It's not everyday you find a musician who's performed or recorded with everyone from Igor Stravinsky to Cecil Taylor to Jerry Garcia to Jean-Luc Ponty. But bassist Buell Neidlinger is just such a musician, a performer and composer whose career has taken him down so many musical roads that he's made a crib-note time line just to refresh his memory. Neidlinger has been a professional bassist since his teenage years, and at 62, he's found bucolic solace on Whidbey Island, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of New York and LA. He's also gathered a hot new incarnation of his band Buellgrass, which capitalizes on another recent move to Seattle, that of Bad Livers banjoist Danny Barnes.
Buell Neidlinger and Buellgrass
Museum of History & Industry
Saturday, May 30
For a man who's had his bass-thumping hand in a lot of adventurous musical stews, Neidlinger describes himself rather simply. "I'm just a guy who might perform 20 times a year nowadays, at the most. I'm a guy people really like to play with, and for me, I like to put together these weird groups."
By "weird groups" Neidlinger means the new Buellgrass, which brings him and Barnes together with violinist Darol Anger, mandolin maestro Robert Bolland, and polystylistic guitar maverick Bill Frisell. Of course to most music listeners, most of what Neidlinger has done his entire career falls into the "weird groups" category, from the atonal avant-garde jazz of Cecil Taylor in the 1950s and early 1960s to the uncompromising chamber-music aesthetics of Iannis Xenakis.
Neidlinger can reel off an incredibly extensive roster of musicians with whom he's played, but he's also got a penchant for wry historical assessment. "I have made a living in music," Neidlinger says about his postNew York career playing film scores and pop. "Although I played with Ben Webster, Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Herbie Nichols, and many, many others, I soon saw that one couldn't play jazz and make a living."
A graduate of Yale, Neidlinger established himself early as a powerful, musically multilingual bassist. But he likely saw too much of the hardscrabble world of New York jazz to make it his fulfillment: "A lot of my friends were simply dropping dead from not making a living in jazz," he notes.
So Neidlinger flew the coop for Los Angeles in the late 1960s and there established himself by playing with the likes of Frank Zappa, as well as holding down the first bass chair in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Most germane to Buellgrass, however, is Niedlinger's intersection with the late Jerry Garcia. It was the Grateful Dead co-founder who inadvertently named Buellgrass, as Neidlinger recalls. "Jerry and David Grisman's bluegrass group, Old and In the Way, couldn't get Taj Mahal to play bass on their tour in 1977. They hired me, and on our first gig, Jerry looked over at me and said, 'Man, you turned that shit into buellgrass."
From Garcia's accidental proffering of a moniker, Neidlinger always kept a rendition of his bluegrass band going, often using his jazz cohorts to play rootsy versions of Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols tunes. With Buellgrass, Neidlinger feels that he can best relate the things he hears in disparate American musical traditions. His album Big Day at Ojai (K2B2), reissued in 1996, captures the freewheeling, old-timey spirit of jazz as it collides with American string-music traditions, showing how sounds from the jazz tradition make sense when reshaped into string-driven foot stompers. "For one thing," Neidlinger says, "I made some discoveries about instruments. The harmonica, for example, sounds like a little trumpet.
"What I've got here in Buellgrass," he continues, "is a disparate bunch, and I like to take musicians like this and put them together. It all comes out Americana. But the nitty-gritty of Buellgrass right now is that I really relish the opportunity to play with an archetype of American guitar, Bill Frisell; one of the founders of punk grass, Danny Barnes; and one from the depths of David Grisman's band, Darol Anger, who I've jammed with for a long time at Grisman's house and who comes from so many groups, like Psychograss [and] the Turtle Island String Quartet." Pumped as he is about these band members, Neidlinger is exceptionally hyped to be playing with mandolinist Robert Bolland. "Robert's family goes back in American music about 200 years," Neidlinger says. "He was Bill Monroe's last fiddler and sang with Monroe too. He's one from deep in the tradition."
Perhaps as a nod to Bolland and the late Monroe, Neidlinger adds that the gigs they're playing along the current short tour from Port Townsend to Seattle will include a good deal of Monroe's tunes. "There'll also be some Cajun tunes I like, some Herbie Nichols, and some Monk. But you know," Neidlinger adds with a bounce, "this is definitely going to be a tribute to Jerry." Expect some duet work with Frisell, and then a full quintet with everyone at the top of their game.