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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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I want to be an artist more than I want to be a bass player or a composer. I want to try to create something. For better or for worse, that's what I'm trying to do.
This article was first published at All About Jazz in September 2001.

Ben Wolfe is a consummate musician. He has served as the bassist-of-choice for Wynton Marsalis, Diana Krall, and Harry Connick, Jr. Also a prolific composer, Ben has just released his third album of original compositions, Murray's Cadillac, for Amosaya Records.

I met Wolfe just a few hours before he was scheduled to play Carnegie Hall with Diana Krall. He was scouring the shelves of a nearby music store, looking for a score to Bach's cello suites that included a specific bowing notation. After claiming his prize, Ben and I walked back to the band's dressing room to talk.

All About Jazz: You have a very distinctive sound on the bass—gut strings, and obviously, no amplifier.

Ben Wolfe: Well, I knew a few people that used gut strings when I was younger, and I always liked the sound. The majority of my favorite bass players played with gut strings, and certainly without amplifiers, for the most part; and the ones who do use amplifiers, like Ray Brown and Ron Carter, they didn't in their earlier years. I wanted to experience what problems those guys went though, what it was like to play that way. And I preferred the sound, so I figured, y'know, "Why not?"

To me, playing with an amplifiers—and this is not to put people down—would be like going to hear Jascha Heifetz play and have his violin through an amplifier. It wouldn't make sense. I think if you're going to play the acoustic bass, you should play it acoustic. I prefer the sound. For me, it just feels right. It blends with the other instruments. It makes the drums sound better, it blends with the cymbals... All my heroes play that way. I hear Paul Chambers and I love that sound. I hear Wilbur Ware and I love his sound. Jimmy Garrison...all of them. They all have much more unique sounds. A lot of the sounds now, you hear, "Oh, that's that Walter Woods [amplifier] and Bose speakers..." You just recognize the equipment. That's just not really my thing. There are great players who play that way. It's just not my way of thinking.

AAJ: Do gut strings last as long as steel?

BW: Probably not, but I like the way they sound. I love the way they sound when they get old, so I leave them on almost until they break. They get buzzes, and stuff a lot of guys wouldn't want in their sound, but I love it. Imperfections, I think, make for good art sometimes, if you can use them to your advantage.

AAJ: What are the challenges of playing without an amplifier?

BW: The challenges are, when people are too loud, that you have to deal with it. You learn not to fight the instrument, and say, "OK...someone's louder than me. That's the reality of the music." It's more real. If the drummer's too loud, then it's going to sound like the drummer's too loud. You can't fix it. And intonation can be tricky with the gut strings. Bowing can be more difficult. But I don't really see it as that way, because I've been doing it so long. To me, that's just how the bass is. Intonation can be really hard sometimes, with the gut strings. But I don't mind the sacrifice. I prefer the sound. Like when I hear Jackie McLean or Charlie Rouse, it doesn't bother me that they're out of tune. Not to compare myself with them—I'm just saying it doesn't bother me. I love their sounds. You hear guys get perfectly in tune, which is great, but I love sounds. To me, that's what music is: sounds.

AAJ: Do you use a French or German bow?

BW: I use a German now. I used to use French. I switched.

AAJ: Why'd you switch?

BW: I was studying with this woman, Orin O'Brien, from the symphony. She played German bow, and I thought I'd get the most out of the lessons if I tried German. I knew also that Paul Chambers played a German bow. He was my favorite. I wanted to try it. I only played French because my first teacher said, "Here. Here's a bow." I wanted to see the difference. Bowing's certainly not my strong suit, anyway. But I love it. I practice with the bow.

AAJ: I'd imagine that, playing acoustic, where you're playing really makes a difference. What are your favorite types of rooms to play in?

BW: I like the sound of clubs, to be honest with you, where you're just on the stage, and the people are right there. To me, the sound's about how the band sounds together, on the stage...getting a good balance. After that, what happens, happens. Playing with each other is much more important than playing to the room or playing to the crowd. I think music is about the musicians, how they play together, totally—sound and everything.

AAJ: That dynamic must have been important, recording "Murray's Cadillac."

BW: That was the whole key to that recording. And sometimes it's not right, which goes back to those imperfections. There are times when some things are too soft or too loud, or little things, but that's how we were playing. It's more 'real' sounding. I like that. I like to hear what people are really playing like, or at least close to it. Recording is completely an illusion, anyway, but... I like playing that way. It was a good room. It's this guy's living room. He records all the time there. It's just a great sounding room. That's one of the best bass sounds, one I'm most happy with, of most records I'm on. I love the quality he got, recording-wise. I'm rarely pleased. I was worried about it. It was a real experiment, making the record that way—a total risk. I'm real proud of that record.

AAJ: How did you put the band together?

BW: Well, the tenor player, Ned Goold, we're like musical partners. We've been playing duets in living rooms since '85, playing all his music, all my music. We talk about music on the phone every day. We play together constantly. We played together with Harry Connick, Jr. He's someone I need to have. I couldn't make a record without him. I would hate to have to try. And the trumpet player, he's been playing with me, different gigs around town, since 1990. The drummer, his name's Ron Steen, he taught me how to play jazz, in Portland, Oregon. He would hire me, teach me. He was kind of like a mentor, like a big brother. The pianist, Steve Christofferson, he was a teacher of mine, also. Basically, I brought out Ned and Joe Magnarelli, and got musicians from Portland, who I have playing relationships with or that I grew up with. All the musicians, I know that way—which made it kind of fun. It was fun to put people on record that I've known since I first started playing.

AAJ: Where did the title Murray's Cadillac come from?

BW: A friend of mine I grew up with, in grade school, named Rick Murray. He was an interesting character. I still think about him sometimes. On his sixteenth birthday, his father gave him a Cadillac. We all used to ride around in his Cadillac—a whole bunch of us in the car, driving all over the place. I always tell my friends about this guy. You know, everyone has people they know from when they were kids, that they just remember. He was one of those kind of people. If he ever sees this, he'll know it's him. [Laughs.]

AAJ: You've mentioned that the idea of film scoring is a strong influence on your music.

BW: Oh, definitely. That's something I'd love to do. But in a jazz context. I've always been attracted to that sound, like the low piano kind of stuff, like Jerry Goldsmith, "Planet of the Apes," and Bernard Herrmann. And also, as silly as it may sound, even the music on some of those '70s TV shows, like "Barnaby Jones." Some of those shows have great music. I just like the sound. It's hard to describe; it's just a certain kind of sound. Also, I think it'd be a real challenge. It'd give me an opportunity to write a lot of different types of stuff, within a jazz style. I think it'd be a lot of fun. I love the sound of music coming through the speakers in a theater. For some reason I've always wanted to do it. So I just started writing music for my CDs as if it were a film, in a way. In a lot of ways, I've put records together that way. I think of it as if you were seeing a play. I try to have some connection between the pieces, and how it goes together, as if it were connected to something else. It's hard to explain, really.

AAJ: What would be some of the differences in approach to film scoring, as opposed to just writing a tune?

BW: You'd have to consider if, say, they're showing someone walking down the street, you'd think in terms of that. And if, in the next scene, they're going to have someone doing something totally different, the music would have to reflect that. So you have to actually consider what the music's supposed to represent. So there are different considerations, versus just...writing. I like that. I kind of think in those terms, as if it's for a person, or even a mood of some kind. I like writing that way, where it's attached to something. Or even two opposing things; I do that a lot, too. I write things that have different meanings—that maybe the listener wouldn't notice, but I use that as a way of writing. It gives the music a certain sound. For instance, there's a tune on the record called "Ursula," which is kind of like a sequel to "Ursula's Dance" from "13 Sketches." It's the same system of writing, where it starts off with what sounds like the melody, and then in the next section of the tune another part comes in that actually is the melody. The first thing was a counter-melody, so there are two melodies, and you don't know which one the actual melody is; so it's like a dance with two themes. It's like a duality. If I think that way, it makes me write a little differently, versus just playing a chord and humming a melody—which I do also.

AAJ: How do you break into something like film scoring?

BW: You know what, I would love to know the answer to that question. [Laughs.] And the way I want to do it is even more difficult. A lot of those guys, they tell them what they want. I would like someone to hire me to write my music for their film. It's a different thing. I don't know if people even do that. I'm sure I could start with doing an independent film, not making any money. There's so many independent films, and they never use jazz in them. I always think it would sound so great if they did. Like those Quentin Tarantino films. I'd love to do something with him. If you had to say, "Name someone whom you'd like to write for," it would be someone like him. That style of movie, "film noir," that kind of stuff. I love that sound, of detective movies, that minor-major-seventh chord all the time...I love that.

I'm just dying to do it. I feel that I can do it. It's not just that I want to do it. I really feel like I can bring something to it; and I think it would bring something to me, also. Who knows where it will lead me? I tend to desire to do things, musically; and once I end up doing them, they're different than I imagined.
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