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David Friesen


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by Andy Long

          A cursory glance through the vast discography of double bassist David Friesen reads like a 'Who's Who' of Jazz.  With an excess of fifty recordings as either leader or co-leader and countless sessions, David has played with far too many artists to list, but randomly pulling a few names out of the hat would give such players as Ralph Towner, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Paul Horn and Mal Waldron.

I met David at a recent London solo gig and took the opportunity to gain some insight into his life and work, as well as his approach to bass and it's setting, both within the band and as a solo instrument.

Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1942, David began his life of music at the age of ten with Accordion and ukulele, before moving on to guitar professionally at sixteen.  It was a while later that David became addicted to the double bass, and I began our conversation by asking him what turned him onto the instrument.

"Actually it was one instrument I never wanted to play.  Some guy came over to take my sister out one night in Seattle, Washington, and he had a bass and he left it at our house and I thought to myself 'what an ugly instrument, I'll never play one of those'.  They say you should never say 'never'!  I saw the bass in the service club in Germany where I was stationed in the army and I just picked it up to try it and it was love at first embrace, that was it!  It was something I felt very in tune with physically.  Just picking the instrument up and holding it and playing it in that position that you do when you hold the bass violin, it just felt natural.  I felt very, very comfortable with it."

Although David had experience as a guitarist, he told me that he never felt comfortable playing an instrument in that position, which is why he has never been tempted to play electric bass guitar.  As soon as he took up acoustic bass he fell in love with the instrument and dedicated himself to some serious practice.

"Yeah, it's such a difficult chore to learn how to play the music and it took a lot of work, so there was a time when I was practicing nine, ten, eleven hours a day"  

During his days in the army David sat in with George Arvanitas, Johnny Griffin and Art Taylor. Then later , in Copenhagen, he gigged with drummer Dick Berk and it was there that he met Ted Curson in 1961.  When he returned to the States David began working in Seattle in a coffee-house called The Penthouse where he met and played with the visiting giants of jazz like Wes Montgomery and Coltrane.  He then toured with Elmer Gill for a few years before moving with his family to Portland, Oregon where he opened up a coffee-house of his own.

"It was open from 2 in the morning until 7.  On Saturday afternoons I had puppet shows for the kids and Sunday evenings I had jazz from about 7 til 11"

Throughout the 70's David's reputation as an outstanding bassist grew and many tour opportunities presented themselves, including the chance to work with Joe Henderson, Billy Harper, Stan Getz and others as well as recording opportunities with the likes of Kenny Drew, George Adams and Danny Richmond.  

Since that time David has worked consistently with countless artists, playing live, recording and giving clinics, a growing area of his work.  I asked him how he approaches a clinic setting in which there may be musicians of all standards.

"Yeah, everyone's different in that respect.  I do work a lot with theory and things like that.  I will work with combos and try to teach them how to listen, what to listen for and how to work together as a unit so that they make music together.  I talk to students and try to instill hope and encouragement and purpose in their lives.  Mainly I stress listening, how to listen, what to listen for and the transition between practicing in the practice room and then the development of how to bring that into a playing situation.  That transition is difficult and it comes with a lot of things which involve getting over the fear of making mistakes, how do you do that?  How do you learn to accept yourself?  How do you get to use the originality that each one of us have?  How do you get to bring that uniqueness out?  One of the answers is to take your eyes off yourself, it sounds like a paradox but in music when you serve, which is listening and responding creatively to what you hear, you give up your hold on yourself and your identity.  In other words what's in you is automatically able to come out because when you serve you give and giving means getting out.  You bring out of who you are and, in a musical situation, you're responding creatively to what you hear.  So I look at the process of how to do that, and I have a lot of musical exercises that I run down to the students that help initiate the patience and things that you need to get that down."  

David with his Hemage electric upright

When I saw David play solo, one of the most powerful things visually was his stunning Hemage electric upright.  It's striking headless design and eccentric body shape is truly original.  I wondered why I had never seen one of these beautiful instruments before.  David explained.

"There are only three of them, there's a young student in Dresden that has one and then I have the original bass that I keep in America and I have one I keep in Europe.  The body's made out of cherry wood and it's got a regular bass fingerboard made of traditional ebony and it's got a regular traditional bridge so the string height is the same and the string length is the same.  So my office space for the notes is the same.  Obviously it's much smaller, it doesn't have a scroll, I tune it down below the bridge, so what acts as the tailpiece also acts as the tuning device.  It's made by Herman Elacher from Hol in Tirol which is a small town maybe twenty kilometers outside of Innsbruck."

"I also have an old French acoustic bass that was made in 1795 and  was used in an orchestra that Beethoven once guest conducted in Paris, originally a three string bass.  It's my acoustic instrument, that's what I use for a lot of the jazz things that I do.  I do a variety of work, a couple of weeks ago I was in Milwaukee doing a trio concert with Clark Terry and Bud Shank, much more straight ahead traditional music but I still used the Hemage bass in that because it flew for free and it works real well in that situation also."  

As David plays both an acoustic and an electric upright I asked him if he thought that modern electric uprights could truly recreate the acoustic sound.

"No, of course not that would be impossible.  In fact an amplified acoustic bass doesn't sound like an acoustic bass, it sounds like an electric instrument and that's one of the reasons it's difficult for me to play the acoustic these days in an ensemble, because I don't like to amplify it, I like to hear it acoustically.  So when I go into the studio to record I put two Norman 87's on my instrument and just record acoustically.  The Hemage bass that I have is not meant to sound like an acoustic bass, nothing sounds like an acoustic bass except an acoustic bass.  You really can't produce that sound from an electric instrument, it really is impossible.  But my Hemage bass has it's own type of sound which is very valid."

David plays through a Walter Woods four channel stereo amplifier with a Lexicon digital reverb and a little digital delay unit that he uses to great effect in solo concerts.  He can also be seen to play a sort of flute, I'll let him tell you about that.

"It's a Shakuhachi; it's from Japan and it's just a traditional Japanese instrument.  Back in the early 60's Jerry Holdman, who owned the coffee house in Seattle used to play it a lot and got me started on it and it was just a matter of playing it.  It's a whole different approach than the regular flute, although you still split the air, it's a different technique to play it.  It took time to learn how to get a sound out of it but I like to play it and it augments the sound of the bass, I play them together at the same time and it adds a little more diversity in a solo bass situation."

An artist like David, who has recorded so many albums with so many great players must surely have one or two favourites?  David found it difficult to choose.

"There are so many, the things I did with Joe Henderson and Danny Richmond.  II don't think I have one personal favourite.  I like 'em all for different reasons.  'Voices' is one kind of playing and there's a new one coming out with Larry Coombes and Joe LaBarbera.  I have another trio album coming out with Randy Porter and Alan Jones that I think is fantastic, a great trio.  We never had a rehearsal and we never played the songs the same way twice, they're two great musicians that understand the meaning of allowing each other the freedom without the fear of condemnation, they were free to take chances and that CD is coming out in the next couple of months on Intuition Records.  I've played with Gary Versace, a great pianist in New York, the trios with Bud Shank and Clark Terry.  A variety of different things, it's not like I'm playing the same style all the time.  I enjoy the solo things I've done too.  So I really can't say I have one favourite."  

One of his more recent albums is 'With You In Mind', a collaboration with Gary Versace on the Summit label.  Gary is an accomplished pianist and he and David bounce off each other really well on this album, the way in which they leave each other plenty of space for expression within the confines of the tunes shows their maturity as musicians and sensitivity to each other.  When I first listened to the album I was struck by it's sparse beauty and it seemed to carry quite an improvisational flavour, but as David says,

"They are all compositions, they might sound more improvisational if you don't know them but the more you listen to it the more you'll hear the melodies of the songs.  Plus there are two standards on there 'All Or Nothing At All' and 'You, The Night And The Music'.  Gary Versace and I have been playing for a while in Portland, Oregon, he was one of the professors of Jazz at the University of Oregon.  He's only 32 or 33 and he's just a great, great jazz pianist he's been doing some work with Maria Schneider and Ingrid Jensen and various people in New York.  He's on a sabbatical right now in New York for the next year, working and playing.  We went to his home, he had a wonderful Mason/Hamlin and we had it tuned each day that we recorded, and I had my acoustic bass and we had two mikes on each instrument and just recorded some of the things that we enjoy playing and we came up with this CD.  It was recorded on a DAT recorder and we had a mixer and did it ourselves and it turned out really well,  There was such great communication between the two of us."

If you'd like to find out more about David's work you might like to check out his website at  He tells me that he will be doing a tour with his trio next March and that he hopes to bring them over to the U.K. as part of that, I'm looking forward to it.


Andy Long is our correspondent in the U.K. and the author of numerous articles in Global Bass for a number of issues. Andy will be continuing over 2001 with a series of interesting and provocative interviews with some of the U.K. best and brightest bass players. 

Check out his official website at Third Bass

Read this article in German





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