Freshly-baked, experimental, with challenging time signatures that shift like tectonic plates, Dave Manington’s band Riff Raff is highly innovative. They have a new CD coming out in 2018 that’s totally different. And, he’s in two other bands. Keeping their identities separate is a snap for this dedicated and idea-driven double bassist.
One example of unheard territory is the upcoming song “Dr. Octopus” where Dave’s bass bops gently in the background, deep and low, accompanied by perfect layering atop with sibilant percussion and sweet harmonic vocal meanderings. The unexpected groove of “Random Acts of Kindness” has the listener following the sax for clues of some known melody, but it’s new terrain. Seriously: watch out for this CD.
When did you start bass?
I played the guitar and piano from an early age then took up the bass guitar at high school, and later the double bass. I didn’t get really serious about double bass until I studied at the Guildhall School of Music in 1997 – 20 years ago now!
I studied music with a focus on composition at Nottingham University, then went on to a post-grad jazz course at the Guildhall School of Music in London. After that I spent several years pretending to still be a student at the Guildhall and at the Royal Academy of Music, since lots of classes or ensembles needed bass players, so I was playing all the time.
Why did you gravitate to bass?
It just came naturally through listening to jazz and playing it at school. I was playing guitar, piano and bass guitar, when I started listening to jazz seriously I quickly realized it had to be double bass.
How many basses do you own?
I have two double basses – a nice Hungarian one for best gigs and a cheap plywood Czech model for standby. I play a Ken Smith electric bass, and also own a couple more as well as five guitars and numerous other instruments.
You called Riff Raff a “telepathic venture.” How have you evolved as musicians so that you can intuitively tell where everybody’s going?
Most important for me is to develop a band sound and understanding, creating a unified band identity that comes from a not-changing personnel. Each member of the band has a lot more individual input and freedom than they might normally have. Rob, Tim and I have a great understanding as we were at school together, grew up together and have been playing together for over 20 years as a rhythm section so the creative rapport we have is at the heart of the band.
I’ve been playing with Ivo for over 10 years now and Tom and Brigitte for nearly as long, so we all have a great understanding and shared musical direction.
Favorite classic jazz song?
At the moment I’m enjoying playing “I’ll be Seeing You.” I love Chris Cheek’s rendition of this and it was also a favorite of my grandma’s.
Favorite musicians of all time?
A long list! Here is a potted version. Jazz – Wayne Shorter, Charlie Haden, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Weather Report, Brad Mehldau, Django Bates, John Taylor. Rock/Singer-Songwriter – Radiohead, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Bjork. Classical – Vaughan-Williams, Stravinsky.
What is the jazz scene like in the city where you live?
London really has a great number of amazing creative musicians and a vibrant supportive scene. The number of venues that put on original contemporary jazz is quite small, however, and usually only pay the door cover so it’s difficult to play regularly without touring. There are some great clubs though, and a lot of musicians run monthly gigs for creative original music which is fantastic.
What country would you most like to perform in?
I’ve never played in the USA so that would be a career goal for me. It might happen next year but we’ll have to wait and see.
What are some new melodic or harmonic ideas you explore?
I’ve been interested in writing polyrhythms in a few of my tunes recently. So 5 over 4, or 5/4 over 12/8, for example. I’ve realized that, fundamentally, what most excites me about music is the harmony. A great chord change or the way the melody sits over the harmony is the thing that is most important for me.
What do your students mostly ask about jazz?
Playing over odd time grooves – how to play with the same fluency over 7/8 as you can over 4/4, for instance. There are lots of ways to break that down and to practice different groupings, but fluency comes with lots of practice and listening until you internalize whatever pattern you have to play over. So we talk about methods of internalization a lot.
I also enjoy talking about composition, and I try to get everyone to write music right from the start. It should be an integral part of music-making. Even complete beginners should be writing their own pieces and improvising too. It’s a great fun way to learn.
What grades do you teach?
I’ve taught all ages and levels. I’ve recently started teaching children as young as five to play double bass which is another challenge altogether. I prefer teaching college-age students because you can talk about more advanced music, approaches to improvising/composition, ensemble playing and so on.
What style are the other bands, like e17 and the Yazz Ahmed ensembles?
I’ve played music in so many styles, not just jazz styles from different eras but Cuban, Balkan, African, funk, pop. I enjoy the challenge and I believe it’s a privilege and a learning experience to go and do a gig playing Romanian repertoire or klezmer or whatever it happens to be.
Of the more long-term projects I’m involved in there are a few highlights – Solstice, which is a collaborative group in which everyone writes for the band. We’ve finished our second album recently. The music is dense at times, but comes out of the tradition of British jazz composers like John Taylor, Kenny Wheeler, Django Bates. The e17 ensemble is a larger extension of this band. We’ve yet to record that group.
Tori Freestone Trio is a fantastic group led by Tori on saxophones and with Tim Giles on drums. We’ve recorded two albums and played several tours in Europe. It’s very interactive with lots of free playing and folk influences.
Yazz Ahmed’s groups are very interesting too, and full of great musicians. She writes music using Arabic scales and great grooves, often quite challenging to play.
How do you keep your repertoire fresh as you go from one band to another? How do you keep it straight?
Tricky question, I think this happens intuitively if you’re fully committed and enjoying the music. If not, then you take action, or you leave the band!
How did you meet the members of Riff Raff?
I met Tim and Rob at high school when we were teenagers. We started out playing Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin tunes but within a year or so we were playing Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett tunes and then writing our own music. I met Ivo, Brigitte and Tom in London while we were all music students. Ivo and I were part of a fledgling group of musicians called the Loop Collective, which Tom joined later. Brigitte was at the Guildhall a year after me and we played in various groups together. I first collaborated on some compositions with Brigitte in 2008 for a Loop Collective Festival and she has been a member of the group and a trusted co-writer ever since, contributing beautiful lyrics to many of my pieces.
Talk about the personnel and what strengths they bring to the table.
Brigitte is not just a great lyricist and singer of songs, but can also sing as a horn player would, flawlessly negotiating fast and complex melodies in harmony with the saxophone. She is another instrument in the group texture, adding many layers behind a solo, or improvising over whatever changes I write for her.
Tom is an exceptional musician with an output characterized by its musical breadth. He is such a strong leader and improviser, and I love the way he manages to find new and unexpected twists and turns in the music whenever we play together.
Ivo is now recognized as one of the leading jazz musicians in the country, especially renowned for his harmonic ingenuity and skill with complex rhythms. He will take the music in new and unexpected directions and is always pushing the rest of us.
Rob and I started our first band over 20 years ago and he’s still my favorite guitarist. He has so much passion and fiery energy in his playing and manages to bring the immediacy of blues and rock into whatever we play, no matter what style or rhythm.
Tim is the driving force with his high energy and powerful drumming. He always knows how to phrase my music to bring out the best in it. The creative rapport Rob, Tim and I have together is at the heart of the band.
What was the inspiration for the CD “Hullabaloo”?
I’m not sure now looking back what the inspiration was. I remember after Rob joined the group properly after we’d played for a few years as a quintet, I felt the music really kicked on and felt whole. The time was right to record, the music was ready, it was a gut feeling.
“Catch Me the Moon” is probably my favorite track.
Talk about your upcoming album for 2018.
My new album is called “Challenger Deep” and it will be released on Loop Records next year. I wrote the music over the course of last year and Brigitte collaborated with fantastic lyrics to four of the tunes.
“Dr. Octopus” is my tribute to Joe Zawinul and Weather Report, which is one of my favorite bands and a big influence in my formative jazz experiences. I still find it incredible that Zawinul could play so many different keyboard parts at once, so I’ve decided he must have had eight arms – like the baddie from Spiderman.
Challenger Deep is the deepest ocean trench in the world, nearly 11km down at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. This is more of a mood piece, with the low bass riff and slow, otherworldly melody trying to capture the strange beauty and calm of the deep ocean. Imagine all the weird fish and creatures unknown to science swimming past in the darkness.
“The Iliad” is a bit of an epic, written in several contrasting sections. I would have named it “The Odyssey” but Spinal Tap already used the name Jazz Odyssey, as did several dodgy 80’s jazz albums I used to own. I like to take the listener on a journey, to tell a musical story.
“Free Spirit” is one of the most direct, uncomplicated songs I’ve written, and I decided not to bow to the temptation to over-arrange it. Brigitte compliments the tune with her own fantastic heartfelt lyrics, as she does on several other pieces on the album.
“Prime Numbers” is based on a sequence of 7 bars of 7/8. Also containing plenty of groups of 3’s and 5’s.
“Random Acts of Kindness” was inspired by an internet blog by a chap who set out to inflict acts of kindness on a someone different every day for a year.
“Dangerpig” is dedicated to my kids James and Freddie. They used to have a game involving throwing themselves headlong off the sofa onto a pile of cushions. Freddie decided to call himself Dangerpig.
The dinosaur love song “Thagomizer” was written for my kids when they asked me to write a tune about dinosaurs. I agreed because I feel dinosaurs are badly under-represented in jazz these days. As everyone knows, a thagomizer refers to the spiky bit on the end of a stegosaurus’ tail which it presumably used to fend off attacks from a T-Rex. Brigitte rose to the challenge to write lyrics about this prickly subject matter and perhaps some more modern issues as well.
“Willow Tree” is a simple ballad in 5/4. I wrote some simple bass chords, but the song really came to life when Brigitte added her beautiful melancholy lyrics and Tom his fantastic quirky saxophone solo.
What are the challenges of production for this album?
Nothing more than the normal. I’m releasing the album on Loop Records, which is a small independent label run by a group of musicians. It’s basically a self-release. There is distribution but nothing else, so I’m organizing everything myself.
How does it differ from your previous work?
I don’t see it as too different from my last album, but more of a progression. It’s more complicated in place, more abstract in others, and I’m very proud of how it’s turned out musically.
Polly Gibbons was recently on the blog. What was it like to perform with her?
She is a fantastic singer with a really special, unique voice, whom I’ve only performed with a couple of times. We actually went to the same school.
Do you most prefer an experimental style of jazz, bluesy-nightclub music, etc.?
My favorite gigs are with Riff Raff. I wouldn’t call it experimental in a general sense, but certainly in lots of little ways we’re pushing ourselves and experimenting with the music all the time. The music always has an edge and a sense of excitement as to what might happen.
Most difficult challenge of being a bassist?
I find one major challenge is keeping your chops in good shape. The double bass is a very physical instrument and requires a lot of upkeep, hand strength and dexterity – you’re like an athlete in that sense. More than with other instruments I find I need to try and practice every day if possible in order to be in good shape, which is difficult with a family and work and traveling.
How do you hope to grow in 2018?
I’ll be writing some new music, so watch this space! I’d love to write more for larger ensembles. I just need my own big band.
For more information, visit http://davemanington.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Dave Manington.
© Debbie Burke 2017