How do you like your coffee? Dark and strong? Medium roast? Maybe something gentler, with cream or sugar? A flavour for everybody, no matter what you prefer. If the double bass was a cup of coffee, Karr would be your Barista.
When choosing an album to review, I narrowed it down to “Spirituals and Foster Songs” or “Super Double Bass.” In the end, I chose “Super Double Bass” because it had some of the Stephen Foster works, and some Spirituals, but it also dipped a little into a couple of classical pieces that I like. I still plan to get the other CD, but for the review, Super Double Bass is a fine order.
In addition to Karr, the album featured pianist/keyboardist, Harmon Lewis, Karr’s longtime collaborator on many of his recorded projects. Lewis is the perfect counterbalance to Karr’s swirling moods on the double bass.
Before I take my first sip, I wanted to include a bit of information on a very special bass that Karr has used (not on this album, but in one of the videos featured later on).
After reading this background, I thought about how electric bass players admire the basses from the 1950s and 60s as being “vintage.” The debate over the actual manufacturing date of Karr’s Amati bass notwithstanding, I am in awe of someone playing a bass that was made (at least) two centuries ago. I’m not taking anything away from the vintage electrics - I’m just giving an appropriate nod of admiration and respect to such an impressive work of art as the Amati. Watch the video at the end of the review – Karr is actually playing the Amati in that one.
Okay, on with the album review.
We begin with Amazing Grace and a lone bass, playing solo, its high registers sounding more like a viola than a double bass. Quiet and calling to the sky. Then Lewis joins in with (what I believe to be) a drawbar organ. The bass comes in again, this time with the deep resonance we all know and expect, and all Heaven breaks loose! The majesty of this song never fails to thrill me. People know this song, and love this song, and they like it to be played well. Karr and Lewis do not disappoint.
Next up is the Minuet for keyboard No. 1 in G major. Karr delivers a fine rendition, and Lewis’ keyboard sounds almost like a calliope. Very light and lilting. At just over a minute and a half, it’s the waltz for those who haven’t a lot of time (heh, heh). At the risk of sounding trashy, I also love the pop rendition of the Minuet, called “A Lover’s Concerto”, done by The Toys. “How gentle is the rain... that falls softly on the meadow...” You know it. The 4/4 version of a waltz.
Deep River is the next number. This is a traditional African Spiritual. Though Karr plays the instrumental version, you can still hear the lyrics in every stroke of the bow. It’s a solemn and moving piece.
Deep River, my home is over Jordan. Deep River, Lord. I want to cross over into campground. Deep River. My home is over Jordan. Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Oh, don't you want to go to the Gospel feast; That Promised Land, where all is peace? Oh, Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Fum, Fum, Fum (till her Daddy takes the T-Bird away) Ha, just kidding. Fum, Fum, Fum is a short, little Christmas song. Karr plays the double bass like a classical guitar. You’ll be shocked (and mightily impressed) by his strumming. The entire sample is less than 45 seconds long! That’s all it takes. Like a sip of fine espresso. Ahhh.
Old Folks at Home is the first Stephen Foster song on the album. Most of us know this one as Suwannee River, or Way Down Upon The Suwannee River. I love all of Stephen Foster’s work, and this one is really nicely done. The bass is deep and haunting; midway through, Karr changes keys and brings the bass up into a sweet voice that really “sings”. Another key change and we are back into that viola or violin range. Such versatility and flavour! Lewis’ piano is so sweet. Foster would be moved.
Bach’s Gavotte is next up on the menu. Karr takes big bites out of the piece. It’s played in 4/4 time, and he chomps in “on the one”. If this was a modern song, we’d be calling it FUNK. This would be great for a funk player who wanted to adapt this piece to something modern.
Tosca - Act 3. E lucevan le stelle. Lewis starts us off with some sorrowful piano, then Karr joins in with melancholy phrases in the mid-range of his bass. A very heartfelt rendition.
Next up is my favourite piece on the entire album: Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer. I have a bit of a story about this song. As a child, this was one of the first songs ever taught me by my mother, but because she didn’t know all the words properly, she turned it into kind of a lullaby for her uncontrollable children. Instead of singing, “Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me. Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee,” she would sing, “Beautiful Dreamer, sing for your Mum. Get into bed or I’ll wallop your bum.” ...or something like that.
(Ahem) Anyway, Karr and Lewis play it with all the emotion Foster intended. It’s supposed to be a song about someone who has died, and the singer who wishes that she find peace in Heaven – kind of a re-birthing of her soul without all its troubles. Lewis gives us a magnificently simple opening, and then is joined by the plaintive crying of the bass. The second part is played in that lower register and the mood shifts immediately to a sadder place. The fact that Karr switches keys and/or octaves throughout his songs is a sign he knows the bass from end to end, and does not limit its voice. I like that.
Next for us to taste is Schubert’s Ave Maria. At over five minutes, Karr does not cheat the listener with a pared down version. And Lewis knows that there MUST be an opening of organ music to make this song complete. After all, this is a church song, and the organ is a MUST. Karr plays the piece slowly and with reverence, switching to a lower octave on the second round - the full-body of which can bring a person to tears.
Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho. Wow! Karr takes this Spiritual all over the board! It’s staccato, then smooth. He bows, then plucks, then bows again. You can hear the bow grinding on the strings. It’s both playful and deep at the same time.
Old Black Joe is the next Foster tune. (sigh) There’s no denying that Foster was a racist, and he wrote a lot of his songs from that vantage point. But I also think Karr chose these songs as a representation of the period in time, and plays them not from a place of celebration of racism, but rather inward reflection about the way things were. He plays sadly and with question. Lewis on piano adds to the mood. I think you’ll understand what I mean when you listen to it. It's not bouncy and happy; it's introspective and thoughtful.
Scott Joplin’s The Entertainer is a nice game for Karr and Lewis. They play off each other and seem to have great fun doing so.
This video example does not have Harmon Lewis in it, but it does feature Karr playing that Amati bass I mentioned earlier. The man is a true Entertainer!
Last on our menu of delicious treats is the Adagio in G minor. Most people (if they aren't readily familiar with the name) recognise this piece when they hear it. In addition to having been recorded countless numbers of times in all forms and arrangements, it’s also one of the most widely used pieces in movies and television. In our album here, Karr and Lewis play with more emotion than I've heard in previous renditions. Karr knows his instrument thoroughly and never holds back in mood or feeling. There are moments in this version where his double bass sounds almost like gypsy violins, and other times when it reaches the depths only a double bass could find. When those moments come, you almost slide down off your chair to match the notes. Down, and down, and down.
Like I said at the beginning, Karr is like a maker of a fine cup of coffee. He knows what the Customer likes and gives it up with true affection, personal attention, and skill. He seems the kind of guy who’d give you a cup even if you had no money to pay; he’s just that devoted to his craft.
There are samples of all the songs on the album at Allmusic.com. Help yourself, and then buy a copy. Maybe check out the “Spirituals and Foster Songs” album, too.
Don’t forget to check out Karr’s Website as well. He has Method Books and other merch for sale, as well as a wide selection of albums.
Also, if you go to YouTube and search for Gary Karr, there is a multitude of videos on him and his work.
Treat yourself to a special cup of the finest!
© 2013 CL Seamus for Thunder Row
ADDED BONUS - A FOUR PART INTERVIEW WITH GARY KARR: