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Rufus Reid: The Evolving Bassist

When Rufus Reid plays his bass, there's no mistaking him for anyone else. For more than four decades, Reid has cultivated that most precious commodity of instrumental music -- a personal identity and sonic imprint. It's hefty but buoyant, wooden yet pliable. It's no wonder he wrote, in 1974, the definitive bass method book, The Evolving Bassist.

"A lot of people say, 'Can't you brighten up the sound a little bit?' " Reid says. "But that's the sound I get. That's the sound I want. It's darker than most, but it's probably more reminiscent of the earlier days -- the sound as it was recorded during Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers, Ray Brown and Milt Hinton. It was a more robust sound."

Reid retired from his two-decade teaching position at William Paterson University. He succeeded the program's founder: trumpeter, composer and arranger Thad Jones. Reid built that program into one of the important institutions for jazz study. Reid was the bassist for the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He also played with Dexter Gordon, and he formed his own group, Tanareid, which was active for more than a decade.

Staying Active

Reid hasn't taught with a university affiliation since 1999, but that doesn't make him a retiree. He's still one of the most active musicians around. He writes commissioned work. He lectures, runs clinics around the country and even has a new trio and a new record, Out Front.

"I've learned over the years that I'm capable of doing other things, but I play the bass," he says. "This is what I do best. The process is what's intriguing to me. I've been around great composers -- Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Slide Hampton, Jimmy Heath, Jim McNeely -- and I've played their music. I'm totally amazed at how the creative mind can do these things."

Reid's new trio, with pianist Steve Allee and drummer Duduka da Fonseca, formed in 2007.

"Duduka and I have known each other for a while, but we never had an opportunity to play," Reid says. "Steve Allee and I met several years ago for some summer camps and teaching situations."

When they began rehearsing in 2007, the proverbial sparks began to fly. After a few nights at New York's Kitano Hotel jazz club, Reid decided to document the trio and its new music.

In this WBGO session for The Checkout, the Rufus Reid trio plays an original from each of its members. Reid's "Glory" is a commissioned work to honor the sculptures of 95-year-old artist Elizabeth Catlett. Da Fonseca's "Dona Maria" is a reference to his grandmother, complete with an assertive Brazilian rhythmic foundation. Allee wrote "Ebony" in a medium tempo, or what Reid calls a "grown-up tempo."

The evolution never ends for a man who still describes himself as "a babe."

"Play as well as you did yesterday," Reid says. "That's the challenge."

Copyright 2010 WBGO

Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.