This year in which so many notable musicians have died continued with a rough patch lately. Leon Russell and Leonard Cohen, and in the jazz world, bassist Bob Cranshaw and more recently, Mose Allison. As pop stars, a lot has already been written about Russell and Cohen, to which I can’t add much except to say that the band Leon Russell assembled on short notice for Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” tour is still a model of what rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to sound like. And that through his words and music and oddly light-handed gravitas, Leonard Cohen established a very personal definition of what it means to be existentially cool.
Though not unexpected, Mose Allison’s death hit me hard in a personal way because I worked a lot with him and came to know him well. I’ll deal with him in a separate post, but for now I want to focus on Bob Cranshaw, who was the least famous of these men, but a giant all the same. Cranshaw was, no pun intended, the walking definition of a bassist who didn’t draw attention to himself, yet even so it came as a surprise to me that several jazz insiders hadn’t heard of his death until several weeks after it occurred. (He died November 2 in Manhattan from cancer, a month shy of his 84th birthday.)
More than once Bill Kirchner has said that Bob Cranshaw was one of the most beloved and respected musicians in New York, and had been for years. He’d worked with virtually everybody and for decades had been tireless in his efforts with the musician’s union as an advocate for the rights of jazz musicians in the areas of collecting royalties, better pensions and other issues. As one of the most recorded jazz bassists in history, and one who’d done countless TV/film sessions and Broadway shows, Bob had one of the healthiest pensions imaginable. He saw his Local 802 involvement as a way of giving back, of trying to ensure fellow jazz musicians less well-set than him were treated as fairly as he had been.
Simply put, he was a beautiful guy. I can attest to this because I had the pleasure of meeting him once on a gig I played about fifteen or twenty years ago. My friend, the singer Arlene Smith, grew up in Montreal with Bob’s wife Bobbi and the two have remained best friends for life. During a Toronto visit by the Cranshaws, Arlene took them out to hear some music and beckoned me over at the end of a set to introduce me to Bob and Bobbi. They were on their way elsewhere so it was fairly brief, just enough time for Bob to say he enjoyed the music and for me to say how glad I was to meet him and how much I’d admired his playing over the years. A brief meeting, yes, but one I’ll never forget because Bob radiated such warmth, sincerity and good humour. Actually, come to think of it, he radiated soul, just as his playing did.
I wonder if it’s the same for pianists when other pianists die and so on, down the line; I expect so. When bassists who I’ve been listening to for years go, it hits me, as if a little light has passed from the world. To help myself over this in Bob’s case, I did what I usually do when a jazz great dies – I dug out some records that contain treasured musical moments by them and listened anew. Bob played on hundreds and hundreds of good jazz records, so it wasn’t easy to whittle it down to a manageable few; I simply went with some of the ones that came to mind first. Of course THE BRIDGE from 1962, the first record Sonny Rollins made after coming out of the self-imposed retirement he began in 1959, and the first of many records Cranshaw would make with Rollins in a long musical association he was best known for.
The sound isn’t ideal, but this video clip of Sonny Rollins and Co. playing “The Bridge” on JAZZ CASUAL offers visual evidence of Cranshaw in action. Check out the perfect quarter-notes during his chorus between Rollins and Jim Hall, at this tempo – the man could bring it:
I continued with Joe Henderson’s INNER URGE and Grant Green’s MATADOR, two Blue Note albums which place Cranshaw between McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones, who were playing with John Coltrane’s “classic” quartet at the time – he more than holds his own. While he often shone in straight-ahead settings, he also made sizable contributions to more adventuresome ones, such as on Grachan Monchur III’s EVOLUTION, Jackie McLean’s RIGHT NOW! and two by Bobby Hutcherson: HAPPENINGS, and THE KICKER.
I turned to the string of albums he made with Stanley Turrentine for Blue Note in the mid-sixties, often with an octet – HUSTLIN’, JOYRIDE, ROUGH ‘n TUMBLE, EASY WALKER and the best of these, THE SPOILER. From the standpoint of Cranshaw’s playing, here’s the track from it that has always stood out, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me”. It’s at a perfect medium tempo which Cranshaw inhabits with his own brand of loping drive, drops, cross-rhythms, and double-stops. His solid beat, alloyed with a world of rhythmic nuance and subtlety, never lets the band’s feet touch the ground:
And an old favourite, CARMEN MCRAE SINGS “LOVER MAN”, on which she offers a program of songs associated with Billie Holiday, backed by a killer band – Nat Adderley, Lockjaw Davis, Mundell Lowe, Norman Simmons, Cranshaw, and Walter Perkins on drums. There are tracks that feature Cranshaw more, but he didn’t need a feature to shine. Listen to the romp he establishes here in “two” behind Carmen and then the burn he gets going in four behind Jaws. This is how jazz bass playing is supposed to sound and feel – loose, throbbing and relentless; no prisoners taken:
Walter Perkins was an old associate of Cranshaw’s dating back to their days in Chicago, including the MJT + 3, the group which brought them to New York together. This got me to thinking that just about any drummer would sound great with Cranshaw, but he had particularly fruitful partnerships with Perkins, Ben Riley (often with Rollins), Mickey Roker, and Billy Higgins.
These drummer associations led me to a few records Cranshaw played on that I hadn’t thought of right away. CHASIN’ THE BIRD, maybe my favourite Barry Harris trio record. JUNIOR’S BLUES, a wonderful 1962 Junior Mance trio record with Mickey Roker, and a whole slew of Duke Pearson albums ranging from trios to septets to big band. It’s safe to say that Bob Cranshaw was not only Sonny Rollins’ favourite bassist, but Pearson’s as well. Once Pearson took over from Ike Quebec as Blue Note’s general aide-de-camp and also in-house producer and composer-arranger, Cranshaw became a regular on Blue Note records by Pearson and others, with Roker or Billy Higgins often in tow. I remembered the first time I worked with Junior Mance and brought in a copy of HAPPY TIME – another of his early-sixties trio records, but with Ron Carter on bass – for him to sign. He reminisced about those times and the trio with Roker, saying that he preferred it with Cranshaw, both on and off the bandstand.
That surprised me at the time, but doesn’t any longer. Cranshaw came to prominence in New York around the same time as Carter and Richard Davis, but was by dint of personality a more meat-and-potatoes bassist. He was more inclined to be unobtrusive, less flamboyantly virtuosic and innovative than either Carter or Davis. Hence he didn’t quite garner the same attention or recognition, but with his rhythmic mastery, deep sound and musical flexibility, all topped off up with a bulldog reliability, he was definitely in the same league as a bassist. Just ask Sonny Rollins.
Working my way through various tracks on all these records, I realized I’d forgotten Lee Morgan’s THE SIDEWINDER, likely the most successful and famous record of the many that Cranshaw played on. His down-home, four-note pickup to the title track leads off the record perfectly and could stand as the summary of his art – funky and accurate; deceptively simple, yet authoritative. The groove that Cranshaw, Billy Higgins and pianist Barry Harris lay down on this track is both infectious and elusive – not quite Latin or boogaloo, it’s somewhere between straight-eights and swing, but without ever going into a walking four. Higgins’ special magic has a lot to do with it, but Harris’ stripped-down Bud Powell sensibility and Cranshaw’s throbbing sound and tenacity are also in play. After chorus upon chorus of “stayin’ home” through solos by Morgan, Joe Henderson and Harris, Cranshaw has enough left for a bass solo, one that I’d forgotten he takes here. It’s short and sweet, full of blues, guts and pithy phrasing, the real deal. Cranshaw and company are even better on the rest of the record – “The Sidewinder” became the unexpected hit, but is hardly the best track on the album. We’ve all heard it before, but it can do us no harm to hear it again:
I ran out of time long before I ran out of Cranshaw records, and the cumulative effect of listening to him in so many settings reminded me of how much I’ve learned from him over the years. It could be summarized as this: though many may not notice, what the bass does is deeply important, to the music and those playing it. So be committed, and don’t be afraid to embrace the obvious. Dig deep for a big, long sound and get the quarter-notes off the ground right away to form a standing wave of momentum that lifts the band up. Use the whole bass, and if you must take a solo, play one that doesn’t waylay the music – as Duke Ellington said, “No commercial interruptions, please”.
Along with Monk Montgomery and Steve Swallow, Cranshaw was one of the first string bassists in jazz to make the transition to playing electric bass. This versatility ensured him a lot of studio work; he was well-known as the only bassist for the Children’s Television Playhouse, which produced “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company”. He was also in the original house bands for “Saturday Night Live” and the David Frost and Dick Cavett talk shows. He played both instruments for a time, until a 1970s car accident left him with long-term back woes which made the switch to the smaller bass more permanent. But he brought all his musical virtues to the table – the rock-solid time, the fat, long notes, the round sound – making the electric bass sound and feel more like a string bass than anyone else I can think of. Here’s a good example of his groove on electric bass, a cosmic version of “Close to You” with Erroll Garner, from the seventies. The only version of this unlikely jazz vehicle to rival this one is Bill Kirchner’s, though for very different reasons:
So, jazz has lost a great and important bassist and one of its best citizens. Condolences to Bob Cranshaw’s wife Bobbi and the rest of his family and many friends. And perhaps most of all, condolences to Sonny Rollins. The musical partnership between Cranshaw and Rollins lasted 57 years and was likely deeper and closer than most marriages. Sonny turned 86 this year and the loss of such a lifelong friend can’t be easy to bear. My heart goes out to him.
One last track for the road, “God Bless the Child”. And God bless Bob Cranshaw.
© 2016 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.