Mark Dresser

Invocation (Knitting Factory Works)

Dave Holland

Ones All (Intuition)

Peter Kowald

Was Da Ist (FMP)

William Parker

Testimony (Zero In)

Paul Rogers

Heron Moon (Rare Music)

By John Corbett

On the face of it, a solo bass recital seems an unpromising idea. Of course, the unaccompanied string has a long and venerable history: violin and viola da gamba solos date back to before Bach. But the upright acoustic bass is a huge, unwieldy slab of lumber, hardly the sort of ax that makes admirers of fleet-fingered virtuosi tingle with anticipation. The bass–still considered by many to be essentially a support instrument–has only recently become an equal partner in the standard jazz ensemble; earlier you were just as likely to find a tuba in its place.

Over the last three decades the solo bass format has been the vehicle for a growing body of work, much of it quite wonderful. There are certainly precedents–notably Chuck Domanico’s two solo tracks on Anthony Ortega’s lost classic Permutations, recorded in late 1966 and early ’67; on a 1990 hatART reissue, the bass-only tracks were dropped. But the first full-length record of unaccompanied bass improvisations was Journal Violone, made by American-born, European-based bassist Barre Phillips in 1968. Phillips is still a major player, releasing several subsequent lone ventures on ECM and Victo, making his own personal mark on creative music, and firmly establishing the solo bass as a viable enterprise.

Onetime Miles Davis sideman and Anthony Braxton cohort Dave Holland, who recorded a set of bass duets with Phillips in 1971, was also fairly early into the water. Emerald Tears (ECM), his first stab at solo from 1977, has just been reissued on CD, and it’s a real ear opener: Holland’s giant, woody sound (“woody” being the sound of choice for bass snobs) and imagination applied to a composition by Braxton, Davis’s oft-played “Solar,” and six other tracks bearing Holland’s signature.

The brand-new Ones All (Intuition) finds Holland less exploratory, playing stunningly on bass keystone Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” (named for bassist Paul Chambers), a piece called “Three Step Dance” by Glen Moore (bassist in the proto-New Age group Oregon, who played solo on a 1972 Ralph Towner record), a swingin’ “Little Girl I’ll Miss You” by alto saxist Bunky Green, and a handful of originals. The place to start, though, might just be the last track, Holland’s take on the Billie Holiday spirit rouser “God Bless the Child”–he nurses the bluesy melody along, dropping fat notes behind it like crumbs on a country path.

In the mid-80s, a decade after Holland’s first one-man bass navigations, New York bassist William Parker was gaining renown among musicians. But for listeners like me, who saw him play countless gigs all along the east coast, his abilities remained shrouded in the mystery of a chronic understater who inevitably turned his amp too low to be scrutinized. Thankfully, he’s come front and center to prove himself more widely in the last decade. Like Holland, Parker plays music with spirit and muscle; he’s uninterested in flash and short-order licks. Stylistically, Parker conjures 60s free-jazzers like Henry Grimes (in high-action palpability) and Alan Silva (with his slashing arco), but his enormous sound owes a debt to Chicago hard-bop great Wilbur Ware.

Among the several new records under Parker’s name, his solo outing Testimony (Zero In) is the most intense. Recorded in concert one night at the Knitting Factory, it’s a splintering blindside attack of metal, wood, and bow hair. “Sonic Animation” is 23 minutes of furious energy, all arco, while Parker’s singular approach to pizzicato–accelerating phrases, string buzzing on the neck, multilinear riffs, and the constant thud of thwacked open notes–is evident on the title cut; moving into the finale, he sits on a single cool melodic line, smacking the bottom-end nastily between numerous repetitions.

Peter Kowald wowed listeners at the FMP festival in Chicago last November by playing a single hour-long piece in which he capitalized on much the same mix of power, extremism, and endurance as Parker (they also share an unusual sawlike bowing technique), combining a host of good ideas into one giant Tootsie Roll. But the German bassist’s Was Da Ist (FMP) comes at the notion of solo bass from the opposite direction: he focuses on one notion per track, breaking the record down into 23 short parts. “Part 2” is an astounding continuous bowed run. On “Part 8,” he plucks hard, knotty free jazz, sliding notes downward as they die out; “Part 14” takes the same feel into tone-centered territory. “Part 12” and “Part 13” both go deep-sea fishing with near-subsonic arco bass chords, and Kowald adds sung overtones to this on “Part 23.” On “Part 22,” the bow is used as both mallet and slide, exploding little sonic bombs and glissing atop the strings.

Holland, Parker and Kowald all revel in the post-Mingus celebration of bass-as-mass, but certain other players shoot for something more nimble, less weighty. American bassist Mark Dresser is perhaps best known for his work in the Anthony Braxton Quartet, though he’s been busy filling out his resume with records both as a leader and with a string of domestic and European groups. His debut solo disc, Invocation (Knitting Factory Works) shows why he’s in such demand: he has a good, solid sound, not as huge or hard-hitting as Parker’s or Kowald’s (a little less “woody”) but more delicate and precise. Percussionist Gerry Hemingway arranged his “Threnody for Charles Mingus” (originally scribed for Hemingway’s great quintet, which includes Dresser) for eight basses; Dresser, of course, plays all eight parts. It may not cause you to blurt “There’s a Mingus among us!” but it’s a beautiful dedication all the same.

Dresser and cocomposer Lamont Wolfe fiddle around with tape manipulation productively (and often imperceptibly) on “Trenchant”; “Trains” is a humorous piece for tape and bass complete with (you guessed it) train noises. Obviously, Dresser’s not averse to effects; the extra resonance on “Subtonium” echoes some of Iancu Dumitrescu’s astounding compositions for bass. Dresser’s signature extended technique–hammer-ons with both hands, up the neck side by side as if he’s giving the bass a massage–is immediately audible at the start of “Invocation.”

One of the things that makes it possible to enjoy a nonstop unaccompanied record by any of these bassists is their appreciation of the sheer sound of the instrument. Who knows how players like Ron Carter of Cecil McBee stumbled upon their thin tone, or why a great musician like Reggie Workman chooses to overamplify, taking away the physical punch that is double bass’s sworn duty? Whatever the motivation, we can be thankful that there are low-lovers like Paul Rogers, whose Heron Moon (Rare Music) arguably tops this list of recent lonely bass recordings.

The British-born Rogers, who now lives in France, appears on three excellent records by the quartet Mujician (led by pianist Keith Tippett, all released on Cuneiform Records), as well as a live recording with reed player Michel Doneda and percussionist Le Quan Ninh, Open Paper Tree (FMP), and a thrilling duet with trombone pioneer Paul Rutherford, Rogues (Emanem). But Heron Moon is the real showcase for Rogers, who displays an uncommon quickness (especially rare on five-string upright bass, his preferred tool), a sensitivity to harmonic and melodic potential, and a supple sense of swing, as well as a full battery of outre devices. Just listen to his control of harmonics on “Heron Moon IV” (part of the first of two suites on the disc), exactingly produced by a bow. And I wish I’d seen how he makes many of the sounds he does on “Song Time II.”

Rogers has the jolly green giant sound of the Mingusites, but he’s as limber and swift as a hotshot cellist. Add him to the mounting list of solo bass superstars alongside Parker, Kowald, Holland, Dresser, Phillips, Malachi Favors, Maarten Altena, Barry Guy, Motoharu Yoshizawa, Joelle Leandre, and Anders Jormin, and take note: in the quest for new sounds and workable instrumentations, the question is, How low can you go?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): assorted album covers.