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Bob Cranshaw: Shop Talk

“Tune and tempo,” Jo Jones used to tell me. “That’s all it is. Why do cats want to make it so hard? It isn’t hard-it’s easy.” Such are the simple verities of the jazz rhythm section as passed down by one of the masters, but these days we tend to pay more attention to those cats with an elaborate floor routine and a soloist’s ego, which is why people tend to undervalue the work of Bob Cranshaw. Top musicians, though, such as Sonny Rollins, Billy Taylor and Milt Jackson, over the past 40 years have cherished Cranshaw’s impeccable harmonic architecture and indomitable sense of swing, because when this eternally youthful 68-year-old is holding down the bass chair in your rhythm section, things are locked and loaded, the trains all run on time and you never have to worry about the bass player’s ego spilling all over the bandstand. Cranshaw is the consummate team player.

JazzTimes: Do you view the electric bass guitar as a substitute for the upright bass or as an instrument in and of itself?

It’s an instrument in its own right. A bass is a bass. Now since I am an electric player, I have been approached many times as to “Why do you play the electric bass? Why don’t you play the string bass?” And one of my things is-you can’t hear the string bass! Hey, I love the string bass, but when I go to a club to hear a band, I generally don’t hear the piano and the upright bass, which to me is such a drag.

I’m not closed to learning how to do various things, because when you put on a typical jazz record and then put on a Steely Dan record, there ain’t no comparison as to what the sound is when it’s recorded right. And we have to start thinking about some of those things rather than being so closed about electronics-jazz musicians have to stop being frightened of the light bulb. That’s not the reason why I started to play it-I was in a car accident. I still have problems at times where the muscles of my back tighten up, but I just go on at this point and play the upright bass because I enjoy it so much. But I know that within two or three days of playing the string bass I will feel it in my back and it’s time to go to the chiropractor.

I play the electric just like I play the string bass. I mean, there’s a certain characteristic to the electric, but I play it like an upright, because I’m not really a funk player-I’m still a jazz bassist. So in order to play with the people I’m used to playing with, I have to get a sound that is closer to sounding like the string bass because this is what these people are used to hearing-to feeling a certain thing from the string bass. That’s why with someone who normally wouldn’t allow an electric bass anywhere near their bandstand, like Milt Jackson, there’d be times when I offered him a choice, as to whether he wanted the added cartage and expense of the upright, and he’d say, “That’s okay Deacon, you just bring along your pork chop.”

I know that most of the players of my age have no idea what is happening with the electronics. But then we all grew up playing together under an authentic acoustic umbrella. I mean if you couldn’t hear the bass and the piano, then the drummer was too damn loud. I was talking to Ray [Brown] about some of these same things. As a bass player, Ray is one of my mentors, and people like him and Milt Hinton really encouraged me to want to get into the instrument. Sometimes I’ll hear him in a club and Ray’s amp is so loud, it’s much more sound than he really needs to have in a certain place. He has a small amp and it’s pumped up pretty loud, but it’s like the amp is overloaded, and I said to him, “Ray, rather than to have this little amp and little speaker here playing it too loud, get a bigger amp and a bigger speaker cabinet and play it lower, because the instrument will carry better.” But you see, we don’t hear this, because we didn’t come up in that era.

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