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David Finck: The Bass, Scatting Offenses, and the Back Hoe

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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AAJ: Some think if the definition was more comprehensive or articulated, the business could be stronger. There are always people complaining that jazz is in trouble. I have a theory about that, and I know I'm interviewing you, but what the hell. I'm the one with the machine.

DF: (laughs) You're holding the gun. Go ahead.

AAJ: One way to hold a cult together is to make the members feel they're in jeopardy from the outside, from the unbelievers and the attackers and the usurpers. Freud knew that. And this gives them a special mission: to cup the flickering flame of "Truth" against the wind. It binds people together. It cements their loyalty, because you have to defend it, you have to preserve this thing that's in such danger. Um...let the record show that David is not leaping to agree.

DF: I think there's a lot of truth in what you say. I'm not sure who it is that's threatening the music, though. That's kind of vague. I could say, well you don't hear jazz music in advertising anymore. You used to hear that kind of jazzy tune for jingles and stuff.

AAJ: Well, you don't hear jingles, period, anymore, which is one of my other theories, about why people are so depressed. You don't hear (sings jaunty old Pepsodent jingle). Now you get ads for crematoriums, for crying out loud. And, "when you get your melanoma, come to us!" Where's the happy jingle in that?

DF: Well, that's true. We used to be more exposed to that kind of feel. Johnny Carson had a big band with some good jazz musicians, like Clark Terry. And on the break, they'd say, "OK Clark, GO!" It was like instant jazz: for three minutes, during the commercials, Clark was playing.

AAJ: No wonder everyone always looked so happy when the camera came back!

DF: I don't play jazz 100% of the time, either. And you know what? Neither did Ron Carter. He and Herbie Hancock used to write jingles, and Buster Williams used to play on jingles. We all do what we have to do. We have homes and children, and all that stuff. When I have the chance to play jazz with people with whom I like to play it, it's great. I guess I have done okay, I do work a lot. But I can't say that it's exclusively jazz.

I don't know what bassist Peter Washington does all of the time, but most of the time, when I run into him, he's going from one great jazz gig to the next. But I kind of like commercial music, also. I've done Broadway shows.

AAJ: You played behind Aretha Franklin when she did "Nessun Dorma" on David Letterman's TV show. At the 1998 Grammys Sting said she just got asked 20 minutes ago to sub for the ailing Luciano Pavarotti, as if her performance wasn't rehearsed (which it was.)

DF: Everybody went nuts, they thought it was great, but I thought it was dumb, like Kiri Te Kanewa trying to sing "Respect." I mean, Aretha's unbelievable, she took it to church, she did her thing on it, but that's not how that music goes. It's that simple. You're going to take Puccini, Vivaldi or Bach and start messing with it? Really? 'Cause I resent it when opera singers try to do stuff they don't have a feel for.

AAJ: What's the most unlikely thing you've ever played? The wackiest gig you've ever done?

DF: I'd have to think about that.

AAJ: You didn't dress up in an inflatable outfit outside a tire store, did you?

DF: No. Nothing like that. When I first went to New York, you take whatever comes in. I think I did one club date on Long Island where I had to wear a blue ruffled shirt. They gave you the clothes. I did a couple of those, and they were tough, but some of those musicians were unbelievable. I used to do club dates for Peter Duchin—there were guys in that band who could do any song in any key, and harmonize on the spot —four horns—they were ridiculous.

I remember being saved on one of those gigs by a wonderful singer named Jackie Presti—she teaches a lot of vocalists. I didn't know a lot of what was going on, and she'd say, "Key of G, starts on the 2 chord." Bang. She got me through it. You get help like that. Whenever I see her, I remind her that she saved me on one of those club dates where you have to wear a floppy hat.

AAJ: Ah, the floppy hat club date...

DF: Oy! So, yes, I play a lot of different stuff, and enjoy it. And I really enjoy the recording process. I've produced a handful of things, and co-produced a couple of things.

AAJ: You co-produced that Joe Locke date: Lay Down my Heart—Blues & Ballads Vol 1, 2012 for Motema. I love that one.

DF: I did. Yeah, it's very good. He's a wonderful musician, Joe. I really enjoy working and recording with singers because if you're the producer, with a little power and control, you can keep them from being offenders.

AAJ: Scatting is one offense. What else?

DF: Problems with phrasing. You're listening to a voice, trying to produce a sound that's going to tape well, and get to the digital machine well, and then the singer breathes mid-syllable. That's when you need somebody there who can say, "Well...that's not English. Let's breathe after that."

Some singers, it's a no-brainer. The great ones. I remember working with Rosemary Clooney. Even at the end, when she didn't have much of a voice, she would never phrase anything wrong; she would sing a complete sentence as it was narratively, and then breathe. I guess she'd thought about it, or just did it naturally, like Frank Sinatra. Same thing.

But I've worked with singers who would sing something like, "Thuhhhhh... shadow of your smile" not realizing that they're listening to how beautiful their voice sounds on the word "the," even though it's the least important word in the sentence. I find that kind of stuff interesting. If you can get the lyric to connect with the melody and accompaniment, and have a rhythmic feel going on...It's really not easy. It's an ongoing challenge, and I'm proud of the work I've done in that department. Some people you can't help—they can't do it. A lot of singers are just listening to themselves, all the time, and never get away from it.

I don't think people really value the song itself. That's the thing. Many singers and instrumentalists, when they perform these pieces, make themselves more important than the song. And I listen, and think, "you're going to be dead in 40 years, but that song is forever." You need to kind of honor that. Those lyrics, and that melody, were written with intention: thought went into it, and heart. I've talked to Marilyn and Alan Bergman and it upsets me when someone screws up their lyrics and changes them.

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