Feature Interview sponsored by
Ottawa 2 Rivers Wine Fest June 9-11th, 2017
"The Best of Chicago Jazz!"
in his own words... Clark Sommers
Bassist, composer and educator Clark Sommers has toured and performed extensively throughout the world, and has performed with Cedar Walton, Darrell Grant, Brian Blade, Ernie Watts, Bennie Maupin, Von Freeman, Ira Sullivan, Frank Wess, Charles McPherson, Peter Bernstein, Lin Haliday, Dana Hall, Jodie Christian, Bobby Broom, Jeff Parker, Ron Perrillo, Geof Bradfield, Michael Weiss, George Fludas, Kevin Mahogany, Eden Atwood, Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls, the Mighty Blue Kings and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra among others.
Sommers completed his undergraduate degree in Jazz Studies and World Music at California Institute of the Arts, where he studied with bass masters Charlie Haden and Darek Oles. While living in Los Angeles, he performed with Leo Smith, Vinny Golia, the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, Joe La Barbara and Larry Koonse. He continues to seek expansion of his craft by pursuing his musical studies with masters such as David Grossman of the New York Philharmonic, Mike Longo and Stefon Harris. He recently completed two residencies at the Brubeck Institute in Stockton, California.
Sommers is currently in the bass chair with vocalist Kurt Elling, with whom he tours internationally and has performed on two Grammy-nominated recordings, one of which won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album in 2009. When not on the road with Elling, Sommers enjoys leading his own group, Ba(SH), which includes long-time friends drummer Dana Hall and reeds man Geof Bradfield. The group’s first CD was released in August 2013 and has received critical acclaim. Sommers can also be heard performing with Portland’s pianist Darrell Grant in his Territory ensemble, which includes Brian Blade, Joe Locke and Steve Wilson. Other groups that Sommers performs with regularly include Dana Hall’s Spring and Black Fire, Geof Bradfield’s African Flowers Ensemble and Melba, Chicago Yestet, Dan Cray Trio, and Spin Quartet.
What you don’t see in this bio is the decades of hard work and dedication that Clark Sommers has placed in becoming a jazz musician. Reading this interview you will learn about the evolution of a jazz bass player. About someone who learned––and then relearned––his instrument; about someone who has spent time living in four states spanning the country, searching for keys that would unlock his talent; and someone who has trained himself to use challenges and obstacles as steppingstones, rather than as reasons to give up or to settle for less.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about your early years.
Sommers: I was born in Lake Forest. I actually started on the drum set and switched to the electric bass in eighth grade because the band I played in already had a drummer. Somebody had to take the fall! [laughs] I was playing drums and a little guitar. There was a great music teacher at the junior high I went to. I got involved with rock bands in junior high and high school, and it grew from there.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you started on electric bass?
Sommers: Yeah. Then, about my sophomore year, I was lucky to have met this bass player that had come from the city to my high school. He put up flyers in the school, advertising that he was available for bass and jazz lessons. This person happened to be the great bassist James Cammack, who played with Ahmad Jamal for years. He started to give me private lessons at my house in ‘92 or ‘93. I think he was responsible for fostering my interest in music and my curiosity and desire to pursue it more seriously. I was pretty lucky to have him available because he was so established at that time. He was a real professional and really valued the role of the bass, and was demonstrative about conveying that and instilling it in me. I studied with him until I finished high school. I made the switch to upright bass in 1993 and from there it was pretty obvious what I was going to pursue.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How were you able to afford your first bass?
Sommers: I had several jobs. I worked at an ice cream store and caddied at a country club. My grandma loaned me some money, so she helped pay for it––the first one. I had a great orchestra teacher at Lake Forest High School, Sara Baldwin—really a sympathetic human being. She was so invested in her students. She’d spend extra time with me after school––she played bass and all the string instruments. She was instrumental in getting me started and allowed me to play in the school orchestra when I wasn’t ready. Sara is still around; she teaches privately. I talk to her every now and then. She’s an amazing person who cared a lot. Around the end of my senior year my dad started to drive me to Beverly where Larry Gray lived, a great Chicago bass player. I started to study with him. He’d take me down every Saturday morning, and that paved the way for me to go to DePaul. My senior year I was in the Illinois Music Education Association (IMEA), and was also in the Midwest Grammy Band where Bob Lark was the director. Through that set of circumstances and the proximity of the school to Chicago and all the opportunities it offered, I ended up going to DePaul. At the time, because of having worked with Bob Lark and Larry, who was also teaching at DePaul, it made sense to enroll. I started at DePaul in the fall of 1995, which enabled me to be downtown and play locally with a variety of musicians. I was fortunate in that there didn’t seem to be a lot of younger acoustic bass players around. A few come to mind that were influential at the time––Josh Abrams, Matt Ferguson and Noel Kupersmith. Needless to say, I had opportunities thrown in my lap just by the virtue of the fact I played upright and was willing to do just about any gig.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: How did you start learning the jazz canon?
Sommers: In high school, when I was with Jim Cammack, every week he’d give me a different record to check out, a different bass player. He’d say, “Here’s Miles Davis’s Four and More with Ron Carter––you need to listen to this. Here’s a record with Ray Brown; here’s this group; here’s a record with Jimmy Garrison…” He’d go on and on down the line. He was really my first exposure to recorded jazz. Prior to Jim, I had never really checked it out much, as I was mostly into classic rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin and Bad Company. I didn’t know where to start with jazz, and Jim showed me the path.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you embrace jazz immediately or were you overwhelmed?
Sommers: I was pretty much into it from the beginning. He’d give me different stuff too––the Yellowjackets, Tribal Tech and Weather Report, Bach, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley and the Meters. He was really trying to engender in me the idea that jazz wasn’t just this one thing. The attitude that he conveyed to me was the role of the bass in music and how can it affect the overall feeling of a band. He also had insightful ways of talking about the nuanced relationship between the bass and the drums. He played this steady gig at My Place For, a restaurant on the North Side of Chicago. I used to go down there every week in high school and listen to him play. He covered so much material. It was a cool lesson, to see that it wasn’t just about one style but, rather, the authenticity of honoring whatever the song asked of him. He played with an incredibly demonstrative energy and emphasized the foundational element of the bass and how interesting that could be before even playing a solo. That made a big impression on me. When I got with Larry Gray later on in my high school years, he exposed me to records too. There was also another piano player I started taking lessons with, Kevin Gaynor, who is deceased but was on the scene at the time. He’d give me an LP and say, “Check this out—this is a Wayne Shorter record,” or “This is an Art Tatum record. You should hear this even though you don’t play the piano.” I would go into the lesson with my bass and he would teach me tunes. It was very helpful. It just grew from there. Once I started at DePaul, my addiction to buying records began in earnest. The school was located down the street from Tower Records; I think it was on Belden and Lincoln Avenue. We’d just walk down the street and I would go and buy records with whatever money I made from gigs.
Dan Cray, Clark and Greg Wyser-Pratte
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Weren’t you playing with Dan Cray and Greg Wyser-Pratte in high school?
Sommers: Yeah. There was a piano player in my high school, Marco Paguia, a prodigy classical player studying with Kevin Gaynor, the piano player who I took some lessons from. Later he studied with Mike Kocour. We were the same age, but he was already seasoned and could really play. So when I started playing upright we sort of developed this connection, because he was already a virtuosic pianist and already new tunes and had a great “feel.” We started playing together all the time. And then Greg Wyser-Pratte, an old friend from my high school switched from trumpet to drums and the three of us formed a trio. We went to a club in Evanston one night my junior year and they let us sit in. The place offered us a steady gig starting in January 1994. That’s how I met Dan Cray. He was at Northwestern and was a year older than me, and when Marco couldn’t do the gig, Dan would play. We had that gig into my college days. When I got into college I started branching out. I met Kelly Sill in January 1996, and that changed my life.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Tell us about it.
Sommers: Kelly is a unique musician and human being. He has a really singular voice on the bass and an insightful way of hearing, talking about and understanding music. He’s always been inspiring to me––a really great example of someone who has his own voice but still plays the role of the bass. He’s spontaneous and very melodic. I was always moved by the vocal quality of his playing. I was 18 or 19, and he was playing at the old Pops for Champagne with Mike Kocour and Joel Spencer. I remember hearing him and being blown away. He was open and accepting of me––I’d go to his house a couple times a week. We’d talk about music and he’d show me some stuff on the piano. He would have this great stuff to say about recordings and different ways of playing. He had an overarching philosophy about music and life, and how they were inseparable. He exposed me to a lot of ideas, thoughts and records, how to think critically about the process of music in very productive ways. It was an amazing time because I was at DePaul and was trying to get what I could out of Larry Gray, because he’s this virtuosic master of the bass. I was kind of simultaneously doing time with both of them.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: They have very different styles.
Sommers: They were complete polar opposites. I loved that, especially having started with Jim Cammack––they were all so different and definitive and valid in their own ways, and all were incredibly supportive and generous. Around 1997, I met Dennis Carroll and that had a profound influence on my conception too. He was playing with Ron Perrillo and Bobby Broom.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did you ever have a conversation with your parents about where you were headed, musically?
Sommers: After my first year at DePaul, I went to my parents and sat them down. I had this “twelve-month plan” that I drew up, because I wanted to stop going to school and wanted to live at home, take lessons and practice for ten hours a day. I worked up the gumption to present this to them. They always felt very strongly about my sisters and I going to college and finishing. After my first year at DePaul it was clear I wasn’t really thriving––I was out working every night and wasn’t doing very well in my classes. Bob Lark grew pretty frustrated with me because I wasn’t really following the jazz program protocol. I wasn’t doing it out of spite––I think this is important for me to clarify, because I wasn’t getting the support I thought I needed at school. I felt there was a lack of imagination and sensitivity from the program with regard to a specific individual’s needs, and, frankly, I was ridiculed for it. It was a hard time. But, it's my impression that the environment over at DePaul has evolved quite a bit since the mid-‘90s. Anyway, I was getting a lot of opportunities and support around town and that felt like the obvious path. Nonetheless, this pissed off Bob and he wanted me leave the program, which I eventually did. I wanted to explore what this was about. I could see the writing on the wall––that I was probably wasting everyone’s time and money and should just take a step back and try to pursue this thing and work on some stuff. I was young and had always intended to go back to school. My parents were totally supportive in every way. They were completely amazing about it, to the point where my dad said, “What do you need? What do you need to take lessons with these people?” It was a great feeling to get that parental support.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: They weren’t musical?
Sommers: No, not at all. But they were jazz fans––my mother loved it and my dad just loved the fact that I showed a serious commitment to it. He’d come down to the basement and would listen to me practice. That was one of the ways we connected—that was really cool. They were both into it so I was lucky in that way. Right before my second year at DePaul I had a conversation with my mom. She said, “You can still do your plan, but what if you stayed in school and just did your gen-ed classes?” That’s what I ended up doing. I’m so glad I listened to her advice. It can be atypical for a young person to take the advice from parents, especially if it’s diametrically opposed with what they want to do. It was really a great idea, and when I did finally go back to school at CalArts years later, I didn’t have to do most of the extra work. But in the summer of 1997, I got an opportunity to go on the road with this swing band called the Mighty Blue Kings, so things took another course.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Dave Jemilo says that the Mighty Blue Kings was the most popular band he’d ever had at the Green Mill.
Sommers: I got that gig when I was 19 and lived in a van for two years. I went all over the country and it was a total blast. That’s where I met all these other great musicians that passed through that band: Geof Bradfield, Scott Burns, John Sandford and Chris Foreman. It was a fun time, and was kind of ridiculous in so many ways, too, but it was invaluable to perform every night and be in front of crowds. Around that time I met Ron Perrillo, Bobby Broom, Dennis Carroll, Dana Hall, Mike Allemana, Jeff Parker and George Fludas. It was sort of like two worlds colliding. That was a different thing, interacting with those guys. They were artists.
The group Ba(SH): Geof Bradfield, Dana Hall and Sommers
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was different about their approach from the things you’d seen prior?
Sommers: Both Ron’s trio and Bobby’s trio had such a “simpatico” vibe and played together so much. At the time it was Dennis Carroll on bass and George Fludas on drums, and Dana with Bobby’s trio. Both groups had a steady gig at Pete Miller’s. It was inspiring to hear Dennis play regularly with both groups. He used so much space and could influence the direction of the music in both contexts with one note. He played with an understated sensitivity and intent that made an indelible impression on me. I first met those guys when I was doing a gig at the Deja Vu with Lin Halliday, the great tenor player. Those guys came in and I didn’t know them. I was so young––still in my first year at DePaul. I lived right down the street from that club, on Lincoln and Sheffield, and could walk my bass over there. It was Lin Halliday’s gig with Mike Allemana on guitar and Mike Schlick on the drums. Mike wanted to introduce me to Dennis and George and Ron. They had—still have—this really incredibly spontaneous and fearless approach to the music. They are all so heavily grounded in the language of jazz, though they never seemed tethered to rules and they played with an emotive, expressive immediacy I hadn’t heard. Dana Hall started rotating into that group. They had this excitement and freshness. It was so musical and interesting to hear how they’d allow each other the space for the music go where it naturally wanted to go. So Dennis would introduce a certain bass note or Ron would build a world off of it. Not to overly demystify it, but it was just total mastery in the moment of the music. Ron’s thing is unlike anybody else’s––totally singular. He’s been one of my favorite piano players, probably since the moment I heard him. He always plays fresh ideas, seemingly never repeating himself, with an amazing sense of timing and feeling. I’d hear him play and would often have an emotional response. He exemplified what the highest level of expression through improvisation could be. I got to play with him for the first time at the Green Mill in 1996. It was the first time I had experienced music in that way––it. I remember feeling like the bandstand was levitating. Ron’s influenced my writing and he’s influenced how I improvise. He’s been a really supportive friend over the years. Dana Hall was instrumental too, giving me chances to grow and develop, and we’ve become really close and have played on many projects together.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: When you listen to Ron do you hear a Django Reinhardt connection?
Sommers: Well, I sense the connection in that there’s a level of deep mystery to him as well as a connection to the ineffable. When I hear Ron I think, Where the hell is this coming from? There’s this depth of humanity in his playing that I would equate to any of the greats. Another person is Bobby Broom––what he plays and the feel of the rhythm is so deep. It’s this perfect groove––nothing is out of place––notes and rhythms are connected with his intention. He’s a master of the jazz language—taking all of Sonny Rollins, dand bop and blues and everything in between. When I listen to a lot of the guitarists who are kind of my age, it’s like: Oh yeah, that guy’s checked out Bobby or He’s kind of a Bobby disciple. I can point to four or five guys off the top of my head playing in Chicago who directly cite Bobby as one of their biggest influences––a testament to him.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: As in-town rhythm sections go, the Dan Cray Trio was a very respected group. Did the rest of the group feel the way you did about what Perrillo and the boys were doing?
Sommers: Oh yeah. All three of us were totally taking in as much of it as we could. That was a really important relationship for me, with Dan and Greg. We were trying to figure out how we wanted to sound as individuals and as a group. We would get together as much as possible, and made our first record together in August 2001. Those guys are two of my best friends and I feel like I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how integral the two of them were for my development. We talked about music, and rehearsed, practiced and recorded a lot. We really had each other to work through all the stuff and to argue over certain things and to challenge each other. We had this connection––we loved playing with each other.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: It seemed that a trademark of the Dan Cray Trio was to take a standard tune or something out of the jazz canon and apply a riff to it that opened up the song for each of you to create your own thing.
Sommers: That’s cool that you observed it that way. We were trying to do that—to play music that had an emphasis on swing and that also had these open sections where we would groove on one or two things, and that would juxtapose with the swing. We definitely would work through that and practiced that and wanted to convey that. Sometimes we were more successful than other times, but we arrived at that approach. We pretty much were together from 2000 to 2008. We did four records together and it was a meaningful thing for all three of us. It was very important to work through that process with this tight-knit consistent group.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Why did it end?
Sommers: I moved to New York in 2008. I wanted to continue to be challenged and be out of my comfort zone. New York was an eye-opening time for me, or “ear-opening” you could say. I had come back from CalArts and had finished my degree there in 2002. I came back in January 2003, and had worked in town for five years in Chicago and I thought: I’m turning 30 and I’d just like to see what’s up. So I went––and it was hard, to say the least. It was incredibly rewarding but definitely a very harsh realization that I had a lot of work to do on my personal playing.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What was lacking?
Sommers: Ultimately, a lot. I always struggled with the physical understanding of the instrument—how to play the bass efficiently and to generate sound production. I also knew I had a lot more to learn about harmony and rhythm––so pretty much everything! [laughs]
Chicago Jazz Magazine: And in New York you saw how other musicians were working and the demands surrounding it all?
Sommers: Exactly. I think there was an awareness of my shortcomings while I was in Chicago, but that they were on the backburner because I was working. I didn’t exactly know how to address some of these things. In New York, you can see somebody on any given night that just blows your mind on every instrument, and you have something to reflect off of—the idea of having more control so I can make better musical choices––that became my focus. So, I happened upon the Kurt Elling gig at the time, six months after I got to town. That gig brought a further understanding of what my shortcomings were. Playing in that environment, in a larger venue, the clarity of choices is paramount––musical choices, and conveying certain things on the instrument that I wasn’t able to convey at that point.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Kurt is about connecting musically with all those people in the audience. It’s different relating to an audience than it is other musicians, isn’t it?
Sommers: Absolutely! It asks for a different set of expectations and a skill set and approach to how you’re delivering material.
Sommers performing as a member of the Nate Lepine Quartet at the 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Some would say that it’s a “dumbed-down” approach.
Sommers: I would say it’s the opposite. In that situation, you can’t put anything out there other than what is absolutely necessary, otherwise it will get lost in translation. Everything that you choose to play has to be utterly clear with regard to the sound, the idea and note duration. Whatever gesture you play onstage is so hard to transmit across to the audience. It’s kind of an unruly environment so the execution is paramount. You’re not in a coffeehouse or small restaurant playing unamplified to a small group of people. When you play a room where you can hear a pin drop, you better not be bullshitting. You have to be honest about it and you have to deliver your ideas with a heightened level of excellence and intent. For me, this gig has been invaluable for so many reasons. It’s very demanding musically because it’s incumbent upon the musicians to push themselves past what they know they can do. You’re in a situation where you’ve been playing the material for a few nights, but you have to keep yourself honest with the intent of keeping it fresh and spontaneous. You’re trying to take the music to different places every time. The time with Kurt has taught me a lot about that. The primary component I struggled with was clarity my in my sound and transmitting it in a way that was perceivable by people. It wasn’t the easiest process because I was fighting with instrument but I definitely grew from going through a rebuilding process. And to be honest, it was kind of tricky to live up to what Rob Amster had established in the band over the previous thirteen years. The hardest part was probably asserting my own voice into that context. So I found a classical teacher, David Grossman in the New York Philharmonic, who helped me a lot with my technique. There was another teacher that helped me understand rhythm in a deeper way––Mike Longo, former pianist with Dizzy Gillespie. I moved back to Chicago at the end of 2010. I had made it about two years in New York, January 2008 to January 2010. I came home to see that the scene had really changed. There were a lot of great, young players in town, but there were seemingly fewer gigs to be had. On top of that, I wasn’t with Kurt at the time and I was feeling a little out of place. In the spring of 2010, an opportunity came along to move to Boise, Idaho, for an extended a residency.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: The jazz capital of the world!
Sommers: Yeah, said no one… ever. [laughs] Pretty funny. I looked at it as an opportunity to address things—to have time away from the pressure of trying to work and to get ready to eventually be back in that scene. I felt like I didn’t have much to offer at the time. I had this information that I acquired in New York, but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had to somehow assimilate it and make it useful for myself. So Boise ended up being an incredible, utterly life-changing experience. I spent two years there mentoring kids and playing a three- to four-night-a-week steady gig with drummer Kobie Watkins and a couple of amazing local musicians––pianist Justin Nielsen and vocalist Jeff Baker. We played constantly, and I got to practice the needed four, five, six hours a day. As a direct bi-product of time in Boise, I was fortunate enough to connect with pianist and composer Darrell Grant. He has a couple of larger projects that include people like Brian Blade, Steve Wilson and Joe Locke.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Did working with a singer help you when you went back with Kurt?
Sommers: It didn’t really—it was kind of incidental. Jeff Baker’s a great musician and happens to be a really close friend of mine. It was such a great time, because we played so regularly and we took it really seriously. This piano player who lived out there, Justin Nielson, was just a total diamond in the rough—incredible musician, a beautiful human being, totally selfless. It was the same with Jeff, the singer. In late spring of 2011, I got a call to go sub with Kurt in Seattle for a week at the Jazz Alley. He more or less offered me the gig back after that week. I didn’t go into that sub job with any expectation of getting the gig––I was comfortable in Boise and had an objective that I was working toward. Kurt was really supportive and saw that I’d been working really hard, and he was really amazing about it.
Sommers performing with Kurt Elling, Kendrick Scott on drums and John McLean on guitar
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What makes Kurt a great singer?
Sommers: Everything. His pitch, his feel, his time––it’s all impeccable. We do these duet tunes together and I’m leaning on him. His voice resonates like a bell tone and I’m constantly referring to him for pitch. We were somewhere in Europe at a restaurant finishing up. We were getting our jackets and a recording of Lester Young came on. I recognized it as Lester Young, but didn’t know this particular solo. Kurt proceeded to sing the entire sax solo note for note! He has real ideas about how he wants to phrase songs and how he wants arrangements to sound. He doesn’t just listen to singers––it’s not just about him. He understands the plight of the instrumentalists—he “gets” it. I always knew he was this natural vocalist, but he has a holistic disposition about music and the community at large. Night after night, he’s appreciative of who his band is and the kind of commitment his sidemen bring to the bandstand. He’s always expressing his gratitude for the music and for his band. I never feel like he takes what he has for granted. He’s as hard a worker as anyone I know, and a close friend––a total class act.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Unfortunately, when you’re with a big name like Kurt, there’s downtime between tours. So in the meantime Clark Sommers expresses himself with Ba(SH). Tell us about that.
Sommers: Ba(SH) is a trio with Dana Hall on drums and Geof Bradfield on saxophone, and they’re two of my oldest and closest friends. It’s been twenty years since I began playing with both of those guys and they continue to push me out of my comfort zone. The format of saxophone, bass and drums has been simultaneously liberating and challenging. They’re both masters of their craft and bring so much combined experience to the table. It can be a bit intimidating because they are so accomplished. Dana recently premiered his original multimedia work entitled, “The Hypocrisy of Justice,” at Symphony Center in Chicago. Geof has received multiple CMA grants and is currently working on a piece for nonet, which will premier in the fall of 2017. I feel lucky to work with these excellent collaborators. They have been so supportive and enthusiastic about the group. Ba(SH) has been an incredible journey and it’s opened me up to so many things, compositionally and improvisationally. We are all coming from a common place and they’re incredibly open to trying anything, which makes it great to write for them. We have one record out and are about to record the next one. Though Ba(SH) is my primary focus, I have other projects that I feel strongly about, like, Geof’s “Our Roots” project, Dana’s groups––Spring and Black Fire––Typical Sisters, the Sommers/McLean Quartet, as well as a record due out in July of all my original material, called By a Thread. It features Jeff Parker, Gary Versace, Kendrick Scott, Joel Adams and Geof Bradfield, who are all part of Clark Sommers’ Lens Project.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What’s something you’d like to do musically that you haven’t yet gotten to?
Sommers: I would definitely like to produce more original work and to tour with my own band. I want to keep putting out records and continue to compose.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: If you had a motto regarding Clark Sommers and the music you play, what would it be?
Sommers: For me, it’s always been about the process of learning and continuing to address what challenges me. The proverbial “carrot” is not what comes at the end, but rather during the process. It’s more about the daily experience of being really excited about music, bringing joy to the experience when I pick up the bass, and remaining open.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So the journey is the reward?
Sommers: Yeah. I tell people, especially students, “The short way is the long way.” If you cut corners initially, you’re going to have to go back and deal with certain things. I’m a product of that—the gratitude of really being able to do this, the music—to really love it and be involved with it. To constantly be immersed in it and to interact with it.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are there any books that have influenced you?
Sommers: I have Dennis Carroll to thank for any level of literacy I may have. He’s a great lover of literature and I’ve been the happy recipient of his passion for poetry and books. We’ve had countless, rewarding conversations about how they’re a window into the human psyche. It’s difficult to point to a specific book. There are many authors that have inspired me. When I first read Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence I had just finished CalArts and was done being a student. It paralleled the process of looking at what your choices are, as far as trying to be an artist and looking at what you may have to sacrifice. Razor’s Edge was kind of the same thing. I’ve reread those books several times. Hermann Hesse with Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, Glass Bead Game, Beneath the Wheel, Narcissus and Goldmund—I love that stuff. All of these examples deal with the questions: Who are you really? Are you overly concerned with external forces? Are you comfortable in the choices you make? Michael Singer has a great book called The Surrender Experiment, in which he stresses the idea of allowing events in your life to unfold naturally and to look at each occurrence as an opportunity for growth. I love that sentiment. Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne is about the Comanche Indians, and specifically their last chief, Quanah, who was forced to reconcile the invasion of his lands and the changing world around him with the Comanche way of life––kind of like marrying the old with the new. We see that in music a lot. The book quietly inspired much of my writing on the Ba(SH) album.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: Are you happy?
Sommers: Yes, I’m very happy. This sense of happiness is largely derived from having struck a balance with my home life and my musical life. It’s taken a long time, but the combination of support at home coupled with cultivating a long-term perspective keeps me pretty grounded. That being said, I am very concerned about the current social and political climate in our country and in the world. One of the things I cherish in music revolves around remaining open to diverse ideals and values. It is my hope that this same openness can be universally expressed in support of the diverse nature of the human experience. This isn’t a genre- or culture-specific concept and is available to everyone.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: You’re an inspiration to young people in that you’ve had to struggle and reassess your music career, and successfully come out on the other side. What advice do you have for those trying to break into the business?
Sommers: I would first say there’s an internal approach that I have, and then there are practical considerations. Worlds inevitably collide––you don’t live in a vacuum. It’s fashionable to have an ethereal sort of metaphysical approach to it. I love the music, and that guided me. But you have to be open to the path not being a straight line, and allowing things to evolve natural––hence, the Michael Singer mentality. That’s sort of the way I approached things. You have to be so in love with the music that you make the necessary sacrifices in the practical side of things. You have to be honest with yourself about where you are at and maintain a level of gratitude, even when you think it’s not going the way you think it should: They’re doing this gig, why am I not doing it? There are reasons that something is out of your control. Just start with the right attitude about it. Like what I was saying about getting the gig back with Kurt––I didn’t go into that with any expectation of getting the actual gig back. At that time I was just content with finding a new kind of “meaning” when I was in Boise, and interacting with these kids. I wasn’t looking for it, but I was doing the work. If you love the music and are willing to do the work, then do it. One can have some other agenda. For example, if a student comes to me, I’ll ask, “What are your objectives with this? What are you trying to do with this? What’s your relationship with the music? Do you feel like it’s a chore for you to practice?”
Chicago Jazz Magazine: So you’ve taken ownership.
Sommers: You sort of have to because no one is gonna do it for you. I always ask young people, “Are you willing to be vulnerable to what you are not good at and address it?” If you are cool with that, then you’ll get to where you want to go.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: We would be remiss not to talk about Charlie Haden, with whom you spent time at CalArts.
Sommers: A poet—a genius. He changed music single-handedly on the bass for sure. I was lucky enough to spend two and a half years with him––unbelievable. A profound human being. Those were really mysterious hours we spent together, where he’d just speak in what seemingly were limericks. He was big on metaphors. It was a really interesting time—one of my biggest influences on the bass.
Chicago Jazz Magazine: What did you learn from him?
Sommers: Patience. He was a really patient musician––he never forced anything. Every single note that guy plays is coming out perfectly, as a result of what’s happening around him. It’s perfectly connected and in harmony with the moment. There’s not one note that he plays that shouldn’t have been there, even at really breakneck tempos. His ability to hear the “whole” and respond with what’s going on in the moment is unbelievable. He had a singular voice on the instrument and changed it, and the approach. I had some really great times with him—amazing conversation and stories from the past. It was cool to have gotten to be around someone who was one of the main pillars of the music.
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