Eberhard Weber: A German Jazz Story
(Equinox, 190pp., £25. Book Review by Chris Parker)
“The notes of a musically conscious man, ideally free of conceit” is how virtuoso bassist Eberhard Weber describes this, his autobiography, originally published in German in 2015 but now available in English, courtesy of translator Heidi Kirk. In his Prelude, Weber promises to record his story “emotionally at times, soberly at others, and, on occasion, furiously. In good faith and to the best of my knowledge”, and the account that follows does indeed clearly attempt to fulfil this promise, providing a series of glimpses of his mindset at various points in his journey from his amateur beginnings in 1962 to his premature withdrawal from performing after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2007.
“Glimpses” is the operative word here, however: Weber, like the improviser he is – he himself says “What’s fantastic about jazz is its origin in improvisation” – seldom sticks to his themes, instead using them as springboards for discursions, interjections or anecdotes, all inserted as the mood takes him. The overall effect is oddly unsettling: Weber is a butterfly, not a bee, flitting about unpredictably, guided by impulse rather than fixed purpose.
There is an overall shape to the book – it traces Weber’s career roughly chronologically from his beginning as a cellist, through his work with the likes of Wolfgang Dauner, Dave Pike, Spectrum and the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble to his most famous and fruitful collaboration with Jan Garbarek – but its course is too often diverted into apparent irrelevancies of marginal interest, particularly in the chapter beginning “America is the cradle of jazz…”. This does actually contain a number of Weberian insights into its ostensible subject, but too often allows itself to be sidetracked.
This restlessness is not only unsettling for the reader, but actually confusing at times: on free jazz, for instance, Weber introduces his (often pungent – especially concerning Joachim-Ernst Berendt – and perceptive) comments by setting out his stall thus: “I couldn’t stand it. I desperately wanted to take part in it. I think that free jazz is important” before going on to admit “This doesn’t quite fit together…” Such reliance on thinking aloud rather than on carefully considered commentary gives the book as a whole a cobbled-together feel, all the more unfortunate because it is clear from the odd passage where Weber concentrates his faculties and tells a story in detail without deviation (as he does with his hair-raising account of a trip to Poona towards the end of the book), he reveals himself as a skilful and amusing narrator with a good story to tell. After all, he is a towering figure in the history of jazz bass, among the very few practitioners on his instrument to be able to enthral an audience with a solo performance. There is, in short, a book inside him; unfortunately, this autobiography doesn’t do him full justice.
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