Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Why I Am a Jazz Bassist

Dave Holland, one of my heroes

I am what they call a “classically trained” bassist. I have a degree in double bass performance (aka a Bachelor of Music) from DePaul University. I studied with the late Warren Benfield, an eminent instructor and a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for 40+ years. I have played in orchestras, chamber groups and in many theatre situations. I have played a couple of solo “classical” recitals.

But what I really like to do is to play bass in a jazz ensemble. Let me say it straight - I don’t enjoy orchestral playing. I love to listen to concert hall music (for lack of a better name). But playing in a bass section rubs me the wrong way and I am not good at it.

Playing in a section, to me, is like having a factory job. Five or eight or ten players all attempting to execute the same music precisely at the same time, using the same bowings and articulations is my version of Dante’s Inferno. It is authoritarian; the principal player dictates all the bowings. It’s hierarchical; one must obey the conductor, obey the principal, everybody has their assigned seat and stand. And it is so impersonal; individuals do not have the opportunity to be expressive. It is all about execution, and that is that part of music that interests me the least. I guess I have way too big an ego to be a good section player. I know I have problems with authority, too, which makes the situation even worse.

Sure, there’s power in all those strings vibrating together, especially on some double forte note low on the E string. I’ll grant you that. But it is not enough. What if I don’t feel like playing that particular passage the “correct” way? What if I want to play the “C” up an octave so I can actively support the second flute part? Nope, sorry. Not in the contract. Do it the “right” way and do it that same way every time or you’re out on your buttinski.

What I enjoy is being able to intimately influence the tempo, dynamics, texture, harmony, and articulation at any given point in the music. Sure, the chord changes and melody are a “given”, but I can interpret that information any way I see fit in the moment. So what if my job consists mainly of playing a steady stream of quarter notes with the occasional solo chorus or two? It feels really good to lock into the groove with the other members of the band, especially drums and piano or guitar. I like the feeling of being the glue that holds the key (no pun intended) to both the harmonic and rhythmic underpinning of the song. People stay out of my sonic way, too, as a general rule. I am the sole inhabitant of the lower couple of octaves – they are mine to handle as I wish.

I also like being able to hear myself, something that I was never able to do playing in a section. I find it demoralizing to have spent years working on playing in tune, getting a good sound, and so on, and then going to work and not being able to even hear if I’m accomplishing those goals.

I’ll leave the section playing to my arco-wielding brethren. Give me a good swinging rhythm section and I am good to go.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Coming Soon: Bassist/Composers

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I'm currently doing some research for an upcoming article here on jazz bassists who have made noteworthy contributions to the music as composers. Obvious examples are Charles Mingus, Dave Holland and Jaco Pastorius, all of whom have penned significant tunes that are a permanent part of the modern jazz repertoire. I'm sticking with a fairly restricted definition of "jazz" here so I will not delve into the pop/rock songwriting category, which would have to include such bassists as Paul McCartney and Sting. I'm also going to leave out folks like Edgar Meyer (IS there anyone else like him?) - classical, folk, country, bluegrass and crossover composers. Those great bass players could be the subject of another piece.

In the meantime, my list of bassist/composers includes: Ben Allison, John Patitucci, Steve Swallow, David Friesen, Drew Gress, William Parker, Stanley Clarke... I am trying to be inclusive of electric players and the wide variety of genres that commonly come under the heading "jazz".

Feel free to add your suggestions for consideration.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Now Spinning: Brecker and Patitucci

Michael Brecker: Pilgrimage
John Patitucci: Line By Line

These two recent recordings are the finest work to date from both of these giants of contemporary jazz. Pilgrimage is, unfortunately, Michael Brecker's final piece of work, as the jazz world lost him to cancer at far too young an age just a few months ago. Brecker's writing on this CD is straight ahead, intensely focused jazz. The rhythmic language of his earlier work is evident and is even more developed here than ever before. He has surrounded himself by some of the heaviest improvisers on the planet: Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette. They all sound pretty fired up by the opportunity to perform with Brecker here; his cancer was in remission when the sessions took place and the musicians sound like they are seizing the chance to make this music with this man while they can. To my ears, Brecker is on fire and DeJohnette is tracking him every step of the way. Hancock is also outstanding (when isn't he?) in this setting.

Patitucci's most recent CD, Line By Line, represents a huge step forward for him as a composer. As with Pilgrimage, the tunes sound very focused stylistically and the bassist puts himself in some very interesting conditions for improvising (like his piece for strings and electric bass). His playing is as ferociously personal as always, as is the work of guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Brian Blade.

I haven't heard two CDs I can recommend more than these two so far this year.