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Bassist Wasserman Swings From Pole to Pole in Musical Collaborations

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A few years ago, Lou Reed released a song called “Doin’ the Things That We Want To,” about how commendable--not to mention how much fun--it is to follow one’s creative inclinations wherever they might lead.

Reed didn’t know Rob Wasserman at the time and he might have laughed at the notion of inviting a jazz-oriented bass player such as Wasserman to become a member of one of his raw, hard-edged rock bands.

But by doing the things that he wanted to do, with an eye toward breaking some of the conventions of the upright bass, Wasserman has arrived as a collaborator of choice for an array of prominent pop music figures. Reed is one of them, having enlisted Wasserman to play on his “New York” album and in his touring band. Wasserman also played shows with such diverse singers as Rickie Lee Jones, Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers and Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Bob Weir (Weir and Wasserman will play as an acoustic duo Friday night at Irvine Meadows, where they will open for the Jerry Garcia Band).

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The foundation for Wasserman’s uncommonly varied musical life these days was a 1988 album called “Duets,” in which Wasserman set out to show that the basic combination of bass and voice could create music that was varied and full of surprises.

Wasserman, based in the Bay Area, started work on “Duets” in 1983, after he had released an acclaimed instrumental album called “Solo,” in which he used a solo bass to generate complex, melodic passages and unusual sonic effects.

The trick in “Duets” was almost as much logistical as it was musical: Wasserman wanted to work with top-level singers, yet he had no record company backing--which meant no money up front for his collaborators and no firm guarantee that the album would even be released.

Early on, Wasserman recorded tracks with jazz-oriented singers he already knew: Dan Hicks, whom Wasserman had backed during the 1970s, and Bobby McFerrin. But Wasserman also found that he was able to enlist the help of talented strangers.

“Rickie Lee Jones called me up after hearing about it from friends,” he said. Wasserman and Jones hit it off well while recording for “Duets” and that led to a performing partnership for some live shows. Wasserman met Reed while performing with Jones in Europe. “I gave him a tape of what I’d done and he just flipped out.”

Wasserman certainly achieved the variety he was shooting for: The first side alone starts with one of pop’s prettiest voices--Aaron Neville’s sublime, multitracked falsetto shimmering celestially on “Stardust”--and ends with one of its rudest, most crusty stylists--Reed handling “One for My Baby (And One More For the Road)” with deadpan vocals and electric-guitar chords that sound like rusty nails.

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Wasserman recalled that when he first met Neville, a tough-looking character whose tremulous, angelic voice is encased in the physique of a linebacker, “I didn’t think it was going to work. I had a suit on and it looked like I was from another world. He didn’t look like someone who would understand where I was coming from. But that was all appearance. With the music, we just hit it off.”

With the album version of “Duets” a success, Wasserman has been compiling a companion home video with a different segment for each of his collaborators. Segments shot so far include videos of Jones in a burned-out mansion, Neville in a ballroom, and Reed “in an incredibly decrepit, downtown L.A. bar.” Wasserman said he is aiming for a fall release.

Weir, who was not involved in “Duets,” is one more former stranger who quickly turned into Wasserman’s friend and playing partner. Last fall, Wasserman, who lives in Mill Valley, played a benefit for the Mill Valley Film Festival, which had screened sequences of the “Duets” video. “We decided to put on an evening of collaborations in the spirit of ‘Duets’ at a local nightclub,” Wasserman said. “All the ‘Duets’ artists were off on tour, so we just put out the word--’come down and collaborate with me.’ Bob Weir just showed up. We had time to work out a few tunes in the dressing room. We strung together a set and it went off real well. We decided to keep doing it.”

Together, Weir and Wasserman tackle pop standards, Grateful Dead songs and Weir’s solo material. “We’re planning when we have some time to collaborate on some duo songwriting,” Wasserman said.

In his ongoing partnerships with Weir and Reed, the 36-year-old bassist is working at nearly opposite poles of American rock: the Grateful Dead’s easy-rolling, country-blues hybrid and Reed’s lacerating New York punk.

“I like to play music--the more the merrier,” said Wasserman, a willing experimenter who at one point in his career found himself performing in a gorilla outfit and a caveman get-up as a member of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo--a theatrical revue that later evolved into the popular Los Angeles rock band Oingo Boingo. “The more I play, the more I learn. And the best way for me to learn has been to play live.”

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After devoting “Duets” to standards picked by his collaborators, Wasserman is thinking of including some original material on his next album. “I suppose some songs I write will have that Lou Reed-Grateful Dead blend,” he said wryly. “God knows what that will turn out to be.”

Whatever the material turns out to be, Wasserman has decided that he will expand his collaborative concept: The album will be called “Trios” and the idea will be to merge Wasserman’s bass on each track with two other distinctive, genre-hopping collaborators. Posing a hypothetical example, Wasserman said he would like to discover how he might sound in a trio with classical cellist Yo Yo Ma and soul singer Aretha Franklin.

“‘Duets” opened a lot of doors for “Trios,”’ Wasserman said. “It showed a lot of singers how they could sound without the big production behind them. So there’s a ton of interest in “Trios.” There’s too much interest in a way. The challenge now is to narrow it down and get the right combinations of threes.”

Rob Wasserman and Bob Weir open for the Jerry Garcia Band on Friday at 8 p.m. at Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre, Irvine Center Drive, Irvine. Tickets cost $20.50. Information: (714) 855-6111.

SAY GOODBY TO ADOLESCENTS: Despite the exciting leap forward that the Adolescents took with their excellent 1988 album, “Balboa Fun Zone,” the Fullerton rock band has called it quits. One of the leading bands to come out of Orange County’s early ‘80s punk explosion, the Adolescents played their last gig in late April.

Former members said this week that personal tensions played some part in the breakup, and that there was also disagreement about whether to inject elements of heavy metal into the raw but strongly melodic rock approach of “Fun Zone.” But there was general agreement that the most frustrating problem the Adolescents faced had to do with the outside world’s reaction to the band’s musical changes.

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“Everyone from the fans to the record company expected a certain sound” that reflected the Adolescents’ punk rock origins, said guitarist Rikk Agnew. “It restricted us too much being under (the Adolescents) name.”

“I don’t think the people were going to let the Adolescents change,” said Frank Agnew, Rikk’s younger brother, who left the group about 2 months before its final breakup. “We didn’t seem to be catching any new ears, and that’s frustrating.”

Early this year, the Adolescents submitted some new songs in the “Fun Zone” vein to their label, Triple X Records, but the label decided not to release them.

“The music was excellent,” said Triple X’s president, Peter Heur, “but under the Adolescents banner, it would be too drastic, too confusing to the people out there.” Heur said that the Adolescents became caught between their old fans’ punk-rock expectations and a false assumption in most other alternative-music circles that the Adolescents were still unreconstructed hard-core punkers.

Triple X is planning a summer release of a live Adolescents album consisting of pre-”Fun Zone” performances featuring original singer Tony Montana, who left the band in 1987. Montana now fronts the Flower Leppards, who have an upcoming release on Triple X.

As for the other ex-Adolescents, Rikk Agnew said that he is “just kind of laying low, working on a new project tentatively called Rikk Agnew’s Yard Sale” that will bring together a wide range of hard-rock styles. “I want out of the punk pigeonhole, definitely,” he said.

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Frank Agnew said he has been playing with some Los Angeles-based rockers and also is putting together a more pop-oriented band of his own. Singer-bassist Steve Soto and drummer Sandy Hansen remain together in a new band called Joyride, which also includes guitarists Greg Antista and Mike McKnight. Soto said that Joyride will continue to pursue the melodic rock avenue that the Adolescents had explored with such promise on “Balboa Fun Zone.”

LOCAL EYES: Co-Op, a song compilation aimed at generating interest for unsigned local rock bands, is bucking the music industry trend by switching formats from compact disc to vinyl LP. The switch will reduce each participating band’s share for placing a single song on the compilation from the projected CD cost of $550 to $285.50. The Co-Op album will be sent to music publications and to more than 500 college and alternative radio stations across the country. The deadline for enrolling has been pushed back to May 27. Information: (714) 995-0471. . . . Stacey Q’s third album, “Nights Like This,” will be released June 5. The Orange County dance-pop singer’s new single, “Heartbeat,” features backing vocals by Timothy B. Schmidt, formerly of the Eagles and Poco. . . . Songwriters can submit tapes of their handiwork for review by song publisher Brian Rawlings in a National Academy of Songwriters song-screening session Sunday at the Newport Beach Public Library, 856 San Clemente Drive. Academy members can have tapes critiqued free; for non-members, the membership fee is $60, payable at the door. Sign-up starts at 1 p.m., with the session beginning at 2 p.m. Information: (800) 334-1446.

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