Drum 'n' Bassists

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By Pashyanti Carole Hand

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There is a mysterious, indefinable magic that exists on the bandstand between bass player and drummer, a kindred spirit thing that transcends the notes themselves and goes a long way to explaining how a particular piece of music ends up “feeling” the way it does. It is difficult to pinpoint, analyze or even put into words but it is palpable just watching it from afar:

Something very visceral happens. Something clicks. Gears shift, things fall into place, and suddenly electrons and protons begin bouncing around in lockstep, altering the vibration of the room itself, profoundly affecting everyone and everything in the joint until suddenly the whole band, the whole audience is rolling along on a copacetic wave of rhythm. Whether you chalk it up to chemistry or physics, serendipity or synchronicity, it is quite a ride.

Here, six bassists give the drummer some.

Victor Bailey on Omar Hakim

Philadelphia-born bassist Victor Bailey came into prominence in the mid-’80s with Weather Report alongside drummer Omar Hakim. In the early ’90s, they forged a solidly funky tandem behind pop star Madonna. More recently, they rekindled their special chemistry on Bailey’s 1999 album, Low Blow (Zebra).

Omar was on the very first record session I did in New York—Bobby Broom’s Clean Sweep on GRP. That’s where I met him. Just before we joined Weather Report we did two gigs with a singer from South Africa, Miriam Makeba, which is the first time we actually played together on a gig. Then when we really started getting it together in Weather Report, the chemistry was immediate. You have your certain guys that you just hook up with and there’s never any doubt about it. And that’s how it is with Omar. He and I never have to think about where the time is, where the groove is, what the feel is. We never verbalize that stuff because it’s already so deeply understood.

I think our styles fit each other because we’re both funky but we’re not really funk guys. And we’re jazzy but we’re not really jazz guys. We’re grooving but it’s just something else. Sometimes if I play with a real funk guy, I feel like maybe my thing is a little weird next to him. But with Omar there are all these little things that fit in the cracks of what I’m doing, so it keeps the flow going. I always thought of him as the equivalent of me on the bass.

With Omar, it’s automatic. We lock in to the groove. And if it’s four on the floor we’re going to try to make it sound like eight on the floor. We have good chemistry. And our chemistry is a reflection of our chemistry as people. We can go six months without seeing or talking to each other and when we finally do get together it’s like we were together yesterday. He’s really a brother to me more than a friend. So when we’re playing it’s bigger than a musical thing.

David Williams on Billy Higgins

The Trinidadian-born bassist David Williams has forged a flexible, potent chemistry alongside drummer Billy Higgins in the Cedar Walton quartet. And although the seasoned jazz veteran has amassed innumerable credits over the years with world-class drummers, his ongoing connection with the great Mr. Higgins remains his most inspiring outlet for music making.

I met Billy in 1973 or 1974. I was doing a rehearsal with Louis Hayes, Charles Davis and Ronnie Mathews out in Brooklyn, where Billy was living at the time. I remember finishing the rehearsal and then going out to the street and there he was coming home. I could see him in the distance just walking towards us—and I had never met him at this point—but he had this big grin on his face, almost like a naughty kid coming home. And I looked at him that first time and I tell you it was like I had known him all my life! Then my first playing experience with him was when Sam Jones introduced me to him and Cedar Walton. And from the first time I started playing with Billy, it was magic, man.

He’s such an incredible drummer. He’s so musical. He doesn’t just hear the rhythm, he hears everything. And he knows the music, not just the time. I heard Cedar say it and he hit it right on the head. He said, “Higgins walks in the door listening.” It’s a dream for any musician to play with him.

I’ve worked with a lot of drummers, most of the guys around. But there’s something about Billy, the whole package that he brings to the bandstand, that he brings to the music: his love for the music, his love for people, his whole attitude towards the music and towards life. He just grins through everything. We’ve been in some situations in years gone by where it was like real rough, and he’d just grin through it.

I remember one time we were in Milan. The whole city was in the middle of some big convention and all the hotels were all booked up. So the promoter had to put us way out on the outskirts of town somewhere near some highway. It was late and we were hungry, so we walked around, couldn’t find a restaurant and when we came back to the hotel there was a little bar downstairs in the hotel. The bartender went in the back, found us some crackers and some cheese and we went back to our room, man, and Billy sat on the bed across from me eating this stuff. He had the most grateful look on his face, like every bite he took you could hear him say, “Mmmmm, thank you, Father.” I said, “Man, Billy, you’re eating this shit like it’s fried chicken.” He looked at me and said, “It tastes like fried chicken.” I say, boy, that’s really gratitude. That’s the way he is. And he brings that kind of gratitude to the music.

Dennis Irwin on Mel Lewis

Another well-seasoned vet, Dennis Irwin apprenticed with Art Blakey before becoming the regular bassist in the Monday night Vanguard Orchestra back when drumming legend Mel Lewis still ruled the roost. Other rich experiences he’s had since going to New York in 1973 include work with drumming greats Vernell Fournier, Frankie Dunlop, Phillip Wilson, Jimmy Lovelace and, more recently, Kenny Washington, Chuck Riggs, Idris Muhammad and Bill Stewart.

My coming into the Vanguard band and playing alongside Mel was like a real guru-disciple situation. I mean, this cat was a sage, like a Swami Gotmymojo or the heaviest gurus that people stand in line to see. He’d lay these lessons on you without ever really saying a word.

Playing with Bu [Blakey], kind of in the middle and on the front of the beat, he’d always be saying, “Come on, man, get on top!” Right after him I joined Mel’s band and without saying, “Come on, man, you gotta lay back,” Mel would just look patiently at me as if to say, “Just do the best you can and you’ll understand one day.” I was with him 10 years and was learning something every day on that gig.

Thad [Jones’] walking ballads in particular took me a while to really realize what Mel was after. Mel had an intention of building from the beginning to the end of the piece, of getting wider. [He] was after a long-term kind of building, not just one phrase and the next, “This measure is loud and this one is soft,” but a widening from beginning to end of the chart where the tune gets broader at the end, like a river on the way out down by the Delta. Some people hear that and say, “Man, it’s dragging.” But it’s different than that: broader, wider, deeper, whatever. And it takes patience to do that. First couple of times I was kind of chasing it myself wondering, “What’s going on here?” But I got it. And Mel knew I eventually would.

I remember when young musicians would come from out of town and sit in the back of the Vanguard and listen to Mel, they’d say, “Man, it looks like he’s just fishing back there or something, just sitting there stirring his coffee.” It’s a relaxed strength, I guess. That’s a definition of power. Like Blakey, he’d have to hold back so much. He was so strong we’d just sit on his shoulders and he’d carry us. Mel was more like sitting on a big sofa: he’d be behind and under the band instead of standing out front and shouting, “Come on, you motherfuckers!”

Mel’s thing, too, was calf skin heads and carefully chosen cymbals. And the way he tuned his drums, on the low side, gave him his identifiable sound. Mel had so many different little sounds. He’d get accents by hitting the drum differently. He’d get sounds in just the way he’d nudge or move his elbows, wiggle around on his feet, turn his head this way or that.

The other key to Mel’s sound was his bass drum beater. He used an old concert bass drum beater that was real fluffy. There might be a hard ball in the center somewhere but when the pedal is fluffy like that a drummer can play 4/4 on the bass drum without it being obtrusive. Those are those old school things—fluffy beater, calf heads, nice old cymbals—that guys like Mel and Vernell knew about and cats are just catching up with now.

Drew Gress on Tom Rainey

Baltimore-born bassist Drew Gress has played and recorded with several world-class drummers since moving to New York in the ’80s, including Jack DeJohnette, Ralph Peterson and Joey Baron. Along the way he forged a very special bond with drummer Tom Rainey that continues to this day. The two have played together as a seamless tandem in Fred Hersch’s trio and in saxophonist Tim Berne’s band Paraphrase as well as in Gress’ own band.

My chemistry with Tom was there from the first time we’ve played. And I don’t know if this plays some sort of role in the fact that we connect well or not, but we found out after the fact that we both grew up loving a lot of the same music. We were both big band heads in our early years so we loved Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton. But then we both also liked Tony Williams Lifetime and Mahavishnu Orchestra, so we’re coming at it from a combination of big band and fusion music, even though it has little to do with what we actually play these days. Maybe somehow that’s shaped our sensibilities, that we can connect 20 years after the fact.

Tom has a way of hearing—I call it long-term hearing—where he’s playing something across the metric grid or across the phraseology of things. And I think because we both enjoy doing that and enjoy doing that with each other, that’s part of what keeps our playing relationship fresh. And no matter how different the context might be to an external listener, that basic chemistry between remains the same. There’s a fundamental connection there and it actually gets to be kind of a giggling thing at times, where we each know what the other is going to do before he does it. I mean, we’re playing supposedly free and ending together so that it sounds composed. You just have to laugh.

I first met Tom on a demo tape session that [guitarist] Ben Monder organized back in 1987. We just played together on that tape and I could tell right away that there was something there. Even the way he soloed and the way we played together; it was kind of scary, where we were completing each other’s thoughts.

With other drummers there’s not that telepathy that I have with Tom, where I know what he’s going to do before he does it, even if he’s never done it before. It’s just some kind of shared sensibility. And I guess that comes from playing a lot together, which there’s no substitute for. I don’t think I’ve played with any musician as much as I’ve played with Tom.

I guess it’s about total trust. It’s like, “Anything you can possibly do is going to be cool with me.” That’s when you can really get unconscious. And that’s when the magical-scary stuff starts to happen.

Tony Scherr on Kenny Wollesen

In the past few years, bassist Tony Scherr has become a ubiquitous figure on the downtown alternative jazz scene, performing with such bands as Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob, Slow Poke and Jessie Harris & the Ferdinandos. In these and other situations he invariably finds himself in the company of drummer Kenny Wollesen. Last year the two toured as a highly empathetic rhythm tandem for Bill Frisell. Their chemistry continues on Sex Mob’s new CD, Solid Sender (Knitting Factory Records).

Kenny, I think, is about sensibility. He’s always looking out for the whole music and helping it go wherever it wants to go. I just love listening to him play, whether I’m playing with him or not.

We first met through [guitarist] Brad Shepik. And it’s funny because that was much harder music than we ever play anymore. Now we play all this large, simple music [in Sex Mob]. I think we’ve both gotten away from information-based music. It’s more about sensibility now.

Our association with Bill Frisell has been great. He and Bill are very much alike. They both got that melodic phrasing and a bit of shock value. And from the first down beat that we played together, I knew it was going to be fun. It’s the simple things that define chemistry: the way that you let up at the end of a phrase together, the way something trails off, the way you end the song together.

I find that a lot of times that I play with Kenny I don’t have to ever look at him on the bandstand, just because I know where he is. It’s like some guys who play together a lot, they’re always staring each other down. I just know where [Kenny] is in my mind, in my ear. We won’t be looking at each other and then all the sudden the next chorus will come in and we’ll take it down a notch or the pulse will become much slower or whatever. It’s the freedom to really do terribly drastic things and I think we developed that sensibility in Sex Mob. It started off because Steven would bark commands to us and we would try and do everything he said because he has good ideas. And it got to a point within a year or so where he would start to turn around and Kenny and I would know that he was going to say something and we would just start doing whatever we might think he was going to say before he said it. So we knew if we could get him to turn back around, we’d just done something good.

Cameron Brown on Dannie Richmond

The veteran bassist Cameron Brown emerged on the scene in a freer context before finally settling into the bass chair of the George Adams-Don Pullen quartet of the early ’80s. It was in that band of Charles Mingus alumni that Brown first encountered drummer Dannie Richmond. Together they developed a musical and personal chemistry that helped ignite that remarkable group.

I didn’t know Dannie Richmond at all when I joined the band but he was 100 percent supportive of me and ended up hiring me into his band. There was a certain loyalty there that was pretty amazing. The way we were thrown together was a funny situation. A promoter in Holland called up George and Don just as Mingus had died, hoping to cash in, of course. It was supposed to be a one-tour band. He asked them who they wanted on drums and, of course, they immediately said Dannie. Don brought me into the band because basically he thought that I could bridge the gap between what he felt was maybe George and Dannie’s more conservative approach and his wanting to have somebody that was into freer playing. Anyway, the band just kind of exploded and immediately had a chemistry and intensity that propelled it for almost 10 years.

I learned so much from playing with Dannie. That whole walking ballad concept of if you’re going to walk on a ballad at all, where you double time it, you still need to lay back to keep it in a ballad feel.

You have to just keep listening. It’s a whole sense of being open. And I think another important component of it is maybe not trying too hard, just letting the connection happen. I felt that a lot with Ed Blackwell, too, and I sense that now with Idris Muhammed. It general, it seems like those guys from New Orleans lean much more on the bass player. Whereas, all the guys from the North and the Midwest like Blakey and Philly Joe and Victor Lewis, guys like that, sort of play like, ‘OK, here it is.’ And my feeling, generally speaking, is that my job is to play with the drummer. But with Blackwell and Idris it feels like more of a give-and-take, like they’re listening more to me. I remember playing with Blackwell and Don Cherry and I don’t know why this happened but suddenly I just started slowing down. And Blackwell slowed right down with me. It was wild, almost as if he considered the bass part of his kit.

I think there’s a lot to be said for doing it hands-on as opposed to learning this stuff in school. I learned this stuff on the bandstand playing with people like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones and Dannie Richmond. And now I’m trying to pass that on to my own students in workshop situations, try to give the kids some notion of what it was like seeing Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones or Dannie Richmond with Charles Mingus. There’s so little of that left to really hear. It’s gone, I’m afraid. But I’m trying to pass it on.

Originally published in April 2000

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