Mats Eilertsen: SkyDive

Recorded at the famous Rainbow Studios, Oslo, Mats Eilertsen's sixth album SkyDive is about as fine an example of contemporary European jazz as one might hope to hear. It's also the double bassist-composer's third release on Hubro, arriving as it does after 2009's Radio Yonder and 2010's trio recording Elegy. The new release finds Eilertsen's quartet having expanded to a quintet with the addition of Finnish pianist Alexi Tuomarila, whose presence adds considerably to the music's impact. Egos are kept thoroughly in check—the band-leader's included—with all concerned playing in service to the music first and foremost, and Eilertsen's quietly authoritative approach to both his group and recording reminiscent of Dave Holland's. In each case, there's never any question as to who's in charge yet the bandleader rules with an understated hand in directing the music's flow and anchoring it with an unerring bass presence.

As a composer (all nine of the album's pieces are his), Eilertsen has a gift for guiding his players through intricate yet fluid set-pieces filled with sinuous melodic lines that leave ample space for individual voices (e.g., the legato attack of guitarist Thomas T. Dahl on “The Pilots Choice”). Breathing effortlessly, Eilertsen's music also in moments exudes an ECM-like coolness—not all that surprisingly, given that drummer Olavi Louhivuori and pianist Alexi Tuomarila also play in Tomasz Stanko's band and that sometimes echoes of Jan Garbarek emerge in Tore Brunborg's contributions, especially when his tenor sax tone is at its most full-throated and robust (there's a moment near the end of “The Pilots Choice” where one could be excused for thinking one's hearing a Garbarek cameo).

The musicians Eilertsen's assembled to play his compositions are, to a man, superb. On the opening “Splendor,” Tuomarila brings an elegant understatement to his playing, sounding when he strips his attack down to a single line a little bit like Herbie Hancock. Initially dreamy and languorous, “Memento” gains strength from its unison front-line pairing of guitar and sax before growing rather more blustery. The title track is a delicate textural setting that finds the players collectively bringing to life a gently flowing meditation of feathery sax playing and nuanced moodscaping. The band dials up the intensity level on “The Void” as Louhivuori powers the music with percussive drive and Dahl veers off into noisier territory. At album's end, an earthy and bluesy quality infuses “The Old Oak” and provides an impetus for some of the album's most unconstrained playing by Brunborg and Tuomarila.

Eilertsen's music unfolds with an assurance and grace that clearly comes from years of playing and study. The changes within a given composition occur organically, never feeling predictable yet nevertheless inevitable in the melodic trajectories they pursue. His music also locates a perfect middle ground between through-composition and soloing—the latter emerging out of the former, of course, but doing so with a naturalness not always heard. In its own understated way, SkyDive impresses as one of the most accomplished and all-around satisfying releases of the year, regardless of genre.

December 2011