Low End Theory

If you have spent a good amount of time with a Miles Davis box set called The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965—and if you haven’t, Godspeed: Columbia/Legacy issued it more than a decade ago, and it can be hard to come by today—you may have noticed some audience interference during an especially incendiary “Milestones.” It occurs during the solo handoff between tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter and pianist Herbie Hancock, not quite six minutes into the track. (It’s track 3, disc 2b, FYI.)

“Thank the bass player,” a patron urges, as Shorter winds down his brilliant exegesis and the rhythm section artfully dissolves behind him. “Thank your bass player,” the guy insists, again, during Hancock’s first rippling phrases. He sounds belligerent, and probably inebriated. (The heckler, not Hancock.) But wisdom can come from the mouths of fools, and there’s a point behind his intrusion. The bassist on the bandstand that night was Ron Carter, and if you train an ear on his exertions, you’ll agree that he deserves some gratitude.

Not that Carter has suffered from any dearth of acknowledgment over the past 40 years: He has been one of his instrument’s most celebrated practitioners, appearing on dozens of noteworthy albums and releasing a few pretty good ones of his own. His ever-increasing eminence, as benchmarked by an NEA Jazz Master award and an honorary doctorate from Berklee, attests not only to the cultural ascent of jazz but also the happier fortunes of bassists in this business. No longer chronically unappreciated, bassists these days often come out on top.

Consider for a moment the sheer number and quality of working bands currently led from the bass chair. Two of the most heralded in recent years—a quintet and a big band—are the handiwork of Dave Holland, who succeeded Carter in Davis’ employ. Then there’s the parallel pairing of Quartet West and the Liberation Music Orchestra, both under the stewardship of Charlie Haden. In the avant-garde, William Parker can usually be counted on for at least one commanding album every year, though he took a backseat last year to Mark Helias (with his band Open Loose), Reuben Radding (with a quartet), Stephan Crump (in a string-centric trio) and Mario Pavone (with a group he calls the Deez Sextet). And no 2006 critics’ poll was complete without At UCLA 1965 (Sunnyside), an unearthed gem by the bassist-bandleader par excellence, Charles Mingus.

Speaking of unearthed gems, the bass-on-top trend has a new revisionist manifesto in How Low Can You Go? Anthology of the String Bass (1925-1941) (Dust to Digital). Lovingly produced by Stéven Lance Ledbetter and Dick Spottswood, this three-disc provocation compiles more than 75 concise performances from the likes of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, Walter Page and His Original Blue Devils, and (on the more obscure side of the spectrum) “Banjo” Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band. Engineered to bring out the low register, the tracks add up to a feast of puckishly slapped downbeats and hard-plucked half notes. The MVPs of the set include Bill Johnson, Wellman Braud and Steve Brown, but there are many others, some unnamed.

One of the unspoken messages of the compilation is the extent to which other music of the era—from Western swing to novelty pop to the paseos and leggos of Trinidad—featured bassists with a jazz-like style. This shouldn’t be a revelation, since we’re talking about musical cultures with common roots; it’s not for nothing that the nearly 90-year-old marvel Israel “Cachao” López receives an introduction, in Ned Sublette’s book Cuba and Its Music (Chicago Review), as “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music.” Certain truths endure in music, and the verity of a bass line—whether it’s walking fours or riding one note—is surely one of the strongest.

In a similar vein, it seems clear that the conventions of soul, rock and hip-hop have helped raise bass players’ relative stature in jazz. Bassists in popular music don’t often command the spotlight, but their grooves are foundational, even more so than the rhythm tracks that accompany them. (Not convinced? Consult the strain of urban music that pianist Robert Glasper references on his second Blue Note album, In My Element. The backbeat might surge or slink, but Vicente Archer’s bass lines hold firm.) Jazz fans may be inclined to bestow more respect on a bassist who negotiates complex harmonies, and understandably so. But Carter’s guest turn with A Tribe Called Quest (on The Low End Theory) and Haden’s work with Beck (on Odelay) amount to more than stunt casting: While they’re fulfilling a basic function, both artists are also defining the spaces they’re in.

Some of the more appealing new jazz of our present moment operates according to the same principles. Earlier this year Scott Colley issued a fluttering opus called Architect of the Silent Moment (CAM Jazz). Last year Todd Sickafoose made a statement of his own with Blood Orange (Secret Hatch), while Christian McBride unleashed Live at Tonic (Ropeadope). Reid Anderson has continued to pull his weight as a member of the Bad Plus. And Chris Lightcap has anchored an excellent quintet with a twin-tenor frontline; their next album should be coming soon. All of these bassists have moved past their rhythmic and harmonic training to accomplish something genuinely lyrical.

Which leads us, in a sideways fashion, to Esperanza Spalding, a recent Berklee graduate (and current instructor) who made her debut last year with a remarkable album called Junjo (Ayva). Working with just a pianist, Aruán Ortiz, and a drummer, Francisco Mela, Spalding establishes her authority as a bassist, in clear terms. At the same time, she sings melodies, in a weightless and airy tone that suggests everything her instrument is not. The result is a bassist-bandleader who does nothing to compromise her given role, and everything to transcend it. Were she at the Plugged Nickel in 1965, she’d have no one to thank but herself.

Originally published in April 2007

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