Who Is Ward Lay?

Ward Lay’s string bass boomed out on a new-to-me release last week, yet he was there all along on an old favorite!

Lay completes a rich, warm, lightly swinging string trio below Venuti’s viola-like violin lead and guitarist Lang strumming and arpeggiating a la mandolin–with extra points for pianist Frank Signorelli filling out the harmonies from within and for drummer Neil Marshall’s subtlety. Jack Teagarden’s slightly louder lead gets slightly more thump thanks to the bassist’s sensitivity to dynamics.

Benny Goodman then goes buck with an ornate solo but the rhythm section stays solid. They alternate a shuffle pattern—Lay playing four while Lang strums uneven double-time (“chug-a-CHUG-a”) and tremolos—with a hard-edged Chicago-style two-beat feel powered by the bass’s syncopated hits (“beh-BOOM…beh-BOOM”).

Lay keeps the ground pulse but never settles into predictable quarter notes. He’s much more interesting as well as strong but flexible and always well-balanced behind soloists. The soloists make this performance a cohesive arrangement that builds in intensity and contrasts textures and beats. This record is much more than a string of solos.

In the collective improvisation that closes this side, Lay is as much a jamming participant as he is the rhythmic and harmonic foundation. He really comments underneath the horns, similar to bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini’s approach but adapted to the string bass’s lower volume and wider timbral frame. This sort of responsive rhythm section playing seems to be often (and unfairly) associated with later developments in jazz but this side is a revelation. Fiddle with the equalizer, on the stereo or in the mind, and enjoy it.

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2 thoughts on “Who Is Ward Lay?

  1. Hal Smith says:

    Lay was an outstanding bassist. He should be much better known, and your blog is the first step in making that a reality.

    • AJS says:

      I continue to be fascinated by these sidemen who appear in personnel listings for perhaps hundreds of bands–jazz and otherwise–whose “day at the office” consisted of playing at incredibly high standards.

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