Rob Wasserman carves his own path – but he doesn’t like to walk it alone.
“Collaboration” is a word that comes up over and over in any conversation with the widely acknowledged master of the upright bass, and it’s obviously a word that gets right to the heart of Wasserman’s latest project – an album called Trios that harnesses an incredibly diverse group of talents, from Carole and Brian Wilson on one track to Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Branford Marsalis, Edie Brickell, Jerry Garcia and Les Claypool on others.
The collaborations with Claypool extended to this year’s Bammies where Wasserman on his upright and Claypool on electric bass were joined onstage at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco by drummer Jay Lane of the hot hip-hop/jazz ensemble Alphabet Soup and Sausage, a reunion of the original Primus, among other groups.
The exotic, if not quixotic, idea of duelling basses is one that suits Wasserman’s musical personality. “I always thought it was possible,” says Wasserman of the bass/bass combination. “If you’re flexible enough, why not?”
“None of it seems weird to me, “ he continues, referring to musical partnerships with the likes of aberrant funk-punker Claypool, avant-gardist Joan Jeanrenaud of the Kronos Quartet and rock icon Lou Reed. “I don’t see barriers. I’ve played with so many people, I could go in with some Zulu warriors and then go play with a classical quartet and now feel weird at all.”
And so Claypool, the funky spirit behind the unclassifiable Primus, fits right in. “He’s the most original bass player I know,” says Wasserman of Claypool. “He reminded me of me in having his own ideas and not being derivative.”
Claypool, who more than once has taken the opportunity while accepting a Best Bassist Bammie to insist the award should go to Wasserman is quick to return the compliment. “The upright six-string is a huge challenge in itself, and he’s all over that thing. He’s very innovative and a very tasteful player. He has this folky/shuffle feel and our playing really complemented one another.
“He knows how to give and take. If there’s space, he knows how to fill it – and he’s willing to give you that space, too. He’s very straightforward. He’s a hell of a nice guy. It’s hard to say no to someone that nice.”
While Claypool was “the most left-field call” on Trios, the enigmatic and hypnotic “Home is Where You Get Across” (with Texas singer-songwriter Chris Whitley) isn’t going to garner the most attention. That honor will certainly go to “Fantasy is Reality” a heartfelt collaboration between Wasserman, Brian Wilson and Wilson’s daughter, Carnie.
The song, written by Sam Phillips, Wasserman and Brian Wilson, goes right to the core of Wilson’s long struggles to tame his mental demons. It’s given a powerful reading by his heretofore pop-lite daughter. “This is her coming into her own,” says Wasserman. “She’d never sung a song like this before.”
And she’d also never worked with her father before, as the Wilson family has been shattered by the pressures of Brian’s ongoing instability. But the “very emotional” recording of “Fantasy is Reality” knocked down a lot of walls.
As with so many of the musicians involved in Wasserman’s projects, the Wilson alliance was initiated by Wasserman’s mindful yet technically dazzling work on the upright bass. Wasserman was touring with Lou Reed when Wilson, the bass player with the Beach Boys in their salad days, came backstage after the show.
“He walked up to me and pounded his chest,” says Wasserman, demonstrating by bouncing a closed fist off his breastbone. “I felt your bass here,” he said.” From there, a friendship blossomed. Wasserman played bass on Wilson’s unreleased Sweet Insanity album, and when it came time to do Trios, Wilson returned the favour.
Wasserman had received a version of “Fantasy is Reality” from singer-songwriter Sam Phillips, but finding the right singer was difficult. “We worked with Sam and Carole King and down the list”, he says, “We didn’t know who to get to finish the song.”
Such incertitude, by the way, is one reason it took half a decade to complete Trios. Some assemblages just don't click. "Sometimes it didn't work" admits Wasserman. "It's trickier with more people involved."
"Fantasy is Reality" was the trickiest of all. "I'd always wanted to suggest Carnie" says Wasserman, "because she would be the perfect emotional link." It turned out Brian felt the same way, but neither man had been willing to bring up her name. Once Wasserman suggested Carnie as a candidate, everything fell into place.
"He called Carnie right up - and it was the first time he had called her in ages." Wasserman recalls. "She'd always wanted to work with her dad."
Wasserman brought in studio ace Don Was to produce, and the result is the most textured track on Trios. Classic Brian Wilson harmonies float through a song that possesses enough emotional resonance to stir the heart of the most jaded Beach Boy-hater.
"There are all these things that made it a great song," says Wasserman, including that the track was recorded at the Beach Boys' old studio. "It was the first time she'd been to his house. The way they were able to heal the family was through what they do best - music. The barriers are coming down. Music isn't just a business. It helps heal people."
For his part, Wilson is cryptic but upbeat about the experience. On working with Wasserman, Wilson volunteers "It was a lot of fun." On working with Carnie, "It was just as nice to work with my daughter." On Trios, "It's a smash."
Pooling his skills with those of Elvis Costello wasn't quite so emotionally draining, but setting up the trio for "Put Your Big Toe In The Milk Of Human Kindness" wasn't easy. Costello, in fact, was supposed to have appeared on Wasserman's previous album, Duets, but their schedules never meshed. "That's one of the reasons the album too five years," explains Wasserman. "It took some trios a year to get together. When I got an idea, I like to see it through, no matter how long it takes."
Wasserman's notion that the bass is capable of providing more than just rhythm support has been germinating since he was attending an experimental high school in San Francisco in the late '60s. His first big break came when he hooked up with the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, Danny Elfman's musical/theatrical extravaganza, which eventually evolved into the Oingo Boingo of today.
Wasserman signed up with the band because there was supposed to be a Broadway deal in the works. Stage stardom never arrived, but Wasserman was afforded an opportunity to participate in one of the most original musical outfits of the '70s, as Elfman led a multimedia assault on audiences.
"It was hard to leave the band," recollects Wasserman. "I was disappointed that nothing happened that was supposed to happen. Now I can look back and make jokes about being.."