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Before & After: Tarus Mateen

In search of "wow" music

Tarus Mateen (photo by Marlon Hightower)
Tarus Mateen (photo by Marlon Hightower)

For 17 years and counting, bassist and composer Tarus Mateen has anchored Jason Moran’s acclaimed trio, the Bandwagon. And while Mateen has also played with such jazz luminaries as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Marc Cary and Terence Blanchard, as well as hip-hop heavyweights like De La Soul, the Roots and Common, his name doesn’t resonate as loudly in mainstream circles as his versatility and rugged approach suggest it should. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that he left New York 12 years ago and is now based in Washington, D.C., where he’s active on the city’s slightly below-the-radar jazz scene. Or it could be that he’s released only one album under his own name, Arising Saints: The Art of the Solo, an amalgam of gutbucket funk, simmering soul and vigorous 21st-century jazz featuring Moran, singer Brittany Tanner and his brothers Radji on saxophone and Umar on drums.

“People always count me out when talking about hip bass players, even though I was one of the first true [jazz] torchbearers of the ’90s,” Mateen, 49, said recently at Busboys and Poets, a restaurant, bookstore and event space located in D.C.’s Mount Vernon Triangle. “I was surprised to hear that you wanted to do a ‘Before & After’ session with me.”

1. Abdullah Ibrahim
“Calypso Minor” (No Fear, No Die [soundtrack], Enja)
Ibrahim, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Frank Lacy, trombone; Ricky Ford, tenor saxophone; Jimmy Cozier, baritone saxophone; Ben Riley, drums. Film released in 1990.

BEFORE: Buster Williams? That’s my first guess, just based upon the sound and touch. But now the horns came in and I’m not quite sure. I thought, “OK, I can wait to see if I can hear a signature Buster Williams thing.” But with the sound and touch, it just sounds like him. They really don’t jump into the song; the song is a groove-type tune. I don’t know this song or this album.

AFTER: That’s Abdullah Ibrahim? OK. Oh wow—it has Ben Riley too. I worked with Ben Riley with Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron; it was a Monk tribute. That song is certainly Abdullah Ibrahim’s vibe. I remember, when I first moved to New York, Abdullah Ibrahim played after Art Blakey at Sweet Basil. It was Art’s second week during a two-week residency. Abdullah Ibrahim had the next gig at Sweet Basil. I went to go hear Abdullah and said, “Oh man. What is this? This is boring!” because I was a young, fiery man. [laughs] Just hearing Abdullah with this really subtle, almost sedentary vibe. It wasn’t until I saw him five years later that I began appreciating the meditative aspect of what he’s trying to give to the people.


2. Ben Allison & Medicine Wheel
“Green Al” (Buzz, Palmetto)
Allison, bass; Clark Gayton, trombone; Ted Nash, alto saxophone; Michael Blake, tenor saxophone; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Michael Sarin, drums. Recorded in 2003.

BEFORE: Reginald Veal? It’s funny, because I’ve heard this record; I didn’t really like it. I think it’s a Tim Warfield record. It’s not? Sounds like it. I had to learn this song; that’s what it was. Who is this? Is this a Washington, D.C.-based player? No? Wow! Who’s homeboy who teaches in Detroit? Rodney Whitaker?

AFTER: Ben Allison? I’ve probably never heard any record that he was on that I knew of. I played this song with [saxophonist] Marshall Keys.

The song is “Green Al.”


Yeah, “Green Al”—exactly! That’s why I know the song. I didn’t check Ben Allison out like that. Most bass players I knew I was better than, I didn’t listen to. [laughs] That’s not arrogance; that’s just … why do I need to listen to something that’s not necessarily going to enhance my abilities or, at the very least, let me know what not to do?

I like “wow” music. When the music is tame, I still like to be wowed in its tameness. This is tame, just like the Abdullah Ibrahim one.

I’m listening to the bass solo now. It’s like a lot of bass players I hear now—they take bass solos that are, to me, limiting. He’s taking a solo as a bassist as opposed to taking a solo as a speaker telling a story. Your instrument can be the bass but you still have to be in a melodic way [like] a trumpeter, pianist or saxophonist. You don’t have to be a bass player who’s taking a bass solo. So this is just a typical bass solo. That’s cool. He didn’t do nothing wrong. But the wrong stuff is the dope stuff! [laughs]


3. Billy Bang
“Lover Man” (A Tribute to Stuff Smith, Soul Note)
Bang, violin; John Ore, bass; Sun Ra, piano; Andrew Cyrille, drums. Recorded in 1992.

BEFORE: Who’s the bass player who played with Monk? Ahmed Abdul-Malik?

It’s not him, but the bass player did play with Monk.

Oh, that’s not Abdul-Malik? The violin got me for a loop. I’ve never heard anyone play violin like that. This sounds crazy. It also sounds like the bassist could be Wilbur Ware. But Wilbur Ware pulls the strings harder than this. But he has a lot of the rhythmic inflections of Wilbur Ware. And it definitely could be Henry Grimes. I’m going to go with Henry Grimes.

AFTER: John Ore! Damn! [laughs] That was on my radar too.


People don’t talk about him too much.

Exactly! John Ore is a name I should have called because of the other ones that I was guessing—Henry Grimes, Ahmed Abdul-Malik and Wilbur Ware. John Ore is in the echelon of those cats.

Oh man! Billy Bang with Sun Ra and Andrew Cyrille?! I did a record with Andrew, but I wasn’t listening to the drums on this record.

I was offered a gig with Sun Ra in 1985, but I turned it down because I had a string of gigs with which I was trying to make a certain amount of money. I didn’t know how much for sure that I would be making by playing with Sun Ra. I wasn’t ready to move and live in a community with him either. I had a wife and a young baby at that time. But that’s a gig I wish I’d done. The same situation happened with Elvin Jones; I turned down a gig with him too. I wish I’d said yes to both, just to have an opportunity to play with them.

The playing on “Lover Man” is indicative of them. It was loose and very musical. A bit on the corny side but not corny because they are musicians who don’t necessarily feel like they have to present the music polished. So I’m not going to say “corny,” I’m going to say “quirky.” That’s the term they used for Monk back in the ’60s. They called his shit “quirky,” which is dope because quirky is cool.


4. Linda Oh
“Desert Island Dream” (Initial Here, Greenleaf)
Oh, acoustic bass; Dayna Stephens, tenor saxophone; Fabian Almazan, piano; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Whoo! [big smiles and head-nodding] I love this here. This is dope. You have to send me this record. This could be John Patitucci, but I don’t think so. Is this Mark Helias? It sounds like the writing of Bob Hurst. Is this a bass player’s record or is he a sideman? It’s not Christian McBride, is it? Then I don’t know who this is.

AFTER: Linda Oh. Really? Who she got on this? I’ve never listened to her, ever. Dayna Stephens is on here. This sounds good. Rudy Royston. OK! Fabian.

These are all new people. [laughs] I don’t know no new people. I like the whole approach to the music. I like her [bass] sound—her recorded sound, because she might not sound like that live.


Her bass playing sounds pretty strong live too.

That’s good. I wouldn’t say that she sounds strong. She sounds like she has a good bass and a good setup, so that makes her sound good. She don’t sound like she’s pulling no strings. I like her composition. It was nice.

5. Kenny Barron & Dave Holland
“Segment” (The Art of Conversation, Impulse!)
Holland, bass; Barron, piano. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Is this Jay Leonhart? My first thought is a different sound of recording for Ron Carter. But it’s not Ron Carter, because this bass player keeps doing something that Ron Carter doesn’t do. I’m thrown off by the piano player too.


AFTER: Dave Holland! Yeah, OK. And Kenny Barron! Nice! I don’t know this record. Well, that makes sense, because of that sound. That is his bass sound. And he has the touch of an older person; that’s why I guessed Ron Carter.

It doesn’t sound like it’s a real modern recording. It sounds like an older recording. Dave Holland takes “bass player” bass solos, but he’s still very melodic. And he’s very versed in musical language. That’s cool.

Dave wasn’t on my radar either. It was either Sam Jones, Larry Gales, Wilbur Ware and, of course, Mingus. But I didn’t check out Mingus until 2001. I took a day and listened to all of his records. I didn’t come up listening to a lot of bass players, because I was always looking for my own sound.


6. Joe Lovano Us Five
“Folk Art” (Folk Art, Blue Note)
Lovano, alto saxophone; Esperanza Spalding, bass; James Weidman, piano; Otis Brown III, Francisco Mela, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: Is this Henry Grimes? This bass player has a very deep growl in the lower register. Whoo! Whoever this is on alto sounds damn good. Are those two drums on this recording? Whoo! Is that Steve Coleman on alto? The alto player has an Arthur Blythe tonality about his playing. I don’t know who this is on bass. There’s no bass solo either.

AFTER: That was Esperanza? Nice! I knew that bass sound because I’ve played her bass. This is awesome. And Joe Lovano is playing alto on this song? He’s killing. I now like him on alto more than on tenor saxophone. As an alto player, his voice sounds even more unique. This is a nice record.

Esperanza! Go ’head on! She’s holding it down. I’m familiar with that bass sound. She brought her bass down at the Village Vanguard the night we did Thelonious Monk’s music with Jason Moran and the Bandwagon. I love her bass; it’s great. She said to me, “Man, you made me see things in my bass that I didn’t know it could do.” Esperanza is my people. She’s really beautiful. She’s a great player. I respect her a lot.


7. Ben Williams
“Toy Soldiers” (Coming of Age, Concord Jazz)
Williams, acoustic bass; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Matthew Stevens, guitar; Christian Sands, piano; John Davis, drums. Recorded in 2014.

BEFORE: Vicente Archer? This sounds like a young bass player. Is Nicholas Payton on this record? But I know this song, man. I love the bass solo. That almost sounds like Esperanza. Is it Christian McBride? It’s not him either? That’s interesting, because this is one of those navigable soloists. Oh, this is Ben Williams.

AFTER: Oh yeah—it has that navigable bass-solo playing. I say “navigable” because you know where the improvisational lines are going. The lines can dictate what kinds of rhythmic patterns will come out of the solo. The listeners can feel like they know where the bass solo is going.

Esperanza plays like that; Ben plays like that; Christian plays like that. They aren’t going to throw you for a loop where you’ll say, “Oh damn! Where did that lick come from? Why did they end there? Why are they now over there in the song?” There are a lot of navigable bass players out there. Dave Holland is one too. But he’s so seasoned that you might get anything coming out of him. He can pull from so much music vocabulary. I like this song.

Originally Published