Yoni Kretzmer’s Two-Bass Band

Yoni Kretzmer 2Bass Quartet — Book II (OutNow, 2015)

2bass+book+II+front+small+wsThe bass can get swallowed up in free-jazz settings. Clashing drums and blaring horns tend to obscure those low-end tones, even with amplification on the bassist’s side.

I think that’s why you often see bassists revert to fevered bowing. It certainly fits the intensity of the moment — but it’s also a way to simply be heard.

So you might ask what the effect is when a second bass is added. It’s been done plenty of times, Ornette Coleman’s bands being a familiar example — but don’t you risk both basses being equally swallowed up?

Saxophonist Yoni Kretzmer has been trying the format for a few years now with his 2Bass Quartet, which released one previous album, Weight, in 2012. It’s true that during furious passages, the basses combine into a generalized rumble, where you get the sense there’s some pinpoint execution going on but can’t make it all out. But the doubled-up bottom line, crossed with Mike Pride‘s often fierce drumming, makes a solid foundation for Kretzmer’s improvising, and the relatively small size of the group means both Reuben Radding and Sean Conly get a chance to really say something with the bass.

The pieces are guided improvisations, based on Kretzmer’s structures and snippets of composition. That kind of guidance is how they can deliver tracks like “Haden,” which sings in reverent tones between joy and mourning — an appropriate wake for Charlie Haden. One bass bows an anthemic improvised melody while the other holds down the steady rhythm.

Most of the songs do seem to have assigned parts. The two basses take center stage on the stark “Metals,” where their deep, metallic sawing plays against Kretzmer’s scratchy curls of sound, as if he’s emulating a bowed instrument himself. “Polytonal Suite” pits a 5/4 bassline against a calmer, slow-walking bass, the combined rhythms backing the attack mode of Kretzmer and Pride. It’s also a little bit polyrhythmic (both basses seem to be on the same rhythm, but Pride is doing something else completely) and adds up to a fun listening exercise.

I like the trajectory of “Stick Tune,” based on a dark sax melody. Early on, one bassist bows ferociously, joining the tumult of sax and drums, while the other plucks a slow, steady pace. The song breaks for a quiet segment — some tenderness from that main melody but also some air time for one bassist to go ballistic with a pizzicato solo — before building back to a soaring conclusion. It’s the common fast/slow/fast structure, but it delivers a narrative feel, a real story. Here’s the fast/slow transition:

The album culmintes with “Number Four,” a 19-minute opus that’s pushed to a second CD in order to fit the physical format. Patient pedal tones from the basses underlie a continuous scratchy surface painted by Kretzmer. Then there’s a pause, a dark and gloomy moment for the two basses alone, followed by a brisk midtempo jazz jam.

The running theme is Kretzmer’s free blowing, of course. He’s adept at carving twisty paths of narrative, sometimes using a feathery voice for a lighter mood (as on “Soft”), more often focusing energy into high-tension wailing or tight, darting growls. Later this fall, he’s planning on recording another album with his New Dilemma, a strings-based band that recorded a captivating debut album a few years back. Definitely something to look forward to.

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