Jonas Hellborg: Subcontinental Alchemist

With two new releases, Jonas Hellborg reminds us what a powerful and innovative bass force he has been for four decades, and very much continues to be.
By Chris Jisi ,

With two new releases, Jonas Hellborg reminds us what a powerful and innovative bass force he has been for four decades, and very much continues to be. The Silent Life: Solo Bass 1990 is a compelling reissue of Hellborg’s classic solo acoustic bass-guitar side with a stripped-down mix and some alternate takes. The Jazz Raj, with guitarist Mattias “IA” Eklundh and drummer Ranjit Barot, brilliantly blurs the boundaries between traditional Indian music and jazz, Eastern and Western scales and tonalities, and composition and improvisation. Its two epic, 30-minute tracks sparkle in newfound ways with each listen. But it’s not just the Indian subcontinent that inspires the Swedish-born bass savant, whose sideman credits include John McLaughlin, Bill Laswell, Ginger Baker, Michael Shrieve, and Michael Brecker. “I learn about music from musicians, wherever they are from, if what they do can shed light on the universality of music—that which is not limited by convention but frees you as a creative being in the realm of music. This is what I strive for. It’s about adding to my musical vocabulary, giving me more tools with which to express myself.”

What led you to re-release The Silent Life, and what was your original inspiration?

The album has been out of print for some time, and I always felt the type of playing I did on it was unique in my career. At the time, I had been living in New York City for about four years, and I co-owned a recording studio with Bill Laswell in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I had recently recorded my album The Word with [drummer] Tony Williams and the Soldier String Quartet. As I was involved in writing for strings for that project, I spent a lot of time studying the scores of string quartets by Béla Bartók, Beethoven, and others. Those studies influenced my solo playing a great deal in terms of chords, rhythms, and melodies, starting with The Silent Life. Listening back to the original tapes—three sessions over three days—I felt they sounded much better in their raw form, stripped of effects, so that’s how the music is presented here.

What bass did you play?

Abraham Wechter built me an exceptional acoustic bass guitar in the mid ’80s called the “Roman Bass,” and it became my main instrument for a good ten years. The sessions for The Silent Life were simple and direct. We used one Neumann U 47 in front of the Roman and one AKG 414 on the side, and that went through a Neve console to a Studer A80 halfinch, with Dolby SR. We then did the big treatment on it with reverbs, EQs, and compressors. For the re-release, we transferred the original recording of the first day’s session, with an absolute minimum of EQ, to my new Studer A80 one-inch stereo machine.

Let’s talk about your concept for The Jazz Raj.

It’s an album I worked on for about four years— mainly on the writing part. The tonal material is based on South Indian rags [or ragas] that are unconventional by Western standards—some incorporating as many as four semitones in a row, in a seven-note scale. However, we treat them all from a Western perspective melodically and harmonically. Western music—particularly popular forms like jazz, rock, and R&B—is pretty much married to the diatonic scale. In India, a more advanced approach to organizing tone material exists. Inspired by this, I picked out a few rags that I particularly like and used them as tonalities in a Western-style chordal and melodic approach. That’s the basic concept: expanding the vocabulary of our music by using more complex tonalities.

How did you prepare in terms of what is composed and what is improvised, and how did you and Mattias approach your solos?

The basis is improvised, which was me and Ranjit in his studio in Bombay. But it was not a loose, searching jam; it was intentionally structured from the start. After that session, I organized the material, composing the melodies and chord progressions. From there, I presented the material to Mattias and we worked on it over a few years, rewriting parts and looking more deeply into the possibilities of these “new” tonalities. As for our solos, we are, let’s call it, “devoted” to the tonality but not chained to it. And our improvisations in general are based on thematic development and chord progressions, where they are present.

How did you deal with the semi-tonal aspect of the source material?

It wasn’t actually a problem, because what we Westerners often wrongly believe are additional notes are in fact only other interpretations of the same basic intervals we use in our diatonic system. Both Mattias and I are playing instruments fretted with the True Temperament fretting system [www.truetemperament.com], or I’m on fretless, and that takes care of how we interpret pitches in the scales. So we are clearly not using 12-tone equal temperament, but there is no attempt to be microtonal, either.

Is there a specific Indian style, technique, or instrument you are adapting in your bass playing?

Indian music is always based on singing—even instrumental music. Slides, bends, ornaments, it all comes from vocal music. So there was not a specific instrument or technique to emulate. Instead, I listened to many different singers and players, and I picked up what I liked in terms of enriching the musical ideas. In no way am I attempting to play Indian music; I’m just drawing inspiration from its vast musical wealth.

INFO

LISTEN

Jonas Hellborg, The Silent Life: Solo Bass 1990 [Bardo, 2014]; Jonas Hellborg/Art Metal, The Jazz Raj [Bardo, 2014]

EQUIP

Bass Fretted and fretless Warwick Hellborg Signature Basses: “My instrument is a full-bodied electric bass guitar that looks like an acoustic. The body size and shape are there for my comfort, not for sound. The paradox is in the full-frequency-range pickup, which adds an acoustic quality to the tone.”
Strings
DR Strings Jonas Hellborg Signature nickel-wrap set (.040, .060, .080, .100)
Rig Warwick Hellborg Bass System: PR-40 Preamp, SP-250 (stereo) or MP-500 (mono) power amp, Hellborg Hi Cab (2x12) and Lo Cab (1x15)
Recording The Jazz Raj Fretted Hellborg into Hellborg Bass System, miked with a Neumann KM 86, into a ’60s TAB V72b tube mic preamp; fretless Hellborg direct to two Rupert Neve Designs modules, a Portico 5012 mic pre, and a Portico 5051 EQ/compressor