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Flying the Unfriendly Skies

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Watching Dave Carroll’s droll video for his song “United Breaks Guitars,” a blow-by-blow description of his true run-in with United Airlines, reminds me of the time I met David Friesen, a pretty well-known jazz bassist from Oregon.  This would’ve been the latter half of the 1980s, and Friesen had come into our studio with his longtime friend, the flutist Paul Horn, and he’d come in with a contraption I’d never seen before.  Essentially, it was the usual 4 strings on a long bass neck, only the neck didn’t stop at the body of the instrument – it actually was the body of the instrument.   No big hollow wooden body, just this long neck and a wire leading to an amplifier, kinda like one of those newer models of electric guitar, the ones with almost no body to them.

Friesen told me the instrument was known as the Oregon Bass; he’d designed it himself, and it was the only instrument he traveled with.  I asked him why, and instead of answering, he flicked at a hinge that I hadn’t noticed, halfway down the neck, and collapsed the instrument into something little bigger than a yardstick. 

“Oh,” I said.   It was brilliant.  Traveling with a double bass in those pre-9/11 days was possible, but it wasn’t fun.  Usually you’d have to buy a seat for the instrument. 

But Friesen’s Oregon Bass was portable.  And if it didn’t have the beautiful tone of his acoustic upright bass, well, you weren’t likely to be able to tell the difference in a noisy jazz club with a less-than-pristine sound system.  It worked well enough, and it allowed its owner to fly. 

It used to be that it was a mark of your band’s success when you finally graduated from traveling with your mates and your gear in a van to traveling via plane.  But now, musicians are finding that they’ve also graduated to a new level of traveling pain. 

Tell us: musicians, what is your experience of flying with instruments?

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