Buster Williams & Jay Leonhart Talk Touring With An Upright Bass

(originally published in JazzTimes)

“Is That a Cello?”
INSIDE THE PLIGHT OF THE TOURING ACOUSTIC BASS PLAYER

Acoustic bassists of a certain age will remember Rufus Reid’s step-by-step, photo-illustrated instructions on taking a double bass on a plane, included in his classic book The Evolving Bassist, originally published in 1974. In those days, a traveling bassist could opt to use a fiberglass trunk to transport the instrument in luggage, or simply purchase a half-fare ticket for it and place it in the cabin.

“When I first started traveling, we didn’t have bass cases, we just took the bass on the airplane and put it on a bulkhead seat and strapped it in,” says Buster Williams, 71. Williams, whose Something More group has U.S. and European dates in 2014, has played a prized, century-old Hawkes bass since 1963, when he bought it in London while on tour with Sarah Vaughan. “You never knew what to expect, as far as the flight attendant standing in the way or the captain refusing to allow the bass on the plane. But you always found a way to make it work.”

Later, airlines variously refused to let basses be transported in the cabin. Fast forward to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent heightened security: The upshot was a profusion of confusing size restrictions and additional charges that often varied from airline to airline. As several bassists have recounted, the answer to the gate-security question “Is that a cello?” was always, “Yes.”

Jay Leonhart addressed the traveling bassist’s woes humorously in “Bass Aboard a Plane,” a song from his one-man show, The Bass Lesson. “If you wanna ’cause a problem, if you wanna ’cause some pain,” he sings, “simply go down to your local airport, and try to put a bass aboard a plane. … The ticket lady looks at you in horror, she stares at you in disbelief.”

Not long ago, Leonhart, 73, decided to quit fighting with the airlines and stop flying with his primary bass, an Italian instrument made for the Gibson factory in 1939 and renovated by the Kolstein shop that was formerly owned by George Duvivier. “I’ve left too many basses in storage at airports in the last two years,” he says. “They don’t want your bass on the plane.”

Williams reached the same conclusion: “Up until about five years ago I traveled with my bass. But it became so stressful—the closest to impossible that you can get. If you did take a chance and take your bass on the road, the cost would sometimes outweigh the real practicality of it. And then you’d run into situations where they just refused to take the bass, for no other reason than they’d made a decision not to take basses or cellos.”

So what’s the solution? Some bassists, including Williams, Esperanza Spalding and Dave Holland, have used basses with detachable necks, including David Gage’s Czech-Ease Road Bass, which has an abbreviated body but boasts playing dimensions similar to a standard upright. Many have tried upright electric basses, with varying degrees of satisfaction. Leonhart says he’s been thinking about picking up the electric bass again, at least as a backup, after having played it in the ’70s with guitarist Jim Hall.

Williams and Leonhart, though, both prefer to rent or borrow a good upright for any gig requiring a flight. “I just jump on the plane and arrange it in advance,” Leonhart says. “That means keeping a nice page in your book about where you’re going to try to get a bass from, and who’s going to pay for it.”

Adds Williams, “I have a very stringent tech sheet that specifies an adjustable bridge, and the sort of pickup I want, and the type of bass it should be.”

Flying with a bass could get much easier soon, thanks to the 2012 FAA Modernization and Reform Act, which was slated to go into effect by February. The American Federation of Musicians successfully lobbied for an addition allowing musical instruments to be checked as long as the linear dimensions do not exceed 150 inches and the weight does not exceed 165 pounds, far more lenient than before.

The International Society of Bassists is urging its members to carry a printed copy of the legislation when they travel. “We need the airlines’ support so that musicians can work,” says Madeleine Crouch, the ISB’s general manager. “Airlines could even promote themselves as job creators if they’d only be nice to us!”

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period!” (CD review)

(originally published in JazzTimes)

Jaco Pastorius, “Modern American Music … Period! The Criteria Sessions (Omnivore)

Modern American Music … Period!, released on CD, multicolored vinyl and via download, offers the unfettered 1974 Miami demo sessions for bassist Jaco Pastorius’ 1976 solo debut. These recordings, previously unissued in full, unedited form, have been in the possession of Jaco’s brother Gregory, as Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo, a co-producer of the project, explains in the liner notes.

Jaco, at the time, was 22 and playing R&B with Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders, jazz with saxophonist/trumpeter Ira Sullivan and big-band music with Peter Graves. Within two years, he would make his first appearance on a Weather Report album and play on recordings by Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. Modern American Musicsuggests that nothing would stand in the way of his becoming, as he put it, “the world’s greatest bass player.”

For the demo, Jaco was joined by drummer Bob Economou, pianist Alex Darqui, steel drums players Othello Molineaux and Sir Cederik Lucious and percussionist Don Alias. “Donna Lee,” the jaw-dropping first track from the Epic debut album, is here in not dissimilar form, although it’s completely absent of Don Alias’ congas, which added urgency and interaction to the final version, and it closes with a long harmonics fade-out rather than that familiar segue to “Come On, Come Over.” Several other songs—or concepts for songs—would also reappear on the debut: The beautiful ballad “Continuum” is here twice, once as a stand-alone and once connected to “Havona,” which later landed, in a version with more sharp edges, on Weather Report’s Heavy Weather. There’s also “Kuru,” punchy and hyperactive and without the strings heard on the debut, and “Opus Pocus (Pans #2)” (called simply “Opus Pocus” on the debut), a blast of Caribbean-tinted groove music largely given to the whirling sounds of Molineaux’s pans. The stately, somber “Forgotten Love” here, unlike on the debut, is all Jaco.

The new-to-us tunes don’t quite trump any of the material that made it onto the final 1976 album. “Balloon Song (12-Tone),” with its tricky, speeding piano-bass unison melody, hard-driving groove and loads of open space for the leader’s soloing, comes in two versions, and has Jaco touching on the kind of harmonics derring-do that later came into play on “Portrait of Tracy.” “Time Lapse” is essentially an extended fusion jam, with Jaco madly slamming a riff in tandem with Alias’ churning congas, driven by Economou’s urgent drumming and topped with Darqui’s inside-and-outside Rhodes playing.

Is Modern American Music the holy grail of Jaco recordings? Maybe. The collection does provide revealing, once obscured views of a not-so-secret talent in bloom. It also makes another case—if we needed one—for the degree of influence Jaco exerted on Weather Report, as composer, colorist and rhythm-section driver. And, of course, as a barrier-breaking musical virtuoso.

Nathan East: Consummate Sideman Releases Solo Debut

(originally published in JazzTimes)

NATHAN EAST

“Daft Punk’s Nathan East heads in his own direction,” a
recent headline in a large-circulation newspaper read, announcing the bass
 player’s first solo album, titled simply Nathan East and released through Yamaha. Nice blast of attention
 for the journeyman musician. Truth be told, for three decades East has been a well-known
 session and touring player for the likes of Eric Clapton, Toto and Michael
 Jackson. He also cofounded popular contemporary jazzers Fourplay in 1990, long before 
his steady-pumping bassline helped drive Daft Punk’s catchy,
 eminently danceable “Get Lucky” to mega sales and a Grammy for Record of the
Year.




“Anything to get you a headline,” East says, chuckling, from
 Los Angeles, his home since relocating from San Diego, where he grew up
 and earned a bachelor of music from UC San Diego. “After being in the business for
30 to 35 years you don’t get surprised by anything.




“[Daft Punk] reached out to me,” he continues. “They had put together a list of 
people they wanted to work with. I had just seen Tron: Legacy, so I was
 familiar with their electronica and the fact that nobody knows what they look
 like. [They said,] ‘This is the groove. Let’s throw some ideas out there and we 
could loop it in Pro Tools. We recorded prior to Nile Rodgers putting his
 guitar part on it. Later, they said we have to redo the bass to really lock it
 in with him and get that Chic sound.”




Not long after appearing alongside Daft Punk at the Grammys,
East, 58, is celebrating the completion of a larger career goal. Why the long wait? “I’ve aspired to do
 this for years—for decades,” he says. “My biggest excuse is that I’ve been
 extremely busy. I had to find a time when I wasn’t on the road and I wasn’t
recording somebody’s project.”




The album, with East joined by guitarist
 Michael Thompson, pianist Jeff Babko, organist Tim Carmon, late drummer Ricky Lawson and other
 longtime musical associates, is intentionally rangy. Variously playing his 
five- and six-string
 electric basses as well as an electric upright, East offers new 
takes on old favorites, including two by Stevie Wonder—a reharmonized “Sir
 Duke,” with Ray Parker Jr. on guitar, and “Overjoyed,” with Wonder guesting on harmonica.
Michael McDonald sings “Moondance,” and two Fourplay bandmates appear: pianist Bob
 James on “Moodswing” and guitarist Chuck Loeb on “Sevenate.”

The bassist sings
 on several tracks, including the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” also featuring East’s 13-year-old
 son, Noah, on piano, and Steve Winwood’s “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with Clapton on
 guitar.
“It’s a celebration of my musical relationships—I have
lots of my friends on the album—and these pieces all have special meaning,” East says. “I
 remember playing ‘Moondance’ in my first band. I used to sing that song. With ‘Sir 
Duke,’ I sat in with a big band in Norway last year when I was on tour with 
Toto. I looked around, and everyone was smiling and having so much fun. That
 tune is like an instant love fest.”




East switched from cello to bass at age 14, and began
 playing in his high school jazz band in addition to Top 40 groups around San
Diego. For a while, he tuned his cello like a bass. “I pretended that it was an
 upright,” he says. “It was a weird thing to do.”




His musical interests were diverse—Wes Montgomery, Clapton
and Cream, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, Santana. And he took
 some bass playing cues from the likes of Tower of Power’s Rocco Prestia, Earth,
Wind & Fire’s Verdine White and Paul McCartney, among others.
 After a stint with singer Barry White, East quickly made 
inroads on the L.A. studio scene in the early ’80s, competing against such session 
stalwarts as Abraham Laboriel, Chuck Rainey and Max Bennett.




For his solo album, he handily demonstrates his skills on his instrument, particularly on the African-tinted “Madiba,” one of several tunes he
co-wrote (including the Fourplay favorite “101 Eastbound” and “Daft Funk”), and “America the
Beautiful,” which opens with his unaccompanied lead and chordal work.




But he made the album a song-focused effort. Says East, “I think
everybody expects a bass player to kind of jump out there and [expects] it to 
be a bass fest, and so I kind of consciously opted not to go that route.”

 

John Patitucci Talks “Melodic Arpeggios” (his new ebook) and online lessons

(originally published in JazzTimes)

GearHead: John Patitucci’s New ebook and Online Lessons

Technology beyond technique

John Patitucci, the first-call double bassist, bass guitar virtuoso and current member of Wayne Shorter’s critically acclaimed quartet, draws from a wide variety of teaching experiences in Melodic Arpeggios and Triad Combining for Bass, a recent Kindle eBook published by David Gage String Instruments, the renowned New York bass shop.

The book, aimed at double bassists and bass guitarists alike, is being released in multiple instalments. Episode One offers six chapters, with exercises ranging from moderately easy to challenging; the lessons open with a focus on intonation and single-string shifting before moving to arpeggios and closing with a major arpeggio etude based on a theme by Bottesini. The project is something of a sequel to Patitucci’s book 60 Melodic Etudes.

“I felt like it would be good to do a book that would show the directions I’ve been going as a teacher and as a player,” Patitucci said recently from Atlanta, where he was playing sessions for a recording by pianist and composer Ted Howe. “A lot of books offer exercises in a very rudimental, up-and-down technical way. I wanted to develop a book using arpeggios in a very melodic way. Instead of just sounding like you’re running scales, you have the melody that arpeggios can bring. That has been influenced by Wayne—his stuff sounds like these combinations of sounds and arpeggios. There is obviously some chromaticism and scales mixed in, but the lyricism from the way he combines arpeggios is quite astounding. Obviously it’s a little harder to get around on the bass, but it’s a worthy challenge.”

Episode One also includes an emphasis on hearing and understanding intervals. “That helps with ear training,” the bassist said. “Using your ear to identify what intervals are coming at you is a powerful thing.”

The Kindle project isn’t Patitucci’s first foray into new media. Last year, he launched an interactive bass school through ArtistWorks; the online program has Patitucci provide video tutorials and written materials to students all over the globe, and give commentary on students’ work. “It takes kids from, ‘This is how you stand and hold it,’ all the way through grooving and tradition and jazz playing and information about Brazilian and Afro-Cuban stuff,” he said. “There are hundreds of lessons there, and basically a bass book of downloadable stuff you can get.”

The end game, Patitucci explained, is always to lead players in the direction of freedom, achieving technical mastery and accomplishing high-level “hearing” in order to free themselves up to more fully play in the moment, to connect directly with the music and fellow musicians: “If you’re struggling technically, it gets in the way of your rhythm and everything else. It’s all really about tools that will help you play more musically and expressively, with more richness, no matter what style. It’s to help you be freed up on the instrument no matter what music you play on the bass, to get around freely.

The Brooklyn native, 53, who spent his teenage years in Northern California and later lived in Los Angeles before returning to the New York area, has plenty more on his CV in terms of education. He recently began his second full year as an artist-in-residence at the Boston-based Berklee Global Jazz Institute, headed by his Shorter Quartet bandmate Danilo Pérez. A music professor at the City College of New York for a decade, Patitucci, who followed his hero Ron Carter into that position, earlier served as artistic director of the Bass Collective in New York. He has also worked with the Thelonious Monk Institute and Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program.

To some degree, Patitucci views today’s culture of formal jazz education as akin to an alternative mentorship. He thinks jazz degree programs might be the next-best substitute for the type of informal on-the-road training once more widely available to younger players.

“Schools are trying to pick up the slack,” he explained. “Nothing can replace being on a gig for years and going on the road and playing hundreds of gigs, but we’re trying to do our best to mentor and put students in performing situations and teach them history and practice and theory—and the practicality of it.”

Give the Bass Player Some: Ron Carter & Esperanza Spalding Top 77th Annual DownBeat Readers Poll

Veteran bassist Ron Carter and young bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding, a Grammy-winning star, grabbed the top spots in this year’s DownBeat Readers Poll.

Carter, an enormously influential double bass master heard on thousands of jazz recordings, a successful solo artist but probably best known for his association with Miles Davis’s second great quintet in the ’60s, was ushered into the Hall of Fame, just beating blues legend B.B. King.

Spalding, a gifted vocalist, upright and electric bassist, and songwriter who has wowed audiences as a leader and as a member of Joe Lovano’s US FIVE band (#14 in the Jazz Group category), won in the categories of Jazz Artist and Jazz Album of the Year, the latter for her pop-infused “Radio Music Society.”

Interestingly, neither won in the two bass categories: Christian McBride won for (double) Bass, while Stanley Clarke, who rode Return to Forever to stardom, won for Electric Bass.

Wayne Shorter, Carter’s old colleague in that Miles band, won in two categories — Soprano Saxophone, and Composer

The more than 17,000 voters in the poll, somewhat surprisingly, honored the Dave Brubeck Quartet in the Jazz Group category, and Big Band honors went to the Maria Schneider Orchestra, whose leader also won for Arranger.

(Complete list of winners)

Other honorees:

  • Trumpet: Wynton Marsalis
  • Trombone: Trombone Shorty
  • Alto Saxophone: Kenny Garrett
  • Tenor Saxophone: Sonny Rollins
  • Baritone Saxophone: James Carter
  • Clarinet: Anat Cohen
  • Flute: Hubert Laws
  • Piano: Brad Mehldau
  • Keyboard: Herbie Hancock
  • Organ: Joey DeFrancesco
  • Guitar: Pat Metheny
  •  Violin: Regina Carter
  • Drums: Jack DeJohnette
  • Vibes: Gary Burton
  • Percussion: Airto Moreira
  • Miscellaneous Instrument: Toots Thielemans
  • Female Vocalist: Diana Krall
  • Record label: Blue Note
  • Blues Artist or Group: B.B. King
  • Blues Album: Wynton Marsalis & Eric Clapton, “Play the Blues: Live From Jazz at Lincoln Center”
  • Beyond Artist or Group: Robert Glasper
  • Beyond Album: Robert Glasper Experiment, “Black Radio”

For more on the poll, including interviews with the winners, get the mag’s December issue or click here.

Christian McBride Trio at the Mahaffey Theater (Concert review)

(Recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)

(photos by Bridge Burke)

What kind of double bass tone does Christian McBride pursue? It’s the sound of chopping wood, as the then-young bassist described it to me for an interview at the dawn of his career as a solo artist.

Two decades later, McBride, justifiably the most recorded and most honored jazz bassist of his generation, still boasts that appealing sound on upright, a voice heavily influenced by Ray Brown and Ron Carter but now uniquely identifiable as his own. His beefy, earthy tone, often jaw-dropping technical abilities, and skills as an improviser, composer and bandleader were well displayed during a Nov. 2 concert at the comfortable, well-appointed Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg.

Christian McBride, backstage at the 2012 Newport Jazz Festival

McBride was joined by a pair of strikingly talented young musicians, pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., for two impressive sets’ worth of standards and original compositions. Sands, 23, throughout displayed astonishing chops that were sometimes reminiscent of the likes of Oscar Peterson, and he also showed a lighter, more genteel touch, in the vein of the late Billy Taylor, one of the New Haven, Conn., native’s early teachers. Owens, 29, originally from Jacksonville, Fla., demonstrated precise, intuitive trap set work, throwing unexpected accents and bomb drops into the mix, sometimes switching to brushes, and at one point playing barehanded.

Unlike some recent electric-jazz ventures, on which McBride has incorporated bass guitar and fretless bass, his new trio emphasizes acoustic bebop, hard bop and swing. Much of the evening’s music was drawn from McBride’s new CD, due early next year on the Mack Avenue label.

The trio offered standards and familiar pieces: “Monk’s “I Mean You,” featuring a furious opening unison riff and a trading-fours section; “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World”; “My Favorite Things,” limned with cascading piano; Billy Taylor’s aptly titled “Easy Walker,” with Owens’ derring-do on brushes; “I Have Dreamed” (from the musical The King and I), on which McBride bowed the melody; and, on the encore, Benny Golson’s “Killer Joe.”

McBride, too, brought smartly turned originals, including laidback, starting-stopping opener “The Duhty Blues” and “I Guess I’ll Have to Forget,” a ballad (originally recorded for his 2000 Sci-Fi album) on which his solo started slowly, in a melodic, folkish, vein before speeding up for a bluesy feel. The trio also offered a nod to funk and R&B, near the end of the show, courtesy of a version of Johnny Taylor’s “Who’s Making Love” that also referenced Michael Jackson’s “Gonna Be Starting Something” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.”

McBride, of course, was the show’s star, alternating robust walking grooves with speedy runs, chords, slides and plucked harmonics clusters, and taking time for friendly chats with the enthusiastic audience. He never disappoints, and his latest band, like its predecessors, is worth seeking out.

Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (CD review)

(recently published in JazzTimes; direct link)

Marcus Miller, “Renaissance” (Concord Jazz)

Fastest, most melodic thumb in jazz-funk or not—and on many days, he deserves that title—bassist-producer-composer Marcus Miller wields that digit in a manner that’s impossible to ignore. He does that instantly identifiable thing he does with great panache and high musicality from the get-go on Renaissance, his first studio recording since 2008’s Marcus.

Title aside, Miller’s latest is more about the new old-school than the new new-school. That is, he nods to the ’70s, starting with the deep funk of “Detroit,” a bass-out-front piece that often has the leader playing in unison with guitarist Adam Agati and two horn players, alto saxophonist Alex Han and trumpeter Maurice Brown. The music of the aforementioned decade is also alive on “CEE-TEE-EYE,” a partial homage to the jazz-rock crossover of Creed Taylor’s CTI label; a lively take on War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness,” bolstered by the percussion of Ramon Yslas, Kris Bowers’ creatively rambling piano and snatches of reggae anthem “Get Up, Stand Up”; and the album closer, an unaccompanied version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

While hardly a variety show, the disc handily shows off Miller’s agility, as he skates from the bottom-thrusting “Redemption,” with keys/horn lines reminiscent of Joe Zawinul, to “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song),” featuring rubbery fretless bass à la Jaco, breathy vocals courtesy of Gretchen Parlato and Rubén Blades, and a rhythmic riff hinting at “Manteca.” “February,” featuring an extended solo by Han, is one of Miller’s most affecting ballads, while he amps up the hard rock, led by guitarist Adam Rogers, on “Jekyll & Hyde,” and uses his bass clarinet to lead “Gorée (Go-ray),” a tender-to-raucous piece inspired by a visit to the titular island, once a departure point for Africans forced into slavery. Dr. John even stops by for the bumping and thumping “Tightrope.” Nice catch.