Grammy-nominated bassist, composer and conductor John Clayton is not only much in demand as a top shelf player, he also co-leads the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, teaches at USC and is Artistic Director at various jazz festivals and workshops in the United States. In Washington to serve as Music Director for Benny Golson’s 80th birthday bash at the Kennedy Center, Clayton took time to listen to some of his mentors, peers and colleagues.
1. Slam Stewart & Major Holley
“Undecided” (from Shut Yo’ Mouth, Delos). Stewart, Holley, bass; Dick Hyman, piano; Oliver Jackson, drums. Recorded in 1981.
Before: [laughter] I know what this is. I have this recording, Major Holley gave it to me. I knew them both but I really knew Major. They exemplify to me what all musicians strive for, that is to become one with your instrument. They are role models for us, a reminder that the music has to be clear in you before you can get it out through your instrument. I always say you have to think of your instrument as an amplifier for the the music that’s inside of you. The barometer that we use to make sure that that’s on track is singing. So many of the greats did it instinctively, and you can hear them singing, humming, growling, tasting, breathing everything they play. And that’s what we try to do, that’s our goal to express ourselves with clarity.
What do you think of the sound they got with the bow?
Too many people think if you put the bow on the string and move it back and forth you’re gonna get what you’re looking for. That’s not where the sound is. The sound is in you. If you don’t know the sound that you want to come out of the bass, you won’t know what kind of adjustments you need to make. Sometimes you have to move the bow faster, sometimes you need to change the the position of the bow or add more arm weight. These guys studied but they also knew and discovered these things and it became second nature to them. They had a sound in their ear that their body had to find. Major Holley’s sound was mimicked by his voice and it had a raspy quality to it. Slam Stewart’s sound was also mimicked by his voice but it had a much smoother quality to it. And he sang an octave higher than his playing. Major Holley sang pretty much at pitch and would go into falsetto when he would play a G harmonic [demonstrates it]. By the time I met him I had already studied at Indiana University so I could not only fall in love with his playing but I could analyze it and say a-ha, that’s his bow placement, a-ha that’s what’s he’s doing with his left hand. I could figure it all out that way.
2. Lucky Thompson
“OP Meets LT” (from Tricotism, Impulse). Thompson, tenor saxophone; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Skeeter Best, guitar. Recorded in 1956.
Before: This is remarkable because Oscar Pettiford, and I think it’s with Lucky Thompson, was one of those bass players who had his foot on both sides. He was an incredible swing bass player and he bridged the gap to be-bop. So he was totally comfortable playing with Diz and Bird, yet he was also totally comfortable playing with Pres and Hawk. It’s just fascinating for me to hear him because he would play more swingin’ groovin’ kind of bass lines and then suddenly if he had to play a solo he became a horn. His lines were much more melodic and linear than bass players before him, with the exception of Jimmy Blanton. So many people stood on his shoulders, especially Ray Brown.
3. Keter Betts
“Head Start” (from Bass Buddies & Blues, Keter Betts Music). Betts, bass; Bill Charlap, piano; Jerry Weldon, tenor saxophone; Pete Minger, trumpet; Dennis Mackrel, drums. Recorded in 1998.
Before: I was just trying to piece the group together. I listen on different levels. Sometimes I try to listen analytically and try to figure out the influences and backgrounds of the players. Sometimes I try to figure out whether the music is expressing what the musicians want to express, in my opinion. And sometimes I listen not with thoughts or ideas, just how does the music make me feel, how does it affect me? Anyway, I’m pretty sure that’s Ron Carter. The other people, I could hear their vocabularies and influences but I wasn’t always sure. It sounded like Joshua Redman, and if it wasn’t Joshua it was somebody influenced by a lot of the same people. The trumpet player I thought it didn’t sound like Wallace but I thought about Nicolas. It was a little bit brighter and had more intensity than Roy. The pianist I thought might be Horace Silver, but the vocabulary wasn’t Horace. Then I thought Cedar Walton, and if not Cedar then maybe Mike LeDonne, cause he’s sort of Cedar Walton Jr. I couldn’t figure out who the drummer was. There was a bounce to it that was really joyous. I got the same kind of let’s dance bounce that I got from the first chorus of Slam Stewart and Major Holley. It made me feel like we’re having fun. I’m curious who this is.
After: Keter Betts? Seriously? I was wrong on all counts, man. How could I have missed that? [laughter, looks up towards the sky] Sorry, Keter. One of the things that pisses me off about engineers is that they have reduced bass player’s sound to something without personality, without distinction. I wish people could have heard Keter live and stand next to him and hear his sound unamplified. I did many times and it was awesome. It had a roundness to it, it pushed air, the notes had a real distinctive quality to them that you could hear and feel, that would blow out a match. But as soon as you go direct like he did then you get this sound. I know how this happens. Bass players always want to accommodate. I’m old enough to remember when there were basically only two pick-ups that everyone was using, made by Polytone and Barcus-Berry. They all work from the same premise; the pick-up takes vibrations from the bridge, and that allows you to plug that into an amplifier or into the board. And that’s a completely different sound than putting a microphone in front of the instrument. Plugging direct is akin to putting your ear on the finger board and plucking a note. You’re going to hear the bass, but you won’t hear the air that’s being pushed into the room. I knew Keter, I knew him so well. But frankly I couldn’t get past the sound. Mixing the room sound with the direct sound is like like mixing great with crap. And this makes me mad because Keter tried different strings, searched for a good instrument, worked on his sound and walks into a studio and commits this to life. So shame on me for not hearing the vocabulary of Keter Betts vs. Ron Carter, but shame on the engineer who recorded him and took him direct and didn’t allow Keter Betts’s magnificent sound to come through.
“Al Fin Te Vi” (from Master Sessions Vol. 1, Crescent Moon). Israel López “Cachao,” bass; Paquito d’Rivera, clarinet. Recorded in 1994.
Before: That’s cool. What I was listening for was the sound. Was it a Brazilian piece? So many Brazilian pieces, choros and such, have elements that were brought from the European continent. These kinds of pieces always make you want to dance, so that puts a smile on my face. The quality of the playing was wonderful. I have a feeling it was more of a classical player than a jazz player.
After: Ah, Cachao. He’s the first one to come to mind but the things I’ve heard by him have more percussion and other instruments. And they don’t sound as good as this. I think Paquito showed me a piece he wrote for Cachao. I wonder if he was improvising the bass line. Was that his composition? Thanks for the lesson, I look forward to delving into his music.
5. Ray Brown & Jimmy Rowles
“The Night Is Young and You’re So Beautiful” (from Tasty, Concord). Brown, bass; Rowles, piano, finger snapping. Recorded in 1979.
Before: That was too obvious. I know this record. The reason I let it play is so I could know what bass it was that Ray Brown was playing. [points to the bass in his hotel room] That one.
You have Ray Brown’s bass?
Yes. It’s a German bass, between 150 and 200 years old. Ray didn’t take it on the road for the last 5-10 years of his life because he was afraid it was too fragile. But I’m taking it out.
How can can you tell just from listening which instrument it is?
Every instrument has different qualities. There are certain things that if he played on the A string or on the E string, notes might fall off a little in volume or might have a little less ring to it, or more ring. And I’ve played it so much that I know all those little things. I could hear it.
After: Ray Brown and Jimmy Rowles? Fabulous. I used to see them in clubs in LA and in studios. Ray Brown told Jimmy Rowles about me when I was still a teenager, so we had a steady gig together at the Century Plaza Hotel. He had a way of dancing around the groove. He could either be right in it with a solid, amazing killer groove, or he’d let you supply it and he’d dance all around it. It’s a real singing quality. Jimmy had a real special way of doing it and it made it really interesting for singers. So he accompanied Billie Holiday and he was Sarah Vaughan’s favorite accompanist and Carmen McRae’s favorite accompanist. So many people loved to be accompanied by Jimmy Rowles. And he was Diana Krall’s teacher. I loved him. He called me Blood, short for Young Blood. And he insisted that I call him Paws, short for Grand Paws. He was like an uncle to me and Ray Brown was like a father.
6. Joshua Redman
“Round Reuben” (from Compass, Nonesuch). Redman, tenor saxophone; Reuben Rogers, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2008.
Before: [listens to the entire cut before responding] Christian McBride. I hear some real Christian-like things there. If it’s not Christian it’s somebody coming from the same place. I let it play longer so I could be sure. There are some give-aways in Christian’s playing that make me really recognize him.
Is it the sound or the lines?
Good question. It’s his sound, and this is clear, not direct–it has a clarity to it that lets me hear the notes and pitches and timbre that he’s trying to produce. And there’s a real dancing, childlike, playful groove when he walks. I’ll be surprised if it’s not Christian. It sounds like Christian and Joshua. And if it’s not Joshua, it’s Branford. I was really listening for the sound and vocabulary of the drummer but I couldn’t identify the cymbal sound.
After: [laughs] Reuben Rogers has it too. Yeah, I know Rueben and Brian. Reuben also has that joyous bounce that Christian has. Great tune, I loved it. I loved the arrangement, how it went from one vibe to the freer section.
7. George Mraz
“It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess, TDK!). Mraz, bass; Roland Hanna, piano. Released in 1994.
Before: I didn’t feel the hearts of the musicians. I felt a really adequately played arrangement of the tune. But when I hear someone play I really want to feel their soul, and it’s so subjective cause they both may have just been pouring out their emotion. But did it affect me that way, did it connect with me that way? No. Did I dislike the bass sound? Yes. And again it may have been one of those situations where the bass player was trying to be nice to the engineer and the situation.
After: George Mraz is such a chill wonderful dude that when he walks into a recording studio [he tells the engineer] it’s basically whatever you want to do. So we get some killer George Mraz where the engineer was wise enough to record him acoustically vs. the other times when they took advantage of his graciousness. I love George as a player but I think this was not a song that showed off George’s magnificence. The bass lines that he played were so much more predictable than when I’ve heard him in so many other situations. That G minor 7 to C 7 back and forth. Unless you really set out to do something more with this you get locked into playing the G on the downbeat and the C on the downbeat, then you head toward the G and head toward C going up and coming down. Anybody who wants to check out George Mraz should check out those records he made with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Really special. This just didn’t connect with me.
8. Wilbur Ware
“Latin Quarters” (from The Chicago Sound, Riverside). Ware, bass; John Jenkins, alto saxophone; Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophone; Junior Mance, piano; Wilbur Campbell, drums. Recorded in 1957.
Before: [during tenor solo] Whoo! First of all, this is a great performance of a typical bebop era kind of tune. The only voice I absolutely heard was Johnny Griffin; his sound, his vocabulary. I loved his music so much. Then I was thinking what bass player is this? Could it be P.C. [Paul Chambers]? No, there were some spots where he was playing notes back to back, where Paul would have walked. And I’ve never heard Paul use harmonics in his lines that way this guy did a couple of times. I don’t think I’m familiar enough with this bass player to recognize him by his lines. It made me wonder if it wasn’t one of the European sessions before John actually moved there. The bass player’s bass lines don’t stick out and grab me by the neck the way Israel Crosby does or Ray Brown does or a bunch of other people might. But he was groovin’ and that automatically makes me feel ok.
After: Wilbur Ware. So this is actually his quintet? Junior Mance–that was familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’ve heard things of Wilbur’s where I said yeah, but there’s a longer list of other bass players I want to explore more than Wilbur. But I love what he did. He was swinging and making me feel good.
9. Helen Merrill & Ron Carter
“You And The Night And The Music” (from Duets, Emarcy). Merrill, vocal; Carter, bass. Recorded in 1988.
Before: That was a nice performance. I couldn’t place the singer. I wonder if it’s Nancy Marano? I could definitely recognize the voice of the bassist. That’s Ron Carter, no doubt in my mind about that one. There are certain things that stand out; I heard Ron Carter’s touch. And Ron Carter does not pull the strings the same way that Ray Brown does. He’s got a Ron Carter way of doing that. Also he used strings that I associate with his sound. Ron Carter is a master and this showed him off very well. To my way of thinking, listening and observing, there are two large periods of Ron Carter. First are his early days up till the early ’70s when he was getting more of an acoustic natural sound. If you hear him now, whether it’s live or in the studio, he will go direct, he will plug in his amplifier, the volume will be such that he is as upfront as the drummer.
Did that change coincide with his CTI records?
Yes, around that period. Those were the first records that I knew of that had that plug-in direct sound. His playing was still great. You want to check out some Ron Carter? Check out Ron Carter on Nancy Wilson’s record But Beautiful with Hank Jones, Gene Bertoncini and Grady Tate. It’s still brilliant Ron Carter, still great playing but that’s his sound. And when I’m around him or we’re hanging backstage or where ever and he plays some notes and he’s not plugged in, I wish people could hear that. You would salivate. It is such a gorgeous, wonderful amazing sound acoustically. But this is his taste. Who cares what I think in that regard?
Do you think it’s a decision made to be heard better?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I hope not, because it shows that bass players that do so are choosing that over sound quality, and that’s depressing. This is not about Ron but I find there are too many bass players on the road who are getting lazy and I’m seeing the quality and level of bass playing start to go down. Thank god there are exceptions that rise to the surface. I don’t blame the bass players, but you’re in your 20s or 30s and you get a call from whomever and they say they love your playing and ask if you want to do a tour for a month. Sure. Then they say they can’t afford to bring your bass with you but they’ll arrange for rentals where ever we go. So this bass player doesn’t want to turn down the gig, he gets a chance to play for a month with someone he really admires and see the world and so on. So that bass player goes on the road and here’s what happens. You show up at the venue and they say the rental bass is over there. And it’s a brand new shiny plywood bass with a really twangy sound, strings that are too high and a bridge that can’t be adjusted. And now you have to bleed all night. And maybe they’re rotten strings so you have to restring the instrument. What happens on the gig is you do the best you can to get through the gig. And when it’s over you’re done and it’s on to the next one. You do that for a month. And you talk to bassists and they say they got really lucky and found a couple of decent basses on the tour. And you go home after one of those tours and you finally get your hands on your bass and you go, “ah, this is what i’ve been missing.” I take my bass everywhere I go. Christian McBride and I said let’s hold out. We totally understand what our brothers and sisters go through on the road dealing with basses and airlines. As a result, I’m noticing more and more bass players on the road not playing their own instruments and not playing as much bass. Because it’s frustrating, it’s not fun. And the level of bass playing as a result of that is slowly starting to go down.
After: Helen Merrill. She’s a good singer. Oh, this is a Japanese record. Cool.
“Accupa” (from The Beautiful Enabler, Clean Feed). Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; Mark Dresser, bass; Gerry Hemingway, drums. Recorded in 2006.
Before: I love the interaction on this. I really feel like there’s a conversation going on between the three players. And that’s my kind of communication. I love the sound of the bass. No direct, it was natural, I felt like I was getting the sound that this person wanted me to have vs the sound that the engineer delivers. I don’t know who any of the players are but it’s great playing. I’m curious to know whether the bass player is European? I say that because when this bass player goes into a swing feel he’ll do what I hear more Europeans do than Americans. That is to play a heavy accent on beat two and the four. And the roots of the music don’t ask for that.
After: [with delighted surprise] Mark Dresser. I know him very well. He’s my dear friend, we grew up together. I’ve known him since we were teenagers. Mark was not a straight ahead bass player, ever. He always played with amazing musicians but the kind of music that he’s played has always been more like this. I love his playing. The honesty and the interplay, that’s so Mark. He’s affected by the music around him. And that’s the goal.
11. Ingebrigt Håkor Flaten & Håkon Kornstad
Paa Hinside Ørken (from Elise, Hemlandssånger Compunctio). Hakor Flaten, bass; Kornstad, tenor saxophone. Recorded in 2008.
Before: I really love hearing people play like this. I love the warmth that I was getting from the tenor player, the same thing with the bass player. I love that the bass player found a key that really let the bass sing. He makes use of open strings and harmonics and by doing so he can cover a wide range on the instrument. He can play a low open string and then be in an upper register with some kind of answer and put it all together and you’ve got a big, full sound, a more complete presentation. I thought he did that very well. This was beautifully done.
After: That is great. I like that a lot. Thanks for introducing me to that.
12. Milt Hinton
“The Judge and the Jury” (from Laughing At Life, Columbia). Hinton, Lynn Seaton; Brian Torff; Santi Debriano; Rufus Reid, bass; Terry Clarke, drums; Frank Zuback, conductor. Released in 1995.
Before: [laughter] There he goes. This is so great. I don’t know the recording but I know the piece. And this is a fitting end to this get together. You started with some masters who really influenced me, and you ended with one. Milt Hinton did so much for bass, for bass players and for people. He represents everything about being a musician that makes me want to be a musician and proud to be a musician: humanity, huge heart, selflessness, spreading love never hatred, forgiveness. Musically? Not being lazy. Learn the instrument. Ray Brown did that too. If you’ve got something you’re struggling with, don’t just get through it and get through the gig. Go back, figure it out, analyze it, work on it. And get it out of the way. Learn the bass from the top to the bottom, from the nut to the bridge. And Milt and Ray and those guys in their loving ways and different ways showed me how important that was and encouraged me. So I love that piece. I love hearing Milt Hinton. I think Rufus Reid must be in there, cause he helped to pull it all together.
After: Was it only four [bassists]? It sounded like more. I wish it had been all acoustic. That’s my only minor, minor regret. And you know, the reason may be that the Judge came from the school of getting a big sound out of the instrument naturally before there were pick-ups and amplifiers. And he never stop doing that. When he amplified himself, he was still pulling a big sound out of the instrument, both arco and pizz, so when you amplify that you’ll get closer to a distinctive kind of sound.
Some bass recordings that changed your life?
The Trio with Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, that’s the first I ever heard Ray Brown on record. Another record that changed my life was Live at the Pershing, Ahmad Jamal with Israel Crosby. The songs he shines on are “But Not For Me,” “Gal In Calico” and “No Greater Love.” His bass lines were so interesting, so melodic, it’s like listening to Bach on the bass. And all the records that Paul Chambers was on. And Charles Mingus more as a composer, although Mingus really played the bass. And he was a killer player with the bow.
This Before & After was recorded in January 2009 for JazzTimes.