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Bassist comes out of background

Michael Corcoran

Most people would feel lucky to master one art in their lifetime. Austin's Glenn Fukunaga is not only an in-demand bassist (Robert Plant, Dixie Chicks), but he's a noted restorer of rare books.

Playing bass and restoring books don't seem to have much in common, but, Fukunaga says, "they both require an attention to detail and that you work well with your hands." And the longer you do it, the better you get.

The Hawaii native, who's been in Austin since 1974, has played in an estimated 300 recording sessions. But this year he released the first CD with his name on the front cover and not just in the liner notes. "Not a Word" is just that, an album of six jazz instrumentals, flavored by spooky exotica and sprawling rhythms. Moods range from somber and serene on "Song For Glenn," written in homage to Glenn Fukunaga Jr., who lost a battle with cancer at age 39, to exuberantly experimental on "Drivin' Into a Donut Hole." The overall effect of this half-hour of music is meditative, without being new age.

Fukunaga and his band — Joel Guzman on keyboards, Alex Coke on woodwinds, Kevin Flatt on brass and Dony Wynn on drums — celebrate the release of the CD this week with an appearance Wednesday at Waterloo Records and a set at the Continental Club Gallery the next night. The Thursday event doubles as an art show opening for the album's cover artist, Dana Smith.

Collective improvisation

"After all these years of backing other people, I was getting a little frustrated with the rules of the session guy," Fukunaga says from his book binding workshop behind the Barton Hills home he shares with his wife, Sandy. "I wanted to make a record where no one was telling me to ‘walk to the four,' " he says, referring to a standard baseline.

Fukunaga says he didn't give his seasoned bandmates any directions. "These are my favorite guys," he says. "I just said, ‘Do what you do.' " Most tracks were recorded in three takes or less.

Wynn says Fukunaga doesn't need to say much because he's able to express himself non-verbally. "His confidence in life, and thereby, on his instrument (exudes) a master at work. His is the quiet storm. But make no mistake, even though a placid surface, a virulent storm indeed resides."

Though he now specializes in standup bass, Fukunaga was not really a big jazz fan earlier in his career. His résumé included blues (Lou Ann Barton), punk (Project Terror), folk (Terri Hendrix, Eliza Gilkyson), country ("Home" by the Dixie Chicks) and rock (James Burton), but almost no jazz.

"The big turning point was about 10 or 12 years ago. I was listening to KUT, and they played a song by (jazz pianist) Bill Evans, and it knocked me out," he says. He started buying every Evans record he could find and studied up on the man and his bassist, Scott LaFaro, perhaps Fukunaga's biggest influence besides Motown's James Jamerson. "Bill Evans had this philosophy that everyone plays together, having a musical conversation, as opposed to one guy soloing and everyone else laying back." This style of "collective improvisation" was the musical mindset of "Not a Word."

British Invasion reaches the Big Island

Fukunaga grew up in Hilo on the island of Hawaii, which was not immune to Beatlemania. "Me and some friends all went from ukulele to guitar, but someone needed to play bass, so I volunteered under the condition that it would be for one year only," Fukunaga says with a laugh. That was 1964. He overshot his limited period on bass by 47 years.

Last year Fukunaga was enlisted to play bass with one of his early rock heroes, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. "It was only one show in Marfa," Fukunaga says of his time in Crown Vic, which also featured Patty Griffin, Michael Ramos, David Grissom and drummer Wynn (who played with Robert Palmer for two decades). "But it was a pretty amazing experience. There's nothing like hitting the stage in front of a great crowd."

Especially when you've spent all day rescuing tattered and crumbling books. "We used to have a storefront on South Lamar, and we'd always get people coming in with their family Bibles falling apart," Fukunaga recalls. "I'd look them over and say, ‘That's about 10 hours worth of work, so you're looking at $650,' and they'd look at me horrified. ‘I thought it would be $20.' Thank God we're out of the Bible business." Fukunaga sold the storefront six years ago and works from home mainly with longtime clients, including Austin-based Mark Twain collector Kevin MacDonnell. Recent tasks for Fukunaga included binding special books for Mark Twain Award for American Humor winners Tina Fey and Bill Cosby.

Fukunaga's introduction to the world of rare books was entirely coincidental. Being a broke musician when he arrived in Austin in the mid-'70s at the behest of booking agent Charlie Hatchet (who caught Fukunaga's touring cover band Bamboo in Amarillo), Fukunaga was hired on as a UT shuttle bus driver, then a chauffeur. One of his first limo clients was notorious rare book dealer and publisher John Holmes Jenkins, who kept the multimillion-dollar Eberstadt Collection of books and papers in a vault in the corrugated metal building on Interstate 35 that currently has the seven-foot-high letters "XXX" on the side.

"Mr. Jenkins was quite a character," Fukunaga says of the high-stakes poker player nicknamed "Austin Squatty" in Las Vegas for the way he sat at a card table with his legs crossed under him. Jenkins died in 1989 near Bastrop from a gunshot wound to the back of the head that was ruled a suicide, though the gun was never found.

Though Jenkins hired Fukunaga as a book binder, it was a restoration expert from Switzerland called Mr. Brunner who taught him the tricks of the trade.

A born perfectionist, Fukunaga took to the craft right away. "There were three or four of us working on the books, and after a few months, clients started asking for me," he says. It's a slow process that requires a deft touch and complete concentration. One mistake could knock thousands of dollars off a rare book's value. Fukunaga has worked on million-dollar projects, such as restoring a dozen first edition copies of the Book of Mormon, worth about $90,000 a copy.

"It's funny. I could do this deaf," he says, slowly raising the spine of an old and tender book. "And I could do that blind," gesturing to the standup bass he keeps by his side in his workshop.

Sometimes he'll think of a piece of music when he's repairing a book, and he'll get behind the bass and work it out. But he has book deadlines, so he's back at the big table before too long.

"I've definitely made more money with books than music in the past, but it's getting to be 50-50," says Fukunaga.

Hand in hand. Whether on stage, in the studio or in his workshop table piled with decaying literary classics, Fukunaga has enjoyed a life of exquisite balance.

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