Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Double Bass, How Low Can You Go?

Casting Shadows: Coltrane and Garrison
From the 16th century to the end of the 19th century, the double bass was like the grandfather clock of music: tall, staid, making its regular noises in the back of the ensemble. Like most of the string section, it was either played with a bow (arco) or without (pizzicato), although most often the former. And when it was plucked, it was used to make a gentle sound in rhythm with the music.

The unamplified double bass has always had a volume problem, and with the rise of jazz in the 1890's, it was often replaced by the tuba, which had a better chance of cutting through the cacophony. As jazz distanced itself from its marching band roots, the string bass rose in prominence, with players developing a percussive slapping style that allowed the bassline to be heard.

As African-American musicians were essentially barred from the academy in those early years, it also must be said that teaching yourself slap bass is a lot easier than learning to use a bow. Throughout the 20th century, the music grew more complex and the players more skilled, and masters like Jimmy Blanton (in the Duke Ellington orchestra) brought a new level of prominence to the instrument. Paul Chambers, one of the finest bassists of all time, essentially traversed the history of bass in jazz, starting on the tuba and then switching to the double bass.

In his formative years, Chambers actually had some training from the bassist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and became one of the first jazz bassists to regularly play arco. He went on to play with dozens of the most acclaimed leaders in jazz during the 50's and early 60's, including extensive work with both Miles Davis and John Coltrane, before his various addictions slowed his meteoric career. In 1969, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 33.

On his breakthrough album Giant Steps, Coltrane paid Chambers the ultimate tribute by naming a smoking tune after him called Mr. P.C. It became a farewell, however - Chambers was out of the band shortly after and was replaced first by Reggie Workman and then Jimmy Garrison, who played with Coltrane until the saxophonist's death from cancer in 1967.

Jimmy Garrison had a more aggressive style than Chambers, and was the perfect bassist to back up Trane as his music grew more experimental and sometimes even confrontational. In the early 60's, while the Beatles were singing Besame Mucho in Hamburg, the Stones were learning the chords to Little Red Rooster, and James Brown was in search of the funk, Garrison, Coltrane and co. were storming Europe with a live set that truly rocked.

Mr. P.C. became the centerpiece of many shows, often stretching to 25 or 30 minutes, and regularly brought the house down with blistering solos from all four members. These performances remained in the ether until 1979, when Pablo Records posthumously released one of the dates as The Paris Concert. Maybe that was just as well, because it would have been difficult for many people in the early 60's to truly comprehend the import of what was taking place.

For me as a teenager, jazz was basically chill-out music - Miles's Kind Of Blue and In A Silent Way were essential soundtracks to periods of decompression after days in high school or at a crappy summer job. Coltrane I mainly knew from the great double album reissue of his 50's work with the smooth Red Garland Trio. Then came Mr. P.C. played live in Paris, and it was like hearing the birth of punk. The key was Garrison's bad attitude during his monumental solo, which comes about seven minutes in, after McCoy Tyner's sparkling and cogent turn on the piano.

Garrison starts out with the bow, at first accompanied by Elvin Jones's splashy cymbal work, and then on his own. Running riffs up and down the neck for a couple of minutes, it's not long before he starts ripping the horsehair the wrong way across the strings, producing a ratcheting noise, and then bowing furiously, sometimes combining strings for dissonant effects. As he goes on, he digs further into the groove, like a one man Bomb Squad, creating fractured melodies and rhythms. And then at 12:48, it happens: he throws the bow on the stage.

It took me a few listens to understand what was happening and to picture it in my mind's eye. When a classical musician needs to switch from arco to pizzicato, he or she quietly slips the bow into a special holster or gently lays it on the music stand. But the fury of Garrison's inspiration, and maybe his overall fury, is such that he has no time for such niceties. It's as if he's saying, "I don't need your bow and the European classical tradition it represents to make MY music." After the bow hits the floor, there's a moment of stunned silence as he starts plucking, and then an ovation. If he had been in the American South in 1962, perhaps he would have been booed off stage or worse, but the enlightened Parisian audience applauds.

The rest of Garrison's solo lasts less than a minute, but the gauntlet had been firmly thrown. Years of oppression and pain are kicked to the curb with a bit of wood and horsehair. The way I hear it, he could not have made a bolder statement if he had snapped the delicate wood over his knee. This is our music, he seems to be saying, and we will play it the way we choose. It doesn't get more punk than that, and if the moment seems microcosmic, revolutions and even wars have been sparked with smaller tinder.

Jimmy Garrison's career was relatively quiet after Coltrane's death, but he certainly made some noise as a member of Coltrane's great quartet. Coltrane, who set so much in motion, was only 40 when he died. Today would have been his 88th birthday. 

I'd love to know who took the spectacular picture I used to illustrate this post. Let me know if you know!

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