Lisle Atkinson dishes on some of the giants of jazz
By JOSEPH LEICHMAN
"Mama," the husband said to his wife, "the gentleman would like to talk to you."
The husband is Teaneck's Lisle Atkinson, a veteran jazz bassist, whose 11-musician Neo-Bass Ensemble performs tonight. The gentleman is a reporter talking to the couple, taking turns on the phone from their West Englewood Avenue home.
Atkinson's prolific career is lined with complex relationships -- with Miles Davis' ghost, with other jazz greats and even with his own instrument, but especially with "Mama."
Karen Atkinson is one of the Neo-Bass Ensemble's six bassists. Lisle and Karen explain that although they've been married for 30 years, "wife" is always a relative term.
"When we're rehearsing or playing concerts, she's not my wife," Lisle said. "The wife relationship doesn't resume until we get back home from the concert. Even though she may ride to the gig with me, she's one of the players. I pay her like I pay everybody else."
Their relationship began, Lisle said, when Karen came to him for bass lessons. And although their relationship has evolved, both agree that Lisle remains the music director.
"For the most part, it's great that he's in charge of the band," said Karen. "He's quite intense, and I don't like to be yelled at, but he only yells because it's difficult for him to understand what we go through as bass players without having perfect pitch [the ability to name any note by hearing its pitch]."
It can be difficult for Atkinson to sit through a Neo-Bass rehearsal, because even the slightest dissonance is painful to his attuned ears. But it is that gift that earned him work with Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Wynton Kelly and a virtual who's who of the jazz catalog -- except for Miles Davis.
Which brings him to Ron Carter (a friend and former bandmaster in the New York Bass Violin Choir), Herbie Hancock and the collection of musicians who did play with Davis.
Atkinson has some thoughts on those musicians' successes that are neither condescending nor incendiary but unique.
"Miles Davis is the key here," said Atkinson. "If you look at the heavy majority of players who have come out of his bands and look at their position in relation to people who play the same instrument but never played with Miles, it's usually a lot better.
"Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea. ... Chick and Herbie are both a hell of a player, but they're not 'all by themselves,' so to speak. Lots of people are a hell of a player."
Atkinson puts himself in that group, alongside Carter, Charles Mingus and Richard Davis, a professor of bass, jazz history and combo improvisation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is from Mingus and Davis, and from playing in various multi-bass arrangements, that Atkinson developed his ever-evolving stance concerning the bass.
"My feeling about bass is constantly changing," he said. "At first, I was thinking that the bass only stands in the rhythm section. After the New York Bass Violin Choir, I was definitely convinced that being in the rhythm section is not enough. I've always felt that any bass player should be able to play what any horn player or pianist could play. I don't care what melody, what concerto, what sonata; if it could be played on one instrument, it could played on another."
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Conceived by internationally acclaimed bass virtuoso Lisle Atkinson, the ensemble, which appeared in concert recently at Merkin Hall in Manhattan, was created "...for the sole purpose of promulgating the treasured legacy of Charlie Parker's music," Atkinson said. The instrumental mix of the group consists of five acoustic bassists: its leader Lisle Atkinson, Phillip Wadkins, Dannell (Jay) Starkes Jr., Karen Atkinson (the leader's wife) and world-renowned Paul West. Dennis Moorman on piano and Al Harewood on drums complete the musical lineup, which is augmented by singers Andy Bey and Marsha Perry. The rhythm section of Moorman, West and Harewood is scintillating as it both anchors and supports the ensemble's syncopated voicings. Both collectively and singularly, Dennis Moorman's piano and Paul West's bass are constant. The ensemble playing is impressive as are the solos of Lisle and Phillip Wadkins."
--Big Red News
"Bird Lives", The Neo-Bass Ensemble (Karlisle)
The late Charlie Parker is fondly remembered on this unusual, yet sparkling outing that features an all-bass orchestra, led by LIsle Atkinson, who is himself one of the most stalwart figures in jazz. Among the original tunes features are "Scrapple from the Apple", "Donna Lee", and "Ornithology."--Daily News