Desmond White has been an active bass player in the New York jazz scene since his move here from his native Australia in 2009. As a bandleader, however, he stretches into the many roles of multi-instrumentalist, singer, composer, lyricist, and producer. In 2013 he released Short Stories, the first album of his own songs. His second album Glace will be released on the Biophilia Records early next year.
At the Jazz Gallery, White will play the songs from the forthcoming album live for the first time. Playing with him will be Nir Felder (guitar), Glenn Zaleski (piano), Guilhem Flouzat (drums) and special guest Kate Kelsey-Sugg (vocals). We caught up with him in Crown Heights’ Colina Cuervo on a chilly October afternoon, and talked about the new record, the shifting infrastructure of the music industry, writing lyrics, and Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. Here are some excerpts from our conversation:
The Jazz Gallery: Would you give us a brief overview of what this new album is about?
Desmond White: It’s a bunch of songs I’ve written over the last three years, since the last album. I guess, broadly speaking, they’re all about mistakes or behavior patterns that have led to regrettable circumstances. The album is there to catharsize those maybe and get rid of them. Some of the songs seem to come out OK despite their “evil source.”
TJG: In the lyrics on the album I noticed you use some contrasts. I wrote one of them down: the line, “I’ll be mean to you/ to make you smile.”
DW: Honestly, I think that’s just an Australian gimmick to maybe insult or make fun of people when first meeting them, as kind of a casual way to express affection. I think the Australian way of interacting is a little more sarcastic, and it can be abrasive. I’ve had to tone that down a bit since coming here.
TJG: But it’s also something that you use when you write.
DW: Yeah, definitely. I guess I’m not so interested in examining only the good parts of courtship and all the niceties and beauty, because I think we spend a good deal of time on the other side as well, so I like to get into those themes as well—the bad decisions and men being assholes, basically.
TJG: Do you feel that through putting that to music there is some sort of transformation that happens?
DS: Mhm. For some reason there are things that I could write in a song that I couldn’t really say at will. I couldn’t even tell you certain things that I find easy to put in a song. You can hide behind the music a little bit. Some people find singing more exposing—they feel more vulnerable—but I feel more vulnerable speaking than writing lyrics.
TJG: What is the main difference that you see between playing bass on jazz gigs and this project?
DW: I guess it’s a slightly different skillset. You and the other musicians need to know a little bit of language from that pop world. For me, it feels the same. Apart from the singing part. I don’t usually sing when I’m playing jazz.
TJG: What kind of work on your singing you’ve done since you’ve started doing it?
DW: I’ve been taking some pretty steady lessons with singer Sara Serpa. She’s amazing. But a lot of the work I’ve been doing with her is shedding any judgment. She says she sees a lot of musicians that want to sing, that are so hard on themselves and immediately want to sing at the level that they can play their instrument, which never normally happens. And letting go of that has been very helpful. She’s been pushing me to not worry so much and that’s been very helpful. I by no means have mastered it, but I’m getting there.
TJG: Do you feel that singing has influenced your bass playing in any way?
DW: Only in the sense that when I’m singing and playing, I don’t have the freedom to play all the stuff that I normally do, because I’m concentrating on doing both at once. But I think that’s good. I think, generally, when someone is singing, you want the bass and the rest of the band to be doing less shit, not more. So that restraint that is forced on me hasn’t been a bad thing. On the album, you’ll hear that there aren’t a lot of bass solos or even complicated bass parts, really, and that just seemed to fit the music. Which I guess session dudes have known for years and years, but I’ve only fairly recently discovered.