Bass-Less Accusations

Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Another bolt of conventional wisdom holds that wherever three or more jazz musicians are gathered, a bass player shall be among them. Put those credos together and you might come to this conclusion: Any jazz group bold enough to venture into the world without a bassist is bound to realize, all the more clearly, a bassist’s crucial role in the music. There have surely been countless jam sessions, and even a few dispiriting gigs, where such a truth hit home.

Yet every rule has its exceptions. And it’s worth remembering that the string bass was adopted into the standard jazz rhythm section rather than born to it. There were no bass players on Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, or in most other contemporaneous recordings. Nor was there a bassist in the Benny Goodman Quartet a decade later. By that point, the mid-1930s, the bass had largely edged out the tuba in jazz, thanks to stylistic shifts as well as advances in recording technology. It would take the quantum leap of bebop, though, before bassists were de rigueur: When the pianist is dancing over bar lines and the drummer is dropping bombs, it helps to have a steady voice in play.

What, then, would prompt a group to eschew a bassist after 1940 or so? Sometimes the decision might have been made to foster a sense of intimacy, or showcase a degree of virtuosity. Both of those ideas were probably involved when Lester Young recorded his famous Verve sides with Nat “King” Cole and Buddy Rich. Cole was a pianist schooled in the style of ex-Goodman wingman Teddy Wilson, and Rich was a drummer possessed not only of prodigious chops but also a sharp set of ears. And while the sessions took place in ’46, they show no signs of bebop’s encroachment. The pulse feels fluid but fixed.

The advent and aftermath of free-jazz opened up more possibilities for bass-less ensembles, and at least one generation of musicians has developed some sophisticated accompanying strategies. When clarinetist Don Byron decided to pay homage to the Young-Cole-Rich confab with Ivey-Divey, a Blue Note release, he enlisted musicians with a handle on both the ebullient imperative of swing and the elastic properties of the avant-garde: pianist Jason Moran and drummer Jack DeJohnette. What was especially striking about their album, which grabbed a first-place finish in the 2004 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll, was its refusal to acknowledge any binary split between “inside” and “outside.” Tempos and tonalities were free to slacken or constrict, in ways that felt unexpected but never arbitrary. This effect would have been much harder to pull off with a bassist, though these musicians could probably have found a way.

If the absence of a bassist compounds the responsibility of the other rhythm section players, what specific skills does it demand? For a pianist, one answer might be greater range and ambidexterity, except that doesn’t quite cover it. Fred Hersch doesn’t want for either of those qualities, and yet he made a telling decision when the regular bassist in his trio, Drew Gress, had to miss the opening set at a Village Vanguard engagement a few years ago: Hersch opted to play solo piano rather than in a duo with drummer Nasheet Waits. This was neither a poor reflection on Waits, who can handle any setting, nor a dodge by Hersch, who has recorded with a bass-less chamber trio, Thirteen Ways. It was simply an acknowledgment that chemistry can’t be counted on without some preliminary testing.

Along similar lines, it’s no surprise that the high-water mark for bass-less bands has been set by a trio with more than 25 years of collaborative history. Consisting of Paul Motian on drums, Joe Lovano on tenor sax and the guitarist Bill Frisell, this group has recorded a number of stunningly good albums, all variations on a theme of exploratory euphony. (The latest example is Time and Time Again, released last year on ECM.) Still, the best way to savor the group is at the Vanguard, where the lack of a bass player comes across as pure, tangible opportunity. Frisell’s ghostly arpeggios and judicious electronic loops usually inhabit the open space without ever quite filling it. Motian, meanwhile, deserves equal credit for what amounts to a percussive treatise on the space-time continuum. (That analogy brings to mind the fantastic Verve album from 1999, Momentum Space, featuring pianist Cecil Taylor, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman and drummer Elvin Jones; no bassist need apply.)

Sparseness has been a hallmark of some other bass-less bands in recent years. Barondown, a group led by drummer Joey Baron in the ’90s, entrusted its bottom end to its only other members, trombonist Steve Swell and tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. Around the same time, Baron also had a band called Miniature, with cellist Hank Roberts and saxophonist Tim Berne, who were given to prowling the bass clef with incisors bared. It makes some sense that Baron would be influenced by Motian. It makes further sense that Eskelin and Berne would go on to lead serious bass-less groups of their own.

But Eskelin’s trio with accordionist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black is hardly a minimalist proposition, and neither are Berne’s various groups with keyboardist Craig Taborn. Here the traditional role of a bassist isn’t substituted for, but rather superseded; Parkins and Taborn don’t compensate for the absence so much as obliterate the idea of it. Small wonder that Taborn also largely defines the dynamic of Underground, tenor saxophonist Chris Potter’s bass-less jazz-rock band.

For some groups, leaving out a bassist enables greater rhythmic intricacies, more complex structures, and a tighter network of interaction. This was once the case for the Tiny Bell Trio, the Balkan-flavored band that trumpeter Dave Douglas led in the ’90s, with Black and guitarist Brad Shepik. These days it’s even more clearly the case for Fieldwork, the brilliant collective that consists of Vijay Iyer on piano, Steve Lehman on alto saxophone and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

Early this year, Motian headlined the Vanguard with Moran and Potter, and the thrilling result confirmed that there were myriad ways to approach a bass-less bandstand. On a couple of balladic originals, the group interaction was limpid and pliable. On Thelonious Monk’s “Trinkle, Tinkle,” it was sly and jagged. Then came a Charlie Parker tune, “Au Privave,” which drove headlong toward some of the most strenuous free improvisation I’ve seen from either Motian or Moran. When it was over, the cheers in the room suggested that no one knew what they were missing.

Originally published in April 2008

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