What it’s like playing Gary Karr’s old “Amati” double bass

I got the chance to play a recital on this bass--here's what it was like!

With Jason Heath · San Francisco, CA

The very first double bass soloist I ever heard live was the extraordinary double bassist Gary Karr. I was fifteen years old and had only been playing the bass for a year. Gary Karr was playing with my hometown symphony orchestra (the South Dakota Symphony), and my teacher Charles Kreitzer had gotten me a ticket for this performance. This concert was a revelation for me–I had no idea that a double bass could be played like Gary Karr played it. Low rumblings and flute-like harmonics mesmerized me, and I knew from that point on that I wanted to be a double bass player.

I know that I am not the only bassist who has had this experience. Gary Karr inspired countless double bass players to pursue the study of this great instrument. When I ask my colleagues to name their first double bass solo record they almost always name something by Gary Karr. His televised performance of The Swan from Carnival of the Animals under Leonard Bernstein at Carnegie Hall propelled the bass into the spotlight as a solo instrument. I have an old record of this concert (which has been released on CD), and that track is my favorite Gary Karr recording of all time.

I had the opportunity to go backstage before the concert in South Dakota, and I saw my teacher and Gary Karr rehearse a duet for the concert. I marveled at his playing, but also at his small bass with the beautiful, sunflower-embossed tailpiece. Gary Karr frequently spoke of the sound of a bass as being like sonic chocolate. I never understood what he meant until I heard that bass up close. It had a complexity and beauty that I had never heard before. It was owned by virtuoso bassist and Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky, and it was given to Gary Karr by Olga Koussevitzky, Serge’s widow, under unusual circumstances.

Fifteen years later I was asked out of the blue to play a recital on this magnificent bass. Gary Karr had recently retired from the concert stage, and he donated his bass to the Internatonal Society of Bassists. It was being loaned out at the moment to performers for use in recitals. I naturally agreed to it, although I was quite busy and hadn’t prepared any repertoire. This opportunity was not likely to come again for me. I would only have the bass for two weeks before the recital, and I began to get apprehensive about my ability to play well on a foreign bass in such a short time. Also, I had heard that the bass, while possessing a beautiful sound, was very difficult to play. I will describe in detail the experience of playing this bass in Part II of this post.

This bass has for years been attributed to the Amati brothers of Italy. Recently, however, the origins of this bass have been called into question. A scientific study using tree ring dating was recently conducted on this bass. I wrote a short piece on this study for my recital:

 

Gary Karr had acquired the Amati bass (the bass that this recital is being played on) at a special party after his Carnegie Hall debut by Olga Koussevitzky, widow of bass virtuoso and famed conductor Serge Koussevitzky. She gave Karr her late husband’s bass in 1961 after telling Karr that she had seen the spirit of her late husband embrace Karr onstage as he performed. Before he became a conductor, Koussevitzky had been a virtuoso bass player.

Koussevitzky is said to have purchased the instrument from a French dealer in 1901 for $3,000. Nothing is known of its history before 1901, but it is reputed to have been made in 1611. Karr made all of his albums and played virtually all of his pub- lic performances on this magnificent instrument. He recently donated this famous instrument to the International Society of Bassists.

Most sources claim that the “Amati” bass was made in 1611 by the Amati brothers, Antonio and Girolamo, of Cremona, Italy. If this is true, it would only known dou- ble bass made by the Amati brothers. In 2004 this bass was carefully inspected and evaluated independently by four experts in bass design and style, and all agreed that inconsistencies in style suggest that the bass was constructed after 1611. The wood appears to date to 1761 at the earliest. Also, many attributes of this bass suggest a French origin. All of these facts suggest that this bass was not made by the Amati brothers. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic bass that has inspired countless bassists over the last few decades, and I feel very fortunate to have an opportunity to play this recital on it.

 

Check out how small the Amati bass (pictured left) is compared to my 7/8 size Jakstadt!

When I first picked up the Amati bass from Aaron Reilly at the Guarneri House, I couldn’t wait to get it home and start working on my recital program. I pulled it out of the case and got a chill up my spine when I saw the distinctive sunflower-embossed tailpiece. It had a new set of Pirastro Permanent solo strings on it (which happen to be my favorite brand of string), so I knew that I was ready to go.

This famous bass is extremely small. It actually doesn’t feel like a bass at all, but more like some strange bass/cello amalgamation. I play a large 7/8 Jakstadt as my main bass, so transitioning to this tiny solo bass was quite challenging. Usually I stand when I practice and play solos, and I am used to the feeling of a lot of mass resting against my side when I play. It felt very strange to have such a light instrument against my side—it actually was difficult for me to keep it balanced. Everything about this bass is small—the bridge, fingerboard, neck, scroll, and string length. The above photo is a side-by-side comparison of my Jakstadt bass and the “Amati” bass. Notice the vast difference in size.

My two weeks with the “Amati” were filled with orchestra rehearsals and performances in Chicago, and this was hard on both my nerves and my chops. Switching between big and small, heavy and light, orchestra tuning and solo tuning, and extension playing and upper register playing was very stressful. I am sure that many bassists are comfortable switching between vastly different set ups, but for me it takes a few days to really feel at home on a bass, and I unfortunately ever got to really get a practicing groove going just with the “Amati” bass.

The sound I pulled at first on this bass was very sweet but fairly small and unfocused. The tone of this bass got richer and fuller the higher I played, and it got smaller and less resonant the lower I played. This is not a knock against the bass. Quite simply, this is an incredibly special and specialized instrument, and I had not learned the skills to fully activate its potential. This instrument sounds (under my hands, at least) fantastic from the G octave to the edge of the fingerboard and beyond, decent on the D string and lower G string, and downright strange on the E and A strings.

This bass responds best when the bow is right up against the bridge and is pulled very slowly with a lot of weight. If I bowed the strings any farther away than that the instrument sounded kind of like a violone or other such early instrument. Only when the bow is near the bridge with a great deal of weight in the right arm did that famous “Gary Karr sound” emerge. While playing like this, one also has to remain very free and flexible in the right arm. Too much weight will crush the sound, however. Playing this bass with the correct right arm technique is like herding cats—very challenging and often frustrating, but strangely fun.

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