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A Classical Jam

It began when my friend Miki Hatcher called me up and said “Hey, Kevin, wanna do a reading of the Bruch Octet at my house?” And I said “Hell yes!” Max Bruch finished The String Octet in B-Flat Major in 1920, shortly before his death. His style is most often compared to Mendelssohn’s. He was a romantic with a gift for melody, and the octet absolutely fits that description.

The work now has the attention it deserves, but only after a long and convoluted journey.

Bruch dedicated the octet to a Royal Manchester College of Music professor, Willy Hess, who years later, in 1936, gave the performing rights to Max and Gertrude Bruch, the son and daughter-in-law of the late composer. Finally, in 1937—seventeen years after its completion—the work was premiered to little notice in a BBC broadcast.

In what remains somewhat of a mystery, Gertrude’s hand-written copies of the parts of the Octet were mistakenly allocated the wrong opus number and wound up in the BBC Music Library. According to Bruch’s biographer, Christopher Fifield, the players may have left their parts behind on their music stands, after which the copies were collected and placed in the library.

Decades passed before the manuscript came to public attention again. Fifield located it—this time, in Vienna’s Austrian National Library. Publication of the re-discovered manuscript in 1996 also represented a renewal of the gift that Bruch had given to bass players. Instead of following convention, in which the instrumentation would have consisted of four violins, two violas, and two cellos, Bruch substituted a double bass for one of the cellos.

That’s what led to the call from Miki.

The musicians at Miki’s place were playing solely for the joy of it (and the shared experience). You could call it a jam session—and many do—but since no improvisation is involved when classical musicians are playing from a score, the literal term is a “reading.”

Miki hosts these readings often, but there are so few chamber pieces with double bass that I had never joined one until now. I thank her and Max Bruch for the opportunity to play this rich, spirited work with a supremely talented group of friends.

A photo taken by our host, Miki Hatcher, Viola; A group of friends read through the Bruch Octet: (L-R) Naomi Youngstein, Annelie Fahistedt, Peter, Nancie Lederer, me, Jackie Stern, and Denise Cridge.

A One-of-a-Kind Bass from a One-of-a-Kind Master

When I first decided to have a 7-string fretless bass custom-built, I diligently researched various luthiers (comes from the word “lute” and refers to someone who builds or repairs stringed instruments that have a neck and a sound box). I wanted to take all aspects of the process into account. In the midst of all my research, I discovered David Segal and New York Bass Works. The instruments were beautiful, reviews were stellar, and I was really drawn in by some more personal comments people made regarding the commission of their instruments. Even better for me, David is relatively close by on Long Island; as an upright player from north Jersey, I had driven out to the Kolstein shop many times, which is close to David’s shop.

So, I took the leap, contacted David, and commissioned the instrument. He hadn’t made a 7-string before, so there was a significant amount of original and unique design involved. Even though I felt completely included in the process, I really wanted Dave to have total artistic freedom in building the instrument. To me, that’s the proper way to approach the process; once you find the person you want, rely on their expertise. I wanted him to build an instrument HE loved.

Along the way I discovered that Dave is a genius with wood AND electronics, incredibly meticulous and patient with design and ergonomics, and a total sound guru (I had suspected all that before, but……wow). Best of all, he is simply a great human being, an American original, a GREAT bass player, and now someone whom I am privileged to call a friend.

As far as the instrument itself is concerned, it is the finest electric bass I have ever laid hands upon. With, perhaps, the exception of my latest acquisition, an NYBW RS24 5- string. You can see pictures of my fretless 7 on the NYBW website (, so you can get an idea of how stunning it is.

(Below: the custom one-of-a-kind seven-string bass)

But here’s the thing: plenty of luthiers can produce stunning instruments. Dave has managed (largely because he himself is a bassist of significant stature, and also because you wouldn’t want a vegan to cook you a steak) to produce something which in my 30 year experience as a professional bassist, musician, and educator, is unique, which I would call, for lack of a better term, the non-bass, or non-instrument, even.

What the heck do I mean by that? Well, in all those years, I have played a ton of basses, many of which I have loved and some of which I still own, or lament having sold because of the stupidity of youth. But all those instruments have had one thing in common, which is that I was always physically aware that I was playing a bass, a device strapped to my body. More than any bass I’ve ever played, Dave’s basses have seemed to remove any boundary between my imagination and the sound coming my out of the amp. They play so easily and responsively, and are so ergonomically perfect, that it truly feels like there is no bass there at all, hence ‘non-bass’.

I put it in those terms because I really think that’s what he’s created. Any deficiencies in anything I do musically won’t be because of the bass; I will never be able to out-play, or need to upgrade from, my NYBW basses. It’s such a great feeling for my search to be over! Thank you David.

(Below is a photo of a custom black-and-white five-string bass David made for me with birdseye maple fingerboard block inlays)

Who said it: Famous quotes about music

“Music is the universal language of mankind…”  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Outre-Mer, 1833)

“The man that hath no music in himself, nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, strategems, and spoils…Let no such man be trusted.”  William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice, 1546)

“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.”
William Congreve (The Mourning Bride, 1697)

“All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”  Walter Pater (The School of Giorgione, 1873)

“Music must take rank as the highest of the fine arts – as the one which, more than any other, ministers to human welfare.”  Herbert Spencer (Essays on Education:  On the Origin and Function of Music, 1861)

“If one plays good music, people don’t listen; and if one plays bad music, people don’t talk.”  Oscar Wilde (The Importance of Being Earnest, 1895)

“I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day.” Kiss  (Dressed to Kill, 1975)