Bottom Heavy: William Parker's Requiem and Joe Fonda's Loaded Basses
William Parker's Bass Quartet
Joe Fonda's Bottoms Out
Jazz is primarily thought of as a music of high registers. One need only look at the trumpeters, soprano saxophonists and pianists that for many define its sound or conversely at the relative lack of bassist-leaders, longtime demotion of the tuba and even the late development of the bass clarinet. Low frequencies require an attention to detail (and good stereo equipment). For those who possess both, two new discs explore the bottom end of the spectrum. Both are led, unsurprisingly, by bassists but the formats and intentions are quite different.
When William Parker convened his Bass Quartet to close out the Ninth Vision Festival in 2004, the environment was a giddy one. Henry Grimes was back to playing regularly, Alan Silva was in town and a few days earlier, the Revolutionary Ensemble had reformed and Sirone's playing was dynamic. The group's significance stemmed from the stylistic lineage evident from Grimes to Silva to Sirone to Parker and the addition of guest saxophonist Charles Gayle added a wrinkle, an uncommon hierarchy with a horn playing over four bassists. This reviewer's notes from the concert indicate not much listening onstage and an impression of the four basses as one thick instrument matched against Gayle's alto. But unusually for this kind of improvised scenario, the recording is more satisfying than the performance. In the comfort of home, with that all-important good stereo (and excellent recording quality), more of the subtleties come through. Gayle, originally the odd man out, makes absolutely vital contributions, providing refreshing spikes and edgy contrasts to the bubbling underneath. Perhaps some direction or shorter, distinct pieces would have worked better but that was not the objective. This was a memorial to the late bassists Wilber Morris and Peter Kowald (and others mentioned in remarks after). Given where those two fit on the bass tree that is Requiem, anything more disciplined would have been not the point.
Joe Fonda's entry is a much different set-up. He chooses not to celebrate one low instrument but the whole tonality, showing how much textural range there can be within the same general frequency. His bass is matched against Claire Daly's baritone, Joe Daley's tuba, Gebhard Ullmann's bass clarinet and Michael Rabinowitz' bassoon. But apart from this aural premise, Loaded Basses is a conventional jazz album. The addition of drummer Gerry Hemingway means that these instruments are still playing traditional roles (whatever that means these days) but are adding layers to a specific range rather than occupying individual ones. The recording process of CIMP makes the need for close attention even greater as there are times when a quiet moment can seem particularly quiet. But when the volume increases, the effect is that of Picasso's blue period. One doesn't miss higher register instruments but is moved by what can be done within a delineated gamut. Given that Fonda is used to thinking in low terms, his tunes make best use of the breadth at hand and he is not afraid of those quiet moments or thickly-spread melodies. Listeners who aren't either should pick up this disc.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Four Strings Inside a Tree; When All Is Sad; For Wilber Morris; The Little Smile; Sky Came; Heaven; Blues in the Hour Glass; Shores of Kansas; Spirits Inside the Bright House; Bermuda/Atlanta/Philadelphia/Bronx; The Last Song.
Personnel: William Parker, Henry Grimes, Alan Silva, Sirone: basses; Charles Gayle: alto sax.
Tracks: Bottoms Out/Gone Too Soon (for Tom Chapin); Breakdown; Rocks In My Head; Brown Bagging.
Personnel: Claire Daly: baritone saxophone; Joe Daley: tuba; Gebhard Ullmann: bass clarinet; Michael Rabinowitz: bassoon; Joe Fonda: double bass; Gerry Hemingway: drums.