Conversation With George Mraz
George Mraz, Consummate Jazz Bassist, Dies at 77 >>> VIEW
George Mraz’s discography is the who’s who of the jazz world, from legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and Bill Evans, to a more modern day gigging itinerary with Herbie Hancock and Michael Brecker. He has graced dozens of groundbreaking albums over his career, and has plans for a new ensemble soon—longevity at its essence. His latest CD Moravian Gems reminds us that time has not even come close to affecting the pure musicality so many have called him for over his long career.
Richie Beirach states, “George always plays the exact right note you want to hear”. Comments like this put him at the top of a very short list of bassists who’s talent and virtuosity is entirely unquestioned. The respect he’s derived from those that have worked with him is noted many times by many of the greats. In the videos included in this article, you’ll be able to hear and appreciate what a unique and uncompromised voice he has, and like many others of legendary status, he’s as genuine and humble as they come.
I found George to be a man of few words, which beyond this article is completely irrelevant, as he is able to speak volumes through his instrument. For those of you who might not be familiar with him, it would be in your best interest to spend some time listening to this marvelous musician.
Jake: I read that your first introduction to jazz was Louis Armstrong and Satchmo. What was it about their music that drew you to jazz?
George: When I was about twelve or thirteen, I used to listen to the radio on Sundays, which played mostly opera. On one particular Sunday they stuck in some music by Louis Armstrong and Satchmo. I couldn’t figure out the music, and wondered how someone with a voice like Satchmos got away with singing like that. The music made me feel good, and I liked it better than a lot of other things I had heard. That’s when I started looking into jazz.
Jake: You’ve played with so many greats over the years, and I wondered if you would tell me something about the time you spent working with Oscar Peterson?
George: The four of us had played with Dizzy for about two weeks in New York, and we played along side Oscar’s group, and he took my number. He then called me after that and told me that Sam Jones was leaving and asked me to join the band. Since I already played with Dizzy, I was kind of interested in playing with a trio. I was with Oscar for about two years.
Jake: Did you find it different, or I should say more challenging working with Oscar than some of the other projects you had done?
George: Well, it was quite demanding. We were playing five sets an evening. And then we played the London house in Chicago and that was three sets in the evening as well as playing in the day. So once again we were up to five sets a day. I remember I had my fingers bleeding at one point—it was pretty rough. But I was enjoying myself immensely. And then they flew us to Japan. We were playing six times a week, like a double concert, but I was pretty young then, you know. And then Saturday we ended up playing some club in Tokyo after doing a couple of concerts—it was definitely demanding.
Jake: Do you feel your time with Oscar influenced you’re playing in any way?
George: He really pretty much left things up to me. I was very familiar with Ray Brown’s playing and others that Oscar had worked with, but again, he pretty much let me do what I do.
Jake: Did a lot of your expertise come from a rigid practice schedule, or do you feel you were more or less educated on the band stand with all the greats you have played behind?
George: To tell you the truth, I’ve almost never practiced jazz. I graduated from the Prague conservatory in 66, and I was playing jazz almost every night in one of clubs. I was playing so much; I actually didn’t really have time to practice. I did spend time practicing my classical material, but mostly I learned everything on the bandstand. I moved to New York after I left Oscar, and the players and the work I was involved with at that point in time turned out to be a serious education of what to do, and what not to do—it was kind of an immediate result.
Jake: Do you feel you’re classical studies helped you in any way as far as your jazz playing is concerned?
George: Yes, I believe it helped me to get around the bass in a better fashion. Bowing on the instrument certainly helps you play in tune more as well.
Jake: I read a quote that stated “George always plays the exact right note you want to hear”. As hard as this may be to explain, how do you approach a song musically speaking to get that kind of feeling, as well as praise from those who you are working with?
George: I really don’t have any kind of system that I use. There are so many different styles to consider, and I always just try to just fit with what’s happening musically around me. It’s a very natural thing for me.
Jake: With your studies over the years, could you tell me what your focus has been as far as improvisation is concerned?
George: Many things happen by accident. For instance, I used to tape broadcasts off the Voice of America, and because of the poor recording quality at that time, I never really heard the bass that well. So I was more or less trying to emulate other instruments that I could hear clearly. I was always listening to the melodic approach that the soloist came from.
Jake: Did you have any favorites in particular?
George: On bass there were so many players—Paul chambers, Ray Brown, and Ron Carter. I also really enjoyed Scott LaFaro. I remember getting a call to play with Bill Evans, and I had to turn it down because we just got a group together with John Abercrombie, which stayed together for about four years, mostly touring Europe. So I had to say no to Bill Evans, which kind of broke my heart. I did eventually get to play with him at the Vanguard for a few days, and that was really something. He was an amazing guy, and I really enjoyed my time playing with him.
Jake: I can only imagine. Kind of being hailed as the consummate sideman, did you find it uncomfortable to take the role of leader on certain projects?
George: Not really. Musically it was quite easy for me as I had certain ideas, and over the years I found out that you cannot really change people. You can never tell people exactly what to do. So you just try to find a way to work your concepts into the music, as well as their concepts, and just let them do what they do. I was never really able to get a bunch of really young guys together and get a band together and tell them what to do, because as a bass player, I depend on the people I play with. I’m actually in a process, within the next year or two, of putting a band together again. Hopefully, that will happen.
Jake: Have you done a lot of writing?
George: Well, I’m not really a prolific writer. I’ve written maybe ten or twelve tunes, and I do have some new ones that haven’t been recorded yet, as well as some old ones that have been recorded. So I do have a certain amount of material I would like to use at some point, before it’s too late—time flies.
Jake: In that sense, could you tell me what inspired you to record your latest CD Moravian Gems?
George: I heard this group in Prague and I enjoyed what they did—the Moravian tunes were really nice. They actually worked in some improvisation within these tunes which made it a little different. They wanted to do a new release that would be accessible to the people over there.
Jake: Were you involved in any of the writing for that project, as I know that’s actually the music of your home land?
George: The pianist for that band is considered to be an expert on Moravian music, so I basically came in and just did a small amount of rearrangement with them. But they had most of the writing together for that project.
Jake: I wonder if you’re still teaching, and if you are, what might be some of the more important aspects of pursuing a musical career that you’ve passed along to your students?
George: I haven’t been teaching much as of late. I find if I am teaching, I’m still trying to learn myself. For the few students I’ve had, it’s mostly about physical things. I don’t tell them what to play, or how to play it—everybody has their own ideas. I’ll show them things like five different ways and fingerings to play one phrase, because there might be a day when you might be suffering from some kind of hand problem, so these are good things to know. I also think it’s wise to practice some melodies and scales with a bow, because there’s something about the left hand, a certain feeling that you seem to derive when playing with a bow. It also helps you to play in tune more, and then when you play pizz, it’s a lot easier.
Jake: Do you feel you accomplished most of what you hoped to, as far as your musical career is concerned?
George: There’s always more to learn—it’s a never ending process. I’m proud of some of the things I’ve done, but that doesn’t mean I can rest on my laurels.
Visit George Mraz online at www.georgemraz.com