Walking the Changes: Legends of Double Bass in Jazz
(Film documentary directed and produced by Nick Wells. Review by Mary James)
A labour of love, almost by definition, takes a long time to bring to fruition. Director Nick Wells first saw Dave Holland at the age of 16 and instantly fell in love with the bass. Years later he interviewed his hero, abandoned his plan to write an article about Holland and instead channelled his life savings into making a film. The result is a 70-minute documentary Walking the Changes: Legends of Double Bass in Jazz which appeared online via a boost from a Kickstarter campaign.
The film features twenty bass players and people associated with the instrument talking about their lives, influences and techniques (list below). They all talk straight to camera. There is no narrator guiding us through the film either on or off screen, unless you count John Goldsby who appears throughout the film, subtly shifting focus from one idea to the next, from one legend to another. In the first few minutes of the film we are walked through the past 100 years of double bass in jazz and it’s immediately apparent how much today’s bass players owe to a few seminal figures such as Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Ray Brown, how hits such as Bob Haggart’s 1938 “Big Noise from Winnetka” blazed a trail for bass players to move out from a supportive role to enabling the bass to be at the forefront of a band, making sophisticated ideas work on a bass.
There are many beautiful anecdotes which encapsulate a lifetime’s work on the bass. Ron Carter saying “Every night is a chance to play beautiful music. Don’t fool around.” Christian McBride at the age of 16 trying and failing to sound and look like Ron Carter and then seeing Ray Brown up close at the Blue Note, feeling the same kind of propulsion that he felt when he heard funk, and thinking “Oh, that’s how it’s supposed to be done”.
It’s not all talk, there are 4 short, absorbing, solo performances (from Larry Grenadier, Phil Palombi, Jasper Høiby and John Patitucci ), each one beautifully lit. The sight of Palombi playing Gloria’s Step in the Village Vanguard, on Scott LaFaro’s 1825 Abraham Prescott double bass, the very same bass he used in Sunday at the Village Vanguard, is captivating and moving, as is the story of how that bass came to be acquired by LaFaro, to become his perfect instrument and was restored after the fatal accident.
The venues where people play or talk are places that immediately make you feel nostalgic for live music – the Village Vanguard, Pizza Express Soho, Wigmore Hall. There are breezy snippets of archival film, shots of wet pavements, the New York City subway, Ronnie’s signage at night, closeups of hands. But perhaps what will most strike the viewer is how extraordinarily humble each of these great artists is. Dave Holland recounts how much space he was given by Miles Davis to dialogue with soloists, moving beyond a supportive role to commenting on the music. But then one night Miles said to him “Dave, you know you are a bass player”. And in that moment, in those few words Holland saw a lifetime’s work to balance the role of support with one of feeding the music. As Katie Thiroux reflects “Playing four notes in a measure simply and beautifully is challenging”. This film will help us appreciate that.
The credits roll as Patitucci and Grenadier improvise a short, ethereal piece both using bows, after which they smile, laugh and hug each other. This is a warm, affectionate film beautifully paced and edited, which will prompt you to dust off albums you haven’t listened to for a long time and you’ll listen with revived enthusiasm and awe for all that has gone into that performance. This labour of love has paid off.
‘Walking the Changes: Legends of Double Bass in Jazz’ was released in February 2021 and is available to watch on Vimeo.
Chris Minh Doky
Categories: Film review