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Jim Self: Close Encounters With the Fluba

Jim Self
Jim Self

How can you not love a jazz and classical tuba virtuoso who comes up with a red, white and blue CD called My America (Basset Hound) that contains tracks with these titles: “Bill Bailey, Please Call Your Service,” “Sousa, Phone Home” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000 Polka,” a clever intermarriage of that polka from Self’s home state and the Glenn Miller hit). There’s also “Turkey in the Straw,” which interpolates Gershwin, Copland, John Williams, Brubeck and the 20th Century Fox fanfare, and “Juba Plays the Fluba in Aruba,” a salute to the 1931 fossil “When Yuba Plays the Rhumba on the Tuba,” plus 10 other tracks with straightahead American titles.

In those first five titles, you gain insight into the duality of Jim Self. Simply put, he’s a swinging patriot. He loves this country with a pride others may label corny, but Jim is not afraid to quote “America the Beautiful” citing its “amber waves of grain” or “purple mountain’s majesty,” explaining how he loves to fly his own Piper Arrow to his occasional far-flung musical gigs. Truth to tell, most of his performances don’t require anything more elaborate than a few miles of ground transportation to the Hollywood studios: since 1974 Self has graced over 1,100 movie soundtracks plus hundreds of TV shows and recordings. Self also plays regularly for the L. A. Opera and he teaches tuba and chamber music at University of Southern California, where he earned his doctorate of musical arts.

But let me remind you of Self’s most memorable contribution during his long and varied career, a contribution that contains five notes with which his fame will be eternally linked: Remember those profound, earth-shaking tones that issued forth from the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind? That motif may have been written by John Williams, but they were realized by Jim Self, underscoring what comic author Peter De Vries once wrote about the tuba as being “the most intestinal of instruments-the very lower bowel of music.”

So much for one opinion, but what Self has done for the tuba negates De Vries’ myopia and has let in considerable sunshine, adding heart and soul, much the same way that Nelson Riddle “liberated the bass trombone,” to quote trombonist George Roberts, giving it a whole new bop makeover when necessary. Listen to Self’s earlier CDs on Concord, such as Tricky Lix and Basset Hound Blues, for proof of the tuba’s front-line vitality in jazz settings.

Self is perhaps the most curious musician in captivity, as evidenced by his My America CD, complete with an updated version of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” It contains not only a cross section of styles, it provides an outlet for a new diversion he has unleashed on his America: the fluba, Self’s unwieldy welding of a tuba and flugelhorn into one giant instrument.

“It’s heavy, weighs around 20 pounds,” Self says. “I can hold it long enough for a photo to be taken, but that’s all.” He uses a monopod to hold the thing up while he’s playing.

“I invented it three years ago when I asked instrument maker Robb Stewart for a flugel-tuba-in other words, a huge flugelhorn-type of tuba whose sound would go directly to the audience; the tuba gets a diffused sound by going upward. So since I’m a Yamaha artist, Robb designed it from various Yamaha parts.”

You have to listen carefully to My America to discern the subtle difference in timbre between fluba and tuba, but it’s there. You don’t have to strain to hear the brilliance and wit of arranger Kim Scharnberg (who writes for the Boston Pops Orchestra). It jumps out of each track on My America. Nor is it difficult to hear the classical and jazz extremes of Self’s artistry: his main classical influences are Harvey Phillips and Tommy Johnson, and his most important jazz influences are lyrical swingers such as Bob Brookmeyer, Paul Desmond, Gary Foster, Stan Getz and Jim Hall. (Self started out on guitar.)

“I’d much rather play jazz all the time, if only I could make a living at it,” Self says. “But I’m realistic.”