Dennis Irwin: Respect the Tradition


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Work Ethic

AAJ: I want to ask you about your philosophy of playing with almost anybody and turning down almost nothing, assuming that it has something good to offer. What motivates you to do this?

DI: Maybe it's some blue collar work ethic.

AAJ: Well, a lot of people who are as known as you are don't leave the house for less than X dollars or won't play with someone unless it's guaranteed that the situation's gonna be musically exactly to their liking, but that's not you. Is it all work ethic or is it curiosity?

DI: I suppose it's a mixture of curiosity and the challenge to go out and try to make the sum greater than all of the parts that we know are gonna be there, whether it's a rehearsal band or just something thrown together at the last minute. But I think I probably just got it unconsciously from some old musicians, being around guys who I saw take any chance to play with anybody.

Dennis IrwinAAJ: Like the fact that C. Sharpe [Clarence] and Junior Cook were always playing with young people whenever they had a chance? People like that?

DI: Yeah. The time playing with him and Tardo and Leroy, a year and a half of jam sessions at the Paris Lounge in Inwood back in '88. Junior was really something else and Leroy was the perfect drummer for him and was already one of his working band mates. They let Tardo and me slip right in there. Also, I remember working with Junior a few years earlier, during the whole fad of doubling up, tripling up on ballads. Kenny and I and Weiss were playing with him back when we were doing "Gallop's Gallop" and "Make the Man Love Me" at the [Angry] Squire. So Kenny and I stay in quarter-time, no hint of doubling. Junior turned and went, "Unmhm, doing that like the real guys do it."

AAJ: Anyone else who comes to mind who you always saw just doing it because it seemed like the right thing to do? It's almost like a priest with a day off. We need a priest and not only do we need a priest, we want you. Anyone else like that?

DI: Well Milt Hinton takes whatever kind of work he can get. I was reading something Pops Foster was saying, "Play with as many different people as you can." It's the same thing as what was happening in college when I started playing the bass. I'd play one session, it would be like an Albert Ayler thing. Somebody else was doing some stuff according to what Miles was doing electronically and some other guys up at Dave Glenn's house we called the Conservatory, just playing late '50s Riverside, Prestige and Blue Note kind of songs, and they were all stimulating and challenging to me, trying to get them right. I'm still searching for what I would be saying as a writer when I have a chance to make a tape, maybe this year or next year or whenever it is. I'm still looking for something to gel in my mind.

AAJ: What you're saying is besides work ethic and curiosity it's the idea of service or what can be learned, almost your spiritual duty.

DI: Yeah because each time you play might be your last. I realized that when I got to town that my enthusiasm for playing, my wanting to take any sort of session or rehearsal... Guys I knew my age whose technical prowess I was in awe of had stuff they were saying solo-wise. But I realized that the way I was gonna get to where I wanted to be faster was playing with other people as much as possible. Cats hated doing jam sessions, "being a slave," but there's another way of looking at that. It gave me a chance to learn a lot. I realized that my quickest growth was gonna come from taking every opportunity to play.

AAJ: What do you think of the crop of people coming up—bass players—and what would you say to them to make their life playing a useful one? What pointers can you give them?

DI: Don't lose your respect for tradition, the people that have put us in the position that we're in now. In a lot of ways, things have been made easy for us. Learn as many songs as you can correctly, know the words, be able to deliver them joyfully and completely and don't ever feel as though you've stopped learning.

AAJ: Do you ever learn anything from people younger than you?

DI: Of course. I remember at a certain point I was even messing around with leaving gut strings and I was hanging around with [Pat] O'Leary and [Joel] Forbes. They encouraged me to stay with it. Cats coming along like Ari [Roland], Ben Wolfe and [John] Webber. There's always something to get from those guys and their spirit. Peter Washington, I'm really inspired watching him play a lot of times. Greg Hutchinson, Justin Robinson, a whole bunch of people. Rodney Whitaker, a young player from Detroit is one of my favorites. He's a student of Ali Jackson. Curtis Lundy, Steve Neils, bassist from the Midwest, was in Africa for a long time—he's back in the Northeast now, he's one of my favorites.

AAJ: It might be a specific thing that they do which catches your attention but I guess it's enjoying the spirit of the person and how they make contributions to the situation.

DI: Yeah, seeing that they've been inspired 15 or 20 years later by some of the same things that made me want to play, get more deeply into it.

Selected Discography

Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, Scenic Route (Palmetto, 2007)

Gary Smulyan, More Treasures (Reservoir, 2007)

Joe Lovano, Streams of Expression (Blue Note, 2006)

Tardo Hammer, Tardo's Tempo (Sharp Nine, 2004)

Ted Rosenthal, Threeeplay (Playscape, 2001)

Johnny Griffin, Woe is Me (Jazz Hour, 2000)

Bob Mintzer Big Band, Homage to Count Basie (DMP, 2000)

Harry Allen Quartet, The King (Nagel-Heyer, 1999)

Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Thad Jones Legacy (New World, 1999)

Joe Magnarelli, Always There (Criss Cross, 1998)
Jim Snidero, San Juan (Red, 1997)
Ken Peplowski, A Good Reed (Concord, 1997)
Steve Wilson, Step Lively (Criss Cross, 1995)
John Scofield, Groove Elation (Blue Note, 1995)
John Scofield Quartet, What We Do (Blue Note, 1992)
Thad Jones, The Definitive Thad Jones: Live from the Village Vanguard, Vol. 1 (Music Masters, 1988)
Mose Allison, Ever Since the World Ended (Blue Note, 1987)
Bennie Wallace, Sweeping Through the City Enja, 1984)
Art Blakey, In This Korner (Concord, 1978)
Dennis Irwin, Focus (Red, 1974)

Photo Credit

Lora Rosner

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