Mike Nock: Repeating the poem of forgotten love

The second morning was an early start by musician standards: 9am. The first day in the studio had gone well enough. Good takes, energy to burn – but it was not quite what producer Manfred Eicher had in mind. As much as he loved Mike Nock’s most recent record, In Out and Around, he didn’t fancy more of the same. That was a New York album through and through. Buzzing. Edgy. Eicher wanted to draw out another side of the pianist: the poet in him, evoking something, perhaps, of Oslo, where they were recording, or of Nock’s homeland, New Zealand. Softer worlds than the Big Apple.

To that end Eicher had taken Nock for a long walk to show him Oslo’s parks and views. The producer has a long history of insinuating ideas that might infiltrate an artist’s music, while talking about anything other than notes and rhythms. In the studio on that second morning in 1981, however, he was more hands-on, massaging from Nock, bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Jon Christensen the otherworldly music that would become the album Ondas.

Mike Nock. Photo: Karen Steains. Top photo: Cheryl Browne.

In Out and Around had included a Nock composition called Shadows of Forgotten Love, and Eicher now suggested they try a pared-back, simplified version, rechristened just Forgotten Love. Against a minor-key vamp, this ravishing elegy has Nock improvising lines of operatic intensity, Gomez at his most lyrical, and Christensen, rather than accentuating the groove, playing freely and sparsely, while working up emotional surges against his colleagues.

They brought the piece to a conclusion after nearly eight minutes, whereupon Eicher vehemently signalled from the control booth to keep going, so they repeated the form to even greater effect. Freed from the shackles of expectation, Nock’s playing becomes more heart-rending (without losing his flair for a solo’s architecture), Gomez’s more muscular in support and more expressive in his solo, and Christensen’s more abstract, while also giving the music more heft.

Of his lightbulb moment, Eicher told me in an interview, “It fell to me in the control room as producer to decide that it hadn’t been played to its full capacity… The undulating wave was still rolling towards us and not fading away.” It was this double iteration of the piece that places it among the great jazz piano trio works.

If the rest of the album does not quite scale such heights, it sustains both the elegiac pensiveness and the sense that anything could happen. Visionary also has a wave-like motion of swelling tension and release, with Christensen occasionally stepping out of the shadows to amplify the propulsion or drama. The title track is more agitated, yet remains autumnal in mood, Land of the Long White Cloud has a folkloric, lament-like quality, and the momentum they collectively generate on Doors is still light and dancing.

They spent just two hours recording what Eicher, who has produced albums by Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Paul Bley, among many others, describes as one of his favourite piano trio records. “It has a great atmosphere that just doesn’t want to stop,” he said. “[Nock’s] such a wonderful composer and great piano player. This document is still a very fresh one, and I like to listen to it a lot.” It was odd, therefore, that this was the only time they collaborated.

Nock likes Ondas too, although he’s slightly bemused that this particular album should be the one to strike such a chord with so many people. After all, the Kiwi, who had begun playing professionally at 15, hit Sydney at 18, and enjoyed a stellar US career before settling back in Sydney, has a score of fine albums to his name, including the delightful solo opus Touch. “I would never have the nerve to put such an unrelieved sombreness on record,” Nock told his biographer, Norman Meehan. Sombre, however, may not be the right word: sad, yes, but also poetic and stunningly beautiful. And as Nock once said to me about making music, “Without the poetry, who cares?”

Ondas streams on Apple Music and Spotify; on disc from Birdland Records.