To mark its release, fellow bass player and writer Clayton Thomas discusses the lasting legacy of Phillips’s 50 year old debut solo LP Journal Violone
As I write this, I’m listening to Journal Violone for the first time in about a decade.
Within the first minute, there are sweeping, shifting melodic patterns, dramatic tempo shifts, transformations of emotion and passages leading effortlessly into freely speaking rhythms – free of measure and pressure.
You can hear one idea inspiring the next, and an intimate connection between the physicality of the player and the physicality of the bass.
Barre Phillips has provided the key paradigm shift for the double bass since Jimmy Blanton. In this first radical recording of the solo bass, Phillips sets down the new ground rules for our approach to and engagement with the moment.
It would be of course ridiculous to propose that this happened in a vacuum; Scott Lafaro was already exploring extended techniques with the bow, Charlie Haden was liberating the role of the bass as a keeper of harmony and changes, and Steve Swallow, Gary Peacock and Henry Grimes were opening up the possibilities of timing and rhythm. But, Phillips managed something else, an anomalous piece of music, taking the voice of the moment and laying down a spontaneous investigation of all the possibilities floating in the zeitgeist.
Nobody had recorded an album length solo double bass improvisation before Journal Violone came out in 1968. The sound of this recording attests not only to the power of that moment in time, but also how far we’ve collectively failed to come in the proceeding years.
If I heard this record today by a young bassist I would be awed. And this isn’t about skill, or technicality, it’s the freshness of the inventiveness and the flow.
Without doubt our community of bassists and improvisors has explored a vast new array of approaches in the wake of Journal Violone, and much of the music of this generation’s other players, but I’m not sure that any of us has succeeded in redefining bass playing since. We may compose or structure our music differently, refined, minimised, obscured, but those players who have radically changed bass playing in the last 50 years have had to use preparations or electronics to change the essential gesture – and I’d argue that this isn’t universal in the same way that Phillip’s impact has been felt.
Journal Violone isn’t by design a work of any kind of genius, unlike so much Western mythology of the ‘master’ at work. The story is way more interesting precisely because it’s not that – Journal Violone was an accidental album, and I think that’s where its brilliance lay.
When he entered the Parish Church of St. James' Norlands in London 50 years ago, Phillips wasn’t there to make an artistic statement, he hadn’t honed a set of pieces or approaches with the purpose of a political/aesthetic statement, he wasn’t self consciously trying to perform any kind of radical act – he was simply putting to tape his ‘homework’. Or as he says it, “Journal Violone wasn’t intended to be a personal statement but just bass sounds.” After years of working with Fred Zimmerman, principal bassist of The New York Philharmonic, Phillips became obsessed with the possibilities of the double bass as a tool for sound making, not simply support. “I was hooked on looking into what you can do on the bass and spent the majority of my home work hours doing that, experimenting.”
Max Schubel had just landed a job at Columbia University in New York at the Electronic Music Studio and asked Phillips if he’d be happy to record some sounds for him. That was it.
Bob Woodford, a local engineer, brought two revox tape machines so they wouldn’t have to swap out the tape midway, and hit Record.
When he came out of the three hour session Schubel just looked at him, wide eyed. “Barre! That was amazing! We need to release this!”
Phillips didn’t play the tapes to friends or colleagues. “I didn’t know how to even evaluate the stuff,” he explained to me recently. So he just made some functional edits to cut the recording down to LP length, and gave it to Schubel. Opus One only pressed a few hundred copies, but that was enough.
1968 was a big year for revolutions in Europe, and Journal Violone slid in under the smoke and student uprisings to begin its winding journey through the consciousness of the jazz and new music community.
A little over 40 years later, I played my first solo double bass concert at What Is Music? In Brisbane, Australia. I played the whole show with my bass laying down on the floor, with two bows and a floor covered in metal and wooden objects.
I played like that because I didn’t want to play an imitation Barre, Barry Guy or Peter Kowald. I needed a means of escape stylistically, and I couldn’t do it standing behind the bass.
When I started playing the double bass back in the year 2000, there were two essential planets for improvisors to inhabit. The Free Jazz planet, with its power play, volume and spiritual mythology, and the lower case minimalist post-Polwechsel planet – a world of post-Cage structural absolutism and high concept detail. It was texture versus tempest.
In London, The New London Silence was arguing form, shape and substance with The London Jazz Composers Orchestra; in Berlin Echtzeit went head to head with Alex Schlippenbach; and in New York City it was Sean Meehan and Bhob Rainey versus the entire Downtown.
It was a time to take sides if you were an improvisor. So, I took it lying down for a minute there, trying to navigate my passion for jazz, with the connection I was building with Sydney’s local improvisors, who were far more aligned to the new movements in spontaneous music.
For Phillips, these types of lines for and against, were always irrelevant. He is one of the few musicians to have been engaged at the beginning of it all.
I don’t want to be too glib here, but when The New York Philharmonic were recording “the music of our time” under the leadership of Leonard Bernstein, Phillips was one of the ‘jazz soloists’. When Gunther Schuller was attempting a Third Stream of music, uniting jazz and orchestral writing, Phillips was there too, soloing on “Donna Lee”, and swinging behind Eric Dolphy. When Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma were working with Bob James on Explosions – the first ‘jazz’ record featuring tape machines and electroacoustic elements – well that was with Phillips too. As free improvisation gained steam through the music of Jimmy Guiffre, and George Russell took his jazz into the Space Age, Phillips was the choice for his flexibility, musicality and tone. And when Archie Shepp decided to explore his love for The Modern Jazz Quartet on The New Thing At Newport, Phillips’s sensitivity and ear for exploration provided the key elements of poise and power for one of Archie’s most remarkable records.
And that was all before he left New York in 1967.
At a time when the upheaval of the 60s was taking permanent form, Phillips was one of the key musicians across the spectrum of American creative music. For all the workaday reality of getting to shows and just doing your job, Phillips was able to listen his way across a radical range of possibilities, and add something defining and beautiful to them. Our possibilities as bassists and listeners have blossomed because of it.
With the release of End To End, Phillips's final solo recording due out on ECM in early September, we come to the end of an epoch. For many of Phillips’s contemporaries, their final years were spent revisiting the nostalgia of their youth, growing more conservative with age and in some ways, cashing in on the kudos of past associations (not that there’s anything wrong with that!).
But for Phillips, someone whose musical life has been so steadfastly connected to his personal relationship to the bass as a physical object – a resource to investigate, to feel, to transmit through – nostalgia isn’t an option.
“This recording is no different for me than any other previous one. I do what is pertinent to me and the outside world does its thumbs up, thumb’s down dance,” he said. “Since the time of my second solo record I was deeply into letting what I found inside my body, mind and spirit flow out through the bass.”
Phillips may argue that this is business as usual for someone who has made solo playing part of their life, or as he puts it, “It is my musical life!” But I don’t think it’s just that.
The great American bassist William Parker refers to playing solo as a “duet with silence”, but Phillips considers playing “history intersecting the moment”.
'I have no idea when I’m going to pass away but I’m making a last statement now,” he said. “I’m 83, maybe it’s time for one last go.”
ECM has been home for Phillip’s best realised projects. With Manfred Eicher behind the production, End To End is guaranteed to be a stunningly recorded, subtly observed experience; a sonically rich and detailed diary from a moment in life that we rarely have access to.
Like any improvisation the more you fixate on the outcome, the worse the music gets. For its commitment to the experience, its consistency of ethic, its total investment in the moment, Barre Phillips’s musical life is somehow one of the great solo improvisations. This final journal entry should just about sum it up.
Barre Phillips’s final solo recording End To End is released on 7 September by ECM.