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Lessons Learned from Scott LaFaro: Playing the 1825 Abraham Prescott Bass

Recently, I had an experience that changed the way I think about instruments. Years ago, I used to get nervous sitting in on other people’s gigs for fear of not being able get “my sound” out of their bass. You know what I’m taking about, right? You grab someone else’s bass, play a few notes, then think “uh-oh, this action feels weird and the bass sounds totally different than what I’m used to.” You play a tune or two with the band, and the whole time you’re thinking to yourself “I hope that these people get to hear me on my bass someday so that they can see that I can really play!”

Well, the airline industry helped me to overcome that feeling. Thanks to their never ending pursuit to make our lives difficult, I was forced to rent basses when I was on the road for the five years I spent touring with a vocalist. We played about 100 to 150 concerts a year, and rarely did I have the same bass twice!

I was a little freaked out about it when I first joined that band. Then one night I recorded a concert and was surprised to discover that it sounded like I was playing my own instrument. What they say is true – it really is in your fingers.

Since then, I’ve felt a lot more relaxed about playing other basses. As long as the setup was relatively cool, then I knew that I’d be able sound like I wanted to sound.

Phil Palombi with Scott LaFaro's bassWith that in mind, I recently made another discovery. I played a bass what was so nice it practically played itself – Scott LaFaro’s 1825 Abraham Prescott bass. I was granted the opportunity to take LaFaro’s bass – THE bass that he used for the last three years of his life – out of Barrie Kolstein’s bass shop for a week to use for a tribute to LaFaro that I was recording.

Given my past experience with other basses, I was sure that no matter what I would play on Scotty’s bass, I would sound like I was playing my bass. Now that I have the finished CD in my hands, I can safely say that I was about 60% correct. Tonally, it sounds really close to either of the two basses that I own. That last 40%, however, is what surprised me. Unlike any bass that I’ve ever played before, I can play anything I want on Scott’s bass. Every single note on that bass sounds great. You can play notes on the E string in thumb position, and it will sound like you’re playing those notes on the D string. It’s crazy! The sound just jumps out of the instrument, and all of the notes on the bass speak clearly.

How did that impact me? Well, when I discovered this, two things changed. One, I realized that I can play across the neck more often, which opens up the melodic possibilities that instruments like saxophones and pianos take advantage of. On my basses, I’ve trained myself to run up the G and D strings most of the time, but on Scott’s bass I could come across the strings like I can on an electric bass. All of the notes sound even in tone and volume on LaFaro’s bass. Heck, Scott’s bass sounds more even across the neck than most electric basses I’ve played.

Secondly, once I realized that I didn’t have to think about which notes sound good on the instrument, I realized that I didn’t have to think about the bass at all. When I thought of an idea, I played it wherever I was on the neck. That changed my conception on the acoustic bass completely.

All of my life I’ve played the bass according to what sounds good and where. As soon as that limitation was lifted, I freaked out. I could solo with more speed and fluidity and play all sorts of convoluted lines that I would have never before attempted. When I finished “geeking out” with my newly found chops, I got down to the serious business of making music and exploring new ways of expressing myself.

I have two great basses. Since 1994, I’ve been playing a nearly full size New England bass made by J.B. Allen back in 1842. Ray Brown played it one time and told me “Man, I gave up playing cannons like this in the ’40’s!” It has a huge sound, and I play a lot of gigs with it acoustically – no amp. One time at the Village Vanguard, their PA was down on a Monday night when I was playing with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Since I only use a microphone, I was stuck. Well, the show must go on, so I played the gig acoustically and everyone in the club could hear me. Granted, the Vanguard is a great bass stage, and when the band was roaring I would get lost in the mix. Then again, the bass should get lost in the mix when 13 horns and a drummer are blasting. It is a powerful bass, but it’s hard to play in the upper register. Because of it’s long string scale (42 & 1/2 inches, which I had cut down from 44 inches!) it doesn’t exactly sing up there in the northwest corner. Plus, the shoulders are huge. A friend once likened it to a pool table without pockets.

Ten years ago, I acquired a 100 old Czech/German-ish 3/4 size bass to have on hand as a backup bass. At first, it was hard for me to use on gigs because I was so used to how much air I could push with the Allen bass, so I kept lugging around the Allen. One day, however, a friend talked me into using it full time. He said that, although it wasn’t as loud or didn’t have as deep a tone as the Allen, he had an easier time hearing the beat. It was punchier, and the upper register sang better. Since it is a normal sized bass, I could get around it a little better. The shoulders are sloped nicely and the body is a regular old 3/4 sized bass body. It is pretty loud and has a pleasingly acoustic tone, so I could still use my microphone instead of a pickup. Most importantly, it was a heck of a lot lighter! Okay, maybe that’s not a criteria you should pick a bass by, but when you have to climb two flights of stairs to get on the 1 train, which is elevated at 242nd St. in the Bronx, it is a plus.

I wasn’t prepared for the experience of playing LaFaro’s bass. Sound is one thing, but I didn’t expect the playability to have that much of an impact on me. My playing began to change in a matter of days. My jazz vocabulary began to expand as I tried to go for different things. Then it hit me – I bet that Scott went through this exact same metamorphosis with this exact instrument 53 years ago! I felt like I was walking in his footsteps.

Barrie Kolstein with Scott LaFaro's bassThere is something that happened to Scott’s playing around 1960 or so. He was always a good player, but all of a sudden he became a great player. I’m beginning to think that this bass had a lot to do with it. He had his bass stolen out of his car in 1959 in California, and Red Mitchell found the Prescott for him at Stein on Vein in Los Angeles. Scott bought it, but at first he wasn’t happy with it. When he got back to east coast, he brought it to Sam Kolstein’s bass shop in Baldwin, Long Island. Sam restored the bass for Scott and made it the instrument that you can hear so clearly in 1960 and 61. Scott absolutely loved the instrument after Sam’s restoration. It was with him in the car the night he was killed. Sam bought the bass from Scott’s mom after the tragic accident, and it sat in his shop until the late 1980s when Sam’s son, Barrie, asked his father’s permission to restore it.

Speaking with Barrie about the restoration, he said that with the exception of adding new wood to one shoulder of the body, he was able to save all of the restoration work done by his father, though he had to cut a new neck and scroll. The finished product, to my ears, definitely sounds like the exact bass that LaFaro played. Barrie saved the instrument! Like his father, he is also a master luthier who really knows how to set a bass up.

As I was discovering this instrument, I began to imagine how having such a great bass impacted Scott’s playing. Now, when I go back and listen to Waltz for Debby, I have an idea why Scott was so inspired to play the way he did. He didn’t have to worry about what works on the bass. He could play what works for the music, and what works for his musical vision.

In the introduction to my book, Scott LaFaro- 15 Solo Transcriptions, I stated a few observations that I believed to be true based on my experience as a bassist and from all of the intense listening that I did for the project. One hypothesis that I had was that Scott didn’t have low action. It sounded to me, based on the sound of the bass on the recording, that Scott’s strings were probably set at a medium height. I based that information on the notion that I was able to play all of the fast notes on my medium action bass and get what sounded like the correct volume level. I didn’t need low action to play that fast, since I practiced playing fast with a meaty action. I assumed that if Scott’s strings were too low, the bass wouldn’t have sounded that full on the Vanguard recordings.

I talked with Barrie Kolstein about it, and he assured me that Scott had the bass set up with low action, and he had the bass waiting for me with that action. Low action is a little hard for me to deal with, since it’s harder to get a good pull on the string. Since I prefer to use a microphone instead of a pickup, I need to be able to get my finger solidly on the string in order to get enough sound out of the bass to project properly. When I pulled the string on the Prescott, it sounded huge in spite of the low action. Imagine all of the bassists in the pre-pickup days, jacking their action up so that they can be heard. Scott found a bass that speaks pretty loud with low action, which was perfect for the Bill Evans trio. With the help of the lower action, he was able to really set his style apart from other bassists of the time. I feel that he was able to play unlike everyone else at that time in large part due to that bass.

Another thing, which I mentioned earlier, was my notion that Scott would run up the G string for the most part, rather than play across the neck. After playing his bass, I’m not so sure about that. I have great basses, but I can definitely hear the difference between the F on the D string (at what would be the third fret on an electric bass), and the F on the A string (at the 8th fret). If I played an F scale across the strings starting at the F on the A string, the scale would sound much different than playing the same scale running up the G string. Not worse, necessarily, just different. I can hear the change of strings, and the notes are a little bit more dead sounding. On Scott’s bass, the two scales would be hard to distinguish. Therefore, I’m beginning to wonder if Scott played a lot of the fast scalar passages across the neck. Ironically, since I didn’t know this years ago when I was transcribing all of Scotty’s solos, I practiced everything running up and down the G and D strings, which has definitely made me a better player.

It was an amazing experience to be trusted with one of the jazz bass world’s few relics. I’ve tried to document the event on video as much as I could. If you’re interested, check out my YouTube channel. There are a few videos of me in the studio and at home playing the bass by myself and with a band, and even playing along with a few of Scott’s solos from the Vanguard recordings. I also recently uploaded a video of Barrie Kolstein talking about the history of the bass.

If you’re really interested in hearing what the bass sounds like now, the CD that I recorded with it is called RE: Person I knew – A Tribute to Scott LaFaro. I paid special attention to the recording process, choosing a great studio and incredible engineers to capture the first full length recording of the Prescott since Waltz for Debby. I made sure to include a few solo bass pieces so that the world could hear the bass by itself. Playing on the recording with me are pianist Don Friedman and drummer Eliot Zigmund. Don recored his first recording as a leader in 1961 for Riverside Records. He and Scott were good friends, and even roommates for a time. Actually, Don played the piano chair with the Bill Evans trio one time when Bill got sick at the last minute. Eliot, of course, was a member of the Bill Evans trio for many years with Eddie Gomez on bass. If you’re as geeky as I am about music, then you may be excited to hear that I also have the recording available in the 96K-24bit format.

It’s been a hard transition back to the reality of not having Scott LaFaro’s bass in my house. However, the experience has made me realize that I can’t sit back and continue to play the basses that I have. They’re beautiful basses for sure, but I now know that there is a whole untapped musical world waiting for me out there if I can get my fingers around it. Luckily, Barrie is almost finished making a clone of Scott’s bass for me, which I should have around the end of April. Life will be good again!

Check out Phil’s previous column Listen: Lessons Learned from Scott LaFaro.