Tag Archives: Bass

For Bassist John Clayton’s 62nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From 2010

John Clayton, who continues to make his mark as top-tier bassist, composer and bandleader, turns 62 today. I had the pleasure of several conversations with him in late 2009-early 2010 when researching and composing a feature piece for DownBeat, which I append below.

* * * *

One of John Clayton’s favorite sayings is that he doesn’t do stress. “I’d rather roll up my sleeves and get the job done,” Clayton said. “I might have to go without sleeping, deal with difficult people, maybe have people scream at me—but it rolls off my back.”

It was the second Tuesday of January, and the bassist, 57, was anticipating the final installment of an eight-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with the Clayton Brothers Band, which he co-leads with his brother, Jeff Clayton, to be directly followed by two days in the studio to record The New Song and Dance, a follow-up to Brother to Brother [Artist Share], a 2010 Grammy nominee. He had arrived in New York directly from a week at Umbria Jazz Winter in Orvieto, Italy, where he performed four duos with bassist John Patitucci and another four with pianist Gerald Clayton, his son.

On the previous evening at Dizzy’s, the only screaming came from a packed house of NEA Jazz Masters, who ate salmon, drank wine and mineral water, and rose up and hollered in response to a surging, well-paced set. “That band is great,” 2010 awardee Kenny Barron said later, summing up the prevailing opinion. “It reminds me of why I wanted to start playing jazz in the first place.”

Such approbation made sense: Since 1977, when the Claytons co-founded the unit, they’ve connected to the hip populism and presentational values that defined the musical production of such predecessors as the Adderley Brothers, Benny Golson’s Jazztet, Horace Silver, the Ray Brown-Gene Harris Trio, and Count Basie. Now they’re a pan-generational ensemble, with forty-something trumpeter Terrell Stafford sharing the front line with Jeff Clayton on alto sax and flute, and twenty-somethings Gerald Clayton and Obed Calvaire on piano and drums. At Dizzy’s, CBB articulated old-school aesthetics in a non-formulaic manner, addressing sophisticated harmonic and rhythmic raw materials with a sell-the-song attitude and acute attention to detail. John Clayton radiated the cool, composed affect of which he spoke—alert to all the nuances, he smiled encouragement at his band-mates, goosing the flow with consistently melodic basslines and ebullient, surging-yet-relaxed grooves.

“When I was 16, I studied with Ray Brown,” Clayton explained. “Milt Jackson was like an uncle to me at 17. Their music was extremely deep and serious, yet they had no problem allowing the joy that they were deriving from it to be expressed on their faces and in their body language.”

Known as Ray Brown’s protégé since those years, Clayton holds an undisputed position in the upper echelons of bass expression—in addition to his considerable jazz bona fides as both an ensemble player and soloist, his peer group gives him deep respect for having held the principal bass chair with the Amsterdam Philharmonic for five years during the 1980s.

“One of John’s talents is picking things up quickly—understanding concepts,” said Jeff Clayton. “I practice long and hard. John practices smart—always has. In preparing to audition for the Amsterdam Philharmonic, he just added another hour or so to his practice.

“ I was practicing a lot anyway, so I just added the orchestra audition material to what I was practicing,” Clayton said matter-of-factly. “Classical is just another kind of music. You’ve still got to push the string down to the fingerboard. You have to play detached notes or legato notes, forte or piano. Now, the instrumentation or the groove or some other aesthetic might be different—you learn those things.”

“I’ve always been analytical,” he added. “I’m more comfortable if I try to figure out why the characters in a situation say what they do or act as they do. Rather than play something from my lesson 300 times, I’ll play it 50 times, and each time analyze, say, what my elbow or wrist is doing.”

Clayton has applied his penchant for compartmentalization and mono-focus towards mastering various non-performative aspects of the music business—indeed, he does so many things so well that it is possible to overlook how distinctive a niche he occupies. “John is a visionary, who says, ‘Five years from now, I’ll be here,’ and then gets there,’” said Monty Alexander, with whom Clayton spent the better part of three years on the road during the middle ‘70s. “When John says he’s going to do something and then it transpires, it’s not by chance,” his brother adds. “We would write down goal sheets and follow them; once we’ve made it to ALL of our goals, then we set new ones.”

One platform is the area of composition and arrangement for small groups, big bands, and orchestras, a craft that Clayton learned in the crucible of the late ‘70s Count Basie Orchestra. While in Amsterdam, he continued to refine his aesthetic, creating charts for a radio big band. Upon returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he found steady work in the studios, and set to work establishing himself as a film writer.

“I was involved in a lot of film sessions as the only African-American musician in a 75-piece orchestra, and I thought as a writer I could help change that situation,” Clayton said. “But when it looked like the doors were starting to open, it became less interesting to me. I realized I was getting into it for the wrong reason; I’d be focusing on a lot of music and an environment that doesn’t define me. If you’re lucky enough to work with the great directors or producers, then fantastic. But to work with unqualified shlocks who are telling you what to do, and have no taste in music… I always say that jazz saved my life. I don’t make the kind of money that a successful film writer makes. But I smile a lot.”

Instead, Clayton focused on establishing the Clayton-Hamilton Big Band as a primary locus for his musical production, transmuting vocabulary from various Count Basie “New Testament” and Woody Herman arrangers, Duke Ellington, and Thad Jones into his own argot in the process of creating a book. As the ‘90s progressed, he served as arranger-for-hire, producer, and conductor on numerous recordings and high-visibility concerts, adding to his duties administrative responsibilities as Artistic Director of Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1999 to 2001. While multi-tasking amongst these activities, he also taught at the University of Southern California (he retired at the end of the 2008-09 academic year), developing a comprehensive bass pedagogy.

In discussing his first principles as a bassist, Clayton referenced his initial encounter with Ray Brown at a weekly “Workshop in Jazz Bass” course at UCLA in 1969, which he rode four buses to get to.

“Ray came through the door, took out the bass, and showed the whole class what we had to learn,” Clayton recalled. “He played every major scale, every minor scale, all the arpeggios in every key. Later, he brought in recordings of Charles Mingus, Richard Davis, Ron Carter, Israel Crosby, George Duvivier, Sam Jones, and Scott LaFaro, none of whom I’d ever heard of. He saw how hungry I was, so in love with the whole thing, so he’d invite me to his recording sessions or club gigs in the area. I can pick out Ray in the middle of a 150-piece string orchestra. But he still has lessons for me, whether about tone, how to handle a groove from one tune to the next, and on and on.”

Mentorship evolved to friendship and ultimately productive partnership in Super Bass, the three-contrabass ensemble that united Brown, Clayton and Christian McBride from 1996 until Brown’s death in 2002. Most tellingly, Brown bequeathed to Clayton his primary bass—Clayton played it at Dizzy’s and in Orvieto. “It’s like a talisman,” Clayton said. “It’s as though by touching this instrument, I am infused with confidence, not egotistical, but as if to say, ‘You’re touching this bass, the music needs this, you can supply this.’ I tell my students that creativity begins from nothing and silence. When you touch the instrument, before you play a note, allow some silent moments so that you are immediately cool and chill and calm—and THEN give the music whatever it demands.”

[BREAK]

“I’m playing the piano, and standing next to me is this patriarch guy, caressing everything and making what you’re playing better,” Monty Alexander said, recalling Clayton’s comportment as a 22-year-old in his trio. “Sometimes I got mad because I wanted to say, ‘Hey, respect seniority here!’ He had a way about him that just made you happy to play.”

“My dad finds a way to translate his approach in life better than a lot of people,” Gerald Clayton remarked. “He’s got such a big heart, he’s thankful for the situation, and he brings that energy and love and honesty into the music. Even if he’s telling you to do something, it’s more like an invitation—sort of intimidating but loving, like a big bear.”

Asked to comment on this patriarchal trope, Jeff Clayton said: “Our mother raised seven kids as a single mom, worked ten hours a day at the Post Office, went to choir rehearsal, taught the junior and senior choir Tuesdays and Fridays and went to church all day Sunday, and took one class per semester, one night a week for 12 years, and got her degree in theology. As the oldest brother with that many kids, John had to be responsible.”

“Billy Higgins used to say, ‘You don’t choose the instrument; the instrument chooses you,’” John Clayton said, “I think that surely applies to me. People look to bass players as glue. We’re the go-between for the egos of the drums, or the piano, or the vocalist, or the trumpet—we understand where everyone is coming from. That molds your personality, and you move more towards what the bass represents.”

Clayton’s personal rectitude and groundedness, his impeccable craft, his insistence on privileging ensemble imperatives above solo flight, his staunch identification with the bedrock codes of jazz tradition, can impart the superficial impression of aesthetic conservativism. But his comments on  what he considers distinctive about his voice reveal an incremental sensibility.

“The changes and contributions I make to the structures we work with are inside, subtle, upper-level things,” Clayton said. “I was inspired by the way Israel Crosby, with Ahmad Jamal’s trio, superimposed within his bassline a tune on the tune he was playing. Or when Monty played a solo, the way he would anticipate my bassline and harmonize it before I created it. Now I’m listening to Terrell, and create my bassline based on a melody fragment he’s just played in his solo.

“Our ultimate goal as musicians is to become one with our instrument, and singing is the barometer that tells us this is happening. In fact, any time that my playing starts to go south, all I have to do is remind myself, ‘Oh yeah, I’m not singing,’ and it automatically clicks back into place.”

Prefacing his first Orvieto duo concert with Patitucci, Clayton introduced his partner as “a faucet that turns on and turns off and plays melody.” It could have been self-description. Performing such iconic bass repertoire as “Tricotism,” “Whims of Chambers” and “Ray’s Idea,” songbook chestnuts like “Squeeze Me,” “Body and Soul,” and “Tea For Two,” and baroque music, they engaged in open dialog, intuiting each other’s moves, playing as authoritatively with the bow as pizzicato, taking care to stay in complementary registers, switching from support to lead on a dime.

“It was the best musical experience I’ve ever had playing duos with a bass player,” Patitucci said. “He’s a consummate musician. The pitches lined up, which made the sonorities much richer; he’s so well-rounded that you could throw up anything and read through it, and it worked.”

The father-son duos at Orvieto proceeded along similarly open paths, the protagonists addressing blues, spirituals, standards, and originals by Clayton fils with abundant reharmonizations, and polytonal episodes, with a stylistically heterogeneous stance. Pere Clayton kept things grounded with a relentless pocket and elevated the mood with a succession of transcendent arco solos, including an introduction to John Lewis’ to “Django” that channeled Bach in grand Koussevitzkyian fashion.

“Each situation is about passion,” Clayton said of his unitary interests. “You immerse yourself in that language, and try to make it part of what you do, because you’re so crazy about it. I love classical and jazz styles 50-50, and I think that’s what you hear.”

On The New Song and Dance, the Clayton Brothers place tango, New Orleans streetbeat, and complex time signatures into the mix towards the notion, as Jeff Clayton put it, “that swing is part of a large cauldron of many ideas that we are allowed to visit in each song.” “It shows the wide span of creativity that the group represents,” John Clayton said. “The project is pushing me in ways I haven’t been pushed before; my brother’s songs don’t sound anything like songs he wrote four years ago. Gerald stretches us, too. If people thought they knew what we sounded like, they’re going to be surprised with different sounds.

“The things I write for the Clayton Brothers that I’m less happy with lean too close to being over-arranged. I always look for that balance to have it organized yet allow for a lot of freedom. With the big band it’s a little different. I want it to be a blowing band, but then other times I’ll write a chorus with no improvisation at all.”

Clayton anticipated a light touring schedule over the summer, the better to focus on expanding “Red Man, Black Man”—a programmatic 2006 opus commissioned  by the Monterey Jazz Festival as a collaboration between the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and Kurt Elling, that year’s artist-in-residence—from a 25-minute investigation of the affinities between Native American and African American music into a concert-length performance. To frame Elling’s reading of original lyrics and poems apropos to the subject, Clayton orchestrates a Shawnee tribal stomp (“the singers were using call-and-response, the notes were primarily the blues scale, and the shaker pattern was CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING-A-CHING, CHING”) with radical techniques—the musicians blow silence, the saxophone section plays the transcribed stomp with wood flutes, chains and anvils strike the ground at measured intervals to represent a chain gang.

“I’m interested in different cultures and their music, and always tried, somehow, to incorporate them in what I do,” Clayton said, citing an unaccompanied bass feature that combines “Lift Every Voice And Sing” with “Danny Boy,” and, on a meta-level, the fall 2009 release, Charles Aznavour and the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra [Capitol Jazz-EMI], on which  Clayton’s subtle arrangements—the guests include pianist Jacky Terrason and Rachelle Farrell—reimagine the iconic chanteur’s hits, and some choice new repertoire, in a swing context.

However his milieu evolves, Clayton does not intend to be left behind. “In the big band era, there were way fewer choices,” he said. “Now we can listen to so many categories of music. Many young musicians say, ‘There’s too much for me to absorb and learn and be held responsible for.’ I think, ‘That’s great—get busy.”

[—30—]

Leave a comment

Filed under Bass, DownBeat, John Clayton

A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.

 

 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”

[BREAK]

“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”

[BREAK]

Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”

[BREAK]

A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”

[—30—]

 

Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.

[END OF SOUND FILE]

Leave a comment

Filed under Article, Bass, Blindfold Test, Christian McBride, DownBeat, Ray Brown

For Ron Carter’s 77th Birthday, a DownBeat Feature From Two Years Ago

Bass maestro Ron Carter turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’m posting a feature piece that DownBeat assigned me to write two years ago in response to his entry into the DB Hall of Fame.

* * * *

Near twilight on the first Sunday of September at the south corner of 27th Street and Park Avenue, a tall, eagle-necked African-American gentleman with perfect posture and a salt-and-pepper beard,  a pressed white dress shirt, black tie, black pants, and mirror-shined black shoes, stood at the curb by a late-model black Audi, tapping his right index finger on the bowl of his pipe as he spoke quietly into a cell phone. A passerby’s first instinct was to look for a photographer and klieg lights, but both the location and the hour seemed odd for a fashion shoot. Then it clicked that this elegant figure was Ron Carter, the 2012 inductee into the DownBeat Hall of Fame, taking care of business before descending into the Jazz Standard, halfway down the block, for the fourth and final night of his big band’s inaugural engagement.

About an hour later, after a crisp reading of “Caravan,” highlighted by Jerry Dodgion’s soaring soprano saxophone solo, Carter introduced his own “Loose Change” as “my personal commentary on the Republican Medicare plan.” He made his point with a long rubato meditation, teasing “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” out of the harmonies, interpolating the motif of “All Blues,” transitioning to an orotund passage from Bach, then introducing the melody and stating an insistent 6/4 vamp that propelled the funky theme. On “Con Alma,” in lock-step with drummer Kenny Washington, he smoothly propelled his breathe-as-one ensemble through stop-on-a-dime shifts of meter and tempo; soloing on “St. Louis Blues,” which moved from march to swing to stride sections, he signified with various Charlie Parker quotes; in duet with pianist Donald Vega on “My Funny Valentine,” he played the verse unembellished, caressed the melody, then complemented Vega’s inventions—which included a lengthy interpolation of Ellington’s “Single Petal Of A Rose”—with the customized attention of a Savile Row tailor.

On each tune save the latter, Carter fleshed out the versions that appear on the Robert Freedman-arranged 2011 CD Ron Carter’s Great Big Band [Sunnyside] with extra choruses and backgrounds, changing the bass part at will. This is one reason why, after just six sets over three nights, the new ensemble embodied the leader’s tonal personality—no-nonsense and expansive; informed by the notion that virtuoso execution, spot-on intonation, and exacting attention to the minutest details are merely a starting point; telling stories of his own or complementing those of his bandmates with vocabulary and syntax drawn from an encyclopedic database of the jazz and classical canons, with the blues as a default basis of operations.

A few days later, in the public area of his massive Upper West Side apartment, which spans almost half a city block, Carter recalled that he was initially reluctant to embrace the project, due in part to the logistical complexities involved in maintaining and adequately paying a large ensemble. Also, he stated, “I haven’t been interested in playing in the rhythm section of a big band—though I had great times subbing with Thad Jones and Mel Lewis when Richard Davis got busy. You get ignored all the time, and you’re at the mercy of the arranger.” In contrast, he said, “the studio is fun—you’ve got very little time and they don’t fool around; you just play the best you can.”

Therefore, Carter added, he decided to treat this orchestra “as a very large trio,” built around Vega and guitarist Russell Malone, his bandmates in the Golden Striker Trio. He does the preponderance of his touring with this group and in a quartet comprising pianist Renee Rosnes, drummer Peyton Crossley, and percussionist Rolando Morales-Matos.

“In a lot of big band arrangements, the bass parts aren’t so critical to the survival of the piece,” Carter said. “At one rehearsal, I told them, ‘All that changed when you walked in the door. I’m going to make sure the bass part sounds interesting every night. But for you to work from it, I have to have your utter focus.’ That’s my role with this 16-piece band. By Sunday, I thought I’d found enough things to hold their interest—16 points of view, 16 different concepts, 16 different events. My feature is to be playing every chorus of every song. It’s about my desire to let the soloists play something different every night, making the backgrounds feel different every night by my notes and rhythms. I’d much rather be known as the bass player who made the band sound great, but different, every night.”

[BREAK]

In a Blindfold Test several years ago, bassist Stanley Clarke commented on Carter’s duo performance of “Stardust” with pianist Roland Hanna (the title track of a well-wrought 2001 homage to Oscar Pettiford):  “Ron is an innovator and, as this solo bore out, a great storyteller. Probably 99.9% of the bass players out here play stuff from Ron. There’s Paul Chambers, and you can go back to Pettiford, Blanton and Israel Crosby, and a few people after Chambers—but a lot of it culminated in Ron, and then after Ron it’s all of us. Ron to me is the most important bass player of the last fifty years. He defined the role of the bass player.”

This remark summarizes the general consensus among Clarke’s instrumental brothers and sisters. For example, on other Blindfold Tests, John Patitucci praised the “the architecture of his lines,” “blended sound,” and “great sense of humor when he plays”; William Parker mentioned Carter’s penchant for “not playing a lot of notes” and “keeping a bass sound on his bass”; Andy Gonzalez noted his “shameless quotes of tiny pieces of melody from all kinds of obscure songs, which you have to know a lot of music to do”; and Eric Revis stated, “He’s gotten to the place where there’s Ronisms that you expect, and only he can do them.”

Per Clarke’s remark, these bassists and their cohort—indeed, several generations of musicians—have closely analyzed Carter’s ingenious walking basslines on the studio albums and live recordings he made between 1963 and 1968 with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams, who considered it their mandate to relax the rules of the 32-bar song form as far as possible while still maintaining the integrity of the tune in question. They’ve paid equivalent attention to the several dozen iconic Blue Note and CTI dates on which Carter sidemanned for the likes of Shorter, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. They’re on intimate terms with Carter’s creative, definitive playing with a host of trios—grounding Bobby Timmons’ soul unit in the early ‘60s; performing the equilateral triangle function with Williams and Hancock or Hank Jones, and with Billy Higgins and Cedar Walton; or navigating the wide-open spaces with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian—on which he incorporates a host of extended techniques into the flow with a tone that has been described as “glowing in the dark.” They’re cognizant of Carter’s ability to shape-shift between soloistic and complementary functions with such rarefied duo partners as Walton and Jim Hall, and, more recently, Richard Galliano, Rosa Passos, and Houston Person. They respect his extraordinarily focused contributions to hundreds of commercial studio dates on which, as Carter puts it, “I maintain my musical curiosity about the best notes while being able to deliver up the product for this music as they expected to hear it in the 30 seconds I have to make this part work.”

Not least, Carter’s admirers know his work as a leader, with a corpus of more than 30 recordings in a host of configurations, including a half-dozen between 1975 and 1990 by a two-bass quartet in which either Buster Williams or Leon Maleson executed the double bass function, allowing Carter to function as a front line horn with the piccolo bass, which is tuned in the cello register.

Carter first deployed this concept on his debut recording in 1961, entitled Where, with a quintet including Eric Dolphy, Mal Waldron and Charlie Persip on which he played cello next to bassist George Duvivier, A son of Detroit, he played cello exclusively from 10 to 17, exhibiting sufficient talent to be “the first black kid” in the orchestra at Interlochen Music Camp, then burnishing his skills at Cass Tech, the elite arts-oriented high school that produced so many of the Motor City’s most distinguished musicians.

“Jazz was always in the air at school, but it wasn’t my primary listening,” Carter said. “I had other responsibilities—the concert band, the marching band, the orchestra, my chores at home, and maintaining a straight-A average. We were playing huge orchestrations of Strauss and Beethoven and Brahms, and the Bach Cantatas with all these voices moving in and out.”  Midway through Carter’s senior year, it became clear to him that more employment would accrue if he learned to play the bass, a decision reinforced when he heard “Blue Haze,” a blues in F on which Miles Davis’ solo unfolds over a suave Percy Heath bassline and Art Blakey’s elemental beat on the hi-hat, ride cymbal, and bass drum. “I was fascinated to hear them making their choices sound superb with the bare essentials,” Carter said. “These three people were generating as much musical logic in six to eight choruses as a 25-minute symphony with 102 players.”

During the summer after high school, Carter became a gigging bassist in Detroit, where he states, the local players were so highly accomplished that, “if they had all come to New York, New York would have sunk.” That fall, he matriculated at Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory on scholarship, where, for the next four years, he fulfilled academic responsibilities during the day, worked as a waiter, and attended “jazz school from 9 p.m. to 4 a.m.” in local clubs, where he had the opportunity to back artists like Sonny Stitt and Slim Gaillard, and to be heard, he recalls, by “Dizzy Gillespie’s band with Sam Jones, or Carmen McRae’s band with Ike Isaacs, or Horace Silver’s band with Teddy Kotick and Art Farmer.” He also earned a position with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra (“I was again the only African-American in this group”), which, towards the end of his senior year performed in New York City for Leopold Stokowki, who, after rehearsal, told him, “I’d like to have you in my orchestra in Houston, but I’m afraid that the Board of Directors are not prepared to accept an African-American musician.”

“I thought, ‘Shit, man, when are you going to be ready?’” Carter recalls. “The jazz community who came through Rochester said, ‘Look, in New York everyone likes a good bass player.’ They had no idea about my classical background, that I’d been turned away. They thought here’s this tall kid from Detroit who has the potential to be a good bass player and he could only do that if he comes to New York.”

A few days after arriving in August 1959, Carter went to Birdland, where he encountered Chico Hamilton, who had auditioned him the previous fall in Rochester, and needed a new cellist who could play his difficult book. After a three-month tour, he settled into a Harlem apartment and enrolled at Manhattan School of Music for a masters degree. Before long, he’d earned respect from a community of bassists whose focus was less on “soloing or playing unaccompanied—although they could do it” and more on “can we make the band swing?” He admired Gene Taylor’s commitment to play Horace Silver’s written basslines, Doug Watkins’ “fabulous tonal quality,” the versatility of Milt Hinton and Joe Benjamin. He reveled in the challenge of analyzing “why Sam Jones’ sound was physically different than George Duvivier’s, or Scott LaFaro’s, or Richard Davis’.” Part of the craft was to use any bandstand performance—most consequentially during his half-decade with Miles Davis—as a laboratory in which to experiment and research alternate changes, “to think through the possibilities,” in his ongoing quest “to find the right notes” for any situation he might encounter.

“I tried to find changes—not from the original chord progression—that would fit if the bandleader or the soloist decided to put the melody over what I was playing,” Carter said. “If the changes worked, that meant there must be another sub-set that would make the melody sound the same, but feel different because of the harmonic underpinnings. When I play these notes that seem pretty far removed from the melody, they aren’t random choices. I’m still playing the melody in my head.  They don’t always work, but I’m OK with that. That’s one choice I don’t worry about tomorrow night. That’s off my list. We’ve got five more tunes; maybe we’ll work with them.”

[BREAK]

Asked to express his feelings about the Hall of Fame honorific, Carter replied with characteristic briskness. “To get this award means that there are enough readers of the magazine who have done some homework and some history, and know I’ve been playing this music for a very long time,” he said. “And, as they’ve listened, over time, they’ve found a level of consistency that appeals to them, not just in my performance, but my integrity and my sound. I’d like to thank them for deeming me worthy of a lifetime achievement, but to know that my lifetime is still here. If they have a Part Two, maybe I’ll be up for that.”

His manner was somewhat less composed as he formulated a response to Stanley Clarke’s aforementioned comments on his impact on bass lineage. “I’m embarrassed, actually,” Carter said. He bent his head, contemplating his cupped hands in silence for several seconds before resuming. “I’m from a time when one of the effects of society on African-Americans, especially African-American males, was to not acknowledge your success. Not that you couldn’t be successful, but when you were, you were kind of told not to ‘groove,’ so to speak, on that level of achievement. It’s taken me a while to get past that. African-Americans in my age group will tell you about someone telling them, ‘you can’t do this or that.’ For example, I remember my math teacher in junior high school told the class, ‘Don’t worry about studying Latin, because you’ll never need it—you’ll be digging a ditch.’ I told my mom, and she wigged out. All of us got that kind of response in these situations sixty years ago.

“So when I hear comments like Stanley’s, it floors me that I’ve had that kind of impact on an industry. I say, ‘Wow, I did that? All these guys do this because of my presence?’ It throws me a curve. There’s a list of what they call ten records that are milestones of the music, all different, and I’m on eight of them. When I hear people talk about that, I have to tiptoe out of the room, because it embarrasses me to hear that my impact has been rated as such. I had my hopes crushed at a very early age. I had peeks of what it’s like to play in a great orchestra, and to not be allowed to do that for the simple reason that I’m black … to this day I don’t understand that fuckin’ mindset, man. I don’t know what that’s got to do with playing a B-flat blues, man, or playing the Bach Chorale, or Beethoven, or playing an Oliver Nelson arrangement. But my family went to church every Sunday. We understood that there is somebody upstairs who is really in charge of the ballgame, so to speak. I’ve always thought that I was directed to do this because the Creator thought that I could be important in this industry. And I have to trust that he allows me to go out every night and try to find the best notes I can find. When he tells me, ‘Ok, you’ve had enough,’ then I’ll stop.”

That time hardly seems imminent. Carter has done stretching and free weights with a trainer three mornings a week for the last thirty years, seems not to have lost an inch from his six-and-a-half foot frame, can still palm a basketball, and looks more like a youthful 60 than 75. “Because I’ve found other ways to play the notes I’ve been finding and learned the science of how the bass works even more specifically, it’s less physically demanding to cover the bass than it was ten years ago,” he says. “One of my lessons is to assign students a blues and have them build a bassline out of the changes I give them.  I’ve been playing the blues a very long time, and these guys come up with lines that stun me—not because they’re so great, but that I hadn’t thought about those lines! Seeing this kind of awareness makes 75 feel like 15, when you’re just discovering what the world is like. It makes me feel that I’m just starting to learn the instrument.

“I try not to do stuff just because I can do it—because it doesn’t impact anybody. It doesn’t make a flower that opens. If I can make that flower open, that’s my night. I will go home and watch CNN and  have my yogurt.”

[—30—]

1 Comment

Filed under Article, Bass, DownBeat, Miles Davis, Ron Carter

For Miroslav Vitous’ 66th Birthday, Two Interviews From October 2003

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to conduct a pair of interviews with Miroslav Vitous — one on WKCR and one over the telephone — that wound up being distilled for a DownBeat “Backstage” piece. He had just released the ECM CD Universal Syncopations.  I’m posting both (the WKCR interview first) in recognition of the bass maestro’s 66th birthday.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (WKCR, 10-16-03):

TP:    That was “Tramp Blues,” an original composition by Miroslav Vitous, who has a new recording on ECM called Universal Syncopations. Miroslav Vitous is in town, and he’s appearing at Joe’s Pub on Monday for a 7:30 p.m. concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of sound files, samples of his own creation… A sort of concerto for bass and virtual symphonic orchestra. One of the legendary figures who emerged in the ’60s, and hasn’t been in the States much in recent years.

On this album, you gather four of the iconic tonal personalities who came of age during the ’60s, all of whom achieved great eminence in the music in their various niches, and all of whom, with the exception of Jack DeJohnette, who is also a leader, are used to playing their own music, addressing their own concepts in musical activity.  It’s not very often that you hear Chick Corea or John McLaughlin or Jan Garbarek as sideman.  Talk about conceptualizing the album from the gestation and how you put it together.

VITOUS:  It’s a long conversation, so I’ll try to pick a few points here and there. In a way, this album is a continuation of Infinite Search, the first album which was released in 1969, which was also with Jack DeJohnette and John McLaughlin, Joe Henderson and Herbie Hancock, most importantly in the way that all the instruments are equal.  If you know the album, Infinite Search, basically you will remember that the bass was playing not exactly in traditional way.  I was exchanging motives and having conversations with the horn player or with the piano player or with the guitar player, almost to the point that… Well, basically that’s the direction I’ve chosen with my bass playing anyway.

On this new album, much of it is in the same way, but it’s much further down the road, so to speak.  Basically, the bass is completely free at this point.  It doesn’t have to play any more roles.  I am strongly against roles in the music, in the pure sense of music, because you always have a bass player and drummer going BUM-BUM-BUM, SPANG-A-LANG, SPANG-A-LANG, keeping the time, the piano player plays the harmony, and the saxophone player will solo on top of that.  So basically, it’s an arrangement which doesn’t leave very much room for communication between the musicians.  After playing a long time like this, I finally got fed up with it and said, “This is getting really boring, because I am just playing some things, and there are guys over here playing that, and we’re not even communicating.”  So I started playing mainly by the example of Scott LaFaro with Bill Evans.  They started this basically in an overwhelming manner in the ’60s.  I started playing like this a lot in the ’60s, and basically in the compositions.

TP:    But to say that doesn’t imply any loss of grooves.  You’re creating very strong grooves here, as does Jack DeJohnette.  So when you say that you don’t believe in roles, it’s very obvious that the bass is playing both a melodic and supportive function at the same time.  It seems more of a simultaneous thing rather than a rejection.

VITOUS:  I can tell you something about this.  It’s not the same throughout the album.  There are three or four songs where this is very strong applied, like “Miro Bop” and “Sunflower,” and there are pieces that I am basically holding the thing together and setting the direction, so I have to be playing in that kind of way.  But for the most part, I am continuing with the idea of pure conversation between the musicians.  Nobody has to play time, nobody has to play the bass, nobody has to play the harmony.  Everybody is just free to communicate on a high level or whatever level we can communicate on.

TP:    This music obviously wouldn’t have been played in a performance situation beforehand because of everyone’s scheduled.  Is that sort of consideration important in creating an album, or is it overrated?  For example, people wish they could have workshopped this music or developed or fine-tuned it for a week before going in.

VITOUS:  It would be important in some ways.  But on this particular album it was a little bit different, because I was after refining this concept of playing this way, as I was describing before.  If the whole band gets together in place for one week or something, then we would face a lot of danger of falling into the old trap.

TP:    Why is that a danger?

VITOUS:  Because that would be a danger if you want to create something new.  You would not be able to do it, because the band falls in the old tracks.  That’s very likely to happen.  So I wanted to do something which… It would be very difficult to do this, like, on the spot.  So it was done a little bit differently, so that we don’t fall back into old traps, so the new direction can be set in a way.  It would be too difficult to explain-explain-explain, to rehearse-rehearse-rehearse, dealing with all the egos involved of all the musicians, and given all the ways they are used to be playing under certain conditions, all of that…it would be nearly impossible to achieve the new directions.

TP:    You’ve known all of these musicians for close to forty years.

VITOUS:  ’67 I met Chick.  ’68 I met Jack.

TP:    What did you notice about their own evolution during those years?

VITOUS:  Well, we are going ahead to some very serious issues with this.  Because up to a certain point, I felt that we could basically remain free and remain 100% free to play what we wanted to play artistically.  Until the period, in my opinion, anyway… And I felt this on my own skin as well, so I can  basically vouch that what I am going to say is definitely what everybody had to face.  When the disco came in and when the element of trad(?) jazz was introduced, the business questions of music got very big.  Unfortunately, from that time, every musician was influenced in a big way to change their music so it could be saleable, whatever would help them make progress in their career.  We were all influenced by this.  I basically had it so much up to here that I left the country.

TP:    You did a number of albums of that kind of after leaving Weather Report, no?

VITOUS:  I did albums only for ECM with my group.  Basically, I have never given into this direction, until the pressure got so large that I said, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t want to teach for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to play this kind of music which I am being requested by the recording companies so they can sell some albums; I am either going to play 100% art, what is coming from my heart, or I am not going to play  at all.”  So this was one of the major decisions which I made, and I had to basically leave the country, because of that.  This is true.

TP:    But you did get into academe.  You taught at New England Conservatory?

VITOUS:  Yes, I was chairman of the Jazz Department there for three years.  Basically, it was a very big issue for me to go to Europe, where basically I was left to play whatever I wanted to play.

TP:    So you’ve had the artistic freedom in Europe.

VITOUS:  Absolutely.  Well, now I have the artistic freedom, period.  Because I have done some other things asides from music to find a good way to make money without selling out or doing something cheap for money.  I am never for that.  So my financial situation is not dependent on my playing. This is the greatest thing that can ever happen for a musician who wants to play 100% art.

However, coming back into this, I still find the business to be basically this way.  So even though I have 100% artistic freedom, I still have to deal with the whole setup of the music business which is not oriented in this way.

TP:    Do you think that art in the real world can ever exist outside of a marketplace?  There needs to be an audience, there needs to be a way of getting people to hear it, there needs to be a context within which you’re performing.  If you’re a professional musician, it seems almost ipso facto you’re accepting the idea of a marketplace.

VITOUS:  You can take that to the logical extreme, where the only thing that counts is how many albums you’re going to sell and how…

TP:    But beyond that.  I’m not talking about selling 100,000 copies of a jazz album.  But you’re in town, and probably Joe’s Pub will be filled with people who want to hear it.  I’m not referring to the materialist excess aspect of the marketplace as much as operating within an established framework…

VITOUS:  The publicity and all this stuff still can exist without having to be part of a one million dollar organization.  It is a tough issue, but I definitely believe that the culture has been hurt greatly on the planet by money interfering with the art.  And we need the culture, we need the pure thing for us to go ahead through life and have the right values.  We cannot live on a plastic spoon.

TP:    It’s interesting, because you were raised in post-war Czechoslovakia under a Stalinist regime, though I don’t know how much it impinged on you.  And among your contemporaries were Jan Hammer, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky… Describe the climate in Prague when you were coming up.

VITOUS:  Basically, I consider myself very lucky.  Before I basically grew up completely, I was gone out of there.  I was a professional swimmer, in terms of being an Olympic contender style of sportsman.  I was going to the Concertgebouw, playing jazz concerts.  Nobody could leave Czechoslovakia.  I was playing on the jazz festivals in the West, playing with a trio.  I was going abroad with the swimming team to swim for the country.  So for me, I didn’t feel any pressure of Communism; only through my parents and people around.  Then I started to see limitations: Oh, somebody doesn’t want you to go to the conservatory, so they will try to do everything they can so you can go the conservatory.  There was a lot of that going.  And before the Communism really got to my bones, so to speak, I was out of there.  So I was very lucky.  However, the great thing about being there at the time is that I received some of the most valuable education you can ever receive from the giants of music at the conservatory in Prague.

TP:    What was the pedagogy?

VITOUS:  Well, it was something that you’re never going to see in the United States, or probably not even in Europe.  You can see it in Europe in some parts.  Total devotion to the music.  Total dedication and absolute love for it, like you have never seen.  Respect absolute.  Together with this, because the country was under the Communist influence and they could not speak freely, basically they were passing on the values of the country and their national pride through their teaching of the music, in this serious, deep way.  So talking about regular education, there’s absolutely nothing compared to what I have gone through there — what they gave us.  It was a double thing.

TP:    At the time, did jazz seem like something very separate from classical music for you?  Were they two different personalities, or all part of the same continuum?

VITOUS:  For me, I didn’t notice.  I played the violin at 6, piano at 9, bass at 14, and as soon as I picked up the bass I played both — classical and jazz.  Another great thing about being there is that at the time there was Radio Free Europe, Willis Conover, who was playing all the albums in the ’60s.  Every album released, the historical albums, and everything.  My brother and I used to tape them, and listen and study it.  When I came to the United States, I used to ask the other musicians: “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.” “Do you know this album?” “No.”  So I found out that I knew much more about the jazz music and what was being released and who played what by being there, rather than here.  So it was another valuable education point.

TP:    So when you came here, you had the technical training and you had jazz in your head, so you were equipped… What was the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you came to the States?

VITOUS:  I have to say rhythm.  I’ve studied this throughout the years.  It took me many years to get together a rhythm so that I would… Most bass players can tell you when they play with a drummer, they are basically dependent on the drummer.  When the drummer stops playing, they are like, “Oh, I’m swimming; where am I?” That kind of thing.  It took many years to get to the point that when the drummer stops playing, it doesn’t matter any more, because your own rhythm is so strong.  That took a long while to develop.  I think it has something to do with the freedom of thinking and the flexibility of being free or something.  Because in Europe, being restricted and all that, a lot of people think in a box — still very much old ways.  It’s in the air, and you have to deal with that. It is actually rhythmically easier to play on this continent than it is in Europe.  I have noticed that.

TP:    Rhythmically easier on this continent.

VITOUS:  Rhythmically, yes.

TP:    Still.

VITOUS:  I am going to tell you Monday night.  I haven’t played here in a long time.

[MUSIC]

TP:    Mr. Vitous is performing a concert for solo bass and a virtual classical orchestra comprised of orchestral samples he’s created over the years.  Which I do want to ask you about. Googling you last night on the Internet, I came up with a review:

“I’d heard plenty of music produced from the samples, but had never actually heard them raw.  So when Miroslav sent me a small collection of the larger set to evaluate, the ensemble, strings and brass-woodwind ensembles were intermingled on my evaluation desk, I loaded them up in my giga-sampler rig and opened up a pre-set performance — bassoon-oboe-flute.  Nothing could have prepared me for the sound I heard as I began to play.  It felt for all the world as if my fingers were being led from one key to the next as I played.  The sounds were vibrant and airy, living and reedy — one word that comes to my mind immediately is “thick.”  It reminded me of the first time I ever heard a really great flute player live.  Suddenly the flute wasn’t the thin, airy instrument I’d heard all my life.  It was a huge, forceful sound, vibrant…”

Do you have a whole body of scored music for this context?  Do you take different samples and improvise against them?  What’s the structure for these concerts?

VITOUS:  Basically I compose some motives and phrases which belong to the song which I am playing, and then I have them recorded and mixed with the library, and then I place them on a keyboard.  So that particular file, I can push the key and it will start playing whatever it is — 2 bars or 4 bars or 8 bars or 16 bars — whenever I need.  Which is great, because that means there is still all the room in the world for the creativity.  Because I will only play when I need it, when I want it.  So that means I am free to do anything I want to do.  I used to play before this with finished sequences, but basically I was tied to the sequence.  I couldn’t do very much.  When I felt like I wanted to do something else, I couldn’t do it, because the sequence was basically unchangeable.

TP:    Are the instruments virtual instruments or real musicians?

VITOUS:  They are real musicians.

TP:    They are playing the sequences, and then you enter them…

VITOUS:  No, they are not playing the sequences.  They are playing the notes.  The library is put together from notes of each instrument, each section, each of whatever the whole orchestra is…what have you.  It was gigantic work.  It took me seven years to do this.  And I did it with the sound… I needed as much of a realistic sound as possible.  And knowing classical orchestras, I used my ears to get that.  But the main point was, I asked the musicians not to play just the notes.  I said, “Give me some music,” when we were recording.  Like, to the strings, “Play like Wagner, play like Beethoven, play like Dvorak — give me some feeling into these notes.”  Because before this, everybody was just playing dead notes. So when you get a whole bunch of notes on the keyboard, then you play a chord, you have a dead chord.  So that was the basic difference between my library and all the libraries recorded up until today.

TP:    So you have a chord sequence from Wagner, from Dvorak…

VITOUS:  No-no.  Just the feeling.  They know how it feels to play Wagner or Dvorak.

TP:    But in other words, do you have all of those difference feelings?  Do you have the same note or chord sequence with each of those different feelings?

VITOUS:  No.  It would get so complex… I made this in 1992-93.  I think at that point, there was only 8 megabytes memory for the sampler.  It would be so gigantic for that time, I don’t think it would be even possible to comprehend.

TP:    When did you finish collating all the sounds?

VITOUS:  It was completed in 1991.

TP:    This was for you to practice with?

VITOUS:  No, it was to compose with.  Then when I got into it so deeply, I found out, “Wait a moment, half-a-million dollars has disappeared; I’ve got to do something.”  So I decided to complete it and release it for the public also.  But it was made for music.  It was not made for business.

TP:    What was the response when it got into the world?

VITOUS:  It was the same response I would have said, and that was, “Thank God we have finally something which is elastic.” Because we have the technology, we have the programs, we can freeze our compositions, but we had only [NASAL VOICE] sounds up to that point.

TP:    When did you start performing with them publicly?

VITOUS:  I started performing already in the ’90s with this.

TP:     How has it changed with the technology?  Is it a more fluid process now?

VITOUS:  No, it’s basically set.  The sound is there, the attack is there, the flexibility is there, the instrument plays very fast or slow or whatever.  So the technology does not affect the central orchestra.

TP:    Are you improvising against it?

VITOUS:  I am free to play anything I want.  It’s different, always different.  It’s basically the same composition and the same motives, but they are in different places.  I stretch them out, I go somewhere else sometimes.  I am free to be as creative as possible with this.

TP:    Did you approach the structures of your virtual compositions differently than creating music for Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea and John McLaughlin to play on over you and Jack DeJohnette?

VITOUS:  Well, it is different.  I am by myself, so I am basically free to do whatever I want.  In fact, at the solo performance, I am going to play at least one from the new record with some classical files answering the bass lines.  So it’s done in a different way.

TP:    You were saying that the biggest thing you had to adapt to when you emigrated here in the ’60s was rhythm.  But fairly soon after arriving here, you were playing in a trio with Chick Corea and Roy Haynes, who was and still is one of the most creative, imaginative, free drummers there is. Great training.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    That trio made a record, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, that instantly became part of the building blocks of jazz piano vocabulary.  Pianists still pay attention to it.  Almost anyone under 45 I’ve talked to, cites it.

VITOUS:  It’s one of the most influential trio music albums.  I can tell you what happened when I came to the studio.  It was the first time ever I played with Roy Haynes.  With Chick I’d played before; we did some jam sessions and a few things.  So we started to play, and I played like I usually play, in the way which was that aside from playing time I was playing little motives here and there.  We got to the point all of a sudden that we had to stop in the middle of the take, because we got off somehow.  Then I realized instantly at this point, okay, I’m just going to have to play the time and let Roy do the dancing around.  As soon as I did that, as soon as I realized that this is what I had to do because if we both do it it’s not going to work, then it worked perfectly. But I had to fasten my seatbelt sort of thing… [LAUGHS] It was very…not difficult, but… Yeah, it was difficult to…

TP:    To play the function, as it were.

VITOUS:  The first time you play with Roy Haynes and Chick Corea in the studio, making an album which is going to become a celebrity, in a way.

TP:    That band sporadically has continued to play.  The most recent example on record is Rendezvous in New York, the compilation record that Chick Corea made from the end of 2001. Within that band, do you still have to play the function?  Is it difficult for you to do that now if it has to be done, given all the life you’ve lived and how hard you’ve worked to sustain artistic freedom?  Is that somehow incompatible with playing the bass function in a band like that?  Or have you all grown?

VITOUS:  It’s a question of… We have all grown, of course.  There’s no question about that.  And also, it became less difficult.  We did quite a bit of touring ten years later with Chick and Roy, and so we got very comfortable play. Trio Live in Europe is a wonderful album.  Of course, I am a bass player in a trio, so I have to play differently than I would play either with my own group or solo.

TP:    Jan Garbarek and you have done a number of recordings over the years… What I’m getting to is the process of sustaining relationships and the ways that musical personalities continue to interact and grow together.  Did you play much with Garbarek in the interim from Star to Universal Syncopations?

VITOUS:  Atmos was between them, a duo album of me and Jan.

TP:    But is it very easy to pick up the thread, as it were?

VITOUS:  Jan and I have a fantastic rapport together.  The intuition is such a great element with us, that I know what he is going to play and he knows what I am going to play before we play it.  So basically, we become the instrument of the heavens, just play what we hear and the communication.  So it is not difficult at all to pick up the thread.

TP:    You said that in Europe you have a solo, a duo, a trio, a quartet. Which musicians do you play with there?

VITOUS:  I am trying out different musicians in Italy now, and some American drummers, until I decide who is going to be the steady member of the group.  Because after this, I believe a lot of opportunities are coming, and I want to make sure the band is the best it can possibly be.

TP:    So it’s still a work in progress.

VITOUS:  Yes, a work in progress.  And I like it very much.  Because I am beginning to realize that actually having different members in the band is very beneficial, because it changes the music and… I knew this from before already, that when you are with one band for a long time, you can very easily reach a stagnating point.  It’s very good to refresh, to keep changing things.

TP:    Would you describe yourself as a very interactive bass player?  Are you someone who really takes in the information and responds?  Are you influenced by what other people are playing?

VITOUS:  Absolutely, yes.  Communicating always.  Without communication, there is no music.  Everybody just plays some notes.  That’s what I believe.

[MUSIC]

TP:    About 30 seconds ago, Miroslav said, “Hear that?  Double time, 6/4, half-time.”  And it all comes together with logic and clarity.  Almost any…not just the compositions, but the ideas that are postulated could be extrapolated on in a very dense way, particularly by musicians of this caliber.  But the record is lucid.  The ideas are very clear.  It seems you deliberately went for simplicity and clarity within this.

VITOUS:  Basically, the compositions come from classical music.  When you write a motif or something beautiful, you don’t want to spoil it by covering it with something else and putting it inside of something else.  Let it shine and be absolutely brilliant.  It has space.  We don’t have to cover it up.  That was the idea for every motif, for whatever is being said or played.  Because the motives are absolutely gorgeous.  So let them shine to their complete, true potential, also with overtones ringing out.  When you play a motif, it takes a little while before the motif actually dies out.  And you don’t want to interfere with that either.  You want to let it ring out before you come in with something new after that, because otherwise you are basically destroying the work you just did.

TP:    What qualities do you think the five of you — Jan Garbarek, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, yourself, Jack DeJohnette — in the most general sense share in common?  You’re all musicians who emerged in the ’60s in a very efflorescent period of the music.

VITOUS:  I don’t know, and I haven’t really thought about it.  One thing we have in common, all of us, that is definitely very strong is creativity.

TP:    But there was a particular environment in which your creativity was allowed to evolve in a certain direction, which let’s say had you all encountered each other ten years before, in the ’50s, or ten years later, in the ’70s, would have gone on a different path. But you met when you met, and it went in the direction and directions that it did.

VITOUS:  Well, I have to thank very much everybody involved here, because I have such a beautiful relationship with each one of those musicians, and there’s a lot of respect going back and forth, and they respected what I wanted to do.  If I gave them some motives and some music, they completely respected it and they tried to execute it in the atmosphere and in the essence which I wanted to have.  I was assisting everybody personally.  So we were able to stay within this brilliant atmosphere with nothing getting confused, nothing getting overplayed, and nothing covering something else.  I think that’s the main thing, the love for the music by each of these musicians made it possible to do this.

TP:    What are you passions outside of playing the bass and composing?  You were an Olympic caliber swimmer in your youth?  Are sports something you still do?

VITOUS:  I keep swimming.  Not training heavily, but I keep working out two-three times a week just to keep my energies going.  It’s very important.  I do a lot of meditation.  I work with gemstones, I work with meditation, I work with Tao.  But one thing I have discovered, too, is that I don’t like to be part of any organization, of religion or anything like this, because I always found out that whenever I was part of that, that someone was there trying to play some kind of a power game or run your life or whatever. So after a while, I discovered, “Well, wait a moment; I don’t have to go down the street and then to the corner and then over there to get in touch with God — he’s right up there.” So I don’t need any more detours.

TP:    Does that predisposition to individualism carry over to your musical activity as well?

VITOUS:  I would think the clarity and brilliance has definitely helped me.

TP:    I mean the individualism. Not wanting to be part of an organized group, as it were.  Does that carry over to your musical…

VITOUS:  Not in that way.  It’s just that I like to be left alone to live my own destiny and my own life.  I don’t need nobody to tell me what to do.  I already know what to do.  Or, it is going to come to me, what I am going to do, anyway.  So everything else basically doesn’t make any sense.  It is just a detour.

TP:    How do you describe your solo bass performances?

VITOUS:  I think probably a good way to describe it is acoustic bass solo with virtual classical orchestra.
TP:    How did the concert go in Philadelphia?

VITOUS:  Great.

TP:    Good crowd?

VITOUS:  Yeah.  Almost full anyway.

TP:    That’s not bad.

VITOUS:  Yeah, that’s not bad.  And we had some equipment problems because we didn’t have the right things, but we managed anyway.  At Joe’s Pub it should be more up to date. Over there in Philadelphia, they are just beginning to do some concerts. But it was great. People thought it was absolutely fantastic.

* * *

Miroslav Vitous (Oct. 2003—telephone interview):

TP:    I want to talk about Universal Syncopations and how you developed it. Tell me how the project came to be.  It seems like it was a long gestation period.

VITOUS:  Yes.  Well, I wanted to do an album, so to speak, exactly what I wanted to do.  I didn’t want no one else involved, from the very beginning.  Because I have had experiences before, on many different locations with many different people, where the influence was somewhat… I just wanted to be alone, to do my best without anyone else interfering.  So I called Jack, and invited him to come to my studio in my house in St. Martin, and we recorded quite extensively for four days. So that’s how it began.

TP:    You recorded for four days.  Did you have the pieces conceptualized then?

VITOUS:  Yes.  I had the pieces… I don’t like to write any more charts, like an exact amount of bars.  I hate that.  It keeps you completely locked up and in a box.  So I make maps for myself.  You come up with a motif or some kind of series of changes or some rhythmical arc or a melody, and you write that down.  But you don’t write down an exact number of bars, you don’t write down how long it should last — you just let the music take its course. So it’s going from statement to statement.  We did that, and Jack was following what I was doing beautifully.  That was the first part.

I was either going to make the album with a symphony orchestra and this duo or I was going to make Miroslav and Friends.  I talked to Manfred Eicher about that, and he seemed to like the idea better about the Miroslav and Friends. I actually liked that better, too.  I continued recording, I asked Manfred if he would like to involve himself at this point by paying for the sessions and the musicians, and he said that he is not sure of the outcome, so that he cannot do that.  In any event, that was not a problem for me, because I had made plenty of money at the time, so I just went ahead and financed the whole recording until I was done.  I wrote parts for Chick Corea, then I recorded at his studio in Florida.  Next on the list was the brass sections; I wrote that out and recorded it in Switzerland.  Then I wrote parts for John McLaughlin, and we recorded it in my house in Monaco.  Then last was Jan Garbarek; we recorded it in Oslo.  Then I played it for Manfred and he loved it, so basically he made a decision right there that he is going to buy it.  Then I went on and kept everything for about 14 months to put everything together exactly the way I wanted it and what it was supposed to sound like.  So that’s the story how it exactly happened.  It took from March 2000 until I finished the mixing and mastering in January-February of 2003.

TP:    How did you approach Chick Corea and Jan Garbarek and John McLaughlin in interpreting the parts?  Did you direct their improvised sections, for instance?

VITOUS:  Well, basically I told them about the essence.  I wrote statements and motives for them which were to be played, because the bass was introducing them already.  You can hear it on “Univoyage,” for example, when it comes to a particular part where the statement is written and you can hear everyone basically playing the same statement, more or less.  So basically this, and in between the statements they were improvising, and I asked them to improvise within the content of the tune, so that the atmosphere and essence of the tune stays the same. What I mean by that is you don’t play everything on one tune in the sense of mixing together, like, pork with beef.  You either play pork or you play beef, but you don’t play all that.  That’s why the tunes are so specifically in its essence and atmosphere, each one of them, because they stay within the atmosphere of each tune.  So that was great. They all did it beautifully.

TP:    The bass and drum tracks you recorded initially, did you modify them at all from the original versions?

VITOUS:  No.  In fact, I even tried to open up some things on the bass, and it was like I was in another world.  It would never fit because it was a specific thing at a specific time. Boom, that’s it.  Nothing was taken down, nothing was erased, nothing was edited.  A few beats on the cymbals and stuff like that I moved around a little bit to make sure they were in a better place — sometimes — but that was it.

TP:    Did you change anything in the playing of Chick or Jan Garbarek or McLaughlin, or did their statements stand as well?  And how long did it take for each of them to get the feeling and do what satisfied you?

VITOUS:  It’s not easy remember this.  But I know that I edited some of Chick Corea.  I edited a lot of the guitar tracks.  There were so many guitar tracks, and I had to make very careful choices, because John usually doesn’t play in a collective situation.  So I had to be very careful to make sure it was coming within the context of the group.  So that took quite a long time, to find the correct charts and statements from Mr. McLaughlin.  I hardly touched Garbarek at all. I think I shifted a few statements from one take to the other, just because of the spacing, but basically I didn’t have to do anything.  But Jan was the last one to do the recording, so he heard everything which was on the plate.  He had the best full picture of all the musicians who were recording, because he heard the complete thing basically — almost.

TP:    Was that deliberate, or was it just a scheduling thing?

VITOUS:  It was just a scheduling thing.

TP:    I think we addressed this before, but I’ll ask again in this context.  Can you describe the quality of playing in real time with musicians versus setting up something like this?

VITOUS:  It would be very different.  In fact, I don’t think we could have accomplished this in this way.  There’s all of these great musicians in one room, and there are new tunes, and we would have fallen back into the old traps, playing the way we used to play — in the rhythm section context, also the way the piano would be playing, and all that. Plus there would be probably some clashes from time to time, because there’s a lot of us in the room and there’s a lot of egos and a lot of stuff.  So I don’t think we could have created this new music on “Miro Bop” and “Sun Flower” and “Univoyage,” which are the three on which the concept is groundbreaking — to me anyway.  I don’t think we could play like this in the studio, because even I could have explained that, no one had ever played like that, so we would be kind of fishing.  It would not be as certain and definite as it is this way, on the album. I think that’s a big plus. The way it came, it was not possible to do it any other way.  But if I did it any other way, we would never have ended up with this.  We would have ended up with something else. I think we might have touched on a new concept, but it would not be as clear as it is.

TP:    On Friday I played “Miro Bop” for John Patitucci on a Blindfold Test.  He figured out who everybody was, but it sounded to him like an old recording, from the ’70s or early ’80s.  I’m wondering if there’s anything you tried to do in the overall sound or mix.

VITOUS:  No, it was just done exactly the best quality it could possibly have been recorded.  I’m surprised about this, because he should have at least recognized that this could not be a ’70s or ’80s recording, because it sounds absolutely brilliant.  The sound is today sound.  It is not the sound of analog tape. We could never have gotten a sound like this in the ’70s or even ’80s. No way. So I am surprised about that. He should have known all the way through that it was a new recording.

TP:    You’re going to be working with this music in group situations for the next period of time, while this CD is still hot off the presses.  Do you have your next project in view?

VITOUS:  Yes.  The stuff which I am doing in the solo concerts, together with the classical parts, different phrases and different statements of the classical music made with my library… I am doing this within my solo. Again, this is something completely new.  This is different from the album. It’s another kind of thing.  I tried this with the band last summer, playing with those classical phrases and statements in between our playing, and it was sensational.  It was absolutely unbelievable.  I was playing several festivals in Europe last summer.  I had Aydin Esen on the piano, Bob Malach on the saxophone, and sometimes I had an Italian drummer and sometimes a guy who’s been playing with Charles Lloyd now, a very nice drummer. So we did a couple of concerts in Europe, and it was absolutely great.  The first concert was pure magic.  We had one rehearsal, I played them the sequences, and I placed them in between exactly in the right places, so it was sometimes like coming from extremely creative jazz playing, with a lot of space into the classical sequence, and going out that way.  It was like a really perfect marriage of the two musics, not only by concept, but also with the sound.  People absolutely loved it.  I was very surprised by the response.  They freaked out, basically.  It was like shocked.  So I am going to continue with this, to bring that in more.  I would like to make another album like this, because I have still quite a bit of material left from recording.  We did some extensive recording with Jack.  So there is another half-an-album already with Jan, Jack, me, Chick and probably John also, depending on the material which I find.

TP:    So at least two good albums of material set up.  You have a lot to work with.  What qualities does a musician need to be able to work effectively with you?

VITOUS:  Well, it has to be a musician on a very high level, or as high as possible.  Of course, some beginning or mediocre musician would not be able to cut it.  It is a communication.  As they say, you can only play as good as the musicians you are playing with. I find this to be so true.  That’s why I have to be very careful about who is going to play with me, because if they are not at least on an acceptable level of mastery, then I have a big problem because I cannot pull it off.  I cannot even do it.  It has to be a great musician, let’s put it that way.

TP:    Does that mean they have to be fluent in all the idioms you’re fluent in?  Do they have to have a full knowledge of classical music and a broad vocabulary in jazz tradition?

VITOUS:  Kind of like this, with a personal extremely strong rhythm, a sense of space and of development about music so that you don’t play the changes and you’re depending upon the rhythm section as a slave.  You are open to the new music, you know about that… Basically a very advanced musician.  Yes, I think this is the better way to put it.

TP:    Do you think there are a lot of them out there?  Do you think the musician pool has changed in the forty years you’ve been a professional?

VITOUS:  I think it has.  But I cannot give you a really valid opinion because I was out of the circuit for eight years.  So now I am basically reentering, looking around, and I’ve found actually some surprisingly good musicians here and there, but there’s also a lot of musicians who just learned bebop and just play bebop and they don’t know anything else. They could be excellent with that, but they don’t know anything else.

TP:    How are musicians today different than in 1969-70, when you were embarking on your first compositional efforts and your first leader things?

VITOUS:  It’s hard to say, because I was lucky enough to meet the talented ones always.  So it’s difficult to give an overall opinion.  I was not in a position ever to see everybody and know everybody.  I was kind of just going my way.

TP:    Why were you off the scene for eight years?

VITOUS:  Because of the library.

TP:    I see.  So that took all of your time?

VITOUS:  Yes, it was a tremendous project.  You have no idea.

TP:    Well, tell me about the amount of work involved.  Was it something like 8-10 hours a day in the studio?

VITOUS:  Yes.  More like 12 or 13 hours sometimes, including weekends, for four years, non-stop.  I lost some eyesight because of staring at these goddamn monitors.  But I had to do this.  Because I learned so much.  Without doing this, I would never have been able to put together this album that I just put together, because of the sound and… Many different things.

TP:    So it made you more attuned to the cellular structures of music.

VITOUS:  Really it’s sound.  I have learned where the sound is created, so to speak, inside — almost that close.  And the sound of each instrument, the timbre where they sound the best, and spacing, the overtones, all that.  And from then on, it basically grew inside of me to another kind of education, which I cannot even tell you because I don’t know what it is. It’s like I just hear it.

TP:    All the implications are coming out and being actualized.

VITOUS:  Right.

TP:    Where were you located when you were doing this?

VITOUS:  I did this basically in Germany.  I started doing this in Germany, when I was living in a house in Germany, finished it up in Switzerland, and still worked some more in the Caribbean.  The most time-consuming part is that there are six different formats.  You’ve got Kurzweil, you’ve got Sample Cell, you’ve got Emulator, you’ve got Gigasampler, you’ve got Akai, you’ve got Roland — all these different samplers.  And I had to make a library for each one of them.  They are not compatible at all.  So I had to basically take it from scratch and build every instrument, note-by-note again, six times over.

TP:    Is it still on the market?

VITOUS:  Yes, it is.

TP:    And has it made you a profit?

VITOUS:  Yes, it has.  In fact, a very comfortable profit.

A couple of people in Europe thought it sounded like a Miles Davis band in the middle ’60s. I have something to say about that.  The music of the ’60s, of the Miles Davis band, produced some absolutely most incredible musical things. Now, just because time went on, and we’ve gone through ’75, ’85, ’95, and today, that doesn’t mean the music is getting better.  On the contrary, that was the height.  So why not play the height?  Why do you go on and go down?

TP:    So do you think that period, ’68 to ’71, was the highest period?

VITOUS:  Absolutely.

TP:    What are your speculations on why the music hasn’t evolved from there?

VITOUS:  In the ’60s, it was an absolutely incredibly creative time.  And it hung over a little bit to the beginning of the ’70s.  After that, Disco came in and killed everything.  That’s the biggest reason, I think, was the business and the disco.  All the musicians had to stop what they were doing and do something to survive.  So it was interrupted by business, yes, completely.  And I don’t think the time was right anyway.  Because if the time was right, it would have happened anyway, as you know.  So by the middle ’70s, it was finito.

TP:    So you think jazz was ahead of its time then.  Do you think now might be the time?

VITOUS:  I don’t know. I think this album is returning back to the inspiration.  Let’s put it this way.  And the paradoxical thing about it is that people think it’s old, but they don’t understand that old was better than what is today. If you’re going to go to the top, you might as well keep playing the top.  Just because time goes on, you have to change to something that is worse?  I don’t see that.  So that gets me wondering what do these people know?  Is it possible that they don’t know that was the best, and from that point it went down to worse?  They don’t know that?  Well, excuse me. It’s peculiar.

TP:    But as someone who was involved in jazz education in a serious way, you know something about the information that younger musicians are getting.  What do they need that they’re not getting?

VITOUS:  Well, I can tell you the difference between Europe and America, a little bit.  In Europe almost all of them have more knowledge of Classical music than Americans.  I have tried to play with some even great American musicians.  I can’t tell you who it was, because I don’t remember and I don’t want to talk about individual names.  But I can tell you that they would execute some incredible things in one area of music, jazz music or improvisation or other things, and the next thing they would be a complete blank.  They would have no information.  So they would be full of holes.  The complete picture of education is full of holes.  It’s not a complete musical education.  And American musicians are lacking that.  This is true.  They’re lacking that, because they basically go the jazz school and they learn jazz.  The creative force is what jazz features, and this is what is so beautiful about this music.  But the jazz itself, in the name of jazz, is basically still a roles and slave kind of thing.  Putting people in the box and playing roles.  That’s it.  I’m sorry.  Playing roles.  It’s not really music.  If you knew more about classical music and more about that, you would be much more open to stand on your own and start communicate and talk. The total education will eventually have to be that everybody knows classical and jazz both; you use the creative force to improve the classical music, and use the classical music to improve the forms and wideness of the spectrum by knowing that.  I think this is what it has to come to.  In other word, you’re going to have to be not just a jazz musician, but a complete musician.  That’s a thing of the future.  It’s got to be.

TP:    Does that also include being fluent in the styles of the different cultures of the world — Africa, India, and so on.

VITOUS:  Of course they do.  But I think this would be small influences on jazz music — textural influences and stuff like that.  I’m speaking on a little bit bigger picture.

[ETC.]

VITOUS:  I am not influenced.  If you are after something original, you don’t want to hear everybody, because you are going to get influenced whether we like it or not.

[-30-]

Leave a comment

Filed under Bass, DownBeat, Miroslav Vitous, Uncategorized, WKCR

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.

2 Comments

Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

A Pair of Interviews with Bassist Fred Hopkins (R.I.P.) on his 64th Birth Anniversary

Few bassists ever played with the energy, drive, and virtuosic derring-do projected by Fred Hopkins (b: October 10, 1947; d: January 7, 1999), who made his mark playing Henry Threadgill’s compositions in the collective trio Air and in Threadgill’s Sextet, as well as various ensembles led by David Murray, Don Pullen, and a host of other creative music luminaries of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Born in Chicago and seasoned in the AACM, Hopkins moved to New York in 1975. Posted below are two interviews that I had a chance to conduct with him on WKCR, one from 1985, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary celebration of the AACM, and the other from a six-hour profile of his music in the summer of 1987. The latter interview has been on the web for many years on the http://www.jazzhouse.org site.

Fred Hopkins (December 3, 1985):

Fred, did you ever play with the AACM Big Band after graduating from high school and during your further studies in music in 1967 and 1968?

Well, I started playing with the Experimental Band, which was comprised of AACM members and also non-AACM members at this time.  But this was later.  This would be like the early Seventies when I first played with them.  Of course, prior to that, like the founding members… We’re talking about Muhal, Steve McCall, Phil Cohran and Jodie Christian as the founding members.  The AACM band was different from the Experimental Band, because it was all AACM members.  Which was very interesting.  At first I didn’t understand what the difference was.  And the only difference was that it was actually the members.  And it’s just like being a Democrat or a Republican; you could still participate in people’s projects, but unless you’re a member, then you’re not considered that.

The thing that happened to me was, as I stated earlier, I had been listening to the cats, and… I don’t know how people’s names come up and all these things that happen to bring people together.  For some reason — and a fortunate reason for me — I remember my first rehearsal with Muhal. This was with the Experimental Band, not the AACM band.  In fact, we were rehearsing down at Muhal’s at his space on the South Side of Chicago… And I had such a great time.  It’s one of those things.  You know, it’s very difficult to express sometimes verbally things that happened, aesthetic things like that. It was all about performing music, and performing music with others, which really didn’t leave too much room for the normal (abnormal, really) ego situations that a lot of the music has today, whereas you have the leader or the best musicians in the band and all these things, which really are irrelevant, and have nothing to do with the music.  And I have always considered myself as being a team player.  I don’t really like to solo….. Well, I do.  I do like to solo!  But it’s not necessary.  I’d rather have a good performance.

So this organization, the AACM, afforded me the opportunity to really dig into a lot of music.  And one of the things also that happens is that a lot of people think, when they consider Creative Music… Because I won’t call it Experimental, because you know, how long does it take to experiment on things?  We’ve been playing this music all these years.  Come on, it’s no more experimentation; we know what we’re doing.  To be creative with the music requires, you know, all the form styles, old and new… I mean, you have to have all these things under your grasp, because all the different composers in this organization might write anything suggestive of a particular era of music, or a song, or something totally modern, and you had to be able to fit into this and also be creative with that from composition to composition.

And many different people were composing for the big band, four-five-six people whose work you were playing, or was it just Muhal’s work?

From my recollections, it was mostly Muhal’s music.  Because the way it started, the AACM band, when it finally started to become an actual reality, was based off of Muhal’s energies and insight to go in this direction.  So at the time, he was writing most of the music, because of the guys at that time weren’t that adept at doing that.  But the band, or the Association’s idea has always been centered around people developing themselves, so as time progressed, there were more composers contributing music for the bands.  And of course, for the small groups it goes without saying.

So you as a young musician were fortunate enough to be in highly structured situations that yet allowed you a certain amount of freedom — with Walter Dyett at DuSable High School and with the two big bands.

Oh, yes.  Which were vast differences, but very close at the same time.  Because my experience with Walter Dyett was very demanding and very exacting.  I mean, I was supposed to play certain things, and I did — I mean, mostly I did.  And the same with the Creative Music; the same thing — very exacting things.  To be called upon to play a Blues, you had to play a Blues.  It might written… The horn line might be very different from the standard or popular Blues songs at the time, but the feeling had to be there.  And that’s what I was required to do.  It’s very tricky.  You’re looking at some music, and you’re reading the music, but you know it’s suggesting that you play this, so… This is where the interpretation part comes in that I had to get involved with.

Also there were many splinter groups out of the Big Band for small units.  Many formed in the Sixties.  Joseph Jarman formed a group, Roscoe Mitchell formed a group, Kalaparusha formed a group.  You first recorded on a Kalaparusha date called Forces and Feelings.  Can you tell us some of the other small groups that you were playing with in the early 1970s?

First of all, rather than considering these to be splinter groups, as you said… It’s not so much the terminology that the idea was that people were supposed to perform their music.  So that always the original idea.  It’s always been that way.  And as people developed, then they wrote more material that was being performed.  And quite naturally, the whole thing was for each individual to develop themselves musically.

And I came in with Kalaparusha, which I’ll tell you, was the most different thing I ever did musically.  Coming from where I was coming from… I mean, I was stone Art Blakey at the time.  I mean, I was really into grooving.  And I met Kalaparusha (I don’t know who introduced me to him), and he said, “Hey, man, you play?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “Come on down to this rehearsal.”  So I came down to this rehearsal with Sarnie Garrett on guitar, Wesley Tyus on percussion, and Kalaparusha and myself.  And it just happened.

In fact, all the groups I perform with now, it’s the same thing.  I afford myself the luxury of playing with… Since I couldn’t make my first million dollars when I was thirty, the next thing I wanted was to play with the best musicians and composers.  So that I’ve been working very diligently to try to bring that about.  And I’ve been fortunate to be with these cats.  But all these bands that I work with have had this spark, this special thing, this undefinable thing that always get stuck with trying to express this part.

But Kalaparusha for me was a very enlightening experience.  It was like letting the lion out the cage.  Because until then, I had really thought about a very structured type way of playing the bass, and he said, “No.  Play what you hear that should go with this song.”

It’s my impression that you were studying the Classical bass at this time, after high school.

Yes.  Well, because Walter Dyett’s standards were so high, we were all required to go as far as we could go with our instruments.  And of course, playing concert band music, sometimes we would play some of the orchestral pieces.  So what happened was that… And I was scared to death.  He told me to go down and audition for this orchestra, which was the Civic Orchestra, the training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago.  He said, “Look, man, go down and audition.”  And I’ll tell you, I was scared.   I said, “Oh, man, I don’t know if I’m good enough” and all these things… One of the AACM members, in fact Charles Clark, had just recently died, and they had a special scholarship that the Chicago Symphony set up in his honor.  Brian Smith was in the orchestra at the time.

And I remember going down there and I played this stuff… I was a pretty good reader.  So I got through my prepared pieces, and I did a sight-reading piece, which was okay — I got through it.  So then the teacher gave me a look, he said, “Look, why don’t you play something you want to play?”  So I said, “Okay.”  So I played this piece, “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” and he said, “Oh, okay.”  And what he was telling me (I mean, after all these years have passed and I look back at it), he could hear the potential of someone playing an instrument as opposed to being an orchestral bass player or a Jazz bass player; rather than those type of labels, he heard that.  And basically, that’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study my instrument, and also… I mean, I love all kinds of music.  So to play orchestral music, Beethoven and Strauss and Bach, that was just another icing on the cake for me.  But that was a great….that was a very incredible… So if you can imagine playing orchestral music and the AACM music at the same time…

Then you met Henry Threadgill and Steve McCall, and Air was born.

Right.  Boy, I love it.

[MUSIC: Air, “G.vE,” “RB”]

When Air hooked up, it was for the production of a play called Hotel in Chicago.

Actually, I guess the best terminology would be magic.  Because it’s something that you want to happen, of course; in all the things that we do, we want the best things to happen.  And always, as I stated earlier, I definitely wanted to play with the best musicians.  And the thing is, you never know when you meet these people, until you meet them.

So what was happening, actually, Henry and I were living actually right next door to each other.  Henry lived at 48th and Drexel in Chicago, on the South Side.  So we would see each other.  And I had heard him… In fact, this was during the time when I was meeting and listening to the AACM musicians.  And I would see Henry, and we would speak and say hello and stuff, and I would hear him practicing over in his apartment, and I would be over in my apartment practicing.

So finally, what happened, Henry got commissioned to write the music and perform for this play, The Hotel: 99 Rooms, with Don Saunders, the director.  In fact, not that long ago we performed one of his pieces at the Public Theatre.  So we got together and we performed this music.  And what happened was this special thing… After we performed for about… God, I forgot how long we worked at that time — but several months.  And after the play was over, we said, “Wow, we can’t just drop this now,” because we had gotten so close musically — and as friends also.  So we decided to get together and form a band.

An interesting note is that at that time, I really wasn’t even thinking about where we was going to go with this in terms of making all these records and making money and traveling, but of course, in the back of my mind, these were things I wanted to do.  And the main emphasis was on the fact of the way the music came out.  We were saying, “Wow, this is really some good music.”  So we continued working on the music, and we did some other things.

In fact, our first name was…we used our last names.  The name of the band was (I forgot who was first) McCall-Threadgill-Hopkins, and then the other name was… Oh God, what was this other name we had?  I can’t remember the second name of the band.  But anyway, then finally it evolved into Air.  We found out that we were all Air signs, two Libras and an Aquarian, and so we used the letters from our names, and came up with this.  And it all came out pretty good.

[MUSIC: “Sir Simpleton,” “Just The Facts And Pass The Bucket,” “Cremation”]

That’s very indicative of Henry’s writing.  He has such a spectrum… Henry is one of those guys who doesn’t sit still about the things that he’s done already.  He has a continuous waterfall, it’s a waterfall of just… Because he’s working on new things now, and always pressing forward.  So it’s been a great experience for me to work with him.

We were talking a little bit about what  playing creative music of this sort does for a musician. Maybe we could paraphrase for the listeners.

Well, one thing it does for me, it solidifies…. Not  to get too philosophical, it solidifies a purpose in terms of… Why study all these notes and why appreciate all the different kinds of music, from Beethoven to Duke to Abrams to Coltrane — all this stuff.  Unfortunately, because of the way the music industry is structured now, we don’t have these gatherings of great artists, as I would imagine had happened before, and if it didn’t, it should, and probably it will happen in the future…

What happens is that you get a chance to actually utilize your information, for lack of a better word, in an unstructured atmosphere.  With those particular groups, I had very structured things to do, but at the same time, I had all the freedom that was required to bring the composition off.  And as far as I’m concerned, there’s really not that many people writing like that, you know, where you have that kind of freedom and is that demanding, too.  So what it does, it allows you, to coin a phrase, express yourself within the confines of someone else.

Fred Hopkins Profile (August 2, 1987) – (WKCR):

[MUSIC: Threadgill, “To Be Announced”; Air, “Children’s Song,” “Roll ‘Em”; Kalaparusha, “Ananda,” “USO Dance”]

“USO Dance” was performed at Studio Rivbea before Air had recorded any LPs, in 1975 — back in the so-called good old days.

[LAUGHS] I was a young kid and all that stuff.

This was when a lot of musicians had moved to New York from the Midwest and the West Coast, and were really making an impact and changing the New York scene around.  The Wildflowers series was a springboard in introducing these musicians to a broader audience.

It certainly was.

You were doing quite well in Chicago at the time you came to New York.  Maybe we could go into your background as a bassist in the Chicago area and how you came here.

Well, part of my experiences there were my early training, which started… I guess I have to start with my family first, of course, because there were seven musicians in my family.  I had two brothers.  One brother played all the woodwinds, flute, saxophone, clarinet, and he even played bassoon.  Another brother played drums.  I was in  the band together with my younger brother, Dennis Hopkins.  My older brother, Joel Hopkins…

This was in high school?

In high school.  This was at DuSable High School with the famous, incredible teacher, we called him Captain, but his name was Walter Dyett.  And also I had a sister, Patricia, who is now deceased, and she played clarinet — she was in the band with me at the same time, too.  Those were my formative years.

Also, one other important influence at that time, which  was the deciding factor for the instrument that I chose… When I originally started off,  I wanted to play cello.  So I went to school, and Captain Dyett said, “What do you want to play?”  I said, “I want to play cello.”  He said, “We don’t have cello.  You’re a bass player.”  He actually told me I was a bass player.  And he also intimidated me.  He was one of those old-style teachers who tells you what’s happening, and you learn later.  And I liked that; I like it now, I didn’t like it then.

But anyway, one of the other early influences was, I’ll never forget this Sunday afternoon watching one of the public broadcasting stations, Channel 11 in Chicago, and it was a performance by Pablo Casals.  He was in this old Gothic mansion in this large room by himself, and he was playing this music, this solo cello.  And I heard the sound and I said, “That’s what I want to do.”  Before that time I was listening to all these instruments, and I didn’t know which one I wanted to play, but as soon as I heard the cello, I said, “Okay, I know I want to play cello.”  But as I mentioned, there was no cello, so I ended up playing bass.

Walter Dyett had many generations of Chicago musicians, as many people know, but some don’t.  Talk about his legacy at DuSable.

Well, some of his students included people like Nat “King” Cole, Johnny Griffin, Von Freeman, George Freeman, and people closer to my generation like Oscar Brashear, who lives out on the West Coast now, who is doing very well as a recording musician and also is doing a lot of contracting work… God, some other guys…

You could list a hundred performing professional musicians who are graduates of the DuSable program over a thirty-year period.

Right.  And not to mention all the people who were in the band who went to other professions in terms of being lawyers, doctors, bus drivers and all this.  The thing about Captain Dyett is that the information that he gave us, you could apply to anything.  After I left high school, several years later that’s when it started to sink in that this information, whether I became a musician didn’t really have nothing to do with it.  He was just a positive thinking type person, and those were the things that he put on us.

I believe Dyett had been a violinist in his younger years?  Did you find he had any particular gift for teaching strings, or was he adept at every instrument?

Yes.  Because like I said, his philosophy, since it included using your brain… He actually made you think, is what it was.  So you can apply it to any instrument.  But he was a violinist.  In fact, any of the listeners who might know more factual things about this, please call.  From what I understood was that he was in the Army; that’s where his thing was.

After World War I he was in one of the Illinois regimental bands which he organized, and I think he also had aspirations to be a doctor, which he gave up on because of the racial situation…,

Right, in America at that time, and maybe at this time, too.

…and so went into education.

Anyway, what happened was, a fact…a small fact… My mother was at DuSable first went there to teach.  So then, generations later, here come her kids and the same teacher is still there, which I think is quite incredible.

Anyway, what happened with Captain Dyett, as I understand it, is that once he started teaching there, and especially at this time we’re talking about the Forties, Fifties, and when I was there in the Sixties, the teaching level was a little bit higher than now in the Black areas of major cities.  They said he could have been teaching at some of the higher universities, and he had a lot of offers to do things like that, but he said, “No, I won’t leave, because if I leave, who’s going to teach you little…” — I can’t tell you what he called us.

But an incredible man.  He put his stamp on me, and I think I was really fortunate to be one of his students.

You were in DuSable around 1961 or ’62?

Yes, I went to DuSable in ’62.

So what kind of things would the band play?   Which band were you in?  He had several.

I was in the concert band.  They had the concert band, they also had a choir, and also there was a dance band, which we called the Jazz band at that time, because we’d get a chance to groove, you know.  First I started off in the concert band, and we played only concert band music.  And  an interesting fact for all the bass players is that for the first year that I studied bass, he did not let me use the pizzicato at all.   I did nothing but bow — and on threat of death.  No pizzicato.  Only arco work.  Because his idea was that you start from the foundation of anything, and then once you get that correct you can go on and do whatever else you want to do with it.  Again, later on I discovered that was some invaluable information for me.

What kind of material would the Jazz band be playing?

They did a lot of the stock big band songs, things like “Cute,” some of the Ellington classics, and some other people that I didn’t know — probably if I saw the book again, I could remember a lot of things.

How about music in the community?  Were you hearing music apart from school in the neighborhood?

Yeah.  Well, at that time, every little tavern, every little bar… This was during the period of live music, and every place had some kind of combo.  I lived on 45th Street and State in Chicago, and actually there was a tavern across the street from my mother’s house.. In fact, I always remember hearing this bass going, just boom-boom-boom.  As a little kid, I used to sit on my porch late at night, and I’d see all  this commotion over there, and people talking, and all the things that go on in taverns — but I always remember hearing a band.  So my influence in that sense was everything… And also walking through the neighborhood, I could hear Gospel music, Blues, Jazz, the Rhythm-and-Blues of that day, and Classical music.  In other words, I was exposed to all kinds of music as a kid, and it affected me subconsciously, I would imagine.

Were you listening to Jazz records at that time also?

Not really.  You know, I really didn’t listen to Jazz until actually when I started playing music, and then I could appreciate what was happening with it more.  I was listening more to Classical music at that time, my personal choice.  And my brothers and sisters played all kinds of different music.  So like I said, I was exposed to a lot of  things.  But I didn’t really actually have a preference when I was a kid.  Not really.

The question was really leading toward the hackneyed old influences question.

Well, in fact, I was looking for this list that I made for this interview, and I’m sure I left out several people, but it included about fifty people.  Most of them were musicians, of course, but all kinds of people — even my accounting teacher in high school.

How about bass players?

Even though I may not sound like it all the time, I’m really kind of old-fashioned in that I like an old, fat bass sound, and people like Jimmy Garrison and Paul Chambers — those were my real early influences.

Let’s get the course of events that led you out of high school to the Chicago Civic Orchestra and into the AACM.

Oh, yeah.  I think they thought I had a little talent!  But anyway, what happened was that after I left high school, I was… Actually, I was just working.  And once I left high school, in fact, because of Captain Dyett’s method, which is the more talent you have, the harder he is on you, and he gives you some encouragement, but not really, so that you won’t get a big head and you won’t have any ego problems.  So when I left school, I didn’t know I even had talent, because he was so hard on me.  So for about two or three years, I was working at A&P!  I was playing a gig like every month or two months or something like that.

Then I met a couple of other friends of mine, like Hobie James, who was a trumpeter (he’s a pianist now), who at the time was working on his Masters Degree in Music Education.  I became his roommate, and I got re-interested in it, and really wanted to perform.  So I started practicing again…

Anyway, in fact, on Captain Dyett’s recommendation, even after high school…. He stayed in touch with everybody, or we stayed in touch with him also.  He suggested I go and…

[END OF SIDE 1]

…and a sight-reading piece, which you didn’t know what that was going to be, and then you can do one thing that you liked that you thought you did the best.  So on the Beethoven piece I did pretty good, because I liked Beethoven, and the Bach piece I was okay, and the sight reading I did okay.  But still I almost didn’t get in, because there were people who had really actually studied orchestral music a little bit more than I had.  So my auditioner said, “Look, why don’t you just play something you want to play.”  So I said, “Okay, I know what I’ll do.”  So I did this improvisation on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” — arco.   And he said, “Oh, okay.”

So anyway, that’s how I got into the orchestra.  And I  studied with Joseph Gustafeste, who was the principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  It was another very valuable period for me, because it was like… Instead of teaching me orchestral bass playing, he actually (on my request, by the way) taught me about the instrument.  And once you know about your instrument, you can perform any kind of music.  And that’s what I was really after.  I didn’t know all this at the time, by the way.  But those were the things that were happening.

I stayed with the orchestra for about three years.  In fact, most of the world-renowned conductors of the day, in all of the major orchestras, had conducted our orchestra, because all the guest conductors conducted the Civic Orchestra also.  So all these guys like Muti, and in fact even Georg Solti conducted the orchestra one time.  It’s amazing, the power… It’s just like an instrument.  I mean, the power that a conductor has over an orchestra is amazing.

How broad was the repertoire of the orchestra?

Well, we played all the repertoire of the Chicago Symphony.  In fact, we used their same music.  And let me say that some of the music was very difficult music, and also very enjoyable.

So I stayed with them for three years, and then it was time, of course… As things happened, it was time to change and do something else.
We’ll get into what something else was after we hear some music, with two of Fred’s frequent collaborators over the last decade, Hamiett Bluiett and Don Pullen… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Mahalia”; Pullen “In the Beginning”]

When we went into the music, we were talking about Fred’s time in the Chicago Civic Orchestra, and what he did afterwards.

I kept working, that’s all.  It’s just a logical progression.  But as we were saying, fortunately, I had good teachers, and the whole thing was to… Everything is like a step towards something else.  It’s never a final… You don’t finally become a good bass player, you don’t finally become a good electrician; it’s always about learning more and opening yourself up for more stuff.

Where you achieved renown as an improvising bassist was  in the AACM in Chicago in the early 1970’s.  So let’s recapitulate the events that brought you into the AACM.

Well, that was actually a very exciting period for me, because up until that time… You asked me earlier if I had listened to Jazz music, which I didn’t when I was a kid — not knowingly, I should say.  And the same thing with the improvisation in music of the AACM in the Sixties.  In fact, at that time I was still in the Civic Orchestra, and I was doing like piano duo gigs in the Rush Street area of downtown Chicago, and more traditional type of gigs like that.

Then I just remember hearing about the AACM; this was in the early Sixties.  That’s actually when a lot of the guys started going to Europe, and people like Muhal Richard Abrams and Kalaparusha, Henry Threadgill was part of it at that time, too, the musicians of the Art Ensemble, John Stubblefield, Braxton… So anyway, I started hearing about these guys, but I had no idea what their music was about.

So one day I went to a concert they were having in Hyde Park, and I couldn’t make heads or tails of this music, but it felt good… And also, by the way, chronologically, Coltrane and Albert Ayler and these people were playing at the same time, too, so there was a lot of excitement about doing some different type of things with music at that time that I was becoming exposed to.
Anyway, I went to this concert, and I heard… I can’t remember what band it was.  It might have been a collaboration of all these different people in the AACM at the time.  And I said, “What are they doing?’  But it felt good.  But I couldn’t figure out technically what was happening, and all this freedom and things, and all these different arrangements.  Some bands had no bass player, some had two drummers and a violin, people like Leroy Jenkins… And I said, “What are they doing?!”

Anyway, I didn’t get back to that music, because like I say, I continued my studies and these different things.  But then I met Kalaparusha, and he asked me did I want to play with him.  I said, “Well, sure.  I’ve never done this kind of music before, but I’ll do my best.”  And it was like someone took the shackles off of me.  They said, “Okay, Fred, you can do anything you want to do” — as long as it’s musical, by the way.  And I said, “Wow!”  I really enjoyed that.  In fact, my first band in this particular type of music was with Kalaparusha.  Kalaparusha, Wesley Tyus, Rita Worford, and Sarnie Garrett on guitar.

I guess being my first band and my first experience to the music, it really opened me up.  And I was amazed at myself (and it’s not just an egotistical thing I’m talking about) that I was able to do as many things as I could, simply because we had at that time… Very little music was written down for me personally in the bands that I played with, and so I was able to get into this whole improvisational aspect.

So anyway, that led to meeting other musicians and playing with other bands, and also letting me listen more.  Then I think one of the really deciding factors, when I really decided, I said, “This is what I’m going to do”… I heard an album of John Coltrane’s, the first album he did after he left Miles Davis and these people, Coltrane Sound, and it really changed my whole outlook on music.  I knew then that I could do anything I wanted to do — and once again, as long as it’s musical.  And from that point on, I just got more involved, and started meeting more people over the years.

Were you playing with the AACM Big Band?

At that time I actually wasn’t a member of the AACM. I became a member of the AACM when I moved to New York.  A lot of people didn’t know that was happening.  But I was fortunate enough to perform with most of the members of the AACM at that time.  And so I became associated with the AACM, and consequently, a lot of people thought I was a member, and I was treated as a member by the musicians and also the listening public.  But I was actually playing in Mr. Abrams’ Big Band, is what it was.  Because the AACM had a big band, and then also Mr. Abrams had a big band.  So like I said, I got more involved in this music.  But I joined the AACM when I moved to New York, which is kind of weird.  I was on a trial basis up to that point!  Because we had people like Malachi Favors, so they didn’t need me, because he’s such a great bass player himself.

But among other groups, you were playing with Muhal Richard Abrams’ Sextet of the time, I think…

Yes, around 1974, with Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill, Kalaparusha, and Wallace MacMillan.  Up until this time, by the way (for the other musicians), I was holding back.  I really don’t like amplifiers.  Hate ’em, by the way.  And at this time I was still playing acoustically, and they would put a microphone on the bass or something like that.  So I was able to actually develop a sound.  Because then you’re not playing through the amplifier.  You’re actually through the instrument.  I mean, you really have to play the instrument to project over drums and saxophones and all these things, you know.  In fact, that sextet with Muhal was really an incredible experience for me.  In fact, after I left Kalaparusha, that’s whose band I went to.

Then soon after that, we went to Air, and Steve McCall, Henry Threadgill and myself.

That was only a brief formulation at the start.  It was set up for the score of a play called Hotel, I believe, in 1971.

Yeah.  In fact, it was like your normal thing, a musician calling on a musician to perform with him on a gig.  And what happened, I’ll never forget, we were doing this play, and we actually had a chance to listen to ourselves while we were performing.  And we all said, “Wow!  Hey, this sounds pretty good.”   So we decided to stay together.  And of course… Well, for the people who know the band, we’ve been together for what, twelve years now…

Well, if it was 1971, it’s sixteen years.

It was ’71.  It’s about that now, that’s right.  And that has been a very rewarding musical experience, being a part of that band, a co-leader or whatever.

In 1975, Fred Hopkins moved to New York City, along with many musicians from California, the Midwest, and all over the country, spilling into New York and really changing things around, and he began a whole new set of affiliations.  We’ll start talking about that a little bit after we hear another set of music.  We’ll hear a bass solo by Fred Hopkins as part of the David Murray Trio in 1976, live at Studio Rivbea on Bond Street.

[MUSIC:  “Dedication to Jimmy Garrison”; “In Your Style”]

Around the time you moved, you formed  a lot of alliances that have lasted to the present really, with remarkable continuity — Arthur Blythe, Oliver Lake, David Murray, and Don Pullen, as well as Air, Henry Threadgill…

Actually, when I look at my professional alliances and associations now, I’m basically playing with the same people I started playing with when I first moved to New York.  It’s the same group of people.  And of course, there are some new musicians that I am performing with now.  But when I look at my book (you know, you look back at your book every year), I see all the same names in there from ten years ago.  “Call Oliver,” “Call David,” recording session such-and-such day with Oliver, or Henry Threadgill.  And it’s interesting that it developed that way for me personally, with these musicians in this particular area of music that we’re performing in.

Because it wasn’t a plan or nothing.  This thing just kind of happened.  I didn’t really want to exclude myself from… I didn’t think I could do any orchestral playing, but I felt I might be able to perform maybe with some chamber groups and things like this.  But it seems the nature of an artist in New York is that you get pegged as something, and that’s who you are and that’s who you remain. In fact, I was warned of that before I moved to New York.  The guy said, (and I’ll never forget this), “If you start off playing Avant-Garde, you’re going to end up being an Avant-Garde bass player.”

And it’s a double-edged sword.  First of all, I enjoy doing exactly what I want to do, which is I enjoy having the freedom to interpret music, and most of the people, in fact all the guys I work with give me free rein to interpret their music… I have to read it, too, by the way, but I still have a lot of space there.  But I do miss, by the way, playing a lot of other musical situations.  But like I say, once again, I really enjoy doing exactly what I do right now.

Well, one place that was a center was a club called the Tin Palace, which is now a place where they have singing waiters and is a so-called crab house…

Crab food…

It doesn’t have quite the same ambiance as it did seven or eight years, when they booked Jazz full-time, and it was a core location for jazz life in New York. It could be said that you were almost house bassist there. Of course, there were others, and remarkable bands played there. But you could hear Fred at the Tin Palace at least one week out of every month, I’d say, and that might be understating it. You played there a lot with Arthur Blythe’s In The Tradition group with John Hicks often.

Right.  Ahmed Abdullah, of course, Henry Threadgill, Olu Dara… God!  And you know, the thing about that period, by the way, the “loft jazz” period, what was happening… We’re talking about…

’75, ’76, ’77, ’78.

What was happening was that most of the club owners in New York were hiring only Bebop musicians.  And that’s not a  putdown, by the way; that’s just one of the classifications they give us.  So anything like in the vein that we were dealing with was considered Avant-Garde, and they’d say, “Well, you can’t draw a crowd” and all this mess that they used!  Or even if they did let you in, they gave you like a Tuesday night, one night, and they’d expect you to fill the house — all these things.
So what happened is that there was… For me, the spirit of the Loft Jazz from the musicians’ point of view was that the musicians took it upon themselves to find their own venue.  And it just so happened that the Tin Palace was open for something of that nature… They didn’t even know they were getting into this, by the way.  I think they started off with…

Sunday afternoons or Saturday afternoons.

Yeah, right.  Then Stanley Crouch took over the booking for them, and Stanley Crouch being a very knowledgeable person about the music and about the musicians, he started hiring all these different cats.  And at that time, a lot of the guys were pretty new in town.  Several of us, like Blythe and different people, had been here a couple of years before, and Olu Dara had been here some time before, but I was told they weren’t really working here that much at that time.

What happened was that, like I say, it developed on its own.  And the bottom line is that people go to hear music.  Club owners do not listen to the music — I men, so to speak.  They do listen; that’s not what I’m saying.  But there’s only one club owner in each club, but it’s hundreds and thousands of people who go to hear the music.  So what happened was that the people got a chance to hear all these different bands.  And I must say, the music was very exciting at that period.  Because it was like everyone was unleashed.  You could do anything you wanted.  You had all your own compositions, you didn’t have to play anybody else’s music — or you could play someone else’s music.  There was some nostalgic music being performed, there were new pieces being performed.  I remember one particular night someone called me, and they said, “Well, look, the bass player can’t make it; come on down” — and we didn’t have any music!  Man, we just started playing, and we played for four hours, and we had a good time.

But getting back to my point, the musicians took it upon themselves, some of us maybe unknowingly, to create their own work space.  And the other thing about it is that we became known internationally first from that club.  I will never forget some of the people from the Japanese media first started doing the reviews and different things on us, and then the American and New York people started writing about it.

The first LPs are on European labels.  The group with Arthur Blythe, John Hicks, yourself and Steve McCall was one of the most remarkable groups to emerge at that time…

Yeah!

Because everybody was so out and in at the same time, or something like that — and especially on that wonderful piano at the Tin Palace!

Oh, ask the piano players about that one!  In fact, they finally had to have one leg propped up or something.

When they finally got a good piano, then the place closed down.

Of course.  But one of the things which was remarkable, too, was that the pianists who played on it were able to make it sound good, which is I think something that all musicians should think about — that the sound actually comes from the musician, not the instrument.  It’s good to have good instruments, by the way.  But it starts from yourself out.

[MUSIC:  Arthur Blythe, “Christmas Song,” “Naima,” “As Of Yet”]

I haven’t worked that much with Arthur in the last year or so.  But that was a real fun period for me, man.  That quartet…heh-heh… In fact, I want to try it again.  Where is Arthur at?  But with Steve McCall and John Hicks being consummate pianists, and Arthur Blythe, of course… Now, as we were saying while we were playing the music, we had some other performances that were never recorded when we performed at the Vanguard with that particular quartet, and was able to get a little looser because the time allowances were different; you know, you can play a song as long as you want, and things like that. The bottom line is being able to play together.  Because I mean, personally, I was taught to do  music from an ensemble approach, which to me might be a problem today I think.  There’s too many people interested in being soloists these days.  I don’t know if it’s because maybe that’s the way that they get into music first, or what it is… And also, I know the industry pushes that, too, by the way.  Everybody has to be a bandleader, you’ve got to be a star, and all this stuff.  But I really enjoy… In fact, when the ensemble is playing, I don’t really want a solo.  I don’t need a solo.  Because I feel so fulfilled when the song is over that, you know, I didn’t really feel like I needed one.  Not to say that when I take a solo, the music’s not going well, by the way.

But that period was really a very good period, because I think that up until time, I was doing… I mean, the music we were playing at that time, we were doing less traditional things at that time.  So when I started playing with Arthur at this period, the music you just heard, it was fun, you know, to be doing some groove stuff and some up-tempo walking — you know, the old traditional bass stuff.  It was a very exciting period for me.

[MUSIC: (Private tape, arco solo), Hopkins, K. Bell, R. Ameen, Muneer, Betsch, J. Santos [TITLE UNKNOWN]; O. Lake, “C Piece,” Air, “G.vE”]

We’ve heard a wide variety of music, music in-tempo or up-tempo, slow music, textural music, giving you some idea of Fred’s versatility and scope.

Well, as we were saying earlier, it’s about playing music.  And fortunately, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of these different musicians who make these type of demands on my playing abilities.

That other song, which was a more rhythmic thing, “G.vE,” which was for a very good friend of mine, Ghisela Van Eichen, was a more rhythmic thing, because… You know, my first instrument actually was conga drums.  I never performed on them, by the way.  But I started off studying them.  And I found out that my hands couldn’t take that kind of pain; I’m sorry, I’m just not into that!  And fortunately, like I said, then the high school days came, so I was able just to switch to a less painful instrument — so I thought…

The bass is a less painful instrument?

Yes.  So I thought!  So my fingers still hurt, but I seem to be a little bit more into this instrument than congas!

But that was another period.  Now, we played some Air stuff there, and also Oliver Lake.  Of course, as I mentioned before, Air was my first band that I stayed with for a long period of time.  We did about nine albums before Steve left.  That’s indicative of ensemble playing, from Henry’s compositions to the approach to the music to the actual tuning of the drums — because the system we used was tuning the drums to the bass, so we could get more resonance and a more harmonious sound, so to speak, from the two of us, since we didn’t use piano or nothing like that, right.  But that band, like I say, is indicative of people trying to perform on one composition together.  A lot of times you would you think, like, with a traditional setting, that the horn player would be the leader in terms of the way that sound comes off.  And we always attempted to…(and maybe even sometimes did it!)…attempted to blend and use the sound of the drums as part of the harmonic as well as rhythmic structure, and also the bass, vice-versa.

And Steve McCall was uniquely adapted to that function in an ensemble.

Oh yeah.  Steve McCall, I mean, I can never speak enough about his style of playing drums.  One thing, I could have fun with Steve!  We could take a lot of chances.  And that’s another part of the music.  Sometimes… I mean, I’ll look at some music, and I will just try to do something different.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t.  And it’s good to be with people who, if they see you falling, they will catch you.  And also, you might even discover some new things that way.  But Steve… That was a very rewarding association for me.

Coming up we’ll hear a tape of the John Hicks Trio featuring Fred and Idris Muhammad, from an NPR broadcast from New Year’s Day, 1985 at Charlie’s Tap in Boston.

[MUSIC: Hicks Trio, “Miles Mode,” Bluiett, “Ebu”]

Coming up now are some collaborations by a newly-formed group featuring Fred with cellist Deirdre Murray…

Well, it’s a real pleasure, and it’s a challenge to play with her. Also we have a lot of fun.  We have a friendly challenge amongst ourselves, so that we tease each other about who’s going to play the best tonight and all these things.  But she’s such a fine cellist.  And anyway, it’s a similar type of occurrence in my life that I had with Air, where you meet someone musically, and it just gels right away, there’s no problem, you don’t have to explain nothin’ to anybody — you just play well together.

So Deirdre and I, we decided, we said, “Let’s do something on our own.”  So anyway, we prepared this music you hear now with Rod Williams on piano and Andrei Strobert on drums.  One thing to remember, though, so that the listeners won’t misunderstand, when you say we’re presenting this in order to get some work on a commercial level… Meaning two things.  One thing is that, first of all, we are a performing band.  I consider myself a performing artist who records, as opposed to a recording artist who performs.  So we would like to perform.  So we actually have submitted this tape to record companies and to club owners and things.  But it seems like maybe our work will probably start in Europe first, and we are planning on doing this thing starting next year — hopefully you’ll see us around.

[MUSIC: Hopkins/Murray, “#2,” Threadgill Sextet, “A Man Called Trinity Deliverance,” Hopkins/Murray, “Junko San”]

Actually, it’s interesting working with two drummers in a band [in the Henry Threadgill Sextet].  I would imagine probably some of the older bands, like in the Forties and Fifties, the type of bands they had then used a lot of the same type of….

Some of them had two bassists, like the Ellington band of the Thirties, but I can’t really recollect two drummers playing.

Yeah, in the same set.  But I would imagine if we looked at the history, we probably could find a band or two who did it.  But in a weird kind of way, instead of locking me in, it actually frees me up more.  Because although I’m still responsible for my parts in the music, and like the bass is responsible for rhythmic and harmonic structures, at the same time, if I don’t want to play it, I don’t have to, because one of the drummers is going to hit it, so I don’t have to worry so much.

Well, it seems like a lot of the music has to deal with you and Deirdre working in interaction rather than you being a traditional bass player…

Well, more than composition, Henry’s orchestration… He utilizes the personalities as well as the instruments.  So since Deirdre and I work together so well… I don’t know if that’s the reason why he did it, by the way.  But especially in some of the later pieces, he’s been writing some things for us.  And I might add, some of the pieces are very difficult to play!  But we manage to get through them.

But right now, that’s one of my fun bands.  Because of the different choices of material that Henry has, I can be very subtle in some instances, and then actually, for lack of a better word, just go crazy with the music. We really get a chance to do, for lack of a better word, some difficult pieces, and also there’s an element of fun involved with it.  It’s a real show band.

What is it that makes the pieces difficult?

Difficult only means that they’re very well written, and you’re expected to play the whole range of your  instrument and all the techniques involved.  I mean, some things that I play are Classical in nature, some are bluesy in nature, there are some island-type rhythms we do — different things.  And he constantly adds new pieces to the book, all the time.  So it’s not really that it makes it difficult, but you really have to be on your toes.

It’s a real plus to work with someone who you have a musical relationship with, and you understand his systems, methods and approaches to music.  So I can get into the conceptual part of his music quite well these days.

I’ve walked in the footsteps of some great bassists, and  I’m with bands that give me pretty much free rein, so I’ve been able to work out a lot of things over the years.  And a lot of things I’ve kept.  I particularly like the old style of bass, which is the sound itself, where you’re actually playing the instrument as opposed to playing the instrument through a pick-up, which is a different sound altogether.

What kind of amp do you use?

I use PV(?).  I happen to like it.  It has the power and the strength that I like.  And it’s a pretty large-sized amp.  But because I like to be on the bottom of the music, I usually can’t use like smaller amps.  I don’t quite get the sound that I like.  But I use that, and I’ve been using a Fishman pickup, which really has been the most successful with me for my style of playing, where I can use arco and pizzicato and still get a decent sound.

Do you double at all?  Any electric bass?

No, I don’t.  I don’t play any of those instruments.  And by the way, those are quite different instruments.  Many people think that the electric bass and the acoustic bass are the same.  But even though the notes are in the same place, the techniques are totally different.  I have a lot of respect for cats who can double on those instruments.

Leave a comment

Filed under AACM, Bass, Fred Hopkins, WKCR

For Dave Holland’s 65th Birthday, a Jazziz feature from 2004

In honor of the 65th birthday of Dave Holland, the master bassist and composer, I’m posting a pair of features—one for Jazziz, from 2004; the other for DownBeat from 2005 in recognition of his victory in the DB Critics Poll. I first had an opportunity to meet him in 1994, when he joined me at WKCR for an extensive interview. It was the first of several live encounters we had during my time at WKCR; I transcribed and edited the final one, conducted in 2008, for a piece that appeared on the great ‘zine www.jazz.com that year. I had the honor of writing a long piece on the maestro for Jazziz in 2002, and another for DownBeat in 2005, when he earned three Critics Poll awards.

Jazziz Feature:

“Nine times out of 10 when bass players subbed for Ron Carter in Miles’ band,” Herbie Hancock recalls, “Tony Williams would play really loud to cover them up, so they wouldn’t interfere with what the band was doing. And we would know in the first bars whether they should be covered up or not! But we didn’t cover up Dave Holland. His instincts were adequate and it sounded cool. ‘OK, he’s cool.’ That’s what it was.”

It was the end of the long, hot summer of 1968, and the Miles Davis Quintet was beginning a three-week engagement opposite Max Roach at Count Basie’s in Harlem. Holland, a 21-year-old Englishman with blond hair that fell over his shoulders, had flown to New York from London the previous afternoon, brought his bags to Jack DeJohnette’s apartment, and visited Herbie Hancock to review a few tunes. “I turned up at the club the next night and started,” he recalls. “I didn’t talk to anybody; I was just waiting to see what would happen. The next thing I know, Tony Williams is sitting behind the drums, so I get up and take my bass, and still nobody said anything. And Miles goes up to the mike and starts playing the first tune. It was ‘Agitation,’ which I’d heard on record — really just a trumpet line. And then the band comes in with a fast tempo, and we’re gone.”

Thus, the master bassist launched the still ongoing American phase of one of the most distinguished careers in late-20th-century jazz — one marked by inspired musicianship across a 360-degree range of styles. A high-visibility form-buster at the cusp of the ’70s with Miles’ late-acoustic and early-electric bands, Holland bolted when Miles started moving from abstraction to funk. During the remainder of the decade, he navigated uncharted terrain with fluid structuralists Chick Corea and Anthony Braxton and improvised from the tabula rasa with Sam Rivers. He developed a singular language for solo bass and cello. In Gateway, an open-ended trio with John Abercrombie and DeJohnette, he dissected rock, funk, and world-music grooves. And he demonstrated his bona fides in the jazz tradition as a valued sideman in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and in groups led by such iconic tonal personalities as Stan Getz, Betty Carter, and Thelonious Monk.

Along the way, Holland created the lyric masterpiece, Conference of the Birds (ECM, 1972), conjuring a set of tunes so strong that even the ferocious gusts of Braxton and Rivers couldn’t fracture their melodic essence. Still, Holland eschewed leader ambitions until 1980, when he fell seriously ill with endocarditis, an infection of the heart valves. He recovered, took stock, and decided never again to neglect inner imperatives. Within a few years, he’d joined forces with M-BASE rhythmetricians Steve Coleman, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robin Eubanks, and with them made a series of records containing some of most compelling speculative music of the ’80s. By 1994, Holland — influenced by a decade of metric exploration and extensive “inside” playing with Hank Jones and Herbie Hancock’s trio — was beginning to look for, in his words, “a harmonic context” within which to frame his personal vision of music. As he told me that year in his precise, meticulous manner, “I’m increasingly involved in creating closed-form music with an open-form sound, creating rhythmic disciplines, writing structures which create possibilities that you wouldn’t necessarily stumble across in open-form playing.”

By 1998, Holland’s quintet comprised Eubanks, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, saxophonist Chris Potter, and drummer Billy Kilson — each a virtuoso improviser of formidable skill. All contributed pieces to Prime Directive (ECM, 1999) and Not For Nothin’ (ECM, 2001), albums that document a unit supremely in balance. Never sublimating their voices, they play with an attitude of openness and ensemble community. These albums are filled with episodic themes, memorable melodies, elegant harmonic progressions, loads of polyphony, call-and-response, background riffs, and a global array of interlocking rhythmic cycles. Propelled and knit together by the leader’s relentless grooves, singing sound, and harmonic acuity, they stand as meaningful signposts of what contemporary jazz can be.

“I combine simple and complex elements,” Holland says. “The music has inner layers that make it interesting to play repeatedly over a period of time. I try to integrate the soloist and rhythm section. I write the counterpoint into the compositions, but it continues on seamlessly when we move into ensemble improvisation.

“The tonal density of keyboard often is not what I’m looking for when I structure music. I’m trying to structure it with air. When I write a large chord with a big span, I want there to be space inside it so that it resonates in an open, transparent way. In the early days I didn’t want to use a chordal instrument; I was writing for open form along the Ornette Coleman model of having a very distinctive melodic line, sometimes with accompanying harmonies, which would launch the piece into a certain sound. But as the ’80s progressed, I started to write increasingly in a way that I needed that chordal presence. Guitar with Kevin Eubanks worked really well for me; the instrument has six strings, and you have to play it with a certain sparseness. Vibraphone is the same way; four mallets is the maximum you can expect to play with, so you’re limited to four-note chords.”

Holland extrapolated those quintet concepts for 13-piece orchestra on his most recent album, What Goes Around [ECM], a 2002 poll-sweeper and Grammy nominee. “The idea was to enhance the improvisational aspects of the music with a broader palette of composition and colors, and a larger cast of characters to write for,” he says. “I was particularly influenced by the way Thad Jones wrote so beautifully for all the instruments, so that each part is interesting unto itself, has its own logic and function, and feels like a melody line. I see the written material as functioning like a pianist or vibraphonist might work. The band comes in and provokes or pushes the soloist in certain ways, but they don’t pull the attention away.”

The content meets the hype. Lyric, contemporary, and constantly stimulating, What Goes Around contains some of the most consequential large-ensemble music in recent memory. “At first, I was intimidated,” Holland says matter-of-factly about his decision to take on the project. “I never trained as an orchestral writer; I got my guidelines through listening to records and reading books. But I felt it was time to take on the creative challenge of enlarging the vocabulary I was working on. My wife, Clare, has always encouraged me to rely more on gut feeling — that first reaction to something. It’s helped put me in touch with how I feel about music. I’ve tried to focus in on that musical language in recent years, and not be afraid of romanticism or lyricism. During the ’70s, I was around a lot of ground-breaking music, and I admired people like Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers so much that I felt my pretty little songs were maybe a little too mundane. I’ve stopped worrying about that. Let me just put it out there and, as the Sufis say, ‘plant your banner firmly in the desert sand’ and let people see where you are.”

BREAK

Observed in retrospect, the 40 years of career-shaping twists and turns that comprise Holland’s oeuvre have the appearance of an inexorable conquering march. He began his journey 57 years ago in the inauspicious environs of Wolverhampton, England, a Midlands steel city that in 1951 held some 160,000 souls.

“There’s no music in my family at all,” Holland relates. “My father, who left us when I was about a year old, apparently was an amateur saxophone player in the Army during the war, but I didn’t know him or his family. We lived with my grandparents. My grandfather and uncle worked in factories, and my mother was a secretary. It was a happy house, and I was always encouraged to play music. They’d get me to play my ukulele at family get-togethers and things like that. My mother remarried. It was not a successful marriage, and we had some problems in the family. So I left school when I was 15 to help her out.

“I’d started playing bass guitar in garage bands when I was 13, but it hadn’t occurred to me to treat music as anything but a hobby. I realized that I was making a few pounds a night playing dances and so on, and decided to do it professionally. Then I thought I should hear some other bass players. I found Ray Brown’s name in a DownBeat poll, bought Affinity and Night Train by the Oscar Peterson Trio, and said, ‘I want to sound like that!’ A week later I had an acoustic bass. I memorized Ray’s walking-bass lines, the same as I’d learn the melody of a song, and incorporated the ideas on gigs, reassembling them in my manner. By that process, I learned how to construct the shape of the line, how to lead the harmony, how to support and launch the soloists.

“Jazz connected with me emotionally but also intellectually for the incredible precision and level of playing and for the dialogue that goes on. The idea of conversation has remained a key element for me all the way through. No other music in the Western world is like it because it’s an in-the-moment narrative and it’s different every time. But I had no ambitions to be a ‘jazz musician.’ I just wanted to be a musician and play jazz as one of the things I could do.”

In the summer of 1963, Holland took his first job as a professional acoustic bassist, playing music by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller with a 15-piece dance band at resorts in northern England. At season’s end, a tenor player in the band offered him a gig at a Greek restaurant in London. Holland seized the opportunity. The ambitious teenager began to create a new context for his life.

The period is not well-documented, but Holland’s London years contained the seeds of everything he would subsequently do. He dual tracked, sitting in at clubs in the hopes of networking into London’s fractious, rambunctious jazz scene, and took lessons from James E. Merritt, the principal bassist in the London Philharmonic. Merritt encouraged the prodigy to enroll at Guildhall Music School in 1965.

“I played all the time,” Holland says. “I was principal bassist in the school orchestra after the first year. So, apart from preparing for my bass lesson, I had to prepare the bass section for the orchestral repertoire. I played ‘Rites of Spring’ or the music of Bartok with rehearsal orchestras, and did contemporary chamber music by Xenakis, Penderecki, and Stockhausen. There was a big New Orleans revival in England in the ’60s, and initially I played a lot of Louis Armstrong Hot Five and King Oliver arrangements in pubs. It made a lasting impression. I loved the layers of sound when the clarinet, trumpet, and trombone were improvising together. That’s one reason why I loved Ellington and Mingus. My bands have never been about solo after solo, but about collective dialogue.”

Holland also began to absorb music from non-Western cultures, taking advantage of London’s large Indian community to hear concerts by Vilad Khan and Pannalal Ghosh before informed and enthusiastic audiences. “The incredible development of rhythm in Indian music, the discipline of learning these very involved cycles, and how to subdivide them, was very influential,” he notes. “Evan Parker introduced me to the UNESCO series of world-music records, and I listened to music from Tibet, Afghanistan, and Central Africa. The rhythmic complexity and polyphonic aspect of Pygmy music was incredible. I’d never heard anything like the way two voices would integrate the rhythms and tones so they bounced off each other and created a third, completely different element.[“]

By 1967, Holland was one of London’s busiest session bassists. “I was starting to get a reputation as a good reader, and by this point, they knew that I played a lot of jazz,” he says. He received a call to sub on a recording by the John Dankworth Orchestra of Kenny Wheeler’s Windmill Tilter, a narrative composition of nine movements based loosely around the Don Quixote story. “I got to the studio and played this incredible suite of music,” he recalls. “It was complex, and once I listened to the record and heard the detail of the writing, it blew me away. That was my earliest creative big-band playing. I also played with the Chris McGregor Brotherhood of Breath, which had musicians like Dudu Pukwana, Louis Moholo, Mongezi Feza, and Johnny Dyani. The collective spirit of the music had a big effect on me. Chris was influenced a lot by Ellington, by South African traditional music, and by the contemporary music of Cecil Taylor. He mixed free playing with powerful rhythmic counterpoint melodies that he’d write for the band. And the band played them with an incredible freewheeling spirit. It was like no other band I’d ever played with, and the most interesting big-band work that I did in England.”

Holland’s flawless musicianship and utter disregard for dogma enabled him to bridge London’s various cliques. He played with such Eurocentric free improvisers as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, and Trevor Watts, as well as with post-boppers like John Surman, Tony Coe, and John Taylor. After 1966, he participated in high-level encounters after-hours at premises formerly occupied by tenor saxophonist/club owner Ronnie Scott. Sometimes he arrived directly from gigs with the likes of Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, or Joe Henderson at Scott’s new venue, where pianist Pat Smythe had recruited him for the house rhythm section, with drummers Tony Oxley and John Marshall.

“To me it’s always been important to play for the music you’re playing,” Holland remarks. “In 1968, I was finishing a month-long engagement at Ronnie Scott’s with Pat Smythe behind a singer named Elaine Delmar, opposite Bill Evans, who had Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. It was high-level playing — standards, nice arrangements, and so on. Miles came into the club fairly early one night and stayed. I presumed he was there to hear Bill and didn’t think twice that he’d even be listening to us. So it didn’t faze me very much, and I kept playing as I wanted for that context. As I was going up to the stand for my last set, Philly Joe Jones — who lived in London at the time — came up and said, ‘Dave, Miles told me to tell you that he wants you to join his band.’ I think had I done anything else than enhance the situation to the best of my abilities, Miles would never have offered me the gig.”

With Miles, Holland learned to be at once anchored and abstract — how to set up a bottom and also fly. And he developed his skills as a soloist. “One thing Dave got from Miles is the ability to project the intention and sound of his ideas on the instrument,” says Jack DeJohnette, a close friend who first met Holland at Ronnie Scott’s in 1966. “Dave can do a solo and grab people like a horn player. He can get an audience standing on their feet. He learned from Miles how to be consistent and focused, like a ray from a laser beam.”

He also found his instrumental voice. “In London, I would put on different masks, depending on the musical situation,” he says. “I’d listen to Ron alter the bass notes and reharmonize the chords. I’d listen to Ray and try to get that walking feeling and interaction. I listened to Scott LaFaro for the freer dialogue and to Gary Peacock with Albert Ayler for more open-form situations. I listened to Jymie Merritt, who is an unsung hero, but brilliant in the original way he broke up time with Max Roach. I was still in that phase when I joined Miles. Then one night, when Tony Williams was still in the band, we were playing a place called the Black Bottom in Montreal, and I remember suddenly feeling that I was no longer any of those people. Something happened, where I felt a connection with myself. I also started realizing that I wasn’t going to succeed in sounding like anyone else. I came back to New York, and my practicing changed. I forced myself to start from scratch. What’s a major scale about? What do these intervals mean? How are they put together? How many ways can I see to reorganize this idea? How can I break down my rhythmic ideas into a system that will allow me to expand on things I’m already doing? I started getting back much more to the building blocks of the music and brought out the elements I wanted to develop.”

Most importantly, Holland learned to shape narrative from musical flow. “I see theater and music as related in some ways,” he says. “In the theater a cast of characters and scenes and events unfold, one leads to another. Sometimes time is compressed and you suddenly find yourself jumping a couple of years. There are moments of drama and contemplation, and emotional climaxes and then lulls. Miles was a master of this whole element of pace. Each night, on any tune, I experienced a different take on how that development could happen. Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of assembling a sequence of events that takes the listener through an emotional and intellectual journey. What’s important is how you craft that journey and make it work for the listener. In other words, how you portray the music without compromising its elements and language. Ellington’s great suites — like “Harlem Air Shaft” — take you on a trip, a journey through life, a feeling about something. When music works at its best for me, that’s what it’s doing — taking me on a trip.”

BREAK

That three-week engagement at Count Basie’s happened to be Herbie Hancock’s last with Miles. He and Holland would not make music again until 1990, when they toured with DeJohnette and Pat Metheny on DeJohnette’s Parallel Realities project.

“Following that, I expressed to him how much I’d enjoyed it, and he asked if I’d like to do some more things,” Holland relates. “He started calling me for the trio. We played extensively together, and it influenced me deeply. Herbie puts the creative demand on himself to play something fresh every night, even on compositions he’s been playing since the ’60s. That level of improvisation is extraordinary, and so is the dialogue he gets into with the other musicians. He’s taking in everything and throwing it right back out. The joy that he puts into his music somehow released something in me. I was taking music very seriously, maybe too seriously. I don’t mean to belittle seriousness, but seriousness has to be tempered with joy. Herbie brought me in touch with the joy of playing music in a special way.”

Hancock returns the compliment. “I put Dave in the category of Ron Carter,” he says flatly. “That’s the top. He carves out his own territory, which is just as valid as what Ron does. He has a sound I happen to like – very rich. And I like his time, where he places the notes when playing walking bass. But he doesn’t depend on walking. He plays different rhythmic and melodic things — even accompanying the piano — and knows when to move from one to the other. He knows all the stuff harmonically, and he’s very intelligent and open, and responds quickly. Adventurous, too; not afraid to venture into unknown waters. Maybe the key word is balance. He’s an extremely well-balanced bass player, top to bottom — it’s just the way he is. If a bass player is too egotistical or has problems with his own self-assurance or identity, it will affect his playing and, therefore, will affect the rest of the band. Dave is his own man. He’s comfortable with himself, and he’s eager to listen and learn — giving and receiving at the same time. I admire him greatly as a human being. His solid, formidable character, all that love and graciousness and respect for humanity exudes through his playing.”

In spite of all this, Holland, who in 1990 was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in jazz, was still continuing to find it difficult, as he puts it, “to step into the limelight and assert myself in terms of what I wanted to do.”

“As a young man I was quite shy,” he continues. “I would often take a long time to voice my opinion until I saw it was safe to do so. I don’t want to get into psychoanalysis of my childhood, but a lot of things happened then that formulated my approach to dealing with life. Like anyone else, I carried a lot of baggage. Sometimes my democratic and sharing approach would weaken my ability to realize an idea — ‘OK, this is only my idea; maybe I should just let whatever is going to happen, happen.’ Actually, around that time I had a long conversation with Betty Carter. She was like Miles in that she could center in on what was important, and she told me some things that were essential in giving me courage to voice my opinions and be more decisive in following through on ideas. ‘It’s your band,’ she said. ‘Your name is on the music.’”

BREAK

Recorded at the beginning of 2000, What Goes Around is Holland’s inaugural salvo on the big-band front — but probably not the last. “The quintet will remain my full-time project as long as it stays together,” he says. “But I see the big band extending way out into the future as an ongoing challenge.” Last fall, in support of the record, he embarked on a month-long tour of the United States and Europe that served as a platform to develop older compositions and some newer work, including pieces by Robin Eubanks and his old friend Kenny Wheeler. At the tour’s conclusion, he went into the studio with his road-tested unit to make an album scheduled for 2004 release.

“When I started the quintet in ’97 and recorded the first selection of music for the group, I only knew the starting point I wanted,” Holland notes. “I would never have presumed it would lead to Not For Nothin’. In all good bands, the music develops out of the people involved as a group. As the quintet played together, relationships started to appear, and I and the other musicians who are writing have been able to take advantage of the personalities that emerged. That’s now happening with the big band from performing the music every night, which we hadn’t done. Certainly how we use dynamics has developed. Everybody is learning how their own written parts fit in with everything else in the band, which creates a strong, more unified sound.”

That process played out exquisitely during the last set of an exhilarating four-night, mid-tour residence at Birdland. Smiling broadly, his bass firmly planted onstage, Holland struck the downbeat signaling baritone saxophonist Gary Smulyan to blow the elemental melody of “Triple Dance.” The trumpets entered with counterlines, then the trombones with another counterline, and the joyful romp — orchestrated by Holland’s endlessly driving grooves and Billy Kilson’s fluent, surging beats — was on. There were no slack moments. The compositions seemed tailored to such distinctive youngsters as Antonio Hart, Mark Turner, Mark Gross, Josh Roseman, and Alex Sipiagin, whose responses propelled the creative momentum. Their deep connection with the music was palpable.

“Miles worked simultaneously at creating a focus for the band but also drawing on the energy and creative power of his younger players,” Holland says. “I’m not prejudiced against older players or younger players; I’m mostly interested in good players. But the player who’s developing and searching and striving gives the music an edge.

“For me, players find each other. You gravitate towards the things that you need to do. And I’ve been fortunate to be in situations where I heard certain players, they heard me, and were interested in working together. Out of that we’ve made some very good music.”

Downbeat Article, 2005:

“I just want dialogue,” says bassist Dave Holland, encapsulating his musical first principles. “The quality of community in ensemble is central to everything I’ve done. Jazz is an in-the-moment narrative, and it’s different every time. No other music in the Western world is like that.”

Musical conversation and endless polyphony permeate Holland’s elegant arrangements on Overtime [Dare2], his second recording with a 13-piece big band and first release on his own imprint.

The title resonates on several levels.

For one thing, Down Beat’s 58-year-old 2005 Critics Poll trifecta winner–Best Jazz Artist, Best Big Band, and Best Bassist–evolved his aesthetics over a long timespan. In the early ’60s he internalized three-horn polyphony performing King Oliver and Louis Armstrong Hot Five arrangements on New Orleans revival pub gigs. He spent 1968 to 1980 on the world stage, improvising extemporaneously on abstract structures and tabula rasa canvases with Miles Davis, Anthony Braxton and Sam Rivers. He applied the freedom principle to multiple-meter structures in collectively oriented ’80s units with Kenny Wheeler, Julian Priester, Steve Coleman, Kevin Eubanks, and Marvin “Smitty” Smith. During the past decade, he’s committed wholeheartedly to chordal environments with a quintet featuring vibraphonist Steve Nelson, trombonist Robin Eubanks, saxophonists Steve Wilson, Chris Potter and Antonio Hart, and drummers Billy Kilson and Nate Smith.

For another, Holland commands a slew of time signatures and metrically modulates them into flow, incorporating four-four swing, triplet structures, and enspiriting beats extrapolated from the ritual musics of pygmy society, India, North Africa, and Indonesia.

“Every performance is a new investigation into the possibility of how to assemble a sequence of events that takes the listener through a journey,” Holland says. Renowned as a conjuror of beautiful melodies since his 1972 masterpiece Conference of the Birds,  he facilitates the voyage by molding complex rhythms and harmonies to communicate his tales, conveying maximum meaning with a minimum of notes.

To use Holland’s phrase, Overtime is “closed-form music with an open-form sound.” In the manner of Ellington, Thad Jones, and Kenny Wheeler, all consequential role models, Holland presents customized parts, themselves attractive counter-melodies, to his hand-picked virtuosos—augmenting the quintet are saxophonists Mark Gross, Antonio Hart, and Gary Smulyan; trumpeters Duane Eubanks, Taylor Haskins, and Alex Sipiagin, and trombonists Jonathan Arons and Josh Roseman. He propels their solo inventions with surging, interactive basslines, and responds to them with his own intense variations.

“I’m looking first for a strong individual character to their playing, and secondly, an ability to function within a group context,” Holland says of his personnel. “I prefer not to explain a lot. The musicians need freedom to offer their own ideas and concepts, and not be restricted within the frame of reference you give them. Now, having a structure to work from means you can create tension and resolutions against the structure, which would not be there without the structure. But the written music is a starting point. I’ll hear somebody do something I would never have dreamed of; what I hear happening around me directly affects the ideas I play and develop.”

Urbane and articulate, Holland speaks in complete sentences and paragraphs, and stays resolutely on message. He seems loath to acknowledge that he is the gravitational center of his creative orchestra. But his band members note that they take cues, musical and otherwise, from the leader.

“Freedom isn’t something you always know what to do with,” says Potter. “Dave gives parameters–maybe a completely open vamp section on a rhythmic pattern he’s working on–in which you have freedom that feels more free than Free.”

“Dave takes  risks,” says Smith, Holland’s latest drummer. “He plays loose, over the bar, under the time, and wants to see how far we can stretch. It’s hard to mess up, because everyone is searching for something new and exciting to do. Even the mistakes are golden. He’ll sing me some skeletal pattern that launches the music, usually a clave, in 7 or 9 or 11 or 13. I’ll play it, and maybe add something. He’ll say, ‘Keep that,’ or ‘No matter what you do, I want you to hit this.’ But I’m always thinking about that clave.”

Holland never allows experimental imperatives to interfere with projecting a communicative groove. “Dave is able to transform odd meters and have you nod your head even though it’s not on 2 and 4,” says Duane Eubanks.

“I never played much odd-meter music before this band,” says Smulyan, a veteran of the Vanguard Orchestra, in which Holland played in the early ’70s. “On our first gigs, everyone was counting like crazy. After a few years, I said to Dave, ‘I’m getting a little worried. I’m starting to feel it.’ He just laughed. Now we don’t count. It’s a particular language all its own, and you decode it.

“He’s an amazing bass player. He and I play a lot of bass-baritone figures together, and he’s incredible to hook up with—his pulse, his drive, his sense of rhythm, his groove are all so strong.”

Holland is adamant that freedom entails responsibility. “People’s personal lives are nothing to do with me,”  he says. “My interest is that the gig happens the way it’s supposed to, that the band is ready to play, and that the conditions of our contractual agreements are kept.”

“It doesn’t get much better than this aesthetically, so cats won’t act out of line,” says Eubanks. “Dave’s not cocky. He’s very aware who he is, and he’s satisfied with it. Now, if things deviate, he’ll step in. He’s a stickler for punctuality. He’s at least 10 minutes early every time. Usually 15. Once I missed a flight, though I made the gig. He pulled me over, like, ‘Man, take advantage of the situation.’ Even when he’s mad at you, it’s like he’s not mad at you.”

“Dave’s humility grabbed me first,” says Gross. “He eliminates the distance between bandleader and band-member. For instance, everyone knows I love coffee. Backstage at a gig once, just joking, I said, ‘What is this? No coffee back here?’ Dave went to the promoter and said, ‘Mark wants some coffee. What can we do about that?’ I was really embarrassed! Later he asked, ‘Did you get your coffee, Mark?’ I thanked him. ‘Oh, no problem.’ Of course, once you get on stage, he IS the bandleader, but he commands that through the music, not so much through words.

“He won’t tolerate unprofessionalism or disrespect. Once at a festival, the promoters brought out a vibraphone for Steve Nelson that was like a high school toy set.. Dave said, ‘This is not what he plays on; he needs the professional set of vibes that we stipulated in the rider.’ ‘We can’t get them, Mr. Holland.’ ‘Well, I’m not playing.’ Now, this is a huge festival, lots of money involved. He told the band, ‘Stay at the hotel. This gig might be cancelled. Don’t worry; you all WILL be paid.’”

“A few days after 9/11, we flew to Monterrey,” Hart relates. “That’s a testament to how we feel about Dave, because we were scared; nobody wanted to get on the plane. Before we played, he talked to the people about being strong and turning this tragedy around. It wasn’t a spiritual spiel, but I thought his words were needed, to help us understand we need to push forward, do our job and try to bring beauty into the world.”

With the orchestra booked in Europe for the entire month of July, Holland intends to let the market determine his next step.

“We’ve been able to work consistently throughout the year, but I don’t want to overwork the band or put it on the road when conditions aren’t correct,” he says. “I want everyone to feel good about the situation–that we’re paid properly, and play nice venues.”

Asked how he envisions his sixties, Holland responds, “I tend to do things as they come up.” He cites a forthcoming project with Indian percussion master Trilok Gurtu as an example. “I did a solo concert in Sardinia 18 months ago when Trilok was there with his band, and I invited him to join me at the end for a few pieces. We had a great time, and I wanted to continue. We just spent three days working on new music, and our conversation about some Indian traditions of learning the rhythmic discipline in Indian music gave me many new ideas to think about. If you’d asked about my future plans the week before that concert, Trilok was not in them, but now it’s a reality.

“It’s an ongoing journey that hasn’t reached its end. At least for the near future, the quintet and big band will continue, and this thing with Trilok is the next step. Special projects, like my tour last summer with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Brian Blade, come up periodically. I’ll take it a step at a time, and we’ll see. I’ll let you know when I get there.”

2 Comments

Filed under Article, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Jazziz