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"Anybody who thinks anything in life is in stasis is missing the point entirely," Mark Helias warns. "I liken it to the idea of sending a spaceship to the moon, it's not a straight line, everything is always moving. You can't use geometry, you use trigonometry."
This commentary is not meant to explain the extenuating circumstances causing an artist to throw up his hands in resignation; but instead offers a viewpoint of the working conditions of the creative artist is constantly up against. For the resourceful, New York bassist, such issues have merely produced a broader resume. Helias has thrived on the chaos thrown his way, and has made himself available as a leader for several different small ensembles, solo performer, composer, sideman, or producer. These changing times demand a proactive outlook, as Helias explains, "Just think in the time I've been playing professionally, digital technology, CDs, DAT machines: the whole thing. When I made my first album in 1984, Nat Hentoff said this in his liner notes: "making your first record as a leader of your own music is like writing your first novel." Nowadays, making your first CD is like getting your business card on some level. People make a CD to try to get a gig for the door. That is a little different."
In the twenty-two years since Helias left New Haven, Connecticut for the rat race of New York City, he has witnessed first hand the passage of time, a and constant changing of guards. "I'm hearing a generation of people coming in now, who have listened to all the stuff that's developed in the last twenty years, and that's become part of the lexicon, so they already know the language." Ironically, this sentiment surely echoes that of a young bass player twenty years ago. Not yet out of the Masters program at Yale, Helias was cutting his professional teeth in groups lead by Leo Smith and Ed Blackwell.
"Leo Smith was very interesting; the instructions he would give for certain improvisations were the equivalence of silence. He had an ensemble of ten musicians, but whatever you played, you would have to have a balance of equivalence of silence, so it wouldn't get into this barrage of sound. when you leave that silence, the first thing you start doing is listening. It changes the way you deal; it's really a sly way of getting people to really listen to one another". Helias' association with Ed Blackwell stemmed from the late drummer's position on the faculty at Wesleyan University. Originating in a trio with pianist Anthony Davis, Helias' collaborations with Blackwell lasted seventeen years. "It was a revelation," Helias recalls. "I just remember when he started playing 4/4, I never heard anyone play a cymbal like that. I mean it was really amazing. He was a real gentleman too; above all he really treated me like a colleague and a friend, which was fantastic. There was just a great deal of encouragement. These apprenticeships and on-the-job experiences augmented Helias' work at Yale. "The idea I had coming in with the bass, was that I started late, I was 21. Up to that time I was self-taught on a couple of instruments, but had never really studied. I figured, well, this instrument has a 300 year tradition and rather than try and reinvent that, I want find out what they've learned and get as much of that as I can. So, I embraced the whole classical tradition of the bass." For Helias, the classical foundation wasn't just a means of getting to jazz or improvisation, but instead he just aimed to play the bass with competence, without any black and white restrictions placed on genre. "I literally wanted to play everything. I didn't really want to play as a full-time, orchestral musician," Helias divulges. "The idea of being in a bass section for thirty years didn't really groove me that hard. On the other hand, playing Schoenberg variations in a 90 piece orchestra was quite an experience. I guess," Helias admits, "I'm more inclined to small ensembles just because there is so much more individuality and input between each musician."
Jazz and improvisation awakened another sense of the outspoken bass player's personality. Helias laughs about another impetus for his gravitation towards creative improvised music, "Well, the vibes, and slightly anarchistic, individualistic tendencies since childhood I suppose. Rallying against the empire, it's part of that. Also, it's really the freedom of expression and magic of the unknown. The fundamental thing that I always knew without knowing it," Helias offers, "is that it is important to develop your own sound and your own voice, otherwise it was of no value."
These days, Helias keeps himself occupied with several different ongoing projects. Besides playing solo, he has a duo with bassist Mark Dresser, scores the occasional independent film, makes himself available as a sideman, or works with trombonist Ray Anderson, and drummer Gerry Hemingway in the long standing cooperative BassDrumBone. However, most of his work revolves around several different trios and quartets drawing from a pool of improvisers including, violinist Mark Feldman, drummer Tom Rainey, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin, reed player Chris Speed, cellist Erik Friedlander, drummer Michael Sarin, and several other musicians. Having this many projects guarantees that when not on the road, Helias can be found in his studio composing.
"The groups are really outlets for different kinds of pieces; it is very related to composition. It is really not coming from a business end; it is coming more from the musical end, the reality of these different ensembles. It seems to me, the written part of it can be played by any number of people, the actual notated parts. What happens with it after that is very much about who's playing it. But you know, I live in both worlds, notated music and music for improvisers, tunes and small ensemble pieces with closed forms, and things like that. I think that the area of exploration has always been bringing the world of improvisation and composition together somehow seamlessly. "
While it's individual members are often busy working on their own projects, BassDrumBone continues to be a collective that Helias cherishes. "When you've been playing with guys for twenty years, you either figure something out or you're just masochistic, and we've figured something out. We're all good friends and we've worked through a lot of stuff together. It's not all hearts and flowers, we've got three big egos in there, but we know how to work together. With Hemingway and Ray, if we don't play together for like eight months, and we get together and check in, we've all been moving along and always have a whole new set of stuff that we're dealing with. So, it is really far out to check out individual development and then put it together again, and it takes on yet another idea."
Most would assume that a performance of two basses would make for muddy and dissonant music. Helias insists that his duo with Mark Dresser is more than just a sonic assault of techniques. "Dresser's expanded the language for the bass, he's really changed a lot of that, and being real tight with him, that type of orchestral language that he's come up with, those extended techniques, has influenced me a lot in a sense to broaden the palette. We were real interested in using the jazz tradition plus the regular classical tradition and twentieth century string techniques to try and really create a wide palette of sound to make it interesting. So, if you really start to check out what's available on the bass in terms of sounds and over tone series, the bass is incredibly rich."
Never content, Helias uses the solo format in his quest for continual improvement. "I can produce a lot of what I hear and that gets better and better always. That is just part of playing the instrument. More importantly, I think, is being able to filter information coming at you. I'm still working on developing a basic, simple arco sound or a simple pizzicato sound. I think there is a whole world in there amidst all the other stuff, just the beauty of the sound, when one note can wipe people out. If you're not real busy, book yourself a solo concert, because you will marshal your forces and stay really busy getting ready for that."
"You've got to have some faith and confidence," Helias advises. "One of the problems is that when you are used to dealing with ensembles and then suddenly you're out there with your instrument by yourself, typically, the biggest, or first problem that comes up, and often times, people are unaware of it, is that you are trying to fill a space. The first thing you do, is come out there and blow it out in the first piece trying to fill up all the silence, and what you need to do is just let the sound be there, and let the silence be there. You have to understand what power this sound will have in that silence."
Production was something the bass player more or less fell into. As a musician long fascinated with sound, Helias' first production job came about when a friend brought him in to lend his ear to a session. Helias ended up producing the entire record. After several bad experiences in the recording studio as a musician, and years of marking what he would do differently if afforded the opportunity, Helias has set out to ease the tension in the recording studio.
"I've noticed when you first go into the studio; it is like a really foreign experience. Often times, you are a little bit on edge and suddenly you have these headphones on, and you're separated from people, depending on the recording situation. For people who do it intermittently, it's a challenge. It can be almost upsetting. They can't hear the way they want to hear, things don't feel right."
A bad recording, if released, is something you have to live with, which just adds to the pressure. Helias believes that his presence as a producer can lighten the anxiety. "I think the mandate to being a producer is to first of all, make the musicians comfortable, and not burden them with any technical things that are going down that they don't need to know about. But, it is also knowing when to get out of the way. Sometimes you need to direct things and other times you just need to let it happen, and knowing when to makes these judgments."
Although his course may have taken a curved route, Helias keeps moving forward, recording and touring frequently while taking it all in stride as he goes along. "It is like a perpetual motion machine, and if you are really trying to be creative and challenge yourself, it just keeps you interested. And, it is interesting now, at this age, I'm 48, that is like a really unpopular decade in one's career. You are not a young lion and you're not getting your jazz IRA (Independent Retirement Account). There's a deepening that occurs with players that I've witnessed first hand, from all my friends that I've played with for over twenty years. That's the stuff for me, to see that realization of ideas that were there, but were not easily executed, to a full blossoming of a language that I know somebody's been working on for twenty years. That's great, but that's not great press. If you are talking about the deepening of someone's musicianship and improvisational skill, nobody really cares about that, they want the next hip thing or they want to drag some cat out of the nursing home and stick him on the stage."
However, this is largely irrelevant to the bassist's own artistic satisfaction. Helias sits back in his chair, reflects on what he's seen and heard in his lifetime and continues, "Think about it this way. With all the trials and tribulations of dealing with this stuff, business wise, etcetera, think about the lifestyle. You get to travel, meet really interesting, stimulating people, it's very enlivening. When you get down to that, the worst thing in life is boredom or stasis."
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