Bob Cranshaw: Shop Talk

“Tune and tempo,” Jo Jones used to tell me. “That’s all it is. Why do cats want to make it so hard? It isn’t hard-it’s easy.” Such are the simple verities of the jazz rhythm section as passed down by one of the masters, but these days we tend to pay more attention to those cats with an elaborate floor routine and a soloist’s ego, which is why people tend to undervalue the work of Bob Cranshaw. Top musicians, though, such as Sonny Rollins, Billy Taylor and Milt Jackson, over the past 40 years have cherished Cranshaw’s impeccable harmonic architecture and indomitable sense of swing, because when this eternally youthful 68-year-old is holding down the bass chair in your rhythm section, things are locked and loaded, the trains all run on time and you never have to worry about the bass player’s ego spilling all over the bandstand. Cranshaw is the consummate team player.

JazzTimes: Do you view the electric bass guitar as a substitute for the upright bass or as an instrument in and of itself?

It’s an instrument in its own right. A bass is a bass. Now since I am an electric player, I have been approached many times as to “Why do you play the electric bass? Why don’t you play the string bass?” And one of my things is-you can’t hear the string bass! Hey, I love the string bass, but when I go to a club to hear a band, I generally don’t hear the piano and the upright bass, which to me is such a drag.

I’m not closed to learning how to do various things, because when you put on a typical jazz record and then put on a Steely Dan record, there ain’t no comparison as to what the sound is when it’s recorded right. And we have to start thinking about some of those things rather than being so closed about electronics-jazz musicians have to stop being frightened of the light bulb. That’s not the reason why I started to play it-I was in a car accident. I still have problems at times where the muscles of my back tighten up, but I just go on at this point and play the upright bass because I enjoy it so much. But I know that within two or three days of playing the string bass I will feel it in my back and it’s time to go to the chiropractor.

I play the electric just like I play the string bass. I mean, there’s a certain characteristic to the electric, but I play it like an upright, because I’m not really a funk player-I’m still a jazz bassist. So in order to play with the people I’m used to playing with, I have to get a sound that is closer to sounding like the string bass because this is what these people are used to hearing-to feeling a certain thing from the string bass. That’s why with someone who normally wouldn’t allow an electric bass anywhere near their bandstand, like Milt Jackson, there’d be times when I offered him a choice, as to whether he wanted the added cartage and expense of the upright, and he’d say, “That’s okay Deacon, you just bring along your pork chop.”

I know that most of the players of my age have no idea what is happening with the electronics. But then we all grew up playing together under an authentic acoustic umbrella. I mean if you couldn’t hear the bass and the piano, then the drummer was too damn loud. I was talking to Ray [Brown] about some of these same things. As a bass player, Ray is one of my mentors, and people like him and Milt Hinton really encouraged me to want to get into the instrument. Sometimes I’ll hear him in a club and Ray’s amp is so loud, it’s much more sound than he really needs to have in a certain place. He has a small amp and it’s pumped up pretty loud, but it’s like the amp is overloaded, and I said to him, “Ray, rather than to have this little amp and little speaker here playing it too loud, get a bigger amp and a bigger speaker cabinet and play it lower, because the instrument will carry better.” But you see, we don’t hear this, because we didn’t come up in that era.

JazzTimes: From talking with Sonny I know that he much prefers the presence of the electric over the feel of the upright, because the way he plays-putting harmonies on top of harmonies, modulating like Tatum through the keys and juxtaposing odd rhythmic groupings of notes over a regular meter-if he can’t hear the chord, if he can’t feel the beat, then everything he does sounds like gobbledygook.

I know that for him to really play, he has to hear the bass, and because I’m right there, this allows him to know where the form is-and that has been my role with Sonny over the years. I may be a star, but Sonny is the superstar: he designs the plays, takes the snaps and carries the ball and makes the long passes; I block for him and open up holes of opportunity for him to create-because that is my supportive role. Even if I was an incredible bitch of a bass player, when Sonny gets through playing a solo, whatever I might’ve played before that sounds like shit anyhow.

JazzTimes: There’s a contradiction at work here, because you’re trying to approximate the sound of an instrument that is felt as much as heard, whereas the bass guitar is generally heard and rarely just felt.

You see, my problem being coming from the upright bass, I need the darker sound, because I like the low notes on the instrument. But sometimes you end up with a muddy sound as a result. So I needed something where I could get some lows and the notes would still penetrate without having to be loud. I’m always trying to get a sound where it’s warm and round without being muddy. And what happens is with a lot of the places we play, I have to add so much high frequency information, that it takes me out of what I’m doing; because I’m a bass player, not a guitarist, and I don’t want to hear that tikky-tikky high ping-that’s disturbing to me, and it throws me off my game. I had been using an ESP five-string that my son [Steely Dan bassist Tom Barney] gave me. That’s what I used on Sonny’s last few albums. But I was losing some of the lows and it was always very muddy. So [New York luthier] Roger Sadowsy made me a four-string and five-string bass, both with maple necks and ash bodies, I think, and they’re really clear and focused.

I also have a collapsible upright electric bass that David Gage made for me where the neck comes off. I had it made to play with Bags. I played the pork chop for a while, but with the vibes, I felt like the string bass went better with that instrument, to be up under his sound. But rather than to put Milt through all of those transportation woes, I had a bag made for this electric upright so I can wheel it around and get it in and out of taxi cabs, and in 15 minutes it’s set up and ready to go. It sounds to me better than many of the uprights you hear, because it is made for amplification.

I’ve tried other electric uprights, but they all look like something out of a sci-fi movie, and I needed to see the scroll, and the bass neck was important to me. This instrument has a shoulder like a regular bass, but it unscrews for transport, and it all fits into a cello-sized fiberglass case and you can put it in the trunk of any cab. I’ve recorded with it, and I have a little box to get more lows and a rounder sound, and it really records great. It lays right there in the bottom of the mix, but it sounds like you’re playing one of Ron Carter’s basses-nice and long and deep and burnished, but really clean.

As for strings, I endorse La Bella Flat wound 7720 Light for the Upright Bass. For the bass guitars I use La Bellas sometimes, although currently I have Sadowsky’s strings on: starting at .045-.065-.085-.105-.128. I think his set is culled from D’Addarios. They’re flat wounds, although I sometimes use rounds.

JazzTimes: What have you been using for amps?

I generally use a Gallien-Krueger head and a SWR cabinet when I’m on the road, because everything is rented. And usually when I’m around town I’ll bring my Walter Woods amp, and I can get a nice warm sound from it, depending upon what speaker cabinets I’m driving with it. And if I’m in some place where I’m playing both instruments, then the Walter Woods is the only thing I use. And if I’m playing acoustic upright, I’ll use a combination of the Woods and a mic, to get a proper mix of both sounds.