Take a close listen to the haunting title track from Sky Trails, the latest album by folk-rock legend David Crosby, and you still might miss it: the subtle, sinewy wisp of a bass melody, rendered mostly in quarter-notes and long sustains, and grafted to the song’s spectral acoustic guitar line as though each is part of the same instrument. It’s not easy to summon that level of precision with such a light touch and ears-wide-open sensitivity, but Mai Agan makes it seem almost effortless. Ask her where she gets it, and she chalks it up to curiosity, hard work, and a bit of luck.
“We really didn’t have any access to good music,” she says, describing the limited radio fare on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia, the former Soviet country where she was born and raised. “I wish that I had grown up with Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne or Weather Report, but I had to manage with stuff like Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys—the first American things that started sneaking into our radios. But I’ve been really lucky with my teachers, my gurus, who have been feeding me good music.”
At 29, Mai has played bass for barely more than a decade, but in the last few years, she’s met and jammed with Jackson Browne, recorded and toured with Crosby, relocated to Los Angeles, and made waves among musicians in the know. Her performance with Croz on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon last May gave most fans Stateside their first glimpse of her groove-based versatility.
Agan started at age 16, after years of training on violin and piano. Her first jazz teacher was the Estonian guitarist Tiit Paulus, who turned her on to Ella Fitzgerald, Norah Jones, Jamie Cullum, and Keith Jarrett. “When he played me Keith Jarrett’s My Song, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s the music. That’s the voice I want to follow.’ I started dialing into jazz, and I discovered Joni Mitchell. When I took up the bass guitar, I started going deeper into it, and then I discovered Weather Report.”
The fusion classic Heavy Weather [1977, CBS] accounts for one of many influences on Mai’s own progressive jazz-rock band MaiGroup, which she founded in 2010 after moving to Sweden to continue her musical studies at the Skurups Folkhögskola and just before she matriculated to the Royal College of Music. One day in June 2015, she was busking on the streets of Stockholm with her friend Doug Seegers, a veteran country singer/guitarist based in Nashville, when pedal steel ace Greg Leisz—on tour with Jackson Browne—happened to walk by. He took note of Mai’s distinctive Kay Kraftsman bass and informed Bob Glaub, who was also on the tour. And the rest, as they say … well, you know.
Leisz played on MaiGroup’s second album, 2015’s You, and gave the album to Crosby, who in turn invited Mai to collaborate on some new material the next time she was in Los Angeles. “I was at David’s house for about five days, and I got to know him and his wife, Jan. Just being part of his family for a little while—what a treat is that, right? And he gave me some of his words, all very different, and one lyric somehow moved me. I recognized myself in his words. One night after everyone went to sleep, I started jamming, and I ended up on the line, ‘Here It’s Almost Sunset.’ It took me about ten minutes, and I had the main bass groove.”
Just before returning to Europe, Mai brought her P-Bass to what she thought was a demo session with Crosby’s son, keyboardist and producer James Raymond, at his Bamboom Room studio. She laid down the bass riff she’d written, along with a new B section. “Months went by,” she recalls, “and I’m in Stockholm in the middle of the night, and David sends me the masters of the new record. I start listening from the top, and all of a sudden this song starts. I mean, I had no clue it was going to be on the record! It had David’s vocals on it, and it was amazing. I was blown away.”
“Here It’s Almost Sunset” is a jazzy, contemplative jaunt with an anchoring melody that’s completely shaped by the bass line, which Mai punctuates with a catchy run of descending double-stops throughout the song. Crosby masterfully shadows the melody with his vocals, creating the impression that he and Mai (along with Raymond, drummer Steve DiStanislao, and saxophonist Steve Tavaglione) are playing together in the same room. It’s one of the centerpiece songs on Sky Trails, and the second of four that feature Mai on bass (Michael League and Andrew Ford also appear on the album).
Agan takes up the fretless on the ballad “Before Tomorrow Falls on Love” and the album’s dreamy closer “Home Free,” which has another story behind it. “James Raymond wanted me to play this really low Ab, so I borrowed a fretless 6-string from my Estonian bass teacher, Raul Vaigla, and I tuned down the B string. Most of it I played on my own Ibanez [Musician], but the low stuff, I played with that 6-string. James mixed some bass synths in there, too, so you’re hearing a mixture of three basses.”
While Mai counts Jaco Pastorius among her influences, it’s more her dedication to melodic exploration than it is her fretless technique that brings him to mind. She has spent many hours transcribing saxophone and guitar solos, having gone deep into the work of axe-slingers like Bill Frisell, Allan Holdsworth, and Pat Metheny, as well as other bassists like Tal Wilkenfeld and Alain Caron. Her dedication comes through on the two albums she’s released with MaiGroup—especially in “Wellspring: to RV,” which draws direct inspiration from Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made” in how the bass, in call-and-response mode with the piano and saxophone, paints a melodic picture that engages the whole band.
Seven years later, Mai is planning a third album with the band, but in the meantime she’s also soaking up the live experience with Crosby and company. “David’s a secret jazzer!” Mai smiles. “Actually, it’s not even a secret. He loves it when we stretch out, and he always tells me to do it more, but I’m like, ‘Well, I can’t do it all the time—I have to give some space to others, too, you know?’ But he’s just in love with the sound of fretless. I think I play it much differently than the P-Bass because it’s so melodic, and when I play it on the ballads, it’s creating this space—the energy and the vibe. David is always eyes and ears and heart wide open. He always hears what you’re doing, and he reacts to it, and then he starts playing with you. It’s impressive.”
David Crosby, Sky Trails [2017, BMG]
Basses 1965 Fender Precision, fretless 1981 Ibanez Musician MC-940, 1966 Kay Kraftsman, 1975 Rickenbacker 4001, Fender Jazz Bass copy (assembled from parts in Estonia)
Rig EBS TD660 head, Neoline 410 cabinet, Session 30 combo; TC Electronic BG250-210 combo
Strings La Bella Deep Talkin’ Flatwounds 760FX (.039, .056, .077, .096), D’Addario ECB80SL Chromes Flatwound (.040, .060, .075, .095)