Several major jazz bassists – including Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Sam Jones, and Percy Heath – also played the cello. Ron Carter doubles on cello. For the most part, Carter employs it as a midget replica of his main instrument, soloing by plucking the strings, as did his predecessors. Indeed, Heath referred to his re-tuned cello as a baby bass.
Improvising while bowing the cello is another matter. Fred Katz, who became well known in the 1950s for his work with the Chico Hamilton Quintet, demonstrated that there was a place for the arco cello in improvisation despite the instrument’s challenges, which include its relative slowness. The cello’s small, fast, cousin the violin has had a role virtually from the beginning of jazz. In Roger Kellaway’s glorious Cello Quartet recordings, Ed Lustgarten was brilliant at reading and interpreting the solos Kellaway wrote for him, but he was not an improviser. After the mainstreamers pioneered the instrument, players like David Eyges, Hank Roberts, Trinstan Honsinger and Tom Cora gave the cello a role in avant garde jazz. Recently, Erik Friedlander Peggy Lee, Alisa Horn and Matthew Brubeck, among others, have further helped to move the cello toward the circle of fully-accepted jazz instruments, using all of its capabilities.
If you do an internet search for Brubeck, you’ll get a link that describes the territory he has staked out. It says, “improvising cellist Matt Brubeck’s website.” The youngest son of Dave and Iola Brubeck has a master’s degree in cello performance from Yale and has worked in a range of symphony and classical chamber settings. His recorded debut as a bowing and plucking improvising cellist came in 1991, when he was thirty, on his father’s Quiet As The Moon. His impressive performances included a duet with his dad on a theme from Dave’s mass, “To Hope: A Celebration.” He has worked with musicians as various as Tom Waits and the eclectic Oranj Symphonette, with which he plays an passionate opening cadenza on Mancini’s “Dreamsville.” Brubeck’s resume is sprinkled with mentions of duo associations. The most recent is his partnership with the Canadian pianist David Braid.
In their CD called Twotet/Duextet, the musicians play five pieces by Brubeck and three by Braid. Matt Brubeck’s facility with the instrument, bowing or plucking, seems to allow him to play whatever occurs to him. His full, deep sound takes on an edge of dramatic urgency when he improvises with the bow, as he does to great effect in “Mnemosyne’s March” and several other tracks. In “Sniffin’ Around,” he employs his cello as a baby bass a la Percy Heath, occasionally letting the strings slap wood as bassist Milt Hinton used to do.
I usually rail against debut CDs in which musicians restrict themselves to original material, not only because it gives the listener nothing familiar to relate to, but also because so often the music is weak. In Twotet/Deuxtet, the songs are light years beyond the wispy excuses for blowing that fill so many jazz CDs. Their melodies have strength, the harmonic structures have substance. Even the rhythmic offbeats that open a free piece of instant composition called “Improvisation” develop a melody. It may not be instantly hummable, but it is distinctive. A pair of ballads, Braid’s “Wash Away” and Brubeck’s “It’s Not What it Was,” have melodies that might have been written by Stephen Foster. Brubeck’s “Huevos Verdes y Jamón” has a Hispano-Caribbean lilt worthy of Sonny Rollins or Chick Corea, Braid’s “Mnemosyne’s March” Brahmsian gravity and beauty of line.
I had never heard – never heard of – Braid before Twotet/Deuxtet showed up the other day. Now, I’m compelled to catch up with his previous work, particularly his sextet made up of Canadian all-stars Terry Clarke, Mike Murley, Steve Wallace, Gene Smith and John MacLeod. Braid’s tone, touch, chord voicings and imagination make him one of the most interesting new pianists I’ve encountered in a long time. In researching him, I discovered that I’m not alone. It turns out that when Gene Lees first heard Braid, he wrote, “If Bill Evans were alive, I’d send Braid’s CD to him.”
Alisa Horn is the cellist in pianist Bill Mays’ new group The Inventions Trio. She is a protégé of trumpeter Marvin Stamm, the other member of the trio. I wrote nearly a year ago about Mays convincing classical string players that they could swing when he recruited the cellist and violinist of the Finisterra Trio to perform Bach’s “Two-part Invention #8” with an overlay of Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha.” Horn has been convinced, too. The conviction didn’t come easily. She is added to the duo in which for several years Mays and Stamm have been melding jazz and classical music. A classicial cellist ingrained with the notion that improvisation should be avoided at all costs because it could lead to (gasp) mistakes, she was terrified at the recording session. Here’s some of what Horn wrote in a news release that came with the advance copy of The Inventions Trio CD.
What if I play a WRONG NOTE? During the session, I almost had a breakdown worrying about a shift that I had “missed” during an improvisation. No one else in the studio even heard the mistake or noticed it at all and these are some of the most experienced and well-trained ears in the business! (I was) almost in tears, worried over this horrible imperfection. Bill and Marvin looked at me and just said, “No one is ever perfect and that isn’t what this is about. Screw it!”
Since that moment, I have a new outlook on my music and the meaning of “perfect” has changed. Now I understand that perfection is an individual’s perception of what the music is and this idea applies to both classical and jazz styles of playing.
Horn is exquisite in the trio numbers on the CD, which include Debussy’s “Girl With The Flaxen Hair and “Mays’ three-movement “Fantasy for Cello, Piano and Trumpet,” an important new work. She is impassioned in Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” and has a stunning introductory moment in the first movement of the “Fantasy.” Mays and Stamm, collaborators for years, have developed an empathy that verges on the mysterious. Their duo numbers on this album are among their finest work. In the trio pieces, Alisa Horn complements their magic. She does not sound like a newcomer to improvisation.
The Inventions Trio will be a part of The Seasons Fall Festival next month, along with James Moody, Miguel Zenon, David Friesen, Karrin Allyson, Matt Wilson, Martin Wind, the Finisterra Trio and the Yakima Symphony Orchestra. I look forward to hearing them in live performance.
Doug, I was lucky enough to stumble onto Brubeck-Braid in an early evening performance this past July at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. I wasn’t sure that one would call their music “jazz”, but it was among the most inventive and the most compelling I heard at this year’s festival. In fact, the only CD I bought while there. Very dense and chewy stuff, with a high nutritive content.
Richard Kamins says
I would like to add a name to your list ofcellists who have contributed to creative music and that would be Abdul Wadud. he worked in duo and trio settings with Julius Hemphill in the 70s and 80s, recorded with Anthony Davis and James Newton on Gramavision and released his own solo LP (“All Alone”) in 1977.
(Mr. Kamins writes about all kinds of music for the Hartford [Connecticut] Courant — DR)
Brooke Creswell says
The quotation about perfection in jazz and classical music is important. Perfection in orchestra performance has come to mean note-perfect, ensemble-perfect, style-perfect to the degree someone thinks they know what that is. I think much of this is driven by scholarship that has researched treatises and manuscripts and by studio recording which can make an orchestra sound even more “perfect” on a CD than it ever sounds in live performance. As important as faithfulness to the composer’s intentions undoubtedly is, an inspired, if not perfect, live performance is the result of a human factor that transcends planned perfection. There is a live recording of Horowitz and NBC/Toscanini performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in which the orchestra and soloist part company for a good part of an entire phrase. It doesn’t matter. Anyone can sense the vibrancy of that performance regardless of a mistake in ensemble that, today, would have brought the performers back into the studio the next morning to patch it up.
(Mr. Cresswell is music director and conductor of the Yakima Symphony Orchestra – DR)
Kevin Krentz says
How cool is that? I have discovered as a cellist that part of my issue in the past with improvising, besides not having every key and mode ready in my fingers automatically so that I can call on it in that way, is that I expect the cello to have the speed and intervallic bouncing around and the like, of the other more familiar jazz instruments. I have never wanted to sound like a bass. The cello must certainly not sound like a guy improvising on a cello! But truly I tell you, that is exactly what it sounds like when other people do it, too….
(Mr. Krentz is the cellist of the Finisterra Piano Trio)