Best of birthdays to bassist-composer Ben Wolfe, one of the strongest individualists in jazz 30+ years. In 2001, Downbeat gave me an opportunity to write a “Profile-Players” article about him; he sat with me for a couple of interviews, most of which couldn’t be used. They appear below the article.
Ben Wolfe (Downbeat “Players”Article) – 2001:
In the latter 1980’s, Ben Wolfe, recently arrived in New York from his native Portland, Oregon, was squatting in a funky apartment on Utica and Montgomery in the East New York section of Brooklyn. To take a bath he routed the water down a board from the sink; electricity came from a jerryrigged outside line. He was earning $20 a night, six nights a week, as bassist in the house rhythm section for a well-attended 1-4 a.m. jam session at Manhattan’s Blue Note.
“I quickly was on the scene,” Wolfe recalls, “but it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. It drove me crazy, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave. I always stayed.”
Persistence paid off for the moon-faced bassist; now 39, he boasts an enviable c.v. He cites lucrative, high profile ’90s gigs with the likes of Harry Connick and Wynton Marsalis, and is currently in the second year of his second go-round with Diana Krall. Each appreciates his professionalism, definitive harmonic ear, impeccable time, and — not least — the huge, unamplified sound his fingers elicit from gut strings. “I think it’s very ironic,” Wolfe states at his comfortable pad on a block of warehouses near the waterfront in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. “I never followed the crowd. But it makes sense. I never got a gig through an audition. I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody who needs a bass player.
“I prefer the sound of every one of my favorite bass players — Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford – without the amp. I want to experience the problems that my heroes experienced — the strings breaking, intonation trouble, a drummer playing too loud. If someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, that’s the sound of the music. It shouldn’t be corrected manually.”
Wolfe most recently elaborated these purist principles on the suite-like Murray’s Steps [Amasoya], which follows a pair of well-received late ’90s disks [13 Sketches and Baghdad Theater (Mons)]. On each he hews to the aesthetic of group interplay and the rhythms of bebop, and displays a well-honed sense of sonic narrative.
“I’m definitely from the bebop well,” Wolfe avers, citing Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and Bill Evans — as well as Ellington and Strayhorn — as primary influences. “I feel a connection to Mingus’ ’50s music, the way he combined playing hard and writing beautiful music.
“My music is definitely not bass oriented; most of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I arrange for the band. I like arranging, putting stuff together, finding different harmonic movements and sounds. I think of what I do as chamber music in a jazz context, as ensemble music, versus having somebody blow on top of a rhythm section.”
How does he reconcile quotidian sideman work with creative imperatives? “I think of myself as a composer who plays bass,” he says. “With Diana, I’m there as a bass player, playing tunes, trying to swing and make people feel good every night. We’re not trying to change the world. With Wynton, whose vision is so strong, I was playing original extended compositions; I learned a lot about ensemble writing from him. With both Wynton and Diana, it’s about trying to realize their vision and keeping your ego in check. When I do my music, it’s a completely different head space. I write and arrange all the music, do everything I’m capable of doing. I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision and conception.”
Not that Wolfe plans any radical career shifts in the near future. “Playing with Diana enables me to spend all my down time writing,” he concludes. “I like the idea of doing both things at the same time. If I had it my way, I would only play with my band, but that’s not a reality now. I think I have something tangible to offer as a leader. I feel patient. I’m always working on my music, and eventually I’ll get to do it.”
Ben Wolfe (Downbeat Int.):
TP: I just said that you have to avoid cliches, and Ben said, “Well, that fits the modern jazz era,” then he said, “Unh-oh.”
TP: After talking about all those cliches, let’s talk about you started learning those cliches when you were young. You’re from Portland.
WOLFE: I was born in Baltimore, Maryland, but I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I moved here in 1985.
TP: Let’s get to some nuts and bolts. Are your parents musical?
WOLFE: My father played violin with the San Antonio Symphony for one season, and then he quit. He felt he was always fighting the instrument. He claimed he wasn’t that great. He actually got in without an audition, which is unusual in a symphony. He’s now a photographer. My mother is a therapist, a gestalt therapist, and she also owns some restaurants — she’s remarried. She loves the arts, but she’s not a musician; but she goes out to hear string quartets and loves jazz…
TP: So you came from a cultured Jewish family.
WOLFE: A cultured family. [ETC.] My great grandparents did not come from here. But my parents divorced when I was young. I grew up with my Dad. But I also came out of that whole Hippie thing, for better or worse, on my Mom’s side. Don’t put it in there, because it implies something… So my family was just me and my Dad, so instead of a traditional Jewish family, it was more like two guys who didn’t really know what they’re doing. Basically, he’d work all day and I’d be in school, and I’d come home and it would just be me watching TV and trying to be I guess an athlete, as all young kids try to be. When I started playing music in 7th grade it was like I found something that I could do, that was easy to do, that I was good at, or thought I… It was easy for me to do. I started playing the tuba in 7th grade, and that just consumed my life immediately.
TP: Was that through a school program?
WOLFE: Yeah. It was pretty good for what it was. Then in high school, they had me doing all kinds of different instruments. I was a tuba player, but they decided I should be a bass player also, so I was playing electric bass and a little acoustic bass. That’s when I discovered that some people in the band weren’t planning on being professional musicians. I wasn’t aware that there was a choice. I just thought that’s what you do. I didn’t think there was a choice. I started playing music, and it was so natural, so comfortable, it never even occurred to me it was something you do on the side. It just seemed like, “Okay, this is what you do.” I was very naive about it. I thought everyone was like that. I remember someone in the high school band said they were going to go to school and be a doctor, whatever it was, and I went, “Huh.” I didn’t understand. Then it finally occurred to me that maybe some people were just in the band for fun or whatever. So I never saw it that way.
I was playing a lot of electric bass. I started really enjoying electric bass, playing like in funk bands and stuff like that, and being…
TP: so you got your reading and so on together in the school band?
WOLFE: Well, I was a Classical tuba player, but I started really enjoying playing in the stage band, playing jazz and playing electric bass, which also was easy for me to do at first. And they also had me play acoustic bass in the orchestra, which I wasn’t into at all. But my father told me I would be. He really said that, and it’s funny; we laugh about it now. In high school, when I’m playing different instruments and stuff, this is ’77…
TP: so this is the height of Fusion and…
WOLFE: Fusion and the Disco era.
TP: Sort of the other end of the plateau of creative fusion and into the disco era.
WOLFE: I got immediately into Return to Forever and Weather Report. Stanley Clarke was my first bass hero when I was a musician and a bass player. And the first time I heard his record, I didn’t recognize the bass line. I thought it was guitar, so I didn’t know what it was. But at the time, everything was so new. My taste wasn’t… I didn’t really have good taste in music. I just enjoyed playing. I wasn’t listening… I was more into just, “wow, check out how so-and-so plays.” I wasn’t even really into the music, looking back. I believe in a musical adolescence, which I think a lot of people never leave, which is a part of the problem today — which is a whole nother subject.
Then through high school I started doing all these different things. I was going to camps in the summer, stage band camps, concert band camps… I wasn’t playing the acoustic bass at all. I wanted to be a funk bass player, a studio player. That’s what I was going to do. I was going to be like tuba in the symphony, I was going to be a studio player during the day and bass trombone with Basie or whatever big band. I started playing bass trombone, and I really got into that.
TP: Those Nelson Riddle charts..
WOLFE: I wasn’t really listening to anything. I was just playing all the time. It’s funny. I was playing music all the time, but I wasn’t like studying it, the way Wynton did in high school — he had a regimented practice thing that he did every day. I wasn’t like that. I was just a regular… I was out smoking weed, doing what everyone else was doing. But I was playing tuba and the bass. And eventually, my junior or senior year, I joined some dance band, so I was playing in bands. I finally formed my own little group, and we had this great singer, so we started playing high school dances. I enjoyed that very much. I was also going to two schools my senior year, a magnet program at another school that had a great music program. Me and this drummer would go over there in the afternoon, and I met more musicians over there. I started making friends who were other musicians around town and we formed little groups.
Let me back up a little bit, back to acoustic bass. In the stage band, I was forced to play the acoustic bass on a Count Basie tune. We didn’t have pickups or amps. So in a stage band contest, I played the acoustic bass with no mike and no amplifier, and the judges were really into it. “Wow, man, that sounds great. That’s cool. That’s like they used to do.” Which is what I do now. It was just an interesting coincidence.
TP: It’s interesting when musicians come up who are studied but are also ear players, in the way they approach music.
WOLFE: I wish I could say I was a total ear player. But that’s one of the biggest things I don’t have together actually, compared to people I see. I wish I was just a complete ear player. It seems like the most honest way of playing . I call myself a schooled street player in between. I was going to school, taking classes and studying, but at the same time all I wanted to do was play at jam sessions.
TP: When did the notion of jazz as such start to enter… When did you start identifying yourself as a jazz musician?
WOLFE: Not til later. My senior year we had a band called Swing Shift playing jazz where I was playing electric bass, and another band playing funk.
TP: Was it always just playing the function, or were you listening to role models?
WOLFE: I was always listening to Paul Chambers. Well I shouldn’t say always. My father would play me a lot of records of all kinds of music. Looking back, it seemed like he had it from me. He had a whole collection of records that were R&B, he had James Brown and whomever. Then he had rock records with the Stones and the Beatles, which I loved — the Who. He had all these jazz records, Charlie Parker and Mingus and Prez and Coleman Hawkins, and he always pointed these guys out to me. “Listen to this; this is Thelonious Monk.” I remember I identified Monk immediately. I remember hearing his left hand and really digging how he was playing. He played me this record, Paul Chambers-John Coltrane, with “Dexterity” on it. That’s the first one; it knocked me out. That became my THANG. I was a Paul Chambers freak. I mean, from then on. He’s my favorite bass player. I’m not saying he was the greatest…
TP: Well, he might be.
WOLFE: He might be. But then I have to put my Oscar Pettiford, some Jimmy Blanton… I had a definite connection with him. You know how the musicians you love, you almost feel like you know them personally, and all you ever hear is a recorded mike on their instrument. It’s amazing to me; you feel like you know them. But every other bass player says the same thing about Paul Chambers; it’s huge, the way he reaches people. At that point I loved it, but I was still into this other thing. I was just playing electric bass. Then I started playing in top-40 bands.
TP: That senior year of high school.
WOLFE: This was the senior year of high school. Then I’m in college, this Mount Hood Community College that has a great music program. I played bass trombone in their stage band and played electric bass in the practice room with people in these little combos during the day, and I’m going on the road with these top-40 bands. So I haven’t really found my home, so to speak. I’m doing all these things. I’m working. I’m playing electric bass. I’m playing trombone, playing tuba. Then I started playing so much jazz on electric bass. I’d go to the school, and all I would do was go in this practice room and set up and play. And I had a great theory teacher who also was an acoustic bass teacher, and I was playing Jazz jazz — and now I’m identifying myself as a jazz musician. I play jazz electric bass. That’s my thing.
TP: So you’re Ben Wolfe, you’re 19-20, it’s ’82…
WOLFE: I’m playing jazz electric bass in Portland.
TP: What’s the scene like in Portland?
WOLFE: Well, I’m still not quite part of the scene. I’m getting calls to sub every now and then. I’m still an electric bass player but people are starting to think I’m talented and wanting me to come hang out, and now I’m meeting people. But now I’m deep into jazz, I think. I’m still playing electric bass, but I’m deep into jazz in my mind, playing non-stop. That’s all I’d do, was play.
TP: Acoustic at all?
WOLFE: Every now and then I’d say, “Hey, I’m gonna check that out,” and I’d play it.
TP: So you had a certain facility.
WOLFE: Well, I was playing electric every day. But I didn’t think in those terms of facility. I just loved music. I picked it up and I could play it. I fooled around on it all the time. Then all of a sudden it occurred to me, “Wait a minute; if I’m going to play jazz, I’ve got to…” I borrowed this guy’s bass for a jam session — Louis Ledbetter. I was like, “This is what I’ve got to do.” It was like BAM, I found my home. So I asked a teacher if I could study with him. I told my father, “Look, I think this is it, acoustic bass. You were right. That’s what I’ve got to do. I want to play with top-40 band; I want to play jazz.” I must have really seemed serious, because he sold his violin and actually put up some money for me to get an acoustic bass — which was heavy. He hadn’t been playing the violin. And this guy, the bass teacher at the school said, “You know, you really shouldn’t do this.” He said, “Who knows if he’s really going to do this or not? He hasn’t even started yet.” And I was really into it.
TP: Put up or shut up.
WOLFE: But I was so into it that all of a sudden it’s like “Oh, this is it.” So I got this bass and I started taking lessons, and I started doing little gigs around town. Every night, my blisters… It was terrible. I was in pain. Then they had this little function in Portland. Some musician who was on the scene before me had passed away, so they had one of these things where everyone in town played, all these different bands played for this guy whom I didn’t know. And at this thing I was supposed to play with this one musician, and none of the bass players could make it, so I ended playing with everybody. Then all of a sudden I started working all the time. I started getting all these gigs in Portland, so now I’m on the scene.
I started playing with this guy Sonny King. He hired me for his band. Do you know who Nancy King is, the singer? He used to be married to her. He’s passed away. He was probably in New York in the ’70s, playing with Jimmy Garrison and these guys, a free jazz sort of alto player. And Lawrence Williams, who plays drums with Marcus Belgrave. Me, him, and this other piano player, Eddie Wheats(?), an older guy in Portland. He formed a band playing some original Coltranesque music. So now I’m in this band with these guys who have been around for a long time, and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m playing with this great drummer, who to me was just amazing, especially at the time — this Elvin Jones-like drummer who writes ballets and long-form compositions and he called me “Partner.” So I was like, “wow!” I felt like I was playing with Miles or something. It was incredible.
So I’m in this band, and I’m practicing a lot. I’m playing literally non-stop. There are stories in Portland. “Oh, I hear you worked at the Fine Arts Building every night, all night long, practicing.” It wasn’t like that. But I made friends who were serious, and we would get together and play literally all night some nights at different places. It was non-stop. And I started working all the time, and I started making friendships. That’s always been important to me, having friends who also viewed things similar to me. Because most people I don’t agree with on anything. So even to this day, that’s real important to me.
TP: As a jazz musician, do you feel somewhat marginalized? [PAUSE, BATHROOM] first you were talking about cliches, that they permeate…
WOLFE: Just the whole thing. I’ll put it this way. It seems now, whenever I hear a new record or… Let’s see how I can put this…
TP: Jazz is a subculture. As far as being a sideman goes, you’ve got some of the highest profile gigs of anyone out there. Yet even you in the larger scheme of the music business are small potatoes, with 2% of the sales…
WOLFE: Oh, definitely.
TP: So jazz has to do with a point of view, a way of looking at the world.
WOLFE: No question.
TP: So one thing I always ask people is why jazz becomes the thing they feel they have to do.
WOLFE: Versus what? Versus playing with a Pop band?
TP: Or versus being some sort of creative Pop musician.
WOLFE: I think it all comes down to what one’s intentions are and what one’s goals are. A lot of people I see out here, I think they should do that. Because it seems that’s really what they’d rather do. I get the impression a lot of people would rather be in Funk bands and want to be Pop stars. I’m not saying that’s bad…
TP: Well, not everybody can be one.
WOLFE: Not everyone can be one, but a lot of times under the jazz name they can get a little further. But that’s all career. If you look at it from the art perspective, everything seems a lot different. The amount of people diminish greatly. Most of the people I know don’t seem so much coming from that perspective, where I really consider them artists versus instrumentalists. These days, it seems like a lot of jazz seems like an expression of the instrument versus something out of the mind. A lot of people are just demonstrating how well they play their instrument. I see that all the time. “Wow, check out how so-and-so plays! wow. Amazing! He’s all over the instrument. It’s always about the individual’s technical feats, it seems like, which is…
TP: Let’s continue on technique. You’re obviously developing a fairly substantial technique as a young guy.
WOLFE: I suppose.
TP: You’re listening to Paul Chambers, so you have a sense of the real elemental swing and how it’s supposed to sound…
WOLFE: Well, when I hear Paul Chambers, I don’t hear technique. I hear a character, an actual…
TP: But the technique is awesome.
WOLFE: The technique is awesome, but the technique is also completely unimpressive, in a way. Because anybody can learn the technique. The technique is not what makes Paul Chambers great. There are many bass players who have more “technique” who I suppose can play faster. There are guys now who can play much faster or… Well, it depends what you mean by “technique.” If you mean technique as far as producing a gorgeous around a/nd playing from the brain and really listening and all that kind of stuff, that’s fine. But when I hear Paul Chambers, the band always sounds good. And I hear a character in him.
TP: Who taught you how to look for making the band sound good? Is it innate? Did you know it intuitively?
WOLFE: Musical conception was always something that came easily to me. A lot of people have perfect pitch and can hear… Everyone seems to have certain things that come easy for them. That’s something I seem to understand easily. I’ve always thought that way, and I’m also always getting frustrated on the bandstand because of that, because I hear things that are little that drive me crazy. Playing fast doesn’t impress me at all.
TP: So in other words, technique reaches a point where it’s not an issue any more.
WOLFE: It’s never an issue. I don’t think technique is ever an issue.
TP: It is if you can’t play.
WOLFE: Well, it’s obviously necessary. I mean, the carpenter has to know how to hammer a nail.
TP: I can’t write an article if I use passive verbs.
WOLFE: No, you definitely have to have the technique. But the art being an expression of the technique. The technique is something you use to express whatever it is you’re trying to express. I think more and more, it’s become an expression of the technique.
TP: Technique becomes more a function of the craft, and the art is a whole different thing.
WOLFE: Right. The art is what counts. The only thing that really counts is the final product to me. That’s what counts. Of course, the more technique… I mean, obviously, Charlie Parker had amazing technique and facility on his instrument. But that’s not why you get chills… That’s not why when Bill Evans plays a ballad you might have a tear in your eye. It’s not because he understood…. That’s not what it is. It’s because he had a vision, and he needed the technique to produce his vision, and the whole struggle… That’s where it’s at.
TP: So is that part of the experience you had playing with Sonny King?
WOLFE: Well, at that time I wasn’t thinking this way. When you first start playing music, just the joy of playing the instrument is enough. The quality of the music for me wasn’t as important. It’s just I was so happy to be playing an instrument and to be able to do it what I thought was well for that point or whatever. But playing with Sonny King was just… At that time, everything was new. New experiences. Playing with a drummer, learning tunes, playing harmony… Everything was all new. At that time, I played with Woody Shaw for a weekend. He came through town. I was so not-ready to play with him, but at the same time it was incredible. I was so excited. I remember playing with Woody Shaw and I went and bought every Woody Shaw I didn’t have. Didn’t learn any of the tunes, but I bought the records and looked at them. I was just so thrilled and excited, and I went to this gig, and he called “If I Were A Bell,” I didn’t know the tune… I did a pretty good job. But I was so excited and proud. I remember afterwards he said he was going to Europe, and I was thinking, “Man, take me to Europe and get me…” In my mind I’m playing with Woody Shaw now. I said, “Yeah, who’s in the band?” He goes “Red Mitchell…” I’m staying here in Portland! But back then, everything was just about learning.
TP: Was Woody Shaw the first national guy you played with, or are you sitting in by this point?
WOLFE: By that point I might have played one gig with Bud Shank or something. But I think he might have been one of the first people I played with.
TP: You come to New York in ’85, you’re 22-23. You’d reached the point you couldn’t get any more in Portland?
WOLFE: I reached the point where I felt I needed to keep going. I was frustrated. I was playing with the same people in the circle. Not that I wasn’t learning, but it was time for me to move on. A friend of mine, a drummer named Alan Jones, who is actually back there now, had a place and needed a roommate. So I came out here. I got my car, put all my stuff in the car, and drove out here. Slept in the rest stops on the way. I had like $1000. I was so green. I had my travellers checks, and I was so afraid of everything. I was SO green. I came out here, and we lived in this funky apartment that was probably once really nice, and we paid rent for one month and they never charged us again. This guy Alan Jones is a guy who makes his own drums, his own machines, can fix anything, so he had electricity hooked up from outside illegally. Everything started breaking in his apartment. I remember to run a bath we had a take a board from the sink and let the water run down. But at the same time, it didn’t bother me. And I got a steady gig, sort of, because this drummer in Portland, Ron Steen(?), called Ted Curson, who he used to work with, and Ted hired me for the Blue Note. So I was playing six nights a week at this after-hours session, making $20, but meeting all kinds of people.
TP: That’s ’85. It was a very interesting time in New York. People were pouring in here and forming their sound.
WOLFE: Yeah, it was. I remember the guys who would come down there. Dave Kikoski was just in town. Benny Green had been here for a few years. Tyler Mitchell was down here doing the gig also. Art Blakey had the band with Jean Toussaint and those guys. They were down there. He ended up running the session. The Harper Brothers, Philip and Winard, were on the scene. Jeff Watts would come in sometimes. Grossman would come through… It was actually not bad. At the time we thought it was terrible, but of course it wasn’t bad. I did that for a couple of years under different leadership. Manny Duran ran it and Jean Toussaint. At that point I was spending a lot of time… I was living with or near Rudy Petschauer, the drummer, and Renee Rosnes. We were the rhythm section at the late night session.
TP: that was from ’85 to ’87?
WOLFE: Something in that vicinity.
TP: So six nights a week at the Blue Note. You must have learned a ton of tunes.
WOLFE: Learned a million tunes. Ted knew a lot of tunes. I was also forming my friendship with Ned Goold, this tenor player, who’s like a partner, a musical partner. That was important. We were learning a lot of tunes, and to this day we play each other’s tunes all the time. I’m on his CDs, he’s on mine. We were playing each other’s music during the day all the time. That was the most important thing happening back then.
TP: Shortly thereafter you hook up with Harry Connick.
WOLFE: That was in ’88.
TP: You’re in New York, you establish yourself as someone who’s reliable, can do gigs, your learning curve is expanding greatly, and you’re meeting your peer group.
WOLFE: Yeah, but I wouldn’t say I quickly established myself. I mean, I quickly was on the scene. But it seemed like I was the last one to get a real gig or a big gig. Everyone else seemed to have all these gigs. A years ago Ira Coleman told me, “Yeah, I remember it seemed like you were the last one to get the gig.” Everyone else I saw working, and it used to drive me crazy.
TP: Do you think it was politics?
WOLFE: I don’t know what it was. I think it just wasn’t time yet. I always believe everyone gets their chance. But at one point I started to feel like, all right, I’m just going to be this guy who never gets a gig. It was frustrating, because I felt like I was ready. But I never was one to give up. I always stayed. A lot of people come to New York and get frustrated and leave.
TP: Well, not everybody gets to work six nights a week at a place like the Blue Note. It kept you busy.
WOLFE: Well, everybody could come play at the session. I mean, it was just $20. It was a good thing. But I ended up meeting a lot of people. I ended up playing a lot of restaurants with this piano player, Rob Bargad. We played duo gigs all the time together. I started making associations. I met Harry Connick at the Blue Note. He was playing at the Knickerbocker, and I came by there and sat in or something. That started in ’88. That’s when everything changed, right at that point. We started doing duo gigs, the two of us. That’s when I met Wynton, because he came down and heard me play. I used to call him all the time on the phone; he was never home. I still call him all the time. Every now and then you get like a 5-minute conversation. It’s great, though. I love talking to him. [Don’t print that; it sounds…]
So now I’m touring with Harry Connick, making some good money, more than I had before, and doing television, and I started to make records, the When Harry Met Sally thing and all that…
TP: You were there when his star was rising.
WOLFE: That’s right. I was there doing all of that. And it was all new to me, the whole thing. Which I actually got caught up into, the stardom… It’s a very seductive world, and I won’t lie and say I wasn’t sucked into it. At one point, when the big band was happening, I wasn’t really practicing. I was into this world.
TP: You were profiling.
WOLFE: Yeah, the whole thing. all of a sudden I had money. I’d never had money before. That TV [32″ Sony] is part of it. When I bought that, I felt like I had bought a Mercedes. It was like, “wow!” It was all new to me, all those things. So I got really into it. I spent all the money I made. But I’m glad. It’s kind of like if you’re in a bad relationship with a woman, you look back and you’re glad you went through it so you don’t make the mistakes again. I’m not trying to say that experience was like a bad relationship. Because parts of it were great. I learned a lot of music. But I saw in that whole Harry Connick thing… You’ve got to be careful how you print this. But I saw a whole lot about the music business and how everything works. I saw the whole business side. It’s about selling records, filling houses. Which makes sense. The money has to come from somewhere. But I never thought about it that way before.
TP: That relationship has endured for several years.
WOLFE: Well, we didn’t talk for a long period. We would go through different things.
TP: What interests me is how that experience and playing with Wynton inflected your sense of music. Because if you’re playing as much as you were with people like Harry Connick and Wynton, with the visibility it gave you, there has to be an impact. It’s part of who you are, and continues to be.
WOLFE: Oh, no question. That makes sense. Well, playing with Harry Connick is when I was able to be out there playing the way I play, with the gut strings and no amplifier, which certainly isn’t something I started, but at the time there were only a few guys doing it. So now I’m doing this on a national stage, and I’m learning how to record in the studio, I’m learning how to play in different-sized rooms, I’m learning what it’s like to be on the road, I’m experiencing all these new things — which was great. Harry is an extremely talented musician, so now I’m playing with someone who’s scrutinizing everything I play. He hears everything.
TP: He’s a perfectionist.
WOLFE: Yeah. But he hears that way. He hears every note you play at all times. It was good that way. That was a great experience, playing in all different situation. First it was the two of us, then we had a trio, then we had a quartet with Russell Malone for a short time. We did all these records, touring a lot. Seeing the world was interesting. I’m going to movie sets when he’s making his films and meeting all these actors. It was whole nother world for me from squatting in East New York, out at Utica and Montgomery… 88 Montgomery. So it was Utica and Eastern Parkway.
TP: You’re hard core, man.
WOLFE: It wasn’t that. It sounds hard core. It sounds real romantic and hard-core. I had a car, so I could leave. But Harry Connick was a great experience. I learned a lot and I became a professional musician, in the sense that I was in a lot of situations where I had to deliver and learn to deliver.
TP: Yeah, before 15,000 people.
WOLFE: Learn how to play with a singer, and learn how to play with a band, learn how to play with a bandleader who’s a perfectionist, and he’s a star — learn how to be around a star type, whatever that means. Played with Branford for the first time. It’s funny. All of a sudden you’re on a gig now, and people talk to you in a different way, which is absurd — but that’s just how it is. When you’re just one of the many early-twenties bass players in New York, maybe you play okay, maybe you don’t… But there are hundreds of them. You’re fighting to be heard. All of a sudden, now I’m being heard.
TP: What was it about you that appealed to him?
WOLFE: I think the way I approached the bass was unique at the time, the fact that I was playing acoustically. I think the sound I produced was…
TP: Why was that the way you approach the bass? I’ll bet it scared a lot of people off, too. Maybe that’s one reason it was hard to get the gigs. You’re not following the crowd doing that…
WOLFE: I never followed the crowd. But the thing is, it makes sense.
TP: you don’t follow the crowd, but you get these high profile…
WOLFE: I think that’s very ironic. But the thing is, remember, I’m always hired for what I do, not for somebody needs a bass player. If I audition, I probably won’t get the gig. I never got a gig through an audition, ever. Someone hired me to do what I do.
TP: How did that attitude develop? It’s also not the easiest way to get a sound out of the acoustic bass?
WOLFE: Well, that’s the way that every one of my favorite bass players plays. Paul Chambers. Ray Brown at the time. Ron Carter in the ’60s. Oscar Pettiford. You can name any bass player. Not one of them do I like the way they sound with the amp better than without the amp. That’s just not how it happened. Someone will say, “Well, what if you can’t be heard?” — all these different problems. I wanted to experience those problems that my heroes also experienced. I wanted to experience the strings breaking. I wanted to experience the intonation problems; I certainly still experience them. I wanted to experience a drummer playing too loud and not being able to turn up. I wanted to go through all those things that they went through. That’s partly how it started.
TP: You seriously felt that way.
WOLFE: Oh yeah. I was saying at the time, “You know what? I want to go through those problems also.” With the gut string… I played Dennis Irwin’s bass, and I also played it on a guy’s bass in Oregon, and I said, “Yeah, that sounds like jazz bass ought to sound.” It sounded like the same instrument that’s on the record. Before that I was into Buster Williams and trying to get that kind of sound. That to me is a different thing. But when I put the gut strings on and didn’t have an amplifier, it sounded like the jazz from the records. Not the way I played, but the tone. It’s like hearing a fender Rhodes versus hearing an acoustic piano. If you’re into Bud Powell, the acoustic piano is going to make more sense to you than the Rhodes. The Rhodes is easier. You can turn it up, you can play faster and you can sort of control the sound based on electronics. That’s the same thing with the bass with the amplifier. You can turn it up if the drummer is too loud.
But I think that’s bullshit anyway. Dave Holland once said at a clinic… I remember this. This is going to sound weird, but at his clinic that he gave at Bass Shop, it moved me more than anything I heard him play before or since, hearing him play in his bands. Not that he don’t sound good, but hearing him talk about the bass and how he learned to play and his philosophies was amazing to me. It seems simple now, but like with Tony and Ron, if Tony played too loud and you couldn’t hear the bass, that’s the sound of the music. I totally believe in that philosophy. If the drummer is too loud or someone is too loud and it’s out of balance, it should sound of balance. It shouldn’t be corrected manually that way. So another thing with the amplifiers, they’re just not for me. I don’t think it sounds good. I don’t think it makes the band sound good. And that’s how all my heroes have played.
It also seems to me hat a lot of the bass players who didn’t play with the amps and then switched to the amps, sometimes it seems as if they think that the guys who aren’t doing that are making a mistake, when a lot of times they’re just doing the same thing they did. So if the amp if the answer, then I’m going to find out the same way they found out, going through the same pattern. But I don’t think it is.
I used to always have this conversation with people. I no longer talk about it, because it doesn’t matter. The final product is what counts. To me with amps it doesn’t sound as good. It makes the ride cymbal not sound good. But that’s all part of how to get the final sound.
But Harry Connick liked the fact that I did that. I think he liked the sound I got and the approach.
TP: It probably reminded him of the sound he was hearing from his models.
WOLFE: Maybe so. He was using Reginald Veal before me. It’s funny. We always end up in the same place. Our careers are different, but have been somewhat parallel. We always seem to be in the same places at different times.
TP: That brings us to Wynton, then.
WOLFE: Before Harry hired me, he wanted Wynton to hear me play at first. So I met him that way, and I’d talk to him on the phone every now and then. Eventually, Veal had some dental work done or something, so I subbed for him for like a month, and that’s when the Harry Connick thing, let’s say, dissolved.
TP: The first separation.
WOLFE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, there you go. Then I subbed and I prepared myself… They were real surprised I learned the music. “Wow, you played ‘Citi Movement’ without a rehearsal!” Well, that’s just professional. If one didn’t do that, it’s more like, “Why didn’t you do that?” instead of being celebrated for doing what you’re supposed to do. I mean, I always liked that they were impressed by that, but I didn’t think… I just learned the music. I was just excited to play.
TP: I’m sure with Wynton, if you take care of business, that’s the first principle.
WOLFE: That’s the only thing he cared about, the music. That was a great, great experience, playing with those guys. I loved it. I loved learning the music. And that’s when I was subbing, so it was really…
TP: Now, Harry Connick has a specific piano style and I guess he’s an ear piano player to the Nth degree so the stuff can go anywhere, but there’s a certain level with him that’s about presentation and showmanship. But Wynton is someone who has a very sophisticated and evolved compositional aesthetic. So it’s really two very different experiences.
WOLFE: Oh yeah. Harry at that time was a big band and it was a show. And with Wynton it was playing these ballets he’d written. So it was a whole other thing. It was no show, really. It was just the music. That’s what I loved about it. It was really interesting, playing with those guys. Then when Veal left the band, I took his place for basically two years. I should say one year.
TP: It was a very good year, though. Because when you hear this Vanguard record you can hear how his concept honed itself in in ’93, to the last stuff with Veal and the stuff you’re on in ’94.
WOLFE: I didn’t know it would sound that good when I heard it. Really I love it. I thought we sounded okay. I had no idea we sounded as good as we do on that CD. It was a good band.
In that band we did this tour of In This House, On This Morning, which was wild for me. Long-form composition, custom-made for Reginald Veal. I was always trying to play the music correctly and not be Veal at the same time. But looking back, I was still going through trying to find out where I was at musically. I was still going through this struggle with myself at that time with Wynton, and still learning a lot, and wasn’t as formed in what I wanted to do. I was still taking in a lot of information from him. In that band… What was the question?
TP: It seems that band was the first time you were involved in a very sophisticated, high aspiration, compositional entity. And these records are all about composition, really, or at least finding compositions where the personalities of your cohorts, Magnarelli and Gould can be expressed. So I’m curious how the experience with Wynton inflected your compositional attitudes in let’s say 13 Sketches.
WOLFE: Well, all this time we’re talking, I’m writing music. So the whole time, my career is one thing and what I’m trying to do is another thing. That’s been going on the whole time. I’ve always been writing music. Ned Goold and I are always playing together, original music, every day, since I got to New York. That’s always been happening and is still happening. That’s what I do. That’s the reality of who I really am as far as what I’m trying to do, and then the career is something else. That’s like half of it. It’s the half everyone sees.
TP: It’s also part of who you are. It’s all going in there.
WOLFE: Oh, definitely. But with Wynton, I was in a band now… When I was actually in the band, when I wasn’t subbing any more, I thought I was part of something important. It was great. It was like a real family, this band. It still feels that way when I go back and see them. It feels like family. I love that about that group. I always felt that’s what a band should be like. I really felt like I was part of something and I felt welcomed.
TP: Also, you were the first white guy who was ever part of the circle…
WOLFE: That’s not really true. I was the first white guy permanently hired in the Septet. Lincoln Center had white guys, and some piano players… I think Peter Martin played some gigs with Wynton. But that was NEVER an issue! Never an issue except for the issue around it. But the funny thing was, with all this stuff of Wynton being a racist or whatever you read, when I was in his band, no one ever asked me about it. No one in the press, no one in interviews, not one time ever suggested, “Well, he’s got Ben Wolfe in the band; he’s white.” It never came up. It was bizarre. It never came out of the band, except for people making idiotic statements after the gigs. It was never really an issue, other than like private jokes among the band out of love. Both ways. But that was never an issue. That was the most get-along band I’ve ever been with. There were more issues with things in the Harry Connick band. It was great, just like being part of a little family. We got along for the most part. We played music all the time. I never felt like an outsider. I mean, it’s like you see a basketball team. If there’s a white guy, they’re going not to be thought of as different. They’re like a team. It was never a problem, or an issue… It didn’t even really come up, other than… It really was never a thing.
TP: Did being with Wynton affect your compositional sense, your sense of maybe orchestration or…
WOLFE: Wynton had a huge influence on me.
TP: You’re also in LCJO at this point.
WOLFE: Before and after.
TP: It seems to me that one thing that’s really valuable at LCJO for Wynton is that he got to really get into the building blocks of jazz from the inside-out, because he had the scores and had to play the music in an idiomatic manner. So he’s playing Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, Armstrong, Monk, the whole nine from the inside out in a way that most of your contemporaries, really starting from your generation, didn’t have a chance to do.
WOLFE: True enough. I see that. To me, I always like it best when Wynton plays Wynton Marsalis. I’d rather hear Lincoln Center play his music any time.
TP: But his music is very informed by those…
WOLFE: yeah, but it doesn’t sound like that. I don’t think his music sounds anything like Duke Ellington’s music. That’s the one common thing through all his records that I recognize, and I… Always, if I’m attracted to anything, it’s his composition. People always debate his playing…
TP: I think he has his own language, but… For instance, Blood on the Fields, those soli passages by the trumpets, are his own language, but the building blocks seem very much a 21st Century type of concept.
WOLFE: That’s what people say. I don’t hear it like that. He’s influenced by some Beethoven also. I don’t hear people say “Beethoven!” Obviously, he’s deeply into Duke Ellington, obviously, and it influenced him, clearly, but I… Going back to what we were talking about not being impressed by technique, I’m more interested in hearing the part… I tend to hear what’s him in the music.
TP: What was your attitude to playing that music?
WOLFE: I love playing Wynton’s music. You mean Duke Ellington’s music?
TP: Well, playing Wynton’s music and the J@LC experience of playing… Well, he doesn’t like it to be called repertory, and I don’t really think of it like that, but playing… Look, you’re out there sitting in the shoes of Jimmy Blanton.
WOLFE: It was great to play it at first. But I’m at the point now where I don’t want to play other people’s music.
TP: But put yourself in your shoes back then to how it’s inflected you now.
WOLFE: Okay, that makes sense. I think playing his music affected me more than playing Duke Ellington’s music. Because I’ve always heard Duke Ellington’s music, and I used to listen to Duke Ellington all the time, and I love Duke Ellington. You know, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly it influenced me, especially Wynton’s music. Because the way I write is different. He writes a lot thicker than I do. He writes real thick sometimes, and I don’t do it the same way. The thing I liked that Wynton used to do, which maybe influenced me but is something I’ve probably always been into anyway, is he would assign emotions to music sometimes. He would say things like, “This is about so-and-so.” He would express what’s happening in a non-musical way, what the music represents. That’s something I’m very much into, completely into. A lot of his conceptual things I learned, from being around him so much — the way he would talk to the band, the way he would say like the rests… Little things he would say influenced me a lot. The way he thought of music. The way he approached everything the same. Whether he was soloing or playing the written part, it was all jazz to him. And the whole ensemble concept influenced me, and that’s something I’m very much into also, the way of an ensemble still sounding like jazz, even if it’s not… Even if it’s written, if parts are written. His whole work ethic also. But it’s hard to pinpoint how playing the Ellington music influenced me. I mean, hearing it…
TP: Or Jelly Roll Morton or Monk…
WOLFE: I mean, I’ve always loved Monk. I’ve been into Monk since I’ve played music. That’s something I’ve always connected to, just the rhythm of Monk’s band, the way they play rhythms.
TP: But here you’re actually doing. You’re going on the road with this music and playing it a lot. It has to affect you. Or not.
WOLFE: I’m not sure exactly how playing all the Duke Ellington music affected me. Because at that point, I’ve already been on the road a lot playing a lot of different music. So I’m not sure how that affected me. Playing Wynton’s music affected me because it was a challenge to play it well, and try to find my own way of playing and also play it correctly. I think I gained more from playing Wynton’s music than Duke Ellington’s music. I think if I were in Duke Ellington’s band, I would get more from playing Duke Ellington’s music than playing… Like, if you’re in Duke Ellington’s band, you’re going to gain more playing Duke’s music than playing someone else’s music. You know what I mean? Not that I didn’t gain from it. It was great to play all those parts, all the Jimmy Blanton parts, all the Oscar Pettiford parts you’ve heard on records.
TP: But you’re inside-out with the architecture of the music.
WOLFE: In a way. But I’ve heard it. I’ve heard a lot of the music before. It was just getting a chance to play it. I’m not sure how much… It would be kind of like playing Charlie Parker’s music. I mean, listening to it I might gain more than playing his tunes. Maybe.
TP: More accurately, though, might be Dizzy Gillespie and being inside of the band.
WOLFE: That I wish we would do, play more of those tunes. Well, it’s hard to say. I’m sure it affected me. But I didn’t like break it down and go inside and study the scores. I just played the music.
TP: Is that not the way you approach music, like breaking it down into minutiae?
WOLFE: Not always. Not as much as others, I should say.
TP: When do you leave Wynton?
WOLFE: I finished in Wynton at the end of ’95; the septet breaks up and I do another year with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. I’m also playing with Benny Green at that time and Eric Reed, and doing other little things in and out at this point. And I went back with Harry before I went back with Wynton. When I subbed for Wynton, and then joined his band, in between I played with Benny Green and Harry Connick — and Marcus Roberts, a little bit. Little pockets of things I was doing.
TP: A few words about Benny Green and Marcus Roberts, who are two of the most visible pianists of the era.
WOLFE: Well, I met Benny… Our high school band did a concert together when we were seniors in high school. We didn’t meet then but we saw each other. Craig Handy was in that band also. But we’ve played together in different situations, and we’re good friends. We played in the trio with Kareem Riggins playing free jazz! He was breaking out of the Oscar Peterson mold. He’s something else. I love Benny Green. I love his musicianship. I think he’s a great musician. We played over here at the house, myself, Ned Goold, Benny Green and Rodney Green, this young drummer. He’s my favorite drummer in New York. I love his drumming! We played over here, and it felt so good that I would loved to just give up all career and just do that. I would have actually done that! I’d have said “just do this.” Everyone was like, “Wow, this really feels good.” [ETC.] Benny and I talked yesterday on the phone. We have long, real conversations actually.
I played with Marcus for a very short time. We went on the road and rehearsed. I think Marcus is a really funny guy. He makes me laugh. I dig Marcus, and I really respect the fact that he’s trying to do something. He’s an artist. He’s not just trying to get over and sell records. Because he could easily associate himself with Wynton completely and just be that. And I don’t know what he did, but it seemed like he consciously removed himself to try to stand on his own two feet or whatever, which I respect and like.
TP: He makes some outlandish claims for himself, but then you get past it.
WOLFE: But he’s trying to do something. All his records, he seems to be trying… Which is more than most people do.
TP: You’ve played a lot with Eric Reed.
WOLFE: He’s one of these super-talented guys. He just can play anything. Yeah, we played a lot together, with different drummers… In fact, me and Eric Reed and Greg Hutchinson, I thought we had a great trio. I really liked that combination.
TP: Were you on that first record he did?
WOLFE: I’m on two records. The first Impulse record I’m on half and Ron Carter is on the other half, and the record before that me and Rodney split.
TP: So you leave Rodney in ’95 and you do your first record in ’96..
WOLFE: Yeah, I’m playing with Eric Reed at that time. I did my first record then. I’m doing a lot of gigs at Smalls with little… And I’m doing little gigs at the Village Gate. All through this time I’m doing little gigs. I’m writing a lot of music.
TP: So no matter how up on the feeding chain you get, you’re not losing your connection to the lifeblood.
WOLFE: I’m doing more. Every gig I’ve been doing feeds into that one way or another, whether it’s financially or learning things. With Wynton I learned a lot about writing. I don’t know what I learned. I can’t tell you what it was. But I learned a lot being around him. But I’m writing a lot of music during all this time. I spent a lot of time at the piano writing a lot of music, writing a lot of ballads.
TP: Was your first record a collection of things you’d been writing over the years or did you write stuff for the project?
WOLFE: Both. I had so much music, I just tried to record as much as I could.
TP: A bit about Magnarelli and about Ned Goold.
WOLFE: Joe Magnarelli was my neighbor when I lived on Thompson Street. He always seemed like he wanted to be there in my group. Like, the first time I hired him… I was at the Village Gate, I hired him for the weekend, and he came in on the Wednesday to sit in and had everything memorized. He’s real diligent, hard-working. I’ve known him for years, and he has improved so much as a trumpet player. Tardo Hammer once said to me, “Man, the first time I heard Joe Magnarelli, he sounded terrible, he was awful, and now he’s my favorite trumpet player.” He made this HUGE…like bang. But he works hard.
TP: Joe has a specific timbre to his sound, and it’s coming out of K.D. and Tommy Turrentine, but it’s his thing. Is that a sound you relate to a lot? Is it imprinted on you from early listening?
WOLFE: I don’t know. When Joe is playing good, there’s something about it… It just sounds good. He plays much different than I play. He seems to think a lot differently. I still don’t think Joe has really become what he’s going to be yet. I still think he’s fighting. Something is in his way. I really believe that. I’m not sure what it is. There’s a certain view he has seen yet into how to make music, and he’s still trying to figure out the instrument even though he can already do that. I think that’s his thing that he struggles with. But you can’t put that in there, but it would sound like I’m putting down my man. But I think that’s something with Joe, that he’s still not…which is somewhat frustrating.
TP: How about for you?
WOLFE: For me?
TP: Yeah, these two records… How do you see this new…
WOLFE: Well, on the first record, the bass playing is terrible. I didn’t play any bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass on it. I wasn’t thinking about the bass. I was thinking about the record and about the music, and I didn’t play the bass well on that record at all. I didn’t like the way it sounded. I mean, except for a couple of tunes. But overall, I forgot to play the bass on the record. And the second record, I practiced a lot and I think I played the bass better. I didn’t solo very well, but I played the bass better. I think if you were to combine both the records, take a few tunes from each record, you’d have one record that I could live with forever. Each record has a few tunes that I’ll never wish were different. I can say that for both records. The second record I think was far superior to the first record. But it’s still not successful all the way, just like the first one.
TP: What would make it successful all the way?
WOLFE: Well, the first tunes of both records are successful. They sound good. I don’t wish something was different. They sound like music. I stay in the music. A lot of tunes didn’t come out conceptually the way I would have liked them to. Which is not… That’s normal, I suppose. Both records were done in one day, very quickly. A lot of tunes. The sound of the second record is better. I got a great sound in the studio on the second one, I felt. I really liked the bass sound for the most part on the second record.
TP: Again, was that first record something you wrote for the date, or had you been collecting tunes over the years?
WOLFE: In the two or three years before that record came out, I was writing differently. I was writing as if I was a composer as much as a bass player, versus being a bass player who wrote music and loved to write music. I was writing as a composer, a lot of music. So that record is kind of a product of a lot of that music, and it’s finding some kind of voice as a writer. The second record is a much more refined version of the first record. Each record I learned something. The first record I had trombone; the second record I had the baritone saxophone. They’re similar actually, but the second record is a little more realized, I guess.
TP: Talk about some of your compositional influences.
WOLFE: Billy Strayhorn is a huge compositional influence on me. Mingus, the way he wrote ballads. Yusef Lateef, from the Paul Chambers record First Bassman. Duke Ellington influenced me as a writer. Charlie Parker influenced me as a writer.
TP: On first blush, they sound like Bebop records, which isn’t like a lot of guys in your generation.
WOLFE: I’m definitely from that well. I don’t want to play Charlie Parker’s music every night, because he did that. I don’t want to play my influences’ music every night. But he’s a huge influence on me. And the rhythm of Bebop, the rhymes of it are definitely a big part of my writing.
TP: You also do some very hip substitutions. One of the tunes on 13 Sketches is “Little Willie Leaps,” very cleverly disguised.
WOLFE: Yeah, “All God’s Children Got Rhythm,” “Blind Seven.” That’s written for Sherman Irby. We used to play some card game, Blind Seven. Another tune on that record is based loosely on “Dewey Square”. Every tune on that 13 Sketches is a description of something, of a person or a situation. M Mostly people. Every single tune. The second record is pretty much descriptions of situations or people. The second record is more like a soundtrack for a movie without a movie, which is something I really want to do — and I just did something actually for this guy’s student film, with a 17-piece band, with strings and clarinets. I love that. That’s what I want to do. I want to write, compose and play the music.
TP: There’s some very specific technique involved with that, making the stuff fit the frames-per-second.
WOLFE: Well, this wasn’t that kind of thing. I don’t really care so much about that. I just want to write.
TP: When did you start with Diana Krall?
WOLFE: I played with Diana Krall for two years, and that ended a year ago, and I played with Harry Connick for the summer, and with Ned Goold as the opening act. We did that also, which was tremendous. A live record should be coming out. And I’m back with Diana now, as of a month ago.
TP: Again, it’s one of the highest visibility gigs…
WOLFE: It’s a good band. Right now it’s Dan Fanley, a guitar player from Oregon, and Shannon Powell, who used to play drums with Harry back when I played with him years ago. It’s nice. We just play tunes and try to swing. We’re not trying to change the world. But in a way, I like that it’s not trying to change the world. Because I have my own vision and that’s what I want to pursue. So every time I do a gig with someone, I’m like helping someone pursue their vision, so to speak. This is easier, in a way. I don’t mean this to sound bad. I play with Wynton, as much as I love playing with him, it’s a reminder of so much what I want to do and what I’m not doing. I’m seeing him do it, which is great. And in a way, Harry Connick, too, because he writes a new song every day and has his own band to play it. So it’s like, okay, why am I the guy in the band? I don’t want to be the guy in the band. I don’t feel like I should be, but who does? But I really believe in the music I write, as much as I believe in my bass playing — equally. With Diana, it’s we’re playing standards and just trying to make people feel good every night, so it’s a good gig to have for me, especially as far as keeping my frustrations intact. I get very frustrated on the bandstand sometimes. You should ask Benny Green; he’ll tell you.
TP: With other people’s imperfections?
WOLFE: With everything. I just see things more and more so clearly how I think they should be, or how I’d like them to be, and I’m still learning how as a sideman to realize I’m not either… Play the gig or don’t play the gig, but don’t make it your band, because it’s not my band. But I feel these things so strongly, and sometimes they’re really… To some people they would seem so small. Like the way a drummer holds his stick in his left hand. If he’s playing (?), it drives me crazy. I can’t play with it. It drives me nuts. It’s little things that most people don’t even notice. so I’m still trying to figure it out. That’s why I need to be a bandleader.
TP: One thing about being a sideman, there’s a level where music is also narrative, and if you’re playing with a singer you’re evoking these very palpable stories. you seem to think of it that way in terms of your tunes…
WOLFE: I think of it that way sonically, not so much verbally. But that’s true also. I don’t really know a lot of lyrics to tunes, though I should. When Diana’s playing the song I know them, but I probably couldn’t tell you the lyrics to the tunes afterwards. But when they’re being sung, I hear them go by, and I’m aware of them. But when the song is over, I don’t remember what they are.
TP: Does being around lyrics all the time for two years have anything to do with putting images for…
WOLFE: No. Reading books about Picasso… I read a book called Picasso on Art, talking about his views and people saying things that he had said — and that influenced me greatly. It’s hard for me to describe. I’m certainly not a painter, and I don’t want to sound presumptuous. I don’t know enough about… Well, you can look at his paintings different ways and see different things. I love the whole concept of duality; is it a tree, is it a woman… I love that kind of stuff? And I write that way. There’s a tune on the first record called “Ursula’s Dance” where it has two melodies. The melody could be a melody, it could be a counter-melody — it can be heard either way. It’s not important how one hears it, but it could be viewed differently. But that way of having things have dual meanings. I put a lot of stuff in my tunes just for me, that no one would ever in a million years notice, where I quote myself, or I’ll put a certain melody or chord or rhythm I used in other tunes, almost like as a marker for myself, so I know… I have a lot of things like that. My titles will have other meanings that are never… My mother once said to me, “You know, your titles are great if you know what they mean.” But no one could ever know what they mean. In the book, one thing that struck me was Picasso… Some students were talking about trying to draw the perfect circle, they’d spend hours trying to get a perfect circle. He said, “No, just draw the circle, and your personality will be in that circle every time.” I love that way of thinking, sort of little, witty, clever conceptual ideas.
I think music is of the brain, not of the instrument, and that’s what drives me crazy today, is people don’t play that way. Jazz just isn’t happening any more. It just isn’t, at least… I’m not saying I am either. But it seems to me that a very small percentage of jazz musicians have a jazz sound.
TP: What is a jazz sound?
WOLFE: I knew you were going to ask me that. It’s hard for me to explain. Maybe it’s some sort of consciousness of the sound between the sounds, the space between the notes, a way of hearing… I don’t know how to hear it.
TP: Bennie Wallace was saying that about a Sonny Rollins solo, the space between the beats, the pitches between…
WOLFE: The in between. There’s like air, and it’s relaxed and it’s swinging. I don’t know really how to describe it, but I know that it doesn’t seem to exist as much now. It seems like these days, for the most part, you have people expressing some sort of ability on their instruments, which I think is sometimes very suspect in what they think of as ability, and different versions or imitations of the ’60s, and calling that modern. The ’60s is a lot closer to the ’40s than it is to here. Or you have people picking their eras and imitating them, and ignoring the others, and it’s like all about which era one is… How they’re imitating which era in what way. Which is bullshit, really. I mean, it’s a way to learn, but the people they’re imitating weren’t doing that. Monk certainly wasn’t doing that. You can find his influences, but he sounded very fresh. Bird wasn’t doing that. I mean, he wasn’t trying to imitate Prez’ bag. Prez wasn’t doing that. Duke wasn’t doing that. They all had a vision, they were trying to find… Ornette. All of them. Coltrane’s band in the ’60s… How many bands now, how musicians do you hear trying to sound like Coltrane’s band in the ’60s? I mean, if you look at it… A lot of drummers are trying to sound like Elvin. Right? When I first came to New York, everyone was Tony, Ron and Herbie, and everywhere you’d go, every piano player was Herbie Hancock. It’s like why?
TP: But then a lot of guys got past that. A lot of guys who did that 12 years ago sort of found their own take on it. You don’t think so.
WOLFE: I don’t. I hear so many Herbie Hancocks, man, out there. That’s nothing against Herbie, but that’s not what Herbie was doing. That’s not the lesson with your heros. The lesson isn’t how to sound like Paul Chambers. The lesson is how to sound like yourself. How did Paul Chambers sound like Paul Chambers? He didn’t sound like everyone else. You hear him, “Oh, that’s Paul Chambers,” “Oh, that’s Bud Powell,” “Oh, that’s Sidney Bechet,” “Oh, that’s Bird.” Why are they such beacons?
TP: So you’re saying you can’t listen to that many people and identify them as them.
WOLFE: Well, everyone says the same thing. Everyone says the same thing, everyone plays the same way, everyone talks the same way. Everyone’s trying to be this “jazz musician,” and no one is trying to be an artist. And I hate that. I mean, I could care less about that. I don’t care, man. Being a jazz musician and playing jazz seem to be two different things. We can go out and be cool and talk hip and shake hands and dress nice and talk about so-and-so-‘s killin’ and not really mean it, and say, “Hey, yeah, let’s get together” and not really mean it… All that stuff is all bullshit. It means nothing. It might be fun t go to the Vanguard and be cool and have Lorraine fuck with you, all those things, the whole jazz world… All that is nothing, man! It means nothing. I mean, it’s fun and it’s a lifestyle, but it means nothing — absolutely nothing. What means something is what one is actually producing and I think most people aren’t even trying to produce much. Not really. You certainly can’t compare the records now with the records of the past. They don’t hold up well in any way, in playing, in sound, in creativity. They just don’t. My records included, believe me. I’m much more attracted to people trying to do something.
TP: Who do you like?
WOLFE: I like Ned Goold. That’s who I respect the most. Him and Wynton are the two people I respect the most, by far.
TP: Who else do you like?
WOLFE: Who else do I like? It’s dangerous, because when I say who I like I have to preface each time… I don’t like a lot of people the way I like Monk or the way I like whoever. I like the way Veal plays the bass. If I had to pick one bass player I like, I would pick him, because when I hear him play, he sounds like a character. I hear his personality. I don’t hear him just trying to be somebody or just trying to be professional. I would pick him over all the rest of them, if I had to pick one person. Of all the bass players you could name, I could tell you things I like about them and things I don’t like about them. Everyone one of them I could say what I like and don’t like.
Another thing is, I hear a lot of arrogance in music, that I hate. I can only describe it, it sounds arrogant… The sound of conceit, I hate. If that makes any sense. When I hear Monk, I don’t hear that. I guess Freddie Hubbard or Lee Morgan are very bravado. But when I hear like Bird… To me, what I hear. I’m not saying how they are as people. But I don’t hear it as arrogance in the music. It sounds like it’s a humble artistic gesture to take it, and do what you want — you like it or you don’t or whatever. It is what it is, like a poem or something. A lot of times now everything seems real arrogant, and I find that offensive in music. I probably sound arrogant right now talking this way, and it could be construed like I’m talking down…
TP: Well, it sounds a bit like flailing against the wind. There’s a reality and you’re in this reality…
WOLFE: I don’t feel part of the reality. I feel like it’s my job to do these gigs. But I don’t feel connected with the jazz scene that way. I don’t feel like they’re my peers in certain ways. Not really.
TP: Do you feel you have a peer group?
WOLFE: Ned. No, not really. I don’t look at it that way. I’m just trying to find a way to get to do my thing, and hopefully develop it and hopefully have a chance of being great. I want to have a chance to be great. I’m definitely not anywhere near that. The whole music business… See, now I’m getting dark, man. But I really believe these things. And I don’t dislike people. But I don’t go out and buy a lot of jazz records, because they don’t appeal to me. I put the jazz radio on a lot, and every now and then I hear something I like. It’s funny, when I hear something I like I’m afraid to give it a second listen, because I’m afraid I won’t like it the second time. Like, I heard something a few years ago and I thought, “Wow, this is interesting; I like this.” It was John Zorn live with that Masada group. I’d never heard anything from him other than that one tune, and I was almost afraid to hear anything more because I was so satisfied by it. I haven’t forgotten it since. I like Wynton. I like a lot of what it stands for.
TP: It sounds like some of what you’re looking for is in avant-garde music you haven’t gone to in your career stuff. I hear a lot of individuality there.
WOLFE: Oh, what I’m doing in my career is nothing at all what I would do if I was doing my own thing. It’s just that’s what I do for a living. And I enjoy doing it. You’ve never heard my band probably.
TP: No, just these records.
WOLFE: That’s a small part of it. I write all the time. That’s what I want too do. Whether it’s avant-garde… The music I want to play is based on principles of how one thinks on the bandstand. Like, the intention of the music is as important as music itself. It’s funny. I was talking to somebody, and it was a common argument about opinions. “Well, if someone like it, then it’s good. If it makes someone feel good, then it must be good.” I said, “Yeah, but you can lie and make someone feel good. You can tell someone they’re beautiful, you can tell them you love them, you can tell them they’re this and they’re that — and be lying to them and make them feel good. But the intention was not good.” And I think that’s important. In music I think you can lie and you can impress, and I don’t like that. I kind of have a… When I make my records, for better or worse, I try not to think at all business-like. The first record someone said, “Maybe you should put a couple of standards on there.” I don’t care if it sells one record. I’m not going to put something on there in order to make it sell. I refuse to do that. I do enough of that as a sideman. I’m a hired gun, so to speak. But when I’m doing my own thing, I refuse to do it for that reason. What people hear is going to be honest.
TP: There’s a notion of genre that goes to Hollywood studio directors who made great art within those forms. There’s an element of that in jazz as well. I mean, just playing the function, if you do it with your personality, then that becomes a statement in and of itself.
WOLFE: True enough. That’s true. I agree. But I need more control than just being put in it. For my best work, I need to be more than just a bass player. Mingus was like that. I’m not comparing myself to that. But he wasn’t just a bass player.
TP: It’s an interesting dichotomy, because you’re so successful as a sideman.
WOLFE: Successful in one regard. Paul Chambers, I’m not like him.
TP: I’m not talking about the aesthetics. As far as your career, 99.5% of the bass players out there would kill to have the gigs you have.
WOLFE: No, and I’m glad I have them, because I need to make money and I need to be out there, and I need to pursue what I’m trying to do. Because no one is going to pay for my 17-piece record. Which is fine.
TP: So that’s sort of a Connick attitude, in a certain way, which I believe Connick is telling half the truth when he says that half of what he does is so he can put the band out there so he can write his music.
WOLFE: I think that’s true, but he’s a complicated figure. It’s hard, because you have to learn… By playing these gigs that I’m doing, it makes it easier to not be disgusted by who is chosen to do their own thing. When I see who is getting to write their music, and I see people who are being celebrated for whatever reason they say they’re celebrating them, when I know that’s not really what’s happening… You can become so frustrated that you don’t want to be part of anything, and that’s not the way to get what you want to do. You have to accept that that’s the world, that’s Corporate America. But at the same time, I always got to things from a different route. I can’t do what everyone else does. That way doesn’t work for me. And I don’t want to be part of that anyway.
No piano. Well, the music I write is definitely not bass-oriented. It’s all written on the piano. Most all of my tunes are solo piano pieces that I’ve written on the piano, arranged for the band. When I have a piano it’s so… Well, I’ll probably have more piano in the future. But it’s so definitely what I ask from a piano player as far as the voicings, that it’s almost… I’ve decided for a while to have the piano…to try to arrange it for the band. But I do love having piano. But I want a piano player to be a third rhythm section, not run the show… It just hasn’t happened yet. It’s not like I don’t want piano. It just hasn’t happened.
TP: Is that analogy to Mingus’ mid-’50s music accurate? Did you listen to it a lot?
WOLFE: I haven’t studied it, but I’ve heard it and I feel a connection to it, especially “Self Portrait in Three Colors,” the ballad. That influenced me a lot, just that ballad, the use of the trombone in it. In fact, the way Mingus kind of played hard. He played hard, with a lot of ass, for lack of a better word, and wrote music that was really beautiful and pretty. That combination I could kind of relate to in a sense. People think of Mingus as being rough, but his music is really beautiful. I can relate to that in a certain way.
TP: First, since we last talked, which was about 18 months ago, what’s new? Then you were just leaving Connick and starting to go out with Krall.
WOLFE: I started working with Diana again, and we started touring like crazy, and I started planning this new CD of mine. That’s pretty much been my life since then. That CD originally was going to be doing something real quick, and it turned into the biggest project I’ve ever done. I wrote a lot of music and recorded it in a real unique way, and I’m real happy with it actually. That’s what I’ve been doing, trying to do my work for that. It’s out now, and…
TP: Have been with Krall this whole time?
WOLFE: I’ve been with her a little less than two years. This young drummer, Rodney Green has been playing. We’ve become a real team. It’s nice to play with a drummer like that. He’s unique in the fact that he gets a great sound on the drums. At that age you don’t hear that so often. A real developed tone quality, which personally I love, being a big fan of the drums.
TP: So more or less, it’s been either you’re touring with Krall or putting together this new music on your downtime.
WOLFE: Yes. I want to write for some films. That’s one of the things I want to do. But I spend a lot of time writing… I’m already planning my next record, writing music for it, for whenever that does come around. I’ve been writing actually for full orchestra.
TP: Will the tunes be more filled-out? It seems with each record, you’re treating the tunes more and more minimally and more through-composed. Some of the tunes here seem a bit sketchy, but maybe that’s the imaginary film aspect.
WOLFE: Here’s the way I think of it. I write all my music on the piano. Almost like little solo piano pieces. Then I arrange them for different combinations of instruments based on the instrument and the person playing. I try to arrange them and write them for a different sound. I think of the instruments almost like characters. The way I describe my writing these days is chamber music within a jazz context. Like, I might use cello… I’m writing a piece now, an half-hour five-movement extended work, for a concert in Oregon that I’m producing, and I have the sextet I use, which will be bass-drums-piano-trumpet-tenor saxophone-baritone sax/flute. For this long piece I’m adding three classical musicians, an opera singer soprano, a cello player, and a tubist. So it will be 9 musicians.
TP: You described Murray’s Steps as an imaginary film. Can you describe that film?
WOLFE: Well, it’s not so much that I pick a story. I just put it together as if it was for a film. The way the CD is set up, it starts off with this particular tune, the same tune it ends with, almost I imagine like the credits rolling, or on the way out I imagine people leaving a theater from a play. It’s that whole experience. The first tune is a short little introduction, almost like an overture, coming into the experience. The second tune is a little interlude that introduces the characters, so to speak, and some of the sounds I’m using throughout the record. And then the third tune is almost like the first tune of the record. I’m trying to write it like an experience, like a journey, so to speak. I tried to put it together almost like a suite, in how the tunes go together. I spent a lot time figuring out how much stuff between the tunes.
TP: Who would you say are some of your compositional influences? You’re obviously mixing a lot of information, a lot of perspectives, or interpreting or reformualtion… There’s a lot of information being distilled here.
WOLFE: When I write, I don’t really write in terms of trying to write like anybody, so to speak. The influences I think you hear would be Billy Strayhorn, Duke Elllington, Monk, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker. It’s definitely jazz music. I like arranging. I like putting stuff together and finding different types of harmonic movements and arranging to find different sounds that sound good to me. Basically, when I write, I just find what sounds good to me. I like thinking of it as jazz ensemble music versus somebody who’s blowing on top of a rhythm section. I’ve never been real attracted to that, unless it’s done in its finest sense, the way I like it, when it always sounds like a group — it doesn’t sound like someone getting off on top of a rhythm section.
TP: Well, you had a lot of good experience with ensemble playing in your couple of years with Wynton.
WOLFE: I learned a lot from Wynton, because he was writing a lot of ensemble type music, with solos in it, of course. But it’s more about the whole thing versus the soloists. I like the thought of jazz music being ensemble music, whereas… That’s what it really is to me. Unless it’s that one person playing, to me what makes it beautiful is the connection of the musicians and how they play together, not so much what they’re playing by themselves, but how they play together.
TP: So what you’re describing must be part of the satisfaction of playing with Diana Krall — apart from it being a great gig.
WOLFE: My sideman work is something to me that’s totally separate than what I’m doing on my own — or trying to do. It’s like a whole different thing. It’s a different perspective from the bass, from everything. When I’m hired as a sideman with Diana or whomever… It depends who it is, of course. But to me, when I’m playing with Diana, it’s about her vision, it’s about her conception, and it’s about what she’s trying to do. I’m there to help realize her musical vision, so to speak.
TP: How would you describe her musical vision and how you fit into it?
WOLFE: She doesn’t do much original music, but mostly we do standards, beautiful lsongs she likes to sing. My job is to play good supportive bass, to play good notes and hopefully keep it swinging. Just to pretty much play good rhythm section bass.
TP: If people notice what you’re doing, you’re probably doing something wrong.
WOLFE: Maybe. For me, on a gig like that, the challenge is that you have to put your ego in check. You can’t go on there and just try to get off and play all your stuff. For me, any gig where you’re working for somebody, especially a singer, you’ve got to figure out what your role is and your little area in the music, and find a way to be supportive and give the leader what they want, what they’re looking for, and at the same time keep your integrity intact and try to find ways of being expressive and creative within the context of what the the leader is doing.
TP: You’re referring to your area of music within the ensemble.
WOLFE: Within the ensemble, exactly. If she’s singing, I need to play good notes that will make her comfortable when she’s singing, or make the rhythm feel good so that she’s comfortable. I mean, it would be the same just playing for a soloist, if the soloist was a leader. But whereas I’m playing bass in my group, or my music, I’m kind of driving from the bass. If this is my vision, I hate to say I have more freedom, but I have a little more…
TP: You have a more control.
WOLFE: I have much more control because I’m trying to realize my vision of how I view music and my conception of how I would like it to be.
TP: You’ve cited Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford and Ron Carter as your favorite bassists…
WOLFE: P.C. is my all-time favorite. Also Jimmy Blanton.
TP: Except for Blanton, all of of them at least led records if not groups. Do you think of yourself as a composer who plays bass or as a bassist who’s a composer?
WOLFE: I think of myself… The closest bass player to what I do would probably be Mingus.
TP: In that Mingus wrote this programmatic music.
WOLFE: That’s what I try to. I think of myself as a bass player and as a composer equally. They’re both as important and they’re both needed for each other for my doing what I really want to do. Now when I’m playing with Diana Krall, I’m not there as a composer. I’m there as a bass player. I’m doing my job as her bass player. When I’m doing my own thing, I do everything. It might sound like a control freak kind of thing. But I write all the music, I arrange all the music, I do everything that I can do. As much as is capable for me to do, I will do.
TP: But you’re working all the time, by present-day standards. With Wynton you worked a lot, with Connick you were on the road a lot, with Diana Krall you’re on the road a lot. A lot of your quotidian, a lot of your daily life is involved in playing that music . I’m wondering how much your activity as a sideman impacts your ideas compositionally. Is it a totally separate thing?
WOLFE: I think it all goes together. Obviously, when I was playing with Wynton, I was watching… His vision is so strong and he was doing… I did tours with him playing these long pieces, In This House and Citi Movement. These are long original compositions where he was doing his thing. It wasn’t just playing tunes. It was definite large compositions, which was different than playing with Diana where we’re doing these songs with arrangements. They’re just songs. Great songs. But obviously playing tunes from the Nat Cole songbook in a quartet or a trio is much different than playing a ballet that Wynton wrote.
TP: But all of it becomes part of your experience.
WOLFE: It all becomes part of my experience. But even playing with Wynton, it’s still I’m the bass player playing his…
TP: But all I’m saying is that the information, the actual things that you’re playing, coming from your fingers, the sound of it, the ambiance of it…I’m wondering how that inflects… Does it become part and parcel of your identity as a composer or is that identity something very separate?
WOLFE: I think it’s something very separate. Two completely separate things. But I do think all musical experiences influence each other. But when I’m playing with Diana it’s a whole different head space than when I’m playing with my own band.
TP: That said, how much are you able to play with your own band?
WOLFE: On December 28th I am producing a concert of my music in Portland, Oregon, in a place there called the Old Church, which is literally an old church, 200 or 300 seats. It’s a beautiful place, and they do a lot of chamber music concerts there. I’m premiering this five-movement piece there. Now, this is one night in December, and it’s already a big part of my life now. That’s something I get completely wrapped-up in. I’m completely into it. It’s a whole nother head space for me. Because it’s an opportunity to really do what I do. For me, when I’m playing with my own group or making a record or writing, I feel like that’s really what I do, that that’s my for-real musical personality. When I’m working with someone else, it’s what I do and who I am, but it’s not as complete a thing.
TP: Do you find this frustrating? It seems like if you become a bandleader, it’s going to be a while before you’re able either to afford to do it, put in the time to make that a truth in the marketplace, in the real world economics you live by, or get the recognition to have some demand for it.
WOLFE: I don’t want to stop playing as a sideman right now. I can’t afford to do that right now. But by playing with Diana, it enables me not to have to worry about trying to find little gigs when we’re off. I can spend all my time writing. But I like the idea of doing both at the same time. Of course, if I had it my way, I would only play with my band. That would be what I do. But that’s not a reality right now, at this point in time. I do think I have something tangible to offer, though, as a leader. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to do it. But I feel patient, and I really believe in what I’m doing. It’s not like I’m, “Boy, I sure would like to be a bandleader.” I really believe in what I’m trying to do, and it’s the most important thing in the world to me. I’m patient about it because I’m always working on it. I’m always writing. I have three CDs out now. So there’s evidence of the work I’ve been doing. So it’s not frustrating at this point. I think that if I never get to do it,, that would be very frustrating. But I believe I will get to.
TP: Why are you doing so much of this work in Portland. I know it’s where you’re from. But is it a certain rapport you have with those musicians? Is it harder to get musicians in New York to pay attention?
WOLFE: No, it’s not that. What happened was, when I make my records, I’ll usually record them around the holiday time. Because I know that Ned Goold, who I need to have on the record, will be off with Harry usually. People are usually off and more available at that time. The reason I did the last record in Portland was I knew I was going to be there and there was a place to record there. That’s done in a guy’s living room, but he gets an amazing sound there. It’s the best bass sound I’ve got on a record. I do have a relationship with the musicians there, but it’s not so much I prefer recording there. It just kind of worked out that way. It started out as being a little experiment.
I believe in the music sounding the way it sounds. In other words, if somebody is too loud, say the drummer is too loud and you can’t hear the bass, if that’s what’s going on, that’s what you should hear. I’m not a real fan of the modrn style of recording, of fixing missed notes and so forth, and having it be manipulated and going for “perfection.” I’m a real firm believer in the band playing… If the band is swinging, if the band is playing and that’s a good balance, then that’s what you hear. That’s the way I like to play jazz, with an honest sound. I think that the way it’s done a lot today, you have the musicians in separate rooms and trying to get everything perfect, I think you take away a lot of chance for magic by doing that. I’m not saying it’s wrong or you can’t get a good recording that way. But I think there’s something… I prefer a more organic approach.
TP: When did you start with Diana?
WOLFE: This second stint started approximately March 2000. I’m really trying to establish the fact that I’m not just Diana’s bass player.
TP: Well, the sideman work is part of your persona as a musician. From my perspective, the qualities that made that happen have to be mentioned.
WOLFE: To me, when somebody asks me what I do as a musician, I’m a composer and I play bass. To me, that’s what I do. Even though people see the other thing, but to me, when I think of myself as a musician, I think of myself as a composer who plays bass. That’s really what I do. Of course, what people see is the other thing, which is more like what I do for a living. But I write music and I have a vision and a conception that I have to realize.
Ben Wolfe Blindfold Test (Raw):
1. John Clayton, “Isfahan” (Parlor Series, with Gerald Clayton, ArtistShare, 2013) (John Clayton, bass; Gerald Clayton, piano)
“Isfahan” by Billy Strayhorn. Beautiful song. I will say this. The minute the pianist started the introduction I thought of Billy Strayhorn, but once they got into the tune, I was thinking about how, for me, they weren’t playing “Isfahan”; they were playing the chord progressions of “Isfahan” and playing a certain way…kind of fast… For me, that song loses something. It tends to sound like a chord progression to solo on it or play on it, which is ok. But “Isfahan” is like a piece of poetry to me. It’s something I’ve spent time with, and I find extremely beautiful, kind of like Mozart—melody-driven music. That’s not necessarily putting them down. It’s just out of a personal connection to his music, and I don’t hear it that way. I’m not sure who it was. The pianist reminded me of Bill Charlap. I don’t think it was Bill Charlap, but it reminded me of him. It reminded me of people I know, but I didn’t think it was any of them. The pianist had obviously an Oscar Peterson influence in his playing. The bass player clearly had checked out Ray Brown. But it wasn’t Christian. It wasn’t someone coming out of Ray Brown who I think it’s recognize immediately. A lot of notes. The bass player to me sounded like someone who usually uses an amplifier, but didn’t for this session, maybe because it’s a duet.
There were things about it I like. I like the fact they were playing duo, which can be really difficult to keep the lean, the groove moving forward. Sometimes it tends is to slow down and get boring. I think they did a good job that way. But I didn’t get a real sense of connection between the musicians on this recording. I felt like they were taking turns playing…which is fine. They sound like very accomplished musicians. I was going back and forth. Is this older musicians who play great on a more modern recording, or is it a young cat? I couldn’t tell. I could go either way. But I would just be guessing who it is, and I don’t want to guess, because I’m not sure. Are they my contemporaries or are they my heroes? I could go either way. But I can say this. I probably wouldn’t want to hear that again. “Isfahan” to me a delicate song that I prefer hearing delicate. I know Joe Henderson played it fast, and people do that. It’s just music, so one should do what they do. 4 stars, because they’re good musicians, and it’s their choice how they play. Since it’s the first thing we’re listening to, I’m erring on giving extra stars. So I’m protecting myself in case it’s a friend. [AFTER] It’s funny you say that. John Clayton was the next name I would have mentioned. Great musician. I love the father-son thing. As a father, I think it’s beautiful. Again, great musicians. I wouldn’t approach the song that way. So I got the Ray Brown influence correct. Gerald is an interesting musician. I like the fact that he doesn’t just play the one might expect John Clayton’s son to play. But I heard those things. I thought, “Ok, comes out of Oscar, but not Oscar; coming out of Monty, but not Monty.” I heard those influences, but I heard it wasn’t those people. I should trust my instincts and just say John Clayton next time.
2. Eberhard Weber, “Seven Movements” (Stages Of a Long Journey, ECM, 2007) (Weber, bass; Jan Garbarek, soprano saxophone)
This is so far from what I do. It reminds me of something Jan Garbarek and Eberhard Weber might play together. I’ll keep listening and see if anything comes to mind. Is that two bass players? [One bass player.] So he’s doing it at the same time, I guess. Or maybe doubled… It sounds like two—the low note, the A-pedaling, and the notes on top. There’s so much effects on this that it’s hard to hear what his actual sound is. The way the bass is recorded, it sounds like electric bass to me; it sounds like an electric bass exercise or something. Which I know it’s not, but that’s what… I’m not even sure how to listen to this, or certainly how to rate it. It certainly had clarity. But it’s so far from where I’m at with music, that it’s hard to… I’m not even sure what to say about it. I really don’t know who that is. Again, accomplished musicians… [You guessed it.] I haven’t listened to those musicians a lot, but the fact that I recognize a sound that I attribute to them immediately is worth noting, I think. It immediately reminded me of two musicians who I know their sound but don’t listen to a lot, and that’s who it turned out to be. There’s something to be said for that. Whereas the previous recording, I know both musicians very well and I wasn’t sure who it was. I’m not sure what that means, but I think there’s something to that. I found the piece uninteresting. But it had a sound. They have a way they play, and it’s got a certain sound to it. But it seemed very… It sounded composed, which is ok, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of melody. It wasn’t pretty to me. It has a feeling to it that I recognize, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with me. But I’m not a believer in what one likes is any judgment on the quality. I separate quality and like-or-dislike as two separate things. 3 stars. I would like to hear him play the bass acoustically, to hear what it sounds like.
3. Mark Dresser, “Not Withstanding” (Nourishments, Clean Feed, 2013) (Dresser, bass; Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Denman Maroney, hyperpiano; Tom Rainey, drums)
That’s wild. It almost reminds me of something Steve Coleman and Dave Holland might do with Smitty, but it’s got a different quality. The way the pianist is playing. Obviously, musicians who know how to play. They have a way they play together. A little bit hard to hear the bass, a lot of drums. But I like the sound. Trombone kind of reminds me of Ray Anderson; I don’t know if it’s him or not. Prepared piano, sounds like. Eric Revis sometimes on his records does stuff that reminds me of this. For a second, I wondered if it was Revis, but I know it’s not. I love the way he plays stuff like this. I’m not sure who it is. Again, it’s probably someone I know. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t hold me. The lack of melody; it doesn’t hold on to me. It’s kind of sloppy in a good way. I like that. It’s not overly clean. It’s loose. I like the vibe to it. It does sound like like-minded musicians. I get the sense they play together or they know each other. It doesn’t sound like they’re thrown together for a record date. [AFTER] It reminded me of Steve Coleman, but there’s a certain lack of clarity—again, I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I like the looseness of it. They seemed to be playing in a common way; like, they had the same goal. It wasn’t just everyone for themself. But it had that real loose feeling, which I like. I didn’t really notice the bass player except for the solo. The way it was recorded, the bass wasn’t clear. The drums were kind of covering the bass in a way. I like bass player records where it’s not all just about the bass. But I do like to hear the bass. I found the solo interesting. I found the bass player interesting. He seemed like he was part of the group. Everyone seemed part of the group. It didn’t sound like it was his record, though. It sounded like it was the saxophone player’s record or the drummer’s record. Even the pianist’s. It didn’t sound like the bass player’s record, which, in a way, if it is the bass player’s record, that would be a compliment. Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean the music should… The bass is still the bass. 4 stars. Mark Dresser? That makes sense. I know about Mark, but I don’t know his sound enough to recognize it. But I figured it was one of those guys…that sounds weird… Sort of freeish… It reminded me of Braxton and Dave Holland, but it had a rougher edge to it than that, which I liked. I liked the fact that it wasn’t pristine. The alto player wasn’t Braxton. It wasn’t Steve Coleman. It wasn’t Greg Osby? It wasn’t Tim Berne? I don’t know Rudresh Mahanthappa’s playing. I’m not familiar enough with any of their playing, but I get the sense they play together a lot.
4. Stanley Clarke Trio, “Three Wrong Notes” (Jazz In The Garden, Heads Up, 2009) (Clarke, bass; Hiromi Uemara, piano; Lenny White, drums)
It sounds like they’re not playing together because they’re not playing together. They’re clearly in separate rooms. So it’s musicians playing at the same time. But for me it’s so distracting… The drummer sounds… Something about the drummer I like a lot. He might be the senior member of the band who’s played with somebody or done something. But they record it… Like, the tom-toms sound separate from the rest of the set. The bass player sounds like he’s listened to a lot of Eddie Gomez. Plays in that style when he solos. But the bass solo sounds like he’s more interested in playing than when he was playing the bass lines. For me, I find that distracting. “Oh, the bass player is coming to life now that there’s a bass solo.” He plays the instrument very well, clearly knows the music. I’m assuming it’s his tune—changes to “Confirmation” with the bass melody written over it. It’s something Sam Jones would do, that kind of bass melody, but the way he did it, it had a certain humor to it for some reason. This had more of an exercise thing to it, like, “Let’s take ‘Confirmation’ and write a little bass melody to it.’” It wasn’t Eddie Gomez, but that vibrato, that sort of whining vibrato, it reminds me of Eddie Gomez. Stanley Clarke used to play that way as well, that Eddie Gomez influence. It wasn’t Stanley Clarke, it wasn’t Eddie Gomez, it wasn’t George Mraz… There are a lot of guys who can play that way and do play that way. The most interesting thing I found about that recording is the snare drum. The snare drum had history in it. That was some bad shit, the snare drum. The rest of it sounded like the same old thing. The piano was the same old thing. Great players can play that way, and not so great players play that way. Again, it’s probably people I know, or know of. But the way it was recorded… The only thing that stuck out to me was the groove. The way it was leaning had a sort of uniqueness to it. But it wasn’t a uniqueness I recognized, that I could attribute to anybody. The bass player played the bass well. He played up high a lot when he soloed. It had that big vibrato, that Eddie Gomez vibrato, that sort of singing quality. But I don’t know who it is. It wasn’t John Patitucci. It wasn’t Eddie Gomez. It wasn’t George Mraz. Lynn Seaton? Rufus Reid? I don’t know. Those names all come to my head. None of them seem like the right ones. You’re going to tell me who it is, and I’ll say, “Oh yes.” 4 stars because of the snare drum. It’s cool, but it doesn’t grab me. The way the snare drum was played, the way the drummer didn’t force the beat. That’s what struck me. Without that, I would have been waiting for it to end. [AFTER] It was Stanley Clarke. That makes sense. I love how Lenny White sounded on there. I’d rather hear Stanley play Stanley Clarke stuff. Not that he can’t play jazz. But jazz isn’t a part-time art. That’s not what he does. It’s where he came from and what he can do, obviously. That’s a more recent record. When Stanley was playing jazz more, that’s how he played. I think when musicians take decades off from something, when they resume they’re in the same place. You played Stanley my record on his Blindfold Test. He said he appreciated the string writing; that’s all right. Stanley Clarke was one of my first bass heroes when I was a kid, but to me, that’s not the best Stanley Clarke. That way of recording doesn’t make sense. It comes from pop music, the one-amp separation so they can control it. It’s just the common way. But it doesn’t sound as good, not to me. It leaves less in the hands of the musicians—or the ears of the musicians, I should say.
5. Matt Brewer, “Abiquiú” (Mythology, Criss Cross, 2014) (Brewer, bass; Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Steve Lehman, alto saxophone; Lage Lund, guitar; David Virelles, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)
That was interesting. Compositionally there was some stuff I liked about it. Again, I’m not sure who that was either. It sounded like maybe some young cats. The bass player played well. He or she was pretty in-tune, and seemed to have control of what he or she was playing. Kind of like one of the other tracks. The bass seemed more present when soloing than when playing basslines. It got a little bit lost for me with the drums. It’s a similar thing with the recording, the way the drums were tuned. The snare drum low. Just the sound of it… I lost the bass in the drums, but not in the way that, like, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin were, where Jimmy Garrison became like a tom-tom. It was different than that. It sounded like there was an alto and a tenor, but just an alto solo. The alto player had a sound like a lot of alto players have now, sort of a Kenny Garrett-Steve Wilson kind of sound, but with a Steve Coleman-esque thing to it. I don’t know it was. [THIS PLAYER IS VERY INFLUENCED BY JACKIE MCLEAN] It didn’t sound like Jackie McLean-influenced players are influenced by… I’m not saying this person, but I find this often. A lot of the Jackie McLean-influenced musicians are influenced by him and the way he was and what he believed in, but the Bird part of his playing I don’t hear in a lot of their playing. Which isn’t a bad thing. It’s just something I’ve always noticed. Sometimes I think maybe the person’s philosophies are more important than their musical influences. I liked the piece, but when the soloing started I wasn’t hearing the song any more. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Matt was one of my students at Manhattan School of Music. That’s ironic. If I’d said what I was thinking during the recording, it would have been really accurate, because I was going to mention Larry Grenadier, who I know has not recorded as a leader. The playing was like Larry, and that’s one of Matt’s biggest influence. I knew it wasn’t Larry, but he plays in that way. If Larry had a record out, just from the bass playing along, that’s who I would have thought it was.
6. Dave Holland, “The Empty Chair (For Clare) (Prism, Dare2, 2008) (Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Craig Taborn, piano; Eric Harland, drums)
We’re getting to kind of the Soul Jazz-Pop area now. Which is ok. I already know a whole lot of who it isn’t. When you grow up in an era of pop music where it’s everywhere, it’s always interesting how it affects jazz musicians and how it comes out in their playing. I would say it’s virtually impossible for it not to come out in your playing, especially if you grew up with it. This is an example of that. I’m going to keep listening. I always notice the drums. The tom-toms are recorded in a way that I find distracting. They’re too loud. But these are musicians who have a good groove, a good pocket for this kind of pocket. It doesn’t always mean they can swing, but maybe they can. It’s a different thing. But they should have tuned the tom-toms different, in my opinion. It’s taking away from the subtlety of the groove, the way the guitar and bass are playing. This is someone who probably likes D’Angelo a lot, like I do. It could be some of these young bass players whose records I haven’t heard, like Ben Williams. It doesn’t remind me, but at the same time it could be, because he likes to record sort of poppish tunes on his recordings. There’s another young guy, Alan Hampton, but I don’t really know his records. There’s a certain way Ben plays on a certain area of the bass that this reminds me of. But I’m not sure. It’s interesting, now that they’re playing louder, it’s mixed softer. The drummer is playing harder now, but the tom-toms are softer, like more compressed. This is very studio-ish. This reminds me of a pop record, and it’s cool. The bass player sounds good. He sounds like he had a lot of ideas behind this, but I’m not really hearing his personality in it. I’m hearing a lot of guitar and drums. The keyboard player playing his part. Even in the solo, I didn’t hear a lot of his personality. That’s why I don’t necessarily think it was Ben, because he plays with a lot of personality that I hear. This bass player, I didn’t hear a lot of personality. I didn’t hear who they were. The only thing it is, it sounds like that D’Angelo influence, but I’m not hearing the kind of beat that usually goes with the cats who play that way. It doesn’t have that behind, Quest-love thing going on, which makes me wonder if it’s a different group of cats playing on here, again coming from more of a pop influence. This is not the Robert Glasper cats, it doesn’t sound like to me. It might be, but something in the way they’re playing… I’d be curious to know who it is. I’m not sure how to rate this. Do I rate it as an R&B tune with a jazz influence? Would I rate this as jazz musicians playing on kind of a funk groove? I’ll give it 3½ stars. [AFTER] That’s always how I feel about Dave Holland. Of course, you played me Dave Holland and I said about the personality. Dave Holland clearly is a great bass player, and anyone who loves his playing, I understand why, but I just don’t… When I hear him… That’s how art should be; you react how you react. But I don’t feel him in his sound. I hear him in his great ability. That’s why I knew it wasn’t Ben Williams, because I didn’t hear an overwhelming personality in their sound, which I don’t hear in Dave. I hear it in his rhythms. But I don’t hear it… That’s me. I know that can sound like an insult to Dave, but it’s not. It’s just an honest reaction. So when I heard this, the rhythm was good, but I just didn’t hear a lot in the sound of the bass. But I heard his Mingus influence hidden in there, in the way the chords were. But that D’Angelo sound… Craig knows those records, I’m sure. Eric Harland does. But Dave Holland is coming from a different point of view. The thing about that group of musicians, they have a way they play, and whether one likes it or not, or to avoid that whole what-is-jazz conversation, I’m a fan of community in music, and they have that, and I didn’t hear that sound in this recording. But Kevin Eubanks…he can do anything on the guitar. But the tom-tom thing threw me off. The last time I heard Dave Holland was a long time ago, in Spain. I remember marveling at how comfortable Steve Nelson was playing on those hard-ass tunes. It was an amazing display of rhythm and great musicianship. Steve Nelson was so soulful over it. It was amazing. Again, Dave Holland is a great bassist. There’s just something I don’t hear in his playing. Who cares if I hear it or not? It doesn’t mean anything. But it’s the truth.
7. The Bad Plus, “You Will Lose All Fear” (Inevitable Western, OKeh, 2014) (Reid Anderson, bass; composer; Ethan Iverson, piano; Dave King, drums)
This is very odd-sounding. You have some tambourine in there. The bass is a little bit buried. Ah, there it is. I’m waiting for the tune to start. I guess it’s kind of rolling, landing on these chords. I think they’re about to land. It sounded like two tunes. You had the beginning part, obviously, that went on; I had no idea where it was going to go. Then we had this ending, this vamp, with some interesting melodic notes. I’m not sure how they’re connected other than the contrast. Perhaps the idea was we’re going through this area to get to this other area. For me, I’m synesthesia, so I see sound, so that was two striking views of sound. One like a lot of scribbling on the page, a lot of information, and then very clear. It was hard to tell who the bass player was, because on the first part it was covered by the piano and the drums; in the second part, he was just playing the part, which I appreciate hearing bass players just playing the bass part. In the second part, it was more a pop sensibility. I figured it’s the bassist’s composition, but the pianist was running the show. I don’t know who it was. I didn’t hear the connection between the two sections. I liked the bass playing at the end when he was just playing the part. I find that interesting, bass players just playing good notes with good rhythm. But it was a composed bass part. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I like the Bad Plus. It’s interesting. A lot of the groups I hear… Well, that’s a good example of a group that it’s pop-influenced acoustic music, in a way. Again, not that it’s a bad thing. But they weren’t playing jazz grooves there, which is ok. For me, I have mixed feelings about that, but that doesn’t change how it sounds, and they play well together, and they have a sound. There’s a certain clarity with how they play… Although at the beginning part there was so much going on, but that was the idea. But yeah, it was interesting. It’s interesting melodies. To me, jazz is dance music, it’s groove music, so when you take that element out of it, it changes so drastically that it’s like another music, so for me it’s like a different criteria for how to listen to it. I remember hearing a group once (it doesn’t matter who) at the Vanguard, and I said, “let me check these cats out; I’ve never really heard them.” I remember in the first half of the set I was like, “Wow, I can’t get with this; I don’t understand it; it’s frustrating me.” Then I listened to the second half of the set from the point of view as if it were just a funk band playing, and I loved it. So I had to adjust my sensibilities. This is kind of in between. It’s like pop-based jazz, but not R&B pop. It’s like the love of Radiohead shows up, which to me is a strange thing. I’m still waiting for Radiohead to play some of our tunes. I grew up in Portland. I moved here in 1985. The bass player in the Decemberists went to high school with my sister. I went to hear them play because I knew the guy, and I didn’t nokw they were rock stars. But good for them!
8. Alexis Cuadrado, “Asesinato (Dos Voces De Madrugada En Riverside Drive)” (A Lorca Soundscape, Sunnyside, 2013) (Cuadrado, bass; cajon, palmas; Claudia Acuna, vocals; Miguel Zenon, alto saxophone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Mark Ferber, drums; Gilmar Gomes, congas)
The thing about steel strings, not that they’re bad, but it makes so many bass players sound the same, whereas with the gut strings you hear so much more the personality, or the differences in the sound of the bass players. I’m hearing this, and it’s the same sound that’s coming out of Stanley Clarke. It’s the same sound that Charnett Moffett might get. It’s the same kind of sound Eberhard Weber might get without the effects. It makes it tricky. Because in solo bass of this style, there’s certain devices that seem to always be used—fifths and tenths. That’s a nice groove there. The alto player sounds like he’s an alto player into Branford; it’s a nice feeling. I thought of Claudia Acuna, but she… It is Claudia. It reminded me immediately of what she and Avishai Cohen played together, but it didn’t sound like Avishai Cohen. His playing changed after he played with Chick Corea. I always thought Claudia had such a beautiful sound. I think I know the saxophone player, but for some reason I’m drawing a blank on his name. Was that Myron Walden? It reminded me of Myron for some reason. I know Avishai played used to play with her a lot. Omer played with her; it doesn’t sound like Omer. I know on piano Jason Lindner played with her; it didn’t sound like Jason either. So it sounds like maybe she got people for this record. [It’s not Claudia’s record; it’s the bass player’s record.] Ah, that would explain that. I’m not sure who the bass player is. That was nice. It had a nice groove. Again, I couldn’t hear the personality in the bass sound. The gut strings, which I play… It doesn’t make one better or worse. But the gut strings tend to make the sound less uniform. It doesn’t even it out so much. You hear the imperfections in the instrument. You hear different qualities. Paul Chambers had certain kind of buzzes in his sound that for me are beautiful. But the steel strings evens everything out, particularly when guys use an amplifier. But even without the amplifier it evens it out. That’s why the John Clayton piece threw me off. I said, “It’s not a guy who uses an amp usually.” He never uses an amp. But the steel strings make it so uniform. So that’s one of the reasons why prefer gut strings. 3½ stars. I don’t know Alexis. I like the groove they’ve got going. I like Miguel Zenon.
9. Christian McBride, “Cherokee” (Out Here, Mack Avenue, 2013) (McBride, bass; Christian Sands, piano; Ulysses Owens, drums)
Wow. A walking bass line. A rarity in jazz today. A very bizarre recording. It’s got that several-room thing where the bass and drums are separated. They’re doing the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” Another Ron Carter influenced bass player. Wow. I like the Ahmad Jamal half-time 3/4 bridge on “Cherokee.” This could be so many people. This is the kind of jazz that frustrates me. I hope this isn’t people I know or are friends. But so far it feels like they’re just playing. They’re not really playing together. They’re playing the same song at the same time, and it’s fast, it can be tricky… The piano player is just playing. There’s no breath. I feel like the bass and drums are just trying to hold on, just trying to stay with the piano player. I don’t feel like they’re moving and turning corners together. They’re going for the excitement. Hard tempo. [BASS SOLO] It sounds like Christian there. The way he plays the bass…it’s amazing; no one can really play like that. But it didn’t sound like him at the beginning, to me, for some reason. I’m not sure what it was. But obviously it’s him. With Christian, obviously he can play fast and with clarity, and he can do all these amazingly impressive things. But I just heard him with his big band last week at Dizzy’s, and that’s some of my favorite Christian I’ve ever heard. It was like he played much less. But he just plays the bass parts…I love the way he does that. For me, that’s a more interesting thing. But he can do anything on the bass. There’s a handful of guys with that type of immense natural gift for music, and it’s always fascinating how they use those tools. I imagine it would be a challenge where, if you could play anything you wanted or like anyone you wanted, it would be very seductive to play like your heroes. I think that’s a unique dilemma that these immensely talented musicians sometimes have to deal with. That wasn’t Carl Allen, was it? I could tell Christian on the solo; it didn’t sound like him on the bassline, for some reason. I remember the first time I heard him, I was amazed by his clarity. The next day, Stanley Crouch called me and said, “Have you heard this kid, Christian McBride? He has a clarity.” I said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” He’s a special musician with enormous talent on the bass. But I’m impressed by the other side of his playing than the obvious, impressive side. I’m giving it 3 stars, but I’ll give Christian 4 stars. It’s not my favorite I’ve heard from him. I like him on this record called Watts, by Jeff Watts. I wouldn’t have thought it was Ulysses. I play a lot with him, and something about that didn’t work for me. I love them. Sorry, guys.
10. Barry Guy-Agustí Fernández, “Annalisa” (Some Other Place, Maya, 2009) (Guy, bass, composer; Fernández, piano)
That sounds like that pianist, Pilc, and his bass player, the way they play together. But they usually don’t play this out. It reminds me of them, but more free. When they went into that melody together, it was so accurate. It’s interesting to hear cats play this out, and then play that accurate in the middle of it. It makes me think of some younger musicians, recorded in the last ten years or something. The bass player is strangely accurate in his playing. I was trying to think who can play major VII chords on the bass like that. That’s something Oscar Pettiford used to do, though obviously this is a whole nother thing. But it’s interesting that he played that same exact thing on the bass on “Stardust” at one point, but there’s such a different context, and this sounds completely different. It’s amazing how the same combination of notes can sound so different with a different recording and a different context and different rhythm. The concept of playing a three-note chord on the bass can be hard to make sound. You have to be at the right time, the right place. I’m not sure who that was. They’re playing real wild and free. The thing about playing that way is, the principles of art still apply. You still have to listen. You still have to hear what’s going on. You don’t have to play constant. You can leave space. It’s got to breathe. I think they had their moments there. There was something oddly familiar about the bass player to me. But I don’t want to be guessing. I don’t know who they were, this duet. What threw me was the way, when they came together and played the composed section, it was so accurate. That’s what threw me off. It caught my ear. If you’re playing that free that way all the time, you’re not playing a lot of composed sections. [It’s a composition, though.] Even so, just the fact that that section was so accurate. 3½ stars. [AFTER] I don’t know Barry Guy. I can’t tell from that whether they can swing or no.
11. The Cookers, “Dance of the Invisible Nymph” (Time and Time Again, Motéma, 2014) (Cecil McBee, bass, composer; David Weiss, trumpet, arranger; Eddie Henderson, trumpet; Donald Harrison, alto saxophone; Billy Harper, tenor saxophone; George Cables, piano; Billy Hart, drums)
that’s the intro, but when the melody came in, I was not imagining it having that kind of sound at all. The horns come in almost with a Blue Note kind of vibe in that groove. I was not expecting that. Let’s see what reveals itself. Sometimes I think it’s turning into an art how to not play the jazz groove any more. There are so many different ways of not just swinging. Sometimes those ways work and sometimes they don’t. But it’s amazing how often we don’t hear the swing groove any more in jazz music. Interesting sound on the trumpet. In 8 measures I’ve heard influences of Freddie, of Wynton, of Kenny Wheeler. Is that Ambrose Akinmusire? I don’t really know Ambrose’s playing that much, but I know he has the wide influences, so I thought I was hearing that in his playing. That cat clearly is a young cat who has checked out a lot of different styles. Well, I shouldn’t say ‘clearly.’ That’s my thought on that short solo. Maybe it’s David Douglas. When I first met David Douglas, he was into Woody Shaw. It reminded me of that type of musician. But some things are hard to tell, because they’re soloing over a groove, so there’s no conversational element to the solos. They’re just soloing over something. The way they’re playing doesn’t require listening in any kind of conversational way. They can just play over. But I’m all for a good groove. That’s a nice melody on top. But more often than not, the lack of listening is what makes very good individual musicians not have a sound together. You don’t listen, it makes it impossible for the magic to occur as a group. I wish there was more to this than just a string of soloists over a groove. I think there could be more connection between the melody part and the rhythm section. I’m hearing more just they’re playing on top of it. I don’t remember the melody; I’m trying to remember it. Here it comes. I like this melody, but I didn’t hear that sound at all in the solos, which makes me question why have this melody, or why have the solos? Is it just a device to improvise on? I like the melody as always present. You hear that in Monk’s music. The melody is always present, so that there are interactions with each other and with the melody. At the same time, I write a lot of music where the melody just sets up another section for soloing, so I understand it. Sometimes I like on these types of compositions, where you have a melody, then you play on something, not to go back to the melody, to go somewhere else, to move forward. But this is nice. I like the blend of the horn players; I like the balance, the blend they have together. I find the band as an ensemble more interesting during the melody section than I did during the solo sections. There was something that could have been more in there for me. The melody was interesting. The rhythm section, the parts were happening, but then in the solo sections they just went to a groove. Again, I didn’t hear a reason for it, a connection between the two. It’s like they were too separate for me. But well-played. But like I said, the melody was more interesting to me than the solos, not the individual, but the way the ensemble moved I found more interesting on the melody. 3½ stars. [AFTER] Eddie Henderson? That’s funny. That explains when I said the sound they have together… That comes from the music they play…being part of it, that thing. When I said that “young trumpeter” and looked at you, I knew I was wrong. I love Eddie. He’s one of those musicians who it’s very special to play with him. He makes it exciting. Eddie sounded different to me on that, the way he used the upper register.
12. Scott Colley, “Speculation” (Empire, Camjazz, 2010) (Colley, bass, composer; Brian Blade, drums; Craig Taborn, piano)
That reminds me of Dave Holland there. Again, these solo bass things, everyone uses the same devices on the instrument. So it’s hard to tell. It’s almost like the bass is amplified on this, even though it’s just solo bass. He can play fast and clean. It’s a good tone, but it’s the same old tone. It’s like a common sound done well by someone who plays the instrument very well, clearly. It’s like the era of the original sound on the bass… You hear Wilbur Ware, you hear one note, it’s clearly Wilbur Ware. That type of sound, where it’s so different from player to player, has gotten lost, so the sounds blur together now. It’s like different versions of the same tone. It used to be… Not that things need to stay the same. I’m not saying this in the spirit of it should be how it was back in the day or anything like that. I’m all for art moving. But it used to be every bass player in jazz had their own way of playing quarter notes. This is cool, but again, it could be anyone. It could be great players I love. It could be players I’ve never heard of. It could be players I dislike. The way they’re playing… I’m not sure if I like it. I’m going to keep listening. I’m listening for the clarity. All the sounds and notes are for a reason. The drummer is interesting. It sounds like he likes Jack DeJohnette. It’s got a delicate quality that I like. It’s not being forced, and it sounds sincere. I’m not hearing a whole lot of melody, though, again. It just seems it’s in a place. Perhaps it’s a Dave Holland-influenced player. I don’t know. Scott Colley? I’m not sure. It could be a lot of people. All right, it is Scott! I got one. He always struck me as Dave Holland-influenced with Charlie Haden in there. That’s an interesting combination, a guy who is influenced by Charlie and Dave Holland, because they played with a lot of the same people but play completely different, almost like opposites in many ways. Charlie is a master of one note; Dave Holland can play things on the bass that… He doesn’t play like Christian, but he’s like Christian in the sense that he owns what he does. He does things that are amazing and difficult. So the combination of an influence of Dave Holland and Charlie Haden… I’ve known Scott for a long time. He plays with a lot of clarity, and it’s clear, but the kind of sound…it’s like a good version of that sound. I’m not sure how to describe HIS sound. An example of someone who has an extreme sound. I mentioned Wilbur Ware. Charlie Haden is like that. If you think of Charlie Haden, you can think of his sound with one note. To me, that’s something that I love in great musicians. But not everyone cares about that. There are so many different things you can think about or try to achieve. Scott Colley plays the bass really well, and he’s clear in his ideas, so it comes down to what he wants to do. But I prefer a more clear personality in the sound. But that’s me. Again, not negative. He’s had a lot of experience and has played with a lot of players, and clearly knows music—and he’s a really nice dude, too.
13. Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio, “A Feeling” (Kenny Barron, Gerry Gibbs, Ron Carter, 2013, Whaling City Sound) (Ron Carter, bass, composer; Kenny Barron, piano; Gibbs, drums)
Another Ron Carter influenced bass player, but he plays something that Ron never would have played. I was hoping you were going to play me Ron so I could talk about Ron, but it’s all right. I’m trying to figure out the drummer. Interesting ride cymbal sound. That sounds like Ron there, but it’s not, because he wouldn’t have played that up-high note…I don’t think. A lot of that stuff is right out of the Ron Carter Handbook, but Ron wouldn’t have a drummer play that much over him and that loud unless it was mixed that way afterwards. There’s something in that ride cymbal I like. Strangely recorded. Again, I don’t feel the tom-toms sounding like that. This is a trick, because this is going to be real obvious when I know who it is afterwards. So much of this reminds me of Ron Carter. Even the harmonic movement on this reminds me of him. But something about it tells me about him. I’m not sure who the piano player is. I liked it. There was so much going on. So much drums, so much tom-toms covering everything up. They could be so many people; I’m not sure who it is. The bass player threw me because he was playing so much of Ron’s stuff, but he played one high notes, went to it in a way that I can’t imagine Ron doing, but it doesn’t mean he wouldn’t. Plus the way it was mixed. But then again… Ah! Aha! Was that Gerry Gibbs? [It was.] It was the Thrasher Trio. That’s what threw me. It was Kenny Barron. It’s Ron’s tune? That makes sense. It sounded like Ron’s tune. But the way it recorded, Ron usually is more present in the mix, especially with this kind of sound. When Ron is playing with his amplified sound, his modern sound… I prefer Ron’s sound when he played acoustic. One of the most beautiful bass sounds in the history of jazz. He created a new sound with the pickup. The new sound is a cushion that the drums would reside under. So the bass moves like an escalator, and the drums are on it, in a sense. This was reversed, so it took away some of the sound. I had more issue with the recording, the mix of it, than the playing. It was Ron Carter walking, so 4 stars.