The Bass Whisperer – Concerto for Electric Bass

The Bass Whisperer – Concerto for Electric Bass

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The Bass Whisperer was commissioned by the Nashville Symphony (premiered September 2014), the Colorado Symphony (premiered May 2015), and the Chicago Sinfonietta (will premiere January 2016). Co-written with 5x Grammy-winning bassist and composer Victor L. Wooten.
 PROGRAM NOTES ON THE BASS WHISPERER
During his tenure as music director, Giancarlo Guerrero has fostered an innovative series of collaborations between the Nashville Symphony and some of the city’s leading resident musicians from fields outside the usual classical orbit.  “For me,” he remarks, “there’s only great music, and great artists.” Thus over the past several seasons audiences have witnessed the commissioning of concert works that merge the creative thinking of artists across a variety of musical genres with the magic of a full orchestra, whether in Bela Fleck’s banjo concerto The Impostor, Edgar Meyer’s Double Concerto for Violin and Double Bass, or Ben Folds’ recent Piano Concerto.

Or Conni Ellisor’s Diaspora, a piece inspired by West African percussion.  With The Bass Whisperer, Ellisor has joined forces with the extraordinary master of the bass, Victor Lemonte Wooten, to co-create a pioneering new fusion.  The intention, as they put it, is “to bridge the classical tradition with the pop/jazz electric bass guitar tradition by creating a piece that is true to both.” Wooten adds that “we wanted to stretch the ears and imaginations of these two worlds by putting the electric bass in an arena people don’t usually associate with the instrument.”

The Bass Whisperer is a first on several levels, and for both artists. Classically trained as a violinist, Ellisor has mixed genres and idioms – from string quartet to bluegrass – to develop a lively American style with contemporary flair.  She has also worked extensively as a session violinist and arranger and appears on numerous jazz recordings. Such classical compositions by Ellisor as Blackberry Winter (for mountain dulcimer and strings) have been featured on All Things Considered, while Nashville audiences may also know Ellisor’s work from her collaborations with the Nashville Ballet, including the ghost story-inspired The Bell Witch.  With this latest project, Ellisor is undertaking her first co-creation of a major musical work.

The multiple-GRAMMY Award-winning Wooten has been an active performer since the age of 5, when he began appearing with his family band of four brothers.  After striking up a connection with Bela Fleck (and settling in Nashville), he became a founding member of Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, with whom Wooten continues to enjoy international success.  In 2011 Rolling Stone named him one of the Top Ten bassists of all time.  Wooten is also an author – his novel The Music Lesson is used in curricula at the Berklee College of Music – and he combines his gifts as a naturalist and a teacher at Wooten Woods, on the Duck River outside Nashville, where he leads educational programs devoted to music and nature. 

How did the division of labor work for both artists in co-writing The Bass Whisperer? Ellisor explains that Wooten initially sent her “assorted examples of his phenomenal groove playing, which was good because I could never imagine any of that was even possible!” She analyzed these and experimented with orchestration and textural ideas, listening to various bass and tuba concertos to glean tips for the most effective voicing of such a low lead instrument.  “We traded ideas a lot,” says Ellisor, “both by sending files back and forth, working together in the same room, and even by Skype when Vic was on tour.”

With its echo of dog or horse whisperers, explains Wooten, the title The Bass Whisperer was similarly meant to evoke what happens “when someone looks deeper into a particular subject or animal and relates to it in a unique way – usually in an enlightening, spiritual way.” Ellisor adds: “Vic is basically a teacher in everything he does with music, so in that sense he’s a ‘whisperer.’” In other words, the new concerto can be seen as a kind of self-portrait of Wooten, though he points out that “with Conni, I also get the help of someone else to paint that picture and give me another point of view as part of that.”

WHAT TO LISTEN FOR

The Bass Whisperer “borrows from the infrastructure of the classical concerto, including the use of cadenzas, interplay between the soloist and the orchestra, and both lyrical and virtuosic components,” Ellisor explains. But that comes with some surprises, such as a variety of tempos in what is usually a slow central movement, and a grand “summing up” effect in the last part of the finale. Wooten also invented a special kind of playing for certain passages using a custom-made bow (slightly smaller than the usual double bass bow). “As in most contemporary concertos, we took liberties with the traditional form,” Ellisor points out. Overall, she adds, the concerto might be described as a piece that contains “virtuosity, lyricism, a sense of humor, serious music with a playful edge.”

The solo electric bass enters very soon after a short slow orchestral introduction. An important rhythmic motif is first played by the orchestral double bass, and “the strings respond with a variation of what will be the main movement melody. This culminates in a full orchestra tutti that sets up Vic’s virtuosic groove,” writes Ellisor. “This is a technique I thought particularly suited to an electric bassist of Vic’s prowess, and since a piece marrying these two worlds of music has never been attempted before, we couldn’t resist.” The first of the concerto’s big cadenzas – to be totally improvised by Wooten – eventually arrives. The movement ends with a return of all of the themes. 

Wooten also points to the perspective of “being able to showcase the nature of my instrument so that I get underneath the orchestra players and lay down a bed to support them,” as opposed to the usual concerto idea of the soloist playing passages that are “flashy on top.”

Against a gentle accompaniment of strings and percussion, the solo bass introduces the second movement’s main melody. Ellisor frequently doubles the bass with solo instruments to create a chamber music-like effect. The slow music gives way to an up-tempo section, a playful scherzo in mood. The faster section returns again after another version of the slow melody and a brief cadenza, now joined with the preceding material.

The finale begins in a slow tempo, presenting an extended melody for the solo bass and clarinet. Ideas from the previous two movements, such as the bass motif from the first movement, recur throughout. Eventually, a “percussion loop” sets up the backdrop for still another cadenza, which is accompanied by the reappearance of earlier motifs in the orchestra. The slow melody that opened the movement takes on a much faster guise, with a humorous nod to Vivaldi’s high-energy music from the Baroque era as a musical in-joke. A recapitulation weaves together melodies from all three movements before Wooten again takes the spotlight and the orchestra joins him at full force to draw the curtain. 

Along with solo electric bass, The Bass Whisperer is scored for piccolo, flute, oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp and strings.