It is rare that a writer has a chance to collectively interview musicians noted for their amazing ability to perform together as a rhythm section. However, bassist Mel Craves and drummer George Marsh surpass that simple classification. They are performers of the highest caliber; innovators and explorers who go beyond the imagined boundaries of their respective instruments. Their recently formed duo is a fine case in point.
George Marsh and Mel Graves are intelligent, open minded, expressive individuals with fine senses of humor. The reasons their personal and musical relationship is successful is because of their shared attitudes about music, their ability to teach each other, and most important of all, they have allowed each other personal and collective growth.
CB: Mel, as a bass player, do you need a drummer, and what qualities do you look for in a drummer?
MG: I like to play music with a lot of different people, and in certain situations I wouldn’t necessarily need a drummer. I’m sure George would agree with me when I say that everybody has to keep the time. So if we need a drummer in a group, it’s for the sound and timbre; the individual and the special thing they do, rather than “we need a drummer.”
CB: In other words, the qualities you look for in a drummer are exactly the same qualities you look for in any other musician.
CB: George, what do you look for in a bass player?
GM: The bass player should hear what I’m playing and be able to understand that I’m playing phrases and melodies. That’s one thing I’d want a bass player to understand. Therefore, it follows that a bassist performs in such a way that I can hear and understand what he’s playing. With Mel, this happens all the time. I understand what he’s playing and visa versa. Therefore, we can both play together. When we’re working together, I can play one melodic phrase and he can play another at the same time. If I’m playing with other bass players and can’t understand what they are playing, it’s usually because of two reasons: One is because I could be playing too complex and should play simpler. Two, they’re not listening to what I’m playing.
CB: What’s your responsibility as a drummer?
GM: Ultimately, my main responsibility is to listen and be able to have my “chops” well enough together that I can play what I hear. Also, my sense of time should be solid so I can lay down a good foundation.
CB: Would you agree that if nobody in the band has a good sense of time then, at the very least, the drummer should?
MG: No. The bottom line is if the drummer is the only one who has a good sense of time, then he should quit the band!
GM: I would say that a drummer with a bad sense of time will have a more difficult time faking it than some other member of the band. A drummer has to absolutely have a good sense of time. And it should have a good feeling; a gut level feeling; an earth-bound feeling.
MG: The bass and bass drum lay down the lowest, deepest feeling of the band that can connect to human beings. Rhythm is an important factor and it’s very important that the bass drum and the low notes of the bass are played together. I hear rhythm sections in jazz with bass players playing on the top end of the instrument. They think they’re cello players. Although I love the range of the instrument, I totally disagree with that concept.
CB: George, was there anything else you wanted to add about the responsibilities of drummers?
GM: Another responsibility is to be aware of the fact that drums have an incredibly wide dynamic range, from triple forte down to triple pianissimo. Drummers should learn how to use that dynamic range. As a drummer, control of dynamics is one way I get emotional feeling through the drums. It’s a very potent method. Not only using dynamics, but also staying constantly aware of them. In a lot of situations, if I don’t, no one else will. It’s important for a drummer to be able to “cook,” play phrases, or anything else you can think of, at all dynamic levels. It means being able to play from very loud to very soft and visa versa. It’s an interesting problem because it’s incredibly difficult to do. If you’re able to do that with different musicians in various situations, you’re able to raise the music way up. A drummer can arrange a tune by using and controlling dynamics. One situation I find interesting is that sometimes I’ll be playing with other musicians, and I’ll go way up in dynamics and people will assume that I’m going to stay at that volume, when all I’m going to do is go up and down in volume very quickly.
CB: Have there been any rhythm sections that have been an important influence on either of you?
GM: Philly Joe Jones, Paul Chambers and Red Garland, because they were loose, melodic and emotional. I also like Percy Heath and Connie Kay of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I liked the way they gave a lot to the music. They played for the music. That rhythm section was always cookin’. But they played for the overall effect. Their egos weren’t totally involved in the music. Yet, you could always hear them. I like and appreciate that very much.
CB: Can either of you recall the best advice you ever got on how to play in a rhythm section?
MG: When I was fifteen, my first bass teacher hipped me to the “V” of a beat. He said that some grooves were just ahead of the “V,” others were right in the “V,” and other grooves were right in back of the “V.” He also stated that as the time went on in a tune, there were different grooves and time feelings within a tempo.
GM: The next thing is to try and find out how to do that. It’s something I’ve discovered how to do by approaching the instrument physically. I don’t try to think ahead of the beat, or in the middle of the beat. I just think straight time and play with a different motion in my arm to change the time feeling.
CB: What are common mistakes that bassists and drummers make?
GM: One of the most common mistakes that Mel and I have observed is that drummers don’t know how to keep the time anchored and still “lift” it. The time will tend to sound heavy.
Something that Mel hears bassists do very often is that their bass lines won’t be particularly interesting melodically. Also they’ll sort of play note to note. And when they go note to note, each one will vary in ways that won’t make any sense.
MG: Not only that, but each note will vary in sound and timbre. A good bass line should have an even sound. It should have melodic shape. A bass line goes over an arc. It shouldn’t be note to note, but be a phrase or a composition in itself.
GM: So if a bass player doesn’t have a feeling of being able to play a line where the notes are connected, and have an “arc” feeling, very often the time will have a lead weight feeling to it.
GM: Static, and even worse than that. It’ll sound like it’s going backwards.
CB: Mel, are there any other problems that you see as a bass player that drummers seem to manifest?
MG: Drummers sometimes don’t think about the sound of the drums.
CB: Do you mean the way they tune the drums?
MG: Yeah. Also the way they use dynamics and their equipment. I sometimes see drummers come to a trio gig with a big band set; huge drums for a small group. They’ll be playing and wonder why they can’t match up their sound with the rest of the group. Even if the drummer is tuned into the time, if the sound of the drums isn’t correct, then he’s not blending into the situation, and that bothers me. Also if he doesn’t phrase, or use dynamics in a way that matches the band melodically, and plays note to note, it makes for bad music. Good jazz, no matter if it’s “free” or bebop, sounds better if it’s phrased over long periods of time. It’s really much more interesting and a lot of things can happen musically.
CB: Are there any methods or techniques that either of you can suggest to correct these deficiencies in bassists and drummers?
GM: If a drummer has time problems, he should check how he holds the sticks and ask himself whether or not he’s allowing ‘ the stick to bounce freely. Second, is he tightening up in his body? Is he able to dance on the drums? Can he move and can ‘ he bounce? If he can bounce, he can have good time. If he doesn’t have good time, something is out of kilter physically.
MG: What you’re saying is that relaxation is involved with good time.
GM: Yeah, relaxation. If a drummer’s time is slightly off, maybe it’s just a question of using the metronome and finding out what steady time is. He can use it as a guide. As far as dynamics are concerned, if a drummer gets a steady bounce going first, and is relaxed, then he can concentrate on using dynamics. You don’t start on dynamics. Relaxation comes first, that’s number one.
CB: Are there any problems or differences for a rhythm section playing in an acoustic band as opposed to an electric group?
MG: In most of the music I play, I have an amplifier. Over the last ten years I’ve gone from large amplifiers and a lot of equipment, to a small amplifier that is amplified by the house. You don’t need columns of speakers. All you need is enough sound to hear yourself on stage.
GM: What Mel and I consider our top dynamic level would be the normal level of a rock band.
MG: And we go from that level to nothing; the sound of silence.
GM: I find that most electronic loudness is anti-musical. It tends to destroy the player’s ears and it goes in a backwards direction by definition. That’s not an opinion. It’s a fact that your ears can be destroyed.
MG: The only reason you need to play loud is if you’re playing huge auditoriums, and we don’t play in places like that. We enjoy playing in places where people can hear our softest sound.
GM: When playing acoustic music, your ears regain their resiliency. When the music is too loud, your hearing looses its sensitivity.
MG: Ten years ago, when I’d come home from a gig, my ears were throbbing. I thought my hearing was going. We were in the late ’60s and early ’70s, playing in rock and fusion groups. I don’t think either of us could take it. The loudness affected our nervous systems. It just wasn’t our kind of music.
GM: Let me make one important point: I believe it’s possible for listeners to go and hear music and to leave that concert with their ears and head feeling better. Or, they can go to a concert and get totally wiped out by the volume level. I don’t know why so many people choose to get wiped out, but there must be a reason for it.
CB: Quite often the biggest problem a drummer has in electric bands occurs when he’s not miked. Then he’s forced to kill himself physically just to be heard. When the drummer can’t be heard, his time, sometimes, gets stolen from him.
GM: It’s true. Your time can get taken away from you. It’s less of a problem for a drummer when he gets stronger, chop-wise.
MG: As a drummer, you lose subtle movements. And when you get into that situation on bass, it just isn’t the kind of thing I like to do. I don’t play out all the way. In larger groups I sometimes have to play out all the time to be heard above the accompaniment. That kind of thing bothers me; the fact that I can’t go down and play in the spider webs and then come up to go all these different places on the instrument. That’s the type of situation I’m really interested in, and that’s what’s so beautiful about the fact that we’ve culminated into a duo.
CB: You’ve both played together for over 12 years. What other special insights has this long relationship given you?
GM: Our relationship continues because I find there’s always something to work on. The more we work together, the more I discover what to work on. I never completely hear the way I want to hear. I’m always working to open that up and to keep that open.
MG: We’re both students of music as well as teachers of music. We’re constantly trying to learn and grow. The minute you accept the things you do and get off on it, you just stagnate. But when you grow and leave yourself open to things, that’s the magic of music making. I’m sure that’s why we’re still in music. It certainly isn’t for economic reasons. There’s a spectrum of spiritual things that you just don’t get from drugs, meditation, or anything. Music is its own special experience.