Sunday, April 27, 2008

Branford's Band Bugs Me

The cover story of the May 2008 issue of Down Beat is a profile of Branford Marsalis' working quartet. The article's central theme is that this band is so bad that any humility about what they do is unnecessary. The opening quote is "We do things better than any band out here." The group's most recent CD is aptly titled Braggtown, so it seems that these men are very sure that they are, indeed, the shit.

It strikes me that, however earth-shattering their music might be (and I haven't heard this particular album yet), their superior attitude reeks of grandiosity and schoolyard bullying. Here's a particularly annoying exchange regarding the role of the bass player in jazz:

(Bassist) Eric Revis: "I've had this argument with several bass players. They say, 'Why can't we play lines? I want to play like Charlie Parker.' "

Marsalis: "Then get a guitar!"

Revis: "This misconception exists that the bass has to be liberated. Liberated from what? Did Wilbur Ware need to be liberated? Does Charlie Haden?"

There's so much wrong with this that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. First of all, if Mr. Revis prefers to play with "thump" as his primary contribution to the quartet then more power to him. It is unclear what he means by "liberation" in this context. The traditional role of the bass as the propulsive harmonic and rhythmic core of a jazz group is something many of us embrace. But does that have to preclude developing ourselves as inventive melodic soloists as well? If "liberation" implies progress in terms of physical technique, harmonic knowledge, and rhythmic/melodic sophistication then I'm all for it.

But just in case Mr. Revis has missed it, playing "like Charlie Parker" is not something new to bassists. He would do well to familiarize himself with the music of Charles Mingus, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, just to name a few powerful and inventive soloists who no one would accuse of failing in their respective roles as rhythm section players.

Second, to put Wilbur Ware on a par with Charlie Haden is just silly. Mr. Ware was an accomplished working bassist who had a decent career despite various physical and mental problems. Mr. Haden is as deep a soloist as he is a stomping member of a rhythm section. But he is multi-faceted; he composes, he is a bandleader, he has a very distinctive sound, and he was a member of one of the most influential bands in the history of modern jazz. A little liberation would probably have served Mr. Ware well. And, ironically, one of Mr. Haden's most successful projects over the years has been his big band, the Liberation Music Orchestra. There's simply no comparison between these two musicians.

Finally, Mr. Marsalis' flippant rejoinder reminds me of just how regressive "creative" musicians can be. Is there really only one acceptable conception of bass playing? Is progress allowed or do bass players still have to sound like Pops Foster? If so, perhaps tenor saxophonists should have never been allowed to go further than Lester Young (if that's not too modern for you).

Mr. Marsalis shows his ignorance with another comment about the Ellington band from 1941. He believes that the band played "with two mikes placed 18 feet in front of the band, 18 feet high and about 16 feet away (whatever this means), and you can hear the bass crystal clear, with no amp or mike. That's the sound I want." [Italics mine]

Look at any picture of Duke's bands from the 40's and I guarantee that you will see a big old fashioned microphone in front of the bass player. It is true that horns, brass and drums were all played softer in that era but there is no way that Jimmy Blanton, for instance, would have been audible without some sound support. The bass is simply an acoustically soft instrument; that's why bass players have been struggling for decades to perfect a way to amplify the natural sound of the instrument. I can say without false humility that many of us have succeeded in doing just that.

Let me offer these gentlemen a list of "liberated", influential bass players who have the respect of most savvy listeners and musicians. Most of these players, by the way, don't feel the need to brag about their talent; nor do they make it a point to tell other musicians what kind of sound is acceptable.

Scott LaFaro, Dave Holland, Ron Carter, John Patitucci, Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson, Christian McBride, Stanley Clarke, Paul Chambers, Brian Bromberg, Gary Peacock, Michael Moore...


rob said...

Great post. I felt exactly the same way after reading the interview.

Bran said...

The idea is to swing first, and everything else later. If you have to develop lines by lowering the action on the bass, bringing an amp, and the like, then you are sacrificing sound for technique. Paul Chambers did no such thing. Neither does Christian McBride, so you can drop that argument. You might like the way Charlie Hayden solos, but he does not solo in the fashion that you seem to be defending. Add to my list current players who have lots of solo chops and sound as well, or what you call "hump"; Ben Wolfe, Reginald Veal, Larry Grenadier, and Neil Caine are a few who come to mind immediately. Based on the defensive nature of your blog, I'm sure you're not one of them.

Bill Harrison said...


You seem to have missed the point of my post, which was this: I don't subscribe to the idea that there is only one "right" way to play bass or any other instrument. When Branford and company make it sound like only THEY play real jazz and that, for example, bass players must play without an amp for it to qualify as "real" then they have lost all credibility. Both claims are as ridiculous as they are untrue.

I noticed in your comment that you didn't mention Ray Brown, Charles Mingus, Dave Holland or Ron Carter in your criticism. Are you saying that you think they don't swing? And, if so, is it BECAUSE they dare to use a bass amp?

I wasn't defending a "fashion" of soloing, just the right of players to play with whatever sounds and techniques that work for them. That's how I can love Charlie Haden the same way I love, say, Michael Moore. Different players, equally valid.

To me, jazz is about liberation, not about being forced into someone's small-minded notion of what is "right" or "wrong" with the way a musician chooses to play.

Bill Harrison said...

Just a quick addendum: Christian McBride is no longer a member of the "no amp for my bass club", which is what I thought:

I guess he enjoys being heard. So, Bran, you can drop that argument.

Oh, BTW, I call it "thump" not "hump".