‘Gotta get some bottom…’
Our writer visits the low end of town and brings back the story of the lonesome bass player
How do you confuse a bassist?
Put one of his strings out of tune, but don’t tell him which one.
What’s the definition of a bass player?
Someone halfway between a drummer and a musician.
Why are there bass solos?
So the audience has time to talk.
How many bass players does it take to change a light bulb?
None. The lead guitarist can do it with his teeth.
The bass player isn’t always the most appreciated member of a band. Not as much as, say, the more theatrical lead guitarist or the sexy singer.
Jokes about bass players abound. Some people even think that bassists are a dispensable part of music. I had one person tell me, in the course of working on this article, that he and his brother used to play guitar and drums together and they simply didn’t need a bass player.
The humble bassist stands back there “holding it down” all night long and often doesn’t get the credit he or she deserves. In fact, I was recently writing a review of local bluegrass band Mossy Creek’s Christmas CD and took note after I was done that I had not mentioned the bass player. Space was short, and there were other things that needed to be addressed—the vocals, the choice of tunes, lyrics from a catchy original.
Mossy Creek’s bassist had done a terrific job being the heartbeat of the band, but nary a mention from this reviewer (a bassist herself, I might add). So, I thought, an article on bass players, specifically three local ones, might even things out some and hopefully be a little enlightening.
First on my list, of course, was Mossy Creek’s 23-year-old bassist Lancer Hardy, the guy I had omitted from my review. Hardy is a little unusual among bluegrass bassists in that he plays electric bass rather than upright. Add to that the fact that some of his influences are also electric players and decidedly not bluegrass—Jaco Pastorius, funk man Larry Graham, Victor Wooten and extreme Primus bassist Les Claypool ("probably my first influence")—though Hardy speaks glowingly of upright player Bryn Davies, who plays with bluegrasser Peter Rowan, as one of his favorite bass players. Hardy also plays drums, guitar and piano.
The question I put to all three of my interviewees was, “Why does a band have a bass player?” Hardy, with whom I chatted over a pot of tea at Has Beans on a recent quiet evening, responded immediately, “Well, if you take any normal band and take the bass out, it seems like something’s missing. People say, ‘What’s wrong?’ and no one really knows what, but they know something is missing. … The bass gives [the music] depth; it gives it weight.”
Hardy, who came to the bass after playing both drums and guitar, told me that his dad used to tell him that “a bass player’s nothing but a confused drummer.” It sounded like another bass player joke to me, but Hardy elaborated, “I think he’s exactly right. Bass is way more of a percussion instrument than anything. … I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been the soloist [on guitar]. I’ve been the drummer in a marching band [in high school]. Marching band helps you get a good sense of time. You pay so much attention to the rhythm … and bass is primarily a rhythm section instrument.”
Hardy combined his love of percussion with the chops he’d developed on the guitar and decided to pick up the bass, “the best of both worlds,” when he was about 17 or 18 and joined This Side Up, a now-defunct jazz group from Redding, where he lived before moving to Chico.
Do bass players get taken for granted?
“I think it’s better that way, personally,” the intense Hardy laughed. “I consider myself an introverted egomaniac. I can stand in the back, and I can just pretend to be humble. It’s perfect for me. … But when you [as a bass player] put out a really good groove for a soloist and you get ‘the look’ [he nods head positively and smiles] and they say, ‘Thanks, dude, for covering my back on that one!’ That’s what I like!”
I talked bass with Ginny Eck, the raven-haired 21-year-old electric bassist who holds it down for local rock bands Valentine and La Dolce Vita, over beers at Normal St. Bar. Eck, who counts old-school punk band The Clash, abstract indie rockers The Mars Volta and Rancid bassist Matt Freeman ("He’s so fast!") among her main influences, agrees that the bass is an essential—the essential—foundational piece of any band.
“We’re the basis—the bass-is—of the band. We’re what everyone builds up on, I think,” she said.
Like Hardy, Eck has played other styles of music (she used to play upright bass in a big band in high school, for one), and she plays other instruments as well, such as violin, which she began at age 7, and guitar. “I have no attention span, so I had to do a lot of things [musically]!” is how she explains, with a smile on her face, her multiple talents.
I throw another one of those bass player jokes at her: Are you just a frustrated guitar player?
“No-o-o!” Eck responds emphatically. “I really like bass. … It kind of empowers me knowing I’m playing through 400 watts and, like, the speaker’s taller than I am. There’s definitely something cool about that.”
Veteran bassist/multi-instrumentalist Greg D’Augelli’s business card says it all: “Music for most occasions.” The long list of instruments he plays is enough to keep him occupied at any party: soprano, alto, tenor and baritone sax; clarinet and bass clarinet; plus, flute, piccolo and piano.
There isn’t too much ground that D’Augelli hasn’t covered musically, everything from jazz (he has played with the proverbial “everybody” in town and beyond, as well as with such world-class jazz hotshots as Joe Henderson and Buddy Collette) to country, Chico State musicals to the Sacramento Philharmonic to in-demand session work for well-known Northern California producer Bill Bottrell, who has worked with the likes of such huge music stars as Michael Jackson, Madonna and Sheryl Crow.
Though D’Augelli confesses to a love of practicing his electric bass around the house (he speaks fondly of Jaco Pastorius, Motown genius James Jamerson and the seriously funky Bootsy Collins), he is most known for his upright work. I know I am not the only one who gets pleasure from seeing the tall D’Augelli standing there at a gig, eyes closed, hunkered happily over his upright, producing those exquisite low sounds.
Much of my time talking to the very laidback D’Augelli as we tucked into our lunch of yummy chicken sandwiches up at Broadway Heights was spent discussing his session work with Bottrell (you can hear D’Augelli’s fine bass work on country-pop star Shelby Lynne’s I Am Shelby Lynne, for which she won a Grammy in 2000 for Best New Artist) and the soundtrack he recently completed for a documentary about track coaches at South Central LA’s Jefferson High School by former CSUC Professor George Wright, whose brother, former Chico resident Paul Wright, D’Augelli mentions as one of his favorite bass players. D’Augelli wrote all of the music and played all the parts, except the drums, which was the job of local drummer and recording engineer Rick Gibson.
D’Augelli, partly in answer to my original question of “Why does a band have a bass player?” described how he began work on the documentary soundtrack “right from the bottom,” laying down a foundational track of bass and drums.
“I put the bass on the bottom to establish tempo the way I think it should be from the beginning. The bass gives us the groove.” D’Augelli described how he told Gibson what he was looking for in the way of a sound for each particular piece, would show him on the bass, and then the two of them would lay down the track, over which D’Augelli would later add numerous horn and piano lines.
“Bass,” D’Augelli summed up, “is really bass-ic, nurturing. … The bass, from the [low] tones that it puts out, has a sound that other instruments don’t have. It can have a grounding effect.”
D’Augelli muses, smiling. "You know, when you hear Ray Brown [legendary jazz upright bassist who died in 2002] play … Mmm, it’s wonderful!"