Bassist Mario Pavone holds a picture up to the light. It looks like a collage of geometric graphics, with strong hues, shadows, and text. "You won't notice a guy standing here," he says, rotating the picture. "It's our driver in Europe. This is a performance space in Munich, and this is our driver but you would never know it if you saw it that way right?"
Pavone creates his album covers with photos he takes on tour. He cuts them, blows them up so an extreme close up renders the image indiscernible, and combines them. The surrealistic element of his visual art parallels his music. With vast exploration and playful productivity, his new album Orange
, his 11th as a leader, transforms itself with each track. Featuring pianist Peter Madsen, drummer Gerald Cleaver, tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, and trumpet player Steven Bernstein, Pavone's compositions philander with time, rhythm, and conventional jazz structure, an extraordinary talent for one who hadn't even thought of becoming a professional musician until college.
A series of chance encounters led Pavone to the bass. While pursuing an engineering degree at the University of Connecticut, he made a friend whose extended record collection kept him riveted to the speaker. Then one night during his honeymoon, he and his wife ventured to the Village Vanguard to see John Coltrane. The evening enhanced his craving. "God it was an experience. That just added to the impetus for me to continue on this path," Pavone said.
Finally, one summer weekend in 1964, Pavone traveled to Chicago to visit the guitarist Joe Diorio. Diorio recognized the passion within him. "I was encouraged by him saying 'you seem to have music in you,'" Pavone said. When he got home he rented an upright bass. "I thought maybe the bass would be an easy instrument. I was wrong of course."
He pecks out melodies on the bass and builds on them creating little sonic universes. The sounds conjure colors in his head, usually bleached strokes, or pointillistic dots. Accidents occur and Pavone's individuality emerges. "Things happen, like I slip and my hand comes off the bass and a certain sound occurs, and I incorporate that in," he explained. "I want to make surprises in the writing. Changes of texture, changes of time."
Pavone graduated from college, got a job as an industrial engineer, and took some lessons with new music bassist Bertram Turetzky. In 1967 he attended Coltrane's funeral after which he immediately abandoned his job, and began a full time pursuit of music. "That was it, I would never look back. I would never return to that field [of engineering] at all."
Pavone quickly found himself in the midst of New York's downtown jazz scene. He discovered The Orchestra of the Streets, an organization trumpet player Bill Dixon ran out of a second story storefront. "I met an incredible amount of players from all the ranges of the music. I remember Kenny Dorham being there and Reggie Workman. It was like a Saturday morning workshop."
It was a pivotal time for jazz. Avant-garde musicians, unable to play in the traditional clubs, held nightly sessions in their own loft spaces. Pavone's foundation and beliefs began to grow and solidify. "I was a non-musician, I think it had an advantage. Starting out so late has many disadvantages, but it had one good advantage. I didn't have any preconceptions, and had not invested in a big music education, that I might have to go against and refute, because the music was really starting to open up in the late '60s."
He developed an acute understanding of composition versus improvisation. "To make the relationship between the two not be that apparent is a key goal," he explained. "Where the writing lets off and where the improvisation begins, it's nice when it's not so clear. When you're writing you're trying to capture some spontaneity in the compositions; when you're improvising you're trying to have a focused statement. I like when they're a little ambiguous."
In 1975, he, Leo Smith, and Gerry Hemingway founded the Creative Musicians Improvising Forum in New Haven, an offshoot of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Players were starting to organize and take control of their work, a lesson Pavone learned from pianist Paul Bley.
Bley asked Pavone to join him on a European tour in 1968. "I was just thrilled. That was it, that was the beginning of my international, professional career," he exclaimed. "Paul was a master, I loved his music, and it was a big opportunity. It was like a dream come true for me. He was very instructive, great to play with, taught me a lot about thinking independently with the music, and about business, documenting everything you do, and being cautious of the music business."