A Druid in Los Angeles
November 12, 2014 by Thomas Wictor
Stephen Jay is a druid. He’s also been “Weird Al” Yankovic’s bassist for over thirty years. However, he’s also a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, lyricist, and classically trained composer who studied with John Cage, Lukas Foss, Max Neuhaus, and Charles Wuorinen, and he’s a music ethnographer who’s traveled the world playing with and recording folk musicians from different cultures. He’s one of the most technically skilled, innovative, and melodic bassists alive. The music of his film and TV scores and his solo albums is genuinely astonishing. He’s developed a hybrid picking-slapping technique like nothing I’ve ever seen. It allows him to play rhythm and lead at the same time, as well as superimposing different meters on the same pattern, a technique he describes as “polymetric triangulation.”
“That’s the way I think of focusing on the groove. You use two meters at once. If you’re playing in 4/4, you can nail your groove and feel the inertia, but as soon as somebody starts playing a three-figure against that, all of a sudden the groove locks. It works the same way as a sextant or a global-positioning system by having two fixed points of reference and your own position, creating a triangle that allows you to determine exactly where you are.
The way it works in music, its focusing time to determine more closely where ‘now’ is is, and the groove is basically all about ‘now,’ the source, where things comes from. It’s the edge of creation, where that which didn’t exist before suddenly does and then doesn’t again. That’s the essence of the groove. By staying closer to that origin, the source-point of ‘now,’ we can ride along right on the edge. It’s always going to be two against three, or four against six, or eight against five. You and another musician can play different meters, or you can play different meters in your own part.
He slaps eight- and twelve-string basses in a way that makes him sound like an entire band. Discovering Jay’s incredible talent was like finding a chest of gold doubloons in a lagoon where you thought you’d be lucky to pick up a few pretty shells. He’s the only bassist with superhuman technical skill I ever saw whose chops never overwhelmed the music and actually created a deep emotional resonance.
When I attended shows put on by Ak & Zuie, a duo consisting of Stephen and drummer Pete Gallagher, I was actually transported into an entirely different plane of perception, due to the intricate interplay of the bass and drums. Stephen told me it’s based on decades of studying how rhythm and melody can change brain chemistry and make you feel good. Also, the overtones and polyrhythms interact in such a way as to make you think you’re hearing an entire ensemble. Jay calls the invention “polymetric funk.” He also uses his Theory of Harmonic Rhythm, his discovery that a consonant harmonic interval produces a consonant regularly rhythmic interval, creating a “universal substance” between harmony and rhythm. By being aware of the symmetry between harmony and rhythm, and by being aware of the delicacy and scale on which harmony and rhythm focus with each other, a kind of musical sympathy can be achieved.
As Jay told me, “A simple example would be if you were going to write a song in A, and you’re tuned to 440, and you make your song tempo 109. Every time you start a cycle in an A 440–let’s imagine that you can be mathematically perfect in your beginnings—if your tempo is 109, that waveform would always be chopped off before it completed itself because the tempo isn’t 110, a subdivision of 440. So by simply synching up the tempo to the pitch, playing it exactly the right tempo for the pitch you’re playing, you create complete waveforms rather than incomplete waveforms. They’re broken up evenly.”
Some scientists believe Stonehenge was built to enhance the experience of the drumming and chanting rituals performed by the druids. When I attended Ak & Zuie concerts, the polymetric funk and Theory of Harmonic Rhythm combined to create moments when I entered a trancelike state, and I had to ask myself, What’s going on here? It was the only time in my ten-year career that music did that to me. I suddenly understood the true power of music and its potential to bring about sheer euphoria and wonderment. Ak & Zuie backed me up at some of my readings for In Cold Sweat, a surreal and magical escapade.
I fell deeply in love with an instrumental Stephen played for me that he said might go on a future album. That song stayed in my head for years, though I couldn’t remember the name. I didn’t want to contact Stephen because of the shame and humiliation I felt over the collapse of my career in music journalism. He told me the name of the song on April 15, 2012; “Telenergy,” on his CD Tangled Strings. It was a great relief to rediscover it. Stephen writes far too many brilliant songs for me to list, but some of my favorites from his many solo albums are “Big Shoes,” “Go Like This,” “Deny the Accuser,” “Tangled Strings,” “Suva,” “Self Avoiding Random Walk,” “The Mistake,” and “What the Voodoo Became.” All are astonishing confluences of musicality, lyricism, vocal skills, and–above all–effortless bass prowess that never distracts. A perfect Stephen Jay sampler is his album Sea Never Dry [Ayarou], available on his Web site. It contains songs that you can sing or hum after just one listening, despite their complexity.
Ak & Zuie do something indescribable to cover songs, too. Their versions of “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young and “Rock On” by David Essex are unforgettable and immensely moving. Listening to Stephen Jay was one of the rare times as a music journalist that I felt privileged to be in the presence of such greatness. In my career Scott Thunes, Gene Simmons, John Taylor, and Bryan Beller made the most lasting impression me as people. However, the music that entered my very being and made a permanent impression, as though altering my very DNA, was the work of Stephen Jay.
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