‘Play the one with the man on the cello’ is a frequent request in my home. No matter how many times I answer by saying ‘Not again! And it’s a double bass ffs!’ Bass On Top remains number one choice when something that isn’t too strident is called for. Time to take a look at this wonderful album and if you read to the end there’s a tale of crime involving a sculpture of a beautiful German woman.
The great double bassist, Paul Chambers recorded this album on July 14 1957. It was his fourth set as a leader and the third to be released on Blue Note. A member of Miles Davis’s first great quintet/sextet, Paul Chambers drew on early classical training in Detroit and became one of the first jazz bassists to play bowed (arco) sections live and on recordings. He featured on numerous key sessions with a pantheon of modern jazz greats (over 300 sessions between 1955 and 1962), including contributions to Monk’s Brilliant Corners, Oliver Nelson’s The Blues And The Abstract Truth, Coltrane’s Blue Train, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ and Art Pepper Meets The Rhythmn Section and of course Miles Davis. There were fourteen releases of sessions led by John Coltrane and seven led by Hank Mobley. Indeed, his work on Kind Of Blue has been praised as one of the great jazz bass performances by some people who like to quantify things like that.
The opening track here, Yesterdays, opens with three choruses that strike a subdued tone of wistfulness, or saudade as the Potuguese would say, before the tempo changes (and if I’m not mistaken, which is very likely, the key moves from minor to major). The bow is used throughout. Blue without being a blues track, Yesterday’s is a unique and much covered jazz composition both by instrumentalists and vocalists. The full lyrics are here– but these will suffice now:
Then gay youth was mine, truth was mine
Joyous free in flame and life
Then sooth was mine
Sad am I, glad am I
For today I’m dreamin’ of yesterdays.
The sense of saudade in a nutshell!
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To follows. It is a jaunty Cole Porter number played finger-style this time (pizzicato). There is lots of space for PC to develop solo ideas as Kenny Burrell reverses conventional roles to keep time on rhythm guitar before getting his own Hot Clubesque solo as PC walks the tune towards a tasteful contribution from Hank Jones on piano.
Chasin’ the Bird by Charlie Parker offers up a neat intro on the tune’s head from Kenny Burrell (not that we’d expect anything less) before PC gets to work again. His bass solo is fluent and creative with the second solo from Jones’ piano providing another perfect element here. Burrell gets a solo too before sticksmanship from Art Taylor and a re-statement of the head, which brings this fine rendition to a close.
Dear Old Stockholm flows down deliciously in a well-ordered mainstream sort of way that is very satisfying. This is the selection from YouTube that I’ve chosen to accompany this post:
To play either touch or click on the arrow.
PC then plays Miles Davis’ The Theme. He was on the original recording in 1955 and this bebop workout sees his bow produced and used to great effect again.
Finally on the original release, Confessin’ is a lively tour de force take on the much covered standard with PC’s bass to the fore delivering a compelling interpretation until Hank Jones has a brief solo.
My copy of Bass On Top is the RVG CD version as the original Blue Note vinyl pressing is a rare find and priced well beyond what I can afford. The RVG edition has its bonuses though. Chamber Mates was not on the original release but it is an uptempo number that sounds like great fun, especially for jazz dancers. There are the usual excellent additional notes from Bob Blumenthal and three Francis Wolff photos from the hallowed Mosaic Collection. These were taken at the actual session and one of them, copied below, prompted me to undertake some additional research.
You will note that a youthful Paul Chambers (amazingly only 22 years old when the session was recorded) is playing, supervised by the sculpture of a female face on the bass head, which is as remarkable as it is unusual. I’d never seen its like before, although the power of the Internet soon introduced me to a wide range of ornate bass heads and the following:-
“Well, in growing up in New York with Bass in hand in the mid-late 60s, I just missed Paul Chambers. He died about when I joined the Union. I did however see his Bass in pictures and asked one Luthier about that carved Ladies Head on the top of the Neck/Scroll. The Bass was a Germanic Shop type Bass from the late 19th-early 20th century or so. The Head was added by him I heard but in either case, it was not part of that Bass.” (Ken Smith- see here)
There’s another story about the bass with the woman’s head possibly, apocryphal, but well worth the telling. It is said that the maestro and Doug Watkins, another great bass player and close friend (and some say, cousin) of PC were on tour in Italy in the 60’s when they saw the bass, unattended in a car belonging to a member of a classical orchestra. They helped themselves to it and subsequently shared the instrument back in the States. Then, one dark and stormy night, as they usually are in the best tales, the original owner of the bass walked into the club where PC was playing it. What happened next… …Well, he listened and listened some more before confronting PC at the interval, when he told him that he’d never heard the instrument sound so great and that he would like to give it to PC with his blessing. As somebody famous once wrote ‘The bitter comes out better on a stolen guitar.’
Now I don’t know it this is true, or not. If it isn’t, I hope that the spirits or descendants of PC and Doug Watkins will not be offended by my repetition of scurrilous tittle-tattle. In any event it’s a story too good to miss. Who knows, the bass with the woman’s head may still be out there and one dear reader may actually be its custodian as I type this? If you have it, please let us know, we’d love to hear. Was the mysterious woman ever given a name? Someone may still know. Unless I hear differently, for personal reasons, I’ll settle for Gwladys.
Part of the reason I haven’t been blogging is that it is a bit dull to just trot out my impressions of albums. I like to add a bit of extra information that’s a bit harder to find for the reader and sometimes sourcing anything new is a bit of a struggle. Hopefully, my musings about PC and Bass On Top have achieved that this time round.
If you are interested in an analysis of Paul Chambers bass style, there’s a very fine essay written by Brian Casey, which you can read here.
The band etc: Paul Chambers (double bass);Kenny Burrell guitar); Hank Jones (piano); Art Taylor (drums). Recorded: 14 July 1957. Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, New Jersey. Produced: Alfred Lion. Recorded: Rudy Van Gelder. Sleeve Notes: Robert Levin. Cover design: Reid Miles. Cover photos: Francis Wolff. Issued as Blue Note 1569 in 1957.
RIP Paul Chambers, Jr (April 22, 1935 – January 4, 1969).