Pablo Aslan offers thoughtful selections on “Contrabajo”

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Bassist Pablo Aslan was inspired to create songs for bass and string quartet by his friend, bandoneonist, arranger and composer, Raul Jaurena.

The goal of the project was to change the role of the bass in an ensemble setting. Instead of just serving as the foundation and melody of a given piece, Aslan sought to showcase the bass as an instrument that could drive the rhythm of a song.

The idea for the bass-driven project came after Aslan was invited by Cho-Liang Lin, Artistic Director of the La Jolla Music Festival, to play a concert with Paquito D’Rivera and the Escher String Quartet in 2016. Aslan was encouraged to bring some “repertoire” to the musical party.

Aslan invited his teacher and friend, Gabriel Senanes, to contribute some songs, and Senanes became the artistic producer for the project.

The rest of the story of how the project came together reads like a creative nonfiction essay. Aslan’s words about the project evokes images that could be seen in a documentary. Images of friends gathering in different parts of the world, making music together, sharing ideas. Particularly memorable is the part when D’Rivera comes to Aslan’s Brooklyn studio in a ’57 Chevy. Before Aslan made his way to Brooklyn, he spent some time in Maine to “write and prepare,” and was inspired by the rev of fishermen’s trucks. All of the scenes are lively and vivid. The story of how the album came to be makes audiences all the more curious about the sound of the album.

The sound of “Contrabajo” by Pablo Aslan

There are 10 songs on “Contrabajo.” Aslan and company draws listeners in by achieving what the bassist set out to do. Songs such as “Preludio No.1,” “Reflejos” and “Come Sunday” illustrate different approaches to what Aslan set out to do. Even though “Come Sunday” is a Duke Ellington original, it has been arranged for this recording by Senanes.

“Preludio No.1” for example, vividly displays the upright bass’ shifting emotional quality when used to drive the song, as opposed to being used as a support. At first, the bold sound of the bass sounds aggressive in the forefront of the soundscape. But the charm of the strings tempers that perceived aggression, and the whole piece develops an emotional quality that is at once beautiful and brutal. There is an earnestness about “Preludio No. 1” that keeps people listening.

“Reflejos” is slow-paced, but no less emotional than some of the other songs on the recording. Here, the strings take over and play a motif that sounds like the musical equivalent of a lament. The bass plays in the not-too-distant background, and listeners are likely to lean in to hear exactly how the strings work with each other and with the bass. The combination has more nuance than some people thought possible.

“Come Sunday” has a bluesy feel that is not lost with the unusual instrumentation. The song opens with strings that create a sound not unlike a classic movie soundtrack. Again, the pace is slow, but instead of the instruments seeming to march forward as a group, each instrument, in each section, plays lively and with thought toward each note in every measure. The result is a beautiful, open feel that is a bit unexpected on this recording.

Aslan and the musicians he has chosen for “Contrabajo” prove that the bass, and strings in general have more to offer ensembles than previously thought. Conceived and written through inter-continental collaborations, “Contrabajo” has an artistic flair, but with true musical roots. It might be fair to state that Aslan accomplished his goal.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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