An ultra-recent debate between Uncle Bill Leebens and myself gives rise to this particular column. I expressed exactly zero interest in a somewhat prominent bass player. Leebens responded: “You don’t seem fond of any bassists other than Jack Casady.”
I couldn’t let that assertion go unchallenged. The list of bassists I love is long — a bit shorter if we separate the player from the music they play. Admittedly, most are from the period that inspired me to start playing, which does worry me a little. Nostalgia? Something about the time? Or just that I was young and impressionable?
I’ll discount the last, and for that matter, the first, as well: I didn’t love all these players back when they came to prominence, but have grown to love most of them over time, though their playing is sort of rooted in something similar to my own. But one thing they have in common is…nothing at all. Except:
You know that feeling you get when you’ve eaten a very satisfying meal? Not stuffed, but so flavorful and just-right feeling? It’s kind of like that, the feeling I get when I hear one of these guys play. And interestingly (or not, but it is to me) I only get that feeling from hearing bass players. I first thought about this about twenty years ago, when I was backstage at De House ob De Blooz with Jack Casady and his fiancé, Diana. She had asked me how I met Jack — I told her, and that’s when the analogy to a really good meal came to me. It’s almost an identical feeling, a feeling of satisfaction. I always get it when I hear Jack. But I noticed it afterwards with certain, even many, players.
With Jack, of course, most of his recordings, but in particular the first, live and self-titled Hot Tuna record.
Then, in no order:
McCartney. Not at first, but boy, when he got there, he really got there! Especially on “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”. Oh my god; it’s so fat and heavy. (And not recorded at Abbey Road.) Also notice that the bass generally is most complex and interesting on songs that he’s not the lead singer on: give him a Lennon or Harrison tune and McCartney gets really going.
Phil Lesh, and I probably wouldn’t love his playing but for the fact that he plays with the Dead, but he wouldn’t be playing bass if not for the Dead either. His phrasing is so weird, but beautiful. And I especially love his playing on the album colloquially known as “Skullfuck” (what the band wanted to call it) or “Skull and Roses”, but released as Grateful Dead. Boy, I just LOVE his tone on that one.
James Jamerson. Who doesn’t love him? All the great Motown tracks, all played with just one finger. (And Jamerson’s heir, Bob Babbitt.)
Donald “Duck” Dunn, the Stax/Volt session guy: simpler than Jamerson, and more satisfying to me to hear. Is anything more perfect than the bass on “Dock of the Bay”? Allegedly guided in his parts by the truly great guitarist, Steve Cropper, but who knows?
Trevor Williams. You haven’t heard of him? He’s the bassist in a favorite band from the time (more-or-less), Audience. Now that we’re all happily streaming, listen to the LP House on the Hill. (Also note their brilliant instrumentation: nylon string guitar, bass, saxes (and flutes) and drums.
Of course I love the early prog players, Greg Lake and Chris Squire: Lake on “Take A Pebble” and Squire on “Heart of the Sunrise” are prime examples of that feeling. And my ultimate prog guy, Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant, on just about anything. But to really get that ate-a-great-meal feeling, “Aspirations” from The Power and the Glory.
Danny Thompson, of course. I devoted a whole column to him a couple years ago, but again, if you want to hear definitive Danny, “No Love is Sorrow” from The Pentangle’s Solomon’s Seal. But that brings up the bassists in “competing” bands: Ashley Hutchings in Fairport Convention (later Dave Pegg), and Ashley Hutchings in Steeleye Span, replaced by Rick Kemp when he departed. All are very good to great.
And Rick Danko’s playing on all the Band’s records is perfect. (Not to mention his singing).
Tony Levin: particularly on Peter Gabriel’s “On the Air” from his second solo album, and the first album from the resuscitated King Crimson, Discipline. Listen to “The Sheltering Sky”. Sublime. Oh, and also on Joan Armatrading’s Walk Under Ladders, in particular “The Weakness In Me”. A beautiful song, beautifully played by all.
Whoever it is that’s playing on the Stones early albums, up through Exile On Main Street. I don’t know if it’s Bill Wyman on “Satisfaction” (I think it is) or Keith Richards, but it’s fat and it’s great!
In another kind of music: Miroslav Vitous: he’s sort of my god of exploratory music. Listen to him on the early Weather Report albums. Holy Jesus. Especially on I Sing the Body Electric, their second (half) studio record. But all three bassists the band had on their first eight albums are great: Vitous, Alphonso Johnson, and of course, Jaco Pastorius. Though I know I’m repeating myself from an earlier column, I do think Jaco is more significant on Joni Mitchell’s albums, and WR is suffering a bit in their compositions by the time Jaco joined. Zawinul seemed to have evolved out of his earlier exploratory phase, and I think the music is the weaker for it, though it was, of course, super-popular. Speaking of Zawinul, his self-titled solo album has amazing bass playing on it, courtesy Vitous and Walter Booker.
I really love Glen Moore’s playing: he was bassist first in the Paul Winter Consort (briefly) and then Oregon. I mean, I REALLY love his playing.
Dave Holland, who plays on so many great records: then and now.
Stanley Clarke, though I believe I’m repeating myself that it’s only his early upright playing that I’m really fond of. His huge hands and small bass make his electric playing too facile and technique-oriented for me.
I know that a few really significant bassists are left off of my list: Jack Bruce, John Entwistle to name two. They’re great. But for whatever reason, I’ve just never had the same feeling from them.
The other thing that all these guys seem to have in common is that they don’t have a show-off technique. That strikes me as a waste of good energy and is entirely inappropriate to music and bass playing.
Okay, Bill? See, there is more in my world than just Jack Casady!
[And I got a column out of you. So there—Ed.]