Bassist Covered: Stacy Starkweather
Burlington's most sought-after bass player Stacy Starkweather gets Option Anxiety and Patricia Braine tells the tale.
Stacy Starkweather's name has been popping up in a lot of places recently, and for good reason. The release of his first CD as Option Anxiety, Every November, on Granville, Vermont's Shiretown Records, has brought long overdue attention to Starkweather's fluent, fluid playing and tasteful lines. He's the quiet giant and a founding member of The Disciples who wrote and produced their first album; the same guy who helped bring audiences to their feet - with a warm roar - during the '94 Discover Jazz Festival's Guitar Summit; the major player doing monumental duets in Amsterdam with Jamie Masefield; he's a teacher whose students are already professional musicians and schedule their lessons in between their world tours! A true example of a "musician's musician," Starkweather is famous for his work with Jazz Mandolin Project, Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe, and, of course, Option Anxiety.
Starkweather receives accolades from the press but also is a rarity in the praise he garners from his fellow musicians. James Harvey, who has played with Phish and Belizbeha, opines "Stacy has skills, taste, a great attitude, a sense of humor, and - I just wish I could play with him more often."
It was exactly one year ago, on a gray, wet November day when Starkweather turned on the lights in his living room, and played me his forthcoming album, which would see release in June of this year.
"Want some tea?"
"Hmm, thanks. Lemon zinger, please."
"November is a reflective month," Starkweather muses. "At least it is for me. That's when I re-examine the year." He pauses. "I've been that way ever since I was 13."
Starkweather's from California, and November's probably the month we risk losing him to warm climate.
"I don't like winter. I'm addicted to anything warm," he explains. "However, I've concluded, after being here for 13 years, that it's the Vermont winters - the changes in the season, really - which make it the perfect place for original music to happen. There's no other place like it. After looking all around the country and traveling abroad, Vermont is a great place to live. It has a great music scene and it's just a perfect place to create music."
"Anyway so, here I was with a November deadline to complete the album and I wasn't coming up with anything I liked," he continues. "I basically had all this stuff collected from over the years to go in and record. But one of my oldest friends, Peter Apfelbaum of the Heiroglyphics, released an album of his new music that moved me so much, I said, 'I can do better then what I've done.' So, I started over again. I couldn't send, what I was going to put out, to someone like Peter with any sense of pride."
Lucky for us, this personal challenge resulted in an enormous piece of musical art, highlighting Dave Ellis on trumpet and flugelhorn, Dave Grippo on alto saxophone, James Harvey on trombone and piano, and Gabe Jarrett on drums.
Starkweather's living room has this warm glow, even without a fireplace in sight. The chair's comfortable, and as we ease down into it the hauntingly familiar and soulful originality of his phrasing unfolds. We feel a deep reflection of our own experiences with "Equal Opportunity," "Rush Hour," "Remembering," "Dark Things," "Call Back" and, of course, "Every November." You know, it's always an easy ride into Starkweather's space. This time, it's on the mainstream jazz track.
"Most mainstream jazz has a form," explains Starkweather. "The melody is the form. There's the verse and the chorus, and the repeat of the verse. Then it has the section where everyone solos over the form. Most jazz albums are either mainstream in that they really are form oriented and the players play over the form. Or they are really free, and they play whatever they want.
"I wanted to do both." He continues: "There are a couple of pieces of music I wrote that could only be approached by letting the players do what they wanted to do. The reason the album is a jazzy album is because I found the people I wanted to play with - who could express what I wanted to express - and that's the way it came out. I would have been happy to write a folk album, if that's what had been required."
Vermont bassists have to be diverse to survive. Starkweather took advantage of the situation and he has refined his talents by mastering many genres and becoming highly skilled as the background player, singer, bassist for 25 years, rather then the front man. When I interviewed him two years ago, he was expressing interest in mastering the jazz realm on Gordon Stone's album Touch and Go. He did it then as a player. He has clearly mastered it on Every November, this time, not only as a player, but as composer and band leader.
"Over half the album is free improvisation, which scares a certain number of people and attracts a certain number of people," he points out, "the other - not quite half of the album - is very melodic oriented. And that scares off the improvisational people."
The remarkable result is a beautifully diverse listen for the jazz enthusiast, or anyone who just likes excellent and uncommercial music.
Every November is tenderly erotic and sad at moments, yet awakening; stretching us out to the cliff's edge. Gradually, losing our fear we glide over what becomes a gentle slope. We drift into a bizarre and beautiful, avant-garde cavern where if we let-go and breathe deeply, we sense the history of it. Mix this with images of a soulful, Vermont, November day, with a cold rain pouring, dancing and sliding along the window pane. Sunset comes early. Night is darker without stars. In the morning, we stare at frosted leaves bursting; whirling across the ground. We're safe in the comfort of his warm chair the whole time.
"I enjoyed the session and the album," Harvey notes. "Stacy's a good leader. He took the best people and let them create. It's basically a live album with a band that only played one or two shows before going into the studio."
This impresses me.
"That's what happens, when you put major players together in a room," Starkweather assures me. "That's basically what I did. It's essentially a live album. I purposely just wanted to let people play; keep it really simple and not fool around."
"The recording of it was a joy," he sights. "We recorded it in less then 20 hours. There were a couple of little, tiny notes I had to fix. But, essentially, that's five guys, playing in a room, with some microphones set up. It's exactly what I wanted. The whole thing was recorded, mixed and mastered in less than 40 hours."
For a first solo album, one might expect Starkweather doing all the solos and pushing a bunch of buttons, whistles and bells.
"What you hear on the record, I was only one fifth of" Starkweather tells me. "The music, when it finally came, came easily - in its own way. Then, James wrote out the charts for the musicians, and did some wonderful arranging and rearranging for me. The five individuals are the sound and the way that it is. That final piece has my name on it. But it's a band album. The little melodies were my ideas. But what happened after that is 100% a band effort. And that's what everybody listens for. Because they want to hear everybody play. Not somebody just reading music. They want to hear what they're really going to play."
Many agree: Stacy Starkweather is one of the finest musicians in the country.
"You could call Stacy the ultimate bass player for any musician," exclaims Steve Blair, "in that he can cover the whole spectrum of musical possibilities. He's got a great, positive attitude about what he's doing, and he never seems to run out of a spontaneous flow of ideas."
Stacey's credentials include work with Vermont's biggest names: Trey Anastasio of Phish and Bad Hat, Tammy Fletcher of the Disciples and Jamie Masefield of The Jazz Mandolin Project.
For example: Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe says "Stacy is a huge and natural talent... the best on the planet."
Gordon Stone states knowingly, "Stacy transcends bass playing as we know it! Sometimes I've looked around when he played with my trio and wondered, 'where's the bass player?' But there was Stacy playin' the bass and taking it beyond."
How does a person become such an extraordinary musician?
At home, Stacy plays guitar "all the time." You can hear from his bass solos how well this exercise has paid off over the years. Now, watch his warm smile on-stage, eyes on the lead, focused and ears tuned. Starkweather's playing is consistently on. He builds a strong, steady, quality sound - a secure base, if you will; not just in one genre, but with a wide variety of fabulous players. And, one truly amazing fact is: until recently, he could not read music, at all and is only in the beginning stages of that learning process.
"One of the great things about Stacy," says guitarist Paul Asbell of the popular Unknown Blues Band, "is, as a listener, he is truly passionate about music. Therefore, as a player, he really gives his all to whatever style of music he's playing."
In terms of style, where is he going on future solo projects?
"I think the only idea for a follow-up would be duets with certain individuals." He smiles and puts on a tape he calls Bake-o-Bass.
In one hour, improvising only, Starkweather and fellow bassist, Colorado based Edwin Flurwitz, formerly of Shockra, laid down a huge sound trip guaranteed to delight and amaze.
"Being a duo you really have to breathe together. We're simply having fun feeding off of each other!" He smiles. "And it's done. We don't even have to go into the studio."
The room gets brighter, and you see his path.
"Musicians have to have a different attitude about life then normal people, in terms of how you judge success in your life and how you judge failure and how you judge progress."
"If, as a musician, you see the normal boundaries of what is successful and what is not, you become hopelessly frustrated and probably never pursue it as a lifelong thing."
"Because, it's not about whether you're going to retire or have a nice house, or two cars in the garage," Starkweather continues. "It's about personally satisfying your own musical goals which don't make any sense to anybody but you."
The way I see it, every November he'll reflect and begin his yearly renewal. Undoubtedly, he'll meet the challenge and another great project will appear. Ultimately, Starkweather's integrity, personality, and musicianship will remain key to his abundance and success. ~GC~
Patricia Braine has written and promoted for world class bassists such as Stanley Clarke of Miles Davis and Chick Corea fame, Eric Hoh of Freefall and Jamie Faunt of Chick Corea & Jamie Faunt's Home Bass.