Marcus Shelby On Leading By Example

FOR MARCUS SHELBY, THE BASS is mightier than the baton.
By Richard Johnston ,

FOR MARCUS SHELBY, THE BASS is mightier than the baton. “I like being in front of the band with my bass, because I like being present with all the musicians, looking them in the eye, rooting them on,” says the composer, conductor, and doublebass artist. In his latest project, Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Shelby leads his 15-piece orchestra and an array of vocalists on another of his large-scale works on African- American themes. The 74-minute suite features Shelby’s own eclectically jazzbased compositions along with his arrangements of gospel songs (including a 7/8 take on “Amen”), Curtis Mayfield’s ’60s anthem “We’re a Winner,” and an instrumental version of Charles Mingus’s “Fables of Faubus,” whose lyrics mocked segregationist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus.

Is it challenging to play the bass while conducting a large ensemble?

It is, but a lot of the conducting happens through the bass, particularly in my music. The bass establishes a lot of things— the tempo, the feel, and changes of the feel.

I had the opportunity to work with the Count Basie band as a pure conductor, where I wasn’t playing bass, and that was a different type of challenge. When you’re in front of musicians you don’t know, you quickly learn to listen, and to be openminded and humble, particularly with a band that’s as good as the Count Basie Orchestra. But even if it were a local pickup band, I would go into it with as much humility as possible. Communication is something you quickly have to develop.

You’ve acknowledged a compositional debt to Duke Ellington; how about Charles Mingus, who was a bassist as well as a bandleader and composer?

I consider Mingus and [Ellington collaborator] Billy Strayhorn children of Ellington as composers, so Mingus is a natural influence. I’ve had the opportunity to check out a lot of Duke’s music; there are a lot of transcriptions out there, and the format of the band I’ve been working with for ten years is similar to Ellington’s. But Mingus’s use of character and harmony, and his storytelling ability with large ensembles, have definitely influenced me.

Has he also influenced your playing?

Not as heavily as Jimmy Blanton and Paul Chambers or Ray Brown, but Mingus had a really full sound, which I’m attracted to. He definitely used his bass as a voice. I’m always trying to do that.

On “We’re a Winner,” it sounds like you’re having fun playing ’60s-style soul-jazz.

I’ve been trying to incorporate those rhythms into the sort of blues- and swingbased music we primarily play. I had the opportunity to spend the summer in Chicago and listen to a lot of the music that came from there. That’s how I rediscovered “We’re a Winner.”

You’ve switched from using a 3/4-size bass to playing a full-size instrument. Has that presented a challenge?

I had to get used to the bigger fingerboard, but once my fingers adjusted, it all started to feel good. The new bass has a really dark tone, and I’ve found I can’t go back.

The Marcus Shelby Orchestra, Soul of the Movement: Meditations on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Porto Franco, 2011]; Harriet Tubman [Noir, 2008]; Port Chicago [Noir, 2006]

Bass Full-size German flatback upright with French-style bow
Rig Engineer’s choice of microphone; no pickup or amp. “If the room allows for it, I won’t use a mic at all. I’m still trying to develop that pure sound.”