Lyles West

Lyles West

West (1956-) is an idiodextrous bassist currently active on the Texan jazz scene. He has worked with such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie, [1] Kenny Burrell and Randy Brecker and had a long tenure (1991-2003) with Dallas-based world music band Café Noir.

Born into a musical family in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, West recalls at the age of five that holding his first ukulele back-to-front was ‘the way it felt right’, insisting until his father eventually ‘gave up and showed me the chords that way’:

My mother had a theory… they used to put the guitar in the crib with me… Because of the way the crib was, they put it in there [to his right] and I plucked it with this hand [mimes plucking with left hand]. And I don’t know if that’s the reason I did it – it just… feels natural that way to me, you know.”[2]

West describes himself as right-handed, but eats, throws and catches with either hand. He first played double bass at 23 and gravitated towards jazz with the encouragement of classmate and pianist Frank Kimbrough. By that time, an idiodextrous approach was deeply ingrained after years of playing guitar, ukulele and electric bass.

Describing his current instrument, a full-size Austrian bass estimated to be around 190 years old, West believes that:

“It doesn’t sound as good right-handed as it does left- [laughs] … It’s a very dark bass right-handed… It’s a big bass. It has more of a punch left-handed.”[3]

Here, West supports the notion that an idiodextrous approach may actually achieve greater clarity in the lower registers. He goes on to argue tongue-in-cheek that ‘everybody else is playing the bass wrong’, since ‘the fingering is the hardest work. Why would you use your weak hand doing the stuff that’s the hardest?’

West feels that using his left, non-dominant hand for sound production has never been an issue for pizzicato playing, but admits that bowing is an issue when playing back-to-front, ‘because it’s hard to get pressure on the low string, on the E string, when you’re on the other side of the bass – I can understand why it would be better right-handed.’

West argues that he may be at an ergonomic advantage and reports seeing ‘a lot of guys getting tendonitis in their fingering hand, since it’s not their strong [one]’. He is aware of the Alexander Technique and practices yoga, but cites age rather than idiodexterity-related issues as the motivation for becoming conscious of his body use.

While he has never encountered any strictly negative attitudes towards his idiodexterity, West notes that his friends who are classical bassists, ‘think [he’s] a strange person’, but concede that he is ‘a good jazz player and they can’t do that’. He notes that non-musicians rarely notice his unusual handedness approach and that fellow musicians are uniformly more interested in ‘good groove’, his ability to play in tune and the fact that his considerable facility as a soloist.

West offers unique and insightful perspective on the challenges of playing in thumb position as an idiodextrous bassist:

“I use guitar fingerings. That’s another thing they tell you not to do, if you play right-handed… I use these three fingers [1,2,3] in thumb position, instead of using my thumb – and go across [the strings], you know. Instead of playing like on the G string like you’re supposed to I guess.”

He believes that taking the thumb out of the equation resolves issues of accessing the D and G strings. For West, this is not a conscious problem-solving strategy or a deliberate injury prevention strategy – but an ergonomically intuitive approach:

“If it hurt I wouldn’t do it [laughs]… I mean, like I say – I’m a country, self-taught bass player, so… nobody can tell me how to do it. I do it the way I want to do it, the way it feels best. However I can get the music out, you know.”

When asked whether he believes there might be any improvising vocabulary specific to idiodextrous bassists, West immediately identified an advantage over right-handers in articulating ascending arpeggios:

 “That’s what makes me sound different than a right-handed player, ‘cause like I can play these ascending arpeggios… much faster and cleaner- I mean, they’d have to pick it and I just brush it, you know.”[4]

During a Skype interview, West demonstrated some exercises that he has developed for ‘playing in tune’ in which he utilises upward raking to construct arpeggios of fingered notes ‘underneath’ a G string drone. The resulting music did indeed sound and look uniquely ergonomically intuitive.

West believes that this fundamental ergonomic inversion can exert a strong influence on the melodic, soloing concepts of idiodextrous bassists.

 “It makes you play different… When you’re soloing… a lot of lines go up… I think more go up than down… I just think it’s the natural thing to do – I play what I hear and I hear those kinda lines more… It works out for me [laughs].”

These final comments actually slightly obscure West’s argument, suggesting that the improviser’s ‘ear’ might play at least as much part in the construction of a personal vocabulary as do ergonomic factors. Nevertheless, his logic concerning the ease of playing ascending arpeggios is sound.

 

[1] Gillespie’s is not the only band that both Earl May and Lyles West have played in at different times – West also had six-month tenure with blues singer Charles Brown in NY in the early eighties and Brown’s subsequent bassist was May. West met May at the One Step Down jazz club in Washington DC around 1980: “I said, ‘I play the same way you do’. He says, ‘Really? Show me!’ … He said I was the only one he’d ever met – at that time, anyway”

[2] NB: Unless otherwise noted, all direct quotations are from the author’s interview with West on 16/9/15

[3] West adds that, “It’s been played left-handed longer so I think the molecules, you know, have worked their way into going that way… or something! [laughs]” During our Skype interview, he showed me wear markings that quite conclusively show that his bass has been played idiodextrously by at least one of its previous owners!

[4] West went on to say, “So- of course, going ‘tickatigong’ [emulates raking a descending arpeggio] is not very easy for me, but I figured ways to get around that.” West and I discussed how he has creatively adapted idiomatic jazz bass ‘raking’ into his own technique. Although it is ergonomically unintuitive to idiodextrous bassists, the resulting sound is nevertheless a desirable part of a jazz bassist’s vocabulary.

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