2019, my musical year in review

by Steve, December 23rd, 2019

Dear diary and clever internet spies, This year I: Learned to play the bass (again, still, different). Quit one band, started another. Recorded a #YOLO Christmas EP in a week, mastered it and got it on the streaming services just in time for Christmas (see above). Marked 30 years in Oregon as of November.

When I moved to Oregon in 1989, I was playing my Fender basses in the jam band I moved here with. In Iowa City, I had borrowed Mr. Y’s Ampeg Baby bass. I never found out where he got it, but his wife was Cuban, and those things were popular on the island and in NYC, so maybe it was hers. I hadn’t gotten into Afro-Cuban music yet, so I wouldn’t have been interested. I loved playing that upright; I played it on Carmen Miranda on Totem Soul’s 1980s cassette release “What’s it to ya” and on charity gig at Gabe’s. I thought maybe I’d get a real double bass when I got to Oregon.

But the band broke up, and I got back into winds, bought a sax, studied classical on clarinet, learned some jazz, played lead alto sax in a latin band, and never bought that bass.

I took 20 years off from music to raise a family, notwithstanding playing clarinet and handbells with my girl, and leading the handbell combo, playing either electric guitar or bass guitar with my girl on the drums, her bf on guitar, and sometimes A on the keys to accompany the high school handbell choir at the Universalist Social Club and Bumper Sticker Society. Mostly we played slightly outdated pop songs arranged for bells: Katy Perry and Cold Play. Making music with your kid is top shelf; I don’t even care if the arrangements are dorky af. I recommend it. It got me reading on bass again (or really for the first time), so that was good.

With the kids older, and with me getting settled into an emptying nest, last year for my B-day I bought myself an double bass (a.k.a. string bass, upright bass, contrabass, bass viol, standup bass, doghouse bass, bass fiddle, bass violin, bull fiddle, etc.). It’s a 1938 Kay, a brand prized for its durability and serviceability. It came with a bow (German, or underhanded), which I’d never used before.

This year I learned how to play the thing. I figured out how to hold it and do some basic bowing from YouTube. Then with the expert guidance of Teacher D., started working through Franz Simandl’s 1881 New Method for the Double Bass (still the standard for classical and jazz fundamentals) and learned some new (to me) approaches to jazz.

I can’t remember when I met Tall T on Craig’s List, I think was early 2019, but we had some fun. He’s an ex-con (he was framed) biker dude with a solid book of originals in a 60s and 70s rock idiom. Not my groove, so it never really clicked. That man is a gem, though, and it gave me the opportunity to work with drummer H, who was the long-time house drummer for the Groundlings in L.A., along with a guy who now tours with Brian Wilson and got us comps to his show at the schnitz with The Zombies opening. So, that put me like one or two degrees of separation from the friggin Beach Boys? Who’d a thunk it. (Which brings us to another 2019 milestone: the the first time I saw a rock star escorted on stage with a walker.)

Yeah, rock and roll is getting old (honestly I was done with it by the 90s) and I don’t know what to play on the bass for it. All the stuff I listen to — jazz and Latin, mostly — swings hard. Rock just… doesn’t swing, man. Thudding along with straight eighths on Is and Vs doesn’t light my fire, and I don’t play pentatonic licks so I’m bad at rock bass fills. So it was my good fortune to find Latee Da on Craig’s List. A couple weeks after jamming with Latee, I quit the Tall T band. We hit it off, despite my concerns that she’s going to need a better bassist.

I mean, she’s really good. She’s got pipes for days and can sing anything, and plays piano like a pro. But she’s very down-to-earth about it all, and we like a lot of the same kinds of music. We’re putting together a couple sets of jazz and swinging blues and R&B, and still looking for a drummer. She called a couple weeks ago and said hey, let’s do a Christmas album.

This was the first week of December. In my mind, that’s the time to be releasing a Christmas record, not starting it. But that’s just me being conservative and cynical! Latee says look, we’ll do it in a week, and release it in time for Christmas. Why the hell not?

Latee started sending me tracks the following Tuesday. I learned the songs and figured out bass parts and started recording evenings after work. Last Saturday I spent 14 hours in the studio, mostly on bass. Sunday I woke up with a numb left hand, and recorded final drum tracks. Latee came over, re-recorded some vocals, and we mastered the whole thing and put it up for a day of private previews on SoundCloud. We remastered a couple tracks Tuesday, and got it submitted for streaming Thursday. The following Sunday (yesterday!), two weeks from the start of the project, it was streaming on Spotify and Amazon Music and YouTube.

Of course I hear every mistake and out of tune passage (I play “arco” or bowed bass for half the tracks, and sing lead on one verse of one song, both of which make me cringe a little). In the interest of time, our standard for takes was “can I live with this?” not “is this is the best I can do?” So it’s YOLO release, for me anyway. Latee sounds friggin great on everything. I really enjoy hearing her sing, so it was a pleasure to back her up on this thang!

Anyway, that was a nice cap to a good musical 2019. I’ve been dinking around with digital recording for a couple decades now, and this thing popped me out of some long ruts in my musical road. I feel unstuck! (Thanks Latee! and Teacher D!) Here’s to keeping it rolling into 2020.

Happy New Year, y’all!