Reviews – Stuart Hamm

Stuart Hamm, Just Outside of NormalJust Outside of Normal
Stuart Hamm

CD review

 Bass veteran pulls out all the stops on this hot new CD, which may be his best yet!

Having admired Stuart Hamm’s outstanding musicianship for over two decades, I was quite intrigued when he called to tell me about his new release.  I’d never heard him sound so excited about a CD!  Naturally, I perked up and eagerly awaited the opportunity to hear it. Upon my first listen to Just Outside of Normal, I immediately understood his enthusiasm.

Stu Hamm is a world-class bass player, with outstanding facility on the instrument and a deep sense of harmony.  I recall vividly a month-long period back in the early ’90s, when he’d come over to my house every day and we transcribed every single note he played on fourteen tunes from his first three albums. I get out of breath just thinking about it! The transcriptions were for a Hal Leonard book, which, alas, is no longer in print. At times, I’ve referred to Stu as a contortionist, given the inimitable way in which he employs his fingers and thumbs all over the instrument.

One thing that’s immediately apparent to anyone who knows – or has ever met – Stu is his wonderful sense of humor (case in point: check out this YouTube video he did for me at the 2011 NAMM show!).  That witticism is evident, even in the title of his newest project: Just Outside of Normal.  Though it’s worth a chuckle before knowing anything about it, it’s actually a tribute to Stu’s childhood memories, having grown up just outside of Normal, IL.

See our exclusive FBPO interview with Stu, too!

Stuart Hamm

Stuart Hamm

The disk opens with what Stu refers to as the “obligatory opening track,” aptly titled “The Obligatory Boogie” (See? He starts with the funny stuff right away!).  The tune, he says, was developed during the soundchecks of one of the BX3 tours he did with Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan.  A strong opener, the tune is chock full of great grooving, slaps, taps and other tricks that will let you know right away you’re listening not to just some great bass player; you’re listening to Stuart Hamm.  Surrounding himself with other world-class musicians, Stu has John Mader supplying the drum tracks and Jude Gold (also a BX3 alum) on guitar.  The featured guitar solo comes courtesy of Stu’s frequent coworker, Joe Satriani.  The tone for the whole album is set after only the first tune, the enthusiasm apparent.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Stu is a lifelong student of the bass guitar.  He illustrates this point by way of some very original and unique chord formations achieved through harmonics and slides (he demonstrated this technique for me first-hand at the NAMM show. Very cool!).  He employs this technique on Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California” and on his original “Windsor Mews.”  The idea for the Zeppelin tune came during a gig Stu did with Jude Gold’s band.  Alan Hertz handles the drum duties while Mark McGee is the featured guitar soloist.  “Windsor Mews,” according to Stu, was originally written as an exercise, an experiment in counter sliding chords and motion, that eventually morphed into a song.  In fact, says Stu, it all happened on the lawn in front of a pub in Bath, UK, on a lazy summer afternoon.  Joe Satriani, back for another guitar solo, captures the mood impeccably.

The fun-lovin’ side of Stuart Hamm returns for “The Clarinet Polka,” a follow-up to Stu’s classic, “Country Music: A Night In Hell,” from his first CD, Radio Free Albemuth. As every fan of Stu knows, “Country Music” was inspired by a heckler, shouting out, “Hey!  Play something good!”  “Play some country music!”  Picking up where the “Country Music” scenario leaves off, the heckler, never satisfied, bellows, “Hey! Play a polka!”  Always aiming to please, Stu indulges the “fan” by performing a stellar rendition of “The Clarinet Polka,” along with Mader on drums and special guest Allison Lovejoy on accordion.  The tune works just great on the bass and Stu, once again pulling out all the stops, does it great justice and then some (I’m pretty sure I heard a quote from the Woody Woodpecker theme in there!).  The heckler, still not satisfied, hollers out yet another request (I won’t spoil the surprise).

The title tune is a tribute to Stu’s early days, when he lived just outside of Normal, IL.  The song evokes Stu’s fond memories of shucking corn and riding his bike to nearby Rantoul.  He captures the pastoral setting by inviting brother Bruce Hamm to solo on the dotar, an instrument Stu describes as “the weirdest banjo you’ve ever heard.”  Keeping it all in the family, the boys’ mom, Helen Hamm, took the cover photo for the CD.

Stu’s classical roots emerge with Giazotto & Albinoni’s “Adagio,” arranged by Terry Disley, who also plays keyboards on this track.  Disley’s arrangement came at the request of Stu after many years of the two of them playing this piece.

Though he grew up just outside of Normal, Stu was actually born in New Orleans, where he lived till age 4.  Perhaps that was the inspiration behind the Dixielandish “Big Roller.”  Stu wrote the tune for the Teatro ZinZanni band while doing the gig there (he includes a shout out to the theater’s musical director, Norman Durkee).  Stanton Moore plays the drums with authority, Karl Theobald sounds great on the soprano saxophone and Carlos Reyes adds just the right flavor on the violin.  Rounding out the rhythm section is John R. Burr on piano and, of course, Stu on the bass.  The tune, the arrangement and the instrumentation (including handclap credits, given to all of the above, plus James Boblak and Charlotte Hamm) really hits the spot, capturing that Cajun feeling.

At the risk of blowing Stu’s reputation as a joker, clown, maybe even a bit of a knucklehead, he’s actually very well read and a deep thinker (I’ve known him a long time, remember?).  His “Uniformitarianism” was inspired by an in-depth look into evolution and how, perhaps, it has been happening slowly and gradually, rather than as a result of sudden, sweeping, violent events.  It’s a sensitive piece, full of harmonics, slides and other tricks and features a great solo from guitar veteran Frank Gambale.

The closer, “Lucidity,” is dedicated to science fiction and fantasy writer Gene Wolfe.  Stu thanks Wolfe for all the “years of wonder, discovery, frustration, revelation and illumination” and for “trying to make sense of the worlds around and within us all.”  With Malika Alaoui on vocals, Alex Murzyn on soprano sax and a cameo from yet another guitar hero, Robert Fripp, this tune also shows the deeper side of Stu and underscores the fact that great music doesn’t have to mean mindless chop-laden licks or “speed for the sake of speed.”

So, why has Stu been especially excited about this release?  Maybe it has something to do with the great tunes, great arrangements and great players throughout.  Simply put, it’s Stuart Hamm’s best release to date.

It’s been a while since we heard a solo recording from Stu.  What with designing basses, doing clinics, touring and such, I guess he’s been busy.  I’m glad he found the time for this project.  I wonder what else he has in store for us?

Review by Jon Liebman 



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