Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: The Great Dane's Low Tones and Highlights
No doubt, he gets tired of hearing it, the yarn about Denmark being no place to raise one of the finest living bass players in jazz. But the truth is that Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson—call him NHØP—may have been in precisely the right place at the right time. NHØP, born in Ørsted (hence the name) in 1946, was barely past puberty when he began cutting his teeth in the internationally-renowned Copenhagen club known as the Club Montmartre in the late ’50s.
Where else could a fresh-scrubbed country kid hope to play with some of the greatest jazz players alive, on a regular, rotating basis? “I took it for granted,” he remembers now, in an interview from his home just outside Copenhagen while at home for the holidays. “You would play, say, two weeks with Stuff Smith, then it could be Wayne Shorter, then it could be Freddie Hubbard, then Kenny Dorham, or Bud Powell. It could be Dexter, Yusef Lateef, or Johnny Griffin. Joe Henderson was in there and he had special ideas about what musicians should be all about. Sonny Rollins was in there, and we just had to find out how to make it function.
“As opposed to, let’s say, being a member of Stan Getz’s quartet, where you play two or three years in one band before you go on, this was like a training ground every night.”
Forty-odd years later, NHØP is one of the most revered and technically commanding bassists, who has held court for many years with Oscar Peterson, and among countless others, played with Bill Evans, the recently deceased Spanish piano legend Tete Monteliu.
Like many a European musician who falls in love with jazz, he dreamt of coming to America as a youth, but has remained in his native land. And, as solidly as he lays into the American-based jazz tradition, he has also been an avid supporter of his own culture, as well as surprising cross-sections thereof. Even his 1995 album Friends Forever (Milestone), featuring Renee Rosnes, is a tribute to Kenny Drew, the pianist who lived in Denmark, and who was a close musical cohort of Pedersen’s.
Of late, NHØP’s name has come up increasingly as a leader. Early this year will see the release of his second album for Verve, This is All That I Ask, with cameos by Phil Woods and Oscar Peterson—following last year’s Verve album Those Who Were, with special guest Johnny Griffin, and with a program that includes an arrangement of a piece by Danish classical composer Carl Nielsen. Also coming out this year, on Fantasy’s Original Jazz Classic series, will be Eternal Traveller, a highly personalized concept album recorded in Denmark in 1984, leaning heavily on Danish themes in a jazz mode. The album is framed by stunning, precision-geared readings of Paganini and includes a nursery rhyme sung by two of his three daughters.
“As opposed to some people, who are always looking for an identity that they think is the trend of the time, I happen to be just the opposite. I look for my own identity, regardless of trends.”
Denmark has long had a firm link to jazz culture. “During the war,” Pedersen explains, “there were a lot of very good musicians here, because the way you could protest against the Germans—not the Germans, but the Nazis—was to sing in English, and you could play jazz music, because that was supposed to be inferior. That would be a little way of taking small revenge. You had a lot of people who were brilliant jazz musicians. Sven Asmussen, the violin player, was one of them.
“It was maybe a little quieter in the early ’50s, but then Stan Getz fell in love with a Swedish girl and Oscar Pettiford came here. A number of people came. The guy who opened the first Club Montmartre, he had money from his family and it couldn’t be good enough for him. Sooner or later, all of a sudden, there was a very healthy climate for jazz here. When I grew up, I think I started working in the clubs here when I was 13 or 14. You would be in demand, not necessarily because you were a great player, but because there was nobody else.” Modesty becomes him.
His own saga with the bass began fatefully enough. As he explains, without rancor, “I was forced into music by my mother. I was the youngest of five children. My father was the principal master of a boarding school and my mother used to play the morning hymns in the school. She had this ambition that we should not necessarily become musicians—I’m the only one who really is—but that we should have a knowledge of music.
“For that reason, she found a teacher close to my hometown, where we all had to go. We didn’t have to practice, as such, but we went there once a week. I used to be a piano player from the beginning and since I was the youngest and everybody else played other instruments, they figured that they could use a bass. That’s why I picked it up. To some extent, I think I’m a bit of a fatalist. I think that what happens has to happen. You can try to make the best out of it, but fate is there, stronger than you.”
He studied classical music as a foundation, but jazz was in the air, and all through the Pedersen house. “Since I’m the youngest, all I know of music goes back as far as I can remember. Since my older brothers played Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and God knows what, when they said, ‘Play the bass,’ I thought it was very interesting, intriguing. One of my so-called heroes was Walter Page. To me, that was one of the greatest rhythm sections ever.”
He later got the chance to play with Count Basie, but had to turn down an offer to join the group, because he was only 17, too young for a work permit in the States. “The second time I was offered the job, I had been at the American embassy here in Denmark and I was told that if I took up permanent residency in the States, I might be drafted into the Vietnam War. I didn’t fancy that, so I stayed here.”
Who were some of his other early heroes on bass? “First of all, I use the expression ‘heroes’ myself, but I don’t mean it in the usual way. When you are a piano player like I am, from the very beginning, I think music is the overall interest for you. If it so happens that you play bass, it doesn’t mean, in my case anyway, that you only listen to bass players. You listen to whatever interesting musicians there are.
“But some outstanding bass players, for me, were Paul Chambers, Scott Lafaro and Ray Brown. You can argue about Paul Chambers’ intonation, but you cannot argue about what he contributed to a band. I think I learned very early that it’s not always how you come out as a soloist that counts, but it’s a matter of what the ultimate result of people playing music together comes out to be. Scott Lafaro was the same thing for Bill Evans that Paul Chambers must have been for Miles, and that Ray was for Oscar.”
Not one to dwell on the technical matters he so obviously has under control, he sees the bass as a musical means more than an end unto itself. “I would say that I modeled my playing after the idea of trying to communicate. Without saying anything bad, I would say that with some of the young groups, they’re way too preoccupied with trying to sound like the older guys. What they fail to understand, I think, is that actually the older guys played the way they did because they played with each other.
“When I have students, I tell them, ‘Don’t forget, whatever your dreams or hopes you might have as to who you might play with, you are playing with the persons who are physically present on the bandstand.’ That has made it ever so easy for me, because I just go up there and see what I can do. Where can we meet? Music is about listening and communicating, and always remembering that you’re behind the music. You’re not in front of it.”
The teenaged bassist was in demand in Copenhagen, to the potential dismay of his parents. One night, his mother tagged along to size up the club scene where her son spent his nights. “We came in the club and I introduced my mother to Bud Powell. She doesn’t speak any other language except for Danish. She looked at him and Bud looked at her, and she turned around and said, ‘You’re OK. He’s nice. Good eyes.’”
As a precocious 14-year-old, he also played briefly with free jazz icon Albert Ayler, on an infamous early European recording date. “All I remember from him was that, during the recording, he wanted to play ‘Billie’s Bounce,’ and to my knowledge, he couldn’t play ‘Billie’s Bounce.’ See, that’s how stupid you are when you are 14. I thought we should rehearse it and he said something like, ‘No, I want it to sound just the way I played it.’ I realized, OK, I crossed a border.”
Pedersen came up at a time when the role of the bass in jazz was shifting, away from a more strictly supportive rhythm section task. He had the chops to meet the new challenge of soloing. “I remember when I played with Dexter, he would say, ‘What is it you play?’ I said, ‘I play everything you play, but just down an octave,’” he laughs. “It was a slip of the tongue, but when I look back on it, that’s actually what I do.”
It’s true: Pedersen has been guilty of jaw-dropping virtuosity, as heard, for instance, on the stunning work on Pablo with Peterson and/or Joe Pass (hear them blow, with might and lyricism, on the new Joe Pass box set). The musical distinction has to do with engaging in dialogues with musicians on hand rather than grandstanding.
The Pablo records heyday of the ’70s, a bastion of mainstream jazz amidst the fusion craze, was a richly creative time for NHØP, who served as the house bassist. He recalls one mid-’70s festival in Montreux which ended up yielding no less than seven live albums over two nights of music. “On those two nights, I played with Count Basie, Milt Jackson, Harry “Sweets” Edison, Lockjaw Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Jon Faddis, Benny Carter, Ray Bryant, Oscar, Louie Bellson, Jimmy Smith...When you look back, you think, ‘Was I really there?’ I have the records, so I know I was.”
For now, Pedersen chooses his projects carefully and is busy carving out his life as a leader. Does he have a dream project he’d like to tackle?
“Without sounding too proud of myself, I think everything that I do at this point in my life is a dream project, because I only do things that I want to do. For most musicians, that must be the ultimate. When I play with Oscar, which I still do, it’s because I have an awful lot of respect for the man. When I can plan my own recordings, like the new one I’ve just finished, I’m fortunate enough that Phil Woods and Oscar will accept to play on it. Really, I’m doing nothing but dream projects.”
“I’m playing the same bass that I’ve played since 1963, an old, unknown bass which is a fabulous instrument that has been renovated over and over again to my liking. I use the Wilson pickups, made in Denmark, and a Barcus Berry pre-amp which has also been renovated a little bit. I play just about any amp because when I have the pre-amp, I can make my sound just the way I like it, so it doesn’t really matter that much.”
“We just had a New Year’s eve party here, and I listened to ‘Ballad for a Sad Young Man,’ from Keith Jarrett’s Tribute album, then I listened to Count Basie and B.B. King. And I also listened to Sting. Oh, early in the morning, we listened to Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Philip Entremont.”
Originally published in April 1998