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Interviews

Bertram Turetzky: Contrabass Pioneer

By Published: March 18, 2011

Amplifiers. Solid Body versus Acoustic Basses.

AAJ: Until the late '60s/early '70s, there wasn't much available in terms of amplification. In the old days, guys had to work at getting a big sound, or even just being heard. What do you think about the whole amplification thing, and how it's changed the instrument?

BT: Well, it's changed the instrument. In 1970, I went to a master class with Ray Brown. He said, "How many of you have played in a big band without an amplifier?" I raised my hand, and he said, "Turetzky, put your hand down" [laughter] He said, "Someday, amps may go out. What are you guys going to do?"

When I came here, I remember Magnusson said, "Oh my God, your strings are so high!" That's the way we played back east, strings very high. Now as the years have gone by, I've gotten older, and my string heights are probably at most California levels. But, with the amplifier it makes a lot of things possible. You're not killing yourself trying to pull the sound out of the instrument. And the sound is there.

I like to think that I get a mixture of wood—of acoustic sound with the electronic together. Bob, seems to like a little more of an electronic sound, have you noticed that? I think I have a darker sound. His is very bright. With John [Leftwich], he liked to play solos a lot of solos. So he did lower his strings quite a bit, and use his amp a lot— and some guys would say, "Hey, are you going to lay down some time, or are you going to play solos?" But John could do everything. He liked to play a lot of solos, and that's okay.

AAJ: What kind of pickup and amplifier are you using right now? Do you have the latest gear?

BT: Oh, no, no, no, no. I have this very old-fashioned idea. Look, you have your sound. You bring it with you wherever you go. So, I have a Realist pickup, I checked it out at Rice University, at a bass function.

David Gage asked me if I'd like to try it, I tried it. A couple of people came by and it sounded good. They both bought the pickup, so David laid a free one on me. Very nice of him. He's a very good guy, [it's] a good pickup. I have a, combo amp; I can't even remember what kind right now. I paid about five hundred dollars for it, and it suits me fine. I got my sound and my sound comes out when I use the amplifier.

AAJ: I read somewhere that you had four acoustic basses. Did you get rid of one?

BT: I have three acoustic instruments. Three, and they all do different things. That one [pointing] is an Italian bass from Venice, 1762. Very fragile, very beautiful. I'm going to do some classical music on it. The one in the middle, with the Lion's head, that's the one I got from the late Albert Stinson. You've heard me play that one. It's on most of the records. And the last one is from Germany, it was made by Gunter Krammer, he has two son's who also make basses.

He's retired several years back, but he knew that I liked that bass, and he had a picture of me in his shop. I've had the bass about thirty years now, and it's well broken in, and a lot of people have good feelings about that instrument.

AAJ: You've had several compact, solid-body instruments made for you. Are you happy with those instruments?

BT: Well, it's a compromise. It's a compromise. I mean, even to carry that bass there, [points to solid body], it's a drag to haul around. It works good with the rehearsal band. It works good with the Klezmer band. It has a good arco sound. I'm going to use it to play some dance music at the Musician's Union for the Jazz Artists Guild. I'm not going to lug the acoustic down there. I'll play the Azola, (solid body) for that.

I had one made for me a long time ago, [handmade by Dave Millard]. It didn't look very good, but it played good, and for the first time, I started to play sitting down in a regular chair. I thought hmmm, it didn't hurt my back. It was comfortable; I had something to lean against. I've been playing like that for many years.

A lot of people hear that [newer] bass and they think it's one of the best sounding solid bodies they've ever heard. It's an Azola, made by Steve Azola. He lives up near Julian. I became aware of them through Gunnar Biggs. He had one first. He was using it to play in the Starlight Opera and the conductor said it was okay. So I went, and played it with the bow, and it did sound good.

AAJ: Many bassists are always on a quest for a better instrument. What are your thoughts?

BT: Somebody told me a story: Julius Levine—who made more Schubert Trout Quintet recordings than any other classical bassist—studied with an old Jewish guy who was with the New York Philharmonic before it was the Philharmonic, whose name was Tiven, Julian Tiven. So in the depression, Levine wanted to buy a real fancy bass for about seven hundred dollars, which was a lot of money.

He took it to his teacher [Tiven], who said, "Julius, there's two kinds of basses. One is a fifty dollar bass; the other is a thousand dollar bass. I play the fifty dollar kind." Well, Julius bought the bass. He didn't understand [that] Jewish people have a way of talking that goes around in circles; sideways it's not direct.

AAJ: I guess so [laughter]. I'm still trying to understand what that parable means.

BT: Well, good. Let me tell you what I think it means. A great player brings his or her sound with them. And [Tiven] could make a fifty dollar bass sound like a million dollars. My teacher, David Walter, could do the same. I could make a pretty crappy bass sound pretty good. Not as good as those guys. It's not the bass, it's the player.


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