Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Jazz Bassist/Composers

My extensive research into the area of influential and prolific jazz composers who happen to be bass players has been something of a bust. Much as I wanted to shill for my fellow low note creators, the sad truth is that there are not enough outstanding musicians who fit the description to warrant a full length article. I had hoped to write something for the new and quite good online journal Bass Musician Magazine, but there is barely enough material for a decent blog post. So, here goes:

It will come as no surprise that the first and most outstanding jazz bassist/composer was, of course, Charles Mingus. He really has no peer in terms of output, passion, skill, stylistic advancement and influence. A quick glance at his catalog of compositions will give you a good overview of the breadth of this man's work. From simple blues based compositions like Haitian Fight Song and Better Git Hit In Your Soul to the massive and flawed Epitaph, his oeuvre is impressive - almost overwhelming.

Mingus aspired to be the Duke Ellington of his generation, though he also venerated Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. I'm guessing that his most played composition is the memorial he wrote for Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, which is essentially a re-harmonized blues melody. The tune is rightfully well known and often recorded; it is hauntingly beautiful.

Next I have to go with the man who put the fretless bass guitar on the map and wrote a handful of great and often performed tunes, Jaco Pastorius. Jaco's output as a composer doesn't come close to the scope and influence of Mingus but some of his tunes have become fusion (for lack of a more appropriate term) icons. Such compositions as Three Views of A Secret, Teen Town, Havona, Punk Jazz, River People, Barbary Coast, Continuum and Portrait of Tracy leave no doubt as to the writing talent Jaco possessed. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see that talent fully realized.

Dave Holland has produced a great deal of music, primarily suiting his purpose to have the tunes serve as springboards for improvisation. He has written a number of compositions arising from his interest in odd meters and has also stretched the limits of harmony, often juxtaposing "tunes" and free improvisation. A friend of mine said that his historic early recording Conference of The Birds sounded like TV themes interspersed with free blowing. That's awfully dismissive, but some of the tunes do sound a little immature. Fortunately, he had the likes of Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton there to push the improvisational envelope. Many of his recordings have been without chording instruments, which reminds me of Mingus's piano-less quartet recordings of the early 1960's. [The presence of Eric Dolphy on the seminal recordings of Fables of Faubus and What Love, among other tunes, certainly helped make those sessions as close to masterpieces as there are in jazz.]

Holland has garnered many accolades in the past couple of decades for his work as a bassist and bandleader. Some of the inherent value of his groups is due to the quality of his writing, which has greatly matured over the years. He has borrowed a strategy from the Ellington (and Mingus) play book, namely, writing compositions specifically for the individual players in his groups. Like his early mentor Miles Davis, Holland has fostered the careers of many younger players, providing them a movable workshop not only for their playing but for their tunes as well.

The only other bassist/composer I have found to be a potential rival for these masters will come as a surprise to many of you. I first heard Ben Allison's music in connection with the NPR show On The Media. After doing some investigating I discovered that Allison had been writing, performing and generating considerable buzz with his semi-cooperative band Medicine Wheel for a number of years. His writing is eclectic and fresh sounding, incorporating a lot of non-jazz elements like pop and world music textures. I can't give you a good thumbnail description of his compositions - there are a lot of them, spanning a good half dozen or so CDs. What I've heard I think is well worth checking out.

I realize that this list may be somewhat controversial. I've left out a lot of the usual (and some unusual) suspects. Many bass players have written some good tunes. My short list of these players includes Steve Swallow, Gary Willis, Gary Peacock, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, George Mraz, Miroslav Vitous, Michael Manring, Oscar Pettiford, Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, John Patitucci, Eberhard Weber, David Friesen, William Parker, Avishai Cohen, Drew Gress. I'm sure I've left out some worthy names, including your personal favorite...

But none of these players' work as yet comes up to the standard set by Mingus, Pastorius and Holland. Perhaps several of them will emerge as truly seminal, outstanding composers. That remains to be seen, or, rather, heard.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Tough Choice

Because playing music is such an intimate activity, the skill levels and personalities of those of us who play together get commingled. Perhaps snarled might be a better descriptor. An age old conundrum has recently come to the fore in my career and I don't think I'm the only professional musician who faces this issue on a regular basis. The question is: Would I rather play with mediocre, fair to middlin' level musician who I get along with well personally or is it more satisfying to work with people with high levels of skill even if I find them to be insufferable, boorish or downright awful to be around?

In order to avoid insult I will keep the details vague, but I began to feel rather depressed in the middle of a gig recently because I was playing yet another set with someone who really has to be corralled, both rhythmically and harmonically. It was not fun. It is never fun trying to play under these conditions, as I've discussed in earlier posts. Yet the guy I was wanting to throttle so much during that gig is someone I really like, respect and enjoy hanging with off of the bandstand. He also hires me quite a bit (which is a whole other dimension of this dilemma).

I used to work with a drummer of medium ability whose opinion on this was clear: "Give me an asshole who can play." Sometimes I feel that way. Then I get on a gig with someone who can really play but whose ego or negative vibe sours the experience personally (even if the music is really happening). I'm not even sure the question should be what do I prefer. Maybe more important factors apply here, such as: what is this experience doing for my development as a musician? How is this gig or relationship affecting my career? What is an acceptable stress vs. musical quality level for me?

Ideally I want to play with excellent players who I love. That's a given. I feel fortunate to have been in that desirable position many times over the years. But the truth is that too much of the time I seem to be in with a crowd of people who I really like but who just don't play at the level to which I aspire. This is undoubtedly the result of many decisions I've made during the course of my career. I think the problem stems from the tough choice itself; I don't know how to answer the question so I can't take steps to solve it.

I'd be interested to hear what other folks think about this.