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The Other Scott LaFaro

Sixty years after the bass great’s untimely death, a look at his musical legacy beyond the Bill Evans Trio

Scott LaFaro
Scott LaFaro (photo courtesy of Helene LaFaro-Hernández)

A jazz musician’s legacy can be a multifarious slope. Sometimes it’s defined by contrasting stylistic paths that amalgamate into a career, as with Miles Davis. Other times, it’s distilled into a moment that seems to transcend itself, and thus it went for Paul Gonsalves, hero of a Newport afternoon. Elsewhere, a legacy is a reflection on what might have been, based on a limited amount of what was. Such is the legacy of bassist Scott LaFaro, though I would suggest that what was was more than we often think.

LaFaro was taken from this world 60 years ago, on July 6, 1961, in Flint, New York, where he was involved in an auto accident a few days after playing with Stan Getz at Newport. Perhaps one thinks of the contrast, as I do: the balmy New England coast, sailboats alongside the bandstand, and then the hard, unforgiving asphalt of the interstate. All is possible, and then all is no more.

Before that grim July night, LaFaro had been a busy bassist. Just about any jazz fan knows that on June 25, the 25-year-old had been in NYC as part of Bill Evans’ trio at the Village Vanguard, cutting the Sunday live date that will be reissued and repackaged so long as the earth continues to spin. One may even ask the question whether it is possible to love jazz and not love Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby, and I don’t think you’re being a curmudgeon if you stamp a foot and issue an emphatic “No, by Jove!”

For many, that Evans association, with drummer Paul Motian, is the LaFaro legacy. The all-timer live session that produced the aforementioned discs is rounded out by two studio LPs, Portrait in Jazz (1960) and Explorations (1961), which I sense are not listened to as much as they ought to be, but the Vanguard date is sufficiently lambent that it pulls us to it, which is good on one hand—this is one sweet, invigorating flame—and less than ideal on the other, because Scott LaFaro (who, along with Jimmy Blanton, I’d posit as jazz’s most important bassist) was a lot more, and did a lot more, than the prevailing narrative would have us believe.

LaFaro began by practicing his fingers off. Tales are told of how much John Coltrane practiced, but you could say the same about the bassist from Newark. Taking a tip from Red Mitchell, he trained himself to pluck the strings of his bass with his index and middle finger independently. LaFaro is one of those players who register to the ears like more than one man, generating a huge amount of sound with ostensibly little effort, and that sound resonating as direct, controlled, economical; this is part of the reason why.

He worked from sheet music for the clarinet, with its much higher pitch, to improve his command of the bass’ upper register. Expansive range was a totem of the LaFaro sound, the idea that the bass was so much a bass that it was also not a bass and more than a bass. Let’s call it the chimerical voice of the rhythm section—as well as what could often be the lead instrument when LaFaro was in your band. A stacked bass makes for a stacked musical deck.

There is a grave mistake a prospective listener can make with LaFaro, and when I say what that is, I may come off as somewhat risible, but one must do what is right: loving the Village Vanguard recordings so much that you sleep on the rest of what he achieved as a certain kind of jazz genius.

Yes, the Evans dynamic provided him with a perfect setting. Evans was an articulate interweaver of a pianist, a melodic speaker, a filigree lord rather than a rhythm king. Motian operated the same way; if anything, he was even more of a painter than the leader. That left air and space—and time—which could do with some filling, some shaping. Also, the exertion of a formidable musical will to take what was there, in an act of guidance. Fraternal guidance, in that this endeavor allowed fellow band members to do what they best did.

LaFaro took the opportunity, and he was the trio’s helmsman. In his playing you can hear how happy Evans is to have this helmsman at the back of the boat—I think it helped him see better at the front. There is fealty and gratitude in Evans’ approach to that famed date, and we have our early summer day out with the best of chums, people we feel are our musical friends.

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The young bassist was friends to other artists and art during his all-too brief sojourn upon the mortal coil. In spring 1960, he featured on a half-dozen tracks that trumpeter Booker Little cut for his second session as leader. Little was as star-crossed as LaFaro, and he’s usually talked about in conjunction with altoist Eric Dolphy as often as LaFaro is with Evans. But LaFaro had a pronounced Dolphy streak too, in that both musicians were playmakers, facilitators, helping others to raise their games by playing theirs at the highest level.

Those six numbers with LaFaro making up what became the Booker Little album are a masterclass in postbop bass. You’ll have to adjust your ears, but they’ll fall into line quickly. We think of LaFaro as a jazz bassist with leanings toward classical music; it’s the élan, I think. He’s just so damn elegant. Grit is not a LaFaro staple, but that does not mean texture isn’t. The texture, however, is the back of the hand—that’s the form of caress, rather than the rough-skinned palm. It’s the top of the sheet, instead of the coarseness of the winter blanket. Little must have loved LaFaro’s contributions, because he himself was one of those players between spheres: neither a bopper nor a hard-bopper nor an out-and-out New Thing guy. He was his own thing. As was, really, LaFaro.

As we’ve already noted regarding the time period right around his tragic death, LaFaro packed a lot of art into his days. Let us be grateful that he didn’t rest easy during what would prove to be the last Christmas season of his life, for in December 1960, he was called in for a couple of dates that we must look to every bit as much as the June 1961 Village Vanguard recordings to fully appreciate him.

On December 19 and 20, he took part in John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, and Jim Hall’s Jazz Abstractions sessions, with buddy Bill Evans and Eric Dolphy. What a natural setting for a multi-ecosystem guy like LaFaro, the dream bassist for a project of this nature, which is jazz, classical, painterly, open yet demonstrative. It is LaFaro’s bass that makes this thing go, such as it does go. And how does it go? The music of Jazz Abstractions proceeds as a series of shadings, which tend to be called “variants” on the finished LP. A record like this could easily have become just a “mood” disc: sound as fuzzy, woolly painting, in which the experiment becomes an end unto itself, the gesture, the gambit, being everything.

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But LaFaro makes the music pulse—he provides its heartbeat and flow. This Third Stream affair has jazz as a major tributary vein, and it has LaFaro to thank for it. Evans and Dolphy don’t feature on a couple tunes, while LaFaro is the constant. My sense has always been that the music of this slipstream space needs him, all but knocks on his door and asks the helmsman to come out again.

Ornette Coleman was another musician who appeared on the Jazz Abstractions date—but as with Dolphy and Evans, on just half the record—and I often imagine the conversations he might have had with LaFaro during breaks and between takes about what Coleman had in mind for the next day.

“Brother man,” I can all but hear Ornette saying, “we are going to blow some minds tomorrow.”

For when Jazz Abstractions wrapped, December 21 dawned, and that meant LaFaro—along with Dolphy—was boomeranging back to A&R Studios for the landmark waxing of the legendary, epoch-rattling Free Jazz, with a lineup of Dolphy on bass clarinet, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums in the right channel, and Coleman on alto, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums, and LaFaro in the left.

You know how some people (and you may be one of them) like to go on YouTube and listen to isolated Beach Boys backing vocals and John Bonham drum parts? Free Jazz did that kind of splicing and segmenting for you, as part of, neatly enough, its original integrated sonic package.

You’re free—boom—to lock in on LaFaro, and I do that quite a bit. The tendency is to associate him with classical predilections, but here he is at one of the zeitgeist-shaking avant-garde sessions, and boy, does he drive the sound. Put one way: Scott LaFaro was up for it.

It’s no knock on Charlie Haden—a formidable pioneer himself—to say that if he’s a bass player, LaFaro is something else, to use the Coleman argot. A post-bass bass player, maybe. Sound-carver. I return to the idea of the helmsman, because LaFaro always plays as if he’s en route to some vital destination, and he’s helping to take other musicians there, and, of course, those of us who are listening in.  That’s his brand of intimacy: the sensation of the stolen moment. But it’s a moment we’re meant to be a part of, that both surrounds us and is for us. Is that a bass thing? Is that a jazz thing?

I suppose technically, yes, though it’s also far more, and that’s a LaFaro thing. So help yourself to his “more,” if you will. It’s there for a reason, and that’s not solely to complement the proof of the magic that occurred at a New York City club in late June 1961. The helmsman remains present to take us many places where we otherwise might not have gone, and no one has steered that ship better than Scott LaFaro.

Bill Evans Trio 1961
Bill Evans Trio, L to R: Scott LaFaro, Evans, Paul Motian, Village Vanguard 1961 (photo: Steve Schapiro)

Colin Fleming

Colin Fleming writes fiction and nonfiction on myriad topics—art, film, music, sports, literature—for a wide range of publications. He also talks regularly on the radio for the likes of NPR and Downtown with Rich Kimball. His most recent book, Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls (Tailwinds), was published in 2019, with an entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club to follow in 2020. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com (where you’ll also find his unique online journal, the Many Moments More blog) and on Twitter @colinfleminglit. He lives in Boston and has contributed to JazzTimes since 2006.