Robert Black Taps into His Bass-ic Instincts

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Much in the way that Rachael Elliott shone an unlikely spotlight on the bassoon earlier this fall, so does Robert Black honor the late-to-the-game double bass with Modern American Bass.

Black, a member of the Bang on a Can All Stars and a gadfly among composers including John Cage, D.J. Spooky, Elliott Carter and Meredith Monk, gets to the heart of the bass’s turning point in this two-disc set, balancing works with piano (the excellent John McDonald) and double bass solo. The works range from the mid-century, a time when the bass was expanding its orchestral presence and also becoming a prominent feature in jazz outfits—a crossover apparent in tracks like Joseph Iadone’s album-opener Sonata for Double Bass and Piano and Jerome Moross’s Sonatina.

Soon, however, the hipness of bass pizzicato gives way to a more earthy, haunting texture of the instrument. On the accompanied side, it’s explored fleetingly in Otto Luening’s Suite for Bass and Piano and Johanna Beyer’s Movement for Double Bass and Piano (by far the earliest work on the collection, penned in 1936, and a work that ends on such an uncertain, ambiguous note that you’re moved to immediately play the next disc). However, Black fearlessly dives into this full-throttle with disc two, which features food for musical thought in pieces like George Perle’s haunting, guttural Monody II, Cage’s wild 59 ½” for a String Player and James Tenney’s unsettling Beast. Like the Beyer, Black’s album closer in Jacob Druckman’s Valentine closes out subtly, with a whisper and a question mark, leaving the terrain open for a sequel. Let’s hope that ends up being the case.