My Intertunnel friend Gagdad Bob at One Cosmos, who’s the love child of St. Thomas Aquinas and Norm Crosby, sent me this video. It’s cool for a lot of reasons.
There’s a man-bites-dog aspect to the proceedings, of course. Wispy girl plays upright bass. It’s unusual. The bass is a great big thing, and many men’s hands and most women’s are too small to comfortably play them. A regular bass neck is 34 inches long. A guitar is around 25 inches with the same number of frets, and the bass doesn’t have frets all the time. The strings on a bass are very thick compared to a guitar. It’s kind of athletic to fret a bass. Bass manufacturers started offering short-scale basses to accommodate people with smaller hands, but they didn’t catch on much. They’re still pretty big.
It’s hard as hell to sing while you’re playing the bass. Playing the guitar and singing is easy compared to the bass. Guitar playing as accompaniment to singing usually boils down to brain-stem-level motions — chord shapes long committed to memory and rhythmic strumming that’s no more complicated than tapping your foot. Bass playing’s different. You’re usually playing a kind of melody, and a kind of rhythmic counterpoint, too. I have to think about what I’m doing all the time to play anything but the most rudimentary thing on the bass while singing. There was a reason James Jamerson didn’t sing.
I’m not alone in that. Listen to Paul McCartney play the bass while he’s singing. He often resorts to playing a tuba part, more or less, so he can concentrate on what he’s singing. Fhum, fhoom, fhum, fhoom, umpa, oompa. Not very many people can play one melody while singing another. People get very impressed when they hear George Benson sing the same notes he’s playing on the guitar during a solo, but it’s the easiest thing to do other than keeping your mouth shut entirely. What Esperanza Spalding is doing is hard to do.
Really good musicians can let it rip at two things at the same time. It’s a higher form of mathematical thinking than the average person can even understand. It’s a gift to begin with, and then that gift must be cultivated to the nth degree on top of it to stand out.
In a way, Esperanza Spalding is playing trite things. There’s no cutting edge in there exactly. She is working at a very high level covering ground that’s already been broken by others. But sometimes the only way to be unusual is to be worse than what came before you. Isn’t it enough to stand on the shoulders of giants, and belong there? She does.