Urness explores the reaches of solo bass at faculty recital

Sam Lewin

While I admire musicians who are able to perform difficult music without accompaniment, I do not usually find solo performances terribly exciting. This is partially because there is no interactive or mutual development of musical ideas in solo performances.
Musical interaction – especially interaction in an improvisatory setting – makes music exciting. So even though I usually drool over Associate Professor of Music and Teacher of String Bass Mark Urness’s playing, I had a few lingering doubts before Urness walked out on Harper Hall’s stage to begin his solo bass recital last Sunday night. However, my doubts quickly evaporated about 10 seconds into his first tune.
Urness opened his recital with one of my favorite jazz standards, saxophonist Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Popularized by the Miles Davis Quintet in the 1960s, Freedom Jazz Dance has a straightforward form and a funky melody with tricky eighth-note runs.
Urness breezed through the runs and played the melody with the finesse one might expect from a saxophone player. After finishing the melody, Urness took an explosive solo that maintained the melody’s funky character and ended the song abruptly.
Urness followed “Freedom Jazz Dance” with one of his own compositions, titled “Today’s Waltz.” He explained that while living in New York City in 2000, he practiced composition by composing one song a day. One morning he composed a melody, quickly dubbed it “Today’s Waltz,” and never got around to changing the title. Urness alternated between bowing and plucking the bass’s strings on “Today’s Waltz” and used both techniques to create an effective sonic contrast.
Though I really enjoyed “Freedom Jazz Dance” and “Today’s Waltz,” I was less excited for the third piece, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s “Sonata for solo string bass, op. 108,” probably because I generally prefer jazz to classical music.
Parts of the sonata were fairly slow and not as captivating. However, I did enjoy most of it. The sonata featured unusual rhythms, and called for interesting bass techniques. I was especially fond of the faster movements that highlighted Urness’s virtuosity. The sonata lasted for about 20 minutes and the audience applauded it enthusiastically.
After acknowledging the audience, Urness played five more jazz compositions, three of which he composed. I particularly liked his composition “This Thing,” a melody that he based on the chord changes of the jazz standard “What is this Thing Called Love?”
Urness’s bowed version of jazz legend Charlie Parker’s composition “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” was also impressive. His authentic bebop solo swung hard, even without the accompaniment of other musicians.
The last jazz piece Urness played was the John Coltrane composition “Countdown,” a re-harmonization of the Miles Davis standard “Tune Up.” Jazz students spend hours practicing “Countdown,” so it was fascinating to see Urness blow through Coltrane’s notoriously difficult chord changes and improvise lines that perfectly complemented the melody.
I did not expect Urness to top his impressive rendition of “Countdown,” but he came close with the final piece of the concert, Tom Johnson’s “Failing.” The composition “Failing” is unique, as it requires the performer to read a description of what he’s playing while he is playing it. The piece begins simply with few notes and has the performer read about the progression of the piece.
However, the piece quickly becomes more difficult, as the performer must read the humorous passage while playing complex music. The performer explains how he is ultimately supposed to “fail” at simultaneously reading and playing. Urness’s version of “Failing” was wonderful and was a great closer for an equally great concert.