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Gary Peacock: The place of the bass

Gary PeacockRight from the earliest days of jazz, its musicians have humanised the instruments on which they play, particularly those instruments whose identities were formed in the European classical tradition. If the phenomenon is most obvious with members of the brass and reed families, it is no less true of instruments that do not depend on breath to generate their sound. And next to Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, the musician who most clearly imbues the double bass with the inflections of the human voice is Gary Peacock, who celebrates his 80th birthday tomorrow.

What is impossible to miss in Peacock’s playing is a profound emotional weight, expressed with a lightness of touch, a lithe, sinewy phrasing and a lyricism reaching far beyond that term’s usual connotations. He has always seemed to be as comfortable playing free jazz with Albert Ayler and Sunny Murray (on the world-changing Spiritual Unity in 1964) as finding new angles on the show tunes and jazz classics he plays with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, his fellow members of the long-lived Standards Trio.

He was born in Burley, Idaho on May 12, 1935, and came late to the bass, after studying piano and percussion at music college in Los Angeles. It was with a US Army band in Germany that he first picked it up, aged 21, and — according to a recent interview — “just sort of figured it out” for himself, a remark that gives no hint of the great sophistication of his playing but might explain its prevailing air of naturalness.

In 1962, while still based in Los Angeles, he made his recording debut with the quartet of the trumpeter Don Ellis and the trio of the pianist Clare Fischer. The first time I heard his work was on Tony Williams’s great Life Time album in 1964, where he, Richard Davis and Ron Carter were the three bassists, and he suffered not at all from the comparison. He was on Williams’s equally brilliant follow-up, Spring, alongside Wayne Shorter and Sam Rivers. Then came Spiritual Unity and the quartet Ayler co-led with Don Cherry. With Bill Evans on Trio 64, Peacock confirmed his standing as the natural heir to the late Scott LaFaro, whose dexterity and imagination he shared, and worked for the first time with Paul Motian.

The piano trio has always been the context in which he is most likely to be found, whether with Paul Bley, Masabumi Kikuchi or Marilyn Crispell, the line-up most often completed by Motian until the drummer’s death in 2011. Now This, the new album released to coincide with Peacock’s birthday, is also by a trio, featuring the pianist Marc Copland, a long-time associate, and the drummer Joey Baron.

Recorded in Oslo in the summer of 2014, it includes seven of Peacock’s compositions, some of them familiar from earlier versions. The striking “Moor”, for example, was first recorded with Bley and Motian in 1968, followed two years later by a reading with Kikuchi and the drummer Hiroshi Murakami on an album called Eastward, recorded for CBS/Sony in Tokyo. The restless “Requiem” made its debut in 1971 at a further session in Tokyo with Kikuchi and Murakami, released on an album titled Voices; later it was featured on other albums, including Crispell’s Amaryllis, and with other instrumentations.

I mention those two Japanese albums because they are relatively obscure but outstanding, particularly Eastward. So is a third album recorded during the several years that Peacock spent in Japan: Silver World, in which the trio were joined by the shakuhachi virtuoso Hozan Yamamoto; here’s part of the lovely title track, and here’s a piece called “Stone Garden of Ryoan Temple”.

Perhaps it’s too obvious to suggest that Peacock’s study of Zen philosophy exerted a significant influence on his music, which exudes a wonderful sense of calmness and balance even at its most complex and impassioned. Going back and listening to his pre-Japan records, however, you’d have to say that it was there from the beginning: a defining characteristic of a remarkable musician who still, on the evidence of Now This, has much to say.

* The photograph of Gary Peacock’s hands is from the sleeve of Eastward, recorded and and first released in 1970. Now This is released tomorrow by ECM Records.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bill White #

    Did Gary Peacock have quite a significant time away from music after the 60s?

    May 11, 2015
  2. Yes, when he went to Japan in the lateish 60s to study Zen and medicine, after a disturbing but significant acid experience. Apparently he only made those records with the Japanese musicians after Sony got in touch and persuaded him. Re-emerged back home in 1977 with Tales of Another, an album under his name which turned out to be the debut of the Standards Trio.

    May 11, 2015
  3. A lovely tribute, Richard. An added delight that it’s not an obituary, that Gary is still with us … and last I heard, playing!

    A record arrived for me today with Dave Douglas, the Doxas brothers and Gary, rec 2012. Soulful mercurial music, with that well-earthed but lithe bass creating the platform-in-flux.

    Personally, I’d wish to plug Arild Andersen amongst those “most vocal (and human) basses” you praise. Miroslav used to be that way too (“Journey’s End”), at least when he wasn’t big-booming with Weather Report! And Oscar Pettiford comes to mind as well. Barry Guy. Red Mitchell!! (This is getting out of hand ….) Colin Hodgkinson, too.

    However many or few one might wish to include in a Vocal Bassist Hall of Fame (!), the bass – acoustic or electric – is a wonderful instrument, in the right hands. Rich, bodily satisfying and sure-footed. Peacock has had some of the best hands, and most lyrical sounds.

    (PS: Do you know his unaccompanied album, “December Poems”? . Snowdance and A Northern Tale, in particular….)

    May 12, 2015
  4. Great piece. About ten years ago, I was lucky enough to work with Mike Dibb on his ‘Keith Jarrett The Art Of Improvisation’ film and found myself operating the boom mic during Keith’s Festival Hall soundcheck. While they were waiting for Keith to appear, Gary and Jack DeJohnette played an outrageously superb piano duet, and I was six feet away! Gary is a fantastic musician and a real gentleman too.

    May 12, 2015

    The new Gary Pecock release is just fabulous – many thanks for the recommendation. ‘Moor’ is a lovely track which sent me back to an earlier version on Gary Peacock’s collaboration with Ralph Towner on ‘A Closer View’ from 1995, also on ECM and also recorded at the Rainbow Studio in Oslo. There is clearly magic at work in that studio – the sound on ‘Now This’, particularly Joey Baron’s drums, is just so close-up it feels as though the players are in the room with you; great stuff.

    May 13, 2015
  6. John Kieffer #

    Wonderful post – thank you Richard. I was lucky enough to pick up Silver World along stack of other Japanese jazz records when I was there back in the 90s – it’s a great record. Voices was reissued on a good sounding CD a few years ago and is still available I think. There’s also a record with Helen Merrill and the Gary Peacock Trio with Masahiko Satoh and Motohiko Hino called Sposin from the early 70s that has this pretty extraordinary version of My Man!
    I’m looking forward to the new record. Joey Baron’s a great drummer.

    May 13, 2015
  7. George Foster #

    One of the first records I ever bought (probably in 1963 when I was 16 or 17) was “The Remarkable Carmell Jones”. It was a record about which I knew nothing but it was going very cheap in a clearance sale at a Liverpool department store which I haunted getting them to play anything unusual they had in stock. The album turned out to be one of those serendipitous buys which nudge you onto a different path from the one you were on, or if you’re really lucky pick you up and plonk you down again in a different place.

    I bought it on the strength of Gary Peacock’s bass playing on the first track “I’m Gonna Go Fishing” . Hearing this turned out to be one of the most memorable moments in my learning to listen to jazz – an introduction to a different sound and role for bass-playing. I don’t think that at the time I had heard La Faro, and it was Peacock’s playing on this album that revealed to me the possibilities of the bass. (This session was recorded in June 1961 before the 1962 recording with Clare Fisher and Don Ellis. According to the original sleeve notes it was not Peacock’s debut.)

    There is some great music from Jones, Harold Land and Frank Strazzieri on this album too. It’s available as part of “The Quintet Recordings of Carmell Jones and Harold Land” on Lonehill.

    Over the years since I have often used his name on the sleeve as guidance that there will be interesting music inside ranging from Don Ellis’ “Essence”, Paul Bley, Albert Ayler, Tony Willams’ “Spring” and Annette Peacock to the Trio with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette (which to me is the one of the sublime experiences in music but whose annual tours of Europe seem to have ground to a halt). Happy 80th year, Gary and thanks for over 50 years of pleasure and enlightenment.

    May 25, 2015
  8. Wonderful article about Gary Peacock. He also did a wonderful, sometimes stunning, album with Helen Merrill in Tokyo during that same early 70s time period. And for those who don’t know, there was another brilliant bassist in LA at the same time Gary was playing and developing, Albert Stinson. Totally brilliant too. But his life was cut short at 24 due to drugs. His work with Chico Hamilton (Man From Two Worlds) and with Bobby Hutchinson (Oblique) are great examples of his playing.

    June 14, 2015
    • Dead right about Stinson, who had such power as well as virtuosity. I mentioned him in the Tina Brooks blog a couple of weeks ago. Must write something more about him.

      June 14, 2015
      • Thanks Richard. Stinson was amazing. And one of your smart readers mentions Carmell Jones, “The Remarkable Carmell Jones”, which is one of the greatest straight ahead albums I’ve ever heard. Carmell kills on it as does Peacock. And if you want to hear more of the same West Coast smoking but incredible playing with Peacock also on pass, try Bud Shank, New Groove. Both The Remarkable Carmell Jones and New Groove are essential listens and still some of my favorite straight ahead jazz ever. Peacock is a driving locomotive on both. A lesson on how to walk (no, drive) as a bassist.

        June 14, 2015
      • crocodilechuck #

        Stinson appears on this exciting Miles bootleg from 04/’67, apparently recorded in a Berkeley gymnasium:

        The recording is a little rough, but the playing is tremendous.

        June 16, 2015
      • Thanks for the tip. Ordered.

        June 17, 2015
  9. Sorry typo on “also on pass” should be “also on bass.”

    June 14, 2015
  10. Patrick Hinely #

    Will someone please list album title, personnel and label info for this alleged 2012 recording with Dave Douglas, the Doxas Brothers and Gary Peacock? Or are you conflating Gary with Steve Swallow, who appears with Douglas and the Doxases on Douglas’ RIVERSIDE album on his own Greenleaf label, also recorded in 2012? The Mosaic folks have confused Steve and Gary – both great players and among my all time favorites – they’ve still got a photo of Steve up as the teaser image for Richard’s excellent piece on Gary…

    June 19, 2015
  11. John Kieffer #

    Sad to hear that frequent Gary collaborator Masabumi Kikuchi has passed away.

    July 15, 2015
    • Very sad indeed. I loved his ECM album, Sunrise, with Thomas Morgan and Paul Motian, released in 2012. And he is said to have stored away hundreds of hours of self-made recordings…

      July 15, 2015
      • John Kieffer #

        Couldn’t agree more – Sunrise is a beautiful record. I was lucky enough to see him with a Paul Motian band at the Vanguard a while back. He played a long solo on one piece that was just extraordinary. I should also remember him at the Festival Hall in 1978 with Gil Evans but there was so much going on at that concert I think I left in a complete daze!

        Let’s hope we get to hear those some of those self-made recordings one day.

        July 15, 2015

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