Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Tale of Two Bassists

For a bass player, performing on the same bill with Dave Holland would have to be a daunting proposition. Holland is a bona fide jazz legend. He has been the pre-eminent craftsman on his instrument for at least four decades. Countless musicians (including many non-bassists) have been inspired by his compositions, collaborations and his commitment to the highest musical standards. Like going one-on-one with Michael Jordan in his prime, even if you play very well chances are that you are going to be out-matched.

Last night Symphony Center in Chicago presented a double bill: virtuoso pianist Vijay Iyer's trio played the first half of the concert followed by the Overtone Quartet, a project led by Dave Holland. Iyer's band included bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Justin Brown. The Overtone Quartet featured Chris Potter on tenor and soprano saxophones (not alto, as stated in the printed program), Jason Moran on piano, and drummer Eric Harland.

So it was Stephan Crump who took on the unenviable job of playing bass opposite Dave Holland. I'd like to be able to say that Crump, who I'd not heard previously, astounded and delighted me in a way that made me forget Holland before intermission. Unfortunately, a combination of factors conspired to make this unlikely reaction impossible.

Things did not bode well when the first thing Crump discovered when he took the stage was that his G string had broken in the interim between sound check and gig time. He has his Czech-Ease bass set up with gut strings, and one of the risks of gut is that it is highly susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. To his credit, Crump pulled the string the rest of the way off his bass and gamely readied himself to make the best of the situation. Iyer cracked wise about how this would be truly "improvised" music and then led his trio through an interesting set of original compositions plus a couple of idiosyncratic arrangements of pop tunes.

Stephan Crump did quite well without 25% of his playing area. He is an excellent musician, as far as I could tell, but his sound was problematic for me. He is another one of these young bassists who has chosen to eschew an electronic pickup and bass amp combination in favor of using a small microphone mounted on his bridge and sent directly into the house PA system. That, combined with the diffuse sound of the gut strings, made it difficult to discern what pitches he was playing and exactly where he was placing his notes rhythmically. It was much better when he was playing arco, which he did more than the average jazz bassist, and he used the bow mostly to good effect.

I've written about this before, but I will re-state that I don't understand why any contemporary bass player would want to return to the bad old days of gut strings and no pickups or bass amps. Is it an ill-advised return to an allegedly "purer" tone? Is it a remnant of the Wynton Marsalis-induced indictment of all things electric in jazz music? Do some players actually NOT want to be heard?

Crump's old school "thumpy" sound contrasted wildly with the clear, focused tone that Dave Holland got out of (ironically) the same kind of instrument Crump played. Holland uses modern steel strings and a contact pickup on his Czech-Ease bass; he plays through an amp onstage and sends a signal through the house system. Amazingly, I could hear every note he played. He has ten times the chops Crump has, although who knows what the latter could accomplish with a more playable setup. Crump reminded me of the late Dennis Irwin, who I saw play a couple of times with Joe Lovano. I saw him but I couldn't hear much of what he was doing either.

Every musician has the right to make whatever artistic choices he or she wants, so I would never try to tell another musician what they "should" or "shouldn't" do. But I will be honest with what I hear, and I have yet to hear a bassist who comes across well in a live situation with gut strings and no amp. When good amplification became possible sometime in the 1970's it heralded a whole new era for bass players who no longer had to struggle mightily just to be heard in the context of instruments that can easily overpower the bass.

Not everything new is necessarily better, of course, but making a naturally soft-sounding stringed instrument audible in ensembles that almost always have drummers and horn players seems to me to be a uniformly good idea. This is called progress.