Scott LaFaro


Game Changer : How Scott Lafaro Rewrote The Rules Of Jazz Bass
By John Goldsby
Fri, 1 Jan 2010

IT’S AUTUMN IN NEW YORK AND TWO MUSICIANS, ALONE IN an apartment, play through a ballad, searching for the perfect chords to bring out the beauty of the song. The bass player tunes up with an E harmonic on the A string while the pianist runs through the beginning of “My Foolish Heart.” Bill Evans plays the song in the key of E, an unusual choice that sounds simultaneously bright yet moody.

“Unbelievable … powerful … beautiful …” says the bassist, Scott LaFaro, struck by Evans’s modulation to the key of F. LaFaro begins to accompany, but the chords are not flowing yet.

“We’re now talking about …” says Evans.

“Eb minor,” says LaFaro, finishing the thought musically and verbally.

Evans begins to explore lush voicings, possible new paths through the harmony. “Yeah … I think I was playing … full-type piano … I wish I could go a little lower on this one … A might be nice.”

LaFaro is on his wavelength. “Yeah, that’s where I …” he begins. He sings the melody while playing his bass line, and the pair, working as if with one mind, continue to burnish the changes of the familiar tune.

“Come on, let’s get the better of this one,” says Evans, determined to find the core of the song. “All right,” answers LaFaro.


The conversation is taken from a new CD, Pieces of Jade, that also features the first U.S. release of five tunes LaFaro cut in 1961 with pianist Don Friedman, plus a ’66 interview with Evans. Resonance Records is releasing the disc in conjunction with a new biography, Jade Visions:
The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro [University of North Texas Press], written by his sister Helene LaFaro-Fernández.

The Evans/LaFaro rehearsal recording, running almost 23 minutes, provides a glimpse into the musical minds of two legendary jazz players. They later recorded “My Foolish Heart” in a trio with drummer Paul Motian at New York City’s Village Vanguard on June 25, 1961. The track, from Sunday at the Village Vanguard, serves as an artistic milestone in the development of the jazz piano trio, due in no small part to LaFaro’s contribution.

At the time of the rehearsal, LaFaro was earning his reputation as the hot new bassist on the jazz scene. He started playing the double bass in 1954 and had been playing only a few years when he began turning heads. Recalls pianist Friedman: “What struck me about Scotty was the short amount of time it took him to go from being just a good player, when I first heard him in California, to being a great player, when I heard him in New York just a few months later. It was also the amazing solos he took at any tempo and the way he interacted with the piano.”

LaFaro’s best-known musical association began in the fall of 1959, when he joined Motian and Evans to form the Bill Evans Trio, a group that redefined the piano trio with its conversational style of improvisation. Before the Bill Evans Trio, most jazz featured a solo instrument on top of a supporting rhythm section. Evans, LaFaro, and Motian adopted a democratic approach in which players were free to simultaneously improvise on a given tune to create a complex, contrapuntal texture.

Says bassist Larry Grenadier, “The thing that amazed me right away about Scotty—and still does to this day—is his audaciousness. When you think of his young age and the short time he had been playing the bass, it’s amazing that he had the balls to do what he did.”

Rocco Scott LaFaro was born on April 3, 1936, in Irvington, New Jersey, a suburb of Newark, and grew up in Geneva, New York. He came from a musical family immersed in opera, classics, and jazz, with a father who was a professional violinist. Scott started out playing classical music on clarinet, saxophone, and piano. During his junior year of high school, he was selected for the New York Music School All-State Band as a clarinet player. Out of this ensemble, LaFaro helped organize a septet of students—the Rhythm Aires— to play jazz and dance music. He also won many honors as a student clarinetist and performed concertos with the Seneca and the Finger Lake symphonies.

In Jade Visions, LaFaro-Fernández recalled: “Pretty much by his freshman year in high school, Scotty totally fell in love with jazz, most especially jazz saxophone, and he began listening, listening, listening. The listening and transcribing continued into college even after he switched to playing only the bass. He had originally intended to be a sax player, and maybe that’s one reason he focused on melodic flights of fancy.”

LaFaro’s father gave him his first double bass, a light-colored Kay, just before he started attending Ithaca College in the fall of 1954. He was 18 years old.

Said LaFaro-Fernández: “He continued double-bass lessons in a class with Forrest Sanders, a cellist at Ithaca who taught bass to Scotty verbally, since he did not play that instrument himself. In a matter of weeks, Scotty became consumed with the bass.”

LaFaro’s first major professional gig was playing with trombonist Buddy Morrow, whose popular big band had a hit with “Night Train.” LaFaro built up his road chops and paid his dues with the Morrow band, and in the fall of ’56 left Morrow in Hollywood to join Chet Baker’s small group. LaFaro freelanced around the West Coast for the next few years and worked with pianist Pat Moran in Chicago in the winter of ’58, playing opposite the Ramsey Lewis Trio.

In Jade Visions, former Lewis bassist Eldee Young recalls playing duets with LaFaro: “Scotty and I would go into the back room between sets and have twobass sessions. There was a camaraderie among musicians then, especially between bass players. George Duvivier, Percy Heath, and Oscar Pettiford were heroes to Scotty and me. Scotty had a lovely style. He could play his butt off, and he was a nice guy.”

LaFaro made a couple of records with pianist Moran, This Is Pat Moran and Beverly Kelly Sings with the Pat Moran Trio. But his big splash came in ’58 with The Arrival of Victor Feldman. On this recording, LaFaro plays strong ensemble time as well as solos that would rival any guitarist’s of the day for speed, ideas, and bebop phrasing. The huge contrast to his playing here and the later recordings with Bill Evans comes out of his ensemble playing— with keyboardist/percussionist Feldman he showed he could play 4/4 time as well as any bassist on the planet.

Says bassist Phil Palombi, author of Scott LaFaro: 15 Solo Transcriptions, “In 1958 he was swinging like any of the greats: Ray Brown, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones. That was Scott’s starting point.” Grenadier adds, “I’ve always been surprised by the way people too easily categorize Scott LaFaro as a player who only played in the thumb position, didn’t walk, and wasn’t concerned with accompanying. I’ve never found any of these stereotypes to be true. My first introduction to Scott was not on the Bill Evans records but the sides with Victor Feldman and [saxophonist] Harold Land.”

Says pianist Steve Kuhn, who worked with LaFaro in Stan Getz’s quartet: “Scott told me once that one of his greatest experiences listening to jazz was hearing Paul Chambers walk. Scotty was very much taken with PC and his ability to walk, and when Scotty felt like just walking, he could play his ass off.”

LaFaro shows great control on the Feldman recording, playing precise, measured ensemble parts, digging in to play walking passages, and playing solo lines the likes of which had never before been heard on the bass. “Scott’s melodic phrasing seemed integral and logical,” says bassist Chuck Israels, who followed LaFaro in the Bill Evans Trio. “He showed a great deal of control of that part of his playing on the recordings with Victor. Later, a more interactive element began to surface in Scott’s music.”

The Bill Evans Trio with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian recorded Portrait in Jazz on December 28, 1959. Evans had been working with other great bassists before that—Teddy Kotick, Sam Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and Paul Chambers—but LaFaro opened new doors. He was the bassist who could push Evans to his limits.

Speaking to Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, Motian recalled, “[LaFaro] was the one man who could be tough on Bill. Like, if he didn’t think the music sounded right—if it was great but not perfect—he’d say to Bill, ‘Man, you’re just fucking up the music. Go look at yourself in the mirror!’ He’d even say it to me, when he didn’t think I was playing right. And he had only been playing the bass for a few years.”

Portrait in Jazz was the ear-opening shout-out that a new way of trio playing had arrived. Using standards like “Autumn Leaves,” “Witchcraft,” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” LaFaro broke from the traditional time-keeping role, choosing instead to play around the piano lines while letting the drums outline a steady groove. Evans called the approach “conversational.”

Notes Palombi: “On the surface, it appears that Scott went from being an average bassist to a super-human bassist all by himself. That is partially true, and you can hear the seeds of his soloing style in 1958, but not of his accompanying style. His transformation occurred when he teamed up with two other musicians who allowed him to be adventurous within the trio. We may never have heard Scott play the way he did on ‘Waltz for Debby’ if it wasn’t for Bill Evans and in particular Paul Motian.”

Notes Joe La Barbera, the last drummer to play with Evans: “Paul Motian was playing the time, and I think that was exactly what Bill needed. The real interaction was happening between Bill and Scott.”

“Everyone tends to label the trio’s concept as ‘group improvisation,’” says bassist Stanley Clarke. “The word I find to describe it is ‘interplay.’ There are a few passages where they certainly do improvise as a group, but Paul is mostly playing time as if Scott is walking a fourto- the- bar bass line.

“Prior to that trio, even Paul Chambers— as great as he was—was a role player. He laid down the rhythm, and then there was a slot for him to play a solo. It was all very regimented—Miles gave him a solo every once in a while. What was cool about the Bill Evans Trio was that regimentation was thrown out the window, there was a lot of interplay, and the music was going in all directions—linear, forwards, backwards.”

Says bassist Eddie Gomez, who played with Evans from ’66 to ’77: “When you look at the way Scotty played the bass, that aspect by itself is extraordinary. But the interactivity between all the instruments, the dialogs, the space they created was unique. I began to fathom that later when I played with Bill: How much music you can personally create is related to how much you create as a group.”

Bassist Marc Johnson, who played with Evans from ’78 until the pianist’s death in ’80, told BASS PLAYER in November ’08: “The things LaFaro did in-between piano phrases and across the time were phenomenal and made a deep impression on me. It was a conceptual thing; he served as a melodic counter-voice to everything else that was happening. He wasn’t walking all the time in 4/4, yet he had a real groove with Bill and Paul Motian.

“When they played ballads, the groove would go from first gear to second gear and back to first gear with an implication of double-time and other meters. He played with ideas that went over the bar line and obfuscated the one. His approach was truly creative and beautiful.”

Israels observes that “the smaller the group, the more dependent the music becomes on the individual players, and it is next to impossible to find opportunities to work with musicians who are as prepared individually and as an ensemble as did. We agreed on our musical aims and we didn’t try to force the music, and we all believed in each others’ talents. And that was it.”

The ’61 Vanguard recordings—Sunday at the Village Vanguard and Waltz for Debby—deserve righteous reverence, but another collection of live tracks, The 1960 Birdland Sessions [Fresh Sound], recorded in March and April of that year, provide a noteworthy addition to the trio’s legacy. Broadcast on Symphony Sid’s radio show, the sessions find LaFaro on fire, full of reckless abandon, pushing and sparring with Evans and Motian. Notes Grenadier, “While I do love the Vanguard recordings, I think I like the Birdland recordings done about a year earlier even more. It’s great to hear that trio really swinging and also exploring the freedom that is highlighted on the Vanguard tapes.”

The Bill Evans Trio recorded the studio album Explorations on February 2, 1961, but most listeners agree that the June 25 live tracks capture the group in full bloom. Recorded in one day—two matinees and three evening sets—of a twoweek gig, the Village Vanguard albums are now ranked among the top jazz albums of all time. On that Sunday in June, LaFaro reached into territory no other bassist had explored.

Up until the late ’50s, most jazz bassists earned their livings playing in the lowest third of the instrument. Pioneers like Charles Mingus, Ray Brown, and Red Mitchell began to expand the range, sometimes reaching into thumb position. But Scott LaFaro was the first to use the whole range of the bass, up to the high G two octaves above the open string. His speed and two-finger right-hand plucking style, plus his ability to pre-hear the lines he was going for, gave LaFaro his saxophone-like technique.

Gomez recalls a chance sighting at a New York studio when he was 16 years old: “One night Stan Getz was rehearsing with Pete LaRoca, Steve Kuhn, and Scotty, and I was peeking through a window watching him play. Scott’s technique seemed unusual because it looked like he was not using any standard fingering. He didn’t use his thumb as an anchor—it looked like he was playing a keyboard. For someone like me who was studying the Simandl approach, it looked awkward. But I was enthralled by the fact that he was there and I got to see him.”

“His forte was his virtuosity and ability to make the bass a voice just like a saxophone player or a guitar player,” says Clarke. “The thing I really liked about his playing was what he did with his right hand—how he actually brushed across the strings. He had a different way of plucking.”

LaFaro was not alone in his quest for a new bass aesthetic. Chuck Israels was one of the new breed of innovators. “I was deeply impressed with his abilities,” Israels says, “the strength of his technique, his knowledge of harmony and bebop phrasing, plus his fluid way of translating what we normally heard from saxophonists, pianists, and guitarists onto the bass. The breakthroughs that seem to be solely attributed to him were happening in the music of other bass players too—Steve Swallow, Charlie Haden, and Albert Stinson all come to mind. Scott visited a Don Friedman recording session in which I was a participant and quickly let me know that he understood our shared area of interest. I knew there was some overlap in our aesthetic ideas.”

Notes Swallow: “Scott and Gary Peacock were in the vanguard of a wave of young players making fundamental changes in the approach to the bass. They were lowering their action, which allowed them the possibility of legato phrasing throughout the instrument, most significantly in the upper register.” Clarke adds: “Throughout bass history there are certain players I call ‘The Culminators.’ These guys are the culmination of two or three players—this guy tried this, but that guy tried that. Scott was like that with the soloing thing. The bass was moving forward at that time.”

High on LaFaro’s list of influences—as with countless other players—is Ray Brown. “The Ray Brown influence is striking,” says Grenadier. “The sound and propulsiveness of the beat are definitely a reflection of Ray’s approach.” Palombi adds: “He was definitely influenced by Ray Brown, although I don’t think he was influenced in a traditional way. You can hear it mainly in the way Scott utilizes the diminished and wholetone scales.”

Bassists in the early ’60s were still using gut strings and searching for ways to effectively amplify the instrument. Says Swallow: “Players like Scott were making use of microphones, and some of us began to wrap a mic in a cloth napkin and wedge it below the bridge between the tailpiece and the body of the instrument.” Many eyewitnesses to LaFaro’s live performances report that to be better heard, he would sometimes step forward with his bass just before taking a solo and step back afterward.

Said Marc Johnson: “Scotty’s sound was unique and natural—so real and fluid-sounding. He never used a pickup, and you never heard any clicks or metal string noise, because he used gut strings.”

To reach LaFaro’s technical and artistic level, a bassist has to have good ears, musical sense, and strong chops, in addition to the passion and drive to go beyond being merely good. “Scott was an incessant practice- aholic,” says Palombi. “If a bass player wants to be great like Scott, it’s going to literally take eight hours of practice a day.” Recalled LaFaro-Fernández: “In his career years, Scotty still practiced basics and techniques incessantly, just working things out. He practiced the bass from his old clarinet books, bowing melodies, bits of classical pieces—he was working on his arco technique then as well.”

Said Evans, “His technique was built through fire—some kind of spark inside him that took over, and he would just grab the bass and work and work and work.”

On July 3, 1961, shortly after recording the Village Vanguard sessions, LaFaro played at the Newport Jazz Festival with saxophonist Stan Getz, which was captured on Stan Getz Special: Newport Jazz Festival [Audio Fidelity]. This was Scott’s last performance and recording. On July 5 he visited his hometown of Geneva, New York, and after midnight on July 6 he was on the road with high school friend Frank Ottley when their car crashed into a tree and burned, killing both men. LaFaro was 25 years old.

“To this day, it is still very difficult to deal with that loss—we were very close,” says Kuhn. “The extraordinary talent he was—full of life and a lot of positive energy.”

In a career that spanned a mere seven years and some 30 albums, LaFaro established a musical legacy that places him firmly in the pantheon of great jazz bassists. Says Stanley Clarke: “There are just certain guys on the top of my list, and it would be wise to listen to them if you want to be a complete bass player. Along with Ron Carter, Charlie Mingus, Richard Davis, and Oscar Pettiford, Scott LaFaro is one of the guys.”

“I think about Scotty and Coltrane,” says Kuhn. “They have influenced generations of musicians and changed the course of the music from that time going forward.”

Gomez concurs: “Scott is like Paul Chambers—tree trunks of modern bass playing. Everything after that is a development. The trio just happened and then it was gone. Scott was there at the right time and the right moment. He was a visionary like Bill, and their music came together like a cataclysmic event that turned into an incredible pasture of beauty.”


Even in this day of super-fast chops, pentatonic gnat-notes, and risky reharmonizations, there are few bassists who come close to the virtuosic technique Scott LaFaro developed in his mere seven years of playing bass. To master these basic LaFaro licks and patterns, start slowly, and play them in all 12 keys.

Example 1 shows how LaFaro might play over an Em7 chord. In bar 1 he uses an Em7 arpeggio on beats two and three and plays a D triad on four. This is a clever way to outline the chord with colorful upper tones—the 9th (F#) and 11th (A). In bar 2 the line comes down the E minor scale in quarter-note triplets. LaFaro used eighth-note and quarter-note triplets often, sometimes changing gears mid-line.

LaFaro mastered triplet arpeggios up and down the bass. Example 2 shows a Cmaj7# 11 starting on E and C, moving up in 3rds. This is a common harmonic device LaFaro used, and he practiced these arpeggios to perfection. By keeping each of the triplets in one left-hand position, he would play three notes and then shift to the next three notes, moving his left hand on each quarter-note beat. Start slowly and make sure you nail the left-hand shifts. Sometimes LaFaro ghosted the last note of each triplet, which helped the line swing and dance a bit and made the quick shifts between positions easier to manage.

LaFaro had a solid command of wholetone scales and augmented (# 5) arpeggios. Example 3 ascends with an eighth-note triplet on a C7#5 arpeggio and descends with a quarter- note triplet on the C whole-tone scale. This once again shows his use of the time shift from eighth- to quarter-note triplets.

Example 4’s pattern sits well on the bass, but the rhythm is tricky. Look at the sequence that begins with the high E, the third triplet eighth-note on beat one. From this point onward, LaFaro is using descending triads: E–C–A, D–B–G, C–A–F, and so on. It is a scalar sequence, but since the triads start on the third eighth-note of the triplets, it has the feeling of a metric modulation—a shift in the fundamental rhythm.

One of the most common rhythms LaFaro used was two quarter-note triplets followed by two eighth-notes played within the triplet rhythm. In Ex. 5, the line runs down the A natural minor scale, jumping out of the scalar sequence on beat four of bar 2. By using quarter- note triplets during his solos, LaFaro achieved a relaxed feeling. Quarter-note triplets are obviously faster than quarter-notes but slower than eighth-notes. This signature technique can be heard in almost all of LaFaro’s later solos with the Bill Evans Trio.


In these excerpts from producer George Klabin’s 1966 radio interview with Bill Evans—included in the Resonance CD Pieces of Jade—the pianist offers insights into Scott LaFaro’s musicianship and work with Evans’s trio.

I heard this tremendous talent who was trying to do everything at once. He was overplaying his instrument, he was trying to let out so much at once, that he wasn’t really getting anything together in any organized way—it was just bubbling over. . . . But you could definitely hear what was there.

Scott had come into the job and expressed an interest in building and developing as a trio, which is the thing that we needed. We needed to have people that were interested in each other so we could spend a year or two years just growing without any verbal ambitions, just allowing the music to grow and allowing our talents to merge in a very natural way. … It was rather a struggle for a couple of years—we didn’t get too much work. But the trio did develop amazingly.

What you hear on those records are at least the minimum standard of those two weeks. We were quite dissatisfied, yet when we heard the tapes we were quite excited because we heard that there was a lot happening. We had some really marvelous moments. Scott is heard to good advantage on those records.

It wasn’t one of those things like, “It’s 3 o’clock, and now I’m going to play for an hour.” He would just pick up [the bass] and get involved. And he would get involved with maybe one figure, one particular type of cross-fingering or cross-string fingering, or double-stop or quadruple-stop, or whatever, and he would just work it and work it and work it. . . . He would force himself farther into his intuitive insight into the hidden mechanics, the secret mechanics of stringed instruments. . . . It was not a studied approach, it was a total encompassing, enveloping approach where he seemed to master a whole area.


The Prescott bass Scott LaFaro played on his classic recordings was all but destroyed in the car crash that took his life. But thanks to a luthier’s labor of love, the instrument can be heard once more.

The bass LaFaro recorded with before April 1958 was made in Mittenwald, Germany, according to the new LaFaro biography Jade Visions. Scott and his father had picked it out in 1954 shortly after he had begun working professionally. That bass was stolen from LaFaro’s car after a gig in Los Angeles when he ran into a coffee shop for a late-night snack.

Bassist Red Mitchell helped LaFaro find a new instrument—which would turn out to be his ultimate bass—in a Los Angeles music store called Stein’s on Vine. Made by Abraham Prescott circa 1825, the e-sized flatback had gamba (square) corners, rounded Busetto-style lower bout corners, and a 41w-inch string length. Prescott was an American bassmaker who usually built very large instruments, but LaFaro’s bass was not a typical Prescott. It was small and built for speed, with a warm tone defined by LaFaro’s Golden Spiral gut strings.

Scott loved the Prescott’s playability, but the sound was not optimal for him. In 1960 he recorded John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions in a two-bass formation playing alongside George Duvivier, who introduced LaFaro to well-known Long Island luthier Samuel Kolstein. Kolstein agreed to modify the Prescott’s sound by making structural changes.

Kolstein’s improvements are evident in LaFaro’s 1961 recordings, most notably the Village Vanguard sessions with Bill Evans. The Prescott was in the car with LaFaro on the night he and a friend died in a fiery crash. The bass was shattered and charred. Helen LaFaro, Scott’s mother, sold the remains of the bass back to Samuel Kolstein, knowing he would care for it. Samuel’s son, Barrie Kolstein, eventually took on the arduous task of restoring the instrument for display at the 1988 International Society of Bassists convention. The incredible restoration has left the bass world with a physical connection to LaFaro, one that can be played and heard.

Kolstein lent the instrument to former Evans bassist Marc Johnson for a recording with Eliane Elias, Something for You [Blue Note]. “I had the action set a little higher than Scotty would have, but it was eminently playable in every way,” Johnson reported in April ’08. “It has a fat, warm yet very clear sound, and when you hit a note, it rings forever. It’s also very even through each register.

“Scotty was such an iconic figure in the jazz bass world, so the instrument is a talisman of sorts. Just having it in the room with me was very special.”

Says Barrie Kolstein, “When Marc Johnson approached me with his project, there was not even a second thought that this would be the perfect person and venue for the Prescott to once again be recorded.”

Is there a “LaFaro sound” inside the Prescott? “What Scotty created came from his mind, heart, and soul,” says Kolstein. “The physicality of his playing really was a byproduct of his spirituality.”

Compilation: Pieces of Jade,Resonance. With the Bill Evans Trio: (all on Riverside/OJC) Sunday at the Village Vanguard; Waltz for Debby; Explorations;Portrait in Jazz. With Stan Getz:
Stan the Man, Verve. With Stan Getz & Cal Tjader: The Stan Getz/Cal Tjader Sextet, Fantasy. With Ornette Coleman:Ornette!, Atlantic; The Art of the Improvisers,Atlantic; Free Jazz,
WEA/Warner. With John Lewis/Gunther Schuller: John Lewis Presents Jazz Abstractions, Atlantic. With Victor Feldman: (both on Contemporary) Latinsville!; The Arrival of Victor Feldman.With Marty Paich: The Broadway Bit (w/I Get a Boot Out of You), Collector’s Choice. With Booker Little: Booker Little, JVC Japan. With Hampton Hawes: For Real!, Contemporary/OJC.With Pat Moran: This Is Pat Moran:Complete Trio Sessions, Fresh Sound.

Jade Visions: The Life and Music of Scott LaFaro, Helene LaFaro- Fernández [University of North Texas Press].The definitive biography.Scott LaFaro: 15 Solo Transcriptions,Phil Palombi [Phil Palombi Music;]. Accurate transcriptions from the Village Vanguard sessions.The Bill Evans Trio—Volume I, 1959–1961 [Hal Leonard]. Piano, bass, and drum
parts in score format.
The editor recommends: The Jazz Bass Book, John Goldsby [Backbeat]. Historical and musical information about LaFaro and many of his contemporaries.

Source: accessed 11th April 2013