Bio and Press Release
Bassist, Composer and Singer Seth Ford-Young takes time away from backing the likes of Tom Waits, Mark Growden and Sean Hayes to release an eclectic and introspective debut CD
Good bass players never lack for work, which is one reason why Seth Ford-Young is releasing his first album as a leader in his late 30s. A creative catalyst on the Bay Area music scene for nearly two decades, he’s been a whirlwind of activity, collaborating with a dazzling cross section of improvisers and singer/songwriters, from Tom Waits, Sean Hayes and Mark Growden to Eric McFadden and Myles Boisen (of Splatter Trio and Clubfoot Orchestra).
On his eponymous debut for Porto Franco, Ford-Young gathers a superlative cast for a program of Gypsy Jazz inflected tunes, featuring Tin Hat accordion master Rob Reich, former Turtle Island String Quartet and Hot Club of San Francisco violinist Evan Price, and ace rhythm guitarist Jason Vanderford. While Ford-Young can swing with abandon, he’s interested in exploring the softer side of Gypsy jazz, combining the transparent textures and dynamic subtleties of chamber music with the ebullient bounce perfected by Django Reinhardt.
“I play a lot of different kinds of music, and the idea of doing a solo album in this style was based on my compositional approach,” Ford-Young explains. “The tunes I write tend to be jazz and semi-classical. I wanted to make a chamber album, an album that’s really intimate, based on sound of instruments and the room. A lot of the original tunes were a response to the music that’s inspired me lately. I’d been playing with a bunch of Gypsy jazz groups, subbing in the Hot Club of San Francisco, Gaucho, and other bands.”
The album actually opens and closes with the sole official documentation of the Golden Melody Band, a virtuosic acoustic quartet featuring Reich, violinist Dina Maccabee, and guitarist/cellist Yair Envine that earned an avid cult following. The quartet’s finely calibrated interplay and exquisitely evocative melodies frame the Ford-Young-led tracks, the majority of which are his tastefully terpsichorean originals, like “Black Tango” and the cinematically insinuating “A Cold Garden”.
Ford-Young is also a pleasingly unaffected singer who effectively croons several songs, including Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s classic “Skylark” and James P. Johnson and Harry Creamer’s cheeky 1920s standard “If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight). Perhaps the most surprising piece is Erik Satie’s ethereal “Gnossienne 1,” the first of the great French composer’s slyly iconoclastic “Gnossiennes.” In Ford-Young’s hands, the piece builds tension with restraint, simmering without ever threatening to boil over.
“I always loved that piece and wanted to arrange it in a pseudo tango style,” Ford-Young says. “Like in a bossa nova, the dynamic of the group is very steady, which makes it hypnotic. Rather than getting louder and quieter, we experiment with microdynamics and with texture.”
Raised in Alexandria, Va., Ford-Young started his musical adventures as the lead singer in the punk band Initial Reaction, which played around Washington DC. While it might seem like a long journey from thrash to Parisian café music, Ford-Young gleaned a tremendous amount of information about life on and off the bandstand during his punk days, lessons that he’s still drawing from today.
“It was a great education,” he says. “I didn’t realize at the time, but I learned a lot about the basics of writing and arranging, and dealing with band dynamics and personalities. I learned about being on stage. You have to be pretty fearless.”
He dabbled with guitar and piano and studied a little music theory, but it wasn’t until Ford-Young moved to Santa Cruz in 1993 that he started playing the bass at the relatively late age of 20. While studying in Cabrillo College’s respected music program, he sang in various choirs (including one that collaborated with legendary composer Lou Harrison), and played in jazz ensembles led by Ray Brown, the esteemed educator and trumpeter. He also forged close ties with the jazz-steeped Dobson clan, performing with pianist and paterfamilias Smith Dobson, his son – drummer/vibist/saxophonist – Smith Dobson V, matriarch vocalist Gail Dobson and their daughter, singer/guitarist Sasha Dobson.
By the time he moved to San Francisco in 1997 to study at San Francisco State with bassist Jeff Chambers and drummer Eddie Marshall, Ford-Young was working steadily in an array of settings. With his career taking off, he decided to forgo a diploma and threw himself headlong into the Northern California music scene. His resume is as impressive as it is diverse. He’s toured and recorded with Tom Waits, collaborated with guitarist John Schott (of T.J. Kirk fame), and accompanied trenchant singer/songwriters like Sean Hayes and Mark Growden, just for starters. While he joined the popular old-time jazz and blues combo The California Honeydrops for several months, Ford-Young found that he preferred the freedom of the freelance life. In stepping forward to make his own musical statement, the bassist brought his vast experience to bear on every aspect of the production, delivering a sumptuously lyrical album defined by consummate musicianship and memorable melodies.
“I worked really hard with the engineer/co-producer, Myles Boisen on the sounds,” he says. “That was part of the concept from the beginning. We got together long before the sessions and strategized about how to record and what mics to use. Everybody was in one room with no headphones, except for the vocal tracks. I’m so lucky to work with these amazing musicians who are able to work that way. It sets the bar really high.”