Today I'm posting an interview with one of Canada's musical treasures, bassist Steve Wallace.
Here's what he looks like in case you run into him.
Steve was kind enough to answer all my questions. I think his answers really demonstrate the hard work and keen intellect it takes to play the music at the level he does every time he picks up the bass.
1. Can you name a live performance/recording that has had a particularly profound affect on you?
Often, live performances or records heard early on in your musical life have a greater impact because you've heard less and the slate is a little cleaner, if you know what I mean. I heard Sonny Rollins live once with Claude Ranger on drums and Michel Donato on bass when I was still in high school. They played as part of a benefit concert organized for drummer Ed Blackwell, who needed kidney dialysis. I had a seat right by the edge of the stage, so the music had maximum impact and it just blew me away, scared me to death, made me realize I had a long way to go, but also inspired me. It was completely a "flying blind" situation for Claude and Michel - they'd never played with Sonny before, and there had been no rehearsal. I was so impressed by how they really played together, presented a united front behind Sonny, who really liked them, turning around to them at one point and bellowing "Yeahhhhh!". Sonny of course was just staggering, waving the rhythm section in and out, playing long cadenzas and stream-of-consciousness improvisations on strings of tunes. I'd heard Claude before, but not Michel, and he became my new hero on bass. He didn't play that many notes, or very fast or high, but everything he played had this tremendous power and weight to it - my first live experience of "caveman" bass and it knocked me out. With organized bands, hearing the Charles Mingus Quintet at the El Mocambo around 1976 and Dexter Gordon's Quartet at Basin Street in 1979 or '80 both had a big impact on me in showing how deep, personal and powerful jazz could be. It took Dexter a couple of choruses to warm up and at first I was under-whelmed. Once he got there though, he was just killing the rest of the way, and so was his rhythm section - Kirk Lightsey, Rufus Reid and Eddie Gladden. The first time I heard the Boss Brass live would have been maybe 1973 or '74 and it made a powerful impression on me as far as big bands went.
I've listened to a lot of records, too many to really mention, but I was never quite the same after hearing a Charlie Parker record for the first time - I was probably about 15. I'd been reading a lot about him and how important he was in books about jazz, but didn't have access to many records, One day I suddenly remembered my uncle Gil had given me a scratchy old Parker record called "The Early Bird" which was mostly a "best of" the Dial recordings with Miles Davis and Max Roach. I guess I was ready for it, my curiosity had been piqued and I just flipped out when I heard it, hardly listened to anything else for weeks. Other records that have had a similar impact on me include "Clifford Brown and Max Roach" (the one were they play "Delilah"), "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy", "Everybody Digs Bill Evans", "Tranein' In", "Ellington at Newport", "Saxophone Colussus", anything by Count Basie with Lester Young, and "Milestones", which represents to me a kind of high water-mark in bebop, really beyond bebop. I think there's some magic at work on these records and many others that keeps me coming back for more over the years, listening to them again and again.
2. In your great email you sent out recently, you mentioned working on playing melodies for all instrumentalists. Are there any other aspects of the music that you feel might be getting overlooked by young musicians these days?
I'm no expert on what young players are up to because I don't teach regularly or go out to hear them as often as I should. But when I do, I often miss swing from them - sometimes, it's not just that they can't or don't know how to swing, but that they don't even try, the music they play is not even about that. I still miss it though, I feel its unique rhythmic feeling is one of the things that sets jazz apart from other musics, makes it special. It would seem a lot of younger players have put a lot of energy and study into playing and improvising in odd-meter time signatures, which is difficult and laudable I guess, but often I feel they're just "putting in time" when playing in four, that maybe in some cases the odd-meter thing is a crutch, a cover for not swinging. The funny thing is that I get the feeling that to some young players, swing is so old-hat as to be embarrassing, yet nobody wants to be told they're not swinging - this is still a mortal insult but you can't have it both ways. The thing is, swinging can be achieved in many ways across different styles and I'm not advocating any particular one - I like the way Satchmo swings and I like the way Monk swings, the way the MJQ swings as well as the Jazz Messengers and on and on, but either it swings or it doesn't.
This brings me to another element that's sometimes missing from young players - stylistic range, or well-roundedness. They often play out of one "bag" - whether it be their own or someone else's, it's often quite recent, but within that bag it often sounds like they've only listened to very current or specific players, which can be limiting. By way of a contrasting example, the very first time I heard and played with David Braid on piano (before he had a band), I could tell he'd listened to more modern pianists like Brad Meldau, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock, but I could also tell he'd heard Ellington, Monk and Art Tatum. He didn't sound like any of them, but I could sense he knew them all and could take the music a lot of places, could respond intelligently to a lot of things that came up when improvising. So, not being tied down to any style or era is something that is lacking sometimes with younger players, although to be fair it takes time to learn about this and I feel this is improving overall. Sometimes the blues element is also missing - I don't mean I want to hear a twelve-bar blues specifically or a bunch of blues licks, but rather the sound, phrasing and vocal quality of the blues in a person's playing, the way it's present in Prez, Parker, Miles or Ornette among many others.
3. You are renowned (especially among drummers) for your incredibly propulsive feel when playing 4/4 swing. Did you do anything specifically to work on this?
I guess the first thing is that I decided, consciously or not, that I wanted to have some propulsion in my playing, the way certain bassists I liked did, such as Ray Brown, Percy Heath, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Garrison. A lot of this also came from playing with some pretty heavyweight drummers like Jerry Fuller and Terry Clarke when I was still quite young - I felt like I wanted the bass to be as strong as the drums were in this department. After a while I decided to play with a fairly high action, i.e. the strings raised higher off the fingerboard. This creates more sound and thrust in the notes, but makes for other problems - it's tiring, harder to play in tune, and cuts down on your speed, especially for bass solos. So partly what I worked on was getting used to playing this way, digging in, getting a long but percussive sound, building up some strength and trying not to get frustrated when other things in my playing lagged behind.
I also found it useful to develop a couple of different attacks in the right hand plucking the strings. For more grinding, slow-to-medium tempos, I try to use the side of my first finger down at the end of the fingerboard, getting more meat into the string, and sometimes hold the second finger on top of the first to get more weight into the attack. This doesn't work so well with really fast tempos because your hand cramps up, so I had to also develop a two-finger approach, using the first and second fingers plucking alternately. The trick with this is to make the notes sound even, although the fingers are of different length and weight. Dave Holland once in a clinic showed me some really valuable exercises to use in building up strength and articulation with this kind of attack, which involved a kind of "long tones in reverse" - plucking the string with each finger really hard, then deadening it. It was pretty difficult, but really built up the strength in my wrist.
I've also learned that part of being propulsive is not just attacking the strings hard, but the actual shape and direction of the bass lines you play, the notes you choose and their sequence. Paul Chambers is a great example of this - he uses a lot of chromaticism in his walking notes, the "angular, probing lines" thing, but he really does create tremendous momentum this way, ditto Ray Brown in a different way. Listening a lot to Leroy Vinnegar really helped too - I discovered him in a big way about 25 years ago, and I feel he has a perfect quarter-note pulse on the bass that suits any context - forward-moving but at the same time really secure and relaxed. It has to do with the length and roundness of the notes being just right but also they're distinct from one another, there's some separation. He's just really buoyant, and absorbing him has brought me much more in touch with the middle of the beat, after spending years playing quite often way on top of the beat, if not rushing outright.
4. What common mistakes do you see drummers making, especially when playing swing?
Sometimes drummers don't use the high-hat as well as they might - it's important that the "two-and-four" has a strong presence along with the flow of the ride cymbal and quarter-notes from the bass, and it's often the high-hat that provides this. If you ever hear a really great gospel choir singing, accompanied just by their hands clapping on two and four, you'll see what I mean. It's not that I want the high-hat played louder or heavier, but crisply and ever so slightly ahead of the beat. It's a really small, subtle thing, but can give the beat and swing factor a big lift - Terry Clarke is very aware of this, Barry Elmes and yourself too.
Too many downbeats on the drums can be a problem too, as opposed to upbeats - crashing or landing too often on one instead of the "and-of-four" can drag things down a bit. It's not so much that the drummer should necessarily play the upbeats, but he should hear them against the pulse and play off of them - the bass is already hopefully playing the downbeats most of the time.
Some drummers don't really know what to do when the bass is playing "in two", i.e. two half-notes to the bar, instead of four quarter-notes. With the bass playing fewer attacks, the drummer should play the flow of the time more firmly and clearly, but some drummers back off the beat when the bass is in two, allowing the bottom to fall out of a tempo. Really, it should still feel like regular 4/4 but with less from the bass. This problem usually has to do with a lack of experience or from not having listened to certain bands that sounded great playing in two, such as the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1950s, the Oscar Peterson Trio, or the Ahmad Jamal Trio. The "two-feel" can have a nice, spacey, dancing quality which you can build on in a performance, but it's no good if the whole thing just sinks right off the bat. Some of this has to do with a tendency to let the tempo drop when playing quieter or more gently, something Jerry Fuller pointed out to me that I did when I was younger.
Sometimes if it’s too opaque or blocks out the sound of the bass and the other instruments, a drummer's sound can get in the way of a band swinging. Usually when things swing, it starts with the bass and drums being together not just rhythmically but in their sound - hopefully the other instruments as well. I don't know if it's a touch thing, tuning or cymbals, but certain drummers have a transparency to their sound even if they’re playing quite loud, which allows the other instruments to come through, then everyone pulls together and things can get to swinging. Other drummers have a sound or touch that "puts up walls" and overrides the bass and other instruments - this just makes everyone tense up, have to work too hard and it's not just a matter of volume. Both Terry Clarke and you can sometimes play really loud if necessary, but even so I can always hear and feel everybody else on the bandstand. I think it's mostly a matter of drummers conceiving and assessing their sound not just as the drums alone, but rather as a sound blending with other instruments, a listening approach.
The other mistake I sometimes hear from even some really good drummers is if they're required to play in an earlier style that they're not comfortable or familiar with, they tighten right up or phone it in, playing lots of heavy back-beat as though they were playing a bad jobbing gig, instead of thinking of it as still being jazz and musical, still to be played with some looseness and swing. Again, this is mostly a hole in their listening, and I'm probably just as guilty of it in the other direction.
5. You've worked with many fine musicians over the years. Which one have you learned the most from and what was it?
I have to mention two musicians I've really learned a lot from and they couldn't be more dissimilar - Ed Bickert and Jim Blackley.
I've been very lucky to have played with Ed so much in pick-up groups and organized bands ranging in size from duos and trios to the Boss Brass. I learned a great deal from him, mostly by example - he never said too much but his playing always spoke volumes. I certainly learned a lot of tunes from him, and more importantly how to play songs in general. From him I learned the importance of simplicity and clarity when playing the bass - his playing and chord-voicing were complex and sometimes ethereal, but he didn't need that from the bass, he needed some strong time and fundamental notes underneath him to do his thing. This may seem obvious, but it took a while for me to understand this contrast. He also taught me that everyone in a band was counting on the bass for a lot and that this carried some responsibility - this could be a chore, but if you took care of it, the band would also take care of the bass player in return. I learned a lot about really listening and focussing intently on a number of things at once just from playing with him, and to become more sensitive to things like pitch, dynamics and sound. You had to be careful when playing the bass with someone like Ed, but at the same time you had to be decisive and not hesitate. A hard lesson, but one well worth learning.
Though I never played in public with him or was formally a student of his, Jim Blackley taught me a whole lot. In the late 1970s I was part of a group of musicians who played with Jim twice a week at his house - saxophonists Michael Stuart and Jane Fair, pianist Frank Falco and guitarist Tony Palladino. On one of the days we would work on specific things - he would make us do some really difficult, exhausting stuff like play tunes in all twelve keys, sometimes at extremely slow or fast tempos - he and I would play straight swing through this. On the second day, we would just play flat-out, and he brought a lot of intensity right at you, would play all sorts of outside stuff all over the place and beat, while never losing his place in the tune. It was hard going, but this all really strengthened me physically and mentally, toughened me up. I developed a lot more endurance, conviction and concentration from all of this, to find my line in the music and hold my ground for a long time, even when all around me was seeming chaos. A lot of learning to play jazz well has to do with overcoming your many fears, and Jim really helped me do this by giving me this sort of friendly trial by fire over a couple of years.
I've also learned a lot from other drummers - they're very important to me, and I always listen to what they play and say. Terry Clarke and Jerry Fuller both played with me when I was still pretty young and green, and always took the time to give me pointers and constructive criticism. Terry got me to simplify my Latin playing, really impressed the importance of getting a good sound, versatility and dynamics on me. Jerry taught me to pace myself, both during a tune, a set and a whole evening. He taught me to develop some gears in my playing, that playing flat-out in top gear all the time wasn't right for the music and would just tire you out too soon. Later, I also learned a lot from John Sumner, mostly off the bandstand. John has been very generous in sharing his massive record collection and knowledge with me through hours of hanging out and listening - he filled in a lot of gaps in my knowledge and listening habits. I always say my friendship with John was like my "jazz finishing school" though the learning process is never over - you know how it goes Ted. If you keep your mind and ears open, you end up learning things from everyone you play with on every gig.
6. Through reading your emails, I was struck by not only the great humour and information, but how well you write. When are you going to start your own blog?
As to the writing and starting a blog, thanks for the kind words first of all. I started writing as a hobby about three years ago, at first mainly writing about baseball, another interest of mine. More recently I’ve been writing about music more – I’m more comfortable with this in that I know music from actually doing it, whereas I know baseball mainly from watching it and reading about it. I now write a little almost every day, and if I build up a backlog of pieces I may start up a blog and post them there. I’m not the most tech-savvy guy as you likely know, so I would need to get some help starting this up and luckily I know some people willing and able to provide this. I’m toying with the idea of writing some kind of memoirs, not that I’ve had that interesting or famous a life, but I’ve gained a lot of experience over the years and I’d like to share that. One of the things that bothers me when someone with a long career in a field dies or retires is that all that hard-won knowledge and inside experience goes with them, doesn’t get transferred or passed on. We’ll see, all I know for sure is I’m enjoying the writing and the response it sometimes generates.
Wow. I learned a ton from that! Wise words indeed. Thank you Steve!