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JAZZ

Bass Players Who Set the Pace, in Every Sense

March 25, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

Bass players are the workhorses of jazz, their essential contributions to the rhythmic core of the music often taken for granted. There are, of course, the exceptions--Charles Mingus being one of the most obvious--who step out of the rhythm section to claim attention as important innovators. Others alternate solid dependability as ensemble contributors with occasional excursions as leaders. And still others--like those in this roundup of recent CDs by bassist-leaders--always seem to function at the top of their form, as leaders or as sidemen.

Ron Carter. "When Skies Are Grey . . ." (*** 1/2, Blue Note). Carter, surely one of the most recorded bassists in jazz history, has never allowed the nature of his instrument to prevent him from taking an upfront role on his recordings, which have encompassed an unusually imaginative range of ideas--from cello ensembles to reexaminations of Bach. This, however, is his first effort to do an album in which, in his words, "the Latin element was the focus." Well, yes, to a point. Four of the seven tunes are actually Carter's interpretation of a "Latin element," with "Besame Mucho" and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado" as the only inclusions that might be labeled Latin in source. That caveat aside, the Carter ensemble--pianist Stephen Scott, drummer Harvey Mason and percussionist Steve Kroon--performs the music with what might be described as a tropical flair, its consummate professionalism adding skill and improvisational flights of fancy in the spots where authenticity is minimal. But the center of the album, appropriately, is Carter--characteristically virtuosic, filling much of the solo space with his freely flowing impromptu excursions. Always praised for his rich sound and harmonic vision, his accurate pitch, and his capacity for bringing music alive with the spontaneous addition of compositional elements, Carter does all that and more. And his translation of "Corcovado" from its bossa nova roots into a "Latin vibe" (via an arrangement by Bob Freedman) is alone worth the price.

George Mraz. "Morava" (*** 1/2, Milestone). Valued for his big sound, precise pitch and superb musicality, Mraz is justifiably one of the busiest bass players in jazz. Over the years, he has played with everyone from Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans to Tommy Flanagan, Jim Hall and Joe Lovano. At first glance, his latest effort appears to be an album devoted to Czech folk material from his homeland (he was born in Bohemia in 1944). And the CD does indeed include traditional material adapted by pianist Emil Viklicky and singer-cymbalom player Zuzana Lapcikova. But what actually takes place is a surprisingly empathetic connection of two musics with seemingly little in common. Most tracks include a statement of the keening traditional melodies--most in minor modes--sung in sweetly lyrical style by Lapcikova. But the accompaniment surges with jazz rhythms, their timbres enhanced by Billy Hart's marvelous way with percussion and Viklicky's Bill Evans-inspired piano. Mraz's beautifully roving bass lines enhance the rubato opening vocals, and his solos--via brisk pizzicato on numbers such as "Myjava" and "Slunecko Sa Nizi," enhanced by his bowed arco passages on "Touha" and others--are masterful examples of world-class jazz bass artistry.

Ray Brown. "Live at Starbucks" (***, Telarc). Well, why not? Jazz and coffeehouses have a long and amiable history. And who better to display the laid-back but briskly propulsive sort of jazz that best reflects the mellow tang characteristic of good coffee than this veteran? Like Art Blakey and Shirley Horn, Brown has used his trio as a training ground for gifted young players, and the list of those who have benefited from his careful but insistent guidance is long. His associates for this date, recorded in September 1999 in a Seattle Starbucks, were pianist Geoff Keezer and drummer Karriem Riggins. It's possible, in some groups led by bassists, for other players to actually take more prominent roles. But not when Brown is at the helm. Aside from his obvious mastery (check out the solo on "Lament"), his greatest skill--like Blakey's--is the ability to subtly mold the music while simultaneously encouraging the other players to reach into their deepest levels of expression. In this case, the music resonates with familiar standards--"When I Fall in Love," "Caravan" and "Love You Madly"--tempered by such jazz classics as "Our Delight," "Lament" and "Lester Leaps In." And Keezer and Riggins respond imaginatively, playing with the kind of spirit and drive always present in Brown's groups, urged on by what was obviously an enthusiastically participatory crowd.

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