First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2004, Volume 11, #10
Written by John Metzger
Over the course of the past 25 years, Rob Wasserman has performed with the David Grisman Quintet, Bruce Cockburn, Van Morrison, and Elvis Costello, but he is, perhaps, best-known for his efforts with ensembles fronted by Lou Reed and the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir. Despite his busy schedule, he managed to find the time to record an intriguing three-installment series of albums (Solo, Duets, and Trios) that delves into the essence of jazz, rock, pop, and classical music only to reformulate the genres in ways that expose the awesome power of the upright bass as well as Wasserman’s own uniquely intuitive style. Naturally, each outing builds upon the nuances of its predecessor, and repackaged as three-disc set titled Trilogy, which also features a pair of bonus tracks, the collection takes on a fresh life of its own that makes the whole appear, at times, greater than the sum of its parts.
Solo is undoubtedly the most enlightening of Wasserman’s recordings, simply because there is no other accompaniment to distract from his inventive and versatile approach. Whether exploring George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good, the airy ambience of Bass Space, or the frenetic twist on Good Lovin’ titled Freedom Bass Dance, the sounds that he coaxes from his instrument are stunningly captivating. Indeed, he makes the complexities of his performances seem uncommonly easy as he dexterously delivers a veritable one-man-band display of melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Duets only improves upon the success of Solo, largely because the intricacies of Wasserman’s work become more accessible when he is surrounded by a variety of exquisite vocalists, all of whom risk as much he does in interpreting the material with such supremely heartfelt emotion. Although there are a few other instrumental flourishes provided by his collaborators — Lou Reed’s snarling guitar on One for My Baby (And One More for the Road) and Stephane Grappelli’s unfathomably magnificent violin accompaniment on Over the Rainbow, for example — the bass still plays the most prominent role in the music. His and Aaron Neville’s interpretation of the Hoagy Carmichael/Mitchell Parish-penned Stardust is a dazzling thing of beauty; the pair of tunes recorded with Rickie Lee Jones (The Moon Is Made of Gold and the bonus track Autumn Leaves) are each lovingly painted jazz masterpieces; and the Grammy-winning Brothers, which features Bobby McFerrin’s inimitable articulations, is positively radiant. Because the arrangements are so sparse, they leave plenty of room in which Wasserman can maneuver, and as a result, he is able to work his magic on every selection, formulating a series of intoxicating grooves that bubble profusely with his imaginative and daring inclinations.
Oddly enough, it’s Trios that falters the most, and this is likely a result of the many big-name stars drawn to the project, the songs’ considerably busier orchestrations, and the lengthy, five-year span in which it was recorded. Still, that doesn’t mean that the set doesn’t contain some truly wonderful nuggets that match the startling beauty of the music on Duets. Perhaps, the finest moment on the album is the spirited union of Wasserman, Bruce Hornsby, and Branford Marsalis on a delightful journey through White-Wheeled Limousine, although the ebullient collaboration with Elvis Costello and Marc Ribot on Put Your Big Toe in the Milk of Human Kindness ranks a close second. Elsewhere, Brian and Carnie Wilson lend a sparking, majestic sheen to Fantasy Is Realty/Bells of Madness; Jerry Garcia and Edie Brickell assist in sculpting a strangely compelling work on Zillionaire; and Wasserman puts his virtuosic stamp upon the Rolling Stones’ classic (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
Part of the problem with Trios, however, is that its experiments, such as the frenetic blues explored with Les Claypool and Chris Whitley on Home Is Where You Get Across and the second improvisation with Jerry Garcia and Edie Brickell (American Popsicle), don’t work fully and inevitably fall prey to the notion of being more superficially interesting than functional. Yet, even on the lesser tracks, there’s a playful sense of unbridled enthusiasm among the collaborators that is downright infectious. In the end, Wasserman successfully achieves the objective he set forth on Solo: to expand the boundaries that typically confine bass players and provide a guide that enables them to play a more integral role in the construction of popular music in all its forms. ½
Ratings for the Individual Albums
Solo — ½
Trilogy is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2004 The Music Box