© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is currently preparing a synopsis of Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro (University of North Texas Lives of Musician Series). The biography was written by Helene (LaFaro) Hernandez, Scotty’s older sister.
While the synopsis is being developed, I thought you might enjoy reading a piece about Scotty that appeared in the July and August 2005 editions of Gene Lees’ Jazzletter.
Given the length of the Jazzletter feature on Scotty, it will appear in multiple segments on these pages.
“Scott LaFaro was something of a mystery to me. I never knew him well, and not for long. There was too little time. He played the bass for only seven years, from the summer of his eighteenth year until just after his twenty-fifth birthday, when he was killed in an automobile accident, but in that short period he became the most influential bassist of the last half of the twentieth century, and his echo continues in the work of Dave Holland, Neal Swainson, Eddie Gomez, Christian McBride, and many more. In this he was like Jimmy Blanton, who influenced the bass in terms of its harmonic role was dead at twenty-four, in his case of tuberculosis. One thinks too of Charlie Christian, who died at twenty-six but influenced probably every guitarist who came after him. He too succumbed to tuberculosis.
It was not only LaFaro's extraordinary technique that set him apart. He had a lyrical sensibility which reached its pinnacle in his work in the Bill Evans Trio of the early 1960s, a distinguished melodic gift that made his solos and contrapuntal conversations with Evans unique.
Bill's drummer during that period was Paul Motian. Later, Jack DeJohnette played drums with Bill. Jack told me:
"I guess the concept of the bass the way Scott played it was not so much unusual — people like Mingus were playing with the fingers before Scotty. You had Blanton. I think had Danny Richmond been a different kind of drummer, he might have had the kind of interplay with Mingus that you got with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. That combination of Bill, Paul, and Scotty shifted the emphasis of time from two and four. The way Paul played sort of colored time rather than stated time. As opposed to what Miles would do. So that they made it in such a way that when they did go into four-four, it was kind of a welcome change. Then they'd go back into broken time.
"I remember the effect it had on rhythm sections in Chicago, because I was at the time a pianist, playing with a bassist who also played cello. We would sit up nights late, listening to the trio records. I noticed the rhythm sections in Chicago started playing that way.
"I had a drummer with me named Art McKinney, who was doing things like Paul Motian and Tony Williams were doing. This whole concept of broken time freed up the rhythm sections. It created a dialogue in rhythm sections as opposed to just the solid rhythm section like Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.
"After that everybody followed that concept."
Bill Crow, himself one of the finest bassists, said:
"The big influences were Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, and LaFaro, for my money. Charles Mingus was impressive, but I don't think too many bassists tried to emulate his playing. Israel Crosby knocked me out when I heard his first records, and later with Ahmad Jamal he was impressive. But the five I listed probably changed the way people played more than any others.
"I was at the Village Vanguard when the Bill Evans trio with Scotty first played there, and I remember how delighted Ray Brown was, sitting at the table next to mine. He kept saying, 'This kid has his own thing! Man, he really has his own thing!'"
Ray's widow, Cecilia, told pianist Mike Wofford that when Ray was teaching clinics, he put Scott LaFaro in his list of the top five bassists and innovators on the instrument, with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford, Milt Hinton, and Paul Chambers.
Bill Crow continued: "The Bill Evans Trio found a new game to play: all three musicians agreed on the time center so completely that no one of them felt the need to be explicit about it. They could all dance around it, play with it, decorate it, ignore it, and the time was still solid among them. Scott opened up a whole new way of thinking about the role of the bass in the rhythm section."
A magnificent illustration of Bill's — and Jack DeJohnette's — point is found in the trio's recording of Johnny Carisi's Israel, in the 1961 Riverside album Explorations. After a chorus of the melody, they play a chorus of collective improvisation. No one is playing the time, not Motian (who plays brushes), not LaFaro, and not Bill. Yet you can feel the pulse at all times, so perfectly are they agreed on where it is. In the third chorus, Paul starts playing with sticks, and LaFaro goes into straight four. It is more than relief. Such is the swing that it will lift you off your chair. It is one of the most thrilling recordings in all of jazz. A footnote to this thought: after you have listened to this track, start it again immediately. You will find that the tempo has not changed by even a micro-beat. That was characteristic of Bill's playing, but obviously of Scott's and Paul's as well. A friend from Scott's high-school band days in Geneva, New York, said, "Scotty was a stickler with perfect pitch. He was also a stickler on rhythm — I accused him of having a metronome in his head. Whenever I listen to Scott's recordings, I'm certain of it."
LaFaro's use of a two-fingered right-hand technique to pluck the strings came not from Charles Mingus but from Red Mitchell. Earlier bass players plucked the strings with just the forefinger or, sometimes, the forefinger and middle finger held together for strength, and often just a four-fingered grip in the left hand. Modern jazz bassists all use the classical left-hand configuration, with the index and pinky fingers outstretched and the middle fingers close together, but Red Mitchell was the primary influence in establishing the use of two fingers in the right hand, which tremendously increases facility.
Scott, according to his sister, always gave Red Mitchell credit for this development in his playing. Red told me a few years ago:
"It is the left brain that controls articulation. The right hand. That's what the right hand does — articulate. The right brain controls spacial visualization, fantasy, forms, abstraction. That's what the left hand has to do.
"Gary Peacock and Scott LaFaro were both proteges of mine. I remember one session in east L.A. when I showed them both this two-finger technique, which I had worked out in 1948 in Milwaukee, on a job there with Jackie Paris
"It's a little harder than patting your head and rubbing your stomach. But it's the same kind of problem. You have a tendency, if you go one-two one-two one-two with your fingers, and you want to go two-one two-one on the other hand, to hang up. You have to develop the independence. So that you can go one-two one-two one-two, or, even better rhythmically sometimes, two-one two-one two-one with the right hand and then random — you have to practice — fingering with your left hand so you can keep the right hand consistent and the left hand can go anywhere and not be hung up. When you get it down, the one hand doesn't know what the other hand is doing.
"And then you use your weaknesses. As Miles and Dizzy both used their pauses between phrases. You use the unevenness of it later so that the accents are where you want them. The loud notes are where you want the accents."
Bill Crow told me: "The funny thing is, Red developed that two-fingered system of plucking the bass before there was good amplification for the instrument. As a result, in the early years of his using it, you often couldn't hear him very well in night clubs. On records and in concert halls you could hear the wonderful music he was playing. But he played very softly. You can't pull the string as hard when you're just plucking with the fingers. Most players up until then got strength from pressing the right thumb against the side of the fingerboard and pulling against that leverage with the forefinger. The two-finger system raises the hand above the fingerboard where, even with the thumb as a fulcrum, the pull isn't as strong. But as soon as good amplification systems were invented for the bass, it became possible to change the setup putting the strings closer to the fingerboard, and to pluck without pulling the strings so hard.
That opened up a new technique that now has bass players playing with a velocity that was impossible in Blanton's day. You win some and you lose some. Not pulling the string hard changes the tone of the instrument, and amplification won't completely replace the tone quality of a richly vibrating instrument. I think George Mraz strikes the best balance I've heard: rich tone, wonderful technique."
Charlie Haden, another brilliant bassist who was one of Scott's friends, said: "Scotty never liked pickups — he wanted a real wood sound. Sometimes he would use a microphone wrapped in a towel wedged between the tailpiece and belly of the instrument, not in the bridge."
Don Thompson, who is not only a fine pianist and vibes player but a superb bassist, said:
"Because they've got the amplifier, guys lower the strings, lower the action, and then they can play real fast. And they get all that stuff going for them. But, unfortunately, what you lose in a lot of cases is that actual sound. Because when you hear guys play live now, you're not hearing the bass, you're hearing the amplifier. A bass doesn't sound like a bass any more. You're hearing pre-amps and speakers and effects and every other darn thing.
"Scott LaFaro had a beautiful sound. It was a real bass sound. Charlie Haden's sound on those old Ornette Coleman records, that's a real bass sound. Ray Brown on the Oscar Peterson records, you were hearing the bass. Now you hardly ever do. It's turned into something different. I don't like it as much.
"A lot of bass players are missing the message of Scott LaFaro. Scotty had some chops. He figured out the top end of the bass. He could play fast arpeggios. He could play amazingly fast. Too many bass players, I think, just play fast. But they don't hear the beauty of his melodies. They also don't hear how supportive he was when he played behind Bill Evans. He played pretty busy sometimes, but I don't think he ever seemed to get in the way or take the music away from Bill. Some other people, when you listen, you wonder: Who's playing here, is it bass or piano or what? With some guys the bass is actually distracting from the music. You can't really tell what's going on in the music because the bass is either too loud or too busy or playing too hard. The guy's not playing what the music needs, he's just playing what he wants to play. The music needs something from the bass, and if you don't play that, it doesn't matter what else you play, you've screwed it all up.
"Scotty managed to play the foundation and play a bunch of other stuff too and he never got in Bill Evans' way at all."
Chuck Israels, who replaced LaFaro with Bill Evans and was yet another friend of Scotty's, is in complete accord: "People have misused Scotty by saying 'Oh my God, it's possible to play fast.' And then they play fast but the content is missing."
One magazine writer called Scott the most influential bassist of the last fifty years, and I think that's true. Incredibly, his reputation rests almost completely on only four albums. Although he recorded with other groups, his importance emanates from the three sessions with Bill for Riverside Records and the four albums that came out of them, all produced by the company's president, Orrin Keepnews.
Bill recalled the beginning of that trio:
"When I left Miles Davis to form a trio in the fall of '58, Miles tried to help me get off the ground. He called some agents, and I asked (bassist) Jimmy Garrison and (drummer) Kenny Dennis. They said they'd like to try, so we had a few rehearsals and I got a booking at Basin Street East, which was a pretty heavy club.
"We were opposite Benny Goodman, who was returning to the scene after a long absence. It was a triumphant return — the place was jammed the whole time and they were paying him a tremendous price, chauffeured limousine, the whole thing. But they treated us as the intermission group, really rotten — a big dressing room and steak dinners for Benny's band, but we couldn't even get a Coke without paying a buck and a quarter.
"Kenny and Jimmy couldn't put up with this scene. It really got bad. In a two-week engagement, I think I went through six bass players and four drummers. Philly Joe Jones was on the job a few nights and began to get pretty heavy applause. So the boss said, 'Don't let your drummer take solos any more' and turned the mikes off on us."
Goodman was notorious for this. Whereas Woody Herman reveled in the applause his sidemen got, Goodman would not tolerate it, and would remove those solos by others that generated excitement. This is recounted in the extended article about the Goodman band's Russian tour, written by Bill Crow, who was on that tour, and published in the Jazzletter in 1985.
Bill Evans continued: "Well, I was quite friendly with Paul Motian. We had been making sessions together. And Scott LaFaro was working around the corner with a singer — I forget who — and dropped into Basin Street a couple of times. Anyway, it ended up where Scott and Paul were the final guys.
"All I had to offer was some kind of reputation and prestige that enabled me to have a record contract, which didn't pay much, but we could make records — not enough to live on, but enough to get a trio experienced and moving. I found these two musicians were not only compatible, but would be willing to dedicate themselves to a musical goal, a trio goal. To make an agreement to put down other work for anything that might come up for the trio."
The first engagement he obtained for this trio was at the Village Vanguard, owned by Max Gordon who, I always sensed, adored Bill. The club itself, on lower Seventh Avenue, was in a basement reached by a steep flight of stairs. It was shaped like a slice of pie, with the bandstand by the south wall. My memory is that it was mostly in red. It had very good acoustics, and I can think of no club in jazz history that, over the years, presented so distinguished a roster of great musicians. It was Bill's New York home, and I spent numberless evenings there with him, sitting back at the bar when I was alone, or at a front table when I was with his manager (and later, record producer) Helen Keane, to whom I introduced him. Soon after that Orrin Keepnews produced the first of the albums with that group, Portrait In Jazz, which reached the market in March 1960.
Orrin told me, "There were two studio sessions that produced Portrait in Jazz and Explorations, and an all-day session at the Village Vanguard that produced two albums, Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard'.'
I asked Orrin, "During the sessions, did you have any feeling of their historical importance?"
"Of course not," he answered. "I do remember what went on during the Explorations session. Bill and Scott were fighting constantly. Scott was asking for more money, because he didn't want to run the risk of going on the road with a junky and getting stranded somewhere." Orrin laughed. "So you could say there was a lot of creative tension on that session. Years later, Bill surprised me by telling me how happy he was with that album."
Scott was always angry with Bill over his heroin addiction. So was I.
Explorations was released in March, 1961. Four months later Scott LaFaro was dead. Bill refused to play in public for nearly a year. He was shattered by the death, and guilty over the thought of all they might have accomplished during their brief time together had he not been strung out. He told me so. He worked with some superb bassists in the ensuing years, among them Eddie Gomez and Marc Johnson, but there was something he had with Scott LaFaro for which he yearned ever after.”
To be continued in Part 2.