Skala is Mathias Eick‘s sophomore release, a follow-up to 2008’s sublime The Door, a rainy-day jazz album rich with Eick’s sonorous trumpet calls and textured with the highly imaginative (and successful) addition of a pedal steel guitar to the mix. For Skala, Eick replaces pedal steel with harp, and trades The Door‘s organic acoustics for one with a smoother veneer and sounding much much more like a studio album.
What I found troubling about Skala (and still do at times) is that the emotions presented on the album felt a bit superficial. To me, that seems like a fair complaint. In addition to finding jazz engaging on a cerebral level, it’s really the contact it makes with my heart that has me addicted to the music. And if an artist is going to try to connect with me emotionally, the last thing that he/she should end up accomplishing is causing me to be suspicious of their methods. For me, much of that original magic was missing from Skala, and I think that therein was the rub… once gone, now I’m left to wonder if it wasn’t just an illusion all along.
Of course, I’m always willing to extend the benefit of the doubt, and overall, suspicions aside, I think Skala is a beautiful album that I do have an emotional connection with. And besides, when winter hits, I’m totally a sucker for the melancholia. Once I personally let go of how I thought Skala should sound like an extension of The Door and judged the album on its own merits, I found a real beauty in it and felt it deserving of mention in a best-of-the-year column.
Your personnel for this album: Mathias Eick (trumpet), Tore Brunborg (tenor saxophone), Andreas Ulvo (piano), Morten Qvenild (keyboards), Sidsel Walstad (harp), Audun Erlien (electric bass), Torstein Lofthus, Gard Nilssen (drums).
On its face, Skala seems to lack the emotional depth of its predecessor, but where The Door had hopeful notes among its sorrowful compositions, I find the opposite with Skala… despair and sadness envelop what sounds like happy tunes. Ultimately, the depressive music is evident in both albums, it’s just that Skala tries to hide it.
Opening with long drifting notes on title-track “Skala”, Eick doesn’t reveal his hand, keeping the emotions close to the vest. On the second track, “Edinburgh”, he keeps up the deception, hiding behind a rapid fire rhythm section underpinned by bursts of piano, but Eick repeatedly hitting notes that don’t exactly ring with hope.
The third track “June” tries for some happy with Eick’s trumpet ending each note with a bright sound and Walstad’s harp giving gentle encouragement from the background. But all that goes away with the driving intensity of “Oslo” as pianist Ulvo teams up with the rhythm section to turn the song to black; when they let up, Eick’s trumpet sounds darker than in the opening.
The second half of the album is the stronger of the two sections. Eick’s trumpet lead in the opening notes on “Joni” sets a mood drenched in melancholia, and even the happy face piano and bass attempt to display aren’t sufficient to overcome it. The oddly pop-ish vibe of “Day After” seems obscenely out of place, serving to enhance the sadness than to dispel it. The album ends with “Epilogue”, in the same place that it began. It’s also, arguably, the strongest tune on the album.
So, have I written a review that makes Skala seem like one big friggin’ downer? Maybe. Hell, I’d be unsurprised to learn that’s exactly how Eick intended it. Needless to mention (but I will anyway), results for others may vary. Besides, there is an innate beauty in sadness, accentuating the memories of when times were better, and as a result, those memories lift the sadness a bit. That, and Skala is a wonderful album by some excellent musicians.
It is very much an ECM label album, with pristine sound, and some of the sleepy-sparse aesthetics often associated with that label’s output. But it’s definitely more lively and textured than the ECM stereotype, and depending how much edge a listener prefers to their jazz, this would be a nice choice for those who seek out something softer.
Skala is 41 minutes of modern trumpet jazz released on the ECM label.