by Giovanni Russonello
Bassist Steve Synk, 21, is among the bumper crop of young D.C. jazz musicians whose work is yielding benefits that flow in two directions: He’s building his own understanding of the music, largely by seeping up knowledge from the scene’s elders, while also putting forth some fresh ideas about how that scene might reinvigorate and enrich itself.
Synk is a student at the University of Maryland double majoring in jazz studies and English, and is a frequent presence at jam sessions around the city. This spring, after playing as a sideman at a few gigs at Columbia Station, Synk was brought on to headline Saturday nights at the club. At most of his weekly performances since, he’s been deliberately mixing some of the District’s most respected jazz players — namely the pianists Allyn Johnson and Bob Butta — with a few of the city’s brightest 20-somethings, like the drummers Kush Abadey and Aaron Seeber.
Perched in the center of Adams Morgan’s commercial strip, Columbia Station has long been a club that’s flush with potential but lacking in dynamic appeal and, too often, downright low on attendance. (The venue let Butch Warren go in the fall of 2010, and hasn’t had a major draw since.) Thanks to a perplexing dearth of competition from other neighborhood venues, Synk’s gig is, almost by default, the top weekly jazz happening in one of D.C.’s most popular nightlife districts. It also happens to have no cover charge.
In the interview below, he discusses the Station gig; the lessons he’s learning from mentors; and how his side project, a funk and hip-hop band, has expanded his understanding of jazz performance.
CapitalBop: At Columbia Station, you’re bringing out a lot of the younger-generation cats, as well as some of your older mentors. What’s the dynamic you’re seeking to evoke, and what are your goals with this gig?
Steve Synk: A lot of it is selfish, because having these experienced cats on your gig – they’ve been around the block and they’ve done it. It makes the music better. It makes the vibe better. And it makes you better, playing with them.… It’s been really cool to watch someone like Bob Butta take me and Aaron Seeber under his wing a little bit – doing the gig multiple weeks in a row and telling us that he feels like we’ve grown since last week.
There’s something about playing with someone who’s really at a higher level of experience. You just can’t get there without having done what they’ve done. But you know what that’s supposed to sound like, so you know what to go for.… Also, they always know way more tunes. I always leave the gig feeling like I need to go shed a couple more standards.CB: In your other band, outside of the Columbia Station gig, you’re working with a lot of groove-based concepts.
SS: That’s a group that just started as a fun thing, and we’ve been lucky to get a couple of gigs from it.… We’re mostly University of Maryland guys, mostly jazz majors, all playing non-jazz music. I think it’s really cool to bring that jazz-musician mentality to other genres.
What I’ve realized from the difficulty that we had as a group composing some of this stuff is, jazz musicians are really perfectionists about a lot of stuff but the medium of improvisatory playing forces you to let that go. You’re obviously not going to cut the band, tell the drummer to stop, and redo the last chord. But when you’re playing less improvised music, more structured, with a definite length to all the sections, you have these choices to make beforehand. Sometimes it’s really hard to decide, “Should we repeat this section for two times or four times?” A lot of that stuff just happens, when you’re improvising.
Another thing is the subtleties relating to where the beat’s getting placed – we’ll have a lot of conversations about that stuff: the hi-hat behind the beat; what colors; which extensions work better with this chord. Pretty much all jazz musicians are going to be thinking about that kind of thing, but it’s different when you’re mapping it out beforehand.
CB: What do you think you gain from the experience of planning and working through beats? What might be lost? What has it taught you?
As a bassist, it’s been really fun for me to kind of come up with a “bass line:” What bass line works best on a tune, and is going to be repeated? It’s different because as a jazz bassist a big part of your concern when you’re walking a line is going to be to not repeat yourself. But when you look at creating for a more groove-based music … the repetitive nature forces you to really be concise with your bass line. If a bass line is just a lot of notes all over the place all the time, it’s not going to groove…. You have to figure out how to say the most you can with the smallest amount of material….
A jazz bassist, or any jazz musician … no one wants to feel like they’ve run out of things to say. And for that reason, there’s a temptation to not want to repeat yourself at all. But if you listen to guys like Paul Chambers and Butch Warren, a lot of times they’re playing the same stuff over and over again. If you transcribe four choruses, they might [come back to] the exact bar they did three choruses ago…. Butch often comes up with a “bass line.”… He also does this thing where he just plays the same two or three notes in some position. Sometimes it’s just that one spot in the chorus. He kind of does this little G-A-Bb thing, and then just bounces out of that. He was just hearing that – it worked in that part. And the fact that it worked was reason enough to repeat it.
CB: It gives you a sort of pivot point, something that helps make sense of the swirl going on around it.
SS: Yeah. A lot of times, non-jazz listeners feel like they have nothing to grab onto in jazz music.
CB: Why do you think the notion of a groove is so important to American music?
SS: I guess just as a general thing, a teacher of mine, Bill Monroe, said way back in the day: “The bass is important because it tells your ass what to do.” I think that’s true. … It’s important because the bass is just such a visceral thing. When a bass speaker is loud enough, you feel that in your breast plate – you feel it in your heart. And it’s this kind of conduit through which the music actually touches us physically. Because these reverberations are so deep. And people can’t get enough of it. And with the hip-hop that you might hear on the radio, it’s got this thumpin’ bass. People want that, they need it. It’s just as important as the chord or the groove. Even in jazz.
Steve Synk leads a trio every Saturday night at Columbia Station. There is no cover charge to attend. More information is available here.