Posts Tagged ‘bass fiddle’
Chicagoan Alfonso Ponticelli, 50, is an accomplished master of a wide variety of music played on the acoustic guitar–Flamenco, Gypsy swing, Brazilian samba and bossa nova, Mexican love songs, folk music from Hungary, Serbia, Turkey, Italy, etc. This past weekend I played in his band, called “Swing Gitan,” at the Suncoast Classic Jazz festival at Clearwater Beach, FL.
Alfonso claims Italian and Lebanese extraction. He became interested in various European musical forms while attending an annual Gypsy jazz music festival held during the last week of June at Samois-sur-Seine, France. At this large, unique outdoor gathering devoted to the music and hosted by Gypsies, he jammed with “Manouche” players and enthusiasts from widely diverse regions of the world, from Chicago to Australia.
The Suncoast, in its 25th year, is one of the last surviving large multi-day festivals originally focused on pre-WWII “hot” jazz. For the last 30 years, the biggest yearly events were in Sacramento, Los Angeles (now defunct), Monterey CA, Elkhart IN, Chandler, AZ (near Phoenix), New Orleans, and a dwindling number of other smaller events, many in California. “Dixieland” was used in the festival titles at first, but due to the relentless aging and attrition of the attendees, during the last 20 years or so many had to drop this descriptor in order to broaden their appeal to a younger, more diverse mix of “nostalgia” and current musical tastes: 30s Swing Dancing, Cajun/Zydeco, New Orleans brass band “Bounce,” Big Band, Rockabilly, etc.
A kind of identity crisis ensued for these festivals. Some tried more modern forms of jazz or wound up featuring the (thankfully) now-declining “Smooth Jazz” format. Some promoters saw the contradiction and dropped “jazz” from the event title entirely, but one can still attend a “jazz festival” and have to search very diligently for any music even distantly related to any recognizable style of jazz. A very hopeful trend for fans of old jazz is the advent of the New York (City) Hot Jazz Festival, founded in 2013, which attracts a healthy cohort of 20-30-somethings and features, among many other styles, “Jazz Manouche,” otherwise known as “Gypsy Jazz” inspired by the 1930s-40s French Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
The Suncoast has managed to keep a large cohort of bands playing in a variety of traditional New Orleans or Chicago styles from the ’20s and ’30s as well as the ’40s-’70s San Francisco revivalists Lu Watters and Turk Murphy. The audiences I played for were overwhelmingly white and over 70, not a surprising demographic for the Central Gulf Coast of Florida in November.
This year was the first appearance for Alfonso and his Chicago-based quintet consisting of acoustic guitar, bass, violin, drums and Cimbalom, a hammered dulcimer commonly found in the Eastern European region formerly known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and used in the traditional music of Gypsies, Slavs, Jews, Hungarians, Turks, etc. I’m pretty sure this was the first-ever appearance of a Cimbalom at the Suncoast.
As with the Chicago-Miami jazz legend Ira Sullivan, Alfonso’s performances evolve organically from one groove or song to another without any pre-determined program or tune list. He improvises not only the musical elements of the tunes but also the narrative of the medleys and the flow of the set itself. A D-minor vamp with an Eastern European rhythm feel would morph into a series of Gypsy folk songs, which would become “Puttin’ on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin, which would be followed by “Minor Swing” by Django Reinhardt. After a masterful classic Flamenco guitar solo Alfonso launched the band into the familiar Brahms “Hungarian Dance No. 5.” He opened another medley with the standard “Lover Come Back to Me” in an Appalachian finger-picking style reminiscent of Chet Atkins, followed by the bop classic “Oleo” by Sonny Rollins.
The authenticity of all of the players’ stylistic diversity was very convincing. The Cimbalom player, Alex Udvari, a Chicagoan of Hungarian extraction who plays with the Chicago Symphony, is capable of blowing swinging choruses on American Songbook standards. The other band members, violinist Steve Gibons and drummer Bob Rummage, are similarly widely-diversified and masterful.
The band’s performances are remarkable amalgams of music from the Americas and Europe. The audiences were intrigued, as was I. There were standing ovations for all of the 6 sets we performed. A personal epiphany: since this was my first significant exposure to Gypsy music, I noticed how similar it is to the Klezmer/Yiddish forms and tonality I had grown up with, not surprising given the geographic proximity of the two cultures in Eastern Europe.
The arts often lead the general culture. One trend of the world’s music from the 20th century up to recent years has been toward ever greater inclusiveness in an ever shrinking globe. Jazz is often cited as an analog of America itself: polyglot, inclusive, amalgamated, an alloy of many ingredients forged into an instrument that teaches the the world a way toward a greater good.
Many of us who play for a living are well aware of the healing power of music for individuals. Formal music therapy is routinely used to treat stroke, dementia, etc. We know that a good groove can “tune up” an audience to a remarkable degree.
It occurred to me while performing with Alfonso that his healing gift goes one step beyond. He melds together all the music he’s absorbed. Each performance is a musical journey that leaps effortlessly over borders and continents. One could think of Alfonso and his band as planet-healers in the Age of Xenophobia, on the march in Europe for decades and at the present moment posing a clear and present threat to our most deeply foundational American idea–E pluribus unum, the melting pot.
Electric instruments—especially the electric guitar—have become so universal and ubiquitous in the post-WWII rock-dominated world of pop music that a word had to be invented to denote the old-school way: “unplugged.”
Decades ago, an ad agency for 7-Up came up with the ingenious and successful “un-cola” campaign, and proved that defining things by what they are not can appeal to the impulse to stand out from the crowd, go your own way, and march to the beat of a different drummer.
As a mid-Boomer, I saw my first electric instruments at age 12 when my big brother Mike came home with a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Precision bass guitar. Both of these instruments are solid-bodied, meaning that they have no acoustic sound of their own—they must be plugged into an amplifier to be heard. Mike let me fool around with the P-bass. In the quiet of our living room, without using the amp I could hear the tiny, plinky sounds the P-bass made well enough to learn how to get around on it.
I also played the trumpet in the junior high school Band, two hours per week during the school day, but after school I played bass guitar in a rock and roll “garage band” with its heady promise of raw sexual power. In theory at least, plugging in an electric guitar converted one’s testosterone into electrons, which were then broadcast directly into the brains of nearby females via an irresistible magnetic beam.
It turned out that we were the first generation of musicians steeped in the dual worlds of loud, electrified rock ‘n roll and softer, subtler unplugged jazz, folk, and classical music.
Jazz had discovered the electric guitar in the late 1930s with Charlie Christian, and Miles Davis embraced rock rhythms and all-electric combinations with his seminal 1971 albums Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Since then, electrified rock elements have been important contributors to whatever commercial success jazz has had in recent years. These days, the average listener is likely to encounter a live “jazz” performance not quite up to the volume of a heavy metal band, but very loud nonetheless.
As a young adult professional musician, I went through what I thought of then as reinventing myself as a “jazz bassist.” In my work I used both the solid-body electric bass guitar and the bass fiddle. According to the fashion of the time, I explored every known method of amplifying the fiddle. My aim was to produce a sound at least loud enough to compete with the other players who would show up to the job with their amps and gear. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was contributing to an endless “arms race” of upwardly spiraling volume levels.
The results were rarely satisfying. In all of my experimenting, I never found a pickup or amp that sounded as good to me as the unplugged bass fiddle did in my practice room at home. The more gear I bought, the more frustrated and disappointed I became. In 1990 Jim Cullum called to offer me an audition with his band in San Antonio with the stipulation that the bass position involved playing strictly unplugged. That immediately got my attention. Then, a phone conversation with bass legend Bob Haggart convinced me that this was the way to go.
Our friend Marty Grosz, acoustic guitarist, singer, raconteur and guest on Riverwalk Jazz, has a lot to say about how electrifying stringed instruments changes the way they function in a jazz setting. “With an amplifier, your sound is not coming out of you, it’s coming from behind you out of a box.” Furthermore, he says, the string height of electric instruments is usually so low that the player feels very little resistance under his fingers. Marty says, you’ve got to have that “fight” or a certain amount of stiffness, to create a pulse that swings.
During 14 happy unplugged, amp-less years with the Cullum band, I’ve come to learn that creating swinging rhythm involves some physical as well as mental effort. I realized why jazz performances captured on old 78-rpm disks often swing more and sound more alive than on more modern ones: The pre-electric player had to learn how to draw a living sound and swinging pulse out of a hollow wooden instrument by moving and controlling a resonating air column with sheer muscle power and musicality.
Now we’re getting somewhere!
Today my music room closet is full of pickups, cables, amps, pre-amps, equalizers, etc., gathering dust. I should probably get rid of all of it on eBay, but it’s nice to know it’s all there in case I have to “go electric” again. But by then it will all probably be way obsolete, and I’ll have to start over from scratch.
Here I am 6 years after I wrote this, living in Southwest Florida and free-lancing. Yup, my gear turned out to be way obsolete. After 19 unplugged years I awoke Rip Van Winkle-like to the world of amplified jazz. I’m using a Gage Realist pickup and an Acoustic Image amp. Sometimes plugging in is unavoidable, especially in those “special” situations where the crowd has been drinking and, their hearing slightly alcohol- impaired, they start barking at each other, even before the band starts playing. Other times it works better if I play unplugged so guests don’t have to shout to have a conversation. That way the rest of the guests who want to hear the music can do so. I’m lucky that I have a nice Mittenwald round-back bass from about 1920 that has a robust sound of its own, especially strung the way it is with high action and gut strings. I bought an electric bass but have not yet used it on a gig down here. And I’m working 7 nights a week. Not every gig situation (or drummer) is suitable for unplugged playing, but those that are are the ones I want.
The great Milt Hinton often said that the bass is the “Atlas of jazz” because its role in the jazz band is to carry the other instruments on its shoulders.
The bass provides a steady beat and the root notes of the chords of the tunes upon which the soloists construct their inventions, melding together rhythm and harmony in one function. “Bass” is often misspelled as “base” but the meaning is very similar in music, that of “foundation.”
In early jazz bands, bassists played the bass fiddle, the tuba, or the bass saxophone. The typical bassist of the 1920s, if he played tuba or bass sax, was expected to “double” on the bass fiddle as well. The wind instruments provided a louder, more directional sound that was able to cut through the noisy, boisterous crowds in large dance halls and night clubs where jazz was first played. The problem of bass projection was “solved” in the 1950s by amplifying bass fiddles and then with specially-built electronic basses, culminating in guitar-like solid-body instruments manufactured by Fender, Gibson, and other guitar makers.
I am amazed by the skills of contemporary electric bass players (since I no longer own an electric bass, I can’t be considered one of them). “Tapping and slapping” has grown into a whole new art form for the instrument. I first heard the thumb-slap electric style as developed by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. I have been told by electric bassists steeped in this style that the wrist action involved goes much further back to the traditional Gospel tambourine technique.
I remember that when I first started in the 1970s experimenting with this on electric bass guitar, it seemed so natural for the instrument.
Like so many other aspects of American music and jazz, the roots of this style go back to early 20th century New Orleans.
There was a New Orleans bass style, by which I mean that there seems to have been a collection of bass players born before 1910 in New Orleans who went forth into the rest of the country acting as little spark plugs in the developing jazz bands in which they found themselves. All of them played in a manner very similar to one another.
The first to appear nationally was Bill Johnson (1872-1972), considered the father of jazz bass. He led one of the first jazz bands (The Original Creole Orchestra) out of New Orleans to tour the country on the Orpheum circuit around 1914. Bill used a syncopated single-stroke hook. This means “hooking” the right index finger under the string and letting it snap against the fingerboard (sound familiar to electric players?). Since he did not use the return-stroke slap, I call it a single-stroke style punctuated by notes syncopated in the ragtime manner. Other later New Orleans bass players who used the single-stroke were Pops Foster (played with Louis Armstrong and others), John Lindsey (with Jelly Roll Morton, 1926), and Wellman Braud (of the Ellington band in the ’20s-’30s).
The hallmark of this sound on the bass is its percussive quality. The audible “snap” of the string against the fingerboard allows the bass to function in fact as another drum in the rhythm section of the band. Like my experience with the electric bass, when I started in the ’90s with the hook-slap style on the bass fiddle, it seemed a very natural, relaxed, and swinging way to play time, because the power of the entire right arm and wrist is involved.
Other early New Orleans players such as Steve Brown (with Jean Goldkette, Paul Whiteman) and Al Morgan (Cab Calloway) used a double- and triple-stroke slap style. In this, the player slaps one, two, or three percussion notes after the initial hook pull, yielding a lot of possible rhythmic combinations, some of the same ones used by today’s electric thumb-slapping maniacs.
The finest exponent of the New Orleans style in the modern era was Milt Hinton. Born in Mississippi in 1910, he knew and befriended Bill Johnson in Chicago in the late ’20s. Milt says that Bill taught him the hook style as the only way of getting a big sound out of the bass to be heard above the band. Milt replaced Al Morgan in the Cab Calloway band in ’37 and developed the multiple-slap style to new heights. He told me that the way he thought of what he did on bass was similar rhythmically to what a tap dancer does with his feet.
Hooking and slapping was considered passé by the late ’40s and most bass players abandoned it in favor of the warmer, “sideways-pull” sound of Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, and Israel Crosby (and later, spectacularly by Ray Brown). Milt himself continued to use both styles. As the single most-recorded jazz musician in history, Milt found himself in almost every conceivable kind of recording session and band, including many “hi-fi” “Dixieland” albums that were made during that period to cash in on the new popularity of the Dukes of Dixieland and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. You can hear Milt on these records slapping away during his solos, but on other recordings of the era such as the famous ones he did with Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole, he is using the more modern side-pull technique that is dominant today among the vast majority of bass fiddle players.
On the Riverwalk Jazz radio series, you can sometimes catch a reprise performance of Milt’s 1991 solo version of “Joshua Fit De Battle of Jericho,” a truly awe-inspiring tour-de-force of double and triple slapping.
In late 1990, when I first considered joining the Jim Cullum Jazz Band, I had a revealing phone conversation with Bob Haggart, the bassist and composer who was the guiding light behind the Bob Crosby Bobcats and the World’s Greatest Jazzband. Bob had been filling in at the Landing and on the road for bassist Jack Wyatt, who was ailing. As one of the only bands left that still performs Haggart classics like “Dog Town Blues” and “Smoky Mary,” Bob always felt very strongly about the importance of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band’s role in preserving classic jazz.
On the phone, Bob suggested to me that if I were to go to work for Jim, who preferred the old-school acoustic way of playing the bass, I should consider re-stringing my bass with gut strings and high action. “That’s what I would do if I were going to take the job,” he said. It was the way the vast majority of bassists set up their instruments before the advent of amplifiers and pickups, because it afforded the biggest possible sound to cut through even a big band swinging at full tilt.
I decided to follow that path and have never once looked back.