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Jay Anderson: Driving the Bus

By Published: April 18, 2011
AAJ: A glance at your extensive discography reveals that That just about everybody you've recorded with asks you to come back time and time again. You've recorded numerous times with Paul Bley, Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider

, Bob Mintzer, Rich Perry, Dave Stryker
Dave Stryker
Dave Stryker
, and Steve Slagle
Steve Slagle
Steve Slagle
sax, alto
, to name just a few. It must be very rewarding to know that these musicians see you as their first-choice bassist.

JA: You mention Mintzer; I've known Bob now for at least 15 years. I play in his small group and his big band. He's moved to L.A., so I don't see him as much, but what a joy to play with him every night! Rich Perry is another tenor player I work with, and although he and Bob are diametrically opposed, they both have incredibly strong voices on their instruments.

AAJ: You've played in quite a number of big band settings. You've talked about Maria Schneider and Bob Mintzer, but you've also played in the big bands of Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
Kenny Wheeler
, Mel Lewis and Toshiko Akiyoshi. Is playing in a big band a role that you particularly enjoy?

JA: I don't really perceive myself as a big band bassist. I tell my students, whether it's true or not, in a big band you almost have to convince yourself that you're the one driving the bus as the bassist. You've got the written music, and then you've got guys blowing on each tune so there is a lot of improvisation. You don't just want to slog through the stuff. You're dealing with pulling 15 people along; you're the harmonic link between the band and the piano, and the rhythmic link between the band and the drummer, so it's kind of an important job. I enjoy it. It's like poker night with the boys, hanging out with 15 maniacs at the gig, so there's a social aspect to it, which is nice.

AAJ: It must also be a very practical way to meet a large number of musicians and possibly elicit other gigs or recording dates, no?

JA: Yeah, I say to my students at the Manhattan School who happen to play in big bands , "Hey, you might not know this now, but these are some of the people that you're going to be spending the rest of your musical life with." The profundity of discovering the music at that age, and those friendships—the chances are, you're going to have those friendships for life. I tell my students to have an appreciation of this situation because they'll look back and realize how important it was in their development.

AAJ: Are the students at the Manhattan School well versed in the historical roots of jazz, or are they more in tune with contemporary jazz?

JA: Fortunately, the program at Manhattan School is, I think, as good as anywhere else, and it bridges the gap. As I said before, I came from a kind of apprentice-based education, whereas now it's generally more of an institutionalized thing, but I don't think one is necessarily better than the other. At Manhattan School, these guys are made to learn standards and have an appreciation for them. You have to learn the nuts and bolts of improvisation through some means, and these standards, or the Great American Songbook, are perfect vehicles for the work that needs to be done. A lot of these students will go on to play the jazz festivals, performing their original material which might be quite complicated, but when they're in the jam session at two o'clock in the morning back at the hotel, they're going to be playing "Stella by Starlight."

The best students have an appreciation for what these elements of their jazz education can bring to their playing, but also feel that their music needs to reflect their life experience and musical interests. That's what jazz has always been about.

There's a whole scene of players out there who are still mainstream, traditionally based, and who are flourishing; and it's valid, good music. And then there's a lot of [what] I call "science project" music, and I enjoy doing that too. I play in a band called Global Motion, and it's very challenging music. The reason I enjoy that band is because it's difficult music juxtaposed with beauty and logic. Sometimes I get a little tired of stuff that is so difficult that there's no margin for error. Imagine a tune which is eight pages long with 40 meter changes; what happens when you're playing out of doors at a jazz festival and you have a wire music stand and it's windy that day?

AAJ: Jay, you're a very fine ballad player. What advice to you give to your students at Manhattan School when they approach a ballad?

JA: Learn the melody—that's something I stress with everyone. As bass players, we're always providing bass function. When these guys are asked to play melodies or play a melodic solo, they don't even know the melody. It's good for your melodic playing in general. I guess I could take 100 bass players and ask them to play "Body and Soul" and there's a point, I guess it's in the fifth bar—most stumble in the exact same spot, and I know it's coming. It's important not to limit yourself to the opening statement of the tune, but to really get in there and learn the tune. Even if you don't want to be a bebop player, there's a lot to be gained from learning the heads to those tunes too: language, patterns, articulation ... important information that is very useful.

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