There’s something about jazz musicians from Chicago. A certain physicality mixed with intelligence, as well as a blend of earthiness and urbanity. Bassist Clark Sommers, best known for his tenure with Kurt Elling, fits that prototype of a Chicago jazz musician. Sitting in a café on the Celebrity Infinity during the Jazz Cruise earlier this year, Sommers exuded both muscularity and intellect, banging his coffee cup and gesturing emphatically while talking about his evolution as a bassist and composer. As he sipped his mid-day cappuccino, Sommers talked about how his sound and approach were formed by his relationship with the Chicago jazz musicians of generations past and present, with Charlie Haden (his instructor at California Institute of the Arts), and with Elling (with whom he’s played for the last decade).
Last year, Sommers appeared on the critically acclaimed album by Typical Sisters, a guitar trio with Gregory Uhlmann (guitar) and Matt Carroll (drums). For the last seven years or so, he’s been playing in a trio called Ba(SH) with saxophonist Geof Bradfield and drummer Dana Hall, whom he met more than 20 years ago. The three Windy City natives recently released their second album, Peninsula (Outside In), featuring compositions by Sommers. The recording is one part hard bop, one part free jazz and one part groove, much in keeping with the musical styles their city is known for. It also represents the latest stage of a musical journey that began for Sommers in the late ’80s.
Growing up in Chicago, Sommers started playing drums in the seventh grade, inspired by John Bonham of Led Zeppelin and Clyde Stubblefield of James Brown’s band. When the rock band he was playing with found itself short of a bass player, as such bands often do, he switched over to the electric bass. “It was a pretty instant relationship with it right away,” he recalls. “I started hearing that range in the music—that sound register and subtones.” He soon got into groups like the Allman Brothers and Phish, who provided him with, as he describes it, “early nuggets of improvisation for me before I got into jazz.”
Sommers’ introduction to jazz happened when he was a sophomore in high school and he came upon a posted flyer for lessons from James Cammack, who was and still is the bassist for Ahmad Jamal. “I didn’t know who Ahmad Jamal was when I was 15 years old, but my parents did,” Sommers says. “He [Cammack] got me into jazz. I then switched to upright [bass] during my junior year.”
After high school, Sommers went to DePaul for two years, but music, not college, was his passion. “I wasn’t thriving at school, but I was out every night playing,” he says. “That was invaluable for me. Around that time I met some other really incredible local musicians.” Among them was Lin Halliday, a noted postbop tenor player, with whom Sommers did a regular gig at a local bar, as well as pianist Ron Perillo, guitarist Bobby Broom, saxophonist Von Freeman, and pianist Jodie Christian. It was also during that time that Sommers met Geof Bradfield and Dana Hall. “We became friends then and we started playing together,” Sommers says. “So the seeds [for the trio] were planted.”
Having left DePaul well short of a degree, Sommers took three years off. He traveled around with a swing band for two years and lived (and played music) in Singapore and Hong Kong for another year. When he came back to Chicago in the fall of 2000, he was 22 with no plans to go back to college. However, his friend Bradfield had gone to CalArts in Valencia, Calif., for his master’s, and one of the key educators in the jazz program there was Charlie Haden. “I’d really gotten into Charlie Haden then, especially all the Ornette stuff,” Sommers says. “I didn’t know that he taught out there. Geof said, ‘If you’re really thinking about going back and committing yourself to a couple of years of school, maybe you should think about checking out this program in Southern California—Charlie Haden’s there.’ That’s all he had to say.”
Sommers didn’t even pay an advance visit to the famous school for the arts; he merely spoke with the jazz program’s director David Roitstein, who impressed the bassist with his insight and intelligence. “I just committed to it, and it was the best two-and-a-half years of my life,” Sommers recalls. “I did five semesters and hung with Charlie and Darek Oles.”
Haden, who founded the jazz program at CalArts in 1982 and taught there for more than 30 years, immediately became an important mentor to the young bassist. Looking back on the experience now, Sommers says that Haden’s personality and sound were almost too much of an influence. “It was great to get the stories and inspiration from him,” he explains. “I loved him so much. I was young and he played with a lyricism that I gravitated toward. I was unabashedly trying to do his thing. I don’t do that now.”
Haden’s teaching technique was as unique as his playing. “Charlie was not the most pedagogical teacher, as you might imagine,” says Sommers. “He talked a lot about patience. He never seemed to force anything. Everything seemed to flow out of him. He would wait for stuff to happen and then respond to it. There was a cool balance between waiting and prodding. He talked about honoring the people you’re playing with by listening to them and responding to them, waiting for them and supporting it and lifting it up.
“Charlie could change the landscape of a piece by holding one note for eight bars,” Sommers adds. “The way that he’d get it to resonate under his finger and how it would come out of his bass, it made an impression on me. He was so into the broader lyrical element in music, where you’re really expressing your voice, not like a person singing, but there’s an expressive vocal quality to your thing. I thought he was the gold standard with that. His sound was so undeniably unique and rich and full and earthy. All the great attributes.”
After Sommers finished at CalArts in 2002, he went back to Chicago, picked up where he left off with his old friends, and started anew with other local jazz players. In addition to reuniting with Bradfield and Hall, he also started playing in a trio with the pianist Dan Cray and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratte, with whom he performed for about six years and recorded five records.
In 2008, feeling it was time to move on from Chicago to seek more opportunities, Sommers went to New York City and within a short time was playing regularly with another transplanted Chicagoan, Kurt Elling. By that time, Elling had been in NYC for about three years, had already recorded numerous albums, and had established himself as one of the foremost male jazz vocalists of his time. Sommers had played a few gigs with Elling back in their hometown, but it took the move to New York to solidify their relationship. During his first few years in NYC, Sommers was in and out of Elling’s band as the singer struggled to find a successor for his longtime bassist Rob Amster, who had gradually become less involved in playing music due to personal issues. It was only after Amster’s sudden death from a heart attack in November 2013 that Sommers got the call to be a permanent part of the group.
“That was a really rough blow because he [Amster] had his spot in the band,” Elling explains. “I hadn’t really looked out for many other bass players to find out what the deal was. It turned out that Clark had so many of the same excellent attributes. He likes the action real high, he pulls really hard on the string, he really loves playing the bass. He’s not there because he’s a frustrated saxophone player and trying to play all the notes and overplay everything. That’s the key thing that I’m looking for in anybody that’s going to take that chair: that they have a great sound and they want to play the role.”
Given their common roots in Chicago, it’s no surprise that one of their shared affinities was for Von Freeman, the legendary saxophonist central to that city’s jazz scene. “We both spent time around him and playing with him,” Sommers says. “While Kurt and I didn’t really know each other in Chicago, we shared that experience. We related to each other because of that.”
“That’s a real important thing,” Elling confirms. “It’s funny because you hear the influence [of Freeman] without necessarily knowing that it happened. You hear it in the sound. You hear it in the pull of the string and in the propulsion. You notice it in the stamina. If anyone can go into extra choruses and support you, it’s Clark. I try not to abuse the privilege.”
A major challenge for Sommers as a new member of Elling’s band was finding his place in the group or, as he describes it, “trying to have a definitive personality in a sea of his [Elling’s] personality and the rest of the group. Kurt had a very distinct idea of what he wanted because he had a guy [Amster] who played with him for 13 years before I got there. I had to figure out what my sound was going to be and how to play supportively, especially in large venues where you have to project something really clear. It took me a while to figure that out.”
Elling has watched, and appreciated, how Sommers’ role in the band’s sound has evolved: “He’s grown into it, and I’ve been able to trust that he’s going to shine through naturally because of the power and fortitude of his sound, as well as the propulsion and the beat that he lays out for everybody.”
For Sommers, one of the great benefits of working with Elling—besides the unique gifts of the vocalist himself—is his reliance on great drummers. Since coming onto the scene in the mid-’90s, Elling has played regularly with Hall, Kendrick Scott, Obed Calviere, Kobie Watkins, Adonis Rose, Ulysses Owens, Jr., Johnathan Blake, and Jeff “Tain” Watts, among others. “They’re all so strong but totally different in their own unique and beautiful way,” Sommers says. “Kurt has really great time and feel. He’s able to mix things up in different ways with different drummers. That’s been cool to watch. He doesn’t just do his thing in one way. I appreciate that about him. It makes the band fun and unpredictable.”
“Declarative sentences are what I’m looking for, from all my players,” Elling explains. “But not just elbowing their way through everything. It takes a bass player that is going to resonate with these different drummers and still hold it together. If it’s a cat with whom we haven’t had any time to rehearse, I know Clark is back there talking with them the whole time, offering up assistance, showing them where it’s at. ‘Oh, Kurt likes it this way.’ Right on the stand. I think Clark enjoys that task and that interaction. There’s nothing that makes me feel that the gig is more of a success than if I’m able to step aside and toss it back to Clark and whoever the drummer is and they’re laughing together and resonating with the same nomenclature and vocabulary. I really have a jazz gig if the bass player and drummer are having a good time.”
Elling also appreciates how Sommers has become the band’s de facto archivist. “If I don’t remember how something is supposed to go when maybe we pull an old chart out, he’ll be like, ‘It goes like this,’” Elling says. “And I’ll say, ‘Oh, is that what we did?’ He’ll say, ‘Yeah, I got a recording of that.’ Then there it is. He’s always got that up his sleeve.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis, Elling’s group was doing up to 100 dates a year, which has produced a very tight musical experience for Sommers and his bandmates. But ultimately it’s the quality, not the quantity, of the work that impresses Sommers about Elling: “The thing that I got and am still getting from Kurt is that he has such a level of excellence with his whole thing—all the details are there.”
Although Sommers’ touring schedule with Elling has been busy, he’s also been able to continue his collaboration with Bradfield and Hall, in part because he decided to move back to Chicago in 2010. Ba(SH) recorded its self-titled debut album in 2013. “We’ve been playing together ever since and have done so many different collaborations together,” Sommers says. “It was born first and foremost out of the friendship that I had cultivated with these guys in the ’90s. We started showing up on projects together in the early 2000s. Dana started a chordless group with two saxophones, modeled after Live at the Lighthouse by Elvin Jones [featuring David Liebman, Steve Grossman, and Gene Perla].” That seminal album was a touchstone for all three Ba(SH) members.
Sommers wrote the material for Peninsula about four years ago, and the trio recorded it three years ago. The challenges of independently releasing an album were the main cause for the delay; musical inspiration was not an issue. “I was so into that sound of Charlie playing with Billy Higgins or Ed Blackwell and we had been playing so much together,” Sommers says. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I write some tunes for these guys and let’s get together and see how it feels to play without guitar or piano?’ It was just so instantaneous.”
The saxophone-trio format was creative grist for the whole group, but it generated a special sort of freedom for Sommers as the bassist. “I wanted to keep it small,” he explains. “I appreciate this context where the bass can float freely and play texturally and not be so relegated to the expected role of the instrument. Be more of a pivot for unpredictability. These guys are so willing to do anything or go anywhere. I wrote the material for them specifically and they just ate it up. When you don’t have the harmonic obligation of adhering to a prescribed set of chord changes, and you have a drummer who is completely flexible to field whatever rhythmic permutation you want to put out there, you feel pretty liberated.”
The configuration also allows for more genre-shifting. “The main point of intersection is that we all have such reverence and love for the history and the canon, but when you play with those guys or musicians like that who are open enough to let everything in, they’re not constrained by the history or bebop language or whatever,” Sommers says. “It’s not stylistically specific or genre-specific. They’re totally flexible. That’s been the most rewarding thing about it. The challenge is, ‘What can I come up with that will be challenging enough for them but allow them to create their own thing?’”
For Sommers, his long personal and musical relationship with Bradfield and Hall is what makes the project come alive. “They allow me to play at my potential, putting all the craft-based expectations aside—those are dealt with. Most of the time, you’re trying to get the craft out with people. But [in] the special connections you have with certain people, that becomes a foregone conclusion. It’s been over 20 years that I’ve been playing with them. You can’t make old friends. There’s a certain chemistry.”
Elling credits Sommers with doing his homework on the role of the bass in every band he’s in, and he sees a direct tie between Sommers’ musicality and his versatility. “In the different groups that you hear him in, he’s laying it out in such a way that you have to work hard to get lost because he’s making everything so clear,” Elling explains. “At the same time there’s a level of erudition about the music that shows up in the playing. He knows where he’d like to be historically, who he’s following on the instrument. So many bass players know who can play and who can’t, more than anybody, just because they’re sitting there in the back and they know all the permutations of the chords and all the possibilities that are there. He’s one of those guys who can hear all of that stuff happen. It speaks to the level of musicianship that he has that he’s in so many groups where there isn’t really a chordal instrument. Where there’s a lot of room, there’s a lot of rhythmic flexibility and tonal flexibility, but it all holds together.”
A listener can hear all that in the music of Ba(SH) on Peninsula, which resonates with hardcore jazz fans and non-jazz listeners alike. And you don’t have to be from Chicago to appreciate its raw power and simple beauty. All it takes is an appreciation for music with muscularity and intelligence, and a certain comfort with unpredictability.