Christopher Kuffner wears many musical hats! He’s an acclaimed producer, bassist, composer, musical director, and multi-instrumentalist with Regina Spektor, Ingrid Michaelson, Jay Stoler, Bess Rogers, and Gregory and the Hawk, to cite a select few. Mr. Kuffner reveals the powers of the bass unbeknownst to most civilians!
Know Your Bass Player Guest Editorial By Chris Semal
OK, after the last blog post dealt with a lot of sadness, I promised to lighten up and write about something happy this time around. Since some people have a fear of circus clowns, I’ll avoid that topic and stick to a subject that certainly brings great joy to each and every person, especially me: the bass guitar! Perhaps there are some six string guitarists out there reading this who will snort with derision, but let us pity those poor, misguided souls.
I first picked one up as a freshman in high school when the bassist for the Deep Purple cover band in which I was singing had to leave school for a couple of months due to some reason I can no longer remember. He lent me his instrument so that the band could continue to rehearse and Steve, the guitarist, demonstrated zen-like patience in teaching me some of the songs. I’m sure you’re all thinking, “Ah, the first thing he learned was ‘Smoke On the Water’”, but no, believe it or not, that wasn’t in our repertoire. It was way too obvious and I commend my band mates for their foresight at that tender age. The first song that Steve showed me was ‘Child In Time’, the ten minute opus from their amazing album ‘In Rock’. I suppose he thought that the beginning chords would be easy enough, and he was right, but then about halfway through the song, it’s off to the races and I can’t speculate on how many hours we spent trying to play this, just that there were many, many blisters acquired. I should point out that Steve was a European transfer student whose father was head of the Goethe Institut in New York, the offices of this association promoting German international cultural cooperation located directly across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 5th Avenue. The band was kindly allowed to use the auditorium and it’s a safe bet that in 1974, there were no other bands out there slamming their way through ‘Highway Star’ on the stages of institutions named for key figures of Weimar Classicism.
I’d always admired the shape of the electric guitar or bass in all its permutations, but had never strapped one on until then. I’ve now been playing for thirty-eight years (gulp!) and can still remember the initial sensation, feeling the smooth wood against the front of my body and flicking the switch to turn the amp on. If you’ve never experienced this, go into a music store somewhere and give it a try. The vibration from the strings through the wood, into the pick-ups and then finally out of the amp speakers is a majestic revelation. The instrument resonates and reverberates with the massive sound. A fourteen year old boy with a bass slung down at crotch level, plucking the low E string? Well, as I said before, I’m still jamming at fifty-two and have no immediate plans of stopping. Somewhere along the way, I actually learned how to play the instrument and it’s been one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had.
P.S. I have to mention this: I always write with music playing and have some nine thousand songs in iTunes on my computer, invariably set to random play. Guess what started playing halfway through creating this post? You got it: ‘Smoke On the Water’.
Chris Semal was born in New York City in 1959 and has lived there all his life. He is aware that other places exist and likes to visit them from time to time, but the city is a hard mistress to resist and he keeps going back to her. A musician, singer and songwriter, he has played pretty much every rock club in Manhattan at one time or another since the late 70s and went to school at the University of Miami to study Music Engineering, coming back north to do the only obvious thing possible, becoming a municipal bond broker and eventually working as a consultant building financial models. In the early part of the millennium, between both consulting and band gigs, he thought it might be interesting to see what would happen if he expanded on the 80 or so words he used in writing song lyrics and went for the 80,000 he would need for a novel. And so Trial Of Tears was born, along with a passion for developing plots and characters.
He exemplifies the class of players which Know Your Bass Player reveres. As I was witness, The Silver Bullet Band were among the best backing ensembles of their era, rivaling Bruce's E Street Band and Johnny's Jukes.
Curiously Bob Seger chose to wax a considerable number of album tracks with the Muscle Shoals rhythm section - however to my ears, those cuts lacked the muscle of the Bullet Band's classic lineup anchored by bassist Chris Campbell.
Working the pocket with a definitive Fender tone, Campbell, in the tradition of many a master bar band bassist, moved seamlessly from rhythm & blues, funk, disco, soul, hard rock, 50s rock, and tender balladry.
“All the tired horses in the sun, how am I supposed to get any ridin’ done….” In his autobiography Chronicles, his Bobness reveals that Self Portrait (1970) was an attempt to shed a segment, if not all of his fervent reverential fanbase who cast him as the “voice of a generation.” Regardless of Zimmy’s intentions, to my ears, this scorned two-fer and its extended Bootleg Series: Another Self Portrait emerges as a shambolic masterwork that divulges more about the artist than was probably intended. The rotating bass chair features Rick Danko on most of the tracks, along with Nashville studio cats Charlie McCoy, Bob Moore, the devil’s fiddle player Charlie Daniels, Stu Woods, and Wrecking Crew icon Joe Osborn. As a musician, I appreciate the informal, throw-it-all-against-the-wall aesthetic and target practice approach to the bass.
https://bit.ly/2IR7Dnn In the early 00’s when Johnny Marr produced Brit "Beatle Barnet Fair" Haven’s magnificent pair of dream pop platters Between the Senses - perhaps a nod’s as good as a wink to the Stones’ Between the Buttons – and the follow-up All For A Reason, Moz’s former mate was certainly enamored with the melodic pocket plectrum purveyance of bassist Iwan Gronow.
Anchoring Mr. Marr’s muscular post-Smiths ensembles, https://bit.ly/Yqnems Iwan serves the mercurial Mancunian guitar hero quite effectively by way of a gritty, pedal pushing Fender P tones and supportive passages with an occasional harmonic foray into the upper register.
Double live slabs are oft ponderous affairs, however to my ears, this terrific Traffic twofer with Muscle Shoals Swamper David Hood in the bass chair is indeed an exception. Waxed in Germany ’73 – hence the “wir fahr'n fahr'n fahr'n auf der Autobahn” cover artwork – Hood along with polyrhythmic percussion purveyors Jim Capaldi, Rebop, and Roger Hawkins stir up a Bitches Brew brouhaha on super stretched out renditions of the studio originals. David is a master of the pocket – rendering subtle variations on what are essentially jam vamps tailored to the improvisational prowess of Messrs. Chris Wood, Steve Winwood, and second keys man Barry Beckett. https://bit.ly/2JFsgE9
Affix Ferry to Phil Manaznera’s extraordinary solo sides; and you’ve got another generation or two of classic Roxy. Of all the outstanding work Bill MacCormick rendered in the service of Phil and 801, K-Scope (1978) is likely the pinnacle. With his resonant Fender P up, up, up, in the mix with an occasional tinge of flange, MacCormick flexes his funky rhythmic and harmonic chops on killer tracks that ache for a charismatic crooner. Cameos include John Wetton, Tim and Neil Finn, Paul Thompson, Lol Crème, Simon Phillips, and Mel Collins.
Tuna morphs from a jam ensemble to a bona fide song band on their immortal third slab waxed in late ‘71, and which also marks their studio bow. Every Casady side is essential, however Burgers further reveals the innumerable ways Jack seamlessly works the pocket and serves as a countermelodic virtuoso. The abrupt tempo changes in “True Religion” https://bit.ly/2GwgXMp , the fuzzy sustained notes, chromatic runs on “Sea Child” https://bit.ly/2Jhwf9Y and “Water Song” https://bit.ly/2q3jfwt among others, weave their way through Jorma’s repertoire of master guitar techniques too numerous to cite here.
Papa John and drummer Sammy Piazza add a funk - swing vibe to the proceedings. And that’s David Crosby on “Highway Song” https://bit.ly/2q1cPgo wherein Jack disposes the distortion for an usually resonant trad bass tone.
https://bit.ly/2GjdLI2 He is a prolific Grammy Award winning composer, filmmaker, producer, solo recording artist, multi-instrumentalist, and founding member of the Patti Smith Group wherein he shared bass duties with Lenny Kaye.
His collaborations and band memberships span Blondie, Iggy Pop, John Cale, and John Waite, to site a scant English speaking few.
As a bassist, Ivan was the consummate song player, working the pocket and outlining them changes to ensure everyone around him on the bandstand and the studio sounded great. And they did!
He anchored “Austraila’s Beatles!”
Dingeman Adriaan Henry van der Sluijs aka Dick Diamonde was The Easybeats' bassist for their entire career which spanned 1964-69 and one successful reunion jaunt in 1986. Most noted for their hit “Friday On My Mind,” waxed with Shel Talmy in the producer’s chair when the lads migrated to swingin’ London in ‘67, Diamonde worked the pocket with a booming resonance symbolic of the era.
The band split following a pair of commendable slabs which forsook their powerful pop inclinations for heady psychedelic prog -which failed to reach an audience. Guitarist / composer George Young’s siblings Angus and Malcom went on to fame and fortune with AC/DC, and along with his Easybeats partner Harry Vanda, Young formed Flash and the Pan whilst Diamonde toiled in several New South Wales ensembles garnering scant attention.
https://bit.ly/2IX3G1h A soulful pocket player given to supportive harmonic extensions and grooves, the late Stephen Thompson was a magnificent anchor for John Mayall – especially the Bluesbreaker bandleader’s brilliant drummer-less ensemble as captured on the iconic live collection The Turning Point (1969).
An in-demand session player, Thompson also waxed seminal sides with Jesse Ed Davis, Stone the Crows, Denny Laine, Alvin Lee, and Kevin Coyne, among others.
The Meters and Stuff on a single slab under the semblance of Robert Palmer’s solo debut!
Waxed in ’74 in ‘Nawlins and New Yawk, bassists George Porter Jr. and Gordon Edwards pulsate in the pocket with their patented Fender P penchant for lower register repartee replete with upper register notes of grace.
Working the almighty groove with drummers Pretty Purdie, Simon Phillips, and Ziggy Modeliste – George and Gordon’s mastery of tone, rhythm, and space is matchless – and not a note was popped, slapped, nor plectrum purveyed!
Demons or angels? You decide!
Released as a fitting tribute to drummer extraordinaire Paul Triff, who passed shortly after this September 2015 gig, Live at the Mercury Lounge captures folk noir goddess Lorraine Leckie's posse in their natural habitat - the concert stage!
Featuring (as usual) bravura performances by Ms. Leckie, violinist Pavel Cingl in John Cale/Jean Luc-Ponty mode, and local guitar legend Hugh Pool - the cat who stitches it all together is bassist Charles DeChants. Groovin' with a masterful command of rhythm and space, DeChants' legato phrasing and warm tone affords a heavenly pocket to further fortify Ms. Leckie's oft wicked libretto.
Hearty hosannas aplenty have been heaped upon Super Session (1968) and deservedly so. It was the watershed slab that elevated rock musicianship to that of the hallowed jazz elites, in addition to serving as an everlasting showcase for the late, great Michael Bloomfield. Oft overlooked is the masterful work of bassist Harvey Brooks. His earthy warm Fender tone, his fluid swing fueled phrasing, his nimble articulation and inventive voice-leading, his groove inflected supportive pocket and melodic playing to my ears, stands among the greatest performances ever waxed by any bass player in a rock format.
Dig Harvey’s impeccable upright inspired approach on “Harvey’s Tune!” http://bit.ly/2lQ3W87 Sure, sure Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Stephen Stills, Barry Goldberg, and Eddie Hoh were already accomplished players at this point in their careers, yet Mr. Brooks made them sound even better. In fact, from Dylan to Miles and miles beyond, Harvey served as a vital catalyst in the bass chair with every artist he worked with.
As I have huffed and puffed in Huff Post, http://bit.ly/2hOLzO3 Harvey Brooks deserves recognition for his immeasurable contributions to the art-form that is rock ‘n roll and popular music in all its variants including folk, jazz, and blues.
He is giant of the instrument. Aside from musos and bass playing “guys/girls like us,” he is unknown to the masses even though his band, The Dixie Dregs, which he formed with guitarist Steve Morse in 1973 at my alma mater University of Miami, were among the most groundbreaking and “commercially accessible” fusion ensembles of their generation!
Nowadays, between Dregs reunions, Andy West enjoys an equally stellar career as a software programmer / consultant. During his time with The Dregs, and later as a sideman, collaborator, and solo recording artist - Andy expanded the language of the bass guitar as an improviser, ensemble player, and sonic visionary.
A master of fretless, extended range, trad four, plectrum, slap, and finger-style – Andy and the Dregs were truly an “American music” collective, boundlessly incorporating country, hard rock, jazz, blues, and folk in their remarkable canon of recorded and live work.
Though they flirted with mainstream acceptance towards “The Dregs” end of their initial run, they curiously never achieved the recognition bestowed the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever, Herbie’s Headhunters, and Weather Report. Go figure!
http://bit.ly/2tPMebm Doomed by drug addiction, this 1990s alt-rock super group comprised from Seattle’s finest – Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, and Screaming Trees - waxed a gem of a slab that traversed ambient, jazz, blues, trad hard-rock and “grunge.”
Bassist John Baker Saunders, who cut his teeth with notable artists Hubert Sumlin and The Walkabouts, among others, nimbly works the pocket and renders inventive harmonic extensions and legato passages.
Intense, understated performances from all involved: Layne Staley, Mike McCready, Barrett Martin, and Mark Lanegan – it’s pity most of Mad Season left this mortal coil way too soon.
http://bit.ly/2FARGnq Never pass up an opportunity to hear Herbie Flowers.
Waxed at Olympic in ’73 and Electric Ladyland in ’74 the former David Jones’ former squeeze Ava Cherry borrowed her beau’s band (Aynsley Dunbar, Mike Garson, Mark Pritchard, Warren Peace, and Herbie) for a platter of Bowie left-overs and tunes penned by then emerging singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, plus geezers Roy Harper and Brian Wilson.
Enjoyably campy, kitschy, and oft corny – Flowers flourishes with his usual contrapuntal and pocket genius.
http://bit.ly/2oSVc1S Out through the indoor?
Akin to his celebrated bandmate Robert Plant, the post-Zep forays of the former John Baldwin are equally intriguing, though decidedly outside the mainstream. On this remarkable 1994 collaborative effort with avant-garde diva Diamanda Galas, Jonesy works the pocket on tracks that echo the thunder of his former ensemble sans the (occasional) bombast and macho bravura.
Dispatching his usual rhythm & blues approach in favor of Led-like riffage rendered with a much sharper tone than our beloved I, II, III, IV slabs of yore, this platter effectively brings experimental into the hard rock realm with an enjoyable dosage of ‘70s swagger.
Whoa, and that’s The Attractions’ Pete Thomas on drums!
Behold the pure power of pop as purveyed in New York City 1981! Bassist Bruce Gordon anchors The Mod Frames with buoyant pocket grooves, upper register grace notes, and graceful contrapuntal passages akin to such masters as Sir Paul, Dee Murray, and Colin Moulding.
With Billy Altman (vocals/guitar), multi-instrumentalist Ben Rosenblatt, my drummer pallie David Donen and guitarist Mark Michaels, dig Bruce almighty on “I Don’t Want to Cry” http://bit.ly/2FtCp7w and “Anyone After You.” http://bit.ly/2FWUr03
How did the big time elude these maestros of melody?
My bass heroes are getting even better with age. Dig the contrapuntal movement of “Smile at You," http://bit.ly/2CQ8ZeH the fuzzy riffage of “Come,” http://bit.ly/2oHLxLn and the soulful underpinning of “Miranda” http://bit.ly/2FGQiwQ - and that’s just three tracks from the last fab Mac slab which dates back to 2003. Perfect tone, perfect articulation, perfect note choices, and he was married to Christine Perfect. Instantly recognizable from the pocket to the melodic: John Graham McVie!