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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.

AAJ: You mention in the liner notes to "Bagdad Theater" that most of the pieces on that record started off at the piano.

BW: I do all my composing at the piano. The majority, anyway. I'd say, like, 99%. They're all little solo piano pieces, and I arrange them for the band—whatever kind of band we're gonna have. I don't always do it that way. I think that if I were doing film music, I would respond well to doing it that way.

AAJ: It's ironic that you compose that way, because on your records, your arrangements hardly ever use piano.

BW: That's right. That's because I'm so particular about how I want things when I record. I'm really particular. Especially with the piano, I want things so exact, that I just didn't get a pianist. The first record has Eric Reed on one tune. On the second record, Benny Green plays on two tunes. But now I'm using piano much more. I love the piano.

AAJ: There is more piano on "Murray's Cadillac"; but still, it's used very...deliberately.

BW: I like the piano to be a third of the rhythm section—not running the show, but part of the rhythm section. I love a pianist who just listens to the music, and plays it—not a whole lot, necessarily, just part of it. Piano's a powerful instrument, and there are many different ways of playing it. I love Red Garland. I love Bill Evans. I love it when Miles played piano—like on "Milestones," there's one tune where he's playing piano. I love it. It's real soft in the mix, with these tight voicings. And the way Bill Evans played; I love that kind of piano playing, for my music. There are other styles that are great, but wouldn't fit the way I think.

AAJ: While you're composing, are you thinking about aspects of arrangement, like orchestration?

BW: Much more now than I used to. I'm really into writing for cello. I'm doing a concert in Oregon, around Christmastime, and I'm putting together a band. It's a sextet like on the record, but I'm going to add cello, tuba, and a soprano opera singer. So I'm going to write almost like three different characters. They're classical musicians. They won't be playing swing. I'll write themes for them, so I'll have to think in terms of the instruments for that. And Ned, he'll be like a character. So there'll be like four characters. That gives me something to think about when I write. So now in my mind, I'm seeing the band, and the people playing. I really consider who's playing, and how they sound. And I sort of start preparing in my head, and I go to the piano and find little things. Once I get into it, it sort of takes on its own life, but I use little things to get me started. It might just be a chord voicing. I'll explore it in different ways, and it'll end up being a tune. It's different every time.

AAJ: How much do your tunes change, from their original ideas as 'piano pieces,' when they get in front of the band?

BW: The way they change is that, when I'm writing them, I'm playing the piano, so my bass personality isn't present yet. And I have a strong personality. When I play, it affects the music; because I'm playing bass on my composition, so it changes a lot from that point of view. I'm not a pianist, so I can just hear what it sounds like [when composing]; but when I'm playing, they come to life. I can hear what they really sound like when I hear the other musicians. I might hear them for a year on the computer, and I can imagine what they sound like; but when I hear the real instruments, it's inspiring.

AAJ: Do you ever compose on bass?

BW: Very little. For instance, there's a song on the record called "Elegy." That started off on the bass, and ended up on the piano. And another tune on there called "North," on which I play the melody with Ned; that was on the bass. But as a rule, it's pretty much always on the piano.

It's like I'm two people. I'm a composer—I write music, and arrange; and I'm a bassist, and I have a perception of how I think that should be. When I do my own thing, it's like I write this music, and then I play the bass as a bassist. I don't play the melodies; I play like a bassist, the way I would on any gig. They kind of go together. My writing inspires me as a bassist. For me, it just works together well. Mingus, I think, was probably like that. When he played in his band, he ran the show from the bass, but he didn't play the melodies. He was just a great bassist in his band. I really admire how he did that. I'm not trying to be Charles Mingus, but that way... Sometimes bassist/leaders play the melodies—which is great, but that's just not what I do. I like to write the music, and then when I'm playing it, be the bassist. It kind of leads from the bass, drives from the bass.

Duality. It's like a paradox, and I'm trying to stay right in the middle. But they go together. I like the way I play the bass, when I'm playing my music, on my records, and on Ned's; I like that version of my bass playing the best. It seems like the way I think, fits. I'm really into the psychological approach to music, like the way you think when you play. I'm not really concerned with what I play, or how fast I play. To me, that's the craft of music. But the whole artistic side, every note having a reason...that's what I'm into. It's an art. I want to be an artist more than I want to be a bassist or a composer. I want to try to create something. For better or for worse, that's what I'm trying to do.

AAJ: You describe yourself and Ned as "musical partners." Is he a factor, present in your mind, when you're composing?

BW: He's a factor, in that I know that I'll have my favorite musician on the planet playing, who I know will play a melody a way that I will be glad it was played that way. I don't have to tell Ned anything. I love the way he plays. He's a complete artist, man. That's his thing. He's very dedicated to art. And he plays that way. He's a very rare musician, because he doesn't try to knock people out. He doesn't show off. He works on things, and he plays what he believes in, even if people don't notice it. I love the way he plays. And him being there, I know I can write, I can have a soloist play a certain way... We understand each other. We think differently, but the same. Our approaches to getting at something are different, but the result always works. We need each other in a certain kind of way.

AAJ: Have you always composed music?

BW: Always. When I first started playing music, I used to sit at the piano and play an F major-seventh going to an Eb major-seventh. That was all I could play, and I would try to write a song with that. Everything I learned, I would try to use to write music. The piano is always like an adventure, to find something on the piano. I always wanted to write songs. Even when I couldn't write tunes. When I was in high school, I used to try to write corny little pop tunes, little '70s pop tunes. I always wanted to write music. And the whole time I was playing music, I was trying to write music. Eventually, I started being able to really do it. I remember, I used to finish tunes, and I was like, "Man...I just wrote a song!" It's a great feeling when I finish a tune. I love the process of having an idea, an inspiration...coming up with something, following it through, and then looking at it and saying, "Wow. It's finished." I like that.

AAJ: How do you know when you're finished?

BW: It's over. Double-bar. [Laughs.] When I arrange it, things can change. There's a song on Murray's Cadillac called "Old Ballad." It's just cello, tenor saxophone, guitar, bass and drums. I have another version of it with strings, two flutes, two trombones, and rhythm section. It's basically just a piano piece, but I have many different arrangements of that one song.

AAJ: Who have been some of your influences as a composer?

BW: Monk. Charlie Parker. Billy Strayhorn. I love Billy Strayhorn. Duke Ellington. Wayne Shorter. Probably Bernard Herrmann, to some degree. Probably Jerry Goldsmith. Even though I don't know their musics, I just know they inspire me greatly. Especially that left-handed piano, like on "Planet of the Apes" [sings]... Who else? Little things, like Beethoven—certain voicings that I know he's used. Even though I'm not an expert on Beethoven, by any means—Wynton Marsalis is an expert on Beethoven; I'm not—but he's influenced me. Bartok, I think, has influenced me. And once again, I don't want to give the impression that I'm an expert on classical music, because I'm definitely not. But definitely, Bartok's influenced me. Red Garland. Anything I like in music has influenced me, and my approach to composing. I didn't study composition. My approach is very... I just put down on paper what I think sounds good. I don't edit myself. That's why I don't write lyrics. I've tried. I edit myself, and I worry what people think. I'm not free. When I write, I don't care. If it's right, wrong, people like it, don't like it... I really believe in it. When I play the bass, I think that way. I think that's a big part of music. If you just believe in it, it doesn't matter what people think.

AAJ: Whom have you studied with?

BW: I've studied with Ray Brown. I learned a lot from him. He would have me sing the melody of the tune, and play in two instead of walking, and just hear the relationship of the bass notes with the melody. His whole thing is, "Learn an instrument, and trust your ears." I was really young the first time I took a lesson with him, and it just changed my whole outlook on the jazz bass. I'm proud just to say I know him. And I had a few classical teachers. I had a great teacher in Portland named Larry Zgonc, when I first started on upright bass. I didn't start playing the bass for real until I was eighteen or nineteen years old. He was a great teacher. And I studied with Homer Mensch, who teaches at Julliard. A few lessons, but I wasn't practicing. I wasted it. I didn't give him what I could have. I had a great teacher—I studied for a short period of time with her, twice—her name is Orin O'Brien. She's in the New York Philharmonic. Amazing teacher. They both teach at Julliard. She's an incredible teacher. When I've had people teach me about jazz, like Ron Steen and Ray Brown, they were hard on me, like a mean coach. And I love that. I react well to it in a jazz setting. But when I have a bow in my hand I don't react that well to it. Orin O'Brien was really very nice about it, which helped me. She's a great teacher.

AAJ: With your setup, technique must be really important, because you don't have the amp to hide behind.

BW: It's a funny issue. Like, Paul Chambers' sound with a bow? They might not want that in the bass section of the Chicago Symphony. But to me, it's the most beautiful thing in the world. It might be scratchy, it might be out of tune, it might be a whole lot of things, but I love it. Slam Stewart, I love. I like jazz bowing that sounds like jazz, that doesn't sound like classical music. I like classical bowing, too. I hear Edgar Meyer and I'm like, "Wow."

AAJ: Do you compose while you're on the road?

BW: [Nods.] I usually go through periods of composing. Sometimes I write a whole lot, and then I don't write for a while. Like right now, I've got this little thing [walks to piano, plays brief idea]... I'm playing with that sound, and trying to come up with something from that. I'll sit around and play with that one little thing, and eventually I'll have a whole tune based on that. So I do that at the sound checks when I play some piano. Or whenever I can get to it. Like right now, they have a piano in the dressing room, and I can play it, and I'll write. I write as often as I can, but it's not like I have a system for when I do it. I just do it when I can get to a piano. And then if I have something coming up—like this concert in Portland, I know that's coming up. I'm going to try to write a half-hour, forty-minute extended work for that. If I know I have something coming up, I get real obsessed with getting stuff together. If I have one gig in a club, I'll spend hours and hours and hours writing and arranging and getting it all perfect—which sometimes can be a pain for the people I hire, because I maybe get kind of tense. But that's just me. I think about the stuff I'm writing all the time, too—who can play this, have some strings over here, I think I might like a harp... I think about it all the time. I remember, I used to work the scoreboard at this baseball field when I was a little kid. And I used to sit there... You know the theme to "Bewitched"? [Sings.] I'd make up big band arrangements of it, and just sing them, and imagine them in my mind. I wasn't writing any arrangements then; I was just a tuba player in seventh grade. But even then, I was thinking in those terms. It's just something that I think I gravitate to naturally, making up things. 'Cause that's what jazz is all about, in a lot of ways: making up things.

When writing, I can really think about what it's going to be. It slows down. At the piano, it's not performance. I can think about how it's going to work. And it always sounds different when you get a band together. Because a lot of the times, at the piano, my song is one person, one concept, and that's it. All of a sudden you have six other people, and six other visions of music. They've got to come together somehow, and you never know what you're going to get. But the thing about playing together is, if everyone's a good musician, it turns into art; it's going to be good, or it's going to be interesting, at least.

AAJ: As a composer, do you try to provide material to incite that dynamic, or can you generally rely on the musicians' interpretive skills?

BW: It depends on the musicians. With Ned, I don't have to say much. It's a combination of both. I'm very specific about certain things, like rhythm, phrasing, volume, balance—I learned a lot about balance from Wynton—just about the conceptual aspects of the music. If people aren't thinking that way, I try to impart my way of thinking, for better or for worse. Writing my own music also enables me to have a little more freedom in imposing my view of how to play together, my ensemble concept. When you write the music, it gives you a little more room to say how it should be.

AAJ: Your records definitely come across as a composer's records. You don't have any eleven-minute jams on your albums. It's very unique, because most of the jazz records today follow the "head/chorus/head" format.

BW: I do that for a living. I've done that my whole life. If I were going to make a record playing that way, it would have to be of such a deep conceptual thing, around everybody, thinking the same...I would never do it. Because that's boring, unless it's really done right. That's what Charlie Parker did, and I love it. It's perfect. But that's part of why I started to write and arrange; I thought, "Well, I'll just write the stuff a certain way, and then I can hear it the way I imagined it being improvised." On these CDs, I write the music, and it's ensemble music. There are solos on there, too, but it's ensemble music. That's what jazz is. Even when someone's soloing, they're not really "soloing"; they're improvising the melody.

AAJ: Some people describe improvising as "composing, in the moment." It seems like you see more of a disparity.

BW: I think that's true, but that implies "composing" only means one thing. "Composing" is a million things. So you can say that. You can say that painting a picture is "composing," too. I think, a lot of times, the principles of great art are the same. I read a book, called "Picasso On Art," that talked about his views. It was great. It doesn't matter what art it's in. It's the principles of how you're thinking about it. Like I was saying before: how you think, not how you play. I don't think it's about the instrument.

AAJ: You said at one point that you started out playing tuba...?

BW: I started on tuba, yeah. When I got into high school, I got really into electric bass. I played funk. I wanted to be a funk bassist, and a studio musician. I read Guitar Player magazine, and I was like, "Yeah. That's me, man. I'm gonna be the new studio ace." That was my fantasy. I also started playing bass trombone. I was doing all these things in high school. At one point, I was like, "I'm gonna play tuba in the symphony, I'm gonna play bass trombone in a big band, and I'm gonna be a studio electric bassist."

But then I got to college. I was playing electric bass in these jazz combos. I started playing more and more electric bass. Then I started playing in Top-40 bands. Now I'm a bassist, who played trombone and tuba. Then I quit the Top-40 bands, and said, "I'm done. I'm playing only jazz. I'm going to be a jazz bassist." I started fooling around on the upright, and it was like, Bang! I'd found my home. It made sense, it felt right...and then everything switched, and I started practicing the upright bass. Eventually I just stopped doing everything else. I was always a musician; but I was a focused musician, for the first time.

I remember one time in high school, with this stage band, we played one of those jazz festivals. They wanted me to play upright on a tune, because it was a Count Basie number. We didn't have a pickup, so I just played with a mic on the bass. The judges at the contest were really into it. I remember that day...and that's what I ended up being.

My father used to always tell me that. He'd say, "You know, you like the electric bass and all that; but when you get older, you're going to be into the old upright jazz bass players. You'll see." I was like, "Yeah, whatever, Dad." [Laughs.] And he was right.

AAJ: Obviously your dad was into music, too.

BW: He played violin with the San Antonio Symphony. He quit playing, but he loves music. He was great for me, when I was young. He used to get mad at me for playing out of tune. I'd be like, "Dad, how'd I sound tonight? I've got my new Rotosound wound strings." He goes, "You didn't play one note in tune all night." He got mad at me for talking onstage during high school concerts. He said I was unprofessional, and that I embarrassed him and my grade school teacher who was there. [Laughs.] I wasn't getting paid. I was unprofessional! But he was great. I still think about some of those things.

He had a lot of records in the house. There were all kinds of music -classical music, jazz... It was like it was there for me to explore, without being told to explore it. He played Charlie Parker for me the first time. He played Paul Chambers for me. He played Mingus for me. He played Billie Holiday for me. He played all these people for me, that I'd never heard before. Then he gave me the records, when I moved to New York.

I think one of the reasons I'm in jazz, and music in general, is that I was allowed to be, by my family. My mother's not a musician, but she goes to hear chamber music all the time. They were into it. I never felt that I wasn't supposed to be doing it. I started playing music in seventh grade. When I was in high school, I heard someone say they were going to do something else for a living; I didn't even know that existed. I was very naÃÃ'¯ve. I just assumed, "Well, we're musicians, here."

AAJ: You've recorded with some pretty big names, in some major studios. And now you're recording with two microphones in someone's living room. That must be a big change.

BW: I just wanted to try it this way. And it worked.

AAJ: Did you have to adapt your playing?

BW: No. You have to adapt your playing the other way, in the big studios. A lot of times, now, people record in separate rooms. For me, that's just not happening. You don't really hear anybody. You hear headphones. So you absolutely are not hearing who you're playing with. When it's like that...I can play that way, but my whole concept of music is out the window. My whole thing is about interaction. The minute you're in separate rooms, with the headphones on and all that stuff, it's fake. It's an illusion before it's even a CD. That's just not for me. Don't get me wrong; I love making records. As far as my own style, I would never do it that way.

But the main difference is that I'm the leader and it's my music, versus being a sideman, and it being someone else's vision. That's the real difference—that it's my vision, and not someone else's. That's a much bigger difference than any of the other stuff.

AAJ: How does that come across differently in your playing, your taking the lead?

BW: If I'm doing a record for someone else, I'm trying to get what they want, and keep my own identity, and trying to find little spots in the music for the bass. When I'm the leader, man, I could rehearse all day. I love it. I'm the bassist, but I'm also being like a conductor. I love that. I feel more complete, like I'm really using what I think about. I'm able to really do what I do. Whereas when I'm a sideman, as a bassist—which I love doing; I'm not trying to lessen that—most of the time, I feel like I'm just half. But that's how it should be. When you're a sideman, you don't want to impose your whole thing, because it's not yours. Music's definitely a team sport. When I'm playing with whomever—Diana, Harry, Wynton, whomever it is—it's not my thing. It's not my band. So you have to figure out how much of 'you' you can be. Or what version, I suppose. You know what I mean? I can't come on someone else's bandstand, and say, "OK, look, I need you to do this, I need you to do that..." Even though I do that, which sometimes pisses people off. [Laughs.] I'm trying to learn not to. But that's why I want to do my own thing, because that's where I feel the most comfortable. I feel much more comfortable. And I have this endless energy, which amazes me. I can just go all day when it's my thing. All of a sudden, I just...Whoosh! Like I'm alive. It's my favorite feeling. It's funny: People think I'm being dark. Usually I joke around, all the time. But when I'm doing my rehearsals for my records, and when we're recording, I don't tell any jokes at all. I don't kid around. I'm very serious. But at the same time, I'm having more fun than I ever have when I'm laughing and joking around. It's just more real. It feels right.

AAJ: You said you haven't had the chance to play a lot of your material on gigs yet. If you were playing them out, with a working group, how do you think the compositions might change?

BW: Not that much. Maybe I would be more conscious of the length of the songs, how long each soloist would play, who would solo... It would be a little bit more figured out, and arranged. But not that much. When I play gigs, it's not that much different from the records. Some songs are longer. I might play more solo bass pieces, like I might play a ballad alone, or a few tunes.

AAJ: Would you like to play your stuff out more often?

BW: More than anything. I'd love to. That's what I want to do.

AAJ: Why don't you?

BW: Well...[pauses.] That's a good question. Maybe I think, in my mind, that I can't work enough doing that. But I want to. And I'm heading that way. I'm not going to not do it. If it's possible for me to be a bandleader full-time, I'll be one. I'd like to sort of work my way into it. It would be nice to work with Diana, and in my time off do concerts or do gigs of my own thing, and on the road score film... You know, to have it all kind of come together, and then organically go to where I'm the bandleader. I'm still trying to figure it out. I figured out how to be a sideman; now I'm trying to figure out how to be a leader. It's not as simple as just saying, "Hey, I want to do it." Even though it might appear that way, because people are doing it. But I do all original music. I'm not willing to do anything, in order to do it. I'm not willing to sacrifice anything, musically.

That's probably how it started, with doing the records. Like, "I'm a sideman, with different people, and it's their thing. With mine, it's going to be as pure as I can make it." I love playing. When I play little clubs every now and then, I love it. I would do it every day. I have endless energy for that kind of stuff, I really do.

AAJ: Obviously you'd have Ned in your band...?

BW: If I could afford him. You know, who knows? If the time came when I couldn't have him, I'd have to figure something out, just like he would have to for his band. I'm his bassist, and he's my tenor player. We used to have a cooperative band, and we decided not to.

AAJ: Why?

BW: It just made more sense. There were two visions. It's easier to have one person, if they have a strong vision. Otherwise you're splitting, and then it becomes, like, half the set's his thing, half the set's mine. It just made more sense. We play every Thursday at Small's, and it's his band.

AAJ: It's a trio?

BW: Yeah. All Ned's records are pianoless trios. He has two that haven't come out yet. He has a live one that he hasn't put out yet, that's great. That's the next one, I think, that will come out.

AAJ: How'd you get involved with Amosaya Records?

BW: The baritone saxophonist on "Bagdad Theater," Dave Schumacher? He's the head of that label. It's kind of like a collective, an artist-run thing. They have really good US distribution. That's really what I needed, and what I had a problem with on my last record. It was great to be on Mons, and they've been great to me; but they were based in Germany, so it was a little trickier as far as the US is concerned. And I like the fact that it's artist-run. Everyone's sort of in it together.

AAJ: I want to ask you about some of the musicians you've worked with, because you've been in some pretty incredible situations. I saw you in Boston a few years back, with Diana Krall and Russell Malone. Russell strikes me as a very witty musician.

BW: I've played with Russell for years. Russell's hilarious. He's also very thorough. He's a guitar freak. He's studied every guitarist. You name a guitarist, he knows him intimately. He's amazing that way.

AAJ: Earlier in your career, you served as the musical director for Harry Connick, Jr.'s band. What was it like working with him?

BW: He did everything. He wrote, arranged, designed the stage set...he does everything. He's by far the most talented musician I've ever met in my life. Amazing. He could sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write out a symphony. He's an amazing talent.

AAJ: You also worked with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Being on the road with that crew must have been something.

BW: I love Wynton. I think about him all the time. I could say nothing bad about him. Never. He's someone who I think is an amazing composer. I love the way he writes. He writes long, extended works, ballets, symphonies... Being around him, his diligence... He would always work. It was all music with him. Ned's the same way. Wynton was always in the bunk on the bus, studying Bartok's string quartets or something like that. He was always thinking about music and working on music. I learned a lot being in that band. I learned a lot about playing with confidence, and not being afraid to play. That band was like a family. I loved being in that band. Like a family, we fought sometimes; but there was really a lot of loyalty in that group. It's hard to describe. You never know what it's going to be like. All of a sudden you're with the same people every day for a year, and that could be disastrous. But that was a really special experience for me. I'm very proud to have been part of that band.

AAJ: I'd imagine it must have influenced you deeply, just because of the nature of that band. There were so many strong personalities.

BW: Yes, very strong personalities. Everyone plays with a lot of confidence. And Wynton told me that before I came out on the road. He said, "There's a certain kind of confidence that you're going to learn out here, that we play with." We did this amazing tour, for this record called "In This House, On This Morning." I did the tour, playing all of these Baptist churches. Obviously, that's not where I grew up. So here I am: The second half of the show starts off with a bass solo, which is like a sermon, and I was terrified every night! I wish I could do it again, because I could probably play a lot better now; but I learned so much by being terrified every night. It was a real positive pressure on that tour. It was scary. So now it takes a lot to scare me. I learned from Wynton. I played with him a couple of weeks ago. I always find it inspiring. Always.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorites, among your contemporaries?

BW: Well...bass players? I like Reginald Veal a lot, who played with Wynton Marsalis before me. He really has his own personality. I like that. There are a lot of guys. Peter Washington's great. There are things about a lot of people that I like. But to be honest with you, I don't think about it that much. I mean, I could list a bunch of my contemporaries. Christian McBride, obviously—he's a wizard on the bass. I could name a bunch of them. But I don't really think about it that much. I don't go out to hear people play that much.

AAJ: Do you spend a lot of time listening to records?

BW: I do and I don't. I've been listening to Jacqueline Du Pre playing the Elgar Cello Concerto. Man...I listen to that, and it just brings a tear to my eye. It's incredible. I find little things like that, listen to them one or two times, they knock me out, and then I just think about them. I listen when I'm on the road, more. I put the radio on once in awhile, just to see what's on. Recently, I've been listening to Wagner, the Ring... It knocks me out. Right now, I'm thinking about this piece I'm going to write. Since I'm writing for a cello player and an opera singer, I'm listening to some opera singers, just to hear it, and to get it into my head. Not to imitate what they're doing, but to hear what some of the possibilities are.

I listen sometimes for inspiration; but to be honest, I have a hard time finding stuff that knocks me out. I find stuff that I like, but I like the idea of putting something on and just being blown away, and just wanting to run to the piano. I have a hard time finding that. I think I've got to start exploring more. Maybe classical music. I grew up listening to jazz. I used to listen to it nonstop. I don't do that so much anymore. I probably should; who knows? I kind of do things my own way. Sometimes I practice a lot for a period, and then I won't practice that much. And I wish I would. When I practice, I play much better. Practicing works, no doubt about it. I go in spurts. I know people who just constantly practice. That's their life. I wish I was like that, but I'm not. So I'm always fighting it.

AAJ: Is that what it was like when you were a kid, that stuff would just blow you away?

BW: Yeah, it would. It was exciting. It was like going to a new world—like, "OK, now I get to go in there again." It was like an amusement park. Jazz, man...it was like, "Wow." They were like people to me. Paul Chambers was a person. I still listen to him that way, and he knocks me out. Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland...all my heroes, it was like I got to see them, like people. Now, at 38, I listen to Paul Chambers, and he's still that same person. He's only like 21. He was a kid. And I had such an incredible impression of him. I still see him as like a character. It's amazing, that you can create that through records. It's not even real. There's no actual, real connection between me and those people, at all. Nothing actual. It's bizarre.

AAJ: However deeply Chambers or Mingus or whomever may have influenced you, you still have a very individual sound.

BW: I don't want to sound like anybody. I don't want to be an imitator. I think that's an easy way out. It's a good way to learn but an easy way out. I love writing music, I love playing the bass. I love playing the piano, and I love playing music. But it becomes harder. When you first start playing, just the sound of the instrument was enough. You were so excited to do it. "Wow, I'm playing. I'm making music." And then it becomes, "Wow. This sounds like shit." It's no fun. To me, if it doesn't sound good, it's not fun—which makes me think it's not even about fun. If the music's not really happening in a certain way, I don't enjoy it that much. But when I do enjoy it, it's a much grander enjoyment.

AAJ: So what's it about?

BW: I think if you're playing with other people, it's about connecting. Like when Wynton used to talk about swing, the term he used a lot was "coordination." When you get musicians together, and you really are playing together, it takes on a life of its own. It's very interesting to be part of it, and to witness it, at the same time. That sounds abstract, but music is very abstract. To me, that's very enjoyable. I love when it's right. I'd rather strive for that than just try to go up there and have a lot of laughs. ...Which I do, too. I'm not preaching. I'm guilty of all the crimes I accuse people of committing.

AAJ: I hate to end with a cliched question, but what's next for you? You seem to have a lot of ambitions—film scoring, bandleading... What would you like to focus on next?

BW: I'd like to do both, as much as possible. I'd love to score a film; I wish I could start working on it tomorrow. I would love to continue writing these string pieces I'm working on, until they're finished. I'm going to compose this piece for this concert on December 28 in Portland. I want to do all those things. I want to play gigs with my band. I want to write for films. I want to make recordings. I want to write music, and I want to play the bass. I want to do all the things. Because for me, when I'm doing them all, then I'm me. I'm not...broken off. To me, it's all the same. It's like they go together; they feed each other, in a sense. When I write the songs, I know them. I know the inside of them. It's like I create my own little world to be in.

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The Whisperer

The Whisperer

Posi-Tone Records
2015

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Live at Small's

Live at Small's

Unknown label
2011

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Live At Smalls

Live At Smalls

Unknown label
2010

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My Kinda Beautiful

My Kinda Beautiful

Planet Arts Records
2006

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My Kinda Beautiful

My Kinda Beautiful

Planet Arts Records
2005

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