Perpetually in the moment, musicians have a unique perception of things, according to bassist Mark Helias, an advantageous attribute in a world where most of the population slumbers and self-expression is the goal. "It's a Darwinian thing. Some people believe 20 percent of the population is awake, the rest is asleep, just follows the flow. In a so-called participatory democracy, that's dangerous.
As a musician, acutely aware of the political and social atmosphere, Helias can consider himself several steps ahead of the crowd in the game of survival and has no problem expressing himself. Atomic Clock
(Radio Legs Music, 2006) , his latest album with his trio Open Loose (Tony Malaby saxophone, Tom Rainey drums), starts with an immediate sense of urgency. All three players begin the first track "Subway in unison and continue on an ardent path through probing, lacerating rhythms, pummeled by thunderous beats. The album is the second release on Helias' Radio Legs label after Verbs of Will
(2002), his tenth release as a leader and 27th when you count his cooperative groups.
One night last month at Cornelia Street Café Helias, onstage with Malaby and drummer Gerald Cleaver, slowed down a tune. He swept his fingers slowly across the strings calling to mind a gentle burial as he softly quieted the rhythm and covered it up, a metaphor perhaps for everything that enrages the bassist about the government, the media and the politics of fear. "I grew up in the 1950s, he explained, "Looking out my window in New Jersey, waiting to see a mushroom cloud over New York. At 56, he's become privy to "the same scams being pulled over the population generation after generation, but despite the current political atmosphere, he finds joy in the music he creates and experiences daily.
Music made an early impact for the New Jersey native who started on bass at 20. "The first time I heard a modulation in a pop tune it knocked me out, he recalled. At age three, he didn't know what it was, but liked how it felt. Ten years later he saw his friend's dad play tenor sax in a local club. "It was some little gig, but I was a kid and had never heard this stuff live. Just to hear a drummer and bassist interacting and walking a little bit, it was like 'Wow, cool!'
He taught himself guitar and drums and studied bass with Homer Mensch at Rutgers, before getting a Masters degree from Yale. There, he met Anthony Braxton and hopped aboard his first flight to Europe with Braxton's quartetfirst stop, the Moers International New Jazz Festival in Germany. "I had been playing gigs for four people and I went over there and the first gig I saw was 8,000 people listening to Lester Bowie and Don Moye.
Helias toured Europe through much of the '80s, where in contrast to the United States, work was readily available. West Germany, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, was especially prosperous. "It was this incredibly rich country and its arts programs were incredibly well-endowed so you could do a tour of 30 cities. They had this bizarre idea that the arts were for everybody and things like music, dance and theater were on par with food, shelter and learning.
Exhausted, but changed by that first big tour, Helias returned with a new appreciation for travel. "It challenges your small mindedness, it makes you expand, it's vital, he said. But he was also transformed by playing with musicians like George Lewis, Muhal Richard Abrams, Charles Bobo Shaw and Hamiet Bluiett. Though it wasn't the first time he had played with musicians of that level. In Connecticut, he met drummer Edward Blackwell who was teaching at Wesleyan and playing in a group with pianist/composer Anthony Davis. When Reggie Workman couldn't make a rehearsal, Davis brought his good friend Helias to fill in. "The first tune we played was 'Caravan'; he played this West African feel on the A section then when he got to the bridge he did this straight ahead thing and we started walking, man that felt amazing. He played with Blackwell for 17 years, until the drummer's death in 1995 and appears on two of his albums, 1992's What It Is?
and 1994's What It Be Like?
, both for the German Enja label.
After the release of his debut disc Split Image
(1985) on Enja, Helias put out a series of quartet, quintet and sextet records, notably Attack The Future
(Enja, 1992) and Loopin' The Cool
(Enja, 1996). Consisting of a revolving cast that has included players like saxophonists Dewey Redman, Tim Berne, Ellery Eskelin and Michael Moore, violinists Regina Carter and Mark Feldman and percussionist Abdoulaye Epizo Bangoura, larger groups allow him to compose for many voices. In 1994 a hand injury that occurred during a basketball game forced him to put aside the bass, so he wrote a piece for orchestra and last year the Hamburg Radio Orchestra commissioned him to write 70 minutes of music for broadcast.
Helias plays in a duo with fellow bassist Mark Dresser called the Marks Brothers and he has developed a vast repertoire for solo bass. He plans to participate in a memorial concert next month at Juilliard for Mensch who died in 2005. During a visit to the hospital days before the bassist's death, Helias glimpsed an upright bass in the shower stall. "He was giving lessons in the room, he exclaimed. "When you're in the presence of someone with that kind of commitment and artistry and discipline, this is an opportunity for you to see how it's done and model that technique of learning. I believe when you teach, you're teaching people how to teach themselves. The point is to get them on their own to find out who they are and what they want to do. Ultimately it's about expression. Helping people to find a way of expressing themselves and getting to what they want to say.
Helias teaches at Sarah Lawrence, the New School and the School for Improvised Music (SIM) and while he can get skeptical about the state of humanity, he saw some positive occurrences last month during a weeklong seminar at SIM. "I was very impressed with the people, he said. "You've got 25 strangers putting ensembles together and working togetherthat takes a great deal of courage and sublimation of the negative parts of the ego, overcoming your fear and being generous with yourself and other people. I witnessed a beautiful coming together and the music that resulted was phenomenal.
This, says Helias, is what life is all about. "When you think about the culture we live in, to be able to make a living playing music that really enlivens you every time you do it? Too many people give up on doing something in life that really inspires them. Don't watch CNN, don't watch Fox News, don't watch stupid television shows - read some books, go to the theater, go hear music, speak with your friends, have experiences that are real... People think self- expression is a provenance of the arts, but it's not, that's where it gets worked out in a lot of cases, but everybody should be into self-expression.
Mark Helias' Open Loose, Atomic Clock (Radio Legs Music, 2006) Mark Dresser/Mark Helias, The Marks Brothers (Dewerf, 2000)
Marty Ehrlich's Dark Woods Ensemble, Live Wood (Music & Arts, 1996)
BassDrumBone, Wooferlo (Soul Note, 1987)
Dewey Redman, The Struggle Continues (ECM, 1982)
Anthony Braxton, Quintet (Basel) 1977 (hatOLOGY, 1977)