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Lowdown

A few words on the plight of the bass player.

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In jazz, as in other music, the bassist is the least understood yet always indispensable player. Looming in the shadows, the bassist carves out the musical foundation and binds everything together behind the rest of the band's freewheeling, flashier expression. Supporting and sustaining group performances takes unrelenting creative concentration and impressive endurance — bassists rarely get to take a rest. And when they finally get to step forward for solo moments in the spotlight, people start talking as if the music has stopped.

It's no surprise, perhaps, that many of the best local players didn't start at the bottom. Mike Hawkins played guitar first; Brian Sulser, Todd Harrington and Rusty Farmer joined teenage rock bands that needed bassists. At Randal Pharr's middle school, the only stringed instrument option was the bass. Matt Hall picked up the upright to follow his girlfriend to Virginia Commonwealth University. But the subtle charms of the big instrument inevitably won them over.

“I like the idea of being in support rather than out front,” says VCU student Matt Harris, an increasingly active newcomer on the local scene. “You're working for whoever else is playing, making things happen without a lot of attention.”

Understanding where the other players want to go and taking them there is a significant challenge. Simultaneously developing a unique sound is even more difficult. “I really focused on having something to set me apart,” says Hawkins, who spent several years touring in pianist Cyrus Chestnut's trio. “The tone of the bass should tell you who is playing.”

People generally don't listen to the bass that carefully. Low frequency notes seem to come from everywhere in a venue, which is why you can put a home theater subwoofer anywhere in a room. The notes are felt as much as heard, way below the range of higher-pitched lead instruments. But the bass is not just in the background, it is the background, setting the pulse and defining the harmony.

“It is still a melodic instrument,” Farmer says. “You have to understand chord structures and basic harmony, and then choose the best note to complement whoever you are working with.”

Bassists' chameleon-like ability to fit into others' playing, combined with their relative scarcity, makes them among the busiest players on the scene. It also makes them the least bound by genre: A hardcore jazz gig one night can lead to bluegrass the next, maybe country, rock or a sensitive singer-songwriter after that. There may be less glory at the back of the stage, but the demand is high and making a living is a bit easier.

The local bass community is fairly tight; it may never get a chance to play together, but its members need to know whom to call if they need a substitute. And despite fewer gigs and student lessons because of the economic slowdown, and the eternal problem of fewer venues and smaller payment (in part because of competition from VCU students hungry for gigs) Richmond remains a fairly good place to live and play.

“I always used to think that Richmond had a small music scene,” writes Matt Hall, who recently moved to Istanbul, Turkey. “In comparison to New York City it does. Now, however, I am living in a city with 18 million people, and there are fewer musicians here playing jazz. I will definitely be back.”

On stage, interacting supportively with everyone else, the bassist has perhaps the ideal perspective on every performance. For those audience members who feel the urge to fill the relative quiet in every bass solo with clueless chattering, Hawkins has some advice. “Close your eyes and accept it for what it is,” he says. “Feel the rhythm; find something that stimulates you, something that makes you move. The more you listen the more you'll understand the culture of the music. But you don't have to understand it to like it.”

In other words, use the bassist's greatest and deepest talent: Listen. S

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