Buell Neidlinger: Digressive Greatness Declared

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Buell Neidlinger
By Lawrence Svirchev

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A conversation with veteran bassist Buell Neidlinger can be an adventure in nonlinearity, which shouldn’t be too surprising. “Oh yeah,” he says, “I can digress for days.”

It’s not only that the bassist possesses a refreshing candor and gives free vent to his opinions. It’s not only that he’s an encyclopedic sort, who has wended through many musical scenes in his 66 years and has a resulting objective overview—one laced with well-placed cynicism. There is also the sheer, bewildering diversity of his resume: what to make of a bassist who has worked with Cecil Taylor, Coleman Hawkins, Billie Holiday, Gunther Schuller, Jimmy Giuffre, John Cage, Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa, Tony Bennett and on and on?

Despite his credits and healthy status as an admired musician’s musician, Neidlinger’s name isn’t nearly as well known as you’d expect. Through his career spent in the shadows—in studios, orchestral work and other nonjazz-related projects—he has had a successful life in music. “Unfortunately, very few people know who Christian McBride is, but a lot fewer people know who Buell Neidlinger is: He’s probably the greatest living bass player at this point in jazz,” Neidlinger declares.

Among other things, Neidlinger is unburdened by false modesty. He does boast an embarrassment of riches in terms of instrumental command and musical versatility that covers jazz (of the straightest and the most avant varieties), classical, pop, bluegrass and then some. He has the aura of an American visionary, but one on the fringes.

When asked to account for the diversity of his musical past, Neidlinger replies, “It’s just always been a matter of being in the right place at the right time. If you can play and you have certain attributes that people want, that’s it. In my case, those seem to have been rhythmic acuity and accuracy and intonation, and beauty of tone. Those are three things that a musician is lucky to have. People want that. So I just happened to be at the right place at the right time, in New York in the ’50s, L.A. in the ’70s and ’80s, and in-between, a few great orchestra gigs. I was always at the right place at the right time. Wasn’t I lucky?” Luck is one thing; abundant talent another.

These days, he calls an island off the coast of Washington home. He moved to this rustic spot close to Seattle in 1997, reputedly to avoid excessive taxes in California, but also out of a desire to escape a Los Angeles scene that had grown cold for him.

Along the way, Neidlinger has also put together albums of distinction for his K2B2 label. Frustrated by the closed ears of the major labels for his ideas, Neidlinger took the route of going independent. Big Drum, released in 1990, is an energetic, free, take-no-prisoners session with his comrade, saxist Marty Krystall (the K of K2B2), trumpeter Hugh Schick and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Blue Chopsticks, issued in 1994, brings an agreeably idiosyncratic approach to the music of underdog pianist legend Herbie Nichols, with Neidlinger on cello, along with an ensemble of violin, viola, brass and reeds. The project had a personal, emotional aspect: Neidlinger had promised to his friend and musical collaborator Nichols that one day he would record his music with strings and horns.

“I was sorry not to see that one sell more,” Neidlinger says. “The only other Herbie Nichols tributes going around aren’t that good. The guys from New York—I’m glad they’re doing those tunes, but I wish they would have investigated Herbie’s style a little more carefully. What it sounds like to me is Miles’ quintet playing Herbie’s music, without much study. Herbie’s music is great, though, and it’s finally getting some recognition, if 40 years too late.”

Now comes the bassist’s first new project in years, Thelonious Atmosphere, by the Buell Neidlinger 4 and 5. Monk’s music has been a constant in Neidlinger’s life, including tunes adapted to a hybridized jazz-bluegrass context in his group Buellgrass and the Monk-dedicated Thelonious.

“Monk is on a level that very few did attain,” Neidlinger says, “in the sense that he created a sound and a concept, basically. It was probably him that had the most to do with creating those tunes at Minton’s Playhouse to confuse guys like Coleman Hawkins or whoever they were trying to fuck up at the moment. That became bebop.”

On Thelonious Atmosphere, culled from a live recording and a live radio broadcast on the Santa Monica-based KCRW, the song set digs into lesser-known Monk tunes, including “Jackie-ing,” “Locomotive” and “Trinkle, Tinkle.” Also, Neidlinger points out, “You’re hearing four- and five-minute performances, instead of 15-minute jobbies. The Monkishness usually disintegrates after a few choruses of whatever tune the Monk tune is based on.

“That’s one of the first demands I make on my musicians. If they’re playing ‘Skippy’—which is basically ‘Tea for Two,’ so I’m told—never play ‘Tea for Two.’ Or if you’re playing ‘Rhythm-A-Ning,’ never play ‘I Got Rhythm.’ Or if you’re playing ‘Misterioso,’ never play any other variant of the blues. We have to always adhere to whatever Monk set out for us. You’re used to hearing that. Even [Monk] kind of lets the forms degenerate.

“To me, in music, one of the most important things is form. I like form very much. Some people think that form is rigid, but that’s because they approach it as a bar and then a bar and a bar. I think of form as being, however long it is, as a huge block.”

Any purely musical discussion with Neidlinger is liable to drift—or digress—into colorful anecdote. “I had this band Thelonious for a few years. Our first album came out, with John Beasley—Monkoy Tyner,” Neidlinger teases. “You know, Beasley went out with Miles Davis. After a few weeks out, he started to tie Beasley’s left hand behind his back. That always struck me two ways, knowing Miles’ slightly ambidextrous sexuality. I thought this was his strange way of expressing his love for John. So John called me up one night from his hotel room and says, ‘Yeah, Miles has been tying my hand behind my back. It’s the same shit you told me four years ago—I should have listened to you.’

“I had told him, when you comp for a horn player, never play more than three or at the most, four notes. Otherwise, it clogs the shit up.”

Another digression: Not surprisingly, Neidlinger joins the ranks of those rankled by Ken Burns’ Jazz, which he was startled to find himself an unwitting part of. He was watching TV and, suddenly, “I saw myself sitting at the bar at the Five Spot with Elvin Jones on one side of me and John Coltrane on the other side. We were listening to Ornette Coleman. The next night, I heard part of the first Cecil Taylor recording.”

In particular, Neidlinger bemoans the documentary’s disparaging treatment of Taylor. “He was the only person put down in the whole program. Did you notice that? One morning, I woke up furious and put my brain to work. I got on the Internet and found out Ken Burns’ production company name, address and phone number. I called up, and I got right through. There I was, talking to Ken. He didn’t know me. But I said he owed me two checks. I wanted a Screen Actors Guild [check] for the on-screen appearance with Coltrane and Elvin Jones, and the other one a Musician’s Union check for underscoring his ‘nignorance,’” Neidlinger laughs. “Well, that was pretty much the end of the conversation. There was a disclaimer: ‘Call my lawyer.’”

He recognizes that his Taylor connection has been a central calling card in his musical life. In 1955, New Yorker Neidlinger, who was to be a classical cellist and studied with Gregor Piatigorsky, hooked up with Taylor. Neidlinger stayed with Taylor for seven years, and recorded the inside-out music that makes up now-classics like In Transition (Blue Note, 1955), Jazz Advance (Blue Note, 1955), Looking Ahead (Contemporary/OJC, 1958) Love for Sale (United Artists/Blue Note, 1959) The World of Cecil Taylor (Candid, 1960), Air (Candid, 1960), Jumpin’ Punkins (Candid, 1961), New York City R&B (first released under Neidlinger’s name by Candid, 1961) and Cell Walk for Celeste (Candid, 1961).

“Having played and recorded with him is what put me into the pantheon of jazz,” Neidlinger says of his tenure with Taylor. [It’s like] what Morris Brown said to me about Ellington once in a recording session in L.A. He was delicate. I said, ‘How come you don’t have your own band?’ He says, ‘Oh, after you play with Ellington, nothing can come close.’ I would say the same thing about Cecil. After I did that, what else can possibly come near that? I think some of my own things that I’ve done have an energy that comes near that. But there’s no other jazz musician playing like him.

“Now, he’s left the foursome jazz rhythm so far behind. In those days, he was jumping off the springboard of straight rhythm. In terms of playing straight rhythm in a jazz mode, nobody’s ever come near what he did. A couple of tunes come to mind: ‘EB,’ for one dimension of musical energy, and the other end of the spectrum might be ‘This Nearly Was Mine.’ Those two pieces do something that I can’t ever remember experiencing with anyone else.”

After his stint with Taylor, Neidlinger’s musical horizons became more complicated, and he drifted away from strictly jazz work. Gunther Schuller inducted him as a natural ally in the third-stream movement, merging jazz and classical music. He began playing in orchestras, including the American Symphony Orchestra, under Leopold Stokowski’s baton, the Boston Symphony and the Houston Symphony.

In addition, Neidlinger has long been involved in education, forming the jazz department with George Russell at New England Conservatory in the late ’60s. As befits one who came up through rigorous classical study, he has a thorough, hands-on approach. “I approach it by the fact that, just as with any other instrument, there are certain rudiments that have to be learned. That’s why Philly Joe was a great drummer, because he knew all the rudiments. That’s why Art Taylor wasn’t so great a drummer, because he didn’t know the rudiments at all. Going from drums to bass, there are about 10 times more rudiments to learn. Those are the things that I try to impart to students.

“As far as variety is concerned, I certainly do encourage them to learn as many styles as possible.”

Landing in Los Angeles to teach at the then fairly radical CalArts in 1971, Neidlinger also found his services useful in the region, including playing with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra for eight years, playing the contemporary music-minded “Monday Evening Concerts” series and a list of studio “day gigs” that included playing with pop figures from Elvis Costello to Michael Bolton. He was well suited to the ever-shifting demands and discipline of studio work.

Neidlinger recalls an early film session that got him rolling in that realm. “I’ve always liked the recording process. I went into the booth at MGM, a very old-fashioned studio with beautiful sound. I was made first bass. All the big names in bass playing L.A. were there. They weren’t too happy to see me there, for sure, certainly not after I started asking them, just having come from the Boston Symphony, to use certain bowings and fingerings. That was something they’d never considered.

“Anyway, I went in the booth and this engineer was interested in who I was, because he’d never seen me before. I asked him about his board. He said, ‘Look at this,’ and he showed me where he had the bass. ‘This is where I’ve had the bass for 25 years.’ The two sliders were all the way off. The only bass he was taking was coming over the general mikes, from over the podium.

“He said, ‘But I just tried your mike. It sounded pretty good. I’m going to turn it back up.’ So for the rest of the movie, he turned the bass up at MGM for the first time in 25 years. This engineer started talking about me and that’s how it happened for me in the movie business.

“When I started having students I could bring in the business, I really started getting good, because they’d do exactly what I asked. Until they decided I was a drag and too demanding. That was around ’96, I guess. I couldn’t get a knife-proof vest that was thick enough. That was the other reason I moved up here.”

All along, he had various bands, as well, to indulge his often offbeat musical syntheses. “I stopped having a band about two years ago. My last bands were my Buellgrass bands. I used Darol Anger, Richard Greene, people like that. Now, I don’t have a band, and it’s a great pleasure,” he jokes. “I’m too much of a perfectionist—it’s hard to put a band together.”

Although he has been away from New York for three decades, Neidlinger felt the sting of September 11 in a personal way. “Right around 1958 and ’59, Roswell Rudd and I had a loft at 128 Broad Street. It’s right there. They leveled those blocks to build that shit [the World Trade Center]. I certainly felt that in more ways than one, also being a New Yorker.”

“That’s why I’m waiting to hear somebody like an Ornette or somebody, or Charles Gayle, to come out and play. The scene in New York, the energy there, whatever’s in the air from it—where’s the musician to grab it? I’m waiting for some music like that.”

To digress: “I sort of discovered Charles Gayle. Did you know that? He was pushing televisions around the Westinghouse factory when I lived in Buffalo. He came down to a session I was having in a coffee shop, in which I got busted by the union—but that’s another story. [Andrew] White was playing with me. He is quite a sax player. He transcribed all of Trane’s solos. At any rate, Charles Gayle showed up and asked if he could sit in. I said, ‘Sure.’ Andy White never really spoke to me again, for years. I didn’t know what Charles played like.

“I started playing with Charles a lot, and encouraged him to play, took him down to New York to play. We played down to Tompkins Square Park, and there was a festival there with Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders. Charles blew them all away. But he didn’t get called to play in any nightclubs in the next few days, so he moved back to Buffalo, went back to the Westinghouse factory. He’s always been a little different, Charles.”

One gets the sense that, for his passionate love of jazz, Neidlinger has a strained relationship with the jazz scene. He speaks as one who was in the thick of an exciting, transitional time in the music, when the infrastructure was better for jazz musicians.

“When I was coming up,” he recalls, “there were 50 nightclubs in America that played jazz. You could get in a car in New York and start driving. If you were with William Morris or somebody, you could stop in 10 to 15 towns before you hit California, and play for a week. I used to get to do that regularly. But who could do that now? Who could learn from that [situation]? And every town you’d go to, you’d meet local hot-shit musicians and there would be sessions. People would be blowing their asses off.”

“Jazz has gone in two directions,” Neidlinger asserts. “There are very few people like Henry Threadgill around, who are brave enough to play music like that and try to make a living. There’s the other direction, having to do with how to make a living in jazz. Well, you just play a lot of wrong chords and simplify and get some kind of a sonic gimmick going, in instrumentation or whatever, and that’s it. But why is it jazz? The reason is because people are told it’s jazz. Otherwise, they wouldn’t know it’s jazz, because it isn’t jazz. A few years later, they think it is jazz. Look at a record like Lee Morgan’s Rumproller. He was a great player. When they told him to play that way, what were they thinking of? Of Horace Silver? Then that became jazz. But that set jazz back a lot of years.”

Can his natural eclecticism be traced back to his childhood?

“You mean yesterday? My problem is that I never grew up. I was thinking about this last night. Here I was, a 65-year-old man, playing bass in a freezing theater with a small string orchestra in a concert of the Northwest Boys’ Choir. Now, why was I there? The music I knew and was familiar to me, all those carols. I was brought up with religious music. This wasn’t new. I’ve played in many string orchestras, most of them greater than this one in every regard. Why was I there? Well, I just have this desire to perform.

“Whatever opportunity might arise, I would always try to take it. I got trapped once, when a television leader I knew called me up and said, ‘Hey, man, can you thump the Fender bass?’ Well, I had been playing the Fender bass since about 1953, and this was around 1978. I had conquered the pick and could play funky disco and everything. So I figured I could come up with some reasonable facsimile of thumping the Fender bass. So I said, ‘Yeah.’ He had the contractor call me and I went down there and made an ass of myself. I couldn’t thump the Fender bass.

“The only other time I got trapped was many years ago, when someone sent me on a gig in the afternoon with Machito. After the first tune, Machito came up to me, looking very upset. He said something which ended with, ‘You go.’ I had it translated to me later and what he said was, ‘Loose is good, but too loose is no good.’ I didn’t know how to play mambo. I had heard a few records, so I thought I could do it.

“Those are the only two times when I got trapped. Otherwise, I always made it. But that’s because I’m a good musician.”

Listening Pleasures

“Things that have recently knocked me out—again—were given to us by Ives, Ruggles and Herbie Nichols, as well as Beethoven, Schuller, Monk and Haydn.”

Gearbox

“For concert and solo performances of classical music I play a Rogeri bass (Brescia,1705), or an August Gemunder (Springfield, Mass. 1843); I use French bass bows by Ouchard, Siefried and Hudson. I play American cellos by C.G. Stewart (1923) and Victor Gardener (1969); I use bows by Lamy and Hudson. For jazz, pop and bluegrass recording and performance I use an American plywood Kay bass made in 1950. It is known by producers worldwide as ‘Old Buellie,’ and I can hear it almost every time I’m at the airport or supermarket—sometimes in an elevator even.”

Originally published in April 2002

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