Chris Bates: Five questions for a Minnesota bassist

Chris Bates (MPR Photo/David Cazares)

Jazz bassist Chris Bates is a whirlwind of energy on stage, and increasingly in the recording studio. A member the Atlantis Quartet, Red Planet, Framework and other modern jazz ensembles, Bates is a vibrant collaborator. He’s also emerging as a leader, as anyone who has seen his group Red 5, would surely testify.

For his newest release, Chris Bates Good Vibes Trio, the bassist is joined by two longtime friends, vibraphone player Dave Hagedorn and drummer Phil Hey. Together they explore some of their strongest influences, among them Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman. The result is lively blend of tradition and spontaneity aimed at sparking the imaginations of listeners.

The musicians will do just that when they debut the recording tonight at the Icehouse restaurant in Minneapolis. In a break from rehearsals, Bates took time to answer five questions about the recording, and recently hit the send button. Here’s our exchange:

David Cazares: How does this group contrast with the other ensembles you play in?

Chris Bates: The trio setting allows for more space for each musicians voice to be heard. This is definitely the most straight -head jazz album I’ve put out. I see it all as a continuum though. Each group has found its own voice within itself through trial and error and time. My bass playing is evolving every day I play. I’m always working to strike a balance between all my bands and because I’ve continued to work on my personal voice as a composer and improviser I think I’m probably too close to it all to see any big contrasts. Each group I’m in demands a different perspective and interpretation of the music.

David Cazares: This CD has a more traditional vibe. Were you aiming for that as a change of pace or to allow you to engage other parts of your musical persona?

Chris Bates: To me, there is not a big difference between any of the groups I play in just an emphasis on original material versus jazz standards. In the case of Good Vibes, we use material from iconic figures in the jazz world as our vehicles for self-expression. We do have some originals on the album too. The material and the trio setting certainly allow people to hear all three of us more intimately and clearly, but this approach exists within most jazz musicians’ catalogs. Ornette’s classic Quartet vs The Stockholm Trio vs Prime Time. Mingus varied the size of his ensemble for almost every recording and yet we also get to hear him in trio with Duke Ellington and Max Roach on “Money Jungle” or going back to some of his earliest work with Red Norvo in a much more straight ahead setting. The precedent is there and the body of work reflects the interests of the improviser. I see it as part of my own body of work. I play this way quite a bit in live settings but haven’t committed this approach to an album — until now.

David Cazares: These are great tunes. Did you pick this music because they would allow the band to reinterpret them?

Chris Bates: The tunes were picked by all three of us when we decided to start playing as a trio. The arrangements are where my contribution in this trio shows through in a different way than in my original projects. Most of the arrangements are mine but “Countdown” as a ballad came from pianist Javier Santiago (Mac Santiago’s son) and “Jump Monk” I’ve been playing with that rhythmic underpinning for 14 years or so. I got that Jump Monk idea from guitarists Park Evans and Jason Goessl who I played in a band with at the turn of the century. I tried to make sure each song had something in it that separates it from the original and allows the album to flow in a way where you don’t hear the same format two or three songs in a row. Sometimes that is as simple as having no solos, just trading phrases as we do on “Fairy Tale” or as complex as asking Phil to put the “nanigo” rhythm over the melody to “Up Jumped Spring” and then that lead me to coming up with that arrangement. Overall though, we are going to reinterpret these tunes every time we play. That is our nature as improvisers.

David Cazares: How did this trio come together?

Chris Bates: This trio formed from Phil, Dave and I collaborating with [pianist] Laura Caviani on her “Bach to Bop” project. We were playing gigs, rehearsing and recording all of her material and we just decided that we should play trio. During those sessions together we were always talking about the same people — Ornette, Monk, Mingus and their respective sidemen along with a lot of others. I have played with both of these guys off and on for years in lots of different contexts. We always seemed to be having such a great time playing in whatever setting we found ourselves in that it seemed natural to get together as a trio and explore the music. Plus I grew up listening to these guys play.

David Cazares: Can you describe what makes each attractive and how they play?

Chris Bates: Hagedorn I met when I was seven. (He was student teaching with my father Don Bates at Hopkins Lindbergh High School). He was a madman! Flailing away at the vibes. I will never forget that energy. That planted a seed in my mind, even at that age, and I knew I wanted to play with him. I played in a trio with Dave and my brother J.T. for a while called Low Blows and we recorded with Dave on a portion of his solo record “Solid Liquid.” Dave is a virtuoso on vibes — he can read anything instantly but can also react on a dime to anything happening on the bandstand. Dave provides so much sonic support in this trio and the whole album really showcases his abilities to interpret melodies and improvise on a diverse range of music. He is so tuned in and excited to play NOW! Just like me!

Phil Hey is one of my mentors that I met after I moved back here from college. Again, I have my brother to thank for introducing me to him. J.T. took me to see his teacher (Phil) at the old Dakota one night. After a brief introduction we just sat down and talked about music. Phil was engaged and took sincere interest in his students and their peers’ development as musicians. I would go hear Phil with whoever he was working with and we played sporadically over the years. It was always fun. In the early 2000’s Phil and I started playing together more often and our musical hookup has really matured since then. I get to play with a lot of incredible drummers and Phil is no exception. He swings so hard and his skill with the brushes is just incredible. His musicality is second to none in my book.