The Majesty of the Bass
Mark Helias at the Concert House
by Piotr Michalowski
The jazz double bass was long thought of as a rhythm section instrument that defined the basic pulse of a tune while outlining harmony at the same time. This changed with the advent of amplification and with the arrival of a young man named Jimmy Blanton, who joined Duke Ellington's orchestra in 1939 and played virtuoso pizzicato solos as well as bass/piano duets with the leader. By the 1950s, bass players were expected to be able to solo on any tune, and the more adventuresome among them, such as Oscar Pettiford and Charles Mingus, ran their own groups. Still, at clubs and concerts, audiences expected that a bass would be accompanied by a piano, at least.
This changed in the 1960s, when groups of young musicians began to challenge the tenets of jazz tradition, including all those involving harmony, melody, and rhythm, and the very use of instruments in performance. Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Steve Lacy, and others began to give solo performances on saxophones and other instruments, and in 1968 a marvelous American-French musician, Barre Phillips, recorded the first solo bass album, Journal Violone.
Phillips demonstrated that it was possible, with developed technique, wit, and imagination, to sustain interest in solo bass playing. Since then a small number of bassists have followed suit, performing or recording without any accompaniment.
Among the musicians who have taken up the challenge is Mark Helias. He came late to bass playing, but at Yale University he was fortunate enough to study the full classical repertoire while also performing with master composers and improvisers such as trumpeter Leo Smith and drummer Ed Blackwell. The New Haven jazz scene provided ample opportunity for young rebels to mix with older musicians, and Helias found close friendships with trombonist Ray Anderson and percussionist Gerry Hemingway--their trio, BassDrumBone, celebrated the completion of its third decade as a group a few years ago, and the three still get together to play every now and then.
eventually joined Anthony Braxton's quartet, gaining international recognition and the attention of fellow musicians. After settling in New York he began keeping a busy schedule, working in avant-garde as well as more traditional contexts and also developing his own working ensembles, designed to feature his compositions as well as his improvising skills. He often travels with his Open Loose trio, which consists of tenor saxophone, bass, and drums, but for at least two decades he has also brought together larger groups of musicians in a group he calls Attack the Future, which is a vehicle for more densely scored works.
When his schedule allows, he withdraws into a solo mode, exploring the sounds of his instrument without the noise and clutter of a band. As Helias explained it in an interview, "I'm still working on developing a basic, simple arco sound or a simple pizzicato sound. I think there is a whole world in there amidst all the other stuff, just the beauty of the sound, when one note can wipe people out." He will perform alone at Kerrytown Concert House on November 8.
[Originally published in November, 2010.]