The great bassist/composer Rufus Reid turns 80 today and is still going strong, glory hallelujah. He has multiple legacies that would each be the envy of most. As a bassist he is one of the pillars of his generation, anchoring important sessions by giants such as Joe Henderson, J.J. Johnson, Stan Getz, Marian McPartland, George Cables, Jack DeJohnette, Benny Golson, Frank Wess, and Andrew Hill, as well as less-heralded classics by Mickey Tucker, Joe Locke, Bill Barron, and John Stubblefield, and that’s all not even to mention the ones cited in the list below. As a composer and bandleader* his catalogue has grown to be as vast as it is ambitious, far exceeding the typical “great player who also writes” realm.
Alongside this, his legacy as an educator is profound. Simultaneous to my initial dive into records that feature him was hearing tales from friends and peers studying with him in the jazz program at William Paterson, which he directed for twenty years upon taking that baton from his former musical employer Thad Jones. These stories unanimously painted the picture of someone whose deep wisdom, high standards, and vast experience were conveyed through the lens of equally deep caring and kindness. I had two opportunities to perform with Maestro Reid (one brief one with an ad hoc TanaReid [see below] in college, and one full gig with Amanda Monaco’s quartet in 2018) and I’ll simply say that his dignity, warmth, and musical authority are even more potent up close as they are from the audience or on records.
In chronological order, here are some of my favorites from his discography:
1 ) “Summer’s on its Way” from Instant Death by Eddie Harris (1971)
This represents Rufus’s first studio session, and far from a green work-in-progress, we hear a fully mature accompanist on this gnarly, modern Latin tune underneath soulful solos by Harris and two others who would go on to play on multiple great records of his alongside Rufus, guitarist Ronald Muldrow and Muhal Richard Abrams, here on electric piano. Rufus’s own melodic solo is a wonderful bonus.
2 ) “Moment’s Notice” from Manhattan Symphonie by Dexter Gordon (1978)
My first exposure to Rufus’s work with Dexter Gordon was via the live recordings from San Francisco’s Keystone Korner alongside pianist George Cables and drummer Eddie Gladden, which are indeed iconic. Then in 1993 my friend Jeff Grace dubbed me a cassette of this album and I couldn’t stop playing it. Making Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” into a booty-shaking groover without slowing it down is an accomplishment, as is soloing authoritatively on it on the bass, and Rufus of course does both.
3 ) “Waltz for Doris” from Perpetual Stroll (1980)
From reading these lists on my blog you may think that I’m duty bound to include musicians’ dedications to their spouses; I don’t know if that’s true, but this example from Rufus’s first album as a bandleader certainly earns its spot on pure merit. I would almost be inclined to include it twice, in fact, if the gorgeous tune (delivered alongside Gladden and another frequent collaborator and fellow Dexter Gordon bandmember, pianist Kirk Lightsey) and its equally gorgeous solo bass intro were split in two.
4 ) “You Make Me Smile” from Seven Minds (1984)
I almost included Art Farmer’s burning version of this up-tempo Latin-to-swing by Rufus, but that one doesn’t have a bass solo, unlike this also-burning live performance from a month prior, in a trio alongside Jim McNeely and Terri Lyne Carrington, who are fully up to the task of shredding this one.
5 ) “Blue Wail” from Ph.D. by Art Farmer (1989)
If I were sequencing this list for optimal musical flow as opposed to chronology, I would likely put something in between the two burners, but so it goes. I think those following along won’t mind moving on to this bright-yet-grooving rendition of a Kenny Drew song, from the last of the studio sessions Rufus recorded as a core member of Art Farmer’s group. Rufus is featured up front with some stellar walking bass and later on engages in some tasty dialogue with drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. I love all these Art Farmer records (especially the three featuring James Williams on piano, on whose Progress Report record Rufus also plays) and this was the first of them to which I was exposed. Come for the rhythm section and stay for the additional flowing solos by Art, Clifford Jordan, and guest Kenny Burrell.
6 ) “I Should Care” from Other Places by Kenny Barron (1993)
I have well over a dozen records in my collection featuring Kenny Barron and Rufus Reid together starting with their first session together in 1980 for Ted Dunbar’s wonderful (but out of print) Secundum Artem record and including important sessions by Kenny, Stan Getz, and the “two Franks” (Foster and Wess). I could have chosen many examples, though hearing them play a duo standard at a “grown folks” tempo is particularly sublime. In compiling this I just realized that this duo performance of “I Should Care” was recorded only a few weeks after Kenny taught me this tune, indeed the first tune he ever taught me in our first lesson. In addition to demonstrating that particular partnership, it’s also a lovely example of Rufus’s mastery of the duo format (something that his recently-released duo session with Sullivan Fortner just underscores).
7 ) “Bass Face” from Lucky So and So by Kenny Burrell (2000)
Kenny Burrell’s slinky medium-tempo groover “Bass Face” was first recorded on a late-career Bill Evans session featuring Ray Brown on bass. Here it features Rufus, of course, and if you don’t normally finding yourself wishing bass solos would be longer, stop reading now and dig this one. This track is also important for the example it provides (as does the rest of the record) of his hookup with drummer Akira Tana, which fits like a glove, even coming as it does after the latter’s move to the West Coast. In that vein, I also need to acknowledge that because of the label for whom they recorded, the entire catalogue of TanaReid (the group they co-led led throughout the ‘90s, recording a half dozen albums and providing important early exposure for “young lions” like Mark Turner, Jesse Davis, Rob Schneiderman, and Dan Faulk) is currently out of print, so for the sake of maximizing the degree to which folks can find and enjoy Maestro Reid’s work, this list does not represent any of that group’s work.
8 ) “The Meddler” from Live at the Kennedy Center (2006)
Rufus and Akira first recorded on an out-of-print trio album by the great pianist/composer Sumi Tonooka (the first of several appearances on her records by Rufus) so I was thrilled when this record came out featuring Sumi’s authoritative piano work in Rufus’s quintet (alongside Rich Perry, Tim Horner, and William Paterson alum Freddie Hendrix). The thrill only enhanced once I started devouring these burning performances of Rufus’s tunes, and this blues-on-steroids (in 7/4 time for much of it, modulating to different keys – first recorded on his wonderful Gait Keeper record) gets the nod on this list for the highly unscientific reason that I subsequently got to have the thrilling experience of playing this one with him.
9 ) “Mother and Child” from Quiet Pride (2012)
If Rufus’s bass playing represented his only contribution to the music, he would still be an icon, but watching the varied and expansive manifestations of his compositional ambitions in this millennium has been thrilling. This track comes from a big band record paying tribute to the work of sculptor Elizabeth Catlett and the tonal colors are breathtaking. Given the length of the track and the presence of an all-star band, it’s also not surprising that there are quite a few wonderful solos as well, with Vic Juris’s guitar and Erica von Kleist’s flute standing alongside Rufus’s bass among my own favorites.
10 ) “This I Ask of You” from Celebration (previously issued as Terrestrial Dance (2016)
Speaking of both tonal colors and compositions I had the thrill of performing with Rufus, this beautiful waltz is among the highlights of an album pairing his trio (Steve Allee on piano and Duduka Da Fonseca on drums) and his pen with the Sirius String Quartet. This performance comes from a fabulous vinyl-only album from the Newvelle label that was subsequently more widely issued on Sunnyside.