When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon river near Ravenna in 49BC, he was deliberately flouting Roman law to provoke Pompey, leader of the Roman Republic, to flee the city. Bassist Mats Eilertsen merely invites the listener to dip his or her toes into a charming, calming stream of music.
Crossing the Rubicon has become a by-word for any individual or group committing itself irrevocably to a risky or revolutionary course of action. In Eilertsen’s case, the revolution was making the transition from support and studio player on the European jazz scene to fully fledged ECM recording artist in his own right.
Eilertsen is no stranger to recording for the ECM label, having played on records for artists as wide-ranging as Tord Gustavsen, Mathias Eick and Jacob Young. His decision to step out under his own name and creative vision was prompted by a commission from the VossaJazz Festival in 2014. The resulting tunes on this album have been fine-tuned on tour since then.
The quality of the players Eilertsen has working with him on this album testifies to the value he’s provided in other ensembles, and their international nature suggests Eilertsen’s playing is making waves outside his native Norway. Saxophonist Trygve Seim (who KindofJazz caught at Ronnie Scott’s in January with trumpeter Matthias Eick, also on this album) brings a lean, languid tone to this album, exemplified on the haunting track September. Also on board is Norwegian guitarist Thomas Dahl and Finnish drummer Olavi Louhivuori. Completing the band are Erik Hegdal on saxophones, Rob Waring on marimbas and dutchman Harmen Fraanje on piano and Fender Rhodes. The mix of tones and sparse styles works well as an ensemble.
This album is slow of pace and low in volume, thoughtful and relaxing rather than seeking to generate a manic pulse. Opener Canto is almost without any clear rhythm at the start as both saxes whoop and weep in slow motion, eking out sounds, and this track sets the tone for the rest of the album. Eilertsen’s contribution is unpretentious on this track and right across the album. One doesn’t get the sense Eilertsen feels the need to push his bass to the front of the sound simply because he wrote the tunes.
Perhaps the most important musical element on the album, beyond the players themselves, is the amount of space in which tones and sounds are left to reverberate and linger before fading away. This Rubicon is no raging torrent, more a placid stream or limpid pool, so muted is much of the playing. While there is soloing and improvisation, such as on track Wood And Water, the overall effect is strongly a blended tonal palate from all the players
The album can as a result, at times, drag a little, as one waits for the music to pick up pace to provide a little temporal variety. Indeed, in the press release accompanying the album, Eilertsen reflects that much of the music he’s played in recent years has been “very melodic and low-key”. But when one cross a river for the first time, clearly it makes sense to go slow, plant one foot down firmly in front of the other, and not rush to get to the other side.
So, ultra-dynamic this album ain’t. But it makes up for that in the quality of the soundscape - the marimbas particularly do this well - and the solidly carved tunes. There’s enough quality music on this album to suggest that having got his ECM recording feet wet, Eilertsen has the traction and musical sure-footedness to cross many other musical rivers in future.