To Thine Own Self Be True|
(Soapbox Column #4)
Bass Player Magazine
Published March, 2000
Michael Morris was a nervous bassist. After all, it had been some time since his last foray into that scariest of worlds, the jazz jam.
How long had it been? Probably all the way back in music school some eight years ago, when he'd made the conscious decision not to lead a life devoted to the study of Paul Chambers and Ray Brown. Not that Michael didn't appreciate those guys and their music. He was just more in touch with, say, John Entwistle and Pino Palladino than Charles Mingus and Oscar Pettitford.
The move paid off. Morris found work in the pop, rock, and even jazz-rock idioms almost immediately upon leaving school. Recognition from his peers followed soon thereafter, and his playing voice developed steadily over years of sessions, gigs, and varied musical experiences.
Then a funny thing happened. Some new bass cats moved into town and were making the scene something fierce. They'd heard that Morris was one of the guys in town to call, and so they did. Morris was flattered, enjoying the ego-stroke right up until the moment they asked him to come down to their "jam" at the local bar and grill. "You know," one of the new cats said nonchalantly, "just some standards and stuff."
The very word standard struck fear into Morris' heart. For all of his so-called reputation, he only knew three genuine Real Book tunes off the top of his head: "Footprints", "So What?" and "Invitation" (and that only due to Jaco). Pretty pedestrian stuff. Given the unsettling terrain, Morris declined for four consecutive weeks before finally giving in.
And so there he was, gig bag over his shoulder, walking into the local bar and grill. Nervous.
The house band was just about to start playing, and the cat who'd invited him waved from the stage as he tuned his bass. Morris nodded back from the bar just before knocking down a stiff drink to take the edge off. Two minutes later, the waitress arrived at his chosen table to take a follow-up order, but her voice was drowned out by the opening chords of the band's first tune: "Invitation."
Well, he thought, so much for that one. It was just as well. The house bassist was also the bandleader, and he tore into the tune with the confidence of someone who'd played it a thousand times. On a fretless, no less. Morris knew the tune well enough to know its changes weren't the easiest to solo over, but it hardly mattered to this cat. Half-diminished scales on the augmented chords? Constant melodies over wildly changing tonalities? What, him worry? And that was before he whipped out the harmonics. Morris tried to sit back and enjoy it, but ended up with a lump in his throat instead.
The drummer began playing in 6/8 while the crowd applauded the end of the first tune. No, Morris thought, it can't be. Alas, it was "Footprints." The guitarist and violinist each took a solo. Both were stellar, with noticeable arcs and mature pacing. The bassist was stretching out, fully in his element. The second drink both arrived and disappeared somewhere during the violin solo.
Thirty minutes and three tunes later, the house bassist welcomed his buddy to the stage. The new cat whipped out a hot-looking MTD 6-string and counted off a funk groove. New Cat had his right fist balled and thumb pointing up a la Marcus, and the slap sound was huge, not to mention deep in the pocket. Morris was still lamenting his lack of decent slap technique when, to his horror, the violinist began playing the melody to "So What?"
You have got to be kidding me! he cried silently. What the hell am I going to do now? Play "My Generation"?
By the time New Cat was improvising and singing the notes of his solo simultaneously, a full-on Morris Meltdown was officially underway. His mind was fast becoming a well of musical poison, spilling over with the things he either didn't do well or didn't do at all. Not exactly fertile ground for ideas on what tune to play when called upon.
"So What?" ended. New Cat left the stage to a rousing cheer, giving five and change to every band member as he exited. House Cat re-approached the mike. "We've got a very special guest here tonight...Michael Morris is in the house. Come on up, man!"
Some scattered applause followed. Very special indeed, he thought.
Morris searched his brain for the answer. What trick could he pull out of his sleeve to counter what he'd just witnessed? How could he impress this waiting crowd? Or, at the very least, simply avoid total embarrassment?
As a new drummer sat down, the violinist popped the question. "What do you wanna play, man?"
It was the way the question was posed that saved him. Although he appreciated what he'd just seen, he didn't want to be that kind of player. If he did, he'd have been shedding that stuff for years, and then maybe he would have gotten to the point where he felt comfortable with it. But he didn't. And he was fine with that. Why couldn't he be fine with that right now?
"Well," said Morris, "how about ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy?'"
The other guys in the band looked puzzled for a second, then collectively shrugged and agreed. "Sure," the violinist said. "Can you take the first solo? I'm fuzzy on the bridge."
Blues and pentatonic scales danced joyously in Morris' head, and the tension flowed from his body like water from a busted dam. "No problem."
The song ended to considerably more applause than Morris had garnered upon his introduction. House Cat was waiting for him as he left the stage. "Man, that was great. Real down-to-earth groove. Thanks a lot for coming down. I really didn't expect to see you here."
"Oh, stop it. You and that other guy were just unbelievable. Totally out of control." Morris smiled and shook his head. "In all honesty, it's weird that I'm even here. I usually don't do things like this anymore. I mean, you guys just coming out of school, playing like that - is everyone back there that good now?"
"Hmmm. I wouldn't say they're all that good, but the good ones keep getting better younger and younger. You wait, in a couple of years they'll be out here kicking my ass. There are plenty of guys back there just as good as I am, if not better."
"Yeah," Morris said as he slid his Fender 5-string back into his gig bag, "but they'll never be you."
Reprinted with permission from the March, 2000 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit http://www.bassplayer.com.