CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Chris Lightcap: Two Become One

An impractical idea devised by the bassist has yielded an unlikely supergroup

Chris Lightcap
Chris Lightcap (photo: Alicia Albiñana Domingo)

The two bands led by Chris Lightcap, it would seem on the surface, don’t have much in common. Bigmouth—a largely acoustic affair featuring Lightcap on double bass, Craig Taborn on piano and keyboards, Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek splitting tenor saxophone duties, and Gerald Cleaver drumming—has been kicking around for well over a decade. The rock-informed Superette, an all-electric quartet—Lightcap joined by two guitarists, Jonathan Goldberger and Curtis Hasselbring, with Dan Rieser on drums—only released its debut album in 2018.

You probably wouldn’t expect to see the two combos on the same bill, let alone sharing a stage, but then you’re not Chris Lightcap. Why not, the musician and composer mused, combine the two bands in one octet and see what happens?

What happened was SuperBigmouth, an adventurous new hybrid whose self-titled debut album was released in October by Pyroclastic Records.

“The idea of putting the two bands together came to me almost right after I came up with Superette,” Lightcap says by phone on the eve of the eight-song album’s release. “It probably wasn’t the most practical idea I’ve ever had: two drummers and two tenor saxophones, two guitars, Craig, and me, an eight-piece band. But I started imagining what it would sound like, in particular Tony and Chris on tenor saxophones interacting with Curtis and Jonathan on guitar. And then the first time we got together, it exceeded my expectations. It gave me the will to keep doing it more, and keep writing music, and that eventually led to the recording.”

What’s most fascinating about SuperBigmouth is how the amalgamation—even while exhibiting the wide-screen melodies and harmonies, thrilling improvisations, and unexpected twists that have characterized Lightcap’s previous work as a leader—sounds like neither of the two separate entities. Lightcap says that the two-bands-in-one quickly took to one another during a pair of gigs they played prior to the recording session that produced the album.

“I wrote with a certain sound in mind,” he says, “and then they brought their own personality to it. And the ways in which it deviated from my imagination was that it was just better. It was never like, ‘Oh man, that’s not what I’m going for.’ I like to embrace the messiness of it.”

When composing for the project, Lightcap considered the specific tendencies and styles of the individual players (except the drummers; he wanted them to figure out the tandem rhythms on their own). The writing was initially influenced by his recent dive into his classical vinyl collection, “a little more extended-sections, a little more contrapuntal than I normally write.” Some material “ended up being a lot tighter in its construction, and some other things are even tighter because I wanted it to be much more of a vehicle for freer, more group improvisatory-oriented pieces.”

A lot of trust went into the direction the music ultimately took. Several of the musicians perform in each other’s bands, but others, notably the two drummers, had never played together before. “Nobody brings any kind of agenda,” Lightcap says. “Both of my bands are built on the idea that the music serves the band, and I really hear more commonalities than differences. We’re all just trying to make it work. It’s a pretty copacetic arrangement.”

For Lightcap, both SuperBigmouth and the two bands on their own offer opportunities to explore the various aspects of his own musical personality. As a collaborator and sideman with more than two decades’ experience, he’s contributed bass work—primarily standup, but increasingly veering toward electric in recent years—to recordings and live ensembles led by, among others, Matt Wilson, Taborn, Nels Cline, and Regina Carter, the violinist he describes simply as “amazing.”

“I don’t take those kinds of relationships for granted,” he says. “I enjoy being able to go into different zones sonically. I like just having that flexibility.”

For those who knew Lightcap only as a double bassist, however, the emergence of the more aggressive Superette may have come as a surprise. It took him a while—and a period marked by revisits to music he grew up on (the Beatles, the Band, James Brown)—before he was able to warm up to the electric bass enough to strap one on. Then, he says, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is great! This is the bass sound that I respond to.’ It was a very gradual thing because I had an established career as an upright player. Then, every so often, someone called me to play with a singer/songwriter and I’d say, ‘Oh, can I play electric on this one?’”

Now, having opened up another avenue with SuperBigmouth, Lightcap says he just wants to “see what happens next. I have a couple of different ideas, but I’m not sure what they’re going to be yet.”

Originally Published

Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin on social media

Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.