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Third Annual Double Bass Summit Live At Dizzy's

Robert Bush By

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San Diego Double Bass Summit
Dizzy's
San Diego, California
July 25, 2010

The greater San Diego area has long been deep in double bass talent, eight of whom were on stage at Dizzy's for the third annual bass summit. Organized and emceed by Rob Thorsen, (who had to manage on crutches as the result of a motorcycle accident). Thorsen who has played with alto saxophone master Charles McPherson, and flautist Holly Hoffman is a jazz bassist comfortable in many settings—including those of "summit organizer," This event featured four of the areas top "mainstream" jazz players; two musicians widely known in the avant-garde and new music world; and two musicians from the classical field. These are just labels, however, because one of the lessons learned from this event was how much these players specialties crossed over and into each others spheres.



Many of these players studied at one time with Bertram Turetzky who has been a dominant force in 20th Century classical music for more than fifty years. Turetzky is pioneer of the solo bass repertoire and has had over 300 compositions written specifically for him to perform. In addition to all of his classical music accomplishments, Turetzky has been involved in jazz and klezmer music for years as well. He has appeared in concert with symphonies and as a solo performer in cities around the world. He has also worked with Charles Mingus, and recorded with multi-reed specialist Vinny Golia, trombonist George Lewis and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith among many others.

The concert began with the jazz bassists. First up, local stalwart Gunnar Biggs who has been on the San Diego scene for over thirty years. Biggs first toured the country with drummer Buddy Rich. He leads his own groups and plays regularly with pianist/singer Mose Allison and guitarist Peter Sprague. He performed in trio with pianist Joshua White and drummer Duncan Moore, on a Biggs original, "Reasoning With Rodents" from his album Footprint (SBE Records, 2009). This was an upbeat, bop tune that featured his intricate melodic sense and hardcore solo chops. White on piano and Moore on drums were excellent, providing expert support for all of the featured bassists they accompanied.

Next up was virtuoso Bob Magnusson, perhaps the best known of the San Diego double bass players. His c.v. is ridiculously thick: he has the distinction of having recorded with everyone from Art Pepper, to Madonna. He has also been a member of the San Diego Symphony to name just a few of his experiences. Magnusson is well known for his "sound": it's warm and liquid and his tone is such that every note seems to sing. He chose a ballad by Jimmy Van Heusen, "The Second Time Around" which he dedicated to his wife. Magnusson has 'monster chops" that he uses with great taste.

Immediately following Magnusson was a rare San Diego appearance by Marshall Hawkins who teaches up north at the Idyllwild Arts Academy. Hawkins has been so good, for so long, he toured with Miles Davis sixties quintet. Since then, he has worked with tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and recorded with alto saxophonist Richie Cole and drummer Eric Gravatt. Hawkins led White and Moore through a very oblique reading of the Romberg/Hammerstein vehicle, "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise." He began the tune in arco mode—bowing eerie harmonics on his trademark blonde contrabass (with low "C" extension). He shifted to pizzicato for his solo, which swung, in the mightiest sense of the word.

Next was the duet of classical double bass artists Jeremy Kurtz, (Principal Bass, San Diego Symphony), and Andres Martin, (Orquesta De Baja California). It was instructive to listen to the way these two used the bow as that's their "bread and butter," so to speak. Indeed, one of the underlying themes of the bass summit was just how individualistic the use of the bow was for all of the performers. Kurtz and Martin played several short pieces by Italian composer Bottesini, and both managed to sound majestic and regal and completely different from each other.

Bertram Turetzky then led Magnusson, Biggs, Mark Dresser, Hawkins and Thorsen (all wielding bows) through his original homage to one of the pioneers of jazz bass, Slam Stewart, appropriately titled "Slam's The Man." Stewart's forte was playing an arco solo while singing the same notes an octave higher, and several of the soloists involved tried this technique with Turetzky coming out the strongest. Noted "out-cat" Dresser, had the show-stopping solo on this one though: it was literally hair-raising and full of audacity. Dresser marches confidently to his own drummer and the world is richer for it.

It was finally time for the organizer to shine as Rob Thorsen took the stage with White and Moore for a romp on his original waltz, "Dance Of The Freaky Circles." This was an extended trio workout, with excellent pianist White digging in for a lengthy solo and Thorsen making his case on the upright. Thorsen has a very strong melodic sense and complex rhythmic dynamic. In the mid and low registers, he's muscular and sequential with piquant forays into thumb-position territory.

Pianist White then conducted a seven bass ensemble through his arrangement of Chopin's "Prelude In C Minor." In terms of the multiple bass ensembles, this one was the most successful. White's careful assignment of individual voices to the seven bassists was such that they achieved maximum blend and clarity. It was a treat to hear seven double bassists bowing together on a piece that was written for solo piano. Profound and elegant are two words that come to mind.

Next up was a solo feature for the classical musician Andres Martin. In addition to his symphonic work, Martin is a specialist in Tango music. He chose Astor Piazzolla's "Oblivion" as his solo spot. After hearing so many bassists, especially with the bow, it was hard to believe that this player would be able to distinguish himself from what had already been played. Somehow, Martin found a way. His version of "Oblivion" was an outstanding study of arco tone production. He made the melody sound so bittersweet and full of heartache that you could literally see eyes misting up during the performance.

At this point it should be noted that except for when the "jazz" players were leading the piano trio, everything was performed without amplification. Hearing all of these players in acoustic form was a rare opportunity. Mark Dresser (Anthony Braxton, Andrew Cyrille), followed Martin, and it was his choice to completely improvise for his feature. Dresser's spot began with his remarkable technique of two-handed tapping opposing glissandos on adjacent strings. From there he struck the bass like an petulant child, produced harmonics from the least likely locations and generally confounded most of the accepted notions of bass technique. Dresser is conversant in classical music, all things avant-garde, and straight ahead jazz. All of these experiences are treated more or less equally in his aesthetic.

Contrabassist extraordinaire Bertram Turetzky was allotted the penultimate spot for his solo expository. He chose two short pieces dedicated to his father. Both pieces featured Turetzky in arco and pizzicato modes. One thing about Turetzky that can not be ignored is the purity and strength of his signal. He could probably be heard (and felt) 2 blocks away from Dizzy's that night. Turetzky is the originator of many of the "extended techniques" so prevalent in the "new music" context. Indeed he is the author of "The Contemporary Contrabass" (University of California Press, Vol.7, 1989) which explains many of those principles.

For the closer, all eight bassists crowded the stage along with pianist White and drummer Moore and unwrapped their "surprise" ending which been alluded to several times: they absolutely rocked the capacity house at Dizzy's with an insanely goofy arrangement of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" which elicited laughter and hand-claps on the backbeat. All in all, eight compelling examples of the power, nuance and beauty of this often overlooked, majestic instrument.

Photo Credit

Joshua White

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