The Bass Stands Alone

Henry GrimesSolo (ILK, 2008)

So, can I do it? Can I make it through a two-CD set of solo bass — solo bass! — a set that documents an uninterrupted improvised performance?

Sure sounds daunting. You all know the jazz joke about “when drums stop,” right?

Solo turns out to be an easier listen than it appears. Grimes shows he’s still got not only bass chops, but rhythm and some tunes in him. The atmosphere is more springy than academic. And he alternates between bass and violin, taking the intimidating edge off the “all solo bass” stigma. (Yes, that invalidates this entry’s title. Blogger’s prerogative.)

On top of that, the CD isn’t the single uninterrupted piece I was expecting. Each CD has only one track on it, and the whole thing does appear to have been recorded without interruption. But the performance is filled with long pauses as Grimes switches instruments. You even hear the clacking of a bow being put down, or the sounds of the bass being moved into place. I’m guessing he’s taking some breathing time in there as well, letting the music resettle inside his mind.

So, it’s an easier listen than you might gather. Inside the dauntingly blank, deep-colored packaging is a warm shower of colors.

The music is mostly an exploration of sounds and tones. When using a bow, especially on violin, Grimes tends to stay in one tonal center. This lets him use open strings to put long ringing tones into the mix, letting them blend with a scattering of other notes. Lots of double-stops (moments of playing two strings at once) show up on the violin passages. The result is almost like a drone, but more dynamic and colored. It’s screechy, recalling Leroy Jenkins.

Grimes’ bowed bass goes further out, adding a deeper variety but following similar strategies. It’s the pizzicato bass passages that I like best, though. That’s partly because I love that sound in the first place. But it’s also because these passages are where Grimes really digs deep. The changes in melody, rhythm, speed, and ideas all come more quickly and feel more considered, less instinctual, than the violin or bowed-bass segments.

I appreciate that the session carries the feel of a performance, rather than a practice. Grimes speaks only once or twice, fragments of words to himself, and he makes an effort to get each new segment moving quickly, without tentativeness. As Dusted Magazine notes in its review, the time passes quickly because there’s just so much going on.

Other bass releases that come to mind:

Michael FormanekAm I Bothering You? (Screwgun, 1998) ….. Solo bass, with Formanek playing compositions rather than pure improvisations, a touch that’s a bit different.

Peter Kowald and Damon SmithMirrors: Broken, but No Dust (Balance Point Acoustics, 2001) ….. Kowald was a master improviser and an idol to Smith, who must have been overjoyed at the chance to do this recording. Smith more than holds his own in a set of meaty, tough-fisted improvisations.

Any other suggestions?