Good improvising bass players get a lot of work, but they seldom get the acknowledgement they deserve. This is one of life’s inequities and it’s partly because a bass player by custom is hidden behind the other band members. When a pianist or guitarist plays solo they will often mimic or imply bass lines. A good bass line is both an anchor and an invitation – invoking deeper exploration; the consequent rub between notes and time is where most of the tension and release is hidden. Every so often a bass player claims wide-spread attention. Blanton, Mingus, Haden, McBride, Le Faro, Pastorius etc. David Friesen while not garnering the attention of the aforementioned bassists in the popular press, is without doubt a giant of the instrument. His is a name that frequently comes up when aficionados and musicians talk. He is the bass players bass player, an acknowledged innovator.
The point is best made when looking over his discography – seventy-six albums as leader or co-leader and in excess of a hundred as sideman. The list of luminaries he has recorded with defies belief; everyone from Dexter Gorden to Dizzy Gillespie. For the New Zealand leg of his tour, two of New Zealand’s finest musicians accompanied him. Dixon Nacey on guitar and Reuben Bradley on drums. That particular combination was bound to work well and the proof positive was in the outstanding performances. When artists pay each other respect on the bandstand it is a recipe for excellence. There were no Jazz standards performed and I suspect that many of the compositions were challenging for those new to them. If they were it did not show. Friesen explained that while he loved interpreting standards, he had come to the point where exploring his own compositions was his preference. A musician as gifted as this has plenty to say musically and Friesen found endless ways of expressing his unique world view. As is often the case with great musicians, he was a compelling talker; spinning out yarns of people and places visited. Often with subtle humour woven into the narrative. Above all he imparted his views on the place of music in these complex and troubled times. To paraphrase slightly, “Music is a way of healing a broken world, it is not just about the people making the music or about the audience receiving it, but something far deeper. The interaction creates a virtuous circle, each continuously enriching the other. Out of this comes the magic”. This reference to the primal healing power of music resonated and he received loud applause. Improvisers seldom earn what they should and yet they persevere. Understanding their mission of deepening human awareness. It was good that he reminded us of how vital a deep listening audience is. Sharing the joy brings its own responsibilities. That’s why I do what I do in print. Friesen travels with a special bass; made for him by a famous Austrian instrument maker. Sick of having instruments damaged or interfered with by airline baggage handlers, he ordered an instrument small enough to go in the overhead locker. This custom bass is mainly crafted out of American Cherry wood and Canadian Maple. It also has a very sophisticated pick up. Because of the foreshortened neck I suspect that it would take some mastering by most upright bass players. In Friesen’s hands it sung. Nacey did what we expected of him; delivered stinging imaginative lines and soared on that lovely Godin semi hollow-body. As success spreads him thinner, we tend to see less of him in the Jazz club. When we do hear him we get the very best. He is a guitarist who can hold his own anywhere on the scene. The other Kiwi on the gig was Wellington drummer Reuben Bradley and what a performance he put on. Again it was hardly surprising, as Bradley is among our very best drummers. Like Nacey he is often the drummer of choice for visiting artists.