Bass Players To Know: Mark Schatz
While it’s easy to get caught up in the world of blazing technique, gregarious stage personas, and highly amplified rock ’n’ rollers, let’s turn our attention to a genre that typically features acoustic instruments, bluegrass. This evolving amalgamation of American roots music sports unique instrumentation, virtuosic soloing, and melodic interpretation. In both style and culture, it shares more in common with jazz than almost any other form of music. Unfortunately, the role of the bass player is often over-simplified, minimized by the notion that it’s all “root-fifth” all the time. I can assure you that is not the case and, as with any genre, there are a few “best of the best” who play with such musicality, communication, and conviction that they deserve to be recognized. Mark Schatz is one of them. In addition to keeping company with the likes of Béla Fleck, Tony Rice, Nickel Creek, and many more, his exceptional tone, stellar aptitude for voice leading, and rhythmic feel make him the driving force you want to have in your ensemble. With countless recording credits, two solo projects, and a reputation for being quite the dancer and banjo player, Schatz has managed to have an eclectic career, all stemming from bluegrass music and folk culture.
Who Is Mark Schatz?
Schatz took to music at a young age, first playing cello and then transitioning to upright and electric bass. He received a degree in music theory and composition from Haverford College and spent a year studying at Berklee College of Music, all while playing bass and dabbling in guitar, mandolin, and banjo. Inspired by fiddle festivals, old-time music, and folk dancing, his musical path led to a fortuitous meeting with Béla Fleck in 1977. Schatz spent most of the next decade working and recording with Béla Fleck; he can be heard on Crossing the Tracks, Fiddle Tunes for Banjo, Natural Bridge, Daybreak, Drive, and many other records.
By 1983, he relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, and found himself further entrenched in the folk music community. Working with players like Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Bill Emerson, Doc Watson, Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, and Stuart Duncan, Schatz’s resume ran the gamut of famed bluegrass instrumentalists. His ability to anchor the band as a bassist or switch roles and perform on banjo made him an asset to any acoustic ensemble.
In 1995, he was awarded “Bass Player of The Year” for the second time in a row by the International Bluegrass Music Association. He released his first solo record, Brand New Old Tyme Way, on Rounder Records and shortly thereafter, began working with Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble as both musical director and road manager. An opportunity to combine his skills as an instrumentalist, bandleader, and dancer, Footworks served as an integral part of his artistic career.
All the while, Schatz continued to freelance as a recording and touring bassist and banjo player. In the mid-2000s, he joined Nickel Creek on tour and in the studio for their record, Why Should The Fire Die? and managed to release his second solo record, Steppin’ in the Boiler House, in 2006. His association with Nickel Creek blossomed into more studio work with Sean and Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, Della Mae, and Claire Lynch, among others. This solidified him as someone who successfully bridged the gap between legends of the genre and the next generation of folk and bluegrass players.
Let’s Talk Style
Schatz is a whole-heartedly creative person who has managed to put talent, work ethic, and personal relationships together in order to pursue his passions. A modern-day renaissance man with an aptitude for bass and banjo, he has become highly sought after for anchoring an acoustic ensemble. The fact that he often works with banjo players is a testament to how well he understands accompaniment, the functioning of each instrument, and the traditions of the genre. His ability to marry complex rhythms with the natural movement of the body makes the music sound particularly organic and beautifully unquantized.
Within the acoustic ensemble, the rhythmic foundation of a song becomes the responsibility of many. Rather than a drummer taking on the dominant role, each string instrument brings something unique to the table. The bass provides the downbeats, the mandolin emphasizes the backbeat, and the acoustic guitar and banjo provide underlying subdivision and syncopation. Fiddle adds rhythmic emphasis and dobro introduces harmonic padding. Schatz understands this better than anyone and confidently glues the elements together. He discovers where the music feels best, listens for how each instrumentalist contributes to the collective “time,” and uses the duration of his notes to provide the underlying groove and musical momentum. Whether he’s playing a ballad, a mid-tempo waltz, or a barn-burner, Schatz plays to the rhythmic capabilities of the upright bass—lengthy root notes for smoothness, dead notes for percussive nuance, and slapping for emphasis and intensity.
From the harmonic standpoint, Schatz is the one responsible for staying true to form, literally. He knows when to stick to the root, when to implement voice leading, and how to negotiate movement when chords change rapidly. He creates a sturdy and foundational harmonic backdrop so that the soloists can freely roam and reinterpret the melody. As if he were the playground equipment that a group of children climb upon, his dedication to the form allows for fun to be had. All the while, he’s keenly aware of everything happening and prepared to engage in musical dialogue. By integrating chord inversions, contrapuntal movement, and phrase matching, he asserts himself just enough to enhance a musical moment.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Jealous Of The Moon” (Nickel Creek: Why Should The Fire Die?)
Schatz’s ability to accompany an acoustic ensemble shines through on this record. He effortlessly supports the harmony of the song with sultry root notes, perfect voice leading, exquisite note duration, and dynamic matching. He plays with just the right amount of swing, allowing for a feeling of momentum even within the graceful pacing of the ballad. Every note carries a sense of purpose and integrity, sustaining the song the same way a deep breath sustains the body.
“Up And Around The Bend” (Béla Fleck: Drive)
This record features a who’s who of bluegrass — Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, and Tony Rice—with Schatz rounding out the supergroup of instrumentalists. His function is clear: define the harmony, establish a rhythmic backbone, and have just the right amount of swagger while doing it. He locks in with the mandolin and acoustic guitar to create the rhythmic driving force, essentially creating a ‘four on the floor’ feel while the mandolin emphasizes the backbeat. He moves through the changes with finesse and provides a melodic counterpoint so smooth that it could easily go unnoticed.
“Stogies” (Mark Schatz: Brand New Old Tyme Way)
A duet between two upright bass voices, this composition features Schatz’ deep swing, melodic aptitude, and technical mastery of the instrument. He implements a diverse range of rhythmic approaches, from lengthy glissandos, to subtle dead notes, to percussive slap-technique, and manages to reminds us of exactly how much music exists within the body of an upright bass.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Mark Schatz?
Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!