It’s mostly inexplicable, the way Gary Peacock so lithely fits bass figures into each setting he plays.
He’s had a few years to practice, though.
“It’s less cluttered now,” the 80-year-old says, explaining a developing acumen that’s taken his career through countless jazz ensembles and trans-Atlantic trips. “I’m not even sure what I mean by that, but that’s the sense I pick up. For sure, playing such a wide variety of music -- free music and standards -- has brought my appreciation for the depth that’s available in any of those areas.”
He's certain to distinguish between depth -- perhaps an exploration of a single mode of performance -- and breadth, or vastness of genre, in music. Peacock investigates both, having worked alongside some of the world's best-known players. And his time at the tail end of the ’50s and into the following decade found jazz undergoing radical transformations.
“The free jazz that was available then, particularly with Ornette [Coleman], didn’t rely on changes or form, but he did keep time,” Peacock says. “With Albert [Ayler], we didn’t keep time. It offered the bass player another option... That was an important part of my musical life.”
That new slant on improvisation enabled Peacock a different sort of latitude, without needing to focus on melody in the same way. While recording Ayler’s Spiritual Unity, a lionized album of the free-jazz set recorded in 1964, Peacock said he was simultaneously at work with Bill Evans’ sleek troupe and engaged in Paul Bley’s instant compositions.
What’s afforded the bassist such wide-ranging performance opportunities, to an extent, is his ability to grasp others’ musical intent and locate an internal spot to investigate it.
“If you get quiet inside and listen,” he says, “it’s there and you respond to it.”
Members of Peacock’s current trio, who recorded Now This last year for the ECM imprint, seem to apprehend that same internal-external premise.
“I have the utmost respect for Gary's determination, contribution, and lifelong dedication to playing this music,” drummer Joey Baron writes in an email. “At the same time, I strive to keep my attention on the present moment and what is going on around me. What is the music calling for?... I try to just be myself [through] all of this with as much integrity as possible.”
On Baron’s “Espirit de Muse,” the group, which also includes Marc Copland on piano, swings easy until all involved seem to sense that percussion needs to pull back while Peacock and Copland’s keys shift focus, immediately changing the composition’s tone.
The group’s elasticity finds further expression on each of the disc’s 11 cuts; some spacey successes, some imbued with jazz’s post-bop exploratory artfulness. But Peacock’s adamant about an intangible force at work that dictates whether a collaboration works or flops.
“When I first started out, I always wanted to play with Philly Joe Jones. I didn’t know if it’d ever happen,” he recalls, explaining the odd expectations that come with working alongside esteemed players. “The short time I was with Miles, we were out at the It Club in L.A., and Tony [Williams] was underage. So, the liquor board came in and wanted some money to allow him to play, otherwise they were gonna lock the place up. And Miles said, ‘F--- you,’ which he should have. We had to get a different drummer and Philly was out there. And he came to do the night. It was horrible, just unbelievable. I couldn’t hold him back. Everything got faster and faster and faster, even the ballads. It just didn’t work.”
Amassed talent in any ensemble, obviously, doesn’t intimate success. Playing with both Baron and Copland before setting down Now This, Peacock instantly registered an indispensable rapport with each player, something similar to the infinite alertness Baron attempts to describe.
“There is a opportunity with Joey and Marc in terms of free play that, for me is pretty rare,” Peacock says. “The wonderful thing about these two guys is that they’ll start anywhere. They don’t have any particular agenda that they need to present. That’s as much as I can say by using words.”
The Gary Peacock Trio appears on Tuesday, Feb. 16 at Yoshi’s in Oakland. $23-$55. Details here.