Tony Archer

Archer 1

Archer (1938-) was prominent on the British jazz scene from 1961 until the early 2000s, working with such luminaries as Don Rendell, John Dankworth, Kenny Baker. His most famous association is with pianist Tony Lee, of whose trio he was a member from the early 70s until Lee’s death in 2004 and with whom he regularly accompanied international artists at Ronnie Scott’s.

Although most of Archer’s 20 documented studio sessions are out of print, there is a substantial body of ‘bootleg’ live recordings available online, as well as two videos posted to Youtube that demonstrate his considerable command of the instrument.

There is some mythology surrounding the origin of Archer’s idiodexterity.[1] Promoter Bernie Stringle explains one popular theory:

“[Tony Lee’s trio] were doing a gig at the Gargoyle Club in Soho and a fight broke out… Tony tried to save his bass, which… looked like it was going to get destroyed in the fracas – it was really getting heavy – and he got knifed… It went through a tendon… and Tony couldn’t play for … [something like] nine months… But he then really altered his technique and – I’m not sure whether he turned around his method of playing… but he came back playing well.”

Switching handedness approach due to injury or disability is not unheard of. [2] A photo of Archer used fo the album cover of the 1976 LP Tony Lee Trio – British Jazz Artists Vol. 1 appears to show a young Archer playing right-handed and with the bow:

Archer RH?

The resolution of the digitised image available online is inconclusive, but the original LP cover might show the order of the strings clearly enough to settle the issue. For now, the question remains open.

However Archer came to play idiodextrously, he clearly developed considerable technical facility with that approach. Extensive listening to his recorded work reveals that while his accompanying style is grounded in the mainstream tradition of Ray Brown’s lineage, Archer’s soloing concepts are much more modern. From the 60s onwards, he appears to consciously combine amplification and low action to facilitate the nimble execution of very fast passages.

A 1981 video performance of Tony Lee’s quintet performing Carl Perkins’s Grooveyard  includes close-up shots of Archer soloing that reveal certain aspects of his technique:

For example, as Archer moves into thumb position, he can be clearly seen to keep his thumb on the side of the neck, rather than involving it in the fingering:

Thumb1  Thumb2

That Archer’s approach to playing in the high registers of the bass is very similar to Lyles West’s  suggests that this technique might be ergonomically intuitive for idiodextrous bassists.

All four of the videos of Archer playing that are available on Youtube depict him playing in a seated position. This could imply that Archer dealt with the challenges of accessing the fingerboard by changing the position of the bass in relation to his body. The intuitive gravitation towards such an approach is logical considering the emphasis on soloing heard in Archer’s recorded work.[3]

[1] Archer, though alive and still living in the UK, has unfortunately been unavailable for comment to date.

[2] Violinist Ryan Thomson writes about his experiences of making that change.

[3] Of the 200+ ‘bootlegged’ tunes available online, Archer solos on more than three quarters of them.

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