Mark Deutsch doesn't love to travel by air, but not necessarily for the usual reasons. For him it's less about the anxiety of flying and more related to the fact that he's got an instrument that accompanies him wherever he goes — and the bazantar isn't one to be handled roughly. A creation of the musician himself, the bazantar is, by the shortest (and somewhat insufficient) definition, an enhanced 39-string bass, one that he handcrafted more than two decades ago.
For a cross-country tour that he's embarked upon, Deutsch is driving. Just him and his bazantar and a whole lot of cities that are interested in what the former St. Louisan has been up to.
"I'm driving to San Francisco, to New York," Deutsch notes, "and I was going to fly. But the last time, it was damaged. In June, I thought, 'Let me see what I can set up for a little tour. I haven't driven across the country in a while and it's time.' I have this huge flight case, which suspends the instrument in the case. But with what I've added to the instrument, it's always overweight. For some reason, during the last time flying, a dude made me disassemble it and it was really hell. When it was in the case, it was totally fine, but when I had to put it in this other box ... well, I'm a little freaked out about flying."
Because? "It's the only one there is, you know?"
Let's pause here. The bazantar. The protoptype is Deutsch's. It's so tied to Deutsch that his website's URL is bazantar.com and Deutsch has occasionally answered to "Bazantar" as if it's his name.
Via said website, here's the short history: "While studying North Indian classical music with the legendary sitar and surbahar master Ustad Imrat Khan (younger brother of Ustad Vilayat Khan), Mark began delving deeper into the universal fundamentals of music and its underlying frequency structures. This in turn led him to his quest to develop an instrument that could reproduce his findings. This work culminated in 1999 with Mark being awarded a US patent for his groundbreaking new instrument: Bazantar — a six-string acoustic bass fitted with an additional twenty-nine sympathetic strings and four drone strings. The result is a remarkable instrument that weaves a mesmerizing soundscape of resonance, and evokes all the power of Western classical music with the depth and nuance of Eastern traditions."
The instrument was something he developed from 1993 to 1997, a period of time in which Deutsch was already well established in several overlapping St. Louis music communities.
"In the 1980s, I started out in playing avant-garde jazz, heady stuff," he recalls. "And in the '90s, I was really making a living. I had the Live Wire blues band, my own jazz quintet, my Americana band Missouri Bottoms. I played with the Illinois Symphony, the Webster Symphony. I played sitar all the time. All of that progressed as I was building the bazantar. I was playing every night of the week: jazz, blues, classical, the sitar. I really loved my life in St. Louis and I was doing well. My life is just so different now. There, I played all the time. I was just a prostitute, playing anything you'd want. Jazz, cool. Blues, no problem. At the end of my stay there, I was going to New York and playing with the avant-garde cats in New York, and I brought a program that I started in St. Louis, 'Massamalgam,' to New York and Chicago, bringing them St. Louis poets like Shirley LeFlore and Michael Castro and musicians like Gary Sykes and John Wolf."
His experiences there would lead to his departure from St. Louis.
Deutsch ticks off a host of contemporaries that he played with in St. Louis, as well as influences like the drummer Joe Charles, a frequent sideman of John Coltrane. That life he had here, he says, was comfortable, but as the bazantar came into focus, he began to delve deeper into worldwide classical and folk music, especially those of India and China, creating a push-pull that was impossible to ignore.
"I had a different trajectory" in St. Louis, he says. "I'd been a musician since I was twelve. I'd set up a retirement account. I was a working musician and being conservative, playing anything. I had a very sober, solid, working musician's strategy. And then I got this instrument and it's completely rearranged my life."
It's not like Deutsch has been a stranger since he departed. After a solo showcase at the Sheldon in early October he came back for a show at the Focal Point on November 2. Out of town for a few more days after that, he'll return for a third hometown gig, this one centered on more of a Q&A approach at the Judson House on Friday, November 8.
Three shows so close together in one city might seem a lot, but Deutsch says each gig offers something a bit different.
"The Sheldon is where I debuted my instrument twenty years ago," he says. "It's a great place, and I used to play there when I lived in St. Louis, for different jazz or classical shows. Another gig's at the Focal Point and I've never played there but know they're into high-quality sound. At the Judson House, it'll be open for the audience to have a discussion; the audience will drive how that one goes. I'll be able to dissect some of the processes that I use and that are super interesting. It'll be a concert/lecture, a chill thing."
There's plenty to talk about.
"I'm like an expert in tuning systems and the underlying math that constitutes what notes you use, what notes are," he says. "I really know the mathematics behind it. That's what I'm doing on this tour, I'm lecturing on the physics of sounds. It can sound really esoteric or new-age-y, but it's old stuff. The Chinese and Indians have been doing this for 3,000 years. I've really gotten into it, and it's the work that I've done for the last 30 years. That's my passion. Before that, it was being a jazz or classical musician, but I felt that with this instrument I lost my prior life, and it put me in this weird direction of bass solo guy.
"It's a pretty unusual thing to do," he figures. "I like it."