A jazz’s musician’s legacy can be a multifarious slope. Sometimes it is defined by contrasting stylistic paths that amalgamate into a career, as with Miles Davis. Elsewhere, a legacy is distilled into a moment that seems to transcend itself, and thus it went for Paul Gonsalves, hero of a Newport afternoon. Other times a legacy is a reflection upon what might have been, based on a limited amount of what was. Such is the legacy of bassist Scott LaFaro, though I would suggest that what was was more than we often think.
LaFaro was taken from this world sixty years ago on July 6, 1961, in Flint, New York, where he was involved in an auto accident a few days after playing with Stan Getz at Newport. Perhaps one thinks of the contrast, as I do, the balmy, New England coast, ships alongside the bandstand, and then the hard, unforgiving asphalt of the interstate. All is possible, and then all is no more.
LaFaro had been a busy bassist. Just about any jazz fan knows that on June 25h, the twenty-five-year-old had been in NYC as part of Bill Evans’ trio at the Village Vanguard, cutting the Sunday live date that will be reissued and repackaged so long as the earth continues to spin. One may even ask the question whether it is possible to love jazz and not love LPs like Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debbie, and I don’t think you’re being a curmudgeon if you stamp a foot and issue an emphatic, “no, by Jove!”
For many, that Evans association, with drummer Paul Motian, is the LaFaro legacy. The all-timer live session, which produced the aforementioned discs, is rounded out by two studio LPs, Portrait in Jazz (1960) and Explorations (1961), which I sense are not listened to as much as they ought to be, but the Vanguard date is sufficiently lambent that it pulls us to it, which is good on one hand—this is one sweet, invigorating flame—and less than ideal on the other, because Scott LaFaro—who, along with Jimmy Blanton, I’d posit as jazz’s most important bassist—was a lot more—and did a lot more—than the prevailing narrative would have us believe.
LaFaro began by practicing his fingers off. Tales are told of how much John Coltrane practiced, but I think you could do the same with the bassist from Newark. Taking a tip from Red Mitchell, he trained himself to pluck the strings of his bass with his index and middle finger independently. LaFaro is one of those players who register to the ears like more than one man, generating a huge amount of sound with ostensibly little effort, and that sound resonating as direct, controlled, economical; this is part of the reason why.
He worked from sheet music for the clarinet, with its much higher pitch, to improve his command of the bass’s upper register. Expansive range was a key dictate of the LaFaro sound, the idea that the bass was so much a bass that it was also not a bass and more than a bass. Let’s call it the chimerical voice of the rhythm section—as well as what could often be the lead instrument when LaFaro was in your band. A stacked bass makes for a stacked musical deck.
There is a grave mistake a prospective listener can make with LaFaro, and when I say what that is, I’ll come off as somewhat risible, but one must do what is right: don’t love the Village Vanguard recordings so much that you sleep on the rest of what LaFaro achieved as a certain kind of jazz genius. Yes, the Evans dynamic provided him with a perfect setting. Evans was an articulate, interweaver of a pianist, a melodic speaker, a filigree lord rather than a rhythm king, and drummer Motian operated the same way, and if anything was even more of a painter than the leader. That left air and space—and time—which could do with some filling, some shaping. Also, the exertion of a formidable musical will to take what was there, in an act of guidance. Fraternal guidance, in that this endeavor allowed fellow band members to do what they best did. LaFaro took the opportunity, and he was the trio’s helmsman. In his playing you can hear how happy Evans is to have this helmsman at the back of the boat—I think it helped him see better at the front. There is fealty and gratitude in Evans’ pianistic approach to that famed date, and we have our early summer day out with the best of friends, people we feel are our musical friends.