Listen To The Bass Player: Part 6, Scott LaFaro

The Rifftides series of posts on improving hearing by listening to bass lines leads inevitably to Scott LaFaro. It was less LaFaro’s virtuosity that made a difference in the role of the bass than the uncanny group thinking and interaction he made possible in the Bill Evans Trio. LaFaro was what Evans had been looking for, dreaming of, a bassist who thought about music, and specifically about time, as the pianist did. There is an invaluable pre-LaFaro Evans album with his friend Don Elliott, the multi-instrumentalist. The CD consists of informal rehearsals at Elliott’s house in 1956 and ’57. I reviewed it for JazzTimes eight years ago. Here is the applicable section of the review.

In a snippet of conversation at the end of their workout on the changes of “Doxy” (misidentified in the booklet as “Blues #2”), Evans talks about his ideal of group interaction.
Evans: “I like to blow free like that, with no ‘four’ going, but you know where you’re at. It’s crazy. If everybody could do that, if the bass could be playing that way –why not– drums could just…” (he vocalizes in imitation of a drummer playing free).
Elliott: “That’s right; doesn’t have to help you.”
Evans: “Not if everybody feels it, man.”
It would be 1959 before Evans put bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian together in a group in which everybody felt his way of playing time. They went on to reform the very idea of the jazz trio, but this glimpse into his thinking tells us that Evans was ready years earlier.

LaFaro may have felt ready when Evans was expressing his vision to Elliott, but he was on the west coast, a 21-year-old still developing. There is precious little of him on record from his Los Angeles days. Two recordings, one with Victor Feldman, the other with Cal Tjader and Stan Getz, provide strong indications of his growing musicality and technical prowess.
There is even less of early LaFaro on film or tape, to my knowledge only two pieces, both from Bobby Troup’s Stars of Jazz television program. LaFaro was in tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca’s formidable quintet with Feldman on piano, trombonist Frank Rosolino and drummer Stan Levey. Here are both of those clips, “Cherry” and “Chart of my Heart.” The video quality is dreadful and there are audio dropouts, but this is our only option for seeing Scott LaFaro in action. If your speakers have tone controls, turn up the bass setting and you’ll find it easier to follow his lines.

There is no video of the Evans trio with LaFaro and Motian. Their primary recorded legacy is in Portrait in Jazz, Explorations and Sunday at the Village Vanguard. The CD titled Waltz for Debby was compiled from the Vanguard date. This is its title tune, decorated with a photo montage courtesy of whoever posted it on YouTube.

That was June 25, 1961. Twelve days later, Scott LaFaro died at the wheel of his automobile when it crashed in upstate New York. He was 25 years old.
billevanstrio1.jpgIt would be inaccurate, but not grossly inaccurate, to say that no jazz bassist who emerged from the 1960s onward developed free of debt to LaFaro. To the extent that Evans, LaFaro and Motian changed the concept of the piano trio–and that is a considerable extent–LaFaro’s influence extends much further than the bass.

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  1. Denis Ouellet says

    Richie Kamuca’s quintet.
    Such a star-studded group.
    All incredible musicians.
    They all made their marks.
    Yeah Scott was in good company (-:

  2. says

    Thanks for this fascinating series, and the bassists and selections included. You’ve got me listening harder and lower down for sure. (Oops, there goes Scott working high up… must be that Coast guitar influence… affecting so many later bassplayers, maybe the electrified ones most?) Who’s next–Stanley Clarke? Jaco Pastorius? Dave Holland? And who are the innovators now? Can’t wait.

  3. says

    Doug, thanks for posting the vintage videos of Richie Kamuca’s quintet. I’ve long been a Stan Levey fan, but never before realized he was a left-handed drummer, with the hi-hat pedaled by his right foot and large tom-tom on the left side of his kit. It’s a small thing, but I believe left-handed drummers in jazz are as rare as left-handed catchers in baseball. Also, the rhythm section is the same trio as on The Arrival of Victor Feldman, which you mentioned. Here, particularly on “Chart of My Heart,” you can hear the slight tension, far more evident on Feldman’s LP, between LaFaro, who rushes the tempo, and Levey, who is steady as a metronome. I don’t offer this as criticism, merely as an observation, since that tension contributes to a very swinging feel.