Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 6, No. 1, 2007

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
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Bernard Dubé
Phil Nixon
Robert Rotondo
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
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Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
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  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Montreal Jazz Festival 2006







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

© Marcel Dubois (of Michel Donato)

Who in their right musical mind would choose to listen to a CD featuring two upright acoustic basses? Who listens to bass anyway, besides bass players? The mere thought of a bass solo makes me wish that Canada would relax its gun laws. For the politically astute listener, the low solo -- the “Take Five” within the song -- signals when drinks should be ordered and bursting kidneys emptied.

I was in this beyond-reproach, non-judgmental state of mind when I entered the Upstairs Jazz Club (Montreal) for the launching of Happy Blue, with Michel Donato on upright bass and Guillaume Bouchard on upright bass. The duo performed a mix of original compositions and standards, reflecting the CD’s 12 to 5 ratio.

In making their case that the bass can function as a lead instrument, most bassists will concede that even the sophisticated ear finds it difficult to render meaningful the interval between notes played in the lower ranges, that what the average listener is looking for is a general ground swell of sound -- not to be confused with melody – that discreetly carries and stabilizes the music. That being the case, what persuaded Donato and Bouchard to think their low-noted visions were sufficiently arresting and inventive that listeners would be suddenly drawn to soundscapes the ear normally refuses?

On most of the selections, we find Donato providing the support while Bouchard plays either the straight or improvised melody on the instrument’s highest range. They wisely decided to separate their parts as much as the instrument allows so listeners might better distinguish between the supporting and lead roles. Implicit in their decision is that the bass, in the right hands, is at least as suitable as the piano, guitar or wind instrument in producing the desired emotive effects.

Since there is no getting around the structurally predetermined range and tone of the instrument and the moods with which it is most often associated, what can we say about the upright bass’s generic acoustic sound? Unlike the guitar or the piano, it takes a lot of work (and scabs to die for) to produce a bass note: sometimes two fingers are used in the pluck. Compared to the guitar and violin, bass strings are unwieldy and wound thick. The notes themselves seem to come into being with great difficulty, as if out of some deep captivity or enclosure, or gut of an ancient mammal saying no to its extinction. And when the note finally escapes, it’s with a muted burp-like thud that vibrates between a groan and drone. Were it not for its amalgamation with electronics and amplification, the bass note would remain permanently in thrall to its opacity and thickness. Which is to say, if I were a chirping bird on the wing, I would not perform the rites of spring to the sound of the bass.

Most players are attracted to the bass for its central position among other instruments and for its crucial role in balancing and buoying a structure of sound that is in constant flux. When a bass player dreams of success, it’s always in a group context: he makes support, not melody, his obsession. Since bassists have traditionally thrived in a supporting role, it’s only natural we take notice when they rebel against that expectation.

To better evaluate the Donato and Bouchard collaboration, I chose to fully concentrate on a song I’m very familiar with -- Django’s Reinhardt’s "Nuages" -- and asked what new insights and revelations they brought to it, and if there was enough there to make me want to listen again, and if again and again, why their version compared to, for example, Biréli Lagrène’s or Stéphane Grappelli’s.

So far, I haven’t found the stairway to Donato & Bouchard heaven, but I’m thankful for having had the exceptional opportunity to engage their 20,000 leagues deep sound on its own terms, if only to discover my limitations as a listener.

What is not in dispute is their first rate musicianship. Donato has played with the best (Peterson, Evans, Mulligan) while Bouchard’s compositions are refreshingly apposite on an instrument that challenges the prevailing protocols of sound. They have entered new visions of the upright bass into the public domain knowing full well the public will have the last word. And if we grant that both musicians are sincerely responding to a highly specialized calling, they must grant that being chosen does not necessarily follow from being called.

From Happy Blue, listen to Michel Donato and Guillaume Bouchard perform "Nuages."


John Coltrane
Miles Davis
Thelonius Monk
Charlie Mingus
Oscar Peterson
Charlie Parker
Dizzy Gillespie
Wes Montgomery
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