Paul Motian

Scott LaFaro, poet of the bass


It’s anyone’s guess what more bass genius Scott LaFaro would have achieved had he not died in a car accident at the age of 25. In fact, what he did achieve in a 7 year time span when he switched over to bass from saxophone remains extraordinary over 50 years later. I’d like to toss around a few ideas about why Scott was great and why his voice is probably more underrated than music popular wisdom has it.

What I hear most clearly in Scott’s playing is a profound sense of urgency that his early accidental death makes even more fateful. LaFaro was an unrelenting workaholic, as Bill Evans remembers in the priceless interview track from the tribute album Pieces Of Jade. Oh boy, and it shows! In my humble opinion, what LaFaro brought to jazz bass playing is comparable to what John Coltrane brought to the saxophone, or Mozart to orchestral music. Consider that the guy had only played the bass for 7 years when he performed so magnificently with Bill Evans and Paul Motian that one night at the Village Vanguard! The three performance nights captured on the albums Sunday at the Village Vanguard, Portrait in Jazz and Waltz for Debby are unanimously considered as a paradigm-shifting watershed for the evolution of the jazz piano trio. Scottie was at the top of his game, inspiration gushing out of every pore of his skin. Were attendees of that show on the night of June 25, 1961 aware of what was going down there? I’d be curious to see who were those people who jingled their glasses that night at the Vanguard. Anyone tracked them down?

But however influential that trio was and is it’s a little trickier to think of more than a handful of genuine continuators of Scottie’s virtuosic style. Let’s lay out its main characteristics.

Scott LaFaro rarely walked his bass when accompanying Bill Evans and when he did, he incorporated a kind of triplet feel into it that created a unique propulsion around Paul Motian’s spacious beat. When soloing – including on ballads – Scott rushed into sixteenth (very fast) notes right from the start of his improvisation, going for broke, as if music didn’t wait, and he had to pour it all out before it was too late. Listen to him on Gershwin’s beautiful waltz My Man’s Gone Now. On that tune, the trio are seamlessly locked in, Scott dances with Bill in telepathic interplay, leading the steps with a deeply warm bass tone while Paul Motian graces the dance with subtle brushwork on the cymbals. The musical chemistry here is still a shining and inspirational example of what three musicians can achieve when they are riding the same wavelength in the moment of performance. What still makes my jaw drop when I listen to Scott is his phenomenal command of the instrument, a facility that lets him play ridiculously fast lines like a saxophonist and still delineate the melodic and harmonic arc of the songs. While most great soloists tend to build their solos progressively, gathering steam and progressively building drama with more and more notes, Scott is already barreling ahead from the start and apparently needs no warm-up.

I never got around to transcribing LaFaro’s solos and keep that practice on an occasional basis anyway. But I recently stumbled on videos by bassist Phil Palombi – who put out a book of LaFaro transcriptions – and today decided I’d give a shot at “Gloria’s Step” from Sunday at the VV. Holy s…So here’s the deal. If on your first attempt you get past the first 8 bars after an hour’s worth of intense practice, you are either a monster I will NOT stoop to talk to or you have been drinking way too much coffee today and your brain will fry anytime soon. Be careful. Seriously, how does a normal person think of hitting an Eb three octaves high on the fingerboard hardly two measures into the solo? Nailing that note is hard enough but the movement across the strings that precedes it is the real torture here. I almost broke my wrist before I could do it properly. Yet LaFaro does that all the time and doesn’t seem to sweat too much over it. Granted, the legend has it that Scott had his bass set up with lower action (strings close to the fingerboard) than the norm. And he had the greatest instrument to support his musical appetite, a large-shouldered 1875 Abraham Prescott bass that played evenly across the registers and strings with no dropoff in volume or tone clarity. A bassist’s wildest dream. The story of Scottie’s bass – which got severely damaged in the same accident and was restored by luthier Barrie Kolstein – can be found in a video online and will definitely satisfy bass geeks and LaFaro enthusiasts. Still, no other bassist could have made it sing that good.

To me, Scott is a kind of bel canto singer with killer jazz chops to match. Another major characteristic of Scott’s playing and one that might have left a deeper mark on today’s musicians than his hand speed is his tendency to omit the downbeat or play delays and accelerations within a 4 beat or 3 beat measure. Motian picked up on that immediately and sort of acted as the discreet yet conducive gel that tied it all together. The effect on the ear is pretty devastating as the time-keeping duties conventionally reserved for drums and bass are reinvested with a more flexible quality. This new elastic relationship with time created a contrapuntal texture that Bill Evans reveled in as it gave him new spaces for modal explorations. Also, this new relationship with time introduced a variety of rhythmic displacements in the fairly conventional  context of piano, bass and drums, inspiring generations of rhythm sections to mess around with time even when  playing simple pop song forms.

No wonder Bill Evans couldn’t play for months after Scottie’s death and changed bassists 3 or 4 times afterward. It’s an odd irony that the first albums with Motian and LaFaro are called The Bill Evans Trio featuring Scott LaFaro when you consider how dominant and assertive the bassist sounds on these tunes. On his own composition, Gloria’s Step, mentioned above, Scott almost steals the show from Bill Evans, complementing every phrase with a variety of fills that makes you wonder if he’s not soloing over Bill’s solo…

Though Scott LaFaro is usually considered as one of the greatest bassists of all time, and a ground-breaking one at that, few have treaded a similar path in “mainstream” modern jazz. Gary Peacock’s ornamental and lyrical approach to the bass is probably as close as anyone has gotten so far. But to me, Scott LaFaro will always be in a league of his own, a Promethean poet of the bass that must have had a lot more to say.

Scott LaFaro appears on four landmark albums with Bill Evans and Paul Motian, recorded between 1959 and 1961:

Live at the Sunday Village Vanguard, Portrait in Jazz, Waltz For Debby and Explorations.

He can also be heard in different contexts, such as on Hampton Hawes’ For Real album and Ornette Coleman’s The Ornette Coleman Quartet. Thre might be others I am not aware of.

PS: For those who can’t get enough of Scottie’s bass playing, check out Phil Palombi talk about him and play his solos on the restored Prescott bass.

Nice work.

All the things you’ve always wanted to know about modern jazz, but were afraid to ask

Photo by Ruth Cameron

Photo by Ruth Cameron

From left to right and top to bottom: Dave King, Joshua Redman, Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden, Reid Anderson, Ethan Iverson

Talk about inspiration. What a lineup! I just lifted this photo from Ethan Iverson’s indispensable DTM blog. To think that this was taken backstage last Saturday at a concert featuring the double bill of The Bad Plus + Joshua Redman and The Brad Mehldau Trio, with Charlie Haden in attendance, can only make me want to do two things once the goose bumps on my skin have subsided and the frustration of missing the gig wears off:  play any record by these musicians over and over again, or pluck away at my bass strings until Haden’s voice agrees to rub off on me.

Sometimes words cannot match the evocative power of a simple picture. This coming-together of peers with Haden as elder statesman is a case in point of the jazz continuum. This art form has always been about cross-pollination, mentorship and a relentless quest for creativity. On the surface, The Bad Plus pairing with Joshua Redman feels like a revival band of Keith Jarrett’s so-called “American quartet” from the 70s, a modern jazz group consisting of Jarrett, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Dewer Redman (Joshua’s father). In fact, the band has proudly acknowledged their musical debt to these trailblazers and it’s striking to hear traces of that music reshaped into, well, Bad Plus music. I have yet to warm up to Joshua Redman’s albums but he sure picked up the Plus’ infectiously gnarly songs fast!  That’s enough for me to give him a good listen and recognize his awesomeness. As to Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard, they fit right in there as well, having shared the bandstand with Haden, Redman and Motian in various settings and embodying a like-minded generation of seasoned improvisers. With that kind of apprenticeship on your resume, you’ve got some serious chops to look ahead and forget the meaning of unemployment. The late Paul Motian is sorely missing from this picture, though. So is Ornette Coleman. That might have been a little over the top.  Once again, Haden comes off as the unifying veteran of this continuum, a ubiquitous icon whose influence beyond sheer bass playing has yet to be adequately appreciated. The LA Times review will give you a snapshot sense of what he heard from his seat.  But what did he actually think? We’ll probably never know.

Selected song recommendations:

The Bad Plus, 2.P.M. (Never Stop), one of Iverson’s signature angular songs, where the American Quartet/Ornette Coleman influence shines through.

Ornette Coleman, Street Woman (Science Fiction). Ornette’s “Lonely Woman”, a tad disoriented.  Also tastefully covered by The Bad Plus on Give.

The Bad Plus, Snowball (Never Stop). Kill the lights, get your warmest sweater and listen to Reid Anderson’s Hadenesque ode to slowness at 2:30. Time stands still and everything is slow, slow, slow.