These days, we upright bass players, for the most part, are forced to travel out of town without our instruments and instead, grapple with a bass du jour at every club and festival. Whilst things have improved in the last few years, these borrowed instruments still average on lackluster quality with unfamiliar and often, belwildering set-ups (strings, action, pickup…).
In the spirit of positivity we remind ourselves that limitations, difficulties and setbacks are what feed great art, hence a bad bass must inevitably lead to more soulful blues playing, but this enthusiasm is often short-lived. The critical thing to be done then, is to accept the challenge and get to know one’s adversary during the moments before the show.
So it is with this familiar scenario that our story, like so many, started on a sunny June day in 2009, for the Summer of Jazz Festival in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Playing with Lionel Loueke’s trio along with Ferenc Nemeth, we were halfway through a US and European summer tour. During soundcheck in the afternoon, I met the protagonist of this story – a carved wood bass of decent quality, some decades old, reasonably well set-up and easy to play. It was handed to me for the occasion by the owner himself, who was of few words and just as quickly and silently departed in his VW Beetle. I set myself up in the shade at the far end of the stage to spend quality time with my new stringed friend, but it wasn’t long before I realized that something was rattling inside it. Peering down the ƒ-holes I didn’t see much in the darkness, but I could tell there was something there, so I grabbed the bass by the neck and the endpin and started to shake it to see if I could dislodge whatever was in there.
Quite a bit of white-grey dust and ‘bits’ fell out, like tiny powdery particles and paint chips from building or renovation sites. Clearly, a well looked after bass I noted disapprovingly to myself. I left the little mound in the back of the stage and proceeded to soundcheck with my band mates and later on that evening we played our set to a cheerful blanket-on-the-grass dwelling crowd.
Later that night, as we were breaking down our instruments, I heard the roar of someone behind me, “FUUUUCK! Who did this??…Who’s the asshole that did this?!”, and so on. As I turned around, I recognized the owner of the bass standing next to the now packed instrument and pointing at the mound of dust and specks at his feet. Stunned and somewhat defensive, I walked up to him saying it was I who had cleaned the inside of his bass – what was the problem? “Motherfucker, do you know what these are?”, he yelled, red in the face. I was stumped and then his answer came, like a slap in the face, “These are the ashes of my father, the original owner of the bass”.
He stormed off backstage still yelling and screaming, while from the look on Ferenc and Lionel’s faces I believe I had turned the color of ash (pun intended). When the shock receded the next day and for the rest of the tour, there was naturally much mockery of me and loaner basses, but never again to this day, have I found such a surprise inside a bass.