Bass Culture

Have you ever left a concert feeling that your life has been changed? When Anthony Cox walked into the Guthrie Theater with his friend Phil Hey to see the jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus perform in 1973, he was a 19-year-old budding journalism major at Augsberg College who did not own a bass and had no formal musical training. On the way out of the Guthrie after the Mingus gig, Cox decided he would make his living as an acoustic jazz bass player. "I was fully pumped that I was going to do it," he says. "I had the utmost confidence in myself. Then I worked at it like crazy."

Flash forward to April 14 of this year. Hundreds of people are jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the pews of St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ to see Cox, now one of the world's most respected and prolific jazz bassists, perform a solo acoustic concert, followed by a series of duets with the German pianist Cornelius Claudio Kreusch. After charming the audience with his shyness, he begins with a tune by the late, influential bassist Oscar Pettiford--like Cox, a native Oklahoman who lived in Minnesota when he wasn't touring or recording. Cox plays the huge upright instrument with fluidity and a minimum of ostentation, efficiently incorporating the rubbery notes and fleet passages into the context of the melody, his tone massive but warm, looming.

Next up is "Self Portrait in 3 Colors" by his beloved Mingus, and Cox plumbs its introspective nuances and feisty turns of blues phrasing with deep understanding and empathy. But the highlight of the day is one of Cox's own tunes. Like Mingus's gospel-based jams, it snaps and canters along, pausing and pivoting on a series of deliberate single notes, then dashing ahead with a swiftness that has Cox juggling his bass like a huge hot potato, unleashing a jagged crazy quilt of moods. The title of this tour de force: "Conclusion/Beginning."

Eleven days later, Cox is enjoying mid-afternoon beers and calamari at the Monte Carlo restaurant and discussing his trio Power Circus, who will begin a three-night stand at the Artists' Quarter on Friday. The trio's other members, guitarist Dean Magraw and Cox's old friend, drummer Phil Hey, are arguably the best local jazz musicians on their respective instruments, yet there is no doubt that Cox is the group's leader and guiding force.

Two years ago, when Magraw was playing an acoustic hollow-body guitar and Cox was on upright, the trio was named Workshop. Cox suggested juicing up what had always been an experimental ensemble with some electric instrumentation. "I wanted to feel some grooves, try some new ideas and new textures, different timbres--like using an electric bass with an acoustic guitar or an acoustic bass with an electric guitar. Phil also changed some of the ways he plays, with more hand and small percussion."

Cox cites the electric adventuring of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time Band as a central influence on Power Circus and his own work. "They knock me out the way the role of the bass and guitar can switch back and forth from lead to rhythm. The bass is like the fulcrum in that group; it is a very African concept. When I first started out, I wanted to play upright because it seemed like such an elegant, jazz instrument, and for a long time I identified the upright as my persona. But in the last couple of years, I've wanted to experiment more with the electric, and with mixing more contemporary rhythms with the swing-bop rhythms. The way I used to listen to Mingus and Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro, I'm listening now to these electric bassists, like Marcus Miller, the bass players in Tribal Tech and Pat Metheny's group, and back to some of the things Ron Carter was doing with Miles." He adds that he'll be leaving his upright at home for the Power Circus gigs.

In music and in life, Cox is a multifaceted perfectionist who has always resisted categorization. Between the ages of 8 and 12, he spent his summers with his grandparents in Oklahoma, in a rural southwestern neighborhood where almost everyone was black. It was a far cry from the Minnesota suburb where the Cox family had moved in 1959, at the onset of the civil rights movement. In a place where he didn't have a black classmate until high school, Cox never knew if the next stranger offered a potential fistfight or friendship; it was the same with the neighborhood, which seemed open and extremely friendly, except for the death threats that compelled the attorney general to tap the family's phone lines. "I felt like a dual citizen," Cox says of his split time in Minnesota and Oklahoma. "In a way I felt privileged to see both sides. It made me real strong and determined, kept me balanced and intact." He's been a positive-minded free agent ever since.

After embracing the bass, he fell in with Milo Fine, a local jazz musician derided by some for his adherance to the "free jazz" movement of the '60s. Yet Cox appreciated the chance to "discover my own limitations rather than getting locked into bebop or Dixieland so early." After moving to New York in 1981, he continued to chart his own course. When the influential M-Base music collective--which at the time included folks like Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby, Steve Coleman, and Terri Lynn Carrington--asked him to join, he was put off by their exclusivity and turned them down. When Wynton Marsalis and the other neoconservatives became ascendant in the '80s, Cox intimates that he could have joined them. But "Wynton would tell guys how high their strings would have to be or what amps they couldn't use. Meanwhile I look and see he's got a state-of-the-art trumpet and mouthpiece," Cox says, shaking his head. "I had no sides," he adds with a smile.

It didn't seem to limit his opportunities. He'd play with Henry Threadgill's experimental big band one minute, with Gillespie bebop trumpet disciple Jon Faddis or smooth saxophonist Stan Getz the next, and with young innovators like Geri Allen the next. Inside or outside tradition, Cox could play it.

By 1990, he was offered the chance to make his first CD as a leader. Enduring a romantic breakup and contemplating a move back to Minnesota away from the East Coast grind, he threw himself into composing and lined up a strong, inter-generational ensemble. As things happened, when the recording date came, saxophonist Dewey Redman hadn't taken the time to learn the music. "I was like a first-time director of a low-budget film watching my big chance totally turn around. I literally sat there and said, 'I think I'm a failure,'" Cox recalls. Fortunately, drummer Billy Higgins goaded Redman on, while Cox "went to plan B" and made a more impressionistic record. Entitled Dark Metals, it established Cox as something more than just an ace sideman.

In fact, aside from occasional appearances with saxophonist Joe Lovano, a longtime cohort and the current Downbeat jazz artist of the year, Cox isn't a sideman for anyone anymore. Even as he fills out his busy recording schedule, he says, "I'm at a point where there has to be some mutual respect. I'm not just going to be the hired gun and kill myself for their vision. I'm into concepts and projects where I am the leader or coleader."

The top priority right now is Rios, a group that released its first CD last year and has since reconfigured itself to include coleaders Cox and vibraphonist David Friedman, plus a French accordionist and a New York percussionist. They will tour Canada and then head for Europe and mainland China beginning in the fall, with another recording date to follow. Cox also hopes to resurrect most of the quartet that played in 1993 on Factor Of Faces, his second CD as a leader.

And there is Power Circus. Cox concedes the trio is still experimenting and is not yet ready for national exposure. But for this week's gigs he promises exciting, risky interplay, mixing originals from all three members with vanguard compositions from Ornette Coleman and Carla Bley, plus bop tunes like Monk's "Uncle T," rearranged in what Cox calls a "more contemporary way."

"We are working on changing the way we play, and that isn't easy," Cox says, noting the prejudice of many jazz fans toward electric music, and their own efforts to avoid fusion clichés. "I notice that when I pull out my upright bass and say 'Let's just play,' we immediately go into this open-ended language. But when I do it with my electric, everybody just freezes up sometimes. That's the barrier we are going to be breaking." CP

Power Circus perform this Friday through Sunday at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul; 292-1359.

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