Bass Is the Place
Aaron Neville, Dan Hicks and Lou Reed are among Rob Wasserman’s partners on his album of duets.
by Michael Macrone
Among instruments, the bass has something of an image problem. In the popular consciousness—and even among musicians—bassists exist primarily to anchor rhythm and pin down chord changes, freeing everyone else to command the spotlight and grab the glamor.
But recently, a soft-spoken man from Mill Valley, California has been staking out new ground for the bass. Rob Wasserman, 35, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory and one-time collaborator with Dan Hicks and David Grisman, first caught the public’s ear with 1983’s Solo (Rounder). That album is a set of original compositions for solo acoustic bass, without overdubs—a project hardly promising in the abstract, but which proved a surprising critical and commercial success and earned Wasserman a solid place in Down Beat’s survey and, later, a composer’s fellowship from the NEA.
The logical next step in Wasserman’s campaign to expand the limits of his instrument has been realized in his new release, Duets (MCA). Duets is the result of a four-year lobbying campaign, as Wasserman pitched the idea of vocal-bass arrangements to a remarkably diverse group of respected singers, beginning with Dan Hicks and ending with Jennifer Warnes. The result-duets with seven vocalists. one violinist (Stephane Grappelli) and himself-is a coherent, nearly timeless catalog of arrangements and vocal styles.
Among the artists who ultimately saw the project through, Wasserman had worked previously with only Hicks and Grappelli; the rest-including Aaron Neville, Rickie Lee Jones, Bobby McFerrin, Lou Reed, Cheryl Bentyne (of the Manhattan Transfer) and Warnes-signed on because of the conceptual strength of the project. How all these different pairings came about-most arranged in the absence of a recording contract and with limited funds-would make for an article in itself. Each story would detail Wasserman’s dedication to the project over so long a period -1984 to 1988—and of his commitment to all the performers on the album, each of whom he approached directly and each of whom he now considers a friend.
The vocalists—all reportedly very pleased with the results-react with obvious joy to the feeling of space the duet arrangements afford. Wasserman remarks, “When I started I thought the project would be a good way to hear my favorite singers in a way that’s more intimate, without all the background instrumentation—just the two musical sounds: the voice and the bass. It’s like seeing a face without makeup.” For Wasserman, the blend of voice and bass is particularly natural: “Because of the frequencies of the bass. the voices expand with it. You can feel the power, and you can hear how singers sing; the character of the voice comes through. Together, we’re going off our inner pulses.”
Wasserman let each vocalist choose the tune for her or his duet. This ensured that the project would be primarily “for love-and for fun.” The goal had little to do with business, or even with self-promotion. The purpose of this album.” says Wasserman, “was not to put me first, but to put the songs first: to make great music, instead of getting the singers and songs together to back me up.”
At least, this was one of the many purposes Wasserman had in mind when he and his behind-the-scenes partner, Clare Wasserman, undertook Duets. He explains some of his other motivations: “Duets, like the first album, happened because I like turning concepts into projects. Solo was meant to prove that acoustic upright bass could do everything itself, without overdubs-that the bass could be like a solo piano. I had to play all the parts at once somehow, so I came up with a lot of finger-picking techniques, classical techniques.” Duets then naturally extended the project. “The bass has been a downtrodden instrument; but it can be a unique voice.”
Certainly Wasserman’s “voice” has a tone and range all its own-slightly melancholic, but at times sanguine, even whimsical. And during the recordings, every combination of bass and voice presented a new set of possibilities. “On each tune I have a different role, which satisfied me because I didn’t want to fall into a set formula with each singer—which is also why I looked for different vocal styles and encouraged people to pick all kinds of material.”
Most artists responded by choosing a classic pop or jazz tune. For example, Neville picked Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust” and Lou Reed opted for the barroom classic “One More for My Baby.” A few of the singers modified their selections for the occasion-Dan Hicks adds a hilarious extra verse, and some wild scat singing, to “Gone with the Wind”; Jennifer Warnes worked with Leonard Cohen in remodeling the haunting “Ballad of the Absent Mare” into “Ballad of the Runaway Horse,” newly cast for a female vocalist.
It might seem that so wide a range of performers, each with a personal take on his or her selection and on the project as a whole, would only promise chaos. But Wasserman is the tonal and conceptual glue; “The thing that holds this record together is my bass, which is me, and my style on the upright bass.” Wasserman used only two basses: an “old German acoustic bass, World War II vintage,” of unidentifiable make; and a Clevinger electric upright, one of the “new breed of uprights,” made across the bay in Berkeley. “I use the same technique on the Clevinger as on the acoustic bass, but I can play rock & roll with it and the feeling still comes through. I never was comfortable with bass guitar, with that technique, with the frets.”
Stretching the project over time would also seem to violate a sense of continuity, but, says Wasserman, “The fact that Duets took so long to make really doesn’t matter because there was no technology that could get dated.” Nevertheless, the nature and extension of the project did require instant familiarization with a number of recording studios—from George Martin’s Air Recording Studios in London to Willie Nelson’s private Pedernales Recording Studio in Texas. In every case, Wasserman ran an F-1 Sony digital two-track recorder as a backup to the multi track (digital or analog) recording. In two instances-with Grappelli on “Over the Rainbow” and with Bentyne on “Angel Eyes”—the “live” take on the two-track served as the basic take. But in virtually every case, the basic track represents one complete take, with additional vocals and bass parts overdubbed later. “There are practically no edits on the record, although obviously there are some overdubs. But they don’t sound artificial because the tunes weren’t assembled under the overdubs—the overdubs were added to what was already the spirit of the tune.”
In spirit, these recordings represent the intimacy sometimes absent from highly “sophisticated” recordings, both because of the nature of duet performance and because of the unconventional recording techniques. “The problem with most recording these days,” according to Wasserman, “is that musicians try to get too much control. But this is like rolling dice, seeing what you can do with a little chance thrown in. I think you lose your identity when you rely on technology too much if you’re an instrumentalist.” By bucking the system, Wasserman has opened a lot of eyes.
Newly confident, Wasserman is already looking ahead to his next project for MCA and the chance to return some of his energies to composing. The project? Trios, of course—”unusual combinations of three,” as Wasserman imagines it. “It will add another dimension; it’ll probably be a tremendous challenge. Think of what it would be like to get somebody like Aretha Franklin and Yo Yo Ma together. That kind of thing has tremendous possibilities.”
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First published in Music & Sound Output magazine (July, 1988)