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Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition

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Adapting and Driving

AAJ: At what point do you start adapting yourself to everybody else and trying to anticipate everything they're gonna do harmonically, rhythmically, melodically? It seems you have to think so much and yet at a certain point it becomes non-thought. But when you're learning how to do it in the beginning you have to be concerned with it.

DI: There's always a lot of trial and error but as far as making choices, anticipating—I realized early on the importance of trying to make dynamics work and having the right balance of elements; maybe this is left over from the classical scene. There were times when I would play with a group that was really on the outside. I would feel obliged or by instinct to play things with more focus like simpler bass lines or even if I were playing out of time to play more repeated notes or play structurally to bring some kind of clarity instead of adding to the chaos. Other times when I'm playing with guys with some kind of rhythm, some kind of swing going, but like chopping wood...

AAJ: ...it frees you up.

DI: I would try to do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, do things to free them up a little more, try to play notes that would take them somewhere else... balance. You can play more legato or with a different kind of bounce, not to change it but just to keep from getting stodgy. And for the free guys, to play a little further in, to keep it just so that some listeners would have a little fragment of something to hold on to.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: But you're listening to it from the outside, not just from your own point of view. So it's not just balance, you have an idea of what the band's supposed to sound like.

DI: That gets back to your listening background or performance background. That's why I feel very lucky having my older brother around, he's actually my main man musically. He was a big influence. We listened to records together. It's just from our listening background, from growing up hearing what makes a pleasing performance.

AAJ: So if something doesn't strike you right, your first thing to think about is "What can I do to make this better?"

DI: Or to balance it out and keep it from bogging down.

AAJ: But later at some point you think about what you can do psychologically to move people into a different space. That comes later?

DI: It comes off and on. There are some gigs you look forward to because you know you're gonna be able to interact in the band and get different things to happen if you're with cats that are receptive to it. And then other gigs that you don't really dread, but you kind of go to them knowing that things are gonna be kind of cut and dry in terms of interplay that night and chances to contribute the kind of thing you're talking about.

AAJ: When did you realize you have the ability to affect the feeling within the band at a particular moment?

DI: Probably from seeing Ali Jackson do it. Saw Wilbur Ware once; saw Jimmy Garrison twice, Slam Stewart quite a few times. That's just strictly on the bass. You can tell from any instrument when there's something you can do to enhance the clarity and lightness....But a lot of times when you try to wield some influence when it's uncalled for you end up screwing things up. You get rambunctious whether it's just for a phrase or two and blow a whole tune or end up making the whole set kind of get off on the wrong foot, trying to force something that's not called for. And then there are other times when you get positive reinforcement. You say, "Well, let me try this, something a little different here. Let me halftime this or change the octave or play more lightly or play more heavily, try to get something happening if it feels lazy."

AAJ: What I get from what you've been saying is that the psychological aspect of sound isn't something that necessarily comes first or last in your own development or in how you make a contribution to the band. It's the whole part of playing. It comes hand in hand with learning how to play as part of a band.

DI: That's actually the part that's most important. But before I had any wherewithal to even think about changing the music I learned a lot from seeing what strong performers could do.

AAJ: Speaking of strong performers, I'll take you back to Betty because I'm sure she was someone that taught you. Being old school, she was an old school rebel. Being raised up in Hamp's band, having the professionalism if only to rebel against it, she had her own kind of...

DI: ...agenda. I didn't play with her long enough. I got some lessons but even the four months that I was involved; we only worked about 8 weeks at the most out of that time. Two weeks at the Keystone. I never worked in New York with her. A week in Boston, three weeks in Europe. I didn't get fired. I didn't even tell her, I just kind of told Hicks to get somebody else for the weekend that he had trio 'cause there was some other stuff I wanted to do and I knew I wasn't making a strong enough contribution. I was really kind of timid about what I was doing solo-wise, ensemble-wise. It was my first experience getting a different sound playing in different rooms, auditoriums every night. I didn't really know enough about what equipment to use. I didn't know what my sound was yet. Playing Betty's book—she did all the standards that I thought I knew, in different keys. I found myself needing to read the book. Very few tunes I felt like I had memorized enough to close my eyes through the whole performance. There were a lot of little codas. She does stuff in different keys and some standards that looking back now, I thought I would have known by the time I was 25.

AAJ: She was doing a lot of standards then?

DI: "If I Should Lose You," "Body and Soul." But it was the same thing with Mose [Allison] and Jackie Paris, just getting the singer aspect of things in terms of how lyrics touch an audience.

AAJ: But she was already playing with the time a lot too, right?

DI: Yeah, doing a lot of her own tunes, putting vamps, coda endings, some fast blues. One of my favorites with her was "Swing Brother Swing," the Billie Holiday thing. She would do it at a really fast tempo. For our instrumentals we played some of [John] Hicks' tunes or some Charles Tolliver tunes. John had some nice bossa nova arrangements. We played "Repetition" sometimes. So I really learned a lot but went away from it determined to get stronger in my own sound. Betty's known as a taskmaster but a lot of what she needs in her ideal rhythm section player is what guys need to be learning anyway or at least to have as part of their background.

AAJ: Like what?

DI: Playing tempos and plucking the string with the index finger when walking. One night after a gig at Ronnie Scott's (in London) she says. "Listen, babe, it's getting' uneven." She played on her arm with her single digit. She said to look at these old pictures of Ray Brown, Pettiford, Mingus, even their solo stuff. Paul Chambers and LaFaro were the first cats to (solo or play with two fingers). Also, getting comfortable at an icily slow tempo with long exposed bass notes, to know how to do the right thing on a ballad without itching to try to make it move.. To be comfortable with the fact that it's not moving. Tone production, volume, intonation. And years later that's what people like Griff and Mel and Scott Hamilton and some other people would say, talking about how to play a ballad and just keep it there, to be comfortable with it. Chet Baker too. Maybe it's from Betty I got the first glimmerings of what was required to do it, even though I didn't feel I was doing it...From Betty I think I got the first inkling that there a lot of miles to be gotten out of staying slow when the song is slow.

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