François Rabbath’s openhearted joy for playing the double bass transcends translation.
At 84 years old, he continues to work with students young and old — he calls them his “children” — and refine his playing to achieve a pure sound.
He came to Kansas City from Paris as a featured artist for the KC Bass Fest, in conjunction with the KC Bass Workshop. The six-day bass extravaganza, spearheaded by visionary Johnny Hamil, featured both local and national artists. Now in its third year, the workshop has expanded to include other cities.
On Monday night, a friendly audience of bass devotees of all ages and skill levels filled the Graham Tyler Memorial Chapel on the campus of Park University to witness the virtuoso perform a 90-minute recital with his son Sylvain on piano.
Rabbath’s style is so spontaneous and organic that it’s difficult to tell where the written music leaves off and the improvisation begins. His technical ability is such that he sounds like a trio of one: bowing, plucking and hammering in an ever-flowing cascade of sound. He produces a range of timbres from raspy ponticello effects to a dark, resonant toll so profound it can be felt in one’s own sternum at close range.
They primarily performed his compositions, works infused with jazz, touched with influences of melismatic chant, sitar-inspired drones and folk-like themes.
They played a tune honoring his friend Ornette Coleman, who passed away this month, and reminisced about jamming together for hours in Rabbath’s Paris apartment.
Rabbath announced selections from the stage, but considering his soft-spoken delivery and accent and the lack of a program, many titles were indistinct. One such work, a newly composed piece of tear-inducing beauty, he played with a beatific smile and effortless transitions, prompting an extemporaneous mid-concert standing ovation.
For the finale, a 12-voiced bass choir of workshop faculty joined father and son. Rabbath played a series of motivic ideas, while they droned, plucked the bassline and one member even offered percussive effects by slapping the body of his instrument. Then they each took a chorus, Rabbath traveling from individual to individual, listening, offering thumbs up and clapping and, once, a particularly proud cheek kiss.
Afterward, he joked, “My children steal from me all my repertoire.”
For his encore he played the requested “The Creed,” the audience unfazed by the blast and rumble of a passing train, offered vigorous, prolonged applause.