Lesson With Anthony Cox

I can’t believe I got to meet one of my all-time bass heroes! Anthony Cox is the real deal – he has played with all the New York heavies; his solo project are beautiful, too – check out his Dark Metals album. His musical ideas are deep and profound. I couldn’t wait to pick his brain!

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Anthony in a very interactive and conversational teacher. “What I would always do with people is say ‘come with a list of questions’ so we can get to the point.”

Upbringing

From the very beginning, Cox would not allow himself to be pigeonholed in any particular style. He was shaped by his undergrad experience at Eau Claire, Wisc., playing chamber orchestra, full orchestra, going at it full bore. His teacher, James Clute, was fundamental for his technique. “He really changed my life.” But he made the decision to also go into jazz. He listed his influences: “Ron Carter, Richard Davis, Scott LaFaro, Jimmy Garrison, Mingus, Dave Holland, Steve Swallow… and I really liked Dave Holland because I saw how versatile he was… That’s the kind of player I wanted to be.” There was a jazz band, but no jazz program. He had to figure things out on his own, putting together his own combos, etc. Another pivotal experience was being accepted as a student by Dave Holland after his move to New York.

Anthony continues to evolve his playing style. “The bow interests me the most at this point on upright… I’ve moved into, as a gradual thing, playing electric bass, too. I treat it like somebody who plays tenor and soprano. I don’t have this bias (toward one or the other).”

Right Hand

One thing he learned from Holland is a “Mingus-type thing”: the “bouncing ball’ or “complete circle.”

He turned on the metronome and demonstrated repeated open strings using just the side of the right index finger and had me mimic him. His plucking is part of a big, counterclockwise (from the player’s perspective) circular motion – the right hand starts returning to the string right after the note is struck. The motion is constant; there’s no hesitation. There’s a lot of forearm – “but I’m not forcing it.” He talked about how some players can get a “hitch” or hesitation in the stroke. He want’s to hear the front edge of the sound happen right with the click. There’s “more propulsion when you play time.” “I did this religiously.” “When you play, you don’t drag. (Play) like when you hear Ron Carter with Tony Williams.”

“Then, to build up stamina, if you go faster, you’ll find your breaking point” (he kept playing open strings, increasing speed until he found how fast he could play). He made sure that, instead of just using the finger, I would keep activating the whole arm at faster tempos. I noticed his elbow doing the circle just as much as his hand. Though he usually plays with two and three fingers, he practices this with just the side of the index finger to get the “complete circle” going.  He recommends doing this 10 minutes a day.

Then he got into the Zimmerman book. Anthony wanted to develop a fluid right hand, so Holland got him working right away on the Contemporary Concept etudes, pizzicato, alternating first and second fingers. ”I did that religiously” (refer to Chris Bates’ handout). “It’s good to work on patterns… like a drummer. Rudiments, you know.”

Some of his right hand ideas come from electric bass – he studied classical guitar PIMA technique. As an example, Anthony had me do a Zimmerman pattern with three fingers, index, middle, and ring, resulting in a 3:4 polyrhythm, going both 1,2,3 and 3,2,1 (ex. 1). It made my brain hurt, to say the least. He said these patterns don’t have to be followed consistently, but that they give you the ability to use different fingers to, say, accommodate a wide string crossing. He improvised a bit, showing how he can incorporate the three fingers for really fast embellishments, mentioning how Niels Henning Orsted Pederson and Cecil McBee used this technique.

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You can download these here: lesson-with-anthony-cox

Working on Changes

He would invent a random sequence of, say, seventh chords and practice them. “I found I was creating my own exercises within exercises; I would do it in 4/4 swing, then I would put it into different time signatures, like 5/4 or something.” He wrote an example for me (ex. 2). “It’s not your usual progression, but I’ve found that when you get away from stuff written in the popular songbook… What this does is make the ear create resolutions.”

He had me walk the chart; it was interesting trying to find a path through the changes without the help of 2-5-1’s. “You create your own leading tones… I found out that certain people write that way, like Steve Swallow, ‘Hotel Hello.’ They “write, like, color, color color, instead of the normal 2-5”

‘Then the next thing is to solo, swing or whatever feel you want to work on.” He demonstrated a beautiful improvisation in even-eighths, ECM style. He had me try it – alone; “I’m not going to play behind you because you need to keep it going yourself.”

“”When I did it with Dave he really messed me up because he would use three-bar phrases and other (rhythmic) things. Nowadays you run into that – different time signatures and stuff; people write this way now, not writing so square, like 2, 8, 16, 32 bars.” Then he started improvising on the same changes using different phrase lengths and time signatures: 5/4, 6/8, 7/4.

He emphasized practicing this alone so that you feel responsible for filling up the space you need to as a bass player. Anthony mentioned playing in a lot of groups that had no chordal instrument, like a quartet he played in with Joe Lovano (e.g. Lovano, disc one), and demonstrating how he would comp using lots of arpeggiated embellishments to really outline the harmony and keep the rhythm interesting.

Playing Well With Others

“I like playing more conversational; one of my favorite bassists is Scott LaFaro, in all the contexts he played in – Ornette, Bill Evans… I liked Charlie Haden a lot, but with Ornette I just dug Scott LaFaro, I just love it.” “He was atonal – pantonal. And I think that’s what I am, too.” He proceeded to play a few LaFaro licks from Ornette and Evans records. The licks were totally unique and abstract – the opposite of cliche.

Then he proposed we improvise together conversationally; wow, that was fun. He listened; figuring out when to accompany, when to take the lead, whether the time should be regular or free. “The same principle of what we were doing is the way I like to play with somebody, no matter if it’s in time, with changes, no changes, it’s the same – I like to be conversational. If I’m playing within a structure it’s there”

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We improvised again; Anthony clearly enjoyed the interplay. He talked about learning how to converse in duo and trio settings in small rooms, for example, gigs with Larry Willis at Bradley’s, where it was mostly duos and “you have the people’s attention, they come there to listen.” He thinks really hard about the quality of the interplay, not just playing notes but listening hard to what was going on. And he carries that experience to all his playing situations. “The more you can play with different people, different instruments, like guitar, all of a sudden you find you think different. That’s one of the lessons I’ve learned. With piano I play one way, if I’m with, say, trumpet and set, that’s a whole other thing I’ve got to do.“

The Bass Player as Composer

“Another thing I do with students is, I would encourage them to write and have them bring something and then we would work through it… I feel like what you hear is what you play and then you kinda write what you hear and vice-versa… I found it would be very helpful for them to get closer to what they were doing, find their own vibration, you know?”

He doesn’t assign a lot of transcriptions, because he would rather the student develop his or her own voice. “ “To me it’s like, you can get obsessed on that and it’s like, that was that solo at that time… I’m not a big fan of that. I listened a lot… Instead I would, and this is another thing, I studied etude books and practiced. I found that more liberating than playing out of all these jazz books… it’s more like that – scales, etudes, solo repertoire… That other stuff (meaning a lot of books that take historical jazz playing as gospel), I think it’s too derivative, you know?” We talked about how the Next Mozart wouldn’t be academic or book-driven. “Hendrix, man. You know, I mean, he understood the electricity.”

That got us into a deep conversation about how we need to keep moving things forward. Anthony likes to think compositionally, how great music is connected to social change, how styles change organically, and how hip-hop now speaks to American culture. “Did you see Saturday Night Live with Dave Chapell? A Tribe Called Quest!” Musicians can get really boxed in, just doing what their teachers tell them to do. “People don’t challenge themselves.”

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Works cited:

Anthony Cox, “Conclusion Beginning,” Dark Metals, Polygram 1991. Compact disc.

Joe Lovano, Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, 1995. Compact disc.

Fred Zimmerman, A Contemporary Concept of Bowing Technique for the Double BassHal
Leonard, 1999. Print.

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