Detractors of educators often quote the familiar axiom “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” A performance by French double-bassist Francois Rabbath on Monday served as an emphatic rebuttal to the phrase.
Rabbath is better known as a teacher than as a performer, but his stunning display for an audience of about 250 at the Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel on the campus of Park University was both technically staggering and rapturously beautiful.
Rabbath’s innovations in music theory changed the way thousands of contrabassists approach their instruments. Born in Syria in 1931, Rabbath has lived in France for decades. He’s a participant in the Kansas City Bass Workshop for the second consecutive year.
Accompanied by his son Sylvain Rabbath on piano, the bassist astonished and delighted the spellbound audience for more than 90 minutes.
He opened the recital with a hypnotic piece that resembled Indian classical music. The selection was the first of many instances in which Rabbath dismissed the spurious concept of stylistic boundaries. In addition to his affection for sounds from around the globe, Rabbath’s classical work is clearly informed by jazz, while his jazz playing reflects his conversance with the European classical repertoire. More than once, a piece that began with footing in one style would transmute into a different musical sphere.
The endearing bond between father and son during extended improvisations was engrossing. The pianist often followed the profoundly spiritual depths of his father’s statements with respectfully plaintive responses. Rabbath added wistful insights to his son’s solos. Sylvain assisted his father between most pieces. After a particularly strenuous composition, the pianist comically toweled off his father as if he were a corner man for an exhausted boxer.
While Rabbath downplayed his adroitness on most selections, he’s not above a bit of showmanship. In addition to signaling impressive phrases by slyly smiling at the audience, Rabbath affected the gaudy body language of a rock guitarist during a couple of audacious feats. The giddiest moment occurred when a dozen workshop participants joined the Rabbaths to take brief bass solos.
The most impressive displays, however, were purely musical. Rabbath’s bass sounded like two separate instruments as he played a call-and-response duet with himself. His rich tone and almost magical prowess caused his bass to occasionally resemble a full string quartet.
The concert was briefly halted so that a bandage could be applied to the index finger of Rabbath’s right hand. The minor injury was the only outward indication that the brilliant octogenarian bassist was mortal.