be made on the spot very quickly and we all go in that direction. Listening becomes as important as playing or sometimes more important.” The trio’s playing blends lines composed by Andersen with improvisation. Andersen’s attitude to improvisation can be summed up in one word, “Interplay. With this trio we have developed a way that any of us can take the leading role for some bars within anyone’s solo. Sometimes Tommy hears that I fill in between his phrases and leaves more of a gap for me to finish before he enters again and I always leave a lot of space for Paolo in my bass solos, and sometimes Tommy makes obligato voices behind my solos. It all happens when it happens and nothing is planned.” Perhaps this is a little modest because there is clearly some planning of the structure of each piece, even if the live experience might differ. “When I write music, I write a melody and a bass part to it. It is important that this can stay alone without chords and you still can hear the harmonic movements. If I add a chord instrument it should just work as adding salt and pepper.
‘In-house science’ opens with the track ‘Mira, the title from the trio’s studio album and I wondered how playing this live compared with the studio version. “As always the live versions are different from the studio ones. There are many proofs of that throughout history.” Developing this a little further, I wondered whether there is a level of risk associated with making a live recording. “The risk is obvious, but then again you don’t release a recording with many mistakes. A lot of live records are issued from a series of concert recordings. We did not do that but just had this one recording which we were very happy about. What I enjoy is the live energy, and the risk taking that comes with it. I also wanted a document of the trio live. The studio recording ‘Mira’ was a ballad record – very nice for Sunday mornings. ‘In-House Science’ is more for Friday nights!” You certainly get the sense that the audience of the ‘In-house Science’ gig were having a great time, and the band responded to that atmosphere. The set was recorded at a building owned by Pythagoras Kepler System Organization which, perhaps, called to mind ideas relating to science. I wondered whether there is a scientific basis to how Andersen thinks about music and playing, but he didn’t believe so. “I wrote the song Science in the ‘80s for my band Masqualero. The new recording of this song at this venue is a pure coincidence. I do not have any scientific basis for how I think about music.”
As well as playing together in this trio, Andersen and Smith have combined on Scottish National Jazz Orchestra projects (Celebrating ECM in 2011, released as the CD ‘Celebration’, and the legacy of Charles Mingus in 2016). Given his experience of smaller units, I asked how playing with the orchestra compared. “The SNJO is a great band and I enjoy very much playing with them. The difference to a small group is less than one would think because the band is so flexible and Tommy Smith lets the soloists stretch out and he conducts the band very smoothly through the arrangements.”
Given such a distinguished career playing with so many great musicians, I guessed that there might not be too many people on his wish-list. “Hee hee … Wish list? .. Jack DeJohnette I never played with…” and then with characteristic modesty he gives the killer punch-line, “… except at a jam where he played piano and Keith Jarrett played drums.” Not the sort of reply that you could easily follow, so I asked what was next in his plans. “Right now there are a couple of concerts coming up here in Oslo with Joshua Redman, Bugge Wesseltoft and Per Oddvar Johansen. After that I have 2 concerts; solo bass with 12 strings from Trondheimsolistene. There is a duo concert soon with Tord Gustavsen and my trio meeting Makoto Ozone at the San Remo festival later in the summer. We did 8 concerts in Japan during Easter with him and that was a great experience.” Let’s hope some of these meetings find their way to recordings.