January/February 2008

Ari Roland: Arco Art

Undaunted by the conventions of the typical double bass solo, Ari Roland has declared his allegiance to the bow. For the past 15 years Roland has performed almost nothing but arco solos. He captures some of the high drama associated with other instruments.

“I love the sound of bowed bass,” Roland said. “It doesn’t mean there’s not great pizzicato stuff out there. [But] I found that I could play faster with the bow. I found that I could slur things in certain ways. I found that I could sustain notes in certain ways. At this point in my life,” he added, “I really try and only do gigs [where] I’m soloing on every song. I walk the bass all night behind people, but I love soloing.”

Roland spoke on an unusually warm Saturday in early October in Greenwich Village, several days before the release of his second album, And So I Lived in Old New York… (Smalls). As the title suggests, Roland is a throwback. He outfits his 1930s Juzek upright with gut strings, performs without an amplifier and refuses to double on electric bass.

While his mastery of the bow allows Roland to stand out on And So I Lived—he also wrote or co-wrote the seven tunes—his role on the quartet album remains fairly traditional. After soloing, he resumes his walking duties behind saxophonist Chris Byars and pianist Sacha Perry. “You can be the greatest jazz bass player in the world and never pick up the bow,” he said.

Roland’s solos suggest otherwise, adding another dimension to the brisk, harmonically challenging set. On tunes such as “Under the Salt of Stars,” “Byars-a-Carpet” and “Blue Madi,” the rush of notes sounds less like a bass than a violin tuned down to an impossibly low register.

“There aren’t too many people who can solo as good as [Roland],” Barry Harris, the well-respected pianist and teacher, said in a telephone interview. Harris added, “I think a bass player is supposed to be able to solo like Charlie Parker. And Ari knows how to do that kind of thing. Most bass players don’t.”

In fact, the quality of Roland’s arco work recalls Paul Chambers, whose arrival in the mid-1950s established a benchmark for the bow in jazz. Chambers, however, worked quite a few pizzicato solos into his performances; his predecessors, Slam Stewart and Major Holley, simultaneously sang and bowed, but in a style that referenced the swing era.

Although Roland holds these bassists in high regard, he dismisses all three as immediate influences. “If it came down to it, probably my style is a bebop style,” he said, citing Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. “Do I want to play like them? No, I want to play like myself. [But] if you listen enough to those guys … you realize there’s a million ways to play jazz.”

During high school and college Roland attended the Juilliard School, but his immersion in New York’s jazz scene came earlier. Roland was 12 when he and guitarist William Ash, a childhood friend, enrolled in Harris’ jazz improvisation classes at the Jazz Cultural Theater in the Chelsea neighborhood.

The venue provided Roland with a gateway to the city’s late-night gigs and all-night jam sessions, and the opportunity to be around older musicians whose instruction and encouragement rivaled his formal training. “In the ’80s, you’d walk [into] Barry’s place,” said Roland, who turns 36 in February, “and every major bebopper who was alive would just be sitting in this row of chairs that started at the entrance. Art Blakey used to come in all the time. Milt Jackson would come in.”

Within a few years, Roland joined a group of like-minded teenagers that included Byars, Perry, Ash and saxophonist Zaid Nasser. “And that was it. I mean, literally, all we did was jazz,” Roland said. “We came home from school and we had jam sessions all day long, and then we’d go watch people at gigs or have little gigs of our own, and then we’d go to jam sessions after those gigs and stay out all night playing at different places.”

In addition to the Jazz Cultural Theater, the circuit included the University of the Streets in the East Village and also Smalls in Greenwich Village, where Roland estimated that he performed 2,500 gigs from 1995 through 2003. Many of the bookings featured a host of veterans—Harris, Tommy Turrentine, Vernell Fournier, Jimmy Lovelace, Leroy Williams—whose legacies continue to inspire Roland.

Roland also singled out pianist Frank Hewitt, with whom he recorded four posthumous albums, and especially saxophonist Clarence “C” Sharpe. “Every time [they] played,” Roland said a week later during another gig at Smalls, “they played as if that was the last time they ever were going to play their instruments. They gave everything. And that’s like a guiding principle for me.”

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