International Society of Bassists 2013 Convention

The 2013 ISB convention saw string basses everywhere – being played, schlepped, lying on their sides in bags, and standing in trunks talking quietly with each other. It was a treat to see hundreds of these mighty instruments in one place.

A filial feeling – the brother- and sister-hood of the bass – was in the air. You’d take a seat at a workshop, someone would sit down next to you, you’d smile, introduce yourselves, and start talking.

A question I’d ask in these circumstances was, “What style of bass do you play?”

The first day I attended, one bassist said, “I play both.”

She meant classical and jazz, of course. But as presentations in the days that followed would show, there are many more than two styles of bass playing. The convention demonstrated how unconventionally the bass is being explored. To bow, to pizz: these are starting places. There are many other ways of eliciting sounds from the bass.

At any day and 45-minute timeslot there were at least four different presentations going on. It was always difficult to choose which one to attend. I’d guess about 75% of these events were classical, 20% jazz, and 5% other. It’s the “other” that interested me.

Adam Ben-Ezra

Foremost in this category was Adam Ben Ezra, an Israeli bassist. There was buzz about Adam for two days preceding his show, one that was billed as a “Flamenco Concert.” So, what does Adam do? He mostly pizzes his axe (though he wields a bow too), playing mostly popular tunes – the theme from Mad Men, “Black Orpheus,” the Beatles’ “Come Together,” – and his originals as well.

He interlaces his pizzing with right-hand (and sometimes left-hand) percussive effects on the bass: his thumb, his palm, and his fingers slapping the table and the upper bouts. He is feverishly, contagiously rhythmic.

On his composition, “Flamenco,” after a short intro, he played a vamp by pizzing and percussing with his right hand. Here, my notes read: Bom chick a chick – bom chick, bom chick. (Maybe someone can explain this to me later.) He was bobbing up and down at this point, flailing the bass, a one-man band and rhythm machine.

Then he added his feet! Adam was davening up and down, pizzing, thrumming, and stamping, a visual eye-opener and a sonic astonishment.

At this presentation, Adam played through an amp, and had effects pedals and a loop machine. They were all integral parts of what he did, though his youtube channel shows many all-acoustic solos too.

On one tune, he stomped on the looper and made a rhythm track of his pizzing/thumping/stamping groove. Then he picked up the bow and laid down a double stop backup behind the rhythm groove. He stomped the looper again creating a 2-piece band playing a pizz’ed, bowed, and percussion accompaniment.

He quivered the bow and arrived at the apex of the piece: a solo with electronic effects that he played over the accompaniment, his bass sounding like a pealing rock guitar. He was wailing, punching a hole in the sky.

The tune ended to astonished applause, the audience looking at each other drop-jawed. What Was That? Holy Toledo! It was like the first time you saw Jimi Hendrix play.

On the next piece, his tune “Can’t Stop Running,” he stated the head – a beautiful, melody with a bass vamp counterpoint. Then he played the vamp with his left hand alone: all “hammering on” and “pulling off.”

And then with his free right hand – get this – with his free right hand he took a percussion solo over the vamp. The solo was hot, tasty, and creative. Any percussionist would have been proud to have taken this solo. The vamp stayed deep in the pocket while the drum solo rocked out over it, frenetically charging into the gaga zone.

At the end: hard to believe, to fathom, what we had just seen and heard. He had everything: melody, harmony, compositional arc, rhythm, dynamics, phrasing, groove, taste, excitement. Adam Ben Ezra is a Paganini of the pizz’ed bass, a stunning virtuoso, an artist. He will turn on many non-bassists to our instrument.

But it was not Adam’s chops that stood out, though they are formidable. It was his musicality, his passion, yes, … but this too: we were struck by how little time he must spend with the instrument out of his hands.

Haggai Cohen-Milo

The presentation that followed in this room, by Haggai Cohen-Milo, also an Israeli, was about making the odd meters of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean folk music feel natural. I play in a neo-Middle-Eastern belly dance band, so this skill – of making 7/4 sound easy, and not like you’re madly counting fourteen 8th-notes under your breath – is interesting to me. In this, Haggai was a revelation.

The meters of the Arabic, North African, and Balkan music that he covered were all over the map. (Pick a prime number, and it seems there’s a Middle-Eastern time signature for it.) Haggai even demonstrated 4-and-a-half, and 5-and-a-half beat meters. He made them all sound natural, like a waltz. At the end of this excursion into time further out, Haggai said, “After hours of these odd meter exercises, going back to playing 4/4 feels odd." Yes, these time signatures made the 4/4 of jazz seem oddly square.

Juan Pablo Navarro

Juan Pablo Navarro, an Argentinean bassist, gave a presentation that he called “Tango – A Secret Code.” As he began, Juan rosined his French bow hard, over and over. “This is the first lesson of tango bass,” he said. “A lotta rosin.”

Tango bass involves bowing the instrument aggressively, creating a barking growl. Juan charged into his arco’ed notes, making each note grow in volume by leaning in on the bow. This is the sound of tango bass, dominating, guttural. The frog and tip of his bow each bloomed with a dozen short hairs from the horsehair he had broken playing so hard. In his handout, he marked the section, “Piazzolla’s Marcato style,” as 4 quarter notes to the bar with a down bow, an accent mark, and a staccato mark above each note.

But that – four quarter notes played hard – was just a beginning. His rhythms and figures became more complex as the workshop progressed. Between bowed notes he interjected pizzing, as well as tapping, strumming, and thumping on the top. Juan elicited a cornucopia of sounds from the bass, just as Adam Ben Ezra had. His aggressive playing drove the tangos he accompanied from underneath, even though that music, a tango band minus one bass, was pre-recorded.

During the Q&A, I asked Juan if Tango music was thought of as folk music in Argentina.

“Oh yes,” he said. “Tango is definitely folkloric.”

Larry Gray

There was buzz about Larry Gray’s solo bass performance beforehand. “He does stuff with harmonics,” was the talk in the cafés of Rochester. But that barely hinted at what he did.
Larry’s use of bowed harmonics – the squirrelly ones that live in the nether regions of the half and first-position, coaxed out only with great finesse – not only hushed the room with their quietness, but stunned us as well. He played Joe Zawinul’s “In a Silent Way” using only bowed harmonics; it was ethereal.

Again, from my notes: “Wow!” Larry too left the impression that he plays the bass all day.

Although I saw many other presentations, and enjoyed them all, these “Other” presenters stood out with the new sounds they elicited from the king of instruments.

Coda

How egoless most bassists appear. No need for the spotlight. We are happy to take it of course, but very happy to accompany. And happy to know that as an accompanying instrument, the bass is the pivotal one in the band.

And it was delightful to see so many women bass players, more that at the San Francisco convention two years ago. I doff my hat to the sisters of the bass.

Together, Madeline Crouch, ISB General Manager, and Kristin Korb, Chairwoman of the 2013 Convention, made this convention happen. Both are warm, charming people who kept the conference running by handling a thousand questions a day. Yet both made me feel, when I approached either, like I was the only person in the room.

If you play string bass and you have not been to an ISB Convention, or have not been recently, promise that you’ll make the next one. They are a revelation. If you love the bass – and certainly you do – then you owe it to yourself to attend.