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Pianist Dave Bass: From Jazz To Jurisprudence And Back Again

Dave Bass / Courtesy

Dave Bass / Courtesy

We all suffer setbacks in life. Consider the professional athlete with a multi-million-dollar contract. He seems to be on top of the world. Then pop goes the hamstring. While some injuries are career ending, others can be career altering.

Dave Bass was earning a respectable living in the 60s and 70s as a versatile pianist. He worked with everyone from pop icon Brenda Lee to jazz greats Bobby McFerrin and Eddie Henderson. Then, on his way to a gig in Orange County, Bass slipped on an oil slick in a parking lot and broke his wrist. His doctors predicted an eventual recovery, but they questioned whether he’d have enough facility in his right hand to ever again play jazz.

Forced to quit music, and with a young family to feed, Bass knew he had to go in another direction and decided to take up law. He enrolled at UCLA law school, became a practicing lawyer and eventually landed a position with the Attorney General's office for the State of California. As a successful lawyer, Bass thought he’d left the sometimes harsh life of an improvising jazz artist behind. Then, an interesting thing happened at work.

"A videographer, videotaping a deposition that I was conducting as an attorney, came up to me during a break and said 'Well, you’re not really like the other lawyers I know; what’s up with you?' says Bass. "It came out that I was a jazz musician. He said, 'Oh, I knew it! Come to this party.' And when I was at the party there was a break between the bands. He asked me to play. There were some local musicians. Once I started playing again I couldn’t stop. I hadn’t really wanted to play, at least consciously, but clearly, there was something waiting to be found again."

And so, Bass resurrected his career as a jazz pianist. These days he's finding a lot of inspiration in Latin styles, which he says he's always had a fondness for.

"I’m not really sure what someone with Russian/Jewish origins who grew up in the middle class in Cincinnati, Ohio ever did with that. I can tell you this, though, that a lot of times when I’m playing in that context, I’ll have people from Cuba or Venezuela or Mexico come up to me and start talking in rapid-fire Spanish, which I don’t speak," he says.

The jazzman-turned-attorney-turned-jazzman has recorded two CDs since his return to the music scene. His 2015 release “NYC Sessions” topped the national jazz chart and paired him with the late saxophone legend Phil Woods.

"Phil was just great and, I think, just played his heart out. And, in fact, this turned out to be his last studio date [before he died]. He had severe emphysema. But at the session, when he comes in with his oxygen tank and the tubes in his nose, the recording engineer, sensing like 'Oh, this guy doesn’t have any breath left' puts the mic right up in front of him, and he almost destroyed the panel, because he still had so much force and vigor with which he played. And volume," says Bass.

After two decades away from the music, Dave Bass has re-established himself as a major name in jazz. And, with a successful legal career under his belt, he now has the freedom to pursue artistic directions of his own choosing. So where’s he going next?

"I’m thinking it’s going to go the Afro-Cuban, Latin Jazz route. But I love playing the Gospel-influenced stuff and, like I said, the tangos and ... straight ahead," he says.

Straight ahead indeed, from a man whose career was interrupted by one major detour.

Dave Bass will present his new sextet, featuring vocalist Michelle Deveaux on Saturday, Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at a unique venue for jazz, the Antiquité Mason Privée, a 1920’s era Mediterranean-style urban winery in mid-town Sacramento.

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