The LaFaro Legacy
Rocco Scott LaFaro was the victim of a senseless automobile accident, depriving the jazz world of unforeseen musical accomplishments – but leaving an unprecedented style of playing, setting a standard that all bassists have strived to attain since Scott’s untimely passing.
In the automobile was Scott’s most prized possession – his bass.
In mid-1959, the late George Duvivier met Scott LaFaro at a joint musical project involving Gunter Schuller. George immediately recognized and was amazed by Scotty’s talent. George, who was a lifelong friend and client of my father, Sam Kolstein, insisted that Scott meet him. George brought Scott to Sam’s establishment, then located in Merrick, New York. Sam and Scott developed an immediate mutual admiration, respect and friendship. Two decisions were reached between them in their discussions.
First, the Prescott bass was to be fully restored enabling LaFaro to play it at its full potential. The second decision was the meeting of Scott with the revered Frederick Zimmermann, whereby a formalized approach to the bass would be introduced to Scott in order to embellish his phenomenal natural talents. Unfortunately, only one of the two decisions were fully accomplished, that being the restoration of the Prescott bass.
The bass suffered terrible damages to both the body chamber and scroll. The damages were primarily caused by the impact of the collision and the ensuing lire that followed the actual crash. Both the neck ind scroll were completely charred and shattered, as was the upper left bout of the top table and the upper left rib bout
(Photos A, B, & C).
Dismayed by the tragic loss of his dear young friend, Samuel Kolstein chose to keep this remnant of the creative genius of Scott LaFaro in a stable condition that would not allow the bass to deteriorate the Bass any further, until Sam could bring himself to the point of emotionally facing the arduous task of restoring this instrument or delegating the responsibilities of the restoration to one who would approach this instrument, an extension of Scott LaFaro’s life, with the same reverence and respect that existed in the relationship between Scott and Samuel.
This famed Bass lay dormant for more than twenty-four years.
Sam and I decided that the restoration of the Prescott would be completed within the twenty-fifth anniversary year of the death of Scott LaFaro. With the International Society of Bassists organization dedicating the 1988 Convention in UCLA, California to honor Scott LaFaro and Fred Zimmerman, it was decided that the Bass would be displayed at the 1988 Convention. Although the restoration of the Prescott spanned a longer period of time than anticipated, it was to our immense satisfaction that the LaFaro Prescott was once again played within the twenty fifth year, and was fully restored in time for the ISB 1988 Convention.
The actual restoration process extended well over a two-year period. In approaching the restoration of this fine instrument, it was necessary to consider several factors: the functional reconstruction of the bass, and protecting the integrity of a master instrument that has left a tonal legacy in Scotty’s hands. In discussing the stages of development of the original restoration of the Prescott accomplished by my father in late 1950’s, it was realized that, as great as this instrument was, the actual restorative work to the instrument was never given full opportunity to mature due to the circumstances.
Thus, it was decided to leave as much of the original restoration work as possible, to not only restore the instrument to its full form, but to restore the sound as well – to what it was when LaFaro played it.
At this point the actual restoration to the Prescott commenced.
All loosened cross bars to the flat back table were steamed, and reglued. Total evaluation was made to ascertain whether the proper amount of spring still existed in these cross bars to protect the integrity of the back table. Naturally, quite a bit of the existing patch-work was dried out due to the nature of the accident as well as the considerable amount of time this instrument lay in storage. All repair patching was removed and replaced with highly seasoned patch wood.
With the back table stable and restored, we next turned our efforts to the restoration of the ribs. Unfortunately, the damaged upper left rib bout was charred beyond restoration. Thus, we were faced with the task of matching a section of maple that would be in total accord with the highly distinctive character maple utilized by Abraham Prescott some 180, plus years ago. I chose to quarter and veneer a choice, highly seasoned maple section of cello back wood of substantial age with most similar character to that of the remaining original ribs. Preparation of the rib material was accomplished, then the rib was carefully bent to the proper alignment with the top and back table. Next, wood for the outer adjoining moldings were chosen, prepared, bent and glued into position on the new rib to match the traditional Prescott outer moldings on all original ribs.
Finally, the internal lining of highly seasoned pine was bent and glued into position (photos E and F) to the remaining ribs and cornerblocks, and endblocks were fully checked and repaired where deemed necessary. With full restoration accomplished on the ribs of the instrument, we elected to remove the remnants of the original neck from the already detached neck block. The neck block, being in usable condition, was repositioned and glued into proper position and alignment with the ribs and back table of the Prescott. It should be noted that the original design of the bass never had a conventional neck block. Rather, the instrument had an integrated crooked neck, being glued to the back table with the upper ribs tucked and glued into the maple neck. The original conversion of this bass was accomplished in the original restoration by Samuel Kolstein.
Our next task was the replacement of the existing scroll and neck. As mentioned earlier, the scroll and neck were subject to the brunt of the auto accident and, unfortunately, could not be restored to functional condition. The only alternative would be the copying of the Prescott scroll. The scroll model we chose was one of the traditional deep volutes with a convex channel at the rounded heel of the bass of the scroll. The installation of the gears involved the traditional inlaid Prescott brass plate tuning gears with Tyrolean knobs on the tuners. Upon the completion of the carving of the replacement neck and scroll, the neck was set into proper elevation and pitch in accord with the modern school of steel string playing.
The final stage of restoration was the cosmetic restoration of the instrument. Analysis of the Prescott varnish was exactingly accomplished, thus yielding the observation that a terpineol oil base varnish must be made and utilized in order to match the original varnish and patina of this fine instrument. All damaged areas of the bass were meticulously restored to match the original varnish.
With the full restoration of the LaFaro Prescott accomplished, the instrument completed its last stage of resurrection with the set-up and tonal adjustment of the bass. We equipped the bass with a Kolstein Adjustable Bass Bridge and a conventional lower saddle. Although Scotty played on Gut strings, I decided to set the instrument up with Heritage Perlon Core strings, that emulate gut string quality, but offer the responsiveness and trueness of a fine steel string.. but at a reduced string tension. In our opinion, this set-up offers the quality of sound that this instrument produced in the hands of Scott, but yet fulfills the modern requirements expected of an instrument of this caliber.
Since that time, Phil Palombi has recorded and performed with the LaFaro Prescott numerous times, as have numerous other International artists. 2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Scott LaFaro, who Phil honored in his recording “Person I Knew – A Tribute to Scott LaFaro”. The recording features the working trio of piano legend Don Friedman and Bill Evans alumnus Eliot Zigmund on drums. The special guest on the recording was LaFaro’s bass. I was the owner of the bass at the time, and with the blessing of the LaFaro estate, I granted Phil the honor of using the instrument for the recording as well as the weekend CD release concerts months later at the Kitano Jazz club in Manhattan.
In 2015 Phil recorded his third CD as a leader ”Detroit Lean” with the Prescott, and headlined the International Society of Bassists convention in Fort Collins, Colorado the following month.
Perhaps the biggest event for Phil that spring was returning to the Village Vanguard with Scotty’s bass for two performances with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, which marked the first time that the instrument had crossed though those hallowed doors since LaFaro himself walked through them to record Waltz for Debby and Sunday at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans in 1961.
In 2015, with loving honor to the LaFaro Family, the Kolstein family endowed the LaFaro Prescott Bass to the International Society of Bassists. It now has its’ home at Ithaca College, under the amazing watchful eye of Professor Nicholas Walker.
I have been most gratified to complete several copies of Scotty’s Prescott as well.
Sam and my sincere hopes were that this restoration was to not only awaken a sleeping giant, but to continue the creativity that this instrument was so well known for in the hands of Scott LaFaro.
I am most pleased that these hopes have been fulfilled.
This instrument is the work of Abraham Prescott, made in Concord, New Hampshire circa 1825.
The instrument is a three-quarter size, flatback model Bass Violin with gamba shaped upper corners and traditional Busetto lower bout corners. The instrument is quite unusual in that it is one of the few Prescott designs that were made of smaller dimensions.
The top i is a six-piece sectional plate of pine ranging in grain from medium at the outer flanks to slab cut at the center joint. The back table is a two-piece sectional plate of moderately flamed maple with flame ascending at the center joint. The back has an ebony strip inlaid at the center joint running the entire length of the back table. The ribs are of moderate slab cut maple of highly irregular flame. The ribs have maple outer molding adjoining the back and top plates. The color of the varnish is a deep brown amber.
Overall body length: