The Jazz.com Blog
May 19, 2008 · 135 comments
What's wrong with jazz? Could it be that unwieldy string instrument hiding out next to the drummer? Alan Kurtz, jazz.com's resident curmudgeon (who lately in this column debunked the idea of a new Golden Age for Jazz and poked a finger in the eye of Record Store Day), now takes on that venerable jazz institution: the bass solo. Below you will find his low, rumbling case against the large wooden elephant in the room that everyone politely avoids discussing. Readers are invited to share their own opinions by adding their comments or emailing them to firstname.lastname@example.org. T.G.
Bass solos suck. Let's face it, the ponderous, unwieldy bottom feeder is the least interesting jazz instrument, lacking even the visual appeal of drum solos. A bulwark in European concert halls since its invention by 16th-century Italian luthiers, the bass violin has by design remained in the background of symphonic and chamber music. Mozart, e.g., composed 40 concertos featuring a solo instrument, including 27 for piano, 5 for violin, 4 for horn, one each for flute, clarinet, oboe and bassoon, but none for bass violin. Likewise in other genres, from folk to pop to country and rock 'n' roll, the acoustic bass serves a supporting role. Only in jazz has it become a principal solo instrument.
Until the 1930s, the string bass was seldom used in jazz, and even then almost never for solos. Since it projects poorly, the acoustic bass mostly provided ballast in lieu of solos that inevitably plunked more than resonated. During the 1940s and early '50s, however, such virtuosos as Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus elbowed their cumbersome instrument into the spotlight. By the mid-'50s, bass solos were de rigueur. Still, the bassist remained primarily an accompanist, not a principal soloist on a par with trumpeters, saxophonists or pianists.
One man changed all that. In the early 1960s, Scott LaFaro, equipped with gargantuan technique and a muscularity suggesting Popeye hopped up on spinach, revolutionized the jazz bass. By imposing his will not just during designated solos, but throughout an entire piece, this brazen bull fiddler in a china shop (otherwise known as the Bill Evans Trio) perversely transformed the conventional trio from a pianist supported by bass and drums to a bassist backed by piano and drums.
It's been said that a jazz band is democracy in microcosm, with each constituent free to express himself. This cliché misconstrues jazz and democracy. An effective group requires both a leader with vision, and participants willing to cooperate towards a common goal. Not everyone can be President simultaneously. This applies to jazz no less than to an entire nation, and is affirmed by Explorations (1961), recorded shortly before Bill Evans abdicated. The highlight, with LaFaro mercifully keeping his monstrous technique in check, is "Elsa," where the diffident pianist is assisted, not overpowered, by his sidemen. "Elsa" isn't democracy in microcosm; it's beauty in macrocosm.
By the summer of 1961, however, Scott LaFaro's coup d'bass was complete. So, as it turned out, was his life. Ten days after a live recording session that would result in two Bill Evans Trio albums, the 25-year-old LaFaro accidentally drove his car at high speed into a tree in upstate New York, killing himself and a passenger.
Accordingly, Evans's next release, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, served as what producer Orrin Keepnews called "a fitting memorial to the abbreviated career of a talented bassist." The follow-up Waltz for Debby was "perhaps more representative of the overall repertoire of the group."
Although Evans's playing is breathtakingly beautiful, LaFaro dominates the proceedings, abetted by his nominal boss, whose tendency towards introspection made him a pushover for the bully fiddler in his midst. Thus, LaFaro consumes 30% of the five Sunday at the Village Vanguard tracks where he solos, and monopolizes a similar percentage of Waltz for Debby. Cumulatively, even factoring in three tracks on which he doesn't solo, LaFaro hogs nearly 25% (19.5 minutes) of the trio's 80-minute, 2-LP performance. This is way beyond showcasing. It's more like Godzilla Goes Trick or Treating. Through sheer brute force, Scott LaFaro had hijacked the Bill Evans Trio.
In December 2007, jazz blogger and occasional Jazz.com contributor Marc Myers reported that pianist Lennie Tristano once walked out in the middle of an Evans/LaFaro club date. "Apparently the perfection of the Bill Evans Trio," Myers speculated, "was too much for Lennie's ego." As long as we're imputing unknowable motives to dead people, let me suggest a contrary spin. In 1962, Tristano objected in the pages of Down Beat to the burgeoning star complex among rhythm sections. "Nowadays there are no sidemen left," Lennie kvetched. "Everyone is a soloist." Tristano most likely fled not out of bruised pride, but in protest to LaFaro's Paul Bunyan-esque ax wielding. With Babe the Bull Fiddle at his side, Scott LaFaro cleared the forest of interested listeners faster than splatter-movie loggers armed with Texas chainsaws.
In any case, LaFaro's legacy was widespread and long-lasting. Never again would jazz bassists be relegated to a lowly supporting role. Henceforth, in a grand triumph of vanity over common sense, everyone would be a soloist, and every soloist would be a star. Now across the land would resound the thumps, thwacks and thuds of bull fiddlers brutishly boring ever-diminishing audiences into deep, dull submission. All in all, an unfitting memorial to the abbreviated career of a talented but overreaching musician. And a dismal development for jazz.
This blog entry posted by Alan Kurtz.