Here are some random thoughts on bassist Rob Amster, who passed away last week. It was far too soon. I’m not an expert on addiction, alcoholism or mental illness, nor did I have a lot of dealings with Rob in those areas, so I’m going to try and reflect on the guy that I want to remember.
Somber Rat. That was Rob’s email address. It was a long time before I realized that Somber Rat is an anagram of Rob Amster. That was embarrassing, because I’m into anagrams; take it from a Jerky He-Man.
In thinking ahead, much of what I write may give the impression that I thought Rob was an asshole. Nothing could be further from the truth; I was extremely fond of him. He just never had much of an edit button, so he could come off as a bit abrasive at times. He was the wrong guy to be around if you weren’t prepared to hear the truth. And, although I liked Rob a lot, we never really hung out socially. But that’s not a reflection on him; there are very few musicians that I consider to be my friends. And that’s kind of a weird thing: the bond created between musicians can be as strong as any bond I can think of. You share the same goals, you have each other’s back and there’s a lot of humor flying around despite the seriousness of the endeavor. For me, that’s plenty. The fact that I don’t generally hang out with musicians outside the workplace doesn’t mean that I don’t love them dearly. And I loved Rob Amster dearly.
Not that he made it easy. As I recall, our very first encounter was on a corporate gig shortly after I moved to Chicago in 1993. Never one to keep up with the latest gear, I dutifully began setting up my trusty electric keyboard. Rob took one look at it and burst out with that laugh of his that came all the way from his toes. “Dude! A DX-7! That is such an Eighties instrument!” I responded in kind with some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, you’re kind of a dick, huh?”
About a year later, after we’d worked together a fair amount, we found ourselves on a wedding gig together. I’ve never claimed to be the greatest rock and roll piano player, and I was having trouble hearing a particular chord on a Rolling Stones tune, so Rob was able to help me out with it halfway through. On the break (wedding gigs had breaks in those days), Rob walked up to me, his knees buckling from his laughter (he was the funniest guy he knew), and said “Dude! You can hear all this super heavy shit, and you couldn’t hear the chord on that tune? It was the FOUR chord! The fucking FOUR chord!” This was followed by more convulsive laughter. I responded with (yes) some playful banter, but deep down was thinking, “Okay, at least you couched it into a left-handed compliment, but I still think you’re kind of a dick.”
During the fifteen (or thereabouts) years that we worked together, Rob and I would encounter each other on jazz gigs, recordings, concerts, bar mitvahs….you name it. And I came to realize that he was a PHENOMENAL bass player. He seemed to have no technical weaknesses on his instrument, and I’m still blown away by some of his stuff on the recordings we made. And he was a PHENOMENAL musician, too. He had a deep understanding of rhythm, harmony and melody, and always made well-informed choices. Musically speaking, there should never have been a reason why I wouldn’t call him for a gig. But sometimes I’d call someone else because I didn’t want to worry about Rob showing up under-dressed or that he’d get into an argument with the staff.
There’s a third quality about Rob (aside from his technical prowess and musical intelligence) that may have proven to be a double-edged sword: He cared so deeply about the music that he set the bar extremely high, and could get dark if things didn’t meet his standards. I hate to say it, but, as much as I loved playing with him, I would occasionally let insecurity get the best of me and I’d play so as not to screw up (to avoid disappointing Rob), as opposed to just letting it fly, trusting that everyone will adjust to any potential road bumps. Rob wasn’t big on adjusting. But he gave each gig everything he could muster.
I felt like playing with Rob made me a better musician each and every time we went at it, and I was honored that he indicated similar sentiments to me. We had a great run at Andy’s, playing in Mike Smith’s band with Eric Montzka and Tito Carrillo (later with Ron Friedman). Despite (or perhaps because of) this profusion of strong personalities and opinions, the music was inspiring to be a part of, all the more so because we had the chance to do it every week, where I happily got my ass kicked each time. And I also came to realize that, despite Rob’s prowess, he understood the power of simple (yet urgent) quarter notes in the hands of a jazz bass player.
For my own selfish reasons, I’m sorry that Rob won’t be around because I was hoping to make music with him until we became a couple of drooling, shriveled-up, pitiful old farts.
Some people care too much; others, not enough. It’s tough to find the sweet spot.