Following up his excellent 2019 documentary, Beneath the Bassline, Nick Wells takes a deep dive into the art, science, and history of the upright bass in jazz for Walking the Changes. The 113-minute film, which unflolds at the comfortable pace of a mid-tempo standard, features a who’s-who of the instrument talking about their craft and their influences. This is augmented by archival footage and punctuated by a handful of intimate performances. From the downbeat, players like John Patitucci, Dave Holland, Christian McBride, and Ron Carter deliver pearls of wisdom. McBride offers, “My plan is to play as many roots as possible because that’s what gets you work.” While Carter advises, “Be comfortable with the idea that if you don’t solo all night it’s really okay.” WDR Big Band bassist and Bass Magazine columnist John Goldsby plays a key role in framing the early history of the instrument, when it moved from a two-beat role in New Orleans to early four-to-the-bar walking giants like Pops Foster and Walter Page. And he returns to cover Jimmy Blanton, John Kirby, Slam Stewart, Israel Crosby, and even lesser-known Thelma Terry. Wells astutely has contemporary players discuss their main influence: Goldsby and Larry Grenadier honor Oscar Pettiford—the latter performing “Pettiford,” in the film’s first performance. McBride, Chris Minh Doky, and U.K. bassist Nick Blacka wax about Ron Carter, before Carter offers more wisdom during a Ronnie Scott’s stopover. McBride, Katie Thiroux and Edgar Meyer tout Ray Brown, with McBride speaking to his “funk-like” propulsion, while Goldsby recalls Red Mitchell, a close Brown peer.
Eddie Gomez discusses his influences, as we transition to the Scott LaFaro school of playing in pianist Bill Evans’ trio. New York City bassist Phil Palombi digs deep into LaFaro’s style using the bassist’s Prescott upright and performing his signature composition, “Gloria’s Step,” while repairman Barrie Kolstein reveals the history of LaFaro’s Prescott. Similarly, Gotham bassist Boris Koslov offers his vast knowledge of his idol, Charles Mingus, with U.K. bassist Jon Thorne adding some insight. Patitucci returns to tout Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Brown, Carter, Charlie Haden, and Dave Holland. Holland then relates his fascinating journey with Miles Davis, which consisted of little to no input from Davis and drummer Tony Williams, save simple Davis instructions like, “When I go up, building a phrase, you go down, the opposite way.” The tributes continue, Swedish bassist Lars Danielsson champions Niels-Henning Ørsted-Pedersen, Gary Peacock, Haden, and Palle Danielsson (no relation), with additional Haden insight from Liran Donin, Thiroux, and Thorne. Goldsby frames the modern era, with free jazz and electric bass influencing the technical level of the upright, before he and U.K. bassist Jasper Hoiby dig into Miroslav Vitous. Hoiby caps it by performing his own piece, “Punctuations.” Avashai Cohen covers his early career and we then visit with New York City repair guru, David Gage, who examines the instrument’s sound and feel.
Patitucci returns for some final words of wisdom, including the importance of playing “foundational and compositional,” and the reckoning of hearing yourself after a take: “I always use the joke, ‘We thought we were burning but we were merely rushing!’” He then performs his song, “Soul of the Bass” before he and Grenadier improvise in near-telepathic fashion under the closing credits. As with any music documentary ambitious enough to cover such a vast topic, there are bound to be gaps due to logisitics (not to mention a global pandemic along the way). Stanley Clarke is only briefly mentioned; and hearing from some of the younger beacons like Esperanza Spalding, Ben Williams, Linda May Han Oh, Derrick Hodge, and Carlos Henriquez would have added to the scope. Regardless, Wells’ passion for the instrument and the idiom, and his journalist’s eye for detail make Walking the Changes a fun and informative must-see for everyone from seasoned double bass pros to doghouse dalliers. –Chris Jisi
Watch the Documentary: Here