Exclusive Interview - Dave Bass

Friday, October 4, 2019


No Boundaries is pianist Dave Bass' third album (and second album for Whaling City Sound) after decades away from the jazz world. Having retired from the office of the attorney general of California back in 2015, Bass is back at the piano and we're all the better for it.  No Boundaries also features two-time Grammy winner Ted Nash (flute, alto flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, soprano sax, alto sax, tenor sax), five-time Grammy nominee Karrin Allyson (vocals), and two-time Grammy winner Carlos Henriquez (bass). Jerome Jennings is on drums, and on the Afro-Cuban tunes, three great Cuban musicians join on batá, conga, bongo, guiro and timbales: Mauricio Herrera, Miguel Valdés, and two-time Latin Grammy winner Carlos Caro.



ArkivJazz: Congratulations on the new disc. 

Dave Bass: Yeah, this is my second disc for the label (Whaling City Sound) and the third disc in my life. 

AJ: And in the meantime, I understand you had a day job.

DB: Yes, yes....out of high school, I became a full-time musician and made a pretty good living at it into my 30s. I toured the world with Brenda Lee and was doing great until I fractured my wrist. That's when I got a day job. I was already in my 30s with a wife and a little kid. I couldn't play and figured I better find something else to do, so since I love to read and love to argue, I thought I'd be a good lawyer. I found out that I needed a BA to go to law school, so I had to go all the way back, which I did. That was my day job, and later I actually became a deputy attorney general for California's Office of the Attorney General.  

AJ: I do want to ask about one thing in your past. You studied with a legendary piano teacher, Madame Chaloff, who was the mother of the legendary, short-lived jazz saxophonist Serge Chaloff...  

DB: Yes, that's right. That's exactly right.

AJ: A friend of mine also studied with her in the 70s. She described those lessons as kind of mystical experiences, and said that working with her was quite influential in how she played. I don't know if you had the same experience, but she was kind of a legend by the time you were there too, I'm sure.

DB: Yeah, I was there in the late 60s early 70s, so probably about the same time. Yes, she was clearly the genuine article when it came to mystical experiences. I was very lucky, because I didn't have any money at the time. She taught me for free and I think she did a lot of other folks in the Boston area. It was a phenomenal experience that I still lean on. Even if she could hear me play now, she’d probably still have the same critique. She emphasized this weightless arm, so when you go to play, you could play anything. I met Keith Jarrett in her studio at one point--she invited me over when he was there. I'm sure that no matter who was playing, she put her arm under your arm or her hand under your arm when you were playing and would say, “No, no, it's too heavy. Weightless.” It was a very deep and long-lasting series of instructions, really, and goals to meet about playing music. I was very, very, very lucky to be able to spend time with her.  

AJ: She seemed almost like a musical psychologist, or holistic psychology that would bring in the wholeness of your body, your playing, your thoughts, and your physicality. 

DB: That's right. That's exactly right. I don't think there's really any label that does justice to her approach to music. Steve Kuhn has talked a lot about her teaching him and it's very similar to what I experienced. It was just an amazing thing.

AJ: Well, I think it's the kind of thing that a lot of people just wouldn't even hear about these days in music schools, much less be exposed to.

DB: I think that's right. You know, that's pre-internet, pre-email, all word-of-mouth days. So it was an entirely different world about how things occurred. You know, my guess is, if something like that was happening today with her or with somebody else, it would not develop with such purity.

AJ: Well, very lucky to have been able to experience something like that, I'm sure. 

DB: Absolutely. 


AJ: So we're talking about your second disc for Whaling City, No Boundaries, which is extraordinary. I've listened to it at least a half dozen times in the last couple of weeks. You have an amazing band and it sounds like you guys have played together for ages. The talent of Ted Nash on the reeds is just extraordinary. It's like having a reed section at your fingertips.

DB: A reed section, yes exactly! Ted is extraordinary and of course co-produced the album with me. He was just wonderful to work with and added so much color. I write in a lot of different styles and arrange in a lot of different styles, so when I play live, I don't always have the option of getting somebody as versatile as Ted. For the recording, it was important to me to have all those colors available and I think he provided them. If you listen to it that many times, which I'm sure you have, I'd be interested to get your reactions--what caught your attention at the beginning and at the end. 

AJ: Yeah, he fits in everything and just raises the level, not that the level was low before, but it's just astonishing that that much could have come from one person contributing on 6 instruments. 

DB:  Yeah, that's No Boundaries. A lot of people in the industry have advised me since I got back into music about ten years ago that I should really just concentrate on one genre because that's the way the world works now. You do this really well, you do that really well you, you do this other thing really well--just do those and that's how you make a name for yourself. I thought about that very seriously for a long time. I was sort of Rip Van Winkle in the music world because the music world I spent my time in before my injury is unrecognizable today. So I thought, okay, well maybe I should just do that. I really love Cuban and Brazilian music I should just do that. But it turned out, when I played and composed, I liked doing all the stuff. I like Lennie Tristano, I love Bud Powell, I love Rodgers and Hammerstein and Gershwin. I love all kinds of stuff. So I figured I'll just be who I am and I'm just delighted that you appreciate that wide gamut of music. 

AJ: Well, I mean how could a song be more beautiful than “If I Loved You” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, which is beautifully performed too.

DB: Thank you. I think Karrin (Allyson) and I have a really nice rapport. She's a truly gifted musician, not just a singer, but a real musician. This is the first time I've ever arranged a standard for vocalist. On my first Whaling City CD, she did two of my originals, "Lost Valentine" and "Endless Waltz." She pulled them off great. She does one original of mine on this record, "Time of My Life." I thought, if she'd just done a Rodgers and Hammerstein album on her own, she could do that song. I'd been fooling around with that song instrumentally for a while. It's just this gorgeous soaring melody with so much emotion in it. So I did the special arrangement just for her. Ted’s playing on that too, and the little dance they do on the tag is just amazing. Every time I hear it, I get goose bumps. I was really happy with how that came out.  It was really a last minute thing that I added Carlos Caro on bongos because I thought this will give it a little whiff of Cuba, so to speak. And then my wife said, have Mauricio play maracas too. My first instinct was, oh that's too much, but decided to do it. I think it's just gives it this soaring undercurrent even though it's at a very slow tempo. Anyway, I'm delighted that you dig it, and I think Karrin did a gorgeous job with it. 

AJ: Also, pianistically, to open with Tristano and close with Bud Powell...that’s kind of a fun statement. You acquit yourself well on both tunes, which are, as you know, the pinnacle of bebop piano. 

DB: Thank you. It’s interesting, they're actually tunes I played in the 70s, before I fractured my wrist. I transcribed “Hallucinations” which, back in those days, there wasn't all the sheet music that's available now for jazz tunes. I ruined my vinyl just putting the needle back and forth, back and forth, to copy the music. And so, because now I can spend 24/7 on the music, I've gone back to music I was studying back in the 70s and that was one of the songs. I said, yeah, let’s just do it as a trio--sort of a tag on the album. Even big jazz fans don't really link Lennie Tristano and Bud Powell for a lot of obvious reasons. To me they're really linked. They knew each other. There's lots of funny stories about them meeting back in New York in the day. Even though they both went very different directions, they're clearly both influenced by the classical literature. They're both deeply involved in the piano as an instrument itself, separate and apart from what they could play on it. And they're really into this intense rhythmic momentum which I find very attractive. So I thought, yeah, why not?

AJ: And a hell of a lot of fun to play, I'm sure.

DB: Yeah, totally! That's exactly right, they’re exhilarating. I was just rehearsing that yesterday for my CD release gig out here in California. The more that the bass player was playing it--always discovering new things in Lenny's lines. It's very true. It's just fun to play. It’s deep music, but fun.

AJ: You don't find a lot of Tristano people out there except maybe Lee Konitz, who was the last original connection, I suppose.

DB: Yeah, that's a whole other interview about why Tristano isn't more appreciated these days in the way Bud is, I think. Everybody pretty much says he was the Charlie Parker of the piano, et cetera. A lot of reasons, probably some self-inflicted by Lennie himself, but I don’t know, it's hard for me to assess the whole landscape of music and music appreciation. From my point of view, I always have dug Lennie from day one and the deeper I get into the music--he just gets deeper and deeper. It's frightening.  As you may know, he did the very first free jazz recording ever in 1949 on his Crosscurrents album. There's two cuts on there, with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, and it's completely free jazz. 

AJ: So you're completely retired from the real world and now living entirely in the jazz world?

DB: Absolutely. 

AJ: Congratulations. 

DB: Thanks. I'm very very lucky that all worked out. I think a lot of things in life are just random and you can just bring your best game to it. As it turned out, I really love practising law. It was a lot more merit-based than music is. It also allows for less creativity. It allows for some creativity, but it's much more constrained. So once I fell back into playing music again, which was probably about nine or ten years ago, I juggled both worlds for a while and then I just went, Oh, no, this music thing is just much more where I should be. So I retired and so we’ll see.  

AJ: So, pronounce the third tune on the disk. 

DB: “Agenbite of Inwit”

AJ: Joycean, no? 

DB: Very good! That’s exactly right.

AJ: Well I've read the notes that came along with it. I’m curious about the inspiration and I just wanted to hear somebody say the words. 

DB: Yeah, “Agenbite of Inwit." The liner notes explain that it’s Kentish, a dialect of Middle English. There’s an old book that the hero of James Joyce's Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus talks about a lot that's called “Agenbite of Inwit” which roughly translates as ‘prick of conscience’. It was a list of certain kinds of sins and certain kinds of bad things you had to overcome. So the reason that tune is titled that, when I was writing at the beginning of early 2018, I had a burst of inspiration and was just writing a lot of tunes. None of them had titles. I didn't come from that sort of place. So I would just categorize them as Opus 18 number 1, Opus 18 number 2, etcetera. Opus 18 meaning '2018' so I could keep track of them. I was also re-reading Ulysses at the time and I came back across that phrase. I always love that onomatopoeia of “Agenbite of Inwit”. It sounded like what it's about, sort of rhythmic and sort of off-kilter, kind of aggressive.

AJ: You think you know what the syllables mean, but they don't quite stack up into something you know. 

DB: Yeah, exactly. “Inwit” clearly refers to some sort of thinking and internal thinking. And “Agenbite”--well ‘bite’ is an aggressive sort of sound, and ‘adgen’... who knows what the hell that means. But all of it together always gave me a feeling... I'm sure that's what attracted Joyce to it too, because he was really into the sound of language, of all the languages.  Have you heard Joyce read Finnegan's Wake? He doesn't read the whole book, but he does what's referred to as the 'Anna Livia Plurabelle' section and it's like listening to music. He's got this lilting, Irish, leprechaun-type voice. And it just makes complete sense when you hear it read. I hear him reading it as opposed to trying yourself because of the language. It's clear he hears the music in the language. Anyway, that's a long distraction. So anyway, that's how that title came about because the song has a lot of rhythmic movement--it's a very aggressive sort of song. Sort of opposite of "If I Loved You," which is why I put it next to it, because they're just so different. And yeah, that's where it came from. Now you know.

AJ: Well it does a great juxtaposition because ”If I Loved You” has one of the most beautiful melodic lines ever written for Broadway. 

DB: Yeah, that's right. I couldn't agree more. It's one of those Richard Rodgers melodies that you don't hear jazz cats play too much. They play a lot of the older Rodgers and Hart stuff. You know, “My Favorite Things”, of course after Coltrane did it, people do all the time. But not much of those soaring operatic sort of ballads that Richard Rodgers was writing at the end.

AJ: They wrote South Pacific, correct? 

DB: Oh, yeah. Yes. They wrote South Pacific. Oklahoma, South Pacific,  &The King and I.  Rodgers was a genius at melodic invention. One thing I can do now that I've retired from the law, is I can pull out all kinds of music and just play through it, whether it's Bach or whether it's Manuel de Falla or Rodgers and Hammerstein stuff. Actually, my wife and I had watched Carousel on TV and, my wife is very emotional, and she was crying. This thing when they are up in heaven, would you rather go back and change this sort of thing, like Our Town--that sort of storyline in which there's a bad boy. So at the beginning, they're singing the song and Shirley Jones is the young gal and the bad guy is Gordon MacRae. As happens in real life, the sweet young thing is attracted to the bad boy, the carousel barker. They meet and each one, of course, is in a different world because they won't really say they're attracted to the other. So, the song is all in the subjunctive case, right? Well, if I loved you, this is how I’d feel. From a dramatic point of view, it's very clever. And the melody is just so... yeah, I love it and I'm really glad you do too. Next time I talk to Karrin, I'll make sure I tell her how much you like it. 

AJ: Well it's gorgeous. And we’ll look forward to your complete record with the two of you making someday.  

DB: Yeah, okay.

AJ: Ted Nash now has his own little place in reed heaven, as far as I'm concerned 

DB: He really does. He really does.

AJ: It’s just astonishing what he brings to this project. It's just amazing.

DB: I couldn't agree more and on top of that, he's a good friend and he's a joy to work with. As I'm sure you're aware, musical talent or any sort of talent doesn't always mean being easy to be with, or to work with. Ted breaks that mold. Ridiculously talented and versatile, and just a great guy to work with who's very thoughtful about everything. I was very happy that he agreed to produce with me because he had lots of really good advice about things. He was very hands-on.

AJ: Did you know Carlos Henriquez, the bass player, before this? 

DB: You know, I had heard him play but I did not know him.

AJ: Yeah, I've seen him at the Lincoln Center many times. He's just a big bass-playing foundation of that band in a lot of ways.

DB: No question about that. And in fact, because of the ‘No Boundaries’ aspect of my music--from very intense Afro-Cuban stuff to beautiful ballads like “If I Love You” and straight-ahead jazz like “Agenbites”--it's hard to get cats who can do all that, and he can. He plays authentic Afro-Cuban bass parts and swings his butt off. And reads his butt off too, which is also really helpful. I didn't know him, but of course Ted did. So when I mentioned to Ted that he'd be the perfect bass player, he agreed. That's a whole other nice thing to have Ted because he's so well-respected in the New York community, even though Carlos probably wasn't aware of who I was, Ted made it work. 

AJ: Also bringing in the four Latin percussionists really adds an interesting mix to this. 

DB: Yeah, Carlos Caro is on NYC Sessions  and he lives out here in California, so he plays with me all the time. There's actually three Cuban percussionists. I didn't know the other two cats, but Carlos contacted them and brought them in. The Cuban thing--you know, they're in a whole other world and they just kill it. They just kill it. Carlos Henriquez is not a Cuban,  but has a Puerto Rican background. You could just see the synergy that happened between all of them. I don't speak Spanish and even for cats who speak Spanish, the Cuban thing is different. But Carlos had it nailed. I lucked out with that stuff that they four, the three Cuban percussionists and Carlos all congealed in such a beautiful way.    

AJ: Well, it's an extraordinary recording and it's been a great pleasure to talk to you about it because I've spent the last week listening to this and it just gets better and better. So, thank you. 

DB: Well thanks Tom, I really appreciate it. Oh and if you haven’t heard, Today it hit number- it debuted on the jazz week charts at number 25. 

AJ: Excellent! It's been great speaking with you. Thanks for taking the time with us.

DB: Definitely. Really appreciate talking to you. 

No Boundaries is available to purchase at ArkivJazz