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For the Love of Ron: Ron Carter and Friends 85th Birthday Celebration

In what was an absolute highpoint for an instrument that even in the age of social media remains too often overlooked, the grand master of jazz bass, Mr. Ron Carter, was honored at a packed Carnegie Hall concert on May 10, celebrating his 85th birthday. All bassists hold a sweet spot for the Detroit-born and raised, New York City-forged Carter, from his landmark early career with the Miles Davis Quartet and Quintet to his frequent solo projects that range from bebop to Bach. In between are thousands of recordings as a sideman — chiefly in jazz, but extending to pop, R&B, Latin, and rap — upon which he has established himself as the foremost architect of bass line construction.    

An impressive collection of Carter devotees led the proceedings, starting with host Lester Holt of NBC News, himself an active bassist. Holt spoke eloquently and then introduced Stanley Clarke, who framed Carter as the superhero he is before bringing out drummer Lenny White for some comments. The pair then presented Carter with a custom Stanley Clarke Starcaster Bass, with “Ron Carter” emblazoned on the fretless fingerboard. The maestro’s first appearance onstage elicited a rousing ovation from a reverential audience that included Anthony Jackson, Ralphe Armstrong, and John Benitez.

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Holt then introduced the first of three lineups of Carter’s choosing: His drum-less Golden Striker Trio, with pianist Donald Vega and guitarist Russell Malone (who appears on Ron’s 2003 album The Golden Striker). The three displayed a seamless sharing of ideas over the course of bass giant Oscar Pettiford’s “Laverne Walk,” Carter’s own ballad “Candlelight,” and Joe Henderson’s “Soft Winds.” Next, Carter’s Foursight Quartet took the stage, with pianist Renee Rosnes, tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, and drummer Payton Crossley (recently captured on the 2019 live side Foursight: Stockholm, Vol. 1). First up was Carter’s simmering, medium swing “595” and his catchy, fashion statement-acknowledging bossa “Mr. Bow Tie,” with each member featured. The strikingly conversational unit concluded the concert’s first half with two of Carter’s favorite standards: “My Funny Valentine” and “You and the Night and the Music,” the latter featuring a fervent bass solo.

Following an intermission that had Carnegie’s five levels buzzing about how special the night was, the Ron Carter Octet took the stage, poised to up the magic further. Fronting cellists E. Zoe Hassman, Sybille Johner, Dorothy Lawson, and Maxine Neuman, double bassist Leon “Boots” Maleson, the returning Malone and Vega, and Lenny White on drums, Carter took on new roles: He both conducted and played on the traditional “Abide with Me”; he provided expressive arco moments on his stately, Latin-tinged “El Rompe Cabeza”; and he switched to his piccolo acoustic bass (tuned ADGC, low to high) for his soulful melody reading of Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” — no doubt with Donny Hathaway in mind.

Ron remained on the piccolo bass for a concert highpoint: his inspired melding of “Song for a Friend,” which he wrote in tribute to his father, and the Miles Davis anthem “All Blues.” Carter was humble, humorous, and self-effacing all night, referencing how every time he played was another chance to get the song right. The octet’s closer, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” brought to light the fitting setting of Carnegie Hall, for what we were experiencing was indeed Black classical music (shout out to show producer Gregg Kelman). With the departure of the octet, Buster Williams, who first anchored Carter’s landmark two-bass quartet in 1977, took the stage for insightful comments about the man and his music. And then all that was left was Carter, sending an enchanted audience home with a heartfelt solo rendition of “You Are My Sunshine.” With a final wave, he popped on his baseball cap — and like he has with the bass, and with jazz, left the great hall a better place. –Chris Jisi

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Carmine Appice

Guitar Zeus 25th Anniversary Box Set [DEKO Entertainment, 2021]

Legendary rock drummer Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge, Rod Stewart, Blue Murder) has re-issued his Guitar Zeus recordings into the recently released Guitar Zeus 25th Anniversary Box Set, a massive collection of four LPs, three CDs, full-color booklet with never-before-seen photos, and interviews conducted by acclaimed journalist Martin Popoff. Featuring Slash, Brian May, Ted Nugent, Yngwie Malmsteen, Neal Schon, Richie Sambora, Zakk Wylde, and many more, this 35-track release is a consummate collection for any rock guitar enthusiast. Luckily for bassists, there’s some stellar four-string work as well.

Except for the songs “Time to Set Alarms” with Bob Daisley, and “This Time Around” with dUg Pinnick, former Firm and Blue Murder fretless monster Tony Franklin handles bass duties on the entire album. According to Franklin, all of the original basic tracks were recorded in 1995 and 1996. “Carmine, Kelly [Keeling, vocals and rhythm guitar], and I played live in the studio,” he recalls. “Everything was analog, 24-track multitrack. We had a powerful natural chemistry between us, and everything flowed pretty easily.”

For recording, Franklin went directly into the board with his bass, but he also used a Tech 21 Sans Amp. “The guitar version,” he clarifies, “which added a lot of growl and overdrive. The engineer, Phil Kaffel, did a phenomenal job of capturing the sound and vibe of the three of us.”

Indeed, the chemistry runs deep on songs like “Four Miles High,” an unusual riff that continually turns around on itself. “I had to forget about counting and play it by feel,” says Franklin, describing the song’s complexity. “Perfect Day” is another track where the band sounds completely dialed in, and it provides the ideal foil for Franklin’s fretless bass playing. It’s a heavy atmospheric ballad with beautiful chord changes — the bass is very cello-like, melodic, and quite adventurous. “I like to think if Paul McCartney played fretless bass, this is what it would sound like.”

Though his signature fretless playing abounds on Guitar Zeus, Franklin also got to exercise one of his lesser-known but equally potent skillsets: that of songwriter, by way of the album’s current single, “Mystified,” which features Tommy Thayer (Kiss) on lead guitar, and Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater) on keyboards. “It was originally very mellow, mostly acoustic,” he says, remembering aspects of the song he originally crafted many years ago. “I reworked the middle and ending solo sections to fit the Guitar Zeus vibe. They were originally in 4/4; we turned them into 7/8. The song is about a spiritual meditation experience — to be mystified is to be enamored by a mystical experience.”

Guitar Zeus was the first full-length recording that Appice and Franklin did together after their stint in the epic Blue Murder with John Sykes of Whitesnake. “We still had the same vibe and chemistry,” he remembers. “Guitar Zeus stands as some of our finest work together. I’m happy it has been re-released. I hope more people get exposed to it. It’s powerful stuff.” –Freddy Villano

Check out the official video for “Mystified” 

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Rev Jones

In the Key of Z [Dark Star, 2021]

A little-known fact about bassist Rev Jones is that when he’s not touring or recording with such A-list rock acts as the Michael Schenker Group, Leslie West, and Steelheart, he serves as George Thorogood’s guitar tech. Why does this matter? Well, when it comes to popping out solo records, you don’t just get the bass bonanza you’d expect from someone as fleet-fingered as Jones — you also get an album full of well-crafted songs and performances that sound like a balanced band. “I have this process of playing the crap out of George’s guitar before the band goes onstage to make sure it will hold tuning, because he plays really hard,” explains Jones. “So, during this process I usually end up writing these little tongue twister-type riffs.” Jones says at least six of the song ideas on In the Key of Z started out during this pre-show ritual.

In addition to producing In the Key of Z at his home studio in Oklahoma, and writing or co-writing all 12 tracks, Jones also played guitar, double bass, keyboards, mandolin, ukulele, and tambourine. The songs themselves represent Jones’ distinctive takes on thrash and metal, as well as a few unexpected yet way-cool forays into country and folk. “Most performers are trying to be too serious or cautious,” he says. “But I’ve never allowed myself to be pigeonholed as a performer. Great music should always sound fearless.”

Bass tracks on In the Key of Z were cut using his Dean Signature bass with Bartolini pickups through his Phil Jones (no relation) bass rig and a plethora of Maxon effect pedals, depending on the tune. The album has an organic, live-sounding vibe, despite the contributors recording remotely. And even within that now-common collaborative template, Jones admits to engaging in a slightly different recording process than most people. “I program a scratch drum part, and then I play all the guitar, bass, keys, and mandolin. Once that and the guitar solos are complete, I head into the studio with Jeff Martin to cut the drum tracks.” Jones says this process, of doing drums last, opens up Martin’s ability to throw in “oddball drum fills and accents” without it affecting the way any of the music is played. “When I write these songs, I hear a certain feel and rhythm that could easily be altered by doing the drums first. One little alteration of the feel can change the riff drastically.” Jones says this is why In the Key of Z has such a live-sounding vibe. “Jeff is playing to the song, not to the click, so it still pushes and pulls.”

Whether it’s the smart-ass ferocity of “Lollygagging” or the monster-riff veracity of the title track, every cut on In the Key of Z rocks with the creative confidence Jones is known for. It’s clear from these performances he still finds joy in plugging in, turning up, and blasting off, in just about any direction he pleases. “It’s all rock as far as I’m concerned,” he concludes. “Even where the songs have a folk or country feel, the guitars are heavy — the bass, mandolin, and ukulele feel heavy, too. The goal was for it all to sound like me.” –Freddy Villano

Check out the official video for “Lollygagging” here:

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Primus

Conspiranoid [ATO, 2022]

Currently on the road for their Tribute to Kings tour, which pays homage to Rush by featuring performances of the entire 1977 album A Farewell to Kings, Les, Ler, and Tim surprised their fans with an unexpected EP titled Conspiranoid. The three-song journey reminds us exactly what makes Primus unique, and exactly how wildly and strangely talented they are, as the material evokes all of the best characteristics of this unconventional band. The opening title track boasts an 11:31 run time, to which Claypool remarks, “We were just due to release a long, winding, bastard of a song." The track starts out with a climactic build centered around a lead melody played by Claypool before it careens into a blazing fast riff and then dissipates into a classic Primus groove. This sonic territory is exclusive to the DNA of the trio and serves as a launching pad for Claypool’s vocals, which dissect the current state of paranoia and false information. The song takes many more twists and bends before kicking into the second track of the EP, “Erin on the Side of Caution.” Running at about a third the length of its predecessor, the song is all about Claypool’s wild tone and quirky fills. The final track, “Follow the Fool,” finds Claypool’s bass laced with effects and droning notes before kicking into strange pocket rhythms, and then progressing into speedy finger-runs and blazing fretboard acrobatics. Overall, this EP is a gift for Primus fans and serves as another reminder of exactly what Claypool can do on the bass. The material is enough for any bass lover to geek out on while still admiring how weird and unapologetically unique this outfit has always been and always will be. –Jon D'Auria

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Warpaint

Radiate Like This [Virgin, 2022]

On their first album in six years, Warpaint returns with their highly anticipated new installment of post-rock magic. The record was originally written in early 2020, but due to the pandemic the band decided to hold back on releasing their fourth effort until they could properly tour to support it, and it was most definitely worth the wait. Jenny Lee Lindberg reminds us exactly why she’s such a bass talent on Radiate, as her reverb-coated Rickenbacker plays a pivotal role on each of the LP’s ten songs. Her retro-soul grooves on “Stevie” echo the laid-back sentiment of the album, which takes its time to unfold on each track, while tension is built through the tightknit work of the rhythm section and the alluring vocals. “Champion” features a more upbeat tone that’s locked in with Lindberg’s precise simplicity. “Like Sweetness” allows the bass to take the lead alongside drummer Stella Mozgawa, who delivers a rimshot-filled groove. While Radiate might not have as many danceable moments as previous Warpaint albums, it maintains the band’s overall feel throughout — which could best be described as a euphoric gloom with bright moments of light bursting through. Jenny Lee’s bass is definitely one of these bright lights. –Jon D'Auria

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Norm Stockton

Grooves & Sushi [Stocktones Music]

Renowned Southern California bassist and educator Norm Stockton remains a joyful presence in the music world, while continuing to grow as an artist. On his third album, he once again expands his voice as a composer and orchestrator, opting for such colors as bass clarinet, cello, and trumpet for a set of high-powered funk-fusion and introspective ballads. The openers, “Zigged When Ya Should Have Zagged” and “Lunar Mints,” establish the nuanced vibe and nice compostional development, the latter featuring Stockton’s sinewy solo. The ballad “A Wristwatch on Mars,” featuring guitarist Mark Lettieri, summons vintage Jeff Beck. “Blizzard” and “With a Touch of Avalanche” get more muscular, driven by drummers Gregg Bissonette and Chris Coleman, respectively, along with Stockton’s potent thumb.

Back on the ballad side, Stockton displays his deft chordal skills on the bittersweet “Field of Broken Glass” and the enigmatic “Only When I Exist,” and he chooses the perfect foundational and solo tone via his Kala U-Bass for the haunting “Amber.” The disc ends on an uplifting note with the ensemble-driven “Mirrors” and the funk throwdown “Normenclature.” Choose the deluxe edition and you’ll be treated to 12 episodes of Grooves & Sushi, in which the band enjoys a world-class sushi meal while having revealing conversations about careers and the track at hand, intercut with footage of the track being recorded. Also included are video performances of each song, more clips of band members sharing tips and industry stories, a bass gear rundown, Norm’s Grooving for Heaven instructional series, and his first two albums, Pondering the Sushi and Tea in the Typhoon. Whether throwing down on his MTD basses or channeling his inner Anthony Bourdain, Stockton is in the groove. –Chris Jisi