Profiles in Jazz, by Emily Kaitz
I first heard bassist Walter Savage perform on December 27, 2007 at the Thursday night jazz series at Bordino’s restaurant on Dickson Street. Actually I’d gone there to hear Lee Tomboulian, acclaimed pianist and former Fayettevillian, who was back in the area for the holidays. I knew he’d be accompanied by drummer Darren Novotny, and I’d been hearing rumors about a new bass player in town with “a reputation for bringing the bass into the spotlight.” That turned out to be an understatement.
The show was masterful, spontaneous, mesmerizing, and just plain fun. Tomboulian and Savage, who had never played together and had met for the first time earlier that night at the sound check, traded solos with big grins on their faces. They were obviously delighted with one another, as was the audience. Novotny held his own, tying the whole thing together.
Walter Savage made a strong impression on me. Recently transplanted from the San Francisco Bay Area where he enjoyed a professional musical career of over 30 years, Savage stood out among the more familiar faces of our local jazz scene: an angular black man, probably in his early 60’s, with a wild mane of tiny grey cornrows and a highly expressive face. He played the upright bass with commanding authority and flamboyant showmanship, plucking two and three-note chords nonchalantly in the midst of a bass line, expertly bowing most of his solos. If anything, he not only “brings the bass into the spotlight,” he makes it the dominant instrument in a musical combo.
Savage grew up in California. His father was a preacher and his whole family loved to sing. He learned to play the church piano when he was young, but became interested in the upright bass in the 1960s when he heard Paul Chambers perform with Miles Davis. He purchased a bass and began studying with Leroy Vinegar, Al McKibbon and other bassists in the Los Angeles area. Besides Chambers, some of his influences were Red Mitchell, Sam Jones, Ray Brown and Steve Swallow. “After that, everybody was my favorite bass player,” Savage admits. “I never heard a bass player I didn’t like.”
From 1963 to the present Savage has played in the rhythm sections of Tony Scott, Gerald Wilson, Mary Jenkins, Horace Tapscott, Taj Mahal, Gloria Lynn, Sonny Chris, Arthur Blythe and others, in addition to putting together and fronting his own ensembles. He has toured internationally, performing with players who were not even fluent in English but, as Savage said “We spoke the same language.” He’s put out two CDs of original material, “Soothes The Savage Beast” (1999) and “Autumn’s Witch” (2003). Savage practices an average of two hours a day and after more than 40 years of playing feels that he’s still learning.
“He’s the real deal, a seasoned pro with a unique playing style,” said Darren Novotny. “He’s a welcome addition to the Fayetteville scene for sure.”
So, how did a world-class player like Savage wind up in Northwest Arkansas?
Walter Savage’s wife, Jean Pearson, has a grown son and daughter living in the Fayetteville area. She had visited and thought it might make a good place to retire. She and Walter were both ready to cut back on their respective careers (hers as a psychiatric nurse, his as a touring musician working 15 to 20 dates a month). They knew the retirement checks would go a lot further in Northwest Arkansas than in the Bay Area; still, Walter was reluctant to leave California.
“I almost didn’t come,” he confided. “And when I did, I didn’t expect to do any playing around here. I had no idea there was any kind of jazz scene. I even left my bass in California.”
Savage co-owned a valuable 100-year-old German bass and sold his interest to the other owner. But when he arrived in Fayetteville in April 2007, he “Hit the ground running.”
“I asked around at some music stores. Somebody gave me Robert Ginsburg’s phone number. When I called, it was a Thursday, and he asked me to meet him at jazz night at Bordino’s. That was the first week I got here, and it was the beginning.”
Ginsburg is president of the North Arkansas Jazz Society and hosts “Shades of Jazz,” the Friday night radio show on KUAF (10 p.m., 91.3 FM). Though not a player himself (unless you count his inspired whistling), Ginsburg has been at the heart of the Fayetteville jazz scene since 1978 and has seen it wax and wane, with the arrivals and departures of various players over the years. Pianists Lee Tomboulian and Frank Stagnita, trumpeter Gary Gazaway and saxophonist Keefe Jackson have been among those who contributed their energy and musical talent locally before moving elsewhere.
“Things are really popping now,” Ginsburg said, citing the two-year anniversary of the Thursday night Bordino’s jazz shows, the annual summer jazz series, the Claudia Burson Trio’s ongoing jazz brunch at Copeland’s in Rogers, occasional jazz shows at Teatro Scarpino, and the new second Sunday jazz series at Nature’s Water organized by drummer Andrew Sieff.
Ginsburg welcomes Savage as “A musician’s musician, someone who is helping to catalyze the scene.” He describes Savage as totally unaffected, despite his talent and band leader-like charisma. “He’s very casual. I’ve seen him on stage singing, playing bass, and hollering chord changes to the guitar player all at the same time. Nothing fazes him.”
Since Savage’s introduction to the Fayetteville jazz scene he has had the opportunity to play with many fine local musicians including drummers Novotny and Sieff, trumpeter Al Gibson, saxophonist Nathan McLeod, guitarists Matt Smith and Ben Harris and jazz violinist George Mason from Harrison. Needless to say, Savage quickly replaced his high dollar upright bass with a new instrument.
And despite Ginsburg’s intention of keeping Bordino’s a room primarily for instrumental jazz, Savage has gotten away with singing a few tunes there. Recently I heard him perform the Rodgers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine,” Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and, much to my amazement, a toned-down swingy version of “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor’s disco hit. “Hey, it’s got the same changes as “Fly Me To The Moon,” Savage quipped. “Look it up.”
Savage’s CD “Soothes The Savage Beast” features both instrumental and vocal compositions. One of my favorite cuts is “Tickets,” which reveals Savage’s ironically humorous side:
Late last night couldn’t sleep, hit the street, so I got on the highway, guess then who came my way, how wicked
I got stopped by this cop with a shock and he says “I’m not jokin’, your tail light is broken, so fix it.”
I go into deep shock – every time I see a cop
I just can’t stand another ticket.
Perhaps the real reason Walter Savage and Jean Pearson moved here was to get away from a bunch of traffic tickets in San Francisco. Whatever the reason, we’re grateful and happy they made the choice to relocate to our community.
The Walter Savage Trio with Darren Novotny on drums and Ben Harris on guitar, will perform from 9 to 11 p.m. Feb. 14 at Bordino’s.
Savage’s two CDs are available at cdbaby.com. For information on the North Arkansas Jazz Society and upcoming jazz events, see digjazz.com.