It seems almost impossible, but the idea of the solo double bass album only goes back fifty years. The album generally credited as being the first was Journal Violone by Barre Phillips, recorded on November 30, 1968 inside St. James Norlands church in London. Fifty years later, Barre Phillips is ending his long run of solo albums and performances with one last album, End to End, released earlier this year on ECM.
Barre Phillips is no joke; the man has been around. Born in San Francisco in 1934, Phillips began playing bass at the age of 13, becoming a professional musician in 1960. He fell under the influence of Ornette Coleman, and moved to New York City in 1962, before eventually settling permanently in France in 1967. The list of his collaborators is a who’s who of the jazz/avant-garde scene of the last fifty years. A short rundown includes Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, Marion Brown, John Surman, Terje Rypdal, Alfred Harth, Eric Dolphy, Derek Bailey, Keiji Haino, Paul Bley, Biggi Vinkeloe, Evan Parker, Jimmy Giuffre, Mal Waldron, Joe Maneri, and on and on and on. In addition to several albums of solo double bass, Phillips has also recorded numerous albums of duos with fellow bass masters including Joëlle Léandre, Barry Guy, Dave Holland, Motoharu Yoshizawa, and more. Discogs lists him as playing on more than 200 albums. No joke.
What does it mean to play solo bass? There is the eternal joke about how everyone talks during the bass solo. A few years ago, I woke up to a text from a friend: a single panel cartoon of a man tied to a chair under an intense light with two other men, one holding a bass, giving him the third degree with the promise, “Everyone starts to talk during the bass solo!” Like many jokes, it contains a grain of truth, though it’s worth mentioning that it’s often the acoustic change, when the horns and drums drop out, that allows the audience to be heard better during bass solos on live albums.
Still, why should a solo bass album be regarded differently than a solo guitar or solo piano album? You definitely aren’t going to see solo bass sets at most jazz festivals the way you will see solo guitar, piano or saxophone. Since 1968, there have been innumerable solo bass albums, from artists including Dave Holland, Gary Peacock, Miroslav Vitous (all also on ECM) and William Parker (on multiple labels), to more recent work including the excellent Excavations 1 from Joshua Abrams on Feeding Tube.
The bass has been a part of jazz nearly from the beginning. Early jazz bands were often grounded by tuba players, as the music developed out of brass bands. Many early bass players, like the vital Pops Foster (who began playing professionally as a 15-year-old in 1907 and is one of the few people to have played with both Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane), doubled on both bass and tuba, providing the driving rhythms that made people dance and propelled the soloists towards the stars. When Jimmy Blanton joined Duke Ellington’s band in 1939, the bass was liberated from its role as a mere timekeeper, becoming an instrument capable of producing solos that could hang with the other greats in that band, like saxophonist Johnny Hodges and trumpeter Cootie Williams. There is a clear thread from Blanton to Charles Mingus, Paul Chambers, Charlie Haden, Ron Carter, and all the other bass players who revolutionized music in the 1950s and ’60s. It’s almost mind-boggling that there wasn’t a solo double bass album until almost thirty years after Blanton fundamentally changed the instrument’s role in improvised music. How did Mingus or Chambers or anyone else not record a solo double bass album before 1968? Since I began thinking about writing this piece, I’ve become obsessed with the idea of what a Mingus album of solo bass prior to 1968 would have sounded like. We have his excellent 1963 solo album Mingus Plays Piano, but as the title implies, he isn’t playing bass. It would have been an amazing thing to hear one of America’s finest composers playing solo on his main instrument.
This brings us all back around to Barre Phillips and End to End. In the promotional material, Phillips describes the album as “not a summing up, but the last pages of a journal that began fifty years ago,” which seems like an accurate way to describe the album. It’s broken into three suites, each between 13 and 15 minutes long, each feeling like simple sketches played in a decidedly un-flashy manner. My vinyl copy of the album almost sounds like it isn’t drenched in the endless reverb of the “ECM Sound,” though there is a touch of that (and it is more noticeable on the digital version). The music sounds relatively dry for the most part, with enough headroom and space to really hear the bass sing and the unhurried lines slowly decay, with harmonics ringing towards the future. Phillips’ breathing is also wonderfully present in certain moments, just above and behind the center of sound.
Phillips’ strong, sonorous tones stretch forth from his fingers, reaching deep into the ether. The spartan pizzicato melody that opens “Quest” is slowly repeated with subtle variations before sweeping forward into beautiful arco work that is occasionally thickened with double stops. The last three sections of “Quest” are further explorations of ideas and themes hinted at in Part 1, delicate, delicious pizzicato alternating with restrained arco passages which glance backwards and forwards. “Inner Door” and “Outer Window” follow similar arcs. Describing any of it in detail seems like a crime against nature.
This is not the music of a young man. There is an inner sense of serenity and calm that permeates throughout. The music may be un-flashy, but it’s virtuosic in its ability to convey complex ideas through a few, relatively simple themes. Much the way a single pizzicato strike produces a central pitch and an endless series of harmonics, so too does this music develop, as Phillips takes a central idea and runs with it.
End to End probably isn’t for everybody, but not because it’s a solo bass album. It’s also an interesting choice for Phillips to end his solo career on. It manages to seem both very related to earlier efforts like Journal Violone and light years away from it. The music is more related to a Sumi-E painting than it is to most concepts of music. Each section plays out like a single brush stroke on rice paper, one continuous idea, one thought, one movement. Phillips is distilling his fifty years of solo playing and is turning to look within at his career as well as to look forward to possibilities he won’t end up exploring. As Bodhidharma said, “If you do not find it in yourself, where else will you find it?”
David Menestres is a bassist and the leader of Polyorchard, whose album sextet/quintet is available now.
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