Monday, February 6, 2012

Memorable Musical Hires

New England jazz heroes Gray Sargent and Dave McKenna

Dick Kniss

Recently Dick Kniss died. He was the longtime bassist for Peter, Paul, and Mary. His passing made me think of other supporting players associated with big names. Do they consider themselves lucky to have established a gig that last decades?

Take Tony Bennett for example. For over four decades Ralph Sharon was his pianist. It's understandable why it's so important that Tony have someone he trusts at the helm. Think of how unnerving it would be to have to get comfortable with someone new every couple of years. As a singer, if you lack confidence in who's backing you, then you're insecure - and boy, does it show when you sing!

Yesterday I was enjoying Tony's Duets II film about the making of Duets II now airing on PBS. We should all thank Tony Bennett for offering us a model of how to age gracefully and always aspire to be the best. The production value on this video, and on anything that Tony does, is incredible. Well-executed, and with the deepest respect for the material. I also love the interviews with each of the singers that he chose to accompany him.

I noticed his new piano player. Well, new in the sense that he's probably only been with Tony for a decade! Also accompanying Tony was guitarist Gray Sargent. He's been with Mr. B for at fifteen years! Gray is from New England. I'll never forget hearing him accompany Margaret Whiting one rainswept Sunday afternoon (indoors - very intimate!).

Gray Sargent is referred to on one site as a "swing-bop" player. Tony first heard him play at a party on the Cape in the early '90s, just a few short years after he'd triumphantly returned to Columbia (with 1988's The Art of Excellence, an album arranged and conducted by Jorge Calandrelli, who has worked for Bennett for over twenty years! You'll see his name on each page of sheet music on the PBS special).

At the time Bennett heard Sargent, he was probably on the lookout for a fresh flavor to his trio. At that time swing was experiencing a brief burst of popularity (think of Brian Setzer). He was back at Columbia, but he couldn't continue doing exclusively string-oriented musical settings on his albums. It wasn't fashionable and besides, it was more demanding on his voice. So, Sargent came aboard, and Tony's career continued to prosper.

Now back to Kniss, the bass player. At the time that Peter, Paul, and Mary were starting out, they were seeking a way to differentiate themselves from the competition that, given that it was the folk revival, was significant at the time. So, besides their tasteful song selection and beautiful vocal arranging, they seized upon the idea of having a bass player provide them some ballast.

"Dick is continually re-inventing approaches to our songs", said Noel Paul Stookey of PP&M several years ago. "Sometimes he's there at the beginning; helping to create the tone or mood of a piece while the trio's vocal parts are still evolving. But personally", continues Stookey, "I think his greatest contributions come nightly! I can't name another bass player who improvises so tastefully within the framework of folkmusic".

After Peter, Paul, and Mary disbanded in the early '70s, Dick Kniss was snatched up by John Denver. Again, a memorable hire: Kniss helped co-write "Sunshine On My Shoulders", a song that catapulted Denver to fame (along with "Rocky Mountain High" and "Country Roads"). He stayed with Denver until PP&M reunited at the end of the decade.

Here's to the players behind the singers who provide them inspiration and awaken their musical imaginations!

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