Renaud Garcia-Fons recalls his first encounter with the double bass with the excitement of a first love and the affection of an enduring romance.
Then 16, he went running through the South of Paris, eager to tell his parents that he needed this instrument. He recognized the double bass’ pull on him the instant he touched the strings at the home of his brother’s friend.
“I knew, at that moment, I had to play this instrument,” Garcia-Fons said in a telephone interview from his home in Paris. “It’s like falling in love.”
More than 30 years later, 49-year-old Garcia-Fons can evoke sounds from the double bass that transcend time, culture and even the perceived limitations of the instrument itself. He draws upon influences stretching from Asia to South America and aims to bring his audience to each of those roots over the course of a performance.
“I invite people to travel with me, just with a bass,” he said.
Garcia-Fons, the son of two Spanish parents, grew up in France listening to Flamenco music on the radio or phonograph, while his father painted. He describes his work much like a visual artist, referring often to his compositions in progress as “the music in my mind.”
Garcia-Fons’ North American manager and the Spoleto Festival’s jazz director, Michael Grofsorean, first met him at a 2005 Spoleto Festival performance. Grofsorean said he realized then that Garcia-Fons works with a musical purpose.
“If you can’t find the book you’re looking for, you have to write it,” Grofsorean said.
The week before 16-year-old Garcia-Fons ran home asking for a double bass, his parents attended an art gallery exhibit opening and heard one of the world’s great double bassists, Francois Rabbath. Garcia-Fons’ mother called Rabbath, who encouraged her to enroll Garcia-Fons in the Paris Conservatory and to see Rabbath quarterly.
Garcia-Fons the student soon became an innovator: He mounts his bass at an unusual angle, like Rabbath, to create more complex sounds. He uses the bow in unexpected ways. And he added a fifth string to the high end of the instrument to elicit melodies more similar to a violin or cello.
“If you’ve not seen him, you will see a musician like none other that you’ve ever seen,” said his manager, Grofsorean. “That’s kind of a bold statement, but it’s one that’s warrantable. There’s no one approaching the instrument in the manner he’s approaching it.”
Garcia-Fons practices for hours each day, beginning with classical music. Part of what attracted him to the double bass was its complexity.
He immediately abandoned all other instruments to focus solely on double bass and remains, even as one of the most renowned players, modest about his accomplishments over the past several decades.
“I have to learn and learn,” he said. “My hope is to be as free as possible with this instrument, to play all the things in my mind.”
Even so, Garcia-Fons dismisses the title of “bass player” and instead prefers to say he “has to do the bass player job.” In his estimation, the best musicians, such as Jimi Hendrix, perform and compose beyond the boundaries of their chosen instruments.
In his prior Spoleto performances, Garcia-Fons performed in a trio, but this time he takes the stage alone.
“Of course, when you play solo, the contact with people is a little different,” Garcia-Fons said. “It’s important to catch them, to have them come into my world. They see me alone, but at the end, this is my hope: The context is the same as with a band.”
But perhaps a little more worldly.