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International Society of Bassists Convention at Penn State University: Contrabass Conversations With Jason Heath

Meet Jason –

I had an absolute blast at this summer’s International Society of Bassists Convention out at Penn State! This was actually the first convention that I’ve been able to attend, and I can’t wait for the next one in 2011. There’s such a palpable excitement about all those bass performers, teachers, students, luthiers, and retailers all in one place, with the sole objective of geeking out for a solid week.

I was at the convention from Wednesday through Saturday, and I therefore unfortunately missed the solo and orchestral competition, luthier competition, Hal Robinson’s recital, Larry Wolfe’s master class (former Contrabass Conversations guest), Paul Ellison’s master class, and many other sessions that I was hoping to attend. Nevertheless, I managed to see a ridiculous number of recitals, classes, and assorted events, socialize with literally hundreds (!) of blog and podcast fans, do some live streaming, and capture several hours of audio and video content. Get ready for an avalanche of double bass material generated at this summer’s ISB…

The following is a breakdown of what I checked out. It may give you an idea of what there is to see during a week of ISB conventioneering if you haven’t had the experience yet. I actually spent a substantial amount of time simply gabbing in the halls with people, and I could have easily packed in twice the number of events had I been really focused. Also, I barely checked out any of the young bassists’ activities, which was a shame, but I could only be in one place at one time, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

(note: My fellow bass blogger compadre Matt Heller was in attendance at the convention as well, and he was maintaining a wonderful side blog dedicated to convention coverage. Check it out–great stuff!)

Wednesday, June 10

I got up at 3:30 am, bleary-eyed but enthusiastic for the coming days, to begin the journey from Chicago to central Pennsylvania, spending the majority of the day in the car and pulling into State College around 3 pm. I got unpacked and started hiking toward Penn State, which was a mile from my hotel and up a big hill. I immediately ran into about a dozen bass players who recognized me on sight from the blog–an occurrence that would repeat itself throughout the week. Even though I’m aware that this is a popular site in the bass world, it was still surprising to see almost every participant in the conference immediately recognize me. Some people even turned around in recognition at the sound of my voice, having heard it many times before on Contrabass Conversations. I guess all this content really is being followed by the greater bass community!

I immediately ran into Memphis Symphony Principal Bass Scott Best, who is also my former stand partner from the IRIS Orchestra of Tennessee. Scott would be playing the third movement of the Harbison Concerto on Friday (more on that later), and we also got a chance to to an interview about this piece which will be coming out on the podcast in the near future.

Wandering around, I also ran into fellow Evanstonian and early music specialist Jerry Fuller, who I had actually seen the previous night at a local restaurant! 18 hours later and four states away, we both found ourselves enmeshed in the world of the bass. I also spent quite a bit of time checking out the excellent new basses from the Upton Bass shop, one of’s advertisers.

A little further down the path, I bumped into Chicago area luthier and bass specialist Steve Reinfranck (former Contrabass Conversations guest), who also (like Jerry and me) happens to live in Evanston, and I got a chance to have a nice chat with Green Bay Symphony Principal Bass Mike Hennessy.

I also immediately ran into Calgary Philharmonic bassist Matt Heller. Matt and I have known each other for year under a variety of circumstances, and it was great to get a chance to catch up with him.

Heading over to the Pavilion Theatre, I caught the tail end of jazz bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb (also a Contrabass Conversations guest). Kristin is a mesmerizing performer, and the packed hall was wildly enthusiastic about her performance. Dozens of fans swarmed the stage after she finished, chatting with her about her music and the performance.

William Patterson University jazz bass teacher and New York City jazz bassist Steve LaSpina took the stage with his dynamite trio. Steve plays on a Wan Bernadel bass from the String Emporium, one of’s advertisers, and he played a performance filled with captivating bass playing. I got some video of Steve’s trio and hope to put it out on the blog and podcast in the coming weeks.

I managed to get trapped in a massive downpour right after Steve’s concert, something that would continue to happen throughout the week. This was, for whatever reason, a ridiculously rainy few days, with thunderstorms dumping buckets upon us hapless bass players. Fortunately, things cleared up considerably by the end of the week, and we had some really amazing sunny days for the final part of the convention.

I somehow missed Danny Thompson’s performance with Harry Shearer (of Simpsons and Spinal Tap fame) and Richard Thompson, but I did get a chance to meet Danny, who was accompanied by Peter Askim (former Contrabass Conversations guest), the conductor and bass teacher at the Idywild Arts Academy and a heck of a bassist and composer to boot! I also got to meet Harry Shearer, which was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.

International Society of Bassists Convention evenings always end with both a classical and jazz performance, and I got a chance to check out many of them–I was frequently too wiped to stay for both. Wednesday evening’s classical performance was a recital by Cleveland Orchestra Principal Bass Max Dimoff (former Contrabass Conversations guest). A fantastic bassist, Max was accompanied for a Bottesini Duetto by Scott Dixon, the most recent addition to the Cleveland Orchestra bass section. He proceeded to play some solo selections and concluded the recital with a quartet of Cleveland Orchestra bassists (Charles Carlton and Mark Atherton joined Scott and Max) performing a medley of waltzes written expressly for them.

I ran into a ton of old friends at this recital, including Alan Steiner from the Chicago Sinfonietta and Birch Creek Music Center and Jeremy Baguyos from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the Des Moines Metro Opera. We all went out (along with Memphis Symphony principal Scot Best) for a late-night hang, and it was great to get a chance to catch up with what’s been happening with these guys recently. Alan and I have played in many ensembles around Chicago, and Jeremy and I have played together in the Des Moines Metro Opera (where he serves as principal bass). Alan and I also got a chance to do an interview about putting together audition tapes, which I will be releasing on the podcast soon.

I also bumped into the excellent bassist Leon Bosch –we’ve featured his bass playing several times before on Contrabass Conversations. It was really great to meet him in person!

Thursday, June 11

I woke up early on Thursday and headed over to campus, where Penn State bass professor and convention host Rob Nairn got me hooked up with university Wi-Fi access so that I could do live streaming coverage of the convention at Rob was a whirlwind of activity for the duration of the convention–there are countless complications involved with hosting such a massive event–and he kept things running smoothly for the duration of the week. Rob will now be taking the helm as president of the ISB, replacing outgoing president Hans Sturm (former Contrabass Conversations guest). Detroit area bass teacher John Kennedy is now president-elect of the organization, and he will take the helm wit Rob’s term expires.

Later that morning, I got a chance to catch up with University of North Texas and Cleveland Institute of Music bass instructor Jeff Bradetich (former Contrabass Conversations guest). Jeff has written a new book called Double Bass: The Ultimate Challenge, and he was doing a book signing for this new publication. This book proved to be a hot item at the convention. Jeff was completely sold out by the end of the week, but before selling the final copies, I sat down with him and we did a short video about the book and the concepts and exercises that it contains. Jeff is a fantastic pedagogue, and this book represents the culmination of ideas he has been developing throughout his career as a teacher. I highly recommend this book for students, teachers, amateurs, non-bassists who teach the bass in a class setting, and as a text for double bass education pedagogy university classes. This is an outstanding book!

I also spent quite a bit of time wandering out the exhibits from Robertson & Sons, Bob’s House of Basses, David Gage, Guarneri House, Cincinnati Bass Cellar, and many other luthiers. Popping into one of the music buildings, I was happily surprised to see Ashley Eidbo, the creator of the fabulous ButtCradle stool cover. These covers rock–so much, in fact, that I made a little song about the ButtCradle last year, and at this year’s convention I shot a short video with Ashley and some happy ButtCradle fans–look for that soon as well.

Time was slipping away, and I was startled to find that it was almost noon and time for Dean Ferrell’s performance. Though the ISB refers to Dean Ferrell as an expert in historical tunings, this only scratches the surface of this amazing performer’s musical oeuvre. Dean was one of the highlights of the 2007 ISB Convention with his Captain Tobias performance piece (video), and this year’s performance (titled “Ode to Contrabass and Per Questa”) was equally captivating. I recorded the complete performance on video and will be releasing it on the blog and podcast soon. I don’t want to say a word about it now because it really needs to be seen to be believed. Rest assured, however, that this will be one video that you won’t want to miss!

Dean’s recital had a great crowd. I was seated right next to Texas Tech University bass professor Mark Morton> (former Contrabass Conversations guest), who was a classmate of Dean’s at Juilliard. I also got a chance to catch up wit Rochester Philharmonic Principal Bass Colin Corner (former Contrabass Conversations guest). We did a brief follow-up interview to our initial interview from 2007, and we’ll be releasing this along with some of Colin’s original music soon on the podcast.

My good friend Tim Pearson, a former Indiana University student who has played quite a bit with the Nashville Symphony over the past few years, arrived at the convention on Thursday, and we got a chance to catch up, try some bassists, and see some cool concerts together, which was really great.

I ended up gabbing the afternoon away with a bunch of bassists over burgers at a local State College joint and ended up missing a bevy of great sessions, including ones from Contrabass Conversations former guests Donovan Stokes and David Murray. Balancing socializing, live coverage, and actually attending events is tough at an ISB convention, and while I ended up missing a lot of events I really wanted to see, I got a chance to catch up with a lot f old friends and make many new ones along the way.

That evening’s classical performance was a recital by Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Principal Bass Tim Cobb. Though I haven’t interviewed Tim yet, I have done one with his stand partner Jeremy McCoy. Tim played the 3rd Bach Cello Suite masterfully, demonstrating that he really is one of the greatest double bassists of our time. He was also joined by Tom Martin for some Bottesini. This was a really awesome recital.

Later that evening, I went out with, among other people, Lisbon Symphony Principal Bass Mark Ramirez, a great guy who is originally from New York and a former Tim Cobb student. Mark has spent the past 13 years in Lisbon, which sounds like a great job in an awesome place.

Friday, June 12

I ended up catching up on some much-needed sleep Friday morning, but I headed over to campus in time to catch Los Angeles Philharmonic Co-Principal Bass Dennis Trembly’s master class. Dennis was working with a student on Beethoven 5 and Mozart 39, and though I would shudder to think about how many hours I’ve spent seeing these very pieces in master class settings, I learned a lot from Dennis’ excellent class. I’d love to know how many times Dennis has covered these pieces in master classes (it must number in the hundreds), but he did a wonderful job of showing the audience basic concepts about bow usage and tone production while giving this student very specific advice to help him with them.

That afternoon, I caught the performance of the Harbison Concerto, which was commissioned by a cohort of orchestras and facilitated by the ISB. This is the first in what will hopefully be many commissions from major composers for the double bass. Each movement of the concerto was performed by a different bassist who had been part of the co-commission: Dennis Trembly played the first movement, Volkan Orhon (former Contrabass Conversations guest) played the second movement, and Scott Best played the third movement. I also recorded a video of this complete performance and hope to put it out on the blog and podcast soon.

Immediately following the Harbison, I raced over to participate on a panel discussion titled “Music in the Digital Domain.” This panel consisted of Phil Palombi (an awesome jazz bassist–we’re hopefully doing an interview for the podcast soon), Frank Proto , Douglas Mapp, and Mark Dresser . I also recorded this panel discussion, and we’ll be releasing the audio as a podcast soon, so you can learn more about this diverse panel’s thoughts on this important topic.

Saturday, June 13

I was starting to feel a little “bassed out” by this point in the week, but there were a whole bunch of recitals that I wanted to check out this final day of the convention. I ended up getting a chance to record some more great footage, interviewing fellow blogger Matt Heller (we’ll put this out soon). I also did an interview with P. Kellach Waddle, which was really great—look for that interview soon, as well as some of his musical performances.

I also ran into Win Hinkle, who previously recorded a podcast interview with Rufus Reid for Contrabass Conversations (Rufus was also performing at the convention, though I missed his show… but I did get a chance to see him try out a bunch of basses from various exhibitors), as well as Robert Riccardi, who also advertises his violin shop on the blog.

I ran into Dean Ferrell after chatting with Win; Dean was heading over to check out Washtub Jerry , and I decided to check it out as well, which turned out to be a great decision. What a fascinating instrument, and Jerry’s tale of learning this unusual instrument and long-haul dedication to this niche proved very interesting. Jerry plays on the washtub with both feet on the rim; he wears custom-made think-soled boots to keep the rim from cutting into his feet. He changes pitch on the string (a cable from a car) with a wooden pole and often plays a ukulele at the same time (!!!). Required watching if you haven’t seen him play before.Washtub Jerry.png

Outgoing ISB president Hans Sturm played a recital immediately following Washtub Jerry. Hans performed a variety of works, including a jazzified Eccles Sonata and a selection of movements from Frank Proto’s Carmen Fantasy. Hans is a Rabbath technique proponent, and his recital was a good example of some of the strengths of this technique, using pivots, harmonic anchor points, and an extremely flexible bow arm to good effect.

Saturday afternoon started out with one of my personal musical highlights of the convention as Joel Quarrington took the stage. He played Beethoven, Sarasate, and even the Bottesini Elegy as an encore, which inspired me to take that old warhorse out of my music library and work on it. I’d be overjoyed if I could even sound 1/10th as good as Joel did on that piece, not to mention the Sarasate! In fact, his bass playing is some of the most musical I’ve ever heard on any instrument.

Joel was followed by back-to-back recitals from members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Section bassist Micah Howard started his recital with Passione Amorosa, with Pittsburgh Symphony Principal Bass Jeff Turner (former Contrabass Conversations guest) playing the first part for this duo showpiece. Micah also played the Brahms E Minor Cello Sonata marvelously. Jeff Turner’s recital followed, and Jeff played a wide variety of pieces, including the Hindemith Sonata, Koussevitzky’s Valse Miniature, and a set of vocal transcriptions. Jeff is an awesome bassist with great interpretive ability, and I thoroughly enjoyed this stylistically diverse recital.

My personal International Society of Bassists Convention fun was topped off by John Patitucci’s concert, the closing event for the convention and a high-energy affair if ever there was one. I don’t know what I could say about John that hasn’t been said before–he’s a high-energy, ridiculously facile bassist, and he amps up the level of intensity in any performance with which he is involved. What a great way to end a great week!

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, the previous account only covers what I actually saw. Anyone at the convention can see that I missed a ton of great stuff, so feel free to write in with any additional thoughts if you were at the event. Stay tuned for a lot of great content from the convention on the blog and (especially) the podcast, and make sure to set aside time in 2011 for the next convention.

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