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SHADES OF GRAY

The magical playing of Darin Gray expands the palette of the bass guitar

Bassist Darin Gray tells the story of playing on Chicago composer Jim O'Rourke's 1997 album Bad Timing with a sense of baffled pride; asked to contribute to the album, Gray drove up from his home in Alton, Ill., to Chicago on short notice, and when the recording was finished, says Gray, "With the exception of the end of that record, where the country stuff sort of comes in, I played one note. It's fascinating to think someone would have me travel to play one note. I played one note over and over. But the more that I record and play with people, the more I realize that it's really hard to get someone to play one note. There's a lot of ego involved in music. To play one note — what are you doing? It's not impressive. If it was in Bass Player magazine, no one would be impressed by it. That's what I really like about it. (But) I used to really have a problem with that. "A monkey could do this' is what I'd think."

Gray laughs, then adds: "It was a good note."

But there's a reason Jim O'Rourke — who has composed music for the Kronos Quartet, the ROVA Saxophone Quartet and Faust; produced work by, among many others, Stereolab, John Fahey and Superchunk; and released more than a dozen albums — dragged Gray 300 miles to play one note: "Part of it is, of course, a certain way someone plays something," says O'Rourke. "But also it's a question of support, and I would rather have Darin involved, even in a little way, than not at all. At the time I even owned a double bass — I played bass for about eight years when I was younger but only do it occasionally now — but I thought it was best to get Darin involved, as a sign of, I don't know, I guess you could say solidarity, not meaning that politically."

Chicago bassists, of course, would stumble over each other to perform on an O'Rourke record, but not all bassists are as magical as Gray. And if you seldom hear such praise uttered in reference to the anchor of your basic rock or jazz ensemble — the bass seldom exudes the personality that the guitar, vocals, saxophone do — you've never heard Darin Gray play the instrument.

His work, first with the explosive, jarring rock band Dazzling Killmen, then as a member of the subtle, curious experimental three-piece You Fantastic! (along with Chicagoan Thymme Jones and fellow ex-Dazzling Killmen member Tim Garrigan, whose likewise adventuresome work will be examined in depth in the coming month), Gray has followed nothing but his instincts, and the result has been subtle transcendence. Equally impressive is his work on the regional and national scale: In addition to his work with O'Rourke — both his solo records and as part of the band Brise-Glace — he's recorded with songwriter Will Oldham, a.k.a. Palace, and worked with Japanese guitarist K.K. Null and his project Zeni Geva. And these days he travels to New York City once a month to improvise with guitarist Loren MazzaCane Connors at the respected avant-jazz linchpin the Knitting Factory.

If you ever saw Dazzling Killmen perform live during their existence, 1991 through 1996, chances are you remember Darin Gray. His presence was fierce, both physically and musically. From the get-go, his adrenaline was dripping. His whole body would contort as he slammed the bass strings. One moment he'd be standing there in, as he still calls it, "the zone," seeming to burrow holes into a brick wall (and, were it possible, succeeding, if only as a result of the intensity of his gaze); the next he'd be airborne and, upon landing, would again contort his torso with the music. At times it was scary. At other times he looked, well, weird, like maybe he was getting into it a bit too much. He looked crazy. Musically, rather than simply follow a bass pattern with a few choice notes, Gray would construct complicated rhythms, examining the outer regions of his instrument in a fashion usually reserved for the guitarist.

Dazzling Killmen could be frustrating: They were masters of discovering in-tense punk grooves, but seldom did they care about sticking with them. Rather, they'd uncover one, examine it quickly, then move onto the next. Songs jerked the listener around and as a result kept the audience off-guard and, well, frustrated. His next project, You Fantastic!, seemed to veer in the exact opposite direction: discovering a single melodic phrase, then dissecting and recontextualizing it over the course of 15 or 20 minutes.

"I don't see the difference in it, really," says Gray. "It was still sort of examining something through a microscope in the same way, whether it's a short amount of time or a long amount of time. With those short changes we were kind of developing something, although over a longer period of time. There may have been a lot of short changes, but there was a bigger picture to it. Now the stuff I've been doing doesn't have a lot of changes, but it's similar. It's still like developing over a longer period of time."

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