Still Listening: A Conversation with Bassist/Poet Larry Roland

(Photo credit: Peter Gannushkin)

Larry Roland is a poet of the bass and the pen with nearly four decades of professional experience across a variety of fields. After graduating from Boston University in 1973 with a BS in Education, he taught health and P.E. in the local public school system. He later earned a Master’s degree in Public Health from the University of Massachusetts. All the while, he was refining his poetic voice, drawing on everyday life around him to reflect on both individual and collective pasts and continues to do so in his current home of New York City. Along the way, he found kindred solace in the upright bass, alongside which he cut his teeth as part of the house band at Wally’s in Boston’s South End. After touring and recording with trumpeter Raphe Malik and founding the Urge 4Tet with pianist Donal Fox, he released his first album of solo bass and spoken word, As Time Flows On, in 2001. Next for him was the Bassline Motion project with dancer/choreographer Adrienne Hawkins, plus an acclaimed record with the Charles Gayle Trio, Streets, in 2011. Since 2012, he has been involved in We Free StRINGS, a free jazz ensemble intent on dismantling the ethos of Western musical paradigms. Most recently, he put out a book of poetry, ..Just Sayin’!!, in 2019 and in 2020 was featured on the album We Were Here by The Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective, of which he is a former founding member. 

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me a little about those early days at Wally’s? 

Larry Roland: That was my school, man. We played bebop—no ballads—every night from 9 pm to 2 am. We had Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart, Tommy Campbell, Billy Kilson…you name it. And there I was, somehow ending up as the bass player. 

TG: On your solo album, As Time Flows On, you’ve got this track called “The Journey,” which resonates deeply during this time of pandemic. In it, you talk about the “realization of being bound” and a “serious trek for truth.” Regardless of what you’re playing, does that spirit animate everything you do? 

LR: You see, that’s the bottom line. It’s the spirit. In almost everything you see going on today, the spirit has been manipulated. It’s missing. There’s so much fear in the world that people start craving these parameters created by someone who has a title or what have you. I say no, man, I’m just writing this stuff up. When people started asking me to participate in these “soirees” back in college, it was very interesting to me. I was able to check out the whole class thing. I would show up with my writings folded up in a brown paper bag stuck in my belt and people would say, “Oh, you’re here!” I’d read something and people would be floored, but to me, I was just talking about life. I wasn’t there to be a token entertainer, but to educate. And then I’d be kicking it in my dorm—I was an athlete, you see, a ball player at Boston University—and would share something there, too. They thought it was deep. Being taken seriously off the court by guys I rubbed shoulders with on it was important. It put a smile on my face, because academically I was struggling. 

TG: How did you channel that energy at such a formative time into a professional life, as it were? 

LR: People always tell me, you should be out there, man. I say, listen, I’m just satisfied being above the ground and having a few things to say. As far as getting caught up in the race, I’m not really sure on my feet like that. I didn’t go to school to learn how to play bass or write. I went to very poor public schools. And that’s fine with me. I try to keep it as raw as possible without really having to answer to anyone. If it resonates and touches someone, that’s a blessing for me, because I’m just a conduit. 

TG: Where and how does the music fit into all of this? 

LR: I grew up in a household filled with Bird, Trane, Lee Morgan, Sonny Rollins, Yusef Lateef and Stravinsky. During that time, we still had a little record store on the corner where you could find all sorts of music. Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, I was inundated with all of that. Plus, my dad knew a lot of musicians. He and Roy Haynes were tight. So much so that my mom would get tired of seeing Roy’s drums in the living room. “Put dem drums back in the hall!” she’d say. Around Christmastime, we would get these postcards from creative people all over the world. Every time I looked at them, I couldn’t help but think, now that’s freedom. Whenever people ask me about the most significant thing growing up that really helped shape my perception into who I am today, I always say it was the music. My dad knew these people: painters, musicians, intellectuals. They would meet in my house and break down stuff in ways I never experienced on the outside. They were all focused more on the qualitative than the quantitative. Some of the deepest stuff I heard was in my living room. 

TG: In listening to your spoken word especially, I get this palpable sense that you’re looking at history with clear and open eyes. Whereas the world may cut and re-paste it into a different narrative, you’re trying to get to the heart of it, in the same way a genealogist may draw up a family tree. How do you see yourself making a contribution? 

LR: It all comes back to the spirit. People sometimes tell me, man, I’ve never seen anyone procrastinate as much as you; you should be doing this, that and the other. But I am doing it. You just don’t see it. I’m always creating in my mind. I’m just not about trying to be up front with it and gain all the attention. This brother, Hasan Abdul-Karim, I play with sometimes—in his 80s and still blowing tenor—is really into astrology, so he offered to do my chart one time. He said, “I wish I had your stars. You don’t even have to do anything. You’re linked to the universe. That’s special. That’s power. Spiritual power.” So I walked with that. I try to stay what I call “naturonic.” I try to move with nature. These days, I have a little mouse in my pantry. Most people would see him as a nuisance, but he’s trying to live the same way we’re trying to live. He’s not trying to bring attention to himself. He respects my space and I respect his. The odds are against him. Maybe he’s got a crevice behind the wall and maybe even a family he’s bringing crumbs to. Maintaining that connection to the little things is how I’ve been able to move ahead and navigate the terrain. Just be as still as you can and your surroundings will speak to you.

TG: You could say there’s a difference between those who move for the mere sake of it because they don’t know how to be still and those who have to be still and let the world blossom around them. You can’t be attentive to the spirit, or any spirit, if you’re always on the go, because you’re either too busy talking down to everyone or shutting them out. We need time for cultivation. 

LR: I’m doing a piece right now on technology and I keep coming back to this image of Toto pulling back the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. That’s exactly what I see going on. The mask is coming down and there’s desperation out there. We have to be careful with our minds, because the proverbial THEY understand the power of hypnotism based on repetition. Sometimes I hear the classics on the radio and am reminded of how the jazz greats did so much with so little. I’m blessed to have grown up in that time. Not just around jazz, but Black music in general. Gospel, R&B and don’t get me started on James Brown, now he packed the party. As soon as he came on, it was hands up. And if you didn’t have anybody, you just danced with the wall. But you were still telling a story. 

TG: How did this upcoming live-stream concert come about? 

LR: One Breath Rising asked me and I said yes, simple as that. Since then, I’ve been going through the pieces in my mind, letting them grow. The fact that it takes place on Valentine’s Day reminds me of a performance I did for the Provincetown Playhouse at the invitation of Regina Ress, who teaches storytelling at NYU. In that piece, I said I was “looking for an analog love in a digital world.” That notion got me thinking about sound. We’re living in a world of ones and zeros, kicked off with an electrical connection, but I’m used to striking something, producing vibration. 

In that performance, for which I both spoke and played, I told the story of my bass, which was built in Germany in the 1840s. It was found in a bombed-out building in Berlin and no one knows how it got here. I had a chance to try it out at the luthier’s shop when I was getting my plywood model fixed. That night, I couldn’t sleep, all I could hear was that sound. I was in love. I ended up trading my bass for the German one and it’s still my go-to instrument. I told a more detailed version of that story to an audience once and at the end these two old couples approached me and introduced themselves as German concentration camp survivors. They felt such an affinity for my bass, down to the serial number imprinted on the scroll. As I was giving them a closer look, one of the wives was patting and rubbing the bass like it was a real individual, which it is. I got really emotional. They saw a lot of people in that story and told me to keep playing. That’s when I realized the gift ran both ways. You pull in things that so many others take for granted, and you magnify them. This is who we are. 

TG: Speaking of sound, I can’t help but feel like you’re reciting poetry when you’re playing bass and playing bass when you’re reciting poetry. 

LR: I’ll walk with that, too. I live an improvisational lifestyle. Whatever I don’t do today, I’ll do the next time. 

TG: Finally, I’d like to go back to the beginning of your relationship with the bass. 

LR: I didn’t pick the bass up until I was 30. When I did, I already knew how I wanted it to sound and where I would go with it. Back then, I was getting poetry gigs in Boston when I ran into a bassist by the name of John Jamyll Jones. We were having a Black History Month program and I wanted him to accompany me while I read. The performance was even shown on PBS under the name Say Brother. After that I joined his band, Worlds, reciting poetry and playing a little percussion. They had two bassists, one of whom pursued other paths in life and sold me his bass. At first, I just had it in the living room, but then I would put on John Coltrane’s Ascension and start playing along with it. I felt like part of the band. Jamyll showed me the rudiments: how to hold the instrument and plant my feet properly. Then I got some books on fingering and such. I practiced every night. I just wanted to play. I never met my teachers: Jimmy Garrison, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Palle Danielsson. Then, a guy from Berklee who’d heard me play called me about joining him at Wally’s. He needed someone fast, so I took the risk and developed from there. Aside from studying a bit with Cecil McBee, I was largely self-taught. It was always about the music. It saved my life. I was a listener before I was a player and I’m still listening.

(This article originall appeared in the February 2021 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Larry Grenadier: The Gleaners (ECM 2560)

2560 X

Larry Grenadier
The Gleaners

Larry Grenadier double bass
Recorded December 2016, Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Mixed February 2018 at Studios La Buissonne by Manfred Eicher, Larry Grenadier, and Gérard de Haro (engineer)
Mastering: Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 15, 2019

With The Gleaners, Larry Grenadier joins a line of double bass virtuosos—including Miroslav Vitous, Barre Phillips and Dave Holland—that have released a solitary program on ECM. What distinguishes his from those predecessors is as much a matter of musicality and energy as of tone and texture. For while the prospect of a solo bass recording may conjure images of hermetic ponderousness, Grenadier cuts against the grain of expectation with a vast cartography. In the three-dimensional plucking of “Pettiford,” as also in the arco beauties of “Oceanic” and “The Gleaner” that surround it, he walks the line between comping and melodizing with such ease that he seems to emerge with a new category in hand. In the evocative “Woebegone,” one of only two tracks to feature minimal overdubs, he combines those elements richly. Another highlight of his originals is “Vineland,” which tips its hat to Phillips.

Grenadier includes a smattering of lovingly chosen material by others. Chief among them is “Gone Like the Season Does.” Written by his wife, singer Rebecca Martin, it feels like watching a teardrop fall in slow motion. Also noteworthy are his fusion of John Coltrane’s “Compassion” with Paul Motian’s “The Owl of Cranston,” which is about as full a statement as one could imagine from the instrument, and a dramatic reimagining of George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now,” which begins with urgent bowing before settling into a lilt of robust, down-home pizzicato.

Rounding out this cabinet of curios are two bagatelles written for Grenadier by musical compatriot Wolfgang Muthspiel. The second of these is a thing of staggering beauty and points to The Gleaners as more than an album of bracing insight and invention, but one of the finest solo bass efforts ever produced.

(This review originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Björn Meyer: Provenance (ECM 2566)

Provenance

Björn Meyer
Provenance

Björn Meyer 6-string electric and acoustic bass guitars
Recorded August 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 15, 2017

Björn Meyer is perhaps best known to ECM listeners as bassist for Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin before leaving the band in 2012, and by his appearances on albums of Anouar Brahem, notably 2014’s Souvenance. But the kaleidoscope he has assembled for this 2017 solo album is as surprising as it is fated. Each of its twelve vignettes acts as a window not into but out of Meyer’s singular approach to his six-string electric and acoustic basses. Through their diurnal dialogues, he elicits a sundial’s worth of possible directions, transforming reveries into grounded experiences.

In the opening “Aldebaran,” exquisite suspensions of disbelief bleed into a space where contact of flesh on metal leaves traces of communication, and where the barest whisper of a string is also its credo. Its evocations of wind and water are shared by “Trails Crossing,” which finds Meyer riding a current of arpeggios, which by their changes of direction imply a crossing not only of trails but also of those traveling along them, as if at that meeting point one might witness souls jumping from body to body in search of blessed purpose.

The title track is a spectrum of emotional transference, a series of genetic equations spliced and sequenced into chains of melodic integrity. Here, as elsewhere along the album’s trajectory, tasteful applications of electronic delays and reverb magnify what is already felt spiritually. Where “Pendulum” and “Pulse,” for example, are linked to rhythms of movement, “Garden Of Silence” and “Three Thirteen” achieve their impact through understatement.

Against such fullness of expression, the acoustic bass provides ever-expanding possibilities, spanning the gamut from funky (“Squizzle”) to descriptive (“Merry-Go-Round”) and, when combined with electric (“Dance”), sonic origami in reverse. Just as the electric resonates through harmonic comet tails in “Traces Of A Song,” so does the acoustic seek an origin story to unite them both. And in “Garden Of Silence,” by harpist and singer Asita Hamidi (1961-2012), to whom this album is dedicated, he activates a trail of molecules from instinct to action that by the end leads us back to where we began, hopeful and with all the necessary gear intact.

Uros Spasojevic / Bojan Marjanovic: V

v

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines “flow” as a oneness of performer and process, and on electric bassist Uros Spasojevic and pianist Bojan Marjanovic achieve precisely that. That said, the Serbian duo doesn’t so much combine forces as close the gap between them, like two hands from different religious traditions coming together in a single prayer.

Spasojevic is unique for drawing out the bass’ corporeal qualities. In his solo “North,” he opens the curtain in a gesture so holistic that it seems to inhale and exhale simultaneously. With a tone that’s rounded yet which pierces the heart, he drops higher notes into a blurry pond, every ripple like a newborn song in search of words. The piano’s entrance in “Senok” reveals, with quiet assurance, an underlying Ketil Bjørnstad influence. Yet while the Norwegian pianist-composer’s cinematic lyricism is paralleled, it’s filtered through a color scheme all its own. Such an association suggests an ECM connection, and by no coincidence, as Spasojevic—who writes all the music here—cites the label as a staple of his listening diet. Such respect is further enhanced by the fact that the album was mixed and mastered under the attentive hand of Jan Erik Kongshaug at Oslo’s famed Rainbow Studio, and by the familiar thematic fragment of “Water,” which seems to have been lifted sanctimoniously from Kenny Wheeler’s “Nicolette.”

The sonic footprint of Vis as non-invasive as it is expansive. In “Guide” and “Change,” it reaches deepest layers of emotional transference, rendering hidden dreams with the pigment of open realities. “Hope” is a prelude to the title track, of which a pianistic lattice offers its plot to Spasojevic’s melodic fruit. As Marjanovic heightens his freedom of expression in spiraling architectures, he uncovers more than the album’s mission statement, but a land without borders. “End of the hill” thus surveys the album’s most abstract territories, making use of electronic augmentations and spontaneous impulses, while “Sea” closes the circle with another lone journey, of which every step brings us farther from a destination, letting us float instead across a misty sea, thankful for the beauty of unknowing.

No Time to Waste: Conversations with Bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer

mcbride-myer-banner

For the inaugural Cornell Concert Series performance of 2017, Grammy-winning bassists Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer took to the stage at Bailey Hall on February 3. Although both musicians helm their respective vessels in nominally different streams, together they have created something as fresh as their foundations are solid. Where McBride is something of a musical chameleon, rooted in the backyard of the blues yet stretching his branches over into every willing neighbor’s property, Meyer has turned his classical wheelhouse into a kaleidoscope of interpretive possibilities. I had the opportunity to speak with both bassists — first to Mr. McBride on the phone, followed by Mr. Meyer via e-mail — as an overture to what promises to be an engaging night from this rare combination of instruments.

Tyran Grillo: One of my all-time favorites from your discography is Live at Tonic. I’m curious to know your personal feelings regarding that performance, because for me it’s such a solid compendium of who you are as an artist and of the different streams you bring together in your performance.

Christian McBride: That record was recorded in 2005, and by that point [saxophonist] Ron Blake, [keyboardist] Geoffrey Keezer and [drummer] Terreon Gully had been in my working group for six years. Consistency was always a struggle in terms of gigs and recordings, mostly because at that time I was touring also with Pat Metheny’s trio, which made it hard to get any momentum going. But I really loved that band. I considered it a hybrid. Everyone gets involved in false sentiments of genre, and everybody in that band listened to all sorts of music. Yes, our hearts and skills were in jazz, but the way we played it had been informed by pop, soul, classical, avant-garde, electronic, you name it. You can’t possibly be a professional creative musician and not be touched by various styles of music. Even those who make a conscious decision to do one thing—which is fine because you should do what moves you — like more kinds of music than one would give them credit for. You might not guess you could have an in-depth conversation with Wynton Marsalis about Earth, Wind & Fire, but you could.

TG: One thing I like about that recording is the third disc, which is nothing but jams. What does the jam mean to you?

CM: One of my current responsibilities is being the artistic advisor for jazz programming at NJPAC [New Jersey Performing Arts Center] in Newark, where I’m hoping to create something called “The American Jam,” for which my goal is to get musicians spanning all kinds of so-called genres up on stage to jam for an hour. Get a group of musicians from jazz, rock, country and gospel together, and there’s all one thing we know collectively, and that’s the blues. I’m hoping to make this thing happen at some point, because music seems to be the one fail-safe way to bring different cultures together. When you see the polarization and intense disagreements between parties, music is that one thing that keeps us on the same page and allows us to have a conversation. Music exposes the lies and propagandas that bombard us on a daily basis and brings out our honesty and rawest passions. In that respect, music is a truth serum.

TG: I’ve always enjoyed your arco playing. Were you inspired by anyone else’s use of the bow or was it just an extension of your training on the instrument that you decided to incorporate later on?

CM: I started using the bow out of necessity. One of my first steady gigs while attending Julliard was at a club called Augie’s. Every night, the third set would turn into a jam session. There was always a long line of saxophonists, trumpeters, guitarists, pianists, and drummers and maybe two bassists, who would usually go home. So there I was, playing the same song on stage for 40 minutes. One night we were playing an old [Rodgers and Hart] standard called “Lover.” The bandleader was Jesse Davis, who liked to play it way up-tempo. My muscles were already cramping up and my callouses getting soft, and there was Jesse looking at me for a bass solo. I couldn’t even feel my hands at this point. I took it as a challenge, but playing it pizzicato would’ve been too fast, so I pulled out my bow. Not only did it work, but Jesse seemed rather impressed, so I kept it in the playbook. That gig solidified my commitment to always using the bow, even in jazz settings.

TG: Can you talk about your relationship with Edgar Meyer and how you two came to play together?

CM: The first time I heard Edgar was in the early 1990s, shortly after I met the great Ray Brown, who was one of my greatest mentors and like a second father to me. Ray asked if I knew of Edgar Meyer, so he showed me this video he did with Edgar and fellow bassist Victor Wooten. From that point on, I became a huge fan of Edgar and started following his career, in awe of his creativity and skill. Jump to 2000, and speaking of Victor Wooten again, I went to Victor’s bass camp in Tennessee, where Edgar was a surprise guest. It was so great just meet the guy and hang with him, and we ended up jamming together. As all artists do, we shared the obligatory “Hey, we should work together one day” line, but as much as I admired him, I knew that if I wanted to do some duets with him, I had to be at the top of my game. It’s like, if you’re going to fight Floyd Mayweather, you’d better get training. In 2007, we decided to do a duet concert at the Aspen Music Festival. It was so wonderful that we decided to figure out how to keep it going, and finally started going on tour last year. Standing on stage next to Edgar is, on the one hand, depressing. I wish I could do what he does. But it’s also inspiring, because it makes me believe in what I cando and do it well.

McBride’s obvious respect for Meyer is echoed by the latter’s own for the former. True to form, and in artful contrast with McBride’s penchant for storytelling, Meyer speaks concisely and with rigor, although each of these respective tendencies is the yin to the other’s yang.

TG: Having performed with other bassists such as Victor Wooten, what distinguishes your work with Christian McBride, and how has it enriched your own playing?

Edgar Meyer: Most of what I did with Victor was to perform on a television program with him and Ray Brown around 25 years ago, which was of course a wonderful experience. Playing with another bass player is rare for me. I prefer to collaborate with complementary instruments. However, playing with Christian is an experience too rewarding to pass up. He is my favorite bass player and I enjoy hearing him up close and feeling what his flow and reactions are like. I can listen to the replay of a show and directly compare how we do things and try to imitate the things that I cannot do as well as he does. He also makes everyone with him better, so why wouldn’tyou want to play with him? Never turn down a breath mint.

TG: As one who crosses boundaries, working with a variety of musicians, do you see any need for identifying with particular genres, or is music more of a holistic experience for you?

EM: I do not have a clear answer to that question. I think the reality is complex. Studying a particular branch of music in depth should hopefully broaden horizons, not narrow them. A simplistic answer is that one should accurately observe what makes different music similar and what makes it different. I personally lean toward developing a unified voice that can be credible across a fairly wide stylistic range instead of multiple voices for different situations. It is helpful to try to figure underlying principles in different kinds of music instead of following rules of tradition.

TG: What is something you know now as an artist that you didn’t, say, 20 years ago?

EM: That we are here for a brief time. There is no time to waste.

Seeing how smoothly these two masters converse when they’re not even in the same room, one can only imagine how well their voices will mesh when they delight their audience this Friday.

Click here to read my review of the concert.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun by clicking here.)

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer: Bringing the Love

Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
February 3, 2017
8:00pm

The double bass is a perennial fixture of many jazz combos. And yet, how rare to hear it on its own terms. Rarer still in duet with a like partner. The Cornell Concert Series kicked off its spring season by proving that a duo of basses could be more than meets the ear. As twin ramparts of their generation, Christian McBride and Edgar Meyer are as masterful as they come. Where one cut his teeth on the jagged edges of jazz, the other was baptized in classical waters. Yet, both have eroded the boundaries of their chosen genres in mutual respect. This respect was nowhere so evident as in Bailey Hall on Friday, where they conversed as friends and allies do: without judgment or fear.

McBride and Meyer evoked a symbiotic relationship on stage. The combinatory powers of their artistries spanned the gamut. On the technical front, Meyer carried a resonant tone and perfect pitch throughout, as emphasized by his mellifluous bowing. McBride, meanwhile, drew a z-axis straight into the audience, going playfully off pitch as only a seasoned jazzman can, to emphasize flexibility of every note. In short: Meyer sang and McBride spoke.

This dynamic held true whether the duo was navigating the well-trodden landscapes of standards like “My Funny Valentine” and “Days of Wine and Roses,” or escorting listeners along far-less-traveled compositions between them. The concert opened in the latter vein with Meyer’s own “Green Slime,” a decidedly funky jaunt bearing all the benchmarks of either musician’s idiosyncrasies. McBride’s “Lullaby for a Ladybug” later revealed a softer side, and for it the composer played at the piano, by which he clothed its childlike whimsy in the tender skin of balladry. And their jointly written “Bass Duet #1,” a blues with postmodern touches.

The reigning highlights of the program were both solo pieces. Meyer performed an untitled composition for bass alone, which danced like a Hindemith viola sonata in its legato turns. McBride, for his part, treated us with a solo rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” that was as acrobatic as it was insightful. Although McBride played it all-pizzicato, he too is an adept wielder of the bow and his gloss of “Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered” was even more heartfelt.

A double-dip into the Miles Davis songbook yielded fresh versions of “Solar” and “All Blues” (the concert’s encore), while another into rural waters came up with a downright orchestral arrangement of Bill Monroe’s “Tennessee Blues” and the frantic virtuosity of Meyer’s aptly titled “Barnyard Disturbance.” The musicians’ free-spirited approach served the authenticity of these tunes and made for an inspiring evening. Like Meyer’s “F.R.B.,” which paid homage to the late, great Ray Brown, their love for each other, for the music and for all who inspired them was the most engaging melody of all.

Click here to read my pre-concert interview with both musicians.

(See this article as it originally appeared in The Cornell Daily Sun by clicking here.)