On his leader debut for ECM, bassist/composer Mats Eilertsen surrounds himself with players he has worked with in various contexts over the last 15 years. He has appeared on the label many times under the leadership of Tord Gustavsen, Jacob Young, Nils Økland, and Mathias Eick. This septet date is the largest ensemble he's ever assembled on record -- though they seldom play together. Among his collaborators are saxophonist/clarinetist Eirik Hegdal and guitarist Thomas Dahl, both of whom he's worked with since the '90s in Dingobats; ex-pat American Rob Waring on vibraphones and marimbas, drummer Olavi Louhivuori, pianist Harmen Fraanje, and saxophonist Trygve Seim. Rubicon began its life as a commission from the Vossajazz Festival in 2014. The music changed shape and was tightened on the road until producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Jan Eric Kongshaug captured it in Oslo's Rainbow Studio in May 2015.
Those familiar with Eilertsen's work with his Turanga or SkyDive bands will know that he doesn't compose to showcase his own playing. He writes for ensembles, or, in this case, subgroups of them. Opener "Canto" is an intimate, gentle dialogue for saxophone (Seim) and Hegdal's clarinet. Cymbal washes and sparse, crystalline, middle-register piano join the bassline. A Spanish tinge lies in its speculative melody. "March" is almost dirge-like in tempo, but it's colorful; it also contains traces of folk melody before moving off into an almost rockist groove via the guitarist's tremolo bar, Fraanje's Rhodes and acoustic piano, and Waring's sparkling vibes before an outside tenor solo. Though "Balky" commences with a bass solo, piano, brushed drums, tenor saxophone, guitar, and marimba eventually add layers, delivering the most songlike melody on the set. The interplay between Seim's solo and Dahl's illustrative electric guitar fills is gorgeous. "Blublue," with its staggered lyric line, is more harmonically open, with elegant use of vibes and Bill Frisell-esque guitar vamps while saxophones and vibes gently circle outward until the piano and an alto horn circle back. "September" is a vehicle for Dahl. His guitar is at the forefront with drums and vibes, as the horns add staggered fills in the backdrop. It's the closest thing to conventional "jazz" here, with a nearly euphoric sense of rhythmic syncopation. Rubicon delivers a series of fine compositions that explore various combinations of intimate, exploratory sounds along (mostly) subtle color lines and elegantly arrayed textural palettes. They evoke an inherent lyricism that, for all its restraint, is tonally expansive and harmonically smart.