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Bass Reflections

Miroslav Vitous
Universal Syncopations II

The bass is sometimes the image of jazz — a tall guy leaning over the overgrown cello, plucking rather than bowing the strings, creating that swinging walk so characteristic of the music. Artists seeking to depict jazz can hardly resist the emblem: a classical instrument converted to the dark side, the nightclub, the finger-on-gut elemental.

Yet it’s also true that the bass was a latecomer to jazz. Most early jazz groups used the tuba to hold down the low-end, being derived from brass marching bands. By the ’30s, the bass was standard, but it would be another decade before it acquired a virtuoso (Ellington’s great player, Jimmy Blanton), which was understandable — who could hear the big viol back in those days?

With better recording technology and then amplification, the instrument experienced leaps and bounds in appreciation: Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Charles Mingus, Scott LaFaro, Ron Carter, Richard Davis, among others, stepped forward. But even in modern jazz the bass has kept a foot outside of jazz, with players frequently steeped in classical training. Jazz bass players seem to think both within and outside the tradition. Mingus wrote long-form compositions, Jaco Pastorius had an itch for steel drums, and the contemporary player Ben Allison leads a band built around the West African kora.

Recently, two of our most idiosyncratic jazz bass players released riveting, odd, ambitious recordings (both on ECM) suggesting the importance of the bass tradition to the larger history of the music. Miroslav Vitous, from Prague via Boston’s Berklee College of Music, has played with Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, and Weather Report, as well as with his own groups. Eberhard Weber, from Germany, is known for his work on ECM records, including brilliant recordings with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, and Jan Garbarek — not to mention pop singer Kate Bush.

Maybe it’s no surprise that Vitous and Garbarek, as mature artists, would find ways to radically blend the classical tradition with jazz. They are, after all, European artists with roots in that tradition. It is a surprise, however, that these recent fusions should prove so successful and fluid.

The history of classical/jazz (sometimes called “Third Stream”) crossover music is checkered at best. So often, this blend was no blend at all — just an awkward Frankensteining of some classical composition with an improvising group, or as often a group of classical players being asked to swing themselves, a usually painful exercise. Finding a way to integrate the two sounds into an organic whole has been as elusive as a diet pizza.

Here, however, are two attempts that seem to come from the heart and seem to land on the mark. In Universal Syncopations II, Vitous has put together a core jazz group that swings in a freely abstract manner. The core band is Gerald Cleaver on drums (a veteran of much free, downtown NY playing), Vitous, and one or more horn players — Randy Brecker’s trumpet, Bob Mintzer on tenor saxophone or bass clarinet, Gary Campbell on soprano or tenor sax, Bob Malach on tenor. This band, however, is most often joined by orchestra and/or choir in fully integrated arrangements by the bassist himself. The effect is like little else I’ve heard.

“The Prayer”, for example, begins with timpani and slowly developing string patterns. It does not suddenly shift in a “jazz section” but gradually adds bass, drums, then saxophone as the writing develops in swells and melodic arcs. Gary Campbell’s tenor soars in, cryptically, sounding for all the world like Wayne Shorter finding his way through a dense Zawinul jungle in Weather Report.

The evocation of the great US fusion group is, of course, no coincidence. Vitous was a founding member, and the band’s mastermind, keyboard master Joe Zawinul, was also a European with a background in his native music. Zawinul died earlier this year, and he seems to float through these releases like a ghost. His ambition to create jazz that did not contain the usual string of solos is realized here, as is his impulse to cloak freely swinging jazz with a layer of attractive but mysterious and boundary-less sound.

Miroslav Vitous, photo by © Claudio Cassanova AAJItalia

On tunes like “Gmoong”, Vitous positions the orchestra and jazz players in such a way that they are indistinguishable. Brecker and Mintzer intertwine in impressionistic harmony, and the strings weave amidst it, also playing tart but lovely harmonies. When the larger group is silent, you feel neither relief not absence but a tension that is only relieved when the large group returns. The most ambitious piece is probably the first, “Opera”, which arrays a choir as well as an orchestra in support of the jazz group. The feeling is cinematic: voices, flutes, brass, and strings all punch the air while the leader improvises a bass line that could be a person talking. The feeling is swinging but polytonal — strictly notated for the most part yet harmonically adventurous in every way. Saxophone and muted trumpet solos rise and fall, through the explosions of timpani and swooshes of strings. Compared to it’s relatively conventional predecessor, Universal Syncopations II is a wildly ambitious record that suggests the ways that Vitous has deeply assimilated his influences and experiences.

Eberhard Weber’s Stages of a Long Journey makes explicit from the start that it is an act of accumulation. Here, the bassist reprises classic older material (most notably the lovely “The Colors of Chloe”), but also expands outward with a series of arrangements for the SWR Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra. “Silent Feet” sets a light but interwoven tone, with the orchestra playing bright and easy — as if Aaron Copland in mid-career had been commissioned to arrange a Gary Burton album.

In fact, Burton himself is a high point on good portions of the disc, forming part of a core small group that is woven into the orchestral fabric. On “Silent Feet”, the orchestra (or, really, Weber’s writing for the large group) mimics the dancing quality of Burton’s vibes. When Burton duets over Marilyn Mazur’s percussion part, it feels like a natural continuation rather than an uncomfortable lurch from classical to jazz.

The other key soloist against the orchestra is Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek, who sounds here less icy and forbidding than he often does on his own ECM recordings. On “Yellow Fields”, his tenor rises from a sunny orchestral arrangement to ride on Weber’s funky bass line, sounding less like a windstorm than like sunshine. Rainer Bruninghaus, a long-time associate of Weber’s on piano, also plays beautifully throughout.

The highlight of the record — recorded live in Stuttgart in March 2005 on Weber’s 65th birthday and the 20th anniversary of the city’s jazz festival — is “The Last Stage of a Journey”. It begins with several minutes of accomplished and lyrical writing for the orchestra alone in which the composition moves from being rhythmically static to a gentle off-beat sway. Weber allows the rhythm section to take over, with the orchestra blending in behind the jazz players immediately. As Garbarek plays a soprano solo (reminding you, perhaps, of his superb work with Keith Jarrett in the 1970s), the orchestra colors breezily. The arrangement here is smartly done, emphasizing strings and pastel woodwinds, floating the larger group in easy balance with the band.

What is truly remarkable about this track, as well as the generous helping of orchestral writing on he Miroslav Vitous recording, is the ease of integration that these artists have achieved. In what had always been an uneasy clash of musical cousins, these two bassists seem to have simultaneously stumbled upon the DNA for classical/jazz hybrid. Who’d ‘a thunk it?

In addition to be being European jazz bassists with some loyalty toward the concert hall, Weber and Vitous have another advantage. They are artists on the back side of 60, musicians who know the sounds they hear in their heads and, the evidence is clear, know how to get those sounds into the air. Vitous has accumulated his experiences (including that eerie Joe Zawinul resonance) into something otherworldly — a soundtrack for something unseen. Weber’s imagination takes him to folk dances or violet sunrises over the tree line.

But both combine improvisation, orchestral composition, and imagination into something that jazz has almost always struggled to conceive. Bass players, indeed.