My early forays in record collecting were strictly economically determined. With little pocket money, I sought my treasures in out-of-the-way places and bought them cheap. Happily, this led to some life-enhancing discoveries: The Who Sing My Generation and Sell Out, right there at the corner drugstore. The Man Who Sold the World, a remaindered Mercury copy alongside full-price RCA reissues at the local head shop. A Beard of Stars, complete with “Ride a White Swan” 7”, from an overstock sale at the college bookstore, and a promo copy of Marquee Moon among the rejects outside the college radio station. With the possible exception of the Tyrannosaurus Rex, all were under a dollar; the Television album, otherwise impossible to find where I lived, was free—and, as the ad says, “priceless.”
But even closer than these to the core of my musical being is a flukier, more improbable find. One day my mother brought Bass Ball by François Rabbath home from Woolworth’s for my brother, who played string bass. Information about the record stopped with Dom Cerruli’s provocative liner notes, which place Rabbath among a nouvelle vague of French jazz. Rabbath and his drummer, Armand Molinetti, serve up twelve elegantly arranged, sonically adventurous tracks. Some are live; others feature bass overdubs—up to three, but generally no more than one. Maybe it’s that Bass Ball is on Philips, but to me it’s oddly reminiscent of Vincebus Eruptum. Rabbath is far subtler than Blue Cheer, true, but his multi-tracked basses are sludgily akin to Leigh Stephens’ guitars. In Rabbath’s hands the bass is a protean creature of moods: a gentle flamenco guitar on “Ode d’Espagne,” a cell of screaming lunatics on “Basses en Fugue.” Heavy metal starts here.
Needless to say, we wore Bass Ball out. Themes from the record soundtracked my dreams. My brother learned to approximate the songs on string bass; he was particularly effective peeling off keening arco harmonics and coughing up abrasive gutturals on “Walpurgis.” Eventually picking up bass guitar, he evoked Rabbath immediately, effortlessly, unconsciously.
When Spalax’s 2003 New Sound of Jazz turned up among Forced Exposure’s current releases, it was like running into an old friend. The disk compiles stereo versions of Rabbath’s 1964 debut and its follow up. (The CD lacks the impact of my mono vinyl, so crank it!) The songs from Bass Ball anticipate absolutely everything: Cale’s viola (“Prelude a l’Archet”), the Yardbirds’ stop-time concussion volleys (“Hesitations”), Hendrix’s technical feats of strength (“Impalas”), John Theodore and Neil Hagerty’s workouts in The Royal Trux (“Western a la Breugel”). It’s still unclear where Bass Ball belongs in the jazz canon. It’s new, all right, but it’s not free. The word “skronk,” however, aptly describes its more extreme tonalities. I’m happy to report that the tracks from Rabbath’s second album don’t disappoint. Cut from the same cloth as Bass Ball (though lighter on electronic enhancement), the seven titles are longer and, consequently, even further out.
Given its rainbow-tinted, strobe-lit cover and gag-inducing title, I was never entirely satisfied that Bass Ball wasn’t cornball stuff. It’s good to hear that Rabbath is a respected, if obscure presence in French jazz history. Of course he used drugs, as the supremely eerie “Bitume” always suggested. Spalax’s somewhat amateurish packaging does include pictures of the man himself. Not quite the mad hipster of my imagination but no square either: A balding, monkish guy closing his eyes and setting his bow for the heart of the sun.
For my money, New Sound of Jazz is our era’s King of the Delta Blues Singers. (Re)introducing a troubled young virtuoso whose shadow falls quietly across the music of the last forty years, illuminating his story while leaving intact just enough mystery, this reissue is like a portal to a world of howling ghosts. I don’t even care if it popularizes a treasured childhood secret. I doubt Rabbath’s will ever become a household name. But in a time when a young person can pick up Funhouse, Marquee Moon, and White Light/White Heat from a single aisle at Circuit City, it’s nice to know there are still further frontiers—new sounds in jazz, if you will. Buy this disk and be haunted.