Katy Perry is paid to be Katy Perry, and U2 is paid to be U2. Millions of fans count on the sounds that made them famous, album in, album out, so experimentation happens within a narrow range.
New Orleans bassist James Singleton doesn’t have that problem. He has been playing in New Orleans for 36 years, and he’s remained connected to the joy of making music by playing a wide variety of it with a host of musicians. Even his new album, “Shiner,” includes three different saxophone players.
Singleton will play Snug Harbor Friday night with yet another collaborator, Brian Haas, of the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, and they’ll play compositions from “Shiner” as well as some new pieces. Singleton has played some of the pieces for years and with different instrumentations, including a string quartet.
“I feel like they hold up well to different interpretations,” he said. “But where they go is somewhere totally different with the percussion and the piano. The sax and bass are similar to bass and strings, but when you add percussion and piano, it becomes more multilayered.”
Most of the songs on “Shiner” start with thumbnail compositions that serve as starting points for group improvisation, but that is rarely obvious. Nothing on the album sounds like a musical free-for-all, which is largely a tribute to the collaborators Singleton chooses. He’s joined by pianist Larry Sieberth and percussionist Mike Dillon on the album, as well as saxophone players Skerik, of Seattle, Mark Southerland, of Kansas City, Missouri, and the late Tim Green in one of his final recordings. The pieces aren’t star vehicles and sound truly democratic; Singleton’s bass doesn’t get star time any more than anyone else.
The songs were recorded live at Snug Harbor over three nights, which wasn’t the plan. But Singleton heard a board tape from a Snug Harbor show and loved the scope of Dillon’s drumming that night, swinging at points, then dropping in a heavy metal drum fill and making it fit. When they couldn’t find the same freedom in the studio, Singleton got better recording gear and took advantage of the comfort at Snug Harbor.
“It’s like a workshop for me,” he said.
Dillon has become one of Singleton’s regular collaborators. They had a residency this month at Gasa Gasa under Dillon’s name and play together in The Illuminasty Trio.
For Dillon, part of the appeal of working with Singleton is that “he pushes you to play your best, to find new ideas.” At the same time, “he is a funny cat and a never-ending fountain of generosity.”
Singleton played R&B gigs with piano genius James Booker. He’s done traditional jazz gigs, contemporary jazz dates and fully or partially improvised music. Some of those sound like different styles to us, but not to him.
“A lot of distinctions that people make stylistically, for musicians, once you’ve learned them, they’re not that important,” he said.
Singleton credits much of his musical development to musicians including drummer Johnny Vidacovich, the members of Astral Project, trumpet player Charlie Miller, pedal steel guitar wizard Dave Easley, and many members of the current improvised music community including Cliff Himes and Aurora Nealand.
“There’s always been these people who came in and brought a new language that was shockingly different,” Singleton said. “And you’ve got to get to the part that speaks to you and internalize it or be influenced somehow.”
When we talked, Singleton was touring as part of yet another project. He and pianist David Torkanowsky round out Galactic drummer Stanton Moore’s trio, and they recently played Seattle.
These days, Singleton finds more inspiration in visual art than jazz, and when we talked, he was in an art gallery in Seattle. “There are six used Ford Taurus automobiles hanging over me, all with tubes of light shot through them.”
He likes to think of himself as a music machine — someone who takes in art, literature, poetry and classical music, and produces music every time he steps on the bandstand. Pop music doesn’t speak to him like it did when he was a teenager, though he still likes it the way he likes candy on occasion.
“I need a steak dinner regularly,” Singleton said. “I get that more from fiction, art and things that I don’t know how it’s made.” He also returns to the early jazz heroes.
“I listen to Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Fatha Hines for pleasure on a weekly basis,” he said. “Plus, I’ve got a kid, and I want her to hear it.”