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Saturday, October 17, 2009

When drums stop - big trouble!

Most jazz musicians probably know this joke -- the one about the guy on Safari, who when travelling through the jungle hears some incredible drumming coming from a distance. The following conversation ensues with his local guide:

Guy: Wow! That's amazing -- let's see if we find it!
Guide: No! We must go now -- when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But the drumming sounds amazing, I really want to check it out
Guide: No -- we must go, when drums stop, big trouble!
Guy: But this is the kind of thing I came here to experience! I really want to hear it!
Guide: No! We must go before drums stop!
Guy: But why? What happens when the drums stop?
Guide: Bass solo!!

Like all good jokes, there's an element of truth to it -- there are indeed people who fear and dread bass solos! This post is prompted by a little throwaway remark by the excellent Patrick Jarenwattananon from NPR, who in reviewing a concert by the bassist Linda Oh said: "Oh did a rare thing: play a non-boring bass solo". He later clarified this in response to a comment I left on his blog, explaining that it was meant in a light-hearted way. Even so, I find that to be an interesting remark because as a bassist, I of course have had to think about the whole soloing issue, and there's also no doubt that bass solos elicit a wide range of responses from listeners (and musicians), ranging from groans to (sometimes undeservedly) huge accolades.

The bass' primary function is of course that of accompaniment, and we spend more than 90% of our time in that role. If you don't enjoy the accompaniment role above all else, then you definitely shouldn't be a bassist. Having said that, there is a long and proud history of bassists who have expanded the role of the instrument and taken it into the realms of the soloist - starting with Jimmy Blanton and then onwards into the bebop era -- Ray Brown (left), Oscar Pettiford, Mingus etc -- and then into the 1950s with people like Paul Chambers and George Duvivier. And then around 1960 comes the quantum leap forward in technique and speed pioneered by Scott LaFaro with Evans. This represented a seismic shift in how the bass was treated both technically and functionally. But it is also the point in which jazz bass playing takes two different directions -- one which continued the tradition of bassists such as Blanton and Ray Brown, and another which followed the pioneering work of LaFaro (pictured below).

These are very different ways of playing the instrument -- one, (the LaFaro stream), uses quite a low action and features the player using the complete range of the instrument from very low to very high. The other uses quite high action and the player tends to concentrate his playing in the more traditional lower register of the bass. The low action of the LaFaro-ites allowed for a greater rapidity of movement, but it did affect the sound too - a softer less prominent sound than that of the high-action bassists who in pre-amplifier days were used to driving large bands and forceful soloists forward, and for whom sound projection was very important.

So by the mid-60s there were two distinct strains of bass playing extant in jazz, both of which featured very strong soloists. Since electric bass was still relatively unknown in jazz, most of the bassists at this time were playing acoustic bass. The advent of an amplification in the early 70s made the physical challenge of playing the instrument more manageable, and many bassists gratefully accepted the help of electronics in making their life physically easier. But some of the sounds of those early amplified basses were pretty awful. A case in point would be Ron Carter's classic playing on Joe Henderson's "Tetragon". His walking bass line on "Invitation", is one of the greatest in recorded history in my opinion, but also features a pretty horrible bass sound. Thanks to the pickup, Carter went from having one of the most rich and full bass sounds in jazz to having one of the most metallic. But this loss of natural sound didn't deter the bassists of that time, they took to the pickups in droves.

Fast forward to the 1980s and something interesting happens -- a new jazz orthodoxy appears from the south and decrees bass amplification to be an abomination. An insistence on a return to pre-amplification days becomes de rigueur with the Marsalis clan in particular, and bassists working in their orbit were required to raise their action again and just use a microphone stuck in front of the bass for amplification. Reintroducing such physical difficulties in playing the instrument immediately caused problems for soloists whose speed and fluency took a step backwards. In the new orthodoxy LaFaro's tradition became anathema and devotees of the style were denounced and ridiculed. Stanley Crouch even went as far as to say that LaFaro played the bass in the way it would be played if jazz had been created in Europe! On top of this the Marsalis clan also put the following notice on the cover of their albums 'This recording was made without usage of the dreaded bass direct'.

The sheer arrogance of this stance is breathtaking - a saxophonist, a trombone player, a trumpet player and a failed drummer-turned journalist telling bassists how THEY should play their instruments! I wonder how Wynton, Delfeayo or Branford would feel if a bassist told them how they should play their horns? Also incorporated into this philosophy of how a bass should sound was a philosophy of what a bass should do - little soloing, or ideally not solo at all. The result of this intervention into the natural evolution of the bass was a production line of bassists who were like dray horses - chugging away, Suppliers of Quarter Notes by Royal Appointment to the self-styled horn playing aristocracy of jazz - or as a bassist friend of mine puts it - 'beboppers labourers'. All the earlier work and research and invention of all those bassists over the years dismissed at the stroke of a revisionist pen, so to speak. The whole neo-classical movement of the 80s set the cause of bass soloing back by about 10 years. Of all the Wynton bass acolytes, Bob Hurst (above left) was the only one who really found a way to combine the demands of the Marsalis crew for the bass to be a one-trick pony yet also develop as a really strong soloist. Unfortunately he ran away to join the Tonight Show circus before he could really make an impact.

But eventually the wholesale dismissal of great bassists because they didn't conform to a narrow ideal of what bassists should do receded, and a new generation of players appeared in the 90s who took freely from both traditions of bass playing and took the instrument into new realms of possibility as far as soloing was concerned.

But despite this, there is still a divided view on bass solos - one being that they are boring and dull, the other that they are always worthy of applause. Both views are equally unwarranted - bass solos can be wonderful interesting creative constructs, and they can be dull and boring - like any instrument, it depends on the soloist as to which qualities of dullness or invention they exhibit. The branding of bass solos as being automatically boring is grossly unfair to the many great soloists who have appeared on the instrument since the music's inception, and grossly unfair to the many great soloists who are performing now.

But equally unjust is the wild applause that sometimes greets dull pedestrian soloing on the bass - this is especially true of double bass. Again it's a bit like the 'talking dog syndrome'' which I referred to in an earlier post - it's not so much what the dog says that's amazing, it's the fact that the dog can talk at all. Some audiences see a bassist playing this huge instrument and are amazed at the fact that the bassist can coax anything out of it apart from a dull thud, and so they greet anything other than a dull thud with thunderous applause. There's a very funny piece called 'bass players offences and fines' which did the rounds a few years ago and included a fine of $25 for 'excessive sweating' - this is very observant since a sweating bassist thudding out basic arpeggios in lieu of a solo is often enough to elicit huge applause from many audiences.

This simple arpeggiation of the changes to a tune often comes under the heading of a 'bass solo' but really this kind of thing just amounts to a speeded up bass line rather than a solo proper, in my opinion. A very good indicator of whether a bass solo stands up to any kind of critical scrutiny - at least over changes - can be determined by imagining the solo played on another instrument - or being sung. If the solo were sung or played on a saxophone, would it still sound good? If not, then the likelihood is that the solo is probably not very good. A good bass solo should have the same qualities of phrasing, logic and construction as a solo on any other pitched instrument. Of course there are exceptions - particularly in the area of more open playing, where the qualities of the bass are used to their fullest extent, and the solo would just not be as effective on another instrument - Dave Holland's Emerald Tears recording would be a classic case in point. But in general I think the 'how would it sound on another instrument?' question is a good litmus test of the qualities inherent in a given bass solo.

There are so many examples of truly great bassists playing truly great solos - many of them up on Youtube - which act as an illustration of how misguided the idea of all bass solos being boring is. From the fully developed post LaFaro virtuosity of Eddie Gomez with Bill Evans, to the post Paul Chambers virtuosity of Peter Washington with Tommy Flanagan. From the effortless swinging suppleness of George Mraz - again with Flanagan - to the complete command of both open arco playing and lyrical soloing over changes of the great Anders Jormin (pictured above left). From the effortless lyricism of Steve Swallow's electric bass in duo with Carla Bley, to the rhythmic power of Dave Holland and his solo rendition of Coltrane's 'Mr. PC'. And two contemporary American masters - the extraordinarily accomplished all rounder Drew Gress, and Scott Colley, whose ability to shape a phrase is the equal of any horn player.

All of these players make a great case for the tradition of bass soloing, and show that it needn't be dull or boring, that the instrument can speak in as powerfully expressive a way as a solo vehicle as any other, and that when the drums do eventually stop, we have something to look forward to rather than fear..............

Monday, October 5, 2009


I’ve just finished writing some politically motivated music or possibly socially motivated music, or possibly politically and socially motivated music. Either way, what’s interesting here is that I’m writing music that is about something rather than music that is purely in the abstract. I found this kind of programmatic writing to be quite difficult to do up to recent years, then the past five years or so I’ve used it more and more and come to enjoy it.

This new music entitled “Fiasco! (Terms and Conditions Still Apply)”, is music inspired, (if “inspired” is the right word for this), by Ireland’s economic collapse. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece called “Terms and Conditions Apply”, that was about the Ireland of 2007. At that point we were riding high on the hog, and the proud possessors of the “Celtic Tiger” (maybe one too many animal analogies there.............), we were the economic miracle country, the one that all other small nations looked at as a shining example of how to do things right. Of course it was all built on sand, sand that was liberally supplied by our government and their cronies in the banks and the property speculation business. Though our country was really proud of this new-found wealth (the Irish were the ultimate nouveau riche), I always felt slightly uncomfortable with the situation, especially given the extraordinary excesses of borrowing and profligate spending by people in even the most humble economic circumstances.

For someone of my generation, coming from a background in which the country had traditionally lived hand to mouth, it was hard to believe that things had really changed so fast, and that the mad spending was something that was a) good and b) sustainable. “It’ll all end in tears”, as my mother used to say, and indeed it has — we’ve gone from being the most nouveau riche of countries to the most lachrymose. There is much weeping and gnashing of teeth going on, but it’s too late — we’re screwed. Screwed by inept and corrupt politicians, and completely immoral, (though when were bankers and property speculators ever moral?) members of the banking profession and construction industry.

My own doubts about the boom were reflected in the 2007 piece “Terms and Conditions Apply”, which was quite an angry piece in the main, and used both audio and visuals, (a first for me with both of these), to make its point — the point being that crazy spending, corrupt politicians, and incompetence in the management of basic services was a combination that was not a good thing for any country to be mixing together. This message was not a popular one in 2007, and though I was proud of the piece itself, and I thought the music came off rather well, the piece didn’t really take off commercially — it had two performances and that was it. If only I’d waited two more years, I could have been riding as high on the hog as any government supported banker of the boom years!

Now I’ve written this companion piece called “Fiasco!”, which will be performed by Métier in Cabinteely House on Thursday the 15th. In writing this new piece I’ve taken a different approach than the previous one, in that I have eschewed the use of audio and visual elements, and I’m relying on the music alone to get the message across regarding what I feel about what’s going on currently. This has been an interesting exercise — when you use audio and visual aids to the music it’s much easier to be explicit to an audience concerning what you’re trying to say. With instrumental music the outcome, in terms of what you’re saying and what the audience is hearing, is not as clear cut. It’s definitely riskier.

But on the other hand you can combine musical elements in all kinds of ways to represent different emotions and thoughts. No doubt the audience will interpret these in different ways, and sometimes in very different ways to the ones that I had intended, but I’m hopeful that the general message of the pieces will be fairly obvious to the audience. And of course the beauty of jazz composition in a situation like this is that you can enrol the help of the players in making the statements that you wish to make, if the players are good enough and sympathetic enough, (and the guys in Métier are both of these things and more), then I think the composer is in a position to make a very strong statement using just pitch harmony and rhythm, and without recourse to speech and sight.

And I’m glad to be able to make this statement - it might not be much in the grand scheme of things, but when we hear a government announce that they haven’t the money to inoculate the girls of the country against cervical cancer, and at the same time revelations about the disgusting use of public money by the Speaker of the House, (such as hiring a limo to take him between different terminals at Heathrow!), for his own personal purposes come into the public domain, AND he doesn’t resign, (we don’t do responsibility and accountability in Ireland), then I feel I have to say something, however small its effect may be.

So, if you’re interested in a bit of agitprop jazz, want to protest against the government (or at least support a protest), or just want to hear some hopefully interesting new music, come down to Cabinteely House on Thursday 15th – the revolution starts there!