Mario Pavone Makes His Final Statement

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Mario Pavone performs in 2011 at the Litchfield Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

On stage, Mario Pavone doesn’t move like other bass players; his hands follow different routes around the neck. He likes splayed intervals: a low G plus a high B a tenth above it, say. It comes from his visualizing the fingerboard as if standing before it, seeing not just all the note positions, but the various intervals, scales and chords radiating out from and connecting them. He plays with a lot of force. Mostly self-taught, he took a couple of lessons early on with new music virtuoso Bert Turetzky, who stressed the importance of really pressing down on the fingerboard to make a note’s fundamental tone project and sustain. Pavone’s right hand does the rest: tugging at the strings, adding resistance even when pushing the time ahead. “I keep my strings a little high, and I overplay, a little harder than you’d pluck for an optimal balanced tone,” he said. “I tend to be more architectural, or sculptural.” Sometimes he wants a note to groan or creak, for expressive purposes: “When I started playing in New York in the ’60s, there were no amps. I overplayed to compensate. On the loft scene, five tenors blowing for hours — I wanted to be heard.”

Pavone was originally inspired to play by seeing John Coltrane at the Village Vanguard during the iconic saxophonist’s epic November 1961 stand. He heard Trane’s message: “Love, spirituality, goodness. But also, you too can do this, Mario.” Three years later, when Pavone was visiting Chicago, guitarist Joe Diorio heard him sing along with a Wes Montgomery solo that was playing on a jukebox and told him, “Man, you should check out an instrument,” Pavone remembered. He got a bass soon after.

As 2021 dawned, Pavone, “in the final stages of a cancer that I have been fighting for 17 years,” set out to make a final artistic statement, in two parts. He recorded sessions early in the year, with two quartets and an overlapping repertoire of six new tunes approached from different perspectives. Blue Vertical (Out of Your Head) is for his ongoing “implied time” trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, plus trumpeter Dave Ballou. Isabella (Clean Feed) is for the grooving “overt time” of Mario and “the three Mikes” — son Michael Pavone on electric guitar, bopping altoist Mike DiRubbo and drummer Michael Sarin, a longtime collaborator, not least in saxophonist Thomas Chapin’s fondly remembered trio. By Pavone’s count, they’re his 32nd and 33rd albums. Isabella harks back to the other side of his early development: straightahead sessions at clubs nearer home in Connecticut.

There are other retrospective touches. “Philosophy Series” recasts a line from “Sequence” heard on Pavone’s 2000 septet disc Totem Blues. “Blue Vertical” revives a thundering ploy from the Chapin trio days: thumping an open string and the same note fingered on the next lower string, sliding the latter slightly out of tune for a booming, clashing-overtones effect. “You get a bigger vibration,” Pavone said of the technique. “I may be pulling the strings rather than plucking, sliding, tapping them with the thumb, all those things you hear from new music players. But it’s got to be integrated into the piece, or the motivation for it.”

Pavone composes on bass, and has featured his own tunes since his 1979 debut Digit. A typical piece originates with the bass line (which isn’t always continuous: silence and space figure in his playing, too, echoing his years with trumpet minimalist Bill Dixon). Then he might harmonize it or add a counter line at the piano to build tension. Next he’ll pass a tape and any sketches to an “arranger/collaborator” to properly notate it, maybe add a top line if Pavone likes it or score it for multiple horns. Saxophonist Marty Ehrlich pioneered the process in the ’90s, followed by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, and trumpeter Dave Ballou in the last decade.

“I’m just helping him realize what’s in his head,” Ballou said of his work with Pavone. “He has a way of introducing material that’s really rich to improvise from; he wants people to develop that material. And they better pay attention, because he may play a passage in seven one night, and in six the next. That’s the beauty of the trio with Matt and Tyshawn: They can go anywhere at any time.”

Pavone is unstinting in praise of his musicians. He said he loves Mitchell and Sorey (and Ballou) for how they can hold back the time as well as surge ahead. “The arrangers and improvisers I’ve worked with — Gerald Cleaver and Tony Malaby, too — know what I’m trying to do, and they are very generous towards it. They find ways to fit their thing into what I’m trying to say, without overpowering the original intentions behind it.

“I’m just happy to get these two releases done,” Pavone said. “It took every bit of energy, and the music is what got me through. I’ve had a great life and I’m so appreciative of all the players who jumped in and generously contributed, from the heart. I’m grateful, happy, satisfied with my life, ready to move to this next cycle.” DB



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August 2021
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