Unsung Bassists, Part Three

The series continues with a look at the fine veteran West Coast bassist Buddy Clark, and two very good, mostly unknown bassists: Don Prell and William Austin, whose careers were almost as brief and obscure as Gary Mapp's, but not quite. 3. Buddy Clark - Buddy Clark was a very good bassist on the L.A. scene from the early '50s on into the '80s, who's often overlooked. He's become a favourite of mine in random, incremental installments through the years because his career, though busy, followed an intermittent pattern of jazz exposure intermingled with anonymous studio work. I first became aware of him through hearing Supersax in the early '70s; he was co-founder and co-leader of the band along with Med Flory, and did a lot of the arranging of Charlie Parker's solos for five saxophones. Over the years since then, I would hear him on jazz records here and there (often without knowing who was playing at first) and was always very impressed by the rhythmic flow of his playing. There's something about the combination of his firm, full sound, his ringing, slightly percussive attack, his note choices and his placement of the quarter-note just slightly on top of the beat, that add up to a very clear, propulsive time-feel. He always seemed to get things off the ground. In this respect his playing is quite similar to Leroy Vinnegar's, though Vinnegar was funkier, had more personality and inventiveness in his playing than Clark, was more of a dyed-in-the-wool jazz player and hence more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part Two

Our look at unsung bassists continues with Tommy Williams, who mostly played with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet and is not to be confused with the more recent jazz bassist Thomas Williams or Tommy Williams, the rock guy. 2. Tommy Williams - I'd been heavily involved with jazz - reading about it, listening to it, playing it - for about 25 years before I first came across the bass playing of Tommy Williams and I won't soon forget it. About twelve years ago, I was hanging out with my good friend John Sumner - a terrific drummer and serious jazz record collector - at his apartment. We were listening to records and talking music as usual and he put on an older Art Farmer LP I didn't know, a quartet date from around the late-'50s or so. The pianist sounded just like Tommy Flanagan (and it was) but the bassist and drummer didn't sound familiar, I couldn't place them. Then on came a track with the bass playing the melody to an old standard I also didn't know ("So Beats My Heart For You") and my ears perked right up, this kind of thing wasn't too commonplace back then. The mystery bassist sounded just great, he got the melody to sing (not easy on the plucked bass) with a long, rounded tone and very articulate, smooth phrasing. It was the kind of thing I'd heard from Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell and Paul Chambers, but this guy sounded different. I gave up, had no idea, so I finally asked in desperation, "Who the hell is the bass player?!?" "Tommy Williams" answered Sumner, more [...]

Unsung Bassists, Part One

The recent post about the mostly forgotten bassist Billy Taylor got me to thinking of other under-recognized ones, of which there have been no shortage through the years. So here's a look at a few other bass players who were never even close to being household names, despite playing very well. First though, a comic rant on the overuse of the word "underrated" in jazz.                                                           *** I was going to call this article "Underrated Bassists", but it occurred to me that the word underrated has become overrated in jazz. It's certainly been overused in that context to the point where its meaning has become fuzzy, if not completely nonexistent. It's almost as bad as "awesome" but not quite, nothing is. I guess we still have a general sense of what underrated means, but how can so many players (even in so underrated a field as jazz) be underrated? (The answer of course, is "easily".) This mostly started with jazz critics and reviewers in the past, they tossed around 'underrated' like it was confetti, to the point where certain names always summoned up the word automatically. Tommy Flanagan, Hank Mobley, Eddie Bert, Kenny Dorham, Chuck Wayne, Jerry Dodgion, Dick Katz, George Tucker, Mickey Roker, etcetera, etcetera. It almost made you wish that jazz writers came equipped with an electronic sensor-chip, so that every time they went to use 'underrated' they'd get a little more [...]

The Bucs Tops Here

Don't look now, but after twenty straight losing seasons, the Pittsburgh Pirates entered August with the best record in baseball at 65-43, two percentage points ahead of the Red Sox. True, they've teased their fans the last two seasons by flirting with contention this late, only to collapse down the stretch like a straw suitcase. This year feels different though, for a few reasons to be examined later. Their last winning season was 1992, the last of three 90-win years from 1990-92. To give some idea of how long ago that was, George H.W. Bush was the President, Desert Storm was in full swing and the Internet was in its infancy. One of the Pirates' star pitchers was Kyle Drabek's father Doug and another was Tim Wakefield, at the beginning of his long, recently finished career. Their main star was Barry Bonds, back when he was skinny, when there were asteroids, deltoids and hemorrhoids, but steroids were a problem for the Olympics and the Tour de France to deal with..... right? The manager was Jim Leyland in his first go-round, looking about a century younger than he does now. They had some other stars in Andy Van Slyke and Bobby Bonilla, but it all fell apart abruptly in '93 and the team entered a wasteland, not just losing games, but hope. No payroll, no fans, no prospects, no direction, no nothin'. This pattern is entirely in keeping with the team's past; its history is marked by brief (or sometimes slightly longer) periods of contention built around a few stars, followed more [...]