Buell Neidlinger, the legendary double-bassist and cellist, died of a heart attack March 16 at age 83, The New York Times confirmed over the weekend. While never a household name, the Connecticut-born bass player played alongside Cecil Taylor then spent the rest of his prolific career appearing right behind the curtain with mainstream pop performers.
Neidlinger was no late bloomer with his extraordinary gifts. A child prodigy on cello, he, in his own words, “flipped out” and suffered a severe nervous breakdown at 16 due to the bar he’d set for himself. While locked away in a sanitarium, he met jazz pianist Joe Sullivan, who was detoxing from alcoholism, and the two held impromptu jam sessions in the “rotten, dusty gym” where they happened to have a piano and upright bass.
After studying orchestral music at Yale University, Neidlinger fled to New York, where he came under the tutelage of the brilliant, difficult jazz pianist Cecil Taylor. Together, the two men did much to scramble, disassemble and decontextualize the melodic orthodoxies of hard bop. Neidlinger caught a heroin possession charge in the early ’60s, leading him to lose his cabaret card needed to legally perform. Sick of “living in cheap hotels, starving to death,” he relocated to Providence, Rhode Island.
In new digs, Neidlinger cleaned up, reignited his love of the classical music he studied at Yale and played live debuts by John Cage and Igor Stravinsky. But his tastes were not solely in “high art.” In 1971, fascinated by the sophisticated, big-board radio hits beaming from the West Coast and wanting a piece of the action, he once again uprooted and headed for LA. He became the principal bassist in the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra, a position he held for the following 30 years of his life. In a pop/rock context, Neidlinger’s unique “bass thinking” became part and parcel with Billboard Hot 100 hits by Barbra Streisand, Earth, Wind & Fire and Dolly Parton.
It’s a genre-blurring story as unique as nearly any other in music, and the body of work Neidlinger left behind as a leader, sideman and session cat runs deep. Although impossible to make a comprehensive list in this article, here are five notable recorded examples of Buell Neidlinger’s contributions to jazz, rock and beyond.
“Excursion on a Wobbly Rail” (by The Cecil Taylor Quartet from Looking Ahead!, 1959)
Boy, the ’50s free jazz community was excellent at calling their compositions as they were. An all-time classic and a desert island pick if you were to be allowed only one quintessentially “out” record during your stint as a castaway, Looking Ahead! rattles the cages of established jazz orthodoxy. And although it’s but one of many instrumental maelstroms in the track, Neidlinger’s bass is a force of nature here, alternating between melodic curlicues, long, searching runs and atonal percussive thwacks. Neidlinger’s ability to tell his own story as Cecil Taylor overwhelms the sound-field is telling and extraordinary.
“O.P.” (by Buell Neidlinger and Cecil Taylor from New York City R&B, 1961)
The year is 1961, and a murderer’s row of experimental players including Artie Shepp, Cecil Taylor and a 24-year-old Neidlinger have headed into Nola’s Penthouse Studios in Manhattan to record their atonal, difficult mutation of hard bop known later as “free jazz.” Sarcastically, they title their set of rather unconscionable anti-music New York City R&B — and the program all leads off with this Neidlinger original, led by a percolating, loping bass figure. Taylor’s scorched-earth playing nearly dominates the take, but Buell’s infectious little motif is a question mark rather than a full stop, egging the others on to new extremes.
“Cantaloupe Island” (by Jean Luc Ponty, from Cantaloupe Island, 1976)
A nutty and beautiful collaboration between fusion violinist Jean Luc Ponty and Frank Zappa, Cantaloupe Island is a collection of Zappa originals with titles like “Idiot Bastard Son” and “America Drinks and Goes Home” in a lovely swirl of organic and electronic orchestration. The title track is the exception, being a signature tune of Herbie Hancock’s, but Neidlinger’s performance here demonstrates his unique ability to be lithe and wandering while remaining firmly in the pocket.
“Evergreen” (by Barbra Streisand, theme from A Star is Born, 1976)
Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen” is presented here less for Neidlinger’s bass performance than for the fact he was never credited for it. Actually, according to the bassist, he was shortchanged not because he anonymously played root notes in the background, but that he co-wrote the song. According to an oft-repeated anecdote, Streisand’s assistant woke Neidlinger up in the middle of the night and summoned him to the studio to help complete the composition. “Evergreen” would have been Neidlinger’s first major success; a rather schmaltzy ballad about love being “like an easy chair/ As fresh as the morning air,” it catapulted to No. 1 on the Hot 100 and became the theme to Streisand’s musical film A Star is Born, co-starring Kris Kristofferson. What of this monster hit’s co-author? “She never gave me any publishing on it,” a still-salty Neidlinger recalled later in life. “If she had, I’d be living in Monaco or something.” It’s a fascinating example of how those just outside the commercial spotlight are sometimes given the shaft.
“The Ice Field” (by Leo Kottke, from A Shout Toward Noon)
This album, a classic of what would become new-age music, finds Neidlinger in an intimate trio setting with Leo Kottke on fingerstyle guitar and synthesizer player Randy Kerber. More so than in Kottke’s other work, A Shout Toward Noon relies heavily on atmosphere, mood and silence, due in part to a hand injury on the guitarist’s part. Here, Neidlinger’s on cello rather than bass, and his delicate interplay with the others on “The Ice Field” is remarkable. He’s not weaving a tangled web with the bass like in his free-jazz days — Neidlinger is halting, pensive, droning and often absent from the sound, responding to Kottke’s guitar figures with long, delicate spiderwebs of ambient cello noise. It’s remarkable that a player who gained a cult following by sending listeners on an “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail” was also so capable of the opposite — perhaps a stroll through a dream.