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One of the reasons bass legend Paul Warburton knows so much about the fabric of his music is that he's actually made music with it. Fabric, that is.
"Before I started playing bass, when I was fourteen, I'd lay on my bed, which was covered with one of those old chenille bedspreads with fringe on it, and listen to late-night jazz shows on the radio," he says. "And when I'd hear a bass line that I wanted to play, I'd hold one end of the fringe between my teeth, and then I'd tighten it and loosen it and pluck on it until I actually learned to walk a bass line along with the radio. It was really amazing: I was actually able to walk a line with the damn fringe--or at least I thought it was a line. If I heard today what I was doing back then, I'd probably be laughing my butt off."
Maybe not: Anyone acquainted with Warburton, who's approaching his 55th birthday, knows better than to sell him short. The son of a ballet dancer and a vaudeville-era pianist, this former fringe-player began his professional career at 17, kept time alongside Bill Evans and Philly Joe Jones at 22 and worked with Stan Getz before he hit 30. He's put his stamp on the music scene in his native Denver, too. During the Seventies, he spent two years as the house bassist at one of the city's most mythic jazz joints, Clyde's Pub, and nearly a decade working in a duo with another area virtuoso, guitarist Dale Bruning. Moreover, Speak Low, Warburton's new CD (released on the Synergy label), provides ample evidence that his playing is as strong as ever. His skills seem even more impressive when you learn that he's self-taught. "I never really studied," he reveals. "Well, I took one bass lesson, but it really slowed me down."
So how did Warburton hone his abilities? "When I was a kid, we were very poor, so I learned to play the bass by sneaking my half-brother's bass out when he left it at our house. And I learned my correct hand positions by spending hours flipping through records in the store bins, looking for pictures of bass players so I could see the different ways they held their hands." He adds, "Years later, I realized that I had this innate talent for this particular instrument, and music in general. Technical things that other bassists have to train themselves to think about doing just came naturally to me. I didn't really know that I was using a lot of accepted classical techniques. It was just comfortable to me, so I did it."
So easily did Warburton master the bass, in fact, that it took him years to understand that a little restraint could make him sound even better. "When I was young, I'd find myself playing along in a group, and the music would be really nice--but then I'd see someone walk in who I wanted to impress, and I'd totally change everything. After a while, though, I figured out that the music was suffering. I was throwing a nut in the works because I was being selfish. That's why it's really fun now to be able to play carefully--to play notes not just for the sake of playing notes, but because they are part of making a good piece of music. It's really true what Count Basie said: 'Less is more.'"
In Warburton's view, his work on Speak Low takes this approach to a new level, thanks to the prowess of the other members of his quartet: trumpeter Ron Miles, keyboardist Eric Gunnison and drummer Nat Yarbrough. "This band is really special," he declares. "I love the CD, and I'm glad it worked, because I think it can show a lot of players and listeners about the importance of musical interplay.
"This group is four individuals who care enough about each other to say what they need to say musically without having to worry that someone else in the band isn't going to respect that," he continues. "It's a real trust. We played within a standard form, but each of us pushed it about as close to the edge as you can get without moving out of the form. It was more of a conversation than three players supporting one--and it's like that whenever the four of us play. No one is trying to grab the spotlight from anyone else. We're all there just trying to play and make each one of us get a good feeling."
Warburton hopes to recapture this magic on his next disc, a duet recording with Gunnison that they will kick off this spring. In the meantime, he's concentrating on another project: He and Bob Ross, a local woodworker and jazz lover, have gone into the business of manufacturing their own basses. The first of their instruments took nearly a year to complete, for a variety of reasons. Building their own bass-making implements caused a significant delay. "There are only about a half-dozen or so major bass makers in the world, so you can't just go out and buy the tools you need," Warburton points out. So, too, did polling and research. Warburton spent a considerable span learning what bassists from coast to coast did and didn't like about their instruments. This obsessiveness paid off. "We took our first bass to a conference that was held in Boulder, and it was the rage of the symposium," he contends.
Inspired by their success, Ross and Warburton are looking forward to debuting within the next several months a five-string bass similar to the kind Warburton plays. Models catering to jazz and classical musicians will follow shortly thereafter, and a three-quarters-sized bass for those of smaller stature is on the drawing board. The two plan to make six to ten basses per year, and Warburton is eager to peddle them at bass clinics in the U.S. and abroad. "The bass has already taken me all over the world," he says, "so now I figure that I will just do what I want to. Not that I can really afford it, but I'm not worrying. Showing these basses is going to be a lot of fun, and I'm really going to enjoy it. Not only will I be able to go to each event, but I'll also be able to play there, too."
Playing: All these years later, being able to do so still fills Warburton with joy. "At one time, I kind of fed off the ego thing, like anybody would," he admits. "But that gets you in trouble. Once the ego starts trying to take care of business, you kind of lose the music. So I try to look at my playing for what it is. There's a lot that I can't do, but I don't get uptight anymore about not being able to do some things. I've learned to enjoy the talent that I do have and to try to use it to communicate with people through music. And that's really as far as it goes.