Reuben Rogers: A Satisfied Sideman

Overdue Ovation profile of the jazz bassist currently performing with Charles Lloyd and Joshua Redman

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Reuben Rogers (photo courtesy of the artist)

“I was like, ‘What is all this crazy stuff? I’m not feeling that.’”

About an hour before he takes the stage alongside Charles Lloyd for a gig at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Reuben Rogers is reminiscing about the first time he heard the jazz legend: on tape, via a gift from a fellow Berklee student, saxophonist Teodross Avery. “You need to listen to some more music, man!” Avery told Rogers, as he shared cassettes with the young bassist whose love affair with jazz had begun only a few years prior. “Of course, I didn’t know then that I would wind up playing with him for 15 years,” Rogers says, laughing at the memory. “I revisited it as the years went on, and my ears opened up so much. I got it.”

Lloyd is just one of the many storied jazz musicians Rogers has accompanied throughout his almost three decades holding down the low end. The 43-year-old also currently plays with Joshua Redman, Chris Potter and Joey Alexander, among others, and has shared stages and recording studios with Wynton Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton and Dianne Reeves. “Storyteller, poet, melodic rhythm master—each time he steps onto the bandstand his quotient of anchoring wisdom grows exponentially,” Lloyd says. The bassist characterizes himself as a “super sideman”; in more than 90 albums, he’s recorded just one as a bandleader—The Things I Am, from 2006.

“I think that was brought on more from other people than it was from my own head and heart,” Rogers says. “In hindsight, I didn’t have to do it—ever.” Instead, his art always comes “from the bass chair”: “I’m trying to make whatever situation I’m in sound the best it possibly can.”

The bassist’s collaborative approach to music began during his childhood in St. Thomas. His earliest musical memories are defined by gospel—Rogers’ parents worked in the church, where his mother was the organist—and the island’s omnipresent Caribbean music. In fact, the two were often intertwined. “All the gospel had a kind of Caribbean flair once it got to the islands—the same songs but with a calypso or reggae rhythm,” he says.

Beginning with a stint on the clarinet in junior high, Rogers became increasingly enamored of music. His flair for picking up new instruments and his “big ears,” as he puts it, meant he was given a number of opportunities to experiment—first briefly with the bass clarinet, and then with the electric bass. The latter was, again, inspired by all his hours in church, where he eventually mustered up the courage to ask the house bassist for lessons. His mother noted his interest and got him a bass for Christmas. “That’s when I started to just play every day, all day,” he says, noting that at that point gospel and reggae music still dominated his listening and playing.

Jazz entered the picture via a life-changing trip to his local record store. Rogers, then around 14, walked in and told the clerk he was a bass player interested in jazz. The clerk gave him Jaco Pastorius’ self-titled debut, Stanley Clarke’s If This Bass Could Only Talk and Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk best-of compilations. Jaco was the player who resonated with him first. “I was intrigued by the other stuff, but I just didn’t get the instrumentation at the time,” he says. “I didn’t even get that the acoustic bass was an acoustic bass. I was just like, ‘That’s the sound of jazz.’” As he kept listening—as his ears kept “getting bigger”—he grew more interested. “Slowly I fell in love with the Miles and the Thelonious, and I just kept going back to the music store.”

In high school, Rogers started a combo with a few fellow jazz-minded friends. He began gigging around the Virgin Islands with a local pianist named Louis Taylor, an experience he says was invaluable to understanding the repertoire. “He’d outline the chords [of various jazz standards], play the bassline and generally I’d be able to figure it out,” he says. “That was a big, big part of my learning process, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.”

His high school’s music director, Georgia Francis, was trying to get Rogers to learn the upright bass, and even bought one for the school so he could start playing it. Rogers tried to teach himself and wound up giving up after a while because it was just too daunting: He was already gigging on electric, playing wide receiver and cornerback on the football team (MVP of the league his senior year, he notes) and didn’t feel like he needed to pick up something new. “There was definitely a solid 10 to 15 years of just riding on my natural abilities without putting in the work,” he says. “If I’d been more focused, I swear I would be 10 times better than I am now.”

Francis kept pushing him, though, and Rogers wound up with a scholarship to Berklee after participating in a summer program there. At the conservatory, he was challenged on all sides. Friends like Avery opened his ears to new music—the first upright bassist Rogers ever saw in person was Christian McBride at Boston’s Regattabar, a show Avery dragged him to soon after he arrived on campus. Joshua Redman was on sax that night. “It should have been intimidating, but it wasn’t,” he says now. “I didn’t know anything, so it was just like, ‘OK, I have a long ways to go.’” His classmates gave him “on-the-bandstand lessons”: “I was getting my ass kicked so much.”

For his teacher Whit Browne, Rogers transcribed and played along with the solos on “So What”; Browne would stop the recording, dial the metronome up “twice as fast” and have him play it again. “He wasn’t going to let me skate there, and I appreciated it,” says Rogers, who learned upright during his time at Berklee, after Francis helped him get a grant to buy his own.

Berklee connected him with many of the musicians he still plays with today, like drummer Eric Harland. In the 20 years since they sat in together at a jam session at Wally’s Cafe in Boston—even though they hadn’t officially met at that point, Harland remembers thinking he was “funky as a motherfucker”—the two have played in countless bands together, including Lloyd’s. “He’s very nurturing to whatever’s happening around him. It’s almost hard to describe the way he plays, because it supports the band in so many different ways,” Harland says. “His playing goes unnoticed because he’s not worried about being seen.”

Beyond the community in which he came of age musically, his home—St. Thomas—is still a vital influence, even though he now lives in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park. “That sound, the Caribbean beats and grooves—even when I’m playing with these guys tonight, there will be things that we do that just take me right back,” Rogers says over coffee in January, before the Lloyd set. Indeed, when they play Lloyd’s funky “Of Course, Of Course,” there’s an undeniable lilt in Rogers’ playing—not unlike the one in his voice: faint, but distinctive. He recently visited St. Barts to record with virtuosic steel-pan player Victor Provost, and has long worked with fellow Caribbean jazzers Ron Blake and Dion Parson in the latter’s 21st Century Band—an explicitly Caribbean-inflected project. “Even when I’m playing jazz, I’m there somehow,” Rogers says.

The combination of his distinctive sound and generosity as a band member has made him among the most sought-after bassists in the business. “Reuben Rogers is one of the most soulful and versatile bassists of our time,” Redman says. “What’s more, Reuben is utterly committed and selfless when it comes to the music. He always plays just what’s right for any given context, at any given time—no more, no less.”

That approach, according to Rogers, is one that’s entirely intentional. It will also probably keep him a first-call accompanist for as long as he wants to play. “I always try to make whatever situation sound the best it possibly can, even if I’m playing a simple-ass bassline where I don’t solo at all,” he says. “That’s art in itself.”

Recommended Listening:    

Charles Lloyd New Quartet Passin’ Thru (Blue Note, 2017)

Reuben Rogers The Things I Am (Renwick, 2006)

Joshua Redman Quartet Passage of Time (Warner Bros., 2001)