François Rabbath
The Sound of a Bass
Philips : 1963

FR, bass; Armand Molinetti, drums.

We’re thrilled to present a special three-part post about extraordinary French bassist and composer François Rabbath. His contributions to jazz have been widely overlooked both within jazz circles and by his own fans. His early recordings form a visionary body of work. It’s fertile territory still to be explored.

Brian Roessler, bassist for the Fantastic Merlins, put these posts together, conducting a new interview with Rabbath and drawing on rare documents and scholarship. Take it away, Brian…

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I am not alone in the reaction I had when I first heard François Rabbath. I was completely astonished. I thought: There is no way this guy is playing the double bass. And: No way is it just one bass player playing live. I played the disc for anyone who would sit still to listen to it. I puzzled and wondered what was going on here and why had I never heard of him before?

As it turns out, I had radically underestimated what could be done on the bass. And I have no good answer to why I hadn’t heard of him before, why he isn’t well known outside the circle of bass players to whom he is a legend.

After I heard that first recording, which was a live disc recorded in the seventies, I began to search around. There were rumors of some very early jazz recordings he made, but I couldn’t get my hands on them. After looking for years, I finally did get them in reissues put out by a very small label in France. It’s only in recent months that those shocking and beautiful records have been officially reissued on CD by Philips, the label that originally released them.

In 2002, about five years after I first heard that recording, my wife and I sold our house, took our two-year-old son and two dogs, and moved to Paris so I could study with François Rabbath. François always says I am crazy for doing it, but it seemed like the most obvious decision in the world to me.  Since the first time I heard Rabbath play I had been nurturing a secret fantasy that someday I would study with him. Five years later I was actually on the phone with this man. He told me I should come to Paris. “I’ll try,” I said. “Don’t try, do it,” he replied. Nine months later, I was there.

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François Rabbath was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1931. He developed his groundbreaking double bass technique entirely on his own – there were no other bass players in Aleppo, or in Beirut where he later moved with the family band. When he first began playing bass in the band, his oldest brother told him to just play any note at all, as long as he kept the rhythm going.  Occasionally, by complete luck, he played the right note – a miracle of consonance! He figured that there must be some way to make it happen more often, so he practiced, exploring the instrument with no idea that there were things he wasn’t supposed to be able to do. By unknowingly breaking all the rules, he became almost certainly the greatest virtuoso the double bass has ever had.

Rabbath and his brothers moved to Paris in the 1950s. He entered the Paris Conservatory, but didn’t last long there. He was too busy playing, making a living, and developing the musicality and technical prowess that would make him famous. He was in demand as a sideman and music director, most notably serving as both for French star Charles Aznavour.

It seems like a bit of a miracle that Rabbath’s first album, released in Europe as The Sound of A Bass and in the U.S. as the bizarrely titled Bass Ball, was ever made at all. This is a record made in 1963 on which the only instruments are bass and drums. It probably goes without saying that this had never been done before.

To add another layer of oddity, the idea for the record came from Quincy Jones. He heard Rabbath playing by himself backstage at a Charles Aznavour concert and asked François if he had ever made any recordings. When Rabbath said no, Jones asked him to make some demos for him. Rabbath booked the Philips recording studio in Paris.

He told the folks at Philips that he was making some demos at the request of Quincy Jones. They told him that he didn’t need Jones – they would write a record contract for him right there. Which they proceeded to do, asking Rabbath to submit a few demos for consideration for this upcoming record.  Rabbath submitted three pieces: One by his brother Pierre, one by Roland Vincent, and “Desert” – the first composition Rabbath had ever written.  Philips liked “Desert” best, and asked him to write eleven more pieces for his record.

Asked what his idea was for making an album with just bass and drums, Rabbath said, “I was trying to prove that two instruments, bass and drums, can make something by themselves, because always the bass was accompanied by the orchestra when it made solos, always a few little bars of solo, improvisation, and I decide to do all the record without piano, without harmony, nothing.”

In probing further to get a sense of what on earth inspired these records, I came up empty. I know that François considers them to be jazz, because when I purchased the old reissues from he him he said something like, “Ah, you want to hear the jazz records.” But what kind of jazz was he hearing at that time to lead him to make these?  I asked him about what seemed to be two likely suspects for inspiration – Charles Mingus and Ornette Coleman.  No, he wasn’t familiar with the work of either one at that time.

At any rate, the record was an unqualified success, attracting attention around the world. It led to a long relationship with Ornette Coleman who looked Rabbath up when he was in Paris. Coleman appeared at his apartment one evening and the two proceeded to play for hours, late into the night.  Rabbath told me his neighbors were screaming and pounding on the walls, but the two kept playing. It was the first of many encounters between them, including a duet at Rabbath’s Carnegie Hall debut in 1975. I can hardly imagine what those sessions must have sounded like – I asked Rabbath if there are any recordings available of the two of them:

“No, I have 2 or 3 tries at home,” he said. “I have them even in video. But we never released them. He came to my house with a tape and he recorded I don’t know how many hours. Each time that he came we put the camera and we played just for that, for us. We are not thinking about making commerce.  This was for our happiness, you know.”

In 1964 Rabbath recorded an outstanding follow up bass-and-drums disc for Philips titled, appropriately I guess, No. 2. Excited about the success of The Sound of A Bass,

[Philips was] asking me to give the copyright to them. And I refused that.  I said ‘It belongs to me, the copyright. Why you like to have them?’ They said ‘Because if we’re going to release it in the States we must have all the copyrights.’ That means they want to screw me. Like every musician is screwed by the company, you know? So I didn’t want to do that because I like to keep all my writing, it belongs to me… If somebody would like to play [my music] I don’t ask them to pay money. I do that for pleasure, I don’t do that just for money. So Philips, when they see that I don’t give them the copyright, they canceled the contract.

The music on both these records is shockingly beautiful, dramatic, gripping, and technically jaw-dropping.  More than forty-five years later, bass players hear this stuff and think, “How the HELL is he doing that?”  There’s no one else who plays bass or writes like this. The radiant sparseness of the music is unlike anything that was made in 1963 or since.

The more I hear these concise tracks, the more I feel like I am getting a view into a kind of alternate reality – a direction jazz could have, but didn’t, go.  Instead of trying to give a detailed description of what you’re about to hear, allow me to present the terse and colorfully impenetrable descriptions of the tracks from the original liner notes:

The Dream-World:

- “Desert” : Blindman’s Bluff with life and death

- “Prelude a l’archet” : a love-dream

Everyday Experience:

- “Kobolds” : Magic transposition of the ambiguity of every day life

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Next week: Part Two explores Francois Rabbath’s increasingly experimental and unusual jazz recordings of the early 1970s.

In the meantime….

Buy the newly remastered THE SOUND OF A BASS.

-Buy the newly remastered NO. 2.

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