Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Danish Bass Virtuoso

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen: Danish Bass Virtuoso

Written by Anne E. Johnson

His full name was Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, so everyone called him NHØP. Colleagues in the jazz world called him one of the best and most versatile bass players in the business.

The Danish musician, who studied piano as a child, first picked up the double bass when he was 13. Within a couple of years, he was backing world-class visiting artists like Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon at the Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen. Count Basie offered him a job in 1963, but he had to turn it down because he was only 17 and therefore too young for an American work visa.

Bill Evans brought Pedersen on the Danish leg of his tour in 1965, as did Jean-Luc Ponty, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald. One of his trickiest gigs was playing with pianist Oscar Peterson, notoriously fleet of finger. Pedersen was up for the challenge: he had some of the fastest fingers ever to pluck the strings of an upright bass, and critics compared his technique to virtuosic guitar fingerpicking.

Among his other unusual legacies are his many attempts to create a fusion of jazz and Scandinavian folk music. He often convinced fellow musicians with no background in that tradition to get creative with the material, leading to some wonderful results. Although he died at age 58, he made nearly 40 albums, most of them billed as duos with a wide range of collaborators. It’s always an adventure to hear what Pedersen came up with when inspired by the music of the moment.

Enjoy these eight great tracks by Niels Pedersen.

  1. Track: “I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro”
    Album: Duo
    Label: SteepleChase
    Year: 1973

Early in his career, Pedersen made two duet albums with pianist Kenny Drew, although they also worked together a lot on other sessions and shows. Like many African American jazz artists, Drew relocated permanently to Europe in hopes of facing less racism, and he often came over to Copenhagen from his adoptive hometown of Paris. Duo includes a wide range of music, from bossa nova to swing to Pedersen’s folk fusion experiments.

This track is an example of the bassist introducing Scandinavian tradition into jazz. The title of this popular Swedish folksong, “I Skovens Dybe Stille Ro,” means “In the deep, quiet tranquility of the forest.” Pedersen plucks out the melody with plaintive lyricism.


  1. Track: “Little Train”
    Album: Double Bass
    Label: SteepleChase
    Year: 1976

The label SteepleChase was founded in 1972 by a close friend of Pedersen’s, Nils Winther. It became Pedersen’s home base for nearly a decade. American artists, usually those who had gigs at the Jazzhus Montmartre, often showed up on SteepleChase recordings. In this case it’s another great bassist, Sam Jones.

The two masters are joined by a small group of gifted regulars: Philip Catherine on guitar, Billy Higgins on drums, and Albert Heath on percussion. This rare combination of sounds draws a surprising beauty from their arrangement of equally surprising repertoire, the melody “Little Train” by Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. For a demonstration of Pedersen’s speed and dexterity, listen to his solo starting around 4:10.

  1. Track: “Clouds”
    Album: Dancing on the Tables
    Label: SteepleChase
    Year: 1979

Unlike most of Pedersen’s releases, Dancing on the Table was not promoted as a duet, but as a solo album. It’s actually a quartet effort, with Dave Liebman on saxophones and flute, John Scofield on guitar, and Billy Hart on drums.

Pederson wrote all but one of the five tunes, the fifth being a folk song. He also utilized folk material in the title track. The album closes with the 10-minute jam called “Clouds.” It starts with an easygoing jazz fusion groove, and within a few phrases Pedersen has launched into his first solo, a two-and-a-half-minute meander through many different musical ideas. Stick around for Scofield’s intricate solo.


  1. Track: “Round Midnight”
    Album: Northsea Nights
    Label: Pablo
    Year: 1980

Speaking of working with great guitarists, for Northsea Nights Pedersen teamed up with the inimitable Joe Pass. And that’s it. Just the two of them, playing live at the Northsea Jazz Festival in The Hague. Between the intimate sound of that pairing and Pass’ tendency toward the swing side, this is a very special album.

While much of the track list is show tunes, there’s a wonderful recording of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” which starts at 7:18 on this video. Pass’ jewel-like sound finds facets of the tune that even Monk may have missed. And Pedersen, always able to change his approach to the needs of his surroundings, plays it slow and sultry, and also in a lower register than usual.


  1. Track: “Shiny Stockings”
    Album: With Joy and Feelings
    Label: Four Leaf Clover
    Year: 1985

With Joy and Feelings is a collaboration with Danish-Swedish singer Ulla Neumann and her father, guitarist Ulrik Neumann. Father and daughter were both actors as well, which might help explain the sophisticated way they express themselves. And they clearly have a good sense of humor.

Besides the delightful bounce in their rendition of Count Basie’s “Shiny Stockings,” Ulla indulges in a chorus of reedy, wordless vocalization, an unusual sort of scat. It might seem silly in another context, but here it’s used to contrast with the sound of Pedersen’s guitar-like bass playing.


  1. Track: “Here’s That Rainy Day”
    Album: Play with Us
    Label: Olufsen
    Year: 1987

Louis Hjulmand was a Danish vibraphone player and composer who had worked on several projects with Pedersen. He’s the co-star of this two-man album. The timbral interplay of the two instruments is unique and unexpected; the bass notes seem to grow organically out of the lower register of the vibes.

Besides a few tunes by Hjulmand, they landed on a track list of American jazz standards. One is “Here’s That Rainy Day” by Jimmy Van Heusen.


  1. Track: “The Puzzle”
    Album: Ambience
    Label: Da Capo
    Year: 1993

With so many duet and small-group records to his name, it’s a rare pleasure to hear Pedersen with a larger ensemble. Ambience finds him backed by the Danish Radio Big Band. In fact, Pedersen played with DRBB often, but normally as their bassist, not as a soloist.

“The Puzzle” is his own composition, one he had recorded before, including once that same year on a live album with guitarist Philip Catherine. The concert with DRBB was also captured on video, a nice chance to see Pedersen at work.


  1. Track: “I Cover the Waterfront”
    Album: Elegies, Mostly
    Label: Gemini
    Year: 1995

Last we have this track from Elegies, Mostly, an introspective duo album with pianist Dick Hyman. The two are a great match in technique, style, and mood.

Johnny Green wrote “I Cover the Waterfront” in 1933, and it has been recorded many times by some huge jazz names like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. With Pedersen and Hyman, what starts as a simple melody blossoms into an exploration of the song’s inner workings without ever becoming overblown or busy.


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Björn Milcke.

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