In the last two weeks, Boston has been center stage for a celebration of the Bass: funky, slinky, plush or fierce – it all was on dazzling display at several area concerts featuring extraordinary women and men of the bass persuasion.
First up was the quietly dignified performance by young jazz bassist Linda Oh, who joined Cuban pianist Fabian Almazan and drummer Henry Cole at the Regattabar in Cambridge for a whirlwind of cross cultural jazz. This was a performance to be cherished, like a small jewel held and examined in one’s hand. Linda Oh has a special gift for taking a melodic line and weaving it into colorful blocks of musical ideas and rhythmic patterning- making it all her own. Take, for instance, the trio’s performance this evening of the traditional Cuban Danzon, “Tres Lindos.” Pianist Almazan started the piece with an understated exploration of its simple melody, leaping and frolicking lightly on small waves of running notes and soft chords. Cole, a young drummer of superb adaptable flow, sprung to life with quick lithe cymbals and playful snare accents to push the dance forward. Finally, Oh joined in with warm resonant plucks that spilled up and over the banks of the flowing melody. In her lengthy solo, Oh began by re-stating the melody in the lower regions of her acoustic bass. She then put that melody through her bass mill: chopping and cutting; plucking and pumping; giving space, time and pauses their due. Her concatenations (both sweet and pungent) somehow returned naturally to the original Danzon melody, now transported to another realm. It was fascinating to hear how she created melodic tension – breaking into a smile as she swayed with her acoustic bass to Cole’s kinetic grooves. Oh is a bassist to watch, as is Cole and Almazan. Almazan just released his new recording entitled Rhizome [Artistshare]. Talking to Oh following this performance, she mentioned that she also will have a new recording out shortly, with strings. Oh is quietly and confidently making her mark and for good reasons- she pulls you into her musical world with the glowing lyricism of her bass playing.
Speaking of being drawn into other worlds, it could only take an intrepid master like Dave Holland to stand on stage (as he did last week at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory) and play a spellbinding solo acoustic bass concert. Holland has frequently taught and performed at NEC as an artist-in residence, and this past week he was again involved in teaching young bass players (ages 14-18 -many of whom were in adoring attendance at this concert) as part of NEC’s summer “Jazz Lab” educational program. How is it possible, you may ask, that a solo acoustic bass performance can hold an audience riveted? Simple. First, you have one of the most beautifully sounding halls in the world – NEC’s Jordan Hall – which delivers the sound of a solo acoustic bass in breathtaking and resonant fashion.
Second, you have Holland, one of the great masters of the instrument, drawing you into his world with his meticulous technical skill, his unerring tone and touch and his ability to range from an almost silent harmonic pluck to a careening mass of nervy string urgency. (For two great audiophile recordings of Holland’s, check out his 2001 recording entitled Not For Nothin [ECM] which features Holland with his adventurous big band. For a smaller scale treat, take a listen to Holland playing with the legendary pianist Hank Jones and drummer Billy Higgins in their little gem entitled The Oracle [EmArcy Records]).
Holland commenced his solo performance with an “improvised” piece commenting that “I hope it will take me some place interesting.” Interesting indeed! The “tune” started with a simple triad of notes, fleshy and plangent, which got sliced and diced in Holland’s own bass “mill” into thickets of runs and sudden blasts of wood/string whacks (which had Holland slapping his foot in tempo). After this sonically adventurous pulping, the simple strand of a melody returned renewed and stripped down to its essence. Holland concluded his spontaneous creation with a final deep note which lingered and resonated into the silent hall. Another highlight was Holland’s version of Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.” Holland’s version commenced with the repetition of one heavy low string drop that eventually led into an evolving slow blues vamp: walking blues at its most laconic and resonant. The bass sounds that emerged from Holland’s bass on this tune were like heavy moths caught in a shaft of light at night: floating, careening and flitting with their big, awkward wings. The sprawling bass captured all of the comedy and heavy deep bluesy essence of this classic tune.
For the second half of the concert, Holland was joined by NEC faculty vocalist Dominque Eade, whose quicksilver and limpid vocals were a challenging foil for Holland’s pungent bass foundation.
One highlight was their duet of “Equality,” a composition based on the poetry of Maya Angelou, (who recently passed away) and to whom Holland eloquently dedicated the performance to. Their duet was a moving tribute, with Holland plucking and riffing underneath Eade’s lithe vocals. At one point, departing from Angelou’s incendiary lyrics, Eade focused on her wondrous scatting (playing with her fingers an imaginary sax), that sent high treble sounds flying like night time sparks (all clear and crystalline above Holland’s soft scampering below). Their fabulous duet performance concluded with a rollicking Don Cherry tune taken up at a brusque pace by Eade, whose lucid scatting and out-of-tempo rhythms complimented Holland’s effusive bass swipes. At one point, Holland did some knee bends next to his bass to emphasize his joyous, incendiary pulls and strums (as he grinned from ear to ear).
Such joy of music making and incendiary bass sounds were also the best way to describe an evening of “Bass Slam” celebration held on June 14th at the Berklee Performance Center, where electric bass took center stage. In culmination of a weeklong instructional and performance program at Berklee, this “Bass Slam” concert featured two dazzling virtuosos of the electric bass: Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey, joined by drummers Derico Watson and J.D. Blair. Their performance was a love fest of bass slam, gleeful exploration and musical comradeship.
The mood was infectious from the start: Wooten all funky and slinky on his huge staccato punctuations while Bailey complimented with softer, more pliable harmonics and melodic lines. The two bass players bobbed and weaved in each solo take: Wooten dazzling with relentless bass riffs and searing runs while Bailey was soft as velvet in his plush string tone. They careened through a funky tribute to Jaco Pastorius on Pastorius’ “Portrait of Tracy” (with Bailey commenting to Wooten: ”I’ll meet you at the end”) with Wooten soloing in a beautiful rounded tone complimenting his precise and combustable string touch. This was followed by a delectable slinky composition called “Cool Groove” (taken from Wooten and Bailey’s long history of collaboration). The piece ignited with Wooten playing soft and agile, with all sorts of creative jamming of strings; hits of wood; electronic pedal enhancements and mercurial strums up the top of his bass (that only Pastorius could have imagined). Bailey followed with a solo built on sultry harmonic holds, buoyant runs and beautifully soft radiant tones. At one point, Bailey incorporated riffs and melodies from an entire Beatles and Rolling Stones’ catalogue into his solo- to the delight of the young bass hipsters in attendance. Watson and Blair were perfect companions for this heady adventure with their rock steady drum hits ricocheting off Wooten and Bailey’s kinetic grooves. The breakneck dialogue continued until the final closing number, in which Wooten and Bailey held a thunderous crescendo to the ringing applause of the bass adoring crowd. The joyous celebration of the Bass in Boston shall continue…