Some bassists play their instrument like a guitar or saxophone, racing around with runs and solos. Others keep it traditional, gluing the drums to the rest of the band with focus and precision. By going the second route, Trevor Dunn, who began his career as a member of the chameleonic experimental rock group Mr. Bungle, has become a go-to sideman for non-conformists like John Zorn, Nels Cline, Erik Friedlander and his Bungle co-founder Mike Patton. The only mention of music in his Twitter bio reads, “I started playing bass in 1981.” He has not deviated from his path, but his interests in listening and composing are serious and deep, and include all manner of jazz and rock as well as modern and contemporary classical music. Among the groups he leads are the avant-garde Trio-Convulsant, with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Ches Smith, and the rock band MadLove.
One Sunday evening in Brooklyn in December, following a performance conducted by John Zorn at the Stone, Dunn, 47, put his instrument down and put it into words.
1. Charlie Haden
“Taney County” (from Quartet West, Verve). Haden, bass. Recorded in 1986.
BEFORE: [over the music] It’s tuned down. [laughs] That’s two bass players. Wow, now I’m not sure if it’s two bass players or not. The attack on those intervals sounded like two bass players. The style makes me think of Charlie Haden, and plus, this is kind of spiritual. If I had to guess, it’s probably a track from the Liberation Music Orchestra or something. I definitely never heard this before. Something about his pacing and his phrasing. I mean, I love Charlie Haden-he’s one of my favorites-and this kind of rubato feel makes me think it’s Charlie Haden. That’s gotta be Charlie Haden; that’s totally it.
AFTER: Man, I loved that sound. I mean, it sounds like the bass is in the room. You’re gettin’ that wood in the finger. It’s so good, you know? [laughs] When you first put it on, I thought of two of my contemporaries: Thomas Morgan and Devin Hoff are two of my favorite bass players, and they definitely have that. It’s kind of an older sound. I think the thing that really gave it away was his phrasing, and his sense of time, which is pretty loose, particularly in this. It’s like a lot of his solo moments on those Ornette records-really free with the time, but he had this kind of folkiness to it. Very tonal. Yeah, he’s tuned down to D there. Which makes sense-that lick he plays is in D. That’s why I know. [laughs]
“Lone Wolf and Cub” (from The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, Brainfeeder). Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, bass, vocals; Herbie Hancock, keyboards; Charles Dickerson, Steven Ellison, keyboards, programming; Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, strings. Released in 2015.
BEFORE: It’s funny, when it first started, the first thing that came to mind was somebody like Mark Egan, or maybe Jonas Hellborg. Maybe more on the Mark Egan side-the tone, and this kind of lite-fusion vibe. But then as the tune progressed there were these moments of dissonance, and actually some of it reminded me a little bit of, um … blanking on his name. Shoot. What is the record he just put out, Black Messiah?
D’Angelo, yeah. Which is a totally weird, layered record. So then I thought, “OK, this is really contemporary.” Whoever it is, it’s not someone I’ve ever listened to before, but my guess is that it’s someone we were just talking about [before we started the exercise], which is Thundercat.
AFTER: It definitely has this ’70s vibe, but then there’s something a little twisted about it. It goes in a direction that wouldn’t have made sense back then. I saw Thundercat play live. I saw him at Music Hall of Williamsburg, opening for Flying Lotus. Actually, the sound wasn’t very good. And then I heard some at a restaurant once. I remember I went up and asked the waitress what it was, ’cause it was super-chopsy fusion stuff-like shredding. So I know the guy’s got a lot of chops. But there’s also something kind of loose about it. Not really sure if they’re little mistakes or not, but these cool little harmonic deviations that happen, it’s cool that he kept them, whether they were intentional or not.
3. Stanton Moore
“Prairie Sunset” (from Flyin’ the Koop, Blue Thumb). Moore, drums; Karl Denson, Skerik, saxophones; Chris Wood, bass. Recorded in 2001.
BEFORE: There’s something very Chicagoan about it. It makes me think a little bit about the AACM scene or something influenced by that. I think it’s more modern than something like the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Cool ensemble-I like two horns, bass and drums. But, yeah, I don’t know what it is.
AFTER: Obviously very solid bass playing. Very bluesy. Not hearing the context of where I would normally hear Chris Wood probably threw me. He and I actually played a duo once. It was a Zorn festival somewhere in Europe. I can’t remember what the context was. It was a moment of people just picking ensembles and going out and doing it, and he and I went out and I think I played electric and he played upright. I would never probably choose to do something like that ensemble, but it went really well. It was really cool. We really complemented each other in a certain way. But I’m not super familiar with his playing.
4. Steve Lehman
“Community” (from Demian as Posthuman, Pi). Lehman, alto saxophone; Vijay Iyer, piano; Meshell Ndegeocello, bass; Eric McPherson, drums; Jahi Lake, turntable, electronics. Recorded in 2005.
BEFORE: It’s a lot of math going on in that one. [laughs] One of the first things that came to mind was an M-Base kind of thing, or Steve Coleman, or somebody who’s played with Steve Coleman. Interesting ensemble: electric bass, acoustic piano and then drums and alto, and I don’t know if that was turntable. That should give it away, but it’s definitely not Steve Coleman on alto. I started thinking maybe about Vijay Iyer, but I don’t think he has an ensemble like that. But I could be wrong. It was definitely cool the way they kind of stuck to one thing. This bass player’s playing basically four notes, which is really cool. And it stays interesting.
AFTER: This is probably a coincidence more than anything, but I was thinking it was a female bass player, because I was thinking of the woman who plays in Dave Douglas’ band.
Yeah. And I don’t really know her style, but I don’t know why I thought that. Maybe I tuned into the feminine energy there or something. [laughs] I just recently was thinking about Meshell because I remembered that she had this pop hit in the early ’90s. I couldn’t remember what it was, so I Googled it and I listened to “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night).” She’s badass, man.
5. The Jimmy Giuffre 3
“Ray’s Time” (from The Easy Way, Verve). Giuffre, tenor saxophone; Jim Hall, guitar; Ray Brown, bass. Recorded in 1959.
BEFORE: Wow. Man, I’m not gonna score any points with the jazz guys. [laughs] With the jazz police. [laughs] I’m going to have to guess, because I don’t know this recording. I don’t know who the guitar player is, but my guess is, and this is sort of a ballpark, too, somebody like Archie Shepp and Richard Davis.
AFTER: That ensemble did make me think of Giuffre, but you would normally hear him on clarinet. Wow, Ray Brown. See, he does this signature lick; I should’ve gotten that. I haven’t listened to Ray Brown in a long time, so that’s my excuse.
What do you think about the bass playing?
Ah, it’s beautiful. Again, it’s this very kind of bluesy, earthy playing.
6. Little Beaver
“I Can Dig It Baby” (from Party Down, Cat). Little Beaver, guitar, lead vocals, backing vocals; Latimore or Timmy Thomas, keyboards; Jaco Pastorius, bass; Robert “Governor” Ferguson, drums; Glen “Zeke” Holmes, Willie Clarke or Robert “Governor” Ferguson, percussion; Betty Wright, backing vocals. Released in 1974.
BEFORE: It’s definitely Jaco. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this, but I would guess this is really early Jaco. I know he played in an R&B band in Florida, right? C.C. and the Riders or something? [Wayne Cochran and the C.C. Riders]
I knew it was Jaco right away, but you can tell it’s a younger Jaco. It’s there, his thing is there for sure, those punchy eighth notes and that feel, but it’s not flashy. It’s before he got a little more arrogant, in a good way.
John Medeski is from Florida, and he told me a story once that he was playing somewhere and Jaco came in and sat in on upright and was wearing a cast. [laughs] Which is a classic Jaco story.
7. Mark Dresser
“Clavuus” (from Unveil, Clean Feed). Dresser, bass. Recorded c. 2003.
BEFORE: Nice. Yeah, that’s unmistakable: Dresser. I wasn’t sure at first-that was certainly my first thought-but then he did something, a rhythmic thing where it changed up there. That really gave it away. There’s a couple of moments like that. I’ve listened a lot to Dresser. I took a lesson with him once in a hotel room, when he was touring with Anthony Braxton in the ’90s. Definitely, a lot of my ideas about extended technique, it’s a fairly obvious link there for me. You know, playing with sticks or the wood end of a mallet, or using clothespins on the strings, that’s something I got directly from him. He studied with Bert Turetzky. Actually, he also ended up taking over Turetzky’s job at UC San Diego. And Bert has this great book called Contemporary Contrabass that I recommend to a lot of bass players. It’s all about nontraditional ways of playing the bass. There’s a whole chapter on the bass as a percussion instrument, which is pretty cool. And a lot of great musical examples, contemporary pieces that have been written for the bass. So yeah, I consider Mark a mentor.
I like how short it was.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
It’s not like a “song,” but it almost was. It was just a statement: Here’s every extended technique possible in two minutes.
Although I have to say, there was really…
It was almost a melodic thing going on, right?
Yeah, but I do think it was a limited amount of extended technique. Not exactly sure what that sound at the beginning was. It sounded to me like a stick stuck in the strings, and then he moves it and changes the pitches. And then doing his two-handed tapping thing, getting these multiphonics. But also cool is [the fact that] there’s no arco in that. I mean, yeah, he could take it a million other places. [laughs]
8. Frank Zappa
“Peaches en Regalia” (from Hot Rats, Bizarre). Zappa, guitar, octave bass, percussion; Ian Underwood, piano, organ, flute, clarinet, saxophone; Shuggie Otis, bass; Ron Selico, drums. Recorded in 1969.
BEFORE: Man, that’s a weird one. I don’t know what it is. I started thinking about Return to Forever a little bit. Some of those melodies reminded me of Return to Forever. The bass wasn’t particularly featured there. Then I started thinking of some European prog band like Can or something, who I don’t actually like. I don’t know. I give up. [laughs]
AFTER: Some of the chord progressions there in that melody are these kind of jagged movements. You know, non-traditional chord progression. That’s what made me think of Return to Forever, which I knew it wasn’t. And I don’t know that Zappa record, actually, and I don’t know that tune. Have you seen Baby Snakes [the Zappa concert movie filmed in 1977]?
Maybe, a long time ago.
You get to see him really working with the band live, and it’s incredible.
He worked the hell out of them, right? ‘Cause to play something like this live…
Yeah. But also the way he uses conduction a lot. I think people like Zorn and Butch Morris…
You think they took things from him?
I think so, yeah. Or at least created their own thing based on that, because he’s using a lot of sign language that’s his own. There are some improv moments where it looks like he’s sculpting, and the band is on top of it, and they’re shredding. That’s an incredible band. Now I kind of like Zappa, I guess.
9. Lennie Tristano & Warne Marsh
“Digression” (from Intuition, Capitol). Tristano, piano; Lee Konitz, alto saxophone; Warne Marsh, tenor saxophone; Billy Bauer, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass. Recorded in 1949.
BEFORE: Oh, man. [laughs]
You know what that is?
I don’t. That’s a really interesting piece, though.
Can you guess the era?
I would say mid-’60s. Mid- to late-’60s.
Anything else about it?
I think, actually, I’m going to guess it’s Sun Ra.
AFTER: First thing that came to mind, it made me think of Bud Powell’s “Glass Enclosure,” this short composition. But then it got so out immediately. I also thought maybe it was Herbie Nichols. I thought maybe it was some obscure Herbie Nichols thing. And then it was at the last minute that Sun Ra came to mind, because his piano playing is pretty incredible. Yeah, the Tristano that I know, those really super-tricky melodies. I play in this group with Oscar Noriega and Chris Speed, Danny Weiss, Matt Mitchell. We play about once a year, and we just decided to start playing some of those Tristano tunes. Which is kind of the most “jazz” gig that I ever do. [laughs] ‘Cause all those tunes are based on standards.
10. James Chance & the Contortions
“I Danced With a Zombie” (from Soul Exorcism Redux, ROIR). Chance, alto saxophone, lead vocals, organ; Lorenzo Wyche, trumpet; Patrick Geoffrois, slide guitar, backing vocals; Fred Wells, guitar; Al MacDowell, bass; Richie Harrison, drums; Anya Phillips, backing vocals. Recorded in 1980.
BEFORE: Wow, what a crazy band. When it first started I was thinking of the Mahavishnu Orchestra at the beginning. John McLaughlin a little bit, some of the guitar stuff going on. Man. I’m trying to think of a band that big. It’s cool, too, some of the horn lines, it sounds like they’re conducted separately from what’s going on in the rhythm section. They’re cueing some stuff that’s in, maybe, even a different tempo. And I was also going to guess that it was Lester Bowie on trumpet. [It’s worth noting that Bowie’s brother, trombonist Joe Bowie, was a member of Chance’s Contortions.]
AFTER: Man, it’s such a great, thick, rock bass sound, you know? Ah, interesting.