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Interview with Mark Wade... Symphonic Swing

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Interview with Mark Wade… Symphonic Swing

Interview with Mark Wade… Symphonic Swing

Bassist Mark Wade was born to present music from a beautifully profound place that has led him to the acoustic contrabass.

He has been very present on the New York jazz scene for 20+ years, all the while increasing his appearances as a World-Class sideman for the likes of the (late) great Jimmy Heath, Don Byron, Eddie Palmieri, Conrad Herwig and receiving well-deserved acclaim from top-tier jazz publications Cadence Magazine, New York City Jazz Record, All About Jazz, Jazz Life (Japan), Downbeat Magazine, and others, as well as being featured in Sammy Stein’s 2017 book All That’s Jazz. Since 2015, Mark has released two incredible recordings as a leader, “Event Horizon” and “Moving Day”.  Mark is currently signed to Berlin’s Edition 46 Records. He is an incredibly busy musician, and it’s a pleasure to sit down and chat with him! 

BAJ: Hi Mark! I really enjoyed “Moving Day” and it’s great that you’re receiving a bit of well-deserved recognition for your compositions and fluid playing! 

What led you to your gig as Artist in Residence at Flushing Town Hall? Also, please tell us a bit about your earliest musical education and experiences!

MW: Thanks for talking with me. Flushing Town Hall is the largest arts venue in the borough of Queens in New York City. I was in residence there as part of a jazz collective which I used to be a part of. I was there with them for about two years. during that time, we ran a weekly jam session and clinic, curated a concert series, and produced a jazz festival. It was a lot of work! But very rewarding. 

I was a latecomer to playing music. I didn’t start playing the Electric Bass until I was going into high school. I was self-taught and didn’t start taking lessons until a year before I went to college. By that time I was just playing rock music in local bands. I was always serious about playing the bass though, and I regularly practiced every day for a few hours. I learned mostly from transcribing music off of records and learning songs with my other bandmates. Finally I started studying with a wonderful bass player named Andrew Harkin who taught me skills, music theory, and began introducing jazz concepts to me and,  six months later, I auditioned for the jazz program at New York University and as accepted. Once there, I started studying with Mike Richmond, who at the time was playing with Miles Davis on what would be some of his last recordings. Mike was an excellent teacher, and he’s still a friend to this day. I started playing the acoustic bass about halfway through my experience at college. Two years later, I had graduated and was making a living playing the Double Bass. It’s been quite a ride ever since!

BAJ: As you have had a wonderful career of playing every known notable hall on the East Coast (Carnegie Hall, The Blue Note, The Iridium, Birdland, Lincoln Center) where are your favorite venues to play, and why?

MW: I’ve been very fortunate to play in some great rooms here in New York. To be honest though, my most memorable experiences have been when the music is at its highest level. Sometimes, that happens at rooms that are much less famous or of any  consequence. In the end, a room is just a room. But, when the sound is good and the band is really playing, that’s the best experience you can have in my opinion! If that happens in one of those famous rooms, that’s great! If not, that’s okay too! All that being said… Carnegie Hall is pretty special! 

BAJ: Sadly, we have very recently lost the great Jimmy Heath. Please tell us what it was like to be part of his incredible 2012 Four Black Immortals tour, and what preparations went into that undertaking? 

MW: The Four Black Immortals Concerts were fun to do! Ernie Wilkins wrote a piece for big band, choir, and string orchestra by that title, and I was playing in a string ensemble that was contracted to play the orchestra parts for that piece – which was fronted by Jimmy Heath’s big band. We played a couple of concerts in the New York metro area including the Lincoln Center in New York, and the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. Those concerts were like a microcosm of my world – the melding of classical and jazz music. Obviously, listening to Jimmy Heath in that context (or any context) was a special thing for me. Those were great shows for sure!

BAJ: Let’s talk about your writing process for “Moving Day”! Or, rather, your process in general! How often do you find yourself composing from the bass, if at all? Also, what were the differences between writing for 2015’s “Event Horizon” versus 2018’s “Moving Day”?

MW: When I wrote the music for Event Horizon, I was writing music in the abstract. Those tunes were a combination of melodies and harmonies that I happened to gravitate towards at that time. The writing process for Moving Day was very different. For the second album, I took inspiration from certain places and experiences in my life as the basis of writing that music. It was the first time I really attempted writing something that was thematic and was representative of something outside of the music itself. For instance, the title track is based on the fact that I’ve moved 14 or 15 times over the course of my life! I have found that the experience of moving brings on a host of emotions such as anxiety, hopefulness, nostalgic, and excitement. So, I tried to reflect those ideas in the music as best I could. 

In general, I do very little of my composing with the bass in my hands. I compose at the keyboard. It is a liberating experience for me to get away from my instrument when I write music, and I don’t want to be influenced in any way by patterns or technical issues on the bass that may unnecessarily influence my writing choices. The more I write the honest reflection of what I hear in my head… the better the music is for me. I have  limited facility on the piano, so I feel that the situation leads me to a clearer place in my composing.

BAJ: I love the sound of your instrument, and how it sits in the recordings of both releases. What are you playing these days, and how long have you worked with this particular bass?

MW: Thanks. My bass was made in 2007 by a Czech maker, Rudolph Fiedler. I have owned this instrument since 2012. A lot of new instruments can go through a period of settling-in, where they can crack and need maintenance frequently. I have been very fortunate that this bass has needed almost no maintenance to speak of. I find that this bass is well suited to jazz. It has a clear sound, while still maintaining a nice color and warmth. It also amplifies well, which is a very important thing! The Rudolph Fiedler records well, although that is as much a function of the bass as it is the skill of the recording engineer in the room. For my recordings, I’ve been blessed with having great engineers!

BAJ: Draw a line from your weekly appearances at Birdland (1997-1999) to the present that speaks to your path to growth and deeper musicality as a musician! 

MW: My time at Birdland was important for my development. I played there once a week for two years. My set was the early set. So, we played before the famous people came on, which gave me the chance to hear major artists every week over that two-year period! Birdland exposed me to all different kinds of jazz music played at a high-level. During that time, I also started playing in community orchestras here in New York. Initially, it was just an opportunity for me to get more technical ability on the bass as well as improve my sight-reading. I found that I really loved the music, and I put a lot of hours of practice into that as well. 

Over time, classical music became part of my professional skillset along with jazz music, as well as playing electric bass on more commercial type projects. I feel the convergence of all three of those musical paths are what define me as a musician today – when it comes to my original jazz music! I feel that I am the sum of parts that includes music that is not necessarily jazz-related. While my taste in music will always run towards jazz and classical music, what I love most is music that’s played at a high level – regardless of the genre or category. When I am in musical situations that are played at a high level, I experience my growth as a musician.

BAJ: How do you “find” yourself gravitating to a particular instrument? Is it the ethereal “voice in the wood”? Or, is it something more visceral? 

MW: When it comes to an individual bass, choosing one instrument over another often comes down to your personal style of bass playing. Certain instruments do certain things well than others. If you are someone who likes to play gut strings and get more of a shorter note with less definition to the pitch, there are basses that are going to be more generous to you, than others. My sound concept is about playing clear and warm at the same time. That can be a difficult balance as sometimes, depending on the sonic situation, as one may have to sacrifice a little of one to get the other. Whatever instrument helps me to achieve the sound I’m after is the instrument I gravitate towards.

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BAJ: We haven’t talked about your bass guitar playing, at all! Wow! Apologies! What are your favorite aspects of playing the bass guitar, and let’s unpack your technique for the bass guitar versus the acoustic bass! 

MW: The electric bass was my first love, and it will always have a special place in my musical life – even if it’s not the instrument I am playing on the majority of gigs, these days. One of the great advantages of playing electric bass is that I can hear all of the notes that I play! As crazy as that sounds, that’s not always the case on the acoustic bass – whether you’re playing in a jazz combo or an orchestra! The electric bass is so much more controllable in terms of tone and timbre. Turning a few knobs can solve a lot of the challenges that exist in your concert venue of the day! 

The technique of the electric bass versus the acoustic bass are two very different things. My first teacher Andrew Harkin saw them as two completely different instruments. While I don’t quite see it that way myself, they both require very different positions for your body, arms, wrists, hands, and fingers. Both instruments require you to be as efficient as possible in order to play them at the highest level. But, due to the large and cumbersome nature of the acoustic bass, it’s much harder to be as efficient by comparison.

BAJ: Please give us a “gear rundown” for your traveling rig. Also, what do you most need to hear from your instruments when you record, and what are the differences (if any) in your tonal choices when you’re performing?

MW: My setup for acoustic bass, when I’m able to bring that to a gig, is Thomastik Superflexible strings with a Fishman Full Circle pickup combined with a K&K mic. I use a Dtar preamp to split the pickup and mic into two different signals that I can control separately. That setup gives me the biggest flexibility in sound depending on the room or situation. A louder band typically means I will use less of the microphone. Whereas a quieter gig lets me use that microphone and take advantage of the sonic space to get a warmer, rounder sound more indicative of the instrument. The preamp gives me the added benefit of being able to send a great direct sound to the board to run to the house –  should that option be available. Often, DI can sound harsh. But, with this setup, I’m able to get something that still sounds like an acoustic bass. The cabinet I play through is called a Barefaced Midget (I kid you not) from the U.K. It has a nice full sound with plenty of power, but it’s lightweight and easily transportable – which is key in NYC!

BAJ: You are so wonderfully melodic in your soloing! I dig it! Let’s talk about your approach to solos.

MW: Thank you very much. My approach to soloing has always been to try to emulate horn players or piano players. To do this, the technical requirements on the instrument can be quite daunting. It means extra attention to intonation and conceiving a general fluid motion in every range of the instrument. Transcribing horn players has the added benefit of going to the source of those innovators with cutting-edge harmonic concepts. I think of it this way… looking at the Miles Davis Quintet of the 50s, I would say that Paul Chambers is one of my favorite bass players of all time! He is an absolute study in how to play straight-ahead “jazz time”. But, for me, I view John Coltrane’s harmonic concept as more of an influence than Paul’s bass solos. I love Paul solos! But, Trane was at the forefront of expanding the Jazz Language, and those are the guys I look to, as I find ways to incorporate ideas into building a language of my own. The bass is not seen as primarily a solo instrument. But, I think the nature of string instruments, in general, give the player certain qualities which (when developed through rigorous technical study) can lead to an expression unique from any instrument in the band.

BAJ: Absolutely! Well said, Mark! 

What are your touring plans for “Moving Day” now that you’re experiencing such a cool second look?! Along with that… Do you have any advice for our reading audience about touring with acoustic instruments? Or, touring, in general?

MW: To support the release of Moving Day, I will be headed to the UK in early February for a week of tours and Master Classes. It will be my first time traveling to the UK, and that’s exciting! I have been very fortunate to have received an extremely positive response for my music from journalists and radio stations there! So, I’m excited to finally have a chance to visit them. 

Traveling with an acoustic bass is a difficult thing, and that often means borrowing a bass at your destination. Which means, you never know what you’re going to get! Even if the borrowed instrument is in fine condition it’s never going to feel the same as your own instrument! The intonation can be very different, and the setup can also be very different, etc. Fortunately, now, with the advent of various kinds of travel basses, it is possible to have a consistent instrument with you wherever you go! One of my goals is to afford an additional instrument just for touring in these situations. Though, at present, I have not done enough touring to justify that particular purchase. That day is coming soon. In general, touring is all about being flexible. You have to be able to roll with the punches when travel plans don’t work out the way that you hoped they would. It often means long hours of travel with not a lot of time to rest and recover for the concert. Being as rested as possible, so that you can show up and give your best performance, is key.

BAJ: It is a wonderful thing to find a voice (instrumental or vocal) that matches so well with one’s own voice. Tell us about performing with your wife, Teri! 

MW: It’s been a real pleasure to be able to share some of my concerts with my wife, Teri Leggio Wade. Teri is the daughter of Saxophone great Carmen Leggio, who credits include Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Thad Jones & Mel Lewis, Woody Herman, and many, many others. Teri grew up around some of the biggest names in jazz music, and as such, she has a natural affinity for that music. She doesn’t pursue her vocal career full-time, at this time. But, the times we get to share on the bandstand are special ones for sure! She has been unwavering in her support of my career, and anyone who is involved in the music business knows that support (especially spousal support) goes a long way.

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BAJ: What are you practicing these days? Also, who is inspiring you (musically speaking) over the past couple of years?

MW: I still practice regularly every day. Being that I play several different kinds of music, there is never any shortage of things to work on. As a classical player, I work on my orchestral excerpts and continue to try to build my technique with the bow. 

As a jazz player, I’m trying to continue to build my harmonic language and to increase my abilities as a soloist and as a rhythm section player. I try to continue to develop more efficient ways of moving around the bass and having a general physical approach to the instrument that I can replicate and rely on in any situation. That means getting into some of the finer points of body mechanics. The less tension I have in my body, the better I play – no matter the circumstance. 

Inspiration can come from a number of places. In my case, it’s less about one specific person and more about certain situations and experiences I have had – both as a player and as an audience member. Going to watch the bass section at the New York Philharmonic is very inspiring! So too, is watching Eddie Palmieri do his thing at the ripe old age of 80! The more music I listen to, the more inspiring things I find. There seems to be no shortage of people doing creative things that are amazing.

BAJ: When can we expect a new release of original compositions from you, Mark?

MW: I’m going into the studio with my band towards the end of May 2020 to record my third album. The music for the album has already been written, and in most cases, we’ve played the music quite a bit over the last 6-to-8 months. It’s great to see how the music is coming together, and I’m excited to share this music with my listeners. Given the schedule of recording, mixing, and releasing an album for public consumption means the music will probably be available sometime in early 2021. 

For those of you who are curious about the new compositions, you can get a preview of some of the tunes we’ve played live on my YouTube page. The link is on my website www.markwademusicny.com.

BAJ: Thank you very much for taking a few minutes with me, man! Let’s talk again soon?

MW:  It was a real pleasure. I’ll be sure to send you a copy of the new album. Looking forward to doing this again.

BAJ: Thank you, Mark!

Folks, check out the awesome review on Bass Musician Magazine

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