Let's face it. The only time most people notice the bass player is when there is none or when he's taking a solo. In the first case they sense something's missing, even if they don't know what, because the bass is a band's foundation. It keeps things anchored. In the second case everybody applauds more than usual after the solo because they feel vaguely guilty that the bass doesn't get more solos.
But hey, bass players seem to be getting a little uppity lately. Used to be, with the notable exception of Charlie Mingus, they were seldom leaders. When they were, even if it was Mingus, or more recently Dave Holland, they remained primarily part of the rhythm section while piano or horns took the lion's share of solos. But in the past year, it seems like there are more bass-playing leaders and soloists than ever. Case in point: Jon Hamar, a Seattle musician and teacher who has now released his second album.
Seven of the ten tunes are his, including "Theme for Francis," which begins the program. It's taken as a plucked solo in a medium tempo. Good tune and good, fat sounding example of Hamar's tone, technique and potential as a composer. He wrote the song as a tribute to his grandmother. Sounds like she was an exceptional combination of gentle humor and good advice.
Eight tracks feature a standard piano trio. Two different pianists and drummers split the duties fairly evenly. The interplay among trio members is outstanding throughout but, in what seems like a golden age of piano trios, it's difficult to compete at the highest level. Among other things you need the right material, and Hamar's tunes aren't always up to the task. Two of the strongest performances are with the compositions of others.
The first features one of John Lennon's prettiest, "Julia." Dawn Clement's piano takes maximum advantage of the delicious mood. Composer Astor Piazzola has the honors on the second. Perhaps the best on the release, Hamar has written a fine arrangement of Piazzola's "Todo Fue." It captures the beauty of that New Tango master's melodies and hints at his sometimes savage changes of tempo and mood.
I intentionally used the word "beauty" above in contrast to Lennon's "pretty." If you aren't familiar with Piazzola, Hamar will give you a taste. If you like that bite, try one of the Argentine's many concert performances with various smaller-sized combos.
Hamar is at his compositional best on the slower-tempo tunes. His winning, gentle waltz, "Saint Edwards," falls somewhere between my pretty-beautiful distinction. When he goes up-tempo, as on "Fly-By (Drive Fast)," the melody too often sounds like the sort of repetitive phrase a pianist comps in the background while the bass player or drummer takes a solo. Not a lot of hooks.
"Dark Heavens," another original, is the most unusual track in both mood and instrumentation. It's the only time reedman Hans Teuber joins in, though only as part of an eerie, lethargic background rather than soloist. It also has the only appearance of Dan Tyack on steel pedal, used as a drone. I had an epiphany recently. I'd been wondering why jazz, pop and classical composers don't seem to value melody as much as they used to, and I realized it's because they are often now more concerned with sounds and moods. "Dark Heaven" follows the pattern. You won't come away humming the melody, but it may give you the creepy feeling the composer suggests in his title.
The playing is fine throughout. In addition to highlights already mentioned, pianist John Hansen takes a driving, swinging solo on "Oblivion," the leader's solos, plucked or (infrequently) arco, are always to the point, and both drummers take advantage of brief solo ops.
Although I believe it would have been better with fewer originals, there's a lot to like about this release, and I recommend a listen.