Featured Musician - January 2010

Name :Bill Athens

Bill Athens

Instrument: double bass and electric bass

Early Years/Education: I'm from northeastern Wisconsin, which had a limited music scene. A friend of mine, drummer Ryan Biesack, who had moved to Oregon, wrote to me suggesting I move here too. So I moved here in July of '97 at age 22 and bought a double bass and started practicing. Prior to that I was playing electric bass. Ryan and I had a fusion band back then called “Waymilky.” After awhile I decided to return to college, so I went to Portland State University. I've always wanted to play music and started on the electric bass in the 8th grade. I wanted to play drums, but my dad bought me an electric bass. My friend had a guitar, and I wanted to play with him, so that's why Dad got me a bass. I was into rock music but got more and more interested in jazz when I started studying more seriously. In high school I didn't really do music other than choir. In Portland I bounced around playing both classical and jazz. From my practicing habits in college I got tendinitis. In classical playing you have to hold the notes down a long time while bowing. So I quit playing classical. Around that time I got a gig on a riverboat (Queen of the West) with a great band that included tenor saxist Tim Wilcox, drummer Todd Bishop and pianist Reese Marshburn. It was a lot of playing. This immersed me into playing jazz with some great players. The gig lasted three years. When I returned to Portland, I started playing with Mary Kadderly, Bill Beach, Dan Balmer, etc.

Teaching: It's a very different challenge than playing. Taking someone who has no point of reference for what I know how to do and trying to instruct them on how I learned, or trying to think about how I figured it out twenty years ago is hard. There's not a lot of literature on teaching the bass. I teach classical bass at Clark Community College and at George Fox University. At PSU I majored in classical bass and studied with Ken Baldwin. I was in the PSU orchestra and opera. I also studied improvisation with Darrell Grant. I received my performance degree from PSU in 2002.

Bands: I have my own band, but we don't play very often. It's a quartet with Jed Wilson, Tim Wilcox and Ken Ollis. I'm also in groups led by Ben Darwish, Shirley Nanette, Mary Kadderly and Robert Moore. I'm in the Jazz Composer's Orchestra and in Trio Subtonic. I play in Trio Subtonic (with Galen Clark and Jesse Brooke) when they play at home. When they go on the road, they use Sam Howard on bass. I have a family, so I like to stay close to home.

Musical Influences:  Since I started on electric bass, I'd have to say an early influence was Cliff Burton (Metallica); then there's Jaco Pastorius; Ron Carter (he made me want to play double bass); Dave Holland; Charlie Haden (in terms of improvising, the progression of double bass playing has gone to playing more and more, and Charlie, from the time of his most famous recordings, is playing less and less, and his personality is getting stronger in his playing); Charles Mingus, (his authority on the instrument is striking); Larry Grenadier (I like his phrasing, his note choices). Lately, I've been really appreciating Paul Chambers and Percy Heath. As far as educators go, Ken Baldwin, who was a classical player, really taught me how to play the bass, he gave me a mastery of the instrument I'm able to take to one style or the other. Dan Schulte also had a very positive effect, very supportive. My best lessons from him were in those off-handed moments when he'd suggest something. Then I'd think, why didn't I think of that!

Most Satisfying Experience: There's a thing that happens sometimes when I'm playing when I lose a sense of my physical self, my consciousness is viewing the situation from a  different point. I like to go there, but I don't go there very often. It's hard to get there, ego gets in the way. It happened once when I was playing with Nancy King and Dan Gaynor, and it lasted for an entire song. We were playing “If You Never Come to Me.” It wasn't just me, the audience felt it too.

Favorite Recordings: “Sun Ship” John Coltrane; “Roxy and Elsewhere” Frank Zappa; “Miles Smiles,” Miles Davis (where I heard Ron Carter for the first time); Pat Metheny, “Rejoicing”; Dave Holland “Triplicate”; Charles Mingus, “Ah Um”;  Jimmy Giuffre, “1961 disk 1 and  2”;  a cool band from Europe made up of Americans called Jules + Binoculars, “Music of  Bob Dylan”; Keith Jarrett, “The Impulse Years”; Bad Mehldau, “Vol. 4” (when I really got into Larry Grenadier).

Discography: Paxselin Quartet: “A Guide to Desolation Wilderness”, 2004, independently released, and “Hollow Earth,” 2007, Diatic Records. Chris Mosley: “Outside Voices,” 2007, Diatic Records, and “Semi Somnus,” 2009, Diatic Records. Trio Subtonic: “The Aqueous,” 2007, independently released, and “Cave Dweller,” 2009, independently released. Mary Kadderly: “Nancy King and Mary Kadderly,” 2006, independently released. Marianna and the Baby Vamps: “I Don't Mind,” 2009, independently released.

Gigs: New Year's Eve with Mary Kadderly, The Allison Inn, Newberg; January 2 with Robert Moore and the Wildcats, Momma Mia; January 22 with Trio Subtonic at Jimmy Mak's; January 29 with Marianna and the Baby Vamps, Tony Starlight’s Supper Club; January 30 with Shirley Nanette, The Heathman Hotel; February 6 with Mary Kadderly, The Heathman Hotel; February 5 with Trio Subtonic, Everybody's Brewing, White Salmon, Washington.

Future plans: I'll be on a new CD later this year in a group led by Tim Wilcox (tenor saxophone) that will also feature David Goldblatt (piano) and Charley Doggett (drums). Other future plans include basically working on my playing. I'd like to up the level of what I'm doing. I'd also like to make musical statements that are more personal, take more ownership of what I'm doing.

Other comments: I think some of the distinctions between the bebop of New York and the West Coast Cool have carried over to this time. The spirit of the music has a different sound here (on the West Coast). It comes from the lifestyle; our intensity is more refined.

-- by Rita Rega


Copyright 2009, Jazz Society of Oregon