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Review – And Nothing But The Bass (Misfit City)

“This music is apparently what Steve Lawson makes to entertain friends. Friends who make themself known as such simply by showing up to one of his intimate gigs in London. Or in Lincoln, Watford, France, California… or wherever Lawson and his little bundle of bass guitars, E-Bow sustainers and looping devices pitch camp for an evening of playing. And, having asserted your friendship by wandering in and sitting down, you can smile to yourself about the way his lush, demonstrative instrumental music manages to cross-reference Frippertronics, Pete Seeger, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Satriani (for starters) without them crashing into each other or crowding him off his own playing stool.

You can also smile – with genuine enjoyment – at the sheer guilelessness of his music. The gauche jokiness of “And Nothing But The Bass”‘s title is accurate: Steve Lawson’s ‘And Nothing But The Bass’ with one exception, this really is all One Man And His Loops live in front of a small, polite but audibly happy audience. But it shouldn’t be dismissed as cutesy novelty, or as circus tricks with effects pedals: that isn’t the half of it. In London, we’re used to anxiety. Self-exposure from tortured musical artists, cool-by-numbers checklists, spotlight-grabbing attitude flexers; obvious-state-of-minders stapled to credible trends and sinking with them. Hearing Steve Lawson duck this, focussing quietly instead on the way music connects across generations and between person and person, is a sweet shock.

On technical terms alone, Lawson holds his end up alongside American stars of the lyrical bass such as Victor Wooten or Michael Manring. But his work showcases not only prodigious playing talent but also a thorough lack of self-consciousness about engaging with his listeners. Maybe it’s from playing pop with the elfin, equally guileless Howard Jones; but when you hear Lawson duetting with himself on sprightly children’s-song tunes like “The Inner Game” and “The New Country” (wrapping joyously squishy melodies around his looped, nodding, double-stopped riffs) you know you’re not hearing someone who’s concerned about his agenda fitting anyone’s T-shirt. Or with the solemn rules at jazz school.

All right, perhaps an over-mellow conflation of those lovable old chestnuts “Chopsticks” and “Blue Moon” (on “Blue Sticks”) is a step too far in this direction. All taste and no meat; too close to a musical life that’s one long function room. Lawson dispatches it with impeccable skill, which is all very nice but a little worrying. Far better to hear him feeding twanging threads of Celtic American folk song and bluegrass into “The Virtue Of The Small”, Flecktones-style; then splitting off to layer on luxuriously glutinous improvisations via serenely wandering fretless and classic metal distortion. Or to spot momentary nods to other bassists (Chris Squire, Steve Swallow, Alphonso Johnson, Stuart Hamm) who’ve let melodies rumble up from the basement. Or just to put the notebook down and enjoy tunes like “Bittersweet”, a fretless-bass-and-piano duet owing a little to both Pachelbel’s Canon and Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made”. Jez Carr’s strums of high, cautiously sweet piano haze this one lightly with blue. Perhaps it’s over-aligned with the fastidious, earnestly white, New Age end of jazz, but Lawson’s head-bowed cadences are beautifully poised – natural and regretful.

So far, so immaculate, so “Bassist Magazine”. What really opens doors, though, are three pieces in which Lawson ventures into process music, chance-and-hazard and ambient music: closer to Fripp Soundscapes and post-rock than to John Patitucci. …and again… The moonlit ostinato foundations and skirling skybound melodies of “Drifting” give way to smears of trembling Frippertronical treble passes, like wheelmarks on cloud, and to trance-techno bubble echoes Lawson somehow wrings out of his bass. “Chance” clings on – just – to the right side of disassembly; the sharp attack or mother-beast rumble of Lawson’s fretless stepping in and around his frigidly emotional ECM bass figure, ghosted with minimal traceries. And the lapping sounds, heartbeat sub-aqua bass and shimmering harmonic nudges of the gorgeous “Pillow Mountain” are closer to Mouse On Mars than any bass guitarring this side of Rothko, as Lawson E-Bows strange Chinese string calls out of the beautiful murk. It’s with these pieces that we hear Steve Lawson’s audience returning a favour, moving away from bobbing their heads to the happy melodies and simply listening instead.

And all without the man breaking much of a sweat, either. Anyone who’s been to one of Lawson’s recent concerts can testify that this CD’s a mere dry run compared to the music he’s now growing into. For any instrumentalist, this album would be charming; for Steve Lawson, it’s a showcase punched open at one end. His friends are watching him grow – I suggest that you join them.

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