Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bass Players: Scott LaFaro and Gary Peacock

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Sometimes I think the acoustic string bass is the least appreciated of all the instruments used in the making of Jazz. One obvious reason for this might be that you have to listen carefully to hear it as it is often overshadowed by the volume coming from the other instruments in a Jazz band, whatever the size.

Perhaps the lack of appreciation that bass players are subjected to is exemplified in the joke in which one member of a couple listening to set at a jazz club turns to the other and says: “It’s OK, we can talk now, it’s only the bass solo!”

Despite the relative obscurity of the instrument for the general listener, there have been a number of pioneering bassists in the history of the music who have significantly enhanced the manner in which Jazz bass is played. Among these, Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus come to mind almost immediately.

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Scott La Faro and Gary Peacock rose to prominence by also appreciably adding to the technical and stylistic manner in which the instrument is played. 

Frankly, when Scotty and Gary first came up, they were “the talk of the town.” Everyone and anyone who heard them was impressed by what they were doing on the instrument.

Their sound was so strong that when you first heard it, you would have sworn that additional amplification was being used to create the huge tone that came out of their acoustic string instruments.

I was fortunate to hear both Scotty and Gary when they first made the scene with pianist Victor Feldman’s and pianist Claire Fischer’s trios, respectively.  Believe me, no one was talking when they played; everyone’s mouths were agape with astonishment at the stuff these guys were playing on a string bass.

The power and majesty that they generated on an instrument that was often thumped, whapped and plucked during its early years in Jazz combos was awe-inspiring.

Sadly, LaFaro was to die in tragic circumstances in 1961 at the age of 25, but fortunately for the Jazz world, Gary Peacock is still playing wonderfully in a variety of settings, most notably with pianist Keith Jarrett’s trio.

In 2009, Scott’s sister, Helene LaFaro-Fernandez authored Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro which is still in print and available through the University of North Texas Press [Denton, TX].

Here’s what the esteemed Jazz critic Martin Williams had to say about Scott and Gary while both were still early in their careers in his Jazz Changes [New York: Oxford University Press, 1992].

© -Martin Williams, Oxford University Press - copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The 1960s produced several outstanding young bass players. It was as if Charlie Mingus had released the instrument in the 1950s and those who followed found their ways of exploring its new role. ...

Scott LaFaro, by Way of Introduction

It's quite a wonderful thing to work with the Bill Evans trio," said bassist Scott LaFaro.

"We are really just beginning to find our way. You won't hear much of that on our first record together, except a little on Blue in Green where no one was playing time as such. Bill was improvising lines, I was playing musical phrases behind him, and Paul Motian played in free rhythmic drum phrases."

LaFaro is dissatisfied with a great deal of what he hears in Jazz, but what he says about it isn't mere carping. He thinks he knows what to do about it, at least in his own playing. "My ideas are so different from what is generally acceptable nowadays that I sometimes wonder if I am a Jazz musician. I remember that Bill and I used to reassure each other some nights kiddingly that we really were Jazz musicians. I have such respect for so many modern classical composers, and I learn so much from them. Things are so contrived nowadays in Jazz, and harmonically it has been so saccharine since Bird."

Charlie Parker was already dead before Scott LaFaro was aware of him, even on records. In fact Scott LaFaro was not really much aware of jazz at all until 1955.

He was born in 1936 in Newark, New Jersey, but his family moved to Geneva, New York, when he was five. "There was always the countryside. I miss it now. I am not a city man. Maybe that is why Miles Davis touches me so deeply. He grew up near the countryside too, I believe. I hear that in his playing anyway. I've never been through that 'blues' thing either."

LaFaro started on clarinet at fourteen and studied music in high school. He took up bass on a kind of dare. "My father played violin with a small 'society' trio in town. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I had finished school, and my father said - half-joking, I think  -  that if I learned bass, I could play with them. When I did, I knew that I wanted to be a musician. It’s strange: playing clarinet and sax didn't do it, but when I started on bass, I knew it was music." He went to Ithaca Conservatory and then to Syracuse; it was there, through fellow students, that he began to listen to Jazz. He got a job in Syracuse at a place called the Embassy Club. "The leader was a drummer who played sort of like Sidney Catlett and Kenny Clarke. He formed my ideas of what Jazz was about. He, and the juke box in the place - it had Miles Davis records. And I first heard Percy Heath and Paul Chambers on that juke box. They taught me my first jazz bass lessons. There was also a Lee Konitz record with Stan Kenton called Prologue."

In late 1955, LaFaro joined Buddy Morrow's band. "We toured all over the country until I left the band in Los Angeles in September 1956. I didn't hear any Jazz or improve at all during that whole time. " But a few weeks after he left Morrow, he joined a Chet Baker group that included Bobby Timmons and Lawrence Marable. "I found out so much from Lawrence, a lot of it just from playing with him. I have trouble getting with people rhythmically and I learned a lot about it from him. I learned more about rhythm when I played with Monk last fall; a great experience. With Monk, rhythmically, it's just there, always."

LaFaro remembers two other important experiences in California. The first was hearing Ray Brown, whose swing and perfection in his style impressed him. The other came when he lived for almost a year in the mountain-top house of Herb Geller and his late wife, Lorraine. "I practiced and listened to records. I had - I still have  - a feeling that if I don't practice I will never be able to play. And Herb had all the Jazz records; I heard a lot of music, many people for the first time, on his records."

In September 1958 LaFaro played with Sonny Rollins in San Francisco, and later he worked with the same rhythm section behind Harold Land. “I think horn players and pianists have probably influenced me the most, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Sonny perhaps deepest of all. Sonny is technically good, harmonically imaginative, and really creative. He uses all he knows to make finished music when he improvises.”

“I found out playing with Bill that I have a deep respect for harmony, melodic patterns, and form. I think a lot more imaginative work could be done within them than most people are doing, but I can't abandon them. That's why I don't think I could play with Ornette Coleman. I used to in California; we would go looking all over town for some place to play. I respect the way he overrides forms. It's all right for him, but I don't think I could do myself.”

“Bill gives the bass harmonic freedom because of the way he voices, and he is practically the only pianist who does. It's because of his classical studies. Many drummers know too little rhythmically, and many pianists know too little harmonically. In the trio we were each contributing something and really improving together, each playing melodic and rhythmic phrases. The harmony would be improvised; we would often begin only with something thematic and not a chord sequence.

'I don't like to look back, because the whole point in Jazz is doing it now. (I don't even like any of my records except maybe the first one I did with Pat Moran on Audio Fidelity.) There are too many things to learn and too many things you can do, to keep doing the same thing over and over. My main problem now is to get that instrument under my fingers so I can play more music.” (1960)

Gary Peacock: The Beauties of Intuition 

As recently as a year ago, few persons would have numbered Gary Peacock among the more proficient young bassists in Jazz. Today there are few who would not.

Scott LaFaro's unexpected death was a loss in several senses, not the least of which was regarding his contribution to development of the future role of the bass in Jazz, Peacock's recent spurt of development is a gain for much the same reason. His playing has come far indeed from that heard on a Bud Shank record released about two years ago. He is sure, incidentally, that “although you may have an idea of where you are in your work, a record will show you where you really are - you and anyone else who hears it."

Truly contemporary bass playing probably can be said to begin with Charlie Mingus-and perhaps Wilbur Ware and Red Mitchell. The most provocative young bassists do not play a quarter-note walk, 1-2-3-4/1-2-3-4-they do not play "time" and they do not necessarily play a harmonic part. And the horn players know that they do not need them to keep time or provide changes, harmonic reminders. The newer bassists do not merely “accompany" others and take an occasional solo but participate more directly in the music.

In their various ways, truly contemporary bass players are melodists - percussive melodists, lyric melodists, or in LaFaro’s case and Peacock's, virtuoso melodists. Furthermore, like the young horn men, they explore their instruments even beyond what is supposedly their legitimate range and function.

The Peacock who suddenly burst through on recordings with Clare Fischer and with Don Ellis and Paul Bley is a Peacock who is learning to make his way in the most advanced groups and among the most challenging young players in jazz.

He was born in Burley, Idaho, in 1935 and grew up there and in Washington state and Oregon. He studied piano for about six months when he was thirteen, and in junior high and high school was a drummer in student bands. He heard a great deal of so-called western-swing music, which is very popular in the Northwest.

One of his earliest conscious exposures to jazz came when he is sixteen. "A trumpeter I knew played me some of those early records by Bird and Dizzy - Salt Peanuts and those things," he said. I was really amazed, and I asked him who the second alto player was! I could hardly believe him when he answered there is only one."

Peacock left home at seventeen and spent a year in Los Angeles, studying vibraharp for several months at Westlake College. From 1954 to 1956, he was in the Army, stationed in, Germany. It was then that his interest in music really began to take shape. He found himself the leader of a group in which he played drums or piano, and occasionally vibes. But then his bass player left, and Peacock picked up the instrument.

Suddenly things were different: "My hands went down right almost from the beginning. The instrument seemed to fall under my fingers. I never really tried to learn bass - it was as if I just started playing it."

After the service, he went back to Los Angeles, went on the road with Terry Gibbs, and subsequently worked with (as he puts it). every group in the area except Red Norvo's - Harold Land, Art Pepper, Dexter Gordon, Bud Shank . . ..” In the course of  it, his whole approach to the bass changed from the old one to the new.

'I don't know exactly when it happened," Peacock said. "It must have been gradual. Before I realized it, I was there."

It definitely happened later than one evening he remembers when he chanced to end up on the same bandstand with Ornette Coleman. ("When he started to blow, I just froze; I couldn’t play.") But it happened.

Then he no longer had any trouble with groups that improvised freely and no longer had to work only with players who go through every piece cyclically and harmonically, ever repeating the structure.

"Only for about six months in 1959 did I put in any extra practicing and exploring my instrument. I had begun to try things I couldn't execute properly and had to find a way to play them. The rest of the time I learned on the job, just by playing and listening. I grew quite unsatisfied with just playing time. It became redundant, a strait jacket. Along with several people, I found that if a tempo is simply allowed to exist, you don’t need to play it - it's even redundant to play it.”

"But it is a personal thing. If it's right for a given player time, okay. But if it isn't, it won't feel right to him or sound to his listeners. "

This latter observation reflects an attitude that several young players seem to have: an awareness that what is right for them to play or to search for is not necessarily right for everyone.  Peacock, for instance, talks readily of his great admiration for Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and for the Modern Jazz Quartet. But the MJQ holds still another lesson for him, for theirs is truly a group music, and future Jazz will be truly group music.

"You know the title of that LP of Ornette Coleman’s,” he asked, This Is Our Music? I think that tells the story. I think in the future, we will hear a group music by equal participants.  Each member is going to have to be a leader to some extent.”

"It will have to be that way, In my own experience, we work now with a kind of psychic communication. We just know when a drummer has finished a phrase and when he has finished a solo. We know when a horn player has finished developing his ideas.”

"Perhaps this is only the first stage, and we will have different ideas later on. Perhaps we will have more conscious reasons for what we do, but for now, things are evolving this intuitive way.”

Peacock has thought about the dangers, delusions, an, contradictions in a freer music, however.

"The pitfall in the concept of freedom is that total musical freedom invites chaos," he said. "And I think we should also remember that freedom isn't necessarily valid unless it produces something. Also, so-called self-expression is not necessarily musical or artistic. I think we should keep those things in mind when we play. And most of all, we have to know when to stop. We must know when we have said it all, or when it isn't happening.”

"But for myself at this stage, I know that generally my best playing comes when I don't think too consciously about what I'm doing, and frankly that doesn't bother me too much. You can be specific about logical causes and about emotional causes, but about intuition there are no reasons. You just do what the intuition says. Incidentally, I think Ornette Coleman plays by intuition, too, not just feeling, as some people say. Anyway, I think that now we just have to play out the intuitions and see what happens. After all, if you go so far wrong, you'll eventually get back to what's right. And the only way to find out about some of the things we're working on is just plunge in and do them."

About the attitude that it is up to each player to explore the possibilities of his instrument, Peacock said, "Musicians tend not to regard their instruments as a whole. They take only a section of what can be done. The bass has two worlds. At the bottom, it affects everyone, especially in rhythm. At the top, you are into the piano's range and are more of a horn. There you can't upset the time and rhythm.”

"The thing to do is ask, 'What can I do with texture? Dynamics? Timbre? What can I do with one note? What can I do with the whole range? And can I extend it?' These ideas are reaching a lot of players, and particularly bass players - especially, I should name Steve Swallow in this. They are asking these questions, and asking how the answers affect the group music. But a player should work these things out at practice, not on the job. A job is a place to play, not experiment.”

"Take Ornette Coleman. He takes a note, bends it, twists it, even spits it out. It's beautiful; it gives the instrument a new life. Jimmy Giuffre is doing the same sort of thing with the clarinet."

Peacock has substituted for Steve Swallow in Giuffre's current trio on a couple of occasions and considers the experience among the most musically exciting he has had, "Jimmy and Paul [Bley] don't need anyone keeping time - in fact, it would get in their way. But playing with them is very exacting. They have really broken through recently. Their new Columbia record tells the story."

If Bley is not working with Giuffre, he and Gary Peacock can probably be found together. They worked recently at a Sunday session at New York City's Five Spot, with trumpeter Don Cherry and drummer Pete LaRoca, after which Bley moved over to the Take 3 coffee house to take his place with Giuffre and Swallow. Peacock and Bley also have made a television appearance on New York's educational Channel 13, and Peacock recently played a weekend with tenorist Archie Shepp and trumpeter Bill Dixon. But players of their persuasion don't get much of the work yet.

Nevertheless, it is very important to Peacock to be in New York now. "It only took me one day here to know that this is the place,” he said. "In Los Angeles, the first thing you think of doing is relaxing. In New York, we play things and work things out
things that need to be worked out. This is the place - the music the quality of the music, and the interest in it." (1963)

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and the production facilities at StudioCerra, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles has developed the following video tribute to Jazz bassists. The audio track features bassist Gary Peacock’s original composition “Liddledabllduya” [i.e.: ‘a little dab will do you’] on which he is joined by Carmell Jones, trumpet, Bud Shank on alto saxophone, Dennis Budimir on guitar and Mel Lewis on drums.