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Don’t Fence Him In: Jazz bassist Ron Brendle doesn't like labels
Picture by Jaime Ibarra
April 3, 2012
Ron Brendle spotted me hunched over my coffee at Caribou and approached the table bearing gifts. As we greeted each other for the first time, Brendle thrust no less than five shrink-wrapped CDs into my hand in anticipation of my unfamiliarity with his discography and the breadth of his work.
Anticipation, as most jazz lovers come to understand, is that which sets truly great bassists (drummers, too) apart from the merely good ones. The pairing of percussion and bass provides the foundation and structure from which jazz improvisation can unfold. Like the chassis of a sports car, the tempo and timing provided by a great bassist need to be anticipatory and seamless in their flow through the music.
LIFE OUTSIDE THE LABELS
“My whole thing is I don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” said Brendle, who has indeed spent a lifetime in a variety of musical pursuits that eschew categorization. Drawing my attention to the top of the stack of CDs he handed over, he wanted to make sure I didn’t discount his latest recording: Bunky Moon’s Schtuff We Like. “Play it loud,” he said, echoing the all-caps instructions found in the liner notes.
What I heard upon playing it was a bit like King Crimson or even Pink Floyd. Progressive, a bit harder charging rock and roll, and some straight-up jazz that belied my expectations of what I might find from one of Charlotte’s busiest and best-known jazz bassists.
"I like to play it all,” Brendle said. “Some of my favorite stuff is eclectic – from Leonard Cohen to Captain Beefheart, for example."
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Brendle grew up east of Statesville in a rural farming community of Cool Springs.
“My earliest exposure to music was through my great-grandmother’s pump organ in the house and listening to the Arthur Smith Show.” Smith, best known as the composer of “Dueling Banjos,” had a syndicated musical variety show that came from Charlotte in the 1960s.
Brendle’s first musical instrument was a silver plastic saxophone that he bought from a department store in the fifth grade. While he went on to play bass drum in his high school marching band, it wasn’t until college at Appalachian State University that his love for jazz began to develop and bloom.
There, after initially playing guitar, he took up cello and started playing jazz.
“I played with the orchestra, but wanted to play guitar with the Jazz Big Band,” Brendle said. “I came at it somewhat backwards from most. I got into modern jazz and free-form jazz and worked my way back to the classic forms.”
Brendle cites greats like Ornette Coleman, Larry Coryell, and Miles Davis as those who influenced his style of play early in his career.
CHOOSING A PATH
“I can’t help but wonder how things could have been different for me had I followed my passion for bass and gone to New York City at the same as many of my friends,” said Brendle, with a tinge of regret in his voice. “But after I graduated college, I had a young family I felt needed the security of a steady paycheck and I wasn’t confident in my own chops as a bassist. I’d only been playing bass for a couple of years at that point and I didn’t feel I was ready for that stage.”
Instead he came to Charlotte and apprenticed in a violin repair shop. It offered a steady paycheck and the opportunity to play more bass and jam with local musicians. It wasn’t long before people began to take notice. A session bassist on dozens of LPs over the past years, Brendle has played and/or recorded with the likes of Mose Allison, Frank Kimbrough, Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis, and Clark Terry. He even had the opportunity in the mid 1980s to study with legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna, Florida.
Brendle has a reputation as the type of bass player who is both adventurous and straight up. That he’s accompanied a cross section of jazz greats is both a testament to his talent and passion for his music and a hint at perhaps what could have been had life’s circumstances unfolded differently and taken him further afield from Charlotte, his home base for the past three decades.
When he finally felt ready to venture beyond Charlotte, his family situation again didn’t allow for that. And while he may at times reflect, as most of us do, on what could have been, Brendle has accomplished much right here that has earned him a strong following.
A CHARLOTTE FIXTURE
Establishing himself as a fixture for years in Charlotte’s jazz scene, Brendle has a string of QC accolades, including two North Carolina Arts Council Jazz Composer Fellowship Grants, a Charlotte Arts and Science Council Grant, numerous Creative Loafing “Best Jazz Artist of the Year” awards and several annual “Best Bass Player” awards from Charlotte Magazine. He fronts two separate trios that play weekly gigs Uptown, Wednesday nights at Sullivan’s and Thursday evenings at Blue.
ALWAYS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Though he never met his biological father, Bill Walker - Beat poet and counterculture founder of the legendary Washington, D.C. coffee house, Coffee ‘n’ Confusion – Brendle identifies with him as a kindred spirit and rebel of a sort.
“I like that same freedom that my dad must have found in his pursuits,” he said. “Jazz has so many musical elements that come together in different forms allowing for all types of creation. Rhythm, creative improvisation, spontaneous composition - there is structure, but is has to be brought together. That’s where the energy and fun is.”
For Ron Brendle, jazz is a puzzle that he never tires of working on.