31st March 2014

A night to remember

29th December 2005, c. 11pm, an exact month shy of my 25th birthday, was the moment I became a double bassist. I was at a house party hosted by a friend’s parents and, despite the abundance of “Good King Legless” ale and ample supply of vol-au-vents, I distinctly remember having a pretty miserable time, barely managing to suppress my contempt for the quite intolerable bunch of people present. On the plus side, the aforementioned friend (pianist), had put together a little ad hoc trio for the night and was playing jazz standards for the guests.

But, before I get carried away with the introduction, allow me to interject with a bit of backstory. My main instrument at that point was electric bass. Bizarrely—and at the risk of going into a sub-interjection here—I can also remember the exact moment I became interested in electric bass…

…8th July 2000, c. 8pm. It was a Michel Camilo trio gig at Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket. As flamboyant as pianist Camilo and drummer Hernandez were, I found myself positively fixated/transfixed/mesmerised throughout the performance by the great electric six-string bassist Anthony Jackson. I can honestly say that, prior to that gig, I’d never been particularly interested in bass, electric or otherwise. Only a few days later, I walked into Sound Control on Glasgow’s Jamaica Street and saw a second-hand six-string electric bass for sale. I felt the planets had aligned and wasted no time trading in two beloved guitars to buy that bass. And if I may contrive a contra-sub-interjectection, it was at this point that I began taking performing as seriously as composing. I’d been listening to jazz quite intensely for a year or so, but I didn’t start playing it until later that year. The ensuing five years I taught myself the fundamentals of jazz, becoming well and truly absorbed with it and with electric bass, purchasing some time in 2003 a gorgeous, bespoke Overwater bass.

Back to my original interjection. Although I was a fully paid up member of the jazz appreciation society, my main instrument at that point—winter 2005—was electric bass. Double bass was of little interest to me. In typical Douglas-the-self-righteous fashion, in spite of never having so much as touched a double bass I had nevertheless managed to cultivate a low opinion of the instrument. Truth be told, I was borderline anti double bass. I loved the sound of a well recorded double bass, but whenever I heard it in a live setting, it seemed so indistinct, muffled. Overwhelmed by the rest of the band (particularly the drums) and, on the rare occasions you could hear it—like during a (God forbid) double bass solo—the tone was terrible and the intonation even worse. To me, it was an instrument which attracted fakers. A double bassist could sort of nod his head and act like he was in charge, when the truth is nobody—neither band mates nor audience—could hear what he was doing down there. Those bassists you could hear above the drums and horns might as well have been playing electric bass, such was the nature of their heavily amplified tone. (Incidentally, I’m allergic to the piezo-pickup sound, so this pseudo-fretless, indistinct parp coming out of an acoustic instrument brought me out in a rash.)

Moving on from the interjections and returning to the story: there I was, sitting on the living-room floor of this house party on 29th December 2005, c. 11pm, pint of ale in the left hand, savoury snack in the right, unaware everything I strongly believed about my chosen musical instrument was about to change. The party and wallpaper-jazz was inoffensively plodding along as expected, when I found myself unexpectedly absorbed by the bass. The eminent but unassuming bassist Aiden O’Donnell was now sitting in and—woah—everything just clicked. I’d stop shy of saying I had a vision, but I will say that all my previous reservations about the instrument evaporated. In that instant it dawned on me that any issues I had harbored regarding double bass were circumstantial… be it noisy venue, bad amplification, too loud drummers, or just plain old crap bassists. This was different. In this relaxed context… all acoustic, piano trio, sympathetic drummer, living-room, no amplification… it sounded just right. The tone was great, the sound was great, likewise the player. There was a tangible, physicality to the music. The piano itself was nothing special (some generic upright), the drums were minimal to say the least (ride, snare, hi-hat) and the bass was one of those dreadful travel basses—but the music was real and happening. I remember asking in a semi-drunken stupor, if I could play a couple of notes on the bass. I literally did play a couple. D and Eb, I think.

And that was it; a night I remember with such vividity it’s as if it were only yesterday. By the time my 25th birthday came around, electric bass had ceased to satisfy and towards the end of 2006 I had managed to acquire my first double bass! It’s truly surreal to look back and think: there I was, a mere seven years ago, almost 26 years of age, confronted by this giant beast of an instrument, tentatively plucking my first notes. And ironic that for a good two or three years prior to that I had been obsessing over the minutiae of amplification and tone-reproduction trying to coax this pure, natural sound out of the electric bass. I’d spent a fortune on amplification all in an effort to perfect as clean and “non-electricy” a sound as possible. But what was missing and what I ultimately yearned for was something I just didn’t (and still don’t) get with electric instruments. There’s this thing with acoustic instruments. A sentiment that’s difficult to convey in words. There’s a vibration. A feeling that you are really part of the sound. A connection. As a performer, you feel that you can mould notes. A malleability. There’s a primal thing happening. String instruments in particular seem to resonate in sympathy with the environment and other sounds. And there’s this thing where an acoustic instrument can really get out of the way and express the music. Conversely, for me, electric instruments seem to fight against the natural order rather than collaborate with it; they create a barrier where the music is subservient to the instrument.

“Balderdash!”, “Piffle!”, “Garbage!” and perhaps “Bullshit!” I hear you cry. Yeah? Well. I did say it was hard to put into words. All I know for sure is that December 29th 2005 was when double bass cast its spell. What’s more, I learned a valuable lesson: that change can spring from the most unsuspecting and seemingly inconsequential of circumstances. I’ve come to realise how important it is to always be aware of that truth. But it’s a delicate and tricky balance: confidence and self-assuredness in one’s current choices on the one side, openness to other possibilities and willingness to change on the other. I think there’s an interesting parallel with the discipline of improvised music: a whole lifetime of learning, preconceived notions and considered practice must be at once drawn upon and pushed aside, allowing the performer to listen, live in the moment, Zen out and play without preconceptions. And to draw an even broader comparison: if music is life, what place is there for prejudice and preconceptions?

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