A review Donovan Stokes’s “Gadaha”

Donovan Stokes: GadahaMany things come to mind with the upright bass. I guarantee that Donovan Stokes will prove to you that this instrument is more than what you think it is. Gadaha is an acoustic solo bass album – and it’s awesome. That’s right young travelers, there is an acoustic no-overdub upright bass album that that will drop your jaw both for technical prowess and compositional coolness.

Stokes plays with both the bow and finger style (pizzicato) and manages to combine them in certain songs to accompany himself. Whether arco, pizzicato or “slap” style, from concert hall to club stage and from Bach to Rockabilly, Stokes is comfortable in many musical genres. Gadaha truly demonstrates his “ability to perform circus type bass maneuvers with effortless efficiency.” Professionally Stokes has received commissions from Young Bassist’s Division of the International Society of Bassists, Musical Arts Society of Chicago and the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra for his compositional talents. He premiered his work “Damaged” in February of 2009 which featured Blanka Bednarz on violin. No stranger to the club scene, Stokes regularly gigs with his Hardcore Jazz trio – mixing hardcore punk rock, psychobilly and jazz across bass, drums and piano. Currently Stokes is an Associate Professor of Bass at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, VA.

The album open ups with a two-track piece “Caricature” – a song written in the style of Edgar Meyer. Part one is bowed and shows off Stokes’ ability to play both melody and underlying chordal structures simultaneously. “Caricature” has both playful melody lines and blistering runs extending through the full range of the instrument. Stokes makes the bass sing like a fiddle and then brings it back down. Part two of “Caricature” is played finger style and the higher notes seem to drip down the bass and then drop in to a low register growling bass line. The pace picks up half way through the song and Stokes hammers away with psycho-billy intensity while harmonic accents burst out of the groove.

After “Caricature” the feeling shifts and we come into another two-track composition set: “Star of the Country Down / Chanter.” These are traditional Irish tunes and again showcase Stokes’ incredible ability to accompany himself with just the bow. The fast trills on each note manage to evoke a lilting quality to the sad but sweet melody, giving it a unique character. This melody then cycles with Stokes’ accompanying himself with plucking. I’ve found myself caught between enjoying the music and trying to figure out how he played what I’m hearing. With “Chanter” in part two of this track there’s a very lyrical melody that makes me think of dancing and Irish fields. I have to hand it to Stokes, this is one of the few albums where I’ve felt truly transported by the music.

Next in line is “Gadaha” – a more contemporary work combining elements of classical music and thrash metal. It’s not what you think though (e.g. “Ode to Joy” set to a heavy techno beat), rather it has classical devices mixed together with the energetic attack of hard rock. This song has three movements over three separate tracks, each of which is set to a section of a Cherokee poem in the CD insert. The first movement is highly textural, shifting from a haunting minor melody to total distortion produced without external effects. Stokes then moves to playing the melody with the bow while plucking with his left hand. This then segues into the second movement. Movement two of Gadaha has a more frenetic opening with Stokes’ fingers flying over the neck in a fast staccato. This then settles to low rhythmic pulse that phases in an out with harmonic overlays and highly percussive playing. The final movement has a crying bow opening followed by the more thrash-metal application of arco technique with a burning intensity. You’re going to hear this movement and wonder how the bass did not catch on fire from the friction!

The only single-track song on the album “Sofdu, sofdu, godi” is an absolutely gorgeous Icelandic lullaby. Stokes arranged and renders the eerie but comforting melody beautifully. Again he demonstrates his huge chops by accompanying himself on certain sections with plucking and bowing simultaneously and drawing spell-binding chords out of the bass while he seamlessly navigates all the registers on the instrument.

Gadaha closes with “Death of Cúchullaían,” a three track song taking us from remembrance to confrontation and finally battle. You have Stokes weaving this fascinating Irish story with his ever fluid bow and self-pizzicato accompaniment. The pizzicato gets heavy and fast in the second movement and sounds just as much like a killer jazz solo as anything else you could imagine. Throw in some flamenco style chord sweeping and you’ve got the confrontation. The playing keeps getting more percussive as the song goes on leading into the battle movement. Battle brings us back to light-speed arco technique, playing off the confrontation motif and building in speed and power. There’s a lot of dissonant accents which only add to the sense of exploding anger and conflict. It concludes after Stokes has climbed the full length of the neck dispersing the frenzy in the higher register.

So where does that leave us? Pretty much awestruck and dumbfounded. Stokes takes us on a serious musical journey with Gadaha and it should be in every bassist’s collection. The album has a very raw feeling to it (though not in recording quality) and forces the listener into being an active audience. This is everything but wallflower music, and there is something highly appealing for both educated music aficionados as well as the more casual listener. Enthralling, beautiful, haunting, disturbing… there simply are not enough words to describe the full depth of this work.

The full track list for Gadaha includes:

1-2. Caricature
3-4. Star of the Country Down / Chanter
5-7. Gadaha
8. Sofdu sofdu godi
9-11. The Death of Cúchullaían

For more information on Stokes be sure to check out his web site.

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