Upright is the Closest Thing to Heaven – Musical Musings with Bassist Mark Wade

Mark Wade, jazz musician

From the thrum of electric bass guitar to the statuesque upright, Mark Wade has advanced his ear for the basement-level notes. What is subsonic to some, he is able to tend with a gardener’s hand; giving depth to his trio. As composer of the new CD “Moving Day” he gives a flavor of each of the myriad places he’s lived: an aural recollection of his life in the south of France, or sitting in a cathedral at midnight, or awash in a summer sunset. 

When/why the bass?

I started playing electric bass right before high school. I was self-taught, and played it up to the year before I left for college.

I started studying with an electric bass player by the name of Andrew Harkin who prepared me to audition for a jazz program at the collegiate level. I was accepted at the jazz program at New York University where I studied with Mike Richmond. About halfway through my time at NYU, I started studying the acoustic (upright) bass. Now that’s what I do for a living.

Did you always want to play professionally?

Not long after I started playing electric bass I began to think about exactly how far I wanted to go with it. While I never had an ‘aha’ moment where I decided I would be a professional, I would say it was an idea that slowly grew within me over time.

What is the most challenging technical aspect of bass?

The sheer size of the instrument. Finding a position to be comfortable and relaxed on the instrument. 

How long to build up the necessary calluses?

For beginning bass players, we usually go through a couple of rounds of developing calluses on our hands to the point where we no longer have to worry about it. The first few months are a real struggle. After that, things start to get better.

Where do you go in your head when you play?

It’s best to not put your mind anywhere in particular. When you perform, the hours and hours of training and practice are what prepare you for that moment. Try to get out of your own way and let that training come forward and take you through the music.

When you listen to music, do you first focus on following the bass line or how you’d play the song?

If I’m listening to someone else play music, I try to take in the overall picture of what’s happening. I might focus on the bass line, or something else that grabs my attention right away. Of course as a bass player you’re always interested in what’s going on with the instrument, but as a musician the overall concept of the music is the most important thing.

Do you feel you have been successful in capturing the feeling of each of the locations you’ve lived in “Moving Day”? How does a person compose that?

For this new album I used certain experiences and mental pictures from my life to help build ideas that I used to create the music. Sometimes a melody brought a picture to mind, other times a certain memory helped to inspire a melody or fragment of the music.

It was the first time I had considered doing this as a composer, and I found it to be a very personal approach to writing music.

How have you found your way together as a trio?

The band consists of myself, pianist Tim Harrison, and drummer Scott Neumann. We each have a mutual employer in trumpeter and bandleader Bill Warfield. All three of us have worked for Bill for many years, so I was already familiar with Tim and Scott when I asked them to join me back in 2013.

It was apparent from the first gig that the band had a lot of chemistry together, and it inspired me to go ahead and record my first album with these guys, “Event Horizon.” It was recorded back in 2014 and helped me to establish a name for myself as a bandleader. Since then, we’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to play together, and to continue to develop a sense of cohesion and identity.

There’s really no way to know exactly how a group of musicians will respond to one another in the moment. You can make your best guess ahead of time and try to select people you think have similar or complementary musical outlooks, but until you get in a room with one another you never really know.

What do they each contribute to the music?

Tim and Scott are both two very talented and creative musicians in their own right. They both bring their own personal style and experience to the group, and are both committed to playing at the highest level possible. Both are great listeners and always have their ears open to new ideas and new sounds.

I can rely on them for honest opinions on certain concepts. The result is a flow of ideas from one person to the next, and I think that helps us all relax and trust one another as we develop our sound and identity.

What was the most memorable part of producing “Moving Day”?

I started writing the music for this new CD even as I was finishing mastering “Event Horizon” in the summer of 2014. I continued to add new songs to the band’s repertoire over the next few years which gave us a chance to flesh out and explore each of these new tunes quite a bit before we went to the studio to record “Moving Day” in the early summer of 2017.

I always like to come up with a challenge for the group; perhaps something new that we haven’t explored or an expansion on something we already have.

We spent two days in the studio in early June 2017 recording the music. Mixing and mastering started later in June and ran through to the end of July with a few breaks due to scheduling.

How do the tracks differ in flavor?

One of the best compliments I got from a review from my last CD was that the tracks had a “unique sameness.” By that he was saying each track had its own unique identity, yet fit together as part of an overall concept for a recording.

My hope is that I’ve been able to achieve something similar with “Moving Day.” The songs all vary in tempo, meter, feel, etc., but hopefully they’re all stories that sound like they’re being told by the same source.

What do you like about incorporating meter changes in your songs?

I don’t try to do this; I let the melody dictate how the form or meter of the song should be. It just so happens that for this CD, the melodies and ideas I was hearing used a lot of odd meters.

It’s just a reflection of the music I’ve been listening to and my natural growth as a musician and composer.

Are the emotions in the earlier CD different from the ones you call upon in “Moving Day”?

The writing process was a more personal experience for me the second time around, and I think that comes through in the music.

Has the band found a new direction in its four years together?

The chance to tackle each new composition is a step forward in our evolution. Each one is a chance to try something new, and it’s those moments that move us forward. It’s that kind of organic change that create lasting results.

What did you write about in the 2015 Master Class article for DownBeat Magazine?

The article was about how to write for the double bass for people who don’t yet play it. I feel the bass is a misunderstood instrument from the point of view of many composers. There’s confusion over what people can ask of their bass player to play.

Sometimes people overwrite for the instrument, and sometimes they are afraid to write too much.

Of course, it’s a tremendous honor to be asked to write a master class article for DownBeat. That was one of the things that helped raise my credentials in the eyes of the jazz community and got me greater exposure as an artist.

Some of your favorite past collaborations?

I’ve played for many years in various projects led by Bill Warfield which have always been great musical situations.

A few years ago, I had a chance to play some concerts with Jimmy Heath’s big band as part of an accompanying string section for some very interesting works.

The first concert I ever played at Carnegie Hall was with a large contemporary ensemble playing the music of John Cage. That’s one I’ll always remember as well.

What are some of your favorite clubs?

I had a weekly spot at Birdland for two years when I was just coming out of college, playing for the cocktail hour before the headliners came on, so I’ll always have a soft spot for that place. Jazz at Lincoln Center was a great place to play as well as the Blue Note, and the aforementioned Carnegie Hall for sure.

While the famous rooms are always a treat to play in, what matters more is the musical experience you’re having. I’ve played at Lincoln Center and the music wasn’t particularly great. I’ve also played places no one’s heard of and the music was fantastic. The quality of the music matters.

New places on your wish list?

I’m pushing to bring my music overseas. This past November I played a concert at a cultural center in Belgium, and one concert at the Sunset/Sunside Club in Paris. There’s some plans in the works for me to head back over this summer and play a couple of festivals, pending their final decision on the lineup. Fingers crossed.

How does your jazz life balance with being principal bassist for the Bronx Opera Company?

Bronx Opera only has two large opera productions and two orchestra concerts a year, so it leaves plenty of time in my schedule for lots of other things. It’s not a full-time job.

How does your classical training help with writing jazz?

Having a balance between different styles of music is very beneficial for me as a musician. I think there are great lessons to take away from both jazz and classical music. Nothing compares to the freedom of a jazz ensemble when the musicians are really in tune with one another. In the same vein, there is no comparison to being inside one of the great classical masterworks as it’s happening around you.

These experiences have given me a lot of insight about how to approach music, both as a player and as a composer.  

What would you most like to improve or develop in your ensemble work?

I think it’s just a matter of continuing to take chances as a player and a composer, and to continue to develop our sound and identity with one another.

What is the biggest challenge in the music industry today?

It’s having your voice heard within a very crowded field. There are so many talented musicians out there who have very interesting stories to tell, as well as some less talented musicians who further over-saturate the jazz world. Getting someone to take the time to listen to your music and take a chance on programming you either on the radio or for a concert series is one of the biggest challenges.

Try to play the best music you possibly can. There’s no substitute for quality. Despite whatever trends or images people may be searching for, I think quality will always distinguish itself.

In addition, I’ve found that using social media has been very helpful in reaching people I would not otherwise meet in real life. It’s helped me to expand the reach of my music beyond New York City to a national and even international audience.

What are you planning on the release date of Feb. 2, 2018?

February 2 is the date that my CD goes on sale here in North America. I’m planning an early release in Europe and the UK on January 19. We will have a CD release show on March 3 in Manhattan at Club Bonafide.

What do you most want people to know about your trio?

I want for them to listen to the music and make up their own minds about it. Music is a very personal experience; there’s no way that my music can meet everyone’s expectations or to be to everyone’s tastes. That’s okay. My hope is that people like our music and I’m grateful for those who do. To those who give it a chance, I say thank you.

For more information, visit www.markwademusicny.com.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mark Wade. Top photo (c) Dennis Connors.

(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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