I’ve been kicking this idea around for a while: what if I just picked an instrument and wrote a paragraph or two on some of the musicians I like who play that instrument? There wouldn’t be any pressure of saying, with authority, “these are the greatest musicians who ever picked up a [insert instrument here]”; it would just be a way of saying “this is a cool instrument, and these are some musicians who did something fun with it”.
Generally, I find that there’s too much elitism when people write about music – there’s too much self-assurance that the buck stops with a single writer’s opinion. I have no misgivings about saying that I don’t have any kind of authority on music, its history or its greatest practitioners. This series is about celebrating musicians that I think are good, and I really think that in an age where there is so much music at our fingertips, the job of music critics should be to sift through that music and just point out to people the things that are worth a listen – we’re not arbiters of objective musical truth, but merely people who are willing to do the grunt work of listening to all of the things and write about what we find. That’s why this article isn’t called “The Four Greatest Bassists of All Time”, or even “My Four Favourite Bassists of All Time”. It’s called “Some Bassists”, because these are some bassists that I like, and I hope that reading this will get across why they’re interesting and might turn you on to some music you’ve not listened to before.
I play the saxophone. It’s an instrument that fascinated me from the moment I first heard it (cheesy though it is , that was the saxophone solo from ‘Baker Street’), but in recent years when listening to or watching bands play, I’ve been drawn to the bass. I’m always left a little gobsmacked by the grace and finesse of a lot of bass players, considering how unwieldy an instrument it is, in both its electric and upright forms. I also have rhythm section envy. Bass players often hold entire bands together, they create the foundations upon which so much awesome music is built, and they get to be playing all the time – barely ever having to just stand there and watch everyone else contribute to the music making. I sometimes wonder, knowing what I do now, if I had the chance to learn music again from scratch, if I would want to be a bass player. Honestly, that question is too hypothetical to give a genuine answer, but that doesn’t stop me looking at bass players like the ones listed below and thinking: “Wow! I wish I could do that.”
Since the 80s, Edgar Meyer has written and played on a huge number of influential progressive bluegrass and contemporary classical crossover projects. His style of bowed double bass playing is incredibly distinctive and easily identifiable by his constant, almost surgical use of sliding. His sound is playful, yet accurate; powerful, but with a beautifully light touch.
Meyer is classically trained, and has written a number of bass concertos, which is perhaps why he always has so much presence within an ensemble. Even if he’s playing something as unassuming as the bass notes of a simple chord progression, his sound is so clear that it makes itself known, but without ever disrupting the balance of the ensemble. This is something that is particularly effective in his projects which bring together musicians from the bluegrass and classical worlds, like The Goat Rodeo Sessions, Short Trip Home, and Appalachian Journey. All of these are small string ensembles where Meyer is the link between two very disparate musical worlds. This role is one to which he is perfectly suited, thanks to the mix of classical clarity and accuracy with folky vibrancy.
Staying in the bluegrass/classical world, Paul Kowert is another fantastic upright bass player who straddles the line between the two styles. He is perhaps best known as the bassist in Punch Brothers – one of the most influential groups in the current American acoustic music scene – but he has a very interesting body of work with his other band, Hawktail (formerly Haas Kowert Tice).
Kowert has a pretty strict conception of how a bass player should sound within a folk ensemble. While his playing can be lyrical, and is in a number of settings, he has a more foundational approach, preferring not to play with more dexterity than suits the instrument. Progressive bluegrass often involves breathless streams of spider-like melodies, so Kowert’s wonderfully restrained approach adds a sense of variety, and often a chance to breath. Knowing how dexterous Kowert can be, I’m always struck by how much self-awareness and control he must have not to get swept up in the moment and let his fingers fly around the finger board like the other musicians in the band.
Dave Holland has been around for a pretty long time now. He’s played and has had significant associations with a huge chunk of the best jazz musicians of the last 50 years including Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Evan Parker and Kenny Wheeler. I had the privilege of seeing him perform live a couple of years ago at a tribute concert for the late trumpeter, Kenny Wheeler, and I was immediately struck by the almost militaristic accuracy of his playing on upright bass. He was in his late 60s at the time and was still playing with the energy and precision of his early solo recordings on ECM from the 1970s.
One of the things that I adore about Holland is his tendency to play and collaborate with up and coming musicians, giving them opportunity to learn from him, and grow in a challenging, exciting musical environment. In his more recent projects, Holland’s playing hasn’t been the focal point, centring instead on excellent, fun writing. The bass is featured in a brilliantly supportive way in order to give the other musicians a chance to really push themselves and each other. He’s had a significant role in bringing contemporary powerhouses like Craig Taborn and Lionel Loueke to a wider audience, and I believe that a lot of that has to do with how encouraging and supportive his bass playing is. Rhythm players are IMPORTANT damn it!
Esperanza Spalding is one of those musicians who is scarily talented. Originally known for her smooth vocals and dynamic, but rather traditional upright bass playing, Spalding quickly garnered a reputation for being able to do lots of complicated things all at once. As her career has progressed however, she’s ventured into a much less familiar sound world. On her most recent album, Emily’s D+Evolution, she’s fully embraced the role of avant-garde jazz singer songwriter, accompanying her melodically adventurous vocals with complex, jagged basslines on 5-string, fretless electric bass.
The way in which she is able to simultaneously inhabit two vastly different sound worlds is totally astounding to me, particularly since her bass playing is so measured and controlled. Her intonation never slips, no matter how complex the idea she is communicating. Spalding is a true virtuoso, and a wonderfully bizarre character; qualities that, despite the potential for pretentiousness and artifice, come across in her music in a really genuine way.
All of these artists have a lot to offer, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to them. I’d love to hear what you think, so have a listen and let me know in the comments who was your favourite, and maybe some of the bassists you love that aren’t on this list.