Marcus Shelby On Leading By Example

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

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.”


Jonathan Corley : On Melodic Maneuvering

THERE’S A LOT MORE TO GEORGIA than peaches and crunk; The college town of Athens has birthed its fair share of rock royalty (REM, the B-52s), and now the capital city of Atlanta has become a hot spot for up-and-coming indie bands. Leading the charge, Manchester Orchestra tempers its post-adolescent aggression with melodic hooks borrowed from the British Invasion. On bass, Jonathan Crowley links singersongwriter Andy Hull’s tuneful excursions with drummer Jeremiah Edmond’s youthful bombast, carving a cavernous pocket speckled with melodic gems. The band plans to tour through the new year in support of its latest, Mean Everything to Nothing.

Happy Birthday Marcus!

IT’S HARD TO BELIEVE, but the incomparable Marcus Miller just turned 50. I was lucky enough to score an invite to his big LA bash, and it was an experience I’ll never forget. Hosted at Hollywood’s intimate Catalina Jazz Club, us lucky attendees we’re treated to a loose evening of fun and music, all delivered with a healthy dose of Miller’s inimitably cool vibe. After thoroughly indulging in the killer buffet and open bar, everyone sat when Marcus and his crack band took the stage with Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” As the night rolled on, illustrious audience members made their way to the stage for a host of world-class jams. My highlights: George Duke bringing the funk to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” and, in what was one of the coolest musical events of my life, seeing Herbie Hancock play the hippest “Happy Birthday” the world has ever seen.

Image placeholder title

Tim Commerford: Raging On

What happens when you mix two parts rap revolutionaries with three parts of the most politically driven, riot-instigating rock groups of the past three decades? The members of Prophets Of Rage will gladly answer that question with firm fist raised in the air.

Hunter Burgan : On Changing Horses

ABE LINCOLN AND TOWER OF POWER have both advised against it, but Hunter Burgan is swapping horses midstream. For the last 13 years, Burgan has delivered A.F.I’s gut-pounding low end with his favored Fender Jazz Basses, but the agile bassist has found a new voice in the Fender Precision. Hear Hunter on A.F.I.’s latest, Crash Love, and on Sainthood, the new release from Tegan & Sara.