While writing the last few chapters, I talked on occasion to Rick Turner. He suggested that I should write about someone who it turns out is a favorite upright bass player us both — the English bassist, Danny Thompson.
Bear with me here — his playing has a similar effect on me as the venerable Jack Casady. Once, at an instrument-makers Christmas party, I found myself describing to Casady’s wife that strange effect, a satisfaction as if I’d just eaten a good meal. Often, Thompson has the same effect. I can’t explain it. But certainly no one causes me to wish I’d taken up the upright bass quite as much as he does.
He first came to my attention as a member of (The) Pentangle — with whom I saw him on their final tour (in maybe 1972?). No Pentangle tunes sum up his playing, for me, more than two back-to-back songs from Solomon’s Seal: “No Love Is Sorrow” and “Jump, Baby, Jump”. Both feature Thompson up-front; in fact, I’d venture that they were composed around the bass part.
But you most likely have recordings of him in his role as a session player. He’s recorded with Nick Drake, John Martyn and Kate Bush, as well as many, many others (and that was just in his first couple decades doing it). Listen to the bass on Bush’s “Pull Out the Pin”, from The Dreaming; or on her “Watching You Without Me”, from Hounds of Love. They’re such a spectacular hybrid of her songwriting and her art of abstraction, and Thompson’s bass is the perfect and unusual counterpoint to her electronics and piano.
Or listen to John Martyn’s album “Solid Air” — on the title song, it’s just Thompson and Martyn for a spell, before electric piano and tenor sax enter.
I envy all those bassists who worked in English folk music — Ashley Hutchings, Rick Kemp, Dave Pegg, but especially Thompson. I have to admit a real weakness for the form. But if you don’t love it like I do, then maybe Thompson’s solo projects, called Whatever and Whatever Next are for you. They’re collaborations with the spectacular English guitarist Bernie Holland and Tony Roberts on various reeds; Holland’s playing reminds me of no less than John McLaughlin. Neither quite jazz, nor quite folk — in that sense, but only in that sense, they’re sort of like the group Oregon.
I was on the road with some folks about a dozen years ago, and mentioned my love of Pentangle. This was met with disapproval all around. Perhaps it’s that Pentangle combined those old British Isles tunes with decidedly non-British influences, like sitar, American Blues and Jazz, and so on. To my ears, this is what makes them so spectacular.
I’ve met Thompson a couple times, and had a bit of conversation with him after one of his appearances at McCabe’s in Santa Monica, California with his frequent collaborator of the last 20 years, Richard Thompson—and no, they’re not related. We talked bass, and basses, and approach. He told me that he bought his old upright for next-to-nothing in 1960. Then he inquired about my upright, and I had to tell him I never really took it up. “What???” says he. I confessed that I’d never found an instrument that did under my hands what his did under his. This he totally understood. (Happily, since then, I have found one. Unhappily, it was about $30,000.)
It’s too much of a stretch to say that sometimes he’s the only aspect of some music that I like.
But only just barely.