Jazz Bassists on Parade: David Finck, Ben Wolfe, Anne Mette Iversen, Bill Moring

Jazz sessions led by bassists long ago stopped being the exception to the rule.

Notable bass-playing sidemen — from Ron Carter and Dave Holland (Miles Davis) to Charlie Haden (Ornette Coleman), from Christian McBride to practically every four-string anchor who’s backed Chick Corea, including Stanley Clarke, John Patitucci and Avishai Cohen — successfully graduated from character actor to lead roles, applying distinctive, readily recognized tonal conceptions and compositional approaches to their own projects and tours.

Last year was no exception, with a flood of fine bass-led CDs, including the eclectic Esperanza (Heads Up), a mix of jazz, Latin, Brazilian, pop and funk from rising star Esperanza Spalding, also an affecting singer; Richard Bona‘s rambunctious, live Bona Makes You Sweat (Decca); Charlie Haden‘s Americana-rooted  Rambling Boy (Decca); and  Todd Coolman‘s Perfect Strangers (ArtistShare), an unusual project incorporating tunes penned by little-known composers (see my earlier post).

Also notable were a pair of ambitious sets of compositions and arrangements — Windy City musician Larry Gray’s 1,2,3 (Chicago Sessions), a trio recording with guitarist John Moulder and drummer Charles Heath, and Roberto Occhipinti‘s jazz/Latin/Brazilian/classical project Yemaya (ALMA).

I reviewed several of the above for major music publications.

Herewith, a quartet of other bass-led CDs deserving of greater attention:

david-finck1The David Finck Quartet, Future Day (Soundbrush) — Finck, a reliably supportive presence on sessions by Latin and Brazilian jazz artists, offers a singing tone and typically sturdy rhythm work on this top-shelf collaboration with vibraphonist Joe Locke, pianist Tom Ranier and drummer Joe La Barbera.

The swing, on tunes like “Four Flags,” with aggressive solo turns by guests Jeremy Pelt, on trumpet, and Bob Sheppard, on tenor sax, is clean and hard driving. Locke, throughout, is a wonder – casually virtuosic and, on the gorgeous “For All We Know” and elsewhere, he turns in improvisations marked by clever twists and unexpected phrasings.

The arrangements, too, offer pleasant surprises, including a 5/4 version of “Nature Boy” (a redesign suggested by La Barbera);  a haunting take on Wayne Shorter’s “Black Eyes”; and the closing “Firm Roots,” by Cedar Walton, with more bracing improvisations  by Finck and La Barbera.

(Finck’s next appearances: April 25, San Raphael , California with the Manhattan Transfer; April 26, Denver, with the Manhattan Transfer; May 16, Washington DC with Sheila Jordan; May 22, Cambridge, Mass with Steve Kuhn Trio; May 29-June 1, Blue Note New York with John Faddis)

ben-wolfeBen Wolfe, No Strangers Here (MaxJazz) — Wolfe, best known as an eminently reliable, steady-beat wood chopper for the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall and Wynton Marsalis, mixes and matches his quartet (tenor and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Luis Perdomo, drummer Greg Hutchinson) with a string quartet and several guests on a set of dynamic originals.

The strings blend gorgeously with the band on the vintage-sounding, slow-swimming title track (and elsewhere), and Branford Marsalis raises the artistry of the proceedings even higher, playing soprano on the strolling “Milo” and tenor on “The Filth,” a dirty, twisting blues. Trumpeter Terrell Stafford also makes impressive guest shots, on the start-stop contours of opener “The Minnick Rule” and the aptly titled closer “Groovy Medium.”

anne-metteAnne Mette Iversen: AMI Quartet with 4Corners, Best of the West/AMI Quartet, Many Places (BJU Records) — Band meets string quartet, too, on Best of the West, a heady jazz-meets-classical outing led by Danish-born NYC bassist Anne Mette Iversen. New York/New Orleans tenor saxophonist John Ellis turns in a wonderfully buoyant conversation with the rhythm section and strings on the opening “North” and the searching “North West”; and Iversen’s sensitive work as an improviser is showcased on “North East.”Synchronicity is the byword for this set of intense, often intensely beautiful music.

Also included in this two-disc release is Many Places, which has the same quartet, absent of the strings, sounding considerably more loose and relaxed, and turning even more creative. The bright, swinging “Out the Atlantic” and the delicate “The Square in Ravello” are just two of many gems composed by the leader.

billmoringBill Moring & Way Out East, Spaces in Time (Owl) — The two-horn line of trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxophonist Tim Armacost frontloads Moring’s second CD with plenty of grit and heft, starting with funky opener “Sweat,” penned by Walrath.

Moring shows off his talents as a composer on the ballad-to-Latin piece, “Mary Lynn,” which opens with bowed bass and has Walrath turning in a muted solo; the pensive ballad “A Space in Time,” glued together, like other tunes, by Steve Allee’s electric keys work; and the chunky “iHop,” cued open with a grinding bass line and drummer Steve Johns’ chunky backbeat. The quintet drives furiously on Ornette Coleman’s “The Disguise.”

Todd Coolman, on Perfect Strangers, and Jazz Education (and Live Tonight on WKCR)

Todd Coolman, the journeyman jazz bassist and director of the jazz program at Purchase College (SUNY) will be heard live tonight at 8 on WKCR, 89.9 FM in New York. todd-coolman1

Show host Sharif Abdus-Salaam will talk with Coolman about his latest CD, last year’s Perfect Strangers. Listeners not in the NYC area can tune in here.

The disc, released on ArtistShare, a label that lets fans fund and directly participate in recording projects, has to count as one of 2008’s most unusual, if not most provocative, releases.

Coolman solicited tunes, online, from composers worldwide. Once he chose the compositions to be included in the project, he took several name musicians into the studio, and together they tweaked arrangements and played the tunes. He referred to his group, with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Jim McNeely and drummer John Riley, as the Learning Community Quintet.

The result is a collection of vigorously played multicolor jazz, from the aptly titled, pleasantly grooving  “Crescent City Ditty” to pretty ballad “Pastorale,” built on a variety of surprisingly potent new voices. Alexander and Lynch work well together as front-line horns, and the saxophonist turns in a series of particularly well-constructed solos.

The music was penned by previously unknown jazz composers, ranging in age from 17 to 67, Coolman told me during a recent interview.

“I think I received somewhere between 15 and 20 compositions altogether,” he said. “This was the first-ever such venture for me. It’s probably unprecedented. And in some respects, it’s experimental. I’m hopeful that other composers would be inspired to participate in something like this in the future, should I do a volume two.”

Coolman, during our conversation, talked at length about the project, and about the path he has taken, from classical music student at Indiana University to orchestral gigs in Mexico to backing the likes of Sonny Stitt and Zoot Sims in Chicago to writing music books to creating Grammy-winning liner notes for the boxed set Miles Davis Quintet: 1965-1968. Much of what he had to say will be included in a  magazine feature slated for publication in March.

We also talked about a common concern of jazz educators: More and more musicians are graduating with jazz degrees, but the opportunities for those students to hone their skills by playing professionally with older mentors are shrinking.

“Not only is that disappointing, but it’s frightening,” he said. “It’s a huge dilemma, I think, especially in the area of a profound absence of both what I call apprenticeship positions and mentorship situations. In (former) days, all of your elders were your mentors. They were the ones that would put their arms around you and help you through and into this music, in all kinds of ways. Some taught by example, some taught orally. Some were mean, some were supportive. It took all kinds.

“There was an opportunity to grow and learn your skills with experts on a daily basis,” Coolman added. “I feel really very badly that young musicians are not being afforded that learning and development tool, and that the industry has been complicit in creating bandleaders and creating ‘geniuses’ and bestowing that (label) on people who haven’t really learned the craft yet.

“Up until recent times, these kinds of mentorship and apprenticeship opportunities had always existed in jazz music, from the beginning,” he said. “Starting in the early ’80s, that began to disappear. Guys in my generation are so lucky to at least have had that experience.”

So with opportunities for mentorships and live performing shrinking, why should a young musician pursue a formal  jazz education?

“We have to quit thinking of college as a vocational school,” Coolman said. “College, to me, is a place where you go to learn something, to develop intellectual and social skills so that you can become a contributing member of society. No one needs to go to college to learn to play jazz, anyway. In the same respect, college doesn’t create a brilliant economist.

“When I interview candidates for our program, I ask them if there’s any single thing in this world besides jazz music that they could conceivably be happy doing. If the answer is yes, then I urge them to pursue that. (I tell them) If you feel like the only way you can be actualized is to pursue a career in jazz performance, then we can help you along the way. But we can’t guarantee anything.”

Coolman’s next gig is this Monday, Jan. 12, at the National Arts Club in New York City, with a quartet led by trumpeter Jon Faddis. The group also includes pianist David Hazeltine and drummer Dion Parson. Seating is limited, and reservations are required. More info.

Later this month, he plays the Playboy Jazz Cruise with Moody, pianist Renee Rosnes and drummer Adam Nussbaum.

For his complete itinerary, click here.

In addition to Perfect Strangers, Coolman is heard on the following recent CDs:

  • James Moody and Hank Jones Quartet, Our Delight (IPO, 2008);
  • Rob Schneiderman, Glass Enclosure (Reservoir, 2008)
  • Pete Malinverni, Joyful! (ArtistShare, 2007)
  • Gerald Wilson Orchestra, Monterey Moods (Mack Avenue, 2007)