Bass in the Spotlight
Angel City Jazz Fest allows the instrument that holds a band together to finally take the lead
By Bliss Bowen
In most bands, the singer or guitarist is the focal point even though the one driving the music is usually the bassist — the rhythm-sustaining linchpin between the drummer and the rest of the musicians.
Bass is rarely presented as a solo instrument, but on Friday the Angel City Jazz Festival’s Extreme Bass Night places its deep, resonant voice in both solo and duo contexts with four stylistically diverse bassists: Tim Lefebvre (performing in duo combinations with keyboardist Rachel Eckroch and beat-maker Troy Ziegler), Steuart Liebig, Miles Mosley (accompanied by drummer Tony Austin) and Mike Valerio.
“The bass is a very important element of the sound of a group,” says Angel City Jazz Fest Creative Director Rocco Somazzi, who conceived the idea for the event. “But often it has such a strong backbone function of providing rhythm and basic harmonic structure, that some of the greatest bass players rarely have the freedom to use the full range of bass, to be as creative as possible.”
Thus Extreme Bass Night is an intriguing concept — not least because of the quality of the participants, not all of whom are widely recognized as jazz musicians.
Lefebvre, currently earning MVP stripes with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, played on David Bowie’s swan song “Blackstar” and has a formidable résumé from his work with Snoop Dogg, Donald Fagen, Anthony Hamilton and Sting, among dozens of others.
Liebig is a virtuosic bassist and composer whose early career included
stints with rock bands and soul-jazz keyboardist Les McCann, and who has since explored esoteric fusions of jazz, folk and classical music.
Mosley’s best known for playing bass on Kamasi Washington’s “The Epic” and three tracks on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”; he’s currently preparing his own album, “Uprising,” for release next year.
Valerio has performed as a soloist with the Boston Pops, Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, but he’s spent most of his career in the studio, out of public view, playing on the scores of films like “The Hurt Locker,” “Sin City” and “Trumbo.”
“Mike Valerio is probably going to be the most melody-oriented,” Somazzi says. “Tim [Lefebvre] and Steuart [Liebig], I expect them to use the frequencies of the bass to create complex textures of sounds and harmonies. Miles Mosley is probably going to have the most composed set, because he has a project he’s been writing music for using bass as a guitar.”
To assemble Extreme Bass Night, Somazzi turned first to Liebig, from whom he took a few lessons years ago. The musically adventurous Culver City resident sometimes inserts tambourine jingles or zils between strings, transforming the bass into a percussion instrument — something he says he “almost assuredly” will do at The Broad. Liebig plans to bring two six-string electric basses — one fretted, one fretless — a stereo amp, two cabinets, and “a whole mess of effects pedals,” including one that will enable him to loop in stereo via the theater’s stereo PA system. And he plans to wing it.
“I’ll get transitions going, and I might have an idea of how I’ll start and end, but whatever’s in the middle will be whatever it will be,” Liebig explains. “I’ll have all my tools there but how I use them, and when or if I use them, will depend on the moment.”
Liebig, who came of musical age listening to ’70s jazz pioneers like Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi Band and Don Cherry but doesn’t identify himself as a jazz artist, laughingly admits he’s bringing a lot of gear for a solo set. But playing solo doesn’t have to mean playing minimally.
“I don’t want to say ‘symphony,’ because that’s an incredibly loaded word, but I’m trying to create a big [sequence] that hopefully has a number of different facets to it and has its own logical flow, and hopefully it’s at least interesting. For me it’s about creating a big, Mahler-esque sort of thing.”
Amidst those orchestral textures, he might inject percussive phrases, an Edith Piaf song, or one of his own blues-hued folk melodies. Or he might just “show up and play jazz standards for 20 minutes.”
That spirit of playful spontaneity means the evening will showcase the range of not only the bass, but also of jazz.
“It’s gonna be interesting, because Mike Valerio is gonna play some Bach, and I’ll be the wild hair in this,” Liebig says with a laugh. “Miles’ thing is more song-oriented; he’s got a drummer. I don’t know what Tim’s gonna do; my guess is some sort of groove stuff.”
Friday night, after Lefebvre, Liebig, Mosley and Valerio each play 20- to 25-minute sets, they’ll come together for some free-form improvisation — a convocation Somazzi hopes will demonstrate how jazz has evolved.
“Tim and Miles play with rock sounds or hip-hop rhythms or textures, but they still come from a jazz mentality,” he observes. “Jazz improvisation is about communicating music in a certain way.
It doesn’t really matter what elements you use.
“Jazz doesn’t have to have a specific acoustic sound. What defines jazz is really the way [players] improvise together, and the four of them are all essentially jazz players in that sense. They’re master improvisers. They’re not afraid to create music on the spot.”
Extreme Bass Night starts at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 14, at The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. $35. Call (310) 434-3200 or visit angelcityjazz.com.