How do you ISB?

It would be nice to come here with either a) no interest in trying basses, or b) no interest in hearing new rep. Then you could choose between either the instruments or the sessions! By Friday I felt that the pressure was on. Not that I intended to walk away with a new bass from this convention; but, being from Winnipeg where the closest bass shop is a day’s drive away, I felt like “I MUST SEE EVERYTHING.” Which is what kept me going in between Friday’s sessions.

Friday, June 7

9am: Paul Robinson
10am: try basses/switch apartments/breakfast
11am: Denis Whittaker and David Young (opera excerpts)
12noon: Victor Wooten Q & A
2pm: Leon Bosch
3pm: more basses
4pm: Catalin Rotaru
5:20pm: Steve Bailey
6pm: Supper
8pm: Szymon Marciniak
9:15pm: Dave Holland

My accommodations were changing up, as my host was heading to an Early Music event in Boston; so I was up early, and attempted to help her load a harpsichord into her van (mostly I just watched helplessly). Then I went to Paul Robinson’s class, coffee in hand. He was full of tricks for teaching ourselves to use the bow, which is going to be a big focus for me in the next few months.

After I moved in to my new place, I went to a session on Opera Excerpts. I was really pleased at what I saw, because Dennis Whittaker and David Young were doing something I haven’t seen anyone do in an excerpt class: playing together! I had been thinking about this all week: that there’s something wrong with the way we work on excerpts. We tend to treat them like personal weapons with which to defeat an enemy – I mean, my Brahms 2 is a real winner! for example. But these guys were attempting to blend two basses in perfect unison in very challenging passages, and it was fascinating to hear their blend and togetherness improve over the course of the session. Even professionals have room for improvement!

I couldn’t say no to Victor Wooten’s session; I mean, this guy’s Amazing Grace solo from the Flecktones’s “Live At The Quick” was probably the most-viewed music DVD of my teenage years. (Please watch this if you haven’t already!) He began with a solo on Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday,” which was tasteful and impressive as expected, but also extremely calm and humble. I wrote a lot of things down during the following Q & A session, but one that really stood out to me was this comment about success: “I build my life on small successes… make your bed in the morning, and put your clothes away… If I drop a napkin on the ground and then leave it there and don’t pick it up, I am not successful, no matter how much how you clap for my concert at night.”

We kept Victor going with questions well past the hour mark. For my next session I went to see Leon Bosch. Leon gave what Ken Smith promised: a HUGE sound. Hmm, maybe I should raise my action to 12mm… Leon presented bass solo works by the little-known Josep Cervera Bret,some of which I’d like to learn myself.

Looking back, I see what an eventful day this was… Catalin Rotaru won an ISB award for his work as a soloist, which was presented to him by Frank Proto, after he performed a new sonata by Proto! This section went long, but I wanted to catch Steve Bailey, and soon I found myself standing at the back of a crowded doorway audience unable to see the stage, but distinctly hearing three musicians grooving along. When the crowd moved, I discovered that two of the musicians were Steve Bailey! He was on an electric bass, doing a medley of Beatles tunes (alluding to Victor’s performance earlier?) accompanied by a drummer.

Sadly, I didn’t catch the drummer’s name; because, as John Clayton and then Victor Wooten joined the performance, I realized that I had listened for fifteen minutes without ever listening to the drummer. Suddenly my attention turned to this guy. To think that, on a drumkit including all manner of striking and high-pitched sounds, he had managed to allow me to focus on a bass soloist for fifteen minutes… I decided that I was seeing the real hero of the performance. This drummer embodied everything Victor Wooten had been speaking about – supporting, and making your soloist sound good. (Help me out, people. What was his name?!)

The evening’s concerts were fantastic. When I arrived at the hall and stepped in to the balcony, I saw two basses on opposite ends of the stage, and one in each loge as well. Once my ears settled in to the distorted sounds being created by each instrument, I realized something incredibly beautiful was going on, and I centered myself in the balcony to let the sounds swirl around me. The audience agreed, rising to their feet after nearly a full minute of that gorgeous silence that follows a powerful work of art. ISB Tip: If you want to know what you’re hearing, get to stuff on time! I have no idea what this piece was!

Prior to this convention, I’d basically thought of solo bass as an impossible and pointless endeavour (why try to be heard above a piano? You’re not gonna win!) but night after night now I’ve seen a bassist take the stage and project quick notes in every range throughout a huge hall. Kudos to everyone who has done this. It is not an easy task! Kudos as well to Dianne Frazer and the other wonderful accompanists who have gracefully allowed the unsung to sing. But as far as sheer physical impressiveness goes, Szymon Marciniak won the prize. From the back of the balcony I heard every note loud and clear, even in the appropriately titled “Ultimate Workout for bass and piano” by Chris Meijering.

As if this wasn’t enough, another bass giant was to follow: Dave Holland. The moment he started playing I remembered what I’d always loved about this bassist: he brought clarity to the instrument. At least for me, he was one of the first bassists I listened to whose fast licks could be easily heard and understood. I was also glad to hear his distinctive harmonic approach, rather than traditional ii-V-I’s. Dave was able to hold the audience’s attention for over an hour of completely solo playing. I glanced across the hall to see John Clayton watching in rapt attention and thought, yes, this is where I need to be.