Adam Blackstone: Magic Man

March 9, 2012
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EMINEM. JANET JACKSON. Joe Jonas. Maroon 5. P-Diddy. Jill Scott. Nicki Minaj. Mike Posner. What do all these artists have in common? In a typical 24-hour period during 2011, they all benefitted from the bass and/or MD skills of Adam Blackstone, the 29-year-old wunderkind who’s now moving into Hollywood to work on NBC’s The Voice.

As he deftly juggles multiple music-director gigs, a thriving recording career, TV success, and a growing reputation as a first-rate producer, Blackstone continues to redefine the role of the bass player in pop culture for the next generation. Many factors led a 21-year-old bassist to go from open-mic sessions to playing Jay-Z’s sold-out farewell show at Madison Square Garden in the space of a month, but luck was not one of them. For a musician as focused, gifted, and hard working as Blackstone, luck has played but the smallest part in a ten-year career that has already reached the highest levels of pop, R&B, and hip-hop bass artistry—and continues to move toward even bigger stages.

Born in New Jersey to a family of musicians, Blackstone was already playing piano and drums by the time he was six, and he reluctantly began focusing on bass at the request of a teacher in third grade. It was a natural fit, however, and he continued playing upright bass at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, where he earned a degree in jazz performance. Blackstone emerged determined to make his mark, and he quickly became known for his distinctly round tone, unrelenting work ethic, and ear for detail. After coming to the attention of Philly music icon and Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Blackstone landed two New York gigs that helped put him on the map: Jay-Z’s “Fade to Black” show at the Garden, in November 2003, and Dave Chappelle’s September 2004 Block Party in Brooklyn. Both concerts were high-profi le, star-studded events that were filmed and became popular documentaries. As word spread of his leadership and dependability, Blackstone became one of the most in-demand bassist/musical directors in the world, working with A-level artists such as Kanye West, Usher, Al Green, Al Jarreau, Dionne Warwick, and Pharrell Williams.

As he prepares to enter his 30s, Blackstone is staying busy playing, producing, music-directing, and digging into his latest gig—as Adam Levine’s musical adviser on the hit talent show The Voice—where he’s enjoying a whole new level of visibility. His schedule is more packed than ever, but as Blackstone is the first to tell you, that’s all just part of the job description.

You’re one of the busiest bass players in the industry right now. How do you juggle so many distinctive projects at once?

By respecting each artist, their craft, and their music. I can’t bring Janet Jackson tone to an Eminem gig, and I can’t bring a Nicki Minaj mentality to a Jordin Sparks recording session. Respecting each artist’s music allows you to be authentic—when I’m with Joe Jonas, I don’t want to sound like I’m on a hip-hop gig.

One thing I know for sure is that nobody is going to work harder than me in terms of learning the music, pleasing the artist, and working toward setting a higher standard. I give 100 percent to every artist I work with; I’ve never left a gig on bad terms, and I won’t settle until my artists are completely happy.

How do you balance emulating a track and putting your own touch on things?

I definitely learn the exact song first, and if it moves me to do something, I might do it. If it feels out of place because a vocal is over that part or the artist is used to that space, I’ll make the disciplined choice. It’s all about learning the music and then slowly infusing myself into it.

Once I got the Janet Jackson gig and realized that it was coming from a place of pop music and R&B, for example, I had to study her previous bassists, Sam Sims and Ethan Farmer, because they were doing some classic slap bass parts I had to incorporate into my playing. I played upright bass all through college, and like a lot of cats at the time, I emulated the full, round bass tone Pino Palladino was getting on his P-Bass with flatwounds.

What about when you’re asked to create a part of your own?

I like to talk to the artist and the producer—if I’m not producing—to find out where they feel the song takes them before I play on it, and where they want the bass to take them once I start playing on it. Initially, I listen to the song without my bass; my producer/musical director side kicks in and I hear the form first—where and how long are the verse, chorus, and bridge, and when do they repeat. Maybe I’ll scratch out a chord chart. When I pick up my bass and start vibing with the artist, I keep my part very simple, without a lot of movement. I need to have a solid foundation to hang everyone’s ideas on. After the direction is established, I add to my part as we go and stretch if requested.

Once we’re ready to record, I pride myself in keeping my take. That’s not to say I’m always a first-take player, but I want a complete bass track down; I don’t want to rely on punching in. I want you to hear the structure of the song in my part and how it was a single performance that I thought about and developed all the way through. I’m composing a bass line, but I’m also producing a bass line. My goal is for it to resonate with people when they hear it on the radio, and for other bassists to feel they have to play it when they’re on the road with the artist, or covering the song on a bar gig.

How did you work on your slap technique?

The first thing I did was to get a bass that suited that style, a Performance; a lot of the gospel cats play those, and the bassist before me in Janet’s band, Ethan Farmer, played one. Then I went back to basics and ’shedded a ton, playing long tones, short tones, and scales, slap-style. I listened to a lot of famous slap bassists—Marcus Miller, Bootsy, Larry Graham, and a bunch of gospel cats—to hear their tone. Once I got those tones in my ear, it became more automatic for me. We were going eight hours a day for two months working on the Janet material, learning 45 to 55 songs, and the whole time I was honing my slap chops. She has a lot of hits, man!

How do you decide which gear to bring to each job?

My gear choices are based solely on the music and me being me. Sometimes the artist is calling me for my sound. I’m blessed to have a variety of instruments and gear that help me get a wide range of tones, from Motown on a P-Bass to slap with Janet to upright.

Which bassists have had the biggest influence on your career?

When I was playing a lot of jazz on upright, Ron Carter was huge to me. Jaco, of course, taught me what an electric bass could do. Marcus Miller opened me up to creating a specific tone. At this point in my life, though, it’s my peers who change the way I think and play. Guys like Derrick Hodge, who is the greatest, and Thaddeus Tribbett, who is a monster, change the way I approach bass and also how my ears work. I listen to those guys and we’re good friends, but they blow my mind.

How did you land the gig on The Voice?

I’ve been Maroon 5’s MD and musical consultant for the last year and a half, and once Adam Levine became one of the four judges, he brought me on as his musical adviser. He and I have great musical chemistry; I think the audience can see how much we respect and love each other, and that we have so much to bring to these contestants, who are new to the industry.

What first inspired you to become a musical director?

I’ve always been musically opinionated and a leader, and artists have always felt comfortable talking to me first about the details. Back in 2001, I didn’t know what a musical director was, but I was already doing the duties of one. As people noticed my pride, professionalism, and accountability, they started putting me in charge of their projects. Most musical direction is less about skills and more about leadership and accountability.

What do you do as a musical director?

The most basic job of an MD is to put a band together, which involves knowing the music and where it’s coming from, who fits into that genre, and who’s going to play it how it should be played. From there, I take meetings with the artist, put the set list together, build transitional parts in the show, and let them know how the changes are going to go down. It’s about being as hands-on as possible and not being afraid of giving your opinion to the artist about their music and how you see it. That’s how you gain respect from them, and after that, everyone becomes super-comfortable with each other.

I learn all the music, build play-along tracks in Pro Tools for the artists, put the rehearsal schedule together, and make sure the musicians know their parts. I handle all the logistics; I’m involved in anything that has to do with the artist and the music. During the show, I’m directing the band—I’m giving cues, signaling hard endings and hard starts, and cuing the Pro Tools guy to start the tracks. I’m making sure the artist is comfortable with the volume onstage, and on top of it all, I’m playing bass and keyboard bass.

Timing is important, too. I have to make sure the artist has enough time to talk between songs and do their monologue, and if they’re going to change something on the spot, I have to improvise. A lot for that goes with knowing the artist.

The main thing I learned from him is to come into every situation perfectly prepared on all levels—to know everything in and out of every tune so that if you have to teach it, you can. As an MD, it’s my job to know the bass lines, the keyboard parts, the hi-hat pattern, the three notes the back-up singers are supposed to sing, the guitar riffs, everything. I’m not embarrassed to say that so many times Questlove would sing the bass line to me and say, “That’s wrong, it goes: boom, boom, boom, boom boom.” I’ll go back and listen to it and ten out of ten times, he’s dead on.

Another thing I learned from him is confidence. When you play confidently, the artists get comfortable and trust your playing. Questlove comes into every situation like he’s been playing that music for the last 20 years. And now, artists allow him to put it together on his own because they trust him so much. Luckily, that’s the case for me now, too. He showed me how to keep a band together and manage band members, artists, and everyone in their circles. I learned to stay overtime and be the most prepared person in the room. He also taught me to take risks in rehearsals, because they can turn out to be classic moments that define what the sound is, and to not be afraid to infuse myself with the music. I’ve learned so much from him, it’s hard for me to stop. You and I could be talking way past dinnertime if I kept going.

Do you find it hard to please big stars, who sometimes have big egos?

I always stay humble and never let my ego get in the way of my integrity. At the same time, my confidence makes them comfortable. The trick to that is knowing that I’ve done my homework and researched every element of their music and their history. They trust me.

I’m not scared to know that my idea is the right one to go with, and I’m not scared to get vetoed if they don’t like it, either. If they want to try something else, I’ll give them other ideas. I can throw out 15 ideas for a part, and if they don’t like any of them, I’m going to have ideas 16–30 on deck.

How important is teamwork and delegating?

Having a strong team around me is a huge, huge part of what I do. If I can’t trust people around me, whether it be my Pro Tools guy, my bass tech, or my wife handling all of my loose ends, I can’t perform to my highest level. I’m very hands-on, but there are things I can’t do and things I shouldn’t be doing because they take away from me being creative, so I have to pass those tasks along to people that I trust. And if I hire someone to do something, I have to trust that they’re on point and doing their thing. I never have to check on the people I hire, because I know they’re killing it, and that allows me to give all of my time to the artist and make sure they’re satisfied.

The pressure to make last-minute changes must be intense sometimes.

Last-second changes don’t rattle me. Nothing can rattle me on a gig. There are a bunch of different things that separate me from other people, and some of them have nothing to do with playing. A lot of this music game isn’t about skills; there’s always someone around who can play. It’s about character, it’s about musical respect, integrity, and everything that comes with being a great working musician.

I met Puff [P-Diddy] when we bumped into each other in the parking lot of CenterStaging, a rehearsal place in L.A. He said he was familiar with my work with Kanye and Jay-Z and that he was going to call me next week. He called right when he said he would. It was a Wednesday when we first spoke, and we ended up doing Saturday Night Live that Saturday. I get that type of pressure all the time, and as an MD and bass player, it’s my job to make it happen. But it is a gift and a curse, because then the artist tends to think that you can do it like that all the time. At the end of the day, though, the pressure makes it that much more intensified, and when you succeed, it feels even better.

What advice would you give to a bassist who wants to be in your position?

Work very hard. Be patient. I’m blessed to be able to work steadily, but it wasn’t always like this. Stay humble. When you finally do get that gig, don’t go playing all over the artist’s music. And be thankful in the moment. Always remember that yesterday, you didn’t have the gig, and tomorrow, you might not have it, either.

SELECTED PERFORMANCES & DISCOGRAPHY

Various Artists, Musical Director, VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul [VH1, 2011]
Jill Scott, Light of the Sun [Warner Bros., 2011]
Kanye West, VH1 Storytellers (DVD) [Def Jam, 2010]
Janet Jackson, Live American Idol [Fox, 2010]
Diane Birch, Bible Belt [S-Curve 2009]
Al Jarreau, The Very Best of Al Jarreau: An Excellent Adventure [Rhino, 2009]
Al Green, Lay It Down [Blue Note, 2008]
Kindred the Family Spirit, The Arrival [S-Curve, 2008]
Jill Scott, VH1 SoulStage [VH1, 2007]
Angie Stone, The Art of Love and War [Stax, 2007]
Musiq (Soulchild), Luvanmusiq [Atlantic, 2007]
Pharrell & the Yessirs, In My Mind [Virgin, 2006]
Jay Z, Fade to Black (DVD) [Paramount, 2005]
The Roots, Tipping Point [Geffen, 2004]
The Isley Brothers, Taken to the Next Phase [Epic/Legacy, 2004]
Joss Stone, The Soul Sessions [S-Curve, 2003]

GROOVES OF STONE
BY CHRIS JISI

Adam Blackstone is a bonafide groove hero, a plucker who possesses all the established, under-the-radar intangibles that “mysteriously” make a track come alive in realms well beyond a first-rate digital mix. These groove gifts enable him to pick the right instrument and tone for each track; subtly shade the pocket by applying different feels within the same song (or even the same phrase); use his jazz training to insert ear-grabbing drops, and to anticipate— and reveal—the upcoming chord before the bar line; and react to everything else that’s happening inside the track.

Example 1 evokes the main two-bar riff and the four-bar B section (at 1:35) of Joss Stone’s “Fell in Love With a Boy.” With Questlove’s sparse, old-school drumming, Blackstone is thrust into the subhook role, first applying greasy phrasing to the main riff on his ’72 J-Bass through a Moogerfooger Bass MuRF pedal, and then channeling Jamerson/Rainey with a passing- tone syncopation in the last four bars. Adam advises, “Totally lay back on the two and four backbeat. The bass sets the pulse for the track.” Example 2 recalls four bars of the chorus (at 2:12) of Al Green’s “No One Like You,” with Blackstone continuing his melodic ways on a ’69 P-Bass. “My part was inspired by playing off what the late, great guitarist Spanky Chalmers was doing on the track.” Dig Adam’s frequent use of scoops via hammers or slides. “That’s part of my style. When I scoop, I arrive on the beat a little late, which helps on a laid-back feel like this.”

Example 3 visits Blackstone’s upright side—namely, the two-bar verse riff of Jill Scott’s “Rolling Hills,” followed by three jazzy variations he plays during the track. Says Adam, who produced and co-wrote the song and used his miked 1950s Epiphone acoustic bass, “Jill sang that rhythm to me and said she wanted an old Ellington, juke joint vibe, so the upright was a must. The key here is intonation, because the part is so exposed and at a ballad tempo.” Finally, Examples 4a and 4b conjure the power of the breakdown (2:55) and out chorus (4:04) of Pharrell & the Yessirs’ “Take It Off.” In Ex. 4a, Blackstone (on his ’69 P-Bass) shows his comfort with melodic ideas over a wide sonic range, capped by a cool double-stop. For Ex. 4b, Adam reveals, “We were playing more simply over these changes during the song, so for the vamp out, (keyboardist/ producer) James Poyser asked me to explore some other melodic options while ‘keeping it sexy.’ What’s important is to know your harmony through the upper extensions of the chords, to add interest and color to your fills.”

“Fell in Love with a Girl” by Jack White Copyright Peppermint Strip Music. All Rights Reserved. “No One Like You” by Chalmers Alford, Adam Blackstone, Al Green, James Poyser, and Ahmir Thompson Copyright 474 Music, Al Green Music, Inc., Irving Music, and Universal Music Careers. All Rights Reserved. “Rolling Hills” by Adam Blackstone, Randall Bowland, Wayne McCurdy, Jill Scott, and Eric Wortham II Copyright Blue’s Baby Music, Smoobie Music, Spanky GHM Music, and Universal Music Corporation. All Rights Reserved. “Take It Off Dime the Lights” by Pharrell L. Williams Copyright EMI Blackwood Music, Inc. and Songs for Beans. All Rights Reserved.

GEAR

Basses Epiphone upright bass, ’68 Fender Precision Bass, ’73 Fender Jazz Bass, fretless Ibanez Gary Willis 5-string, custom Ibanez ATK 5-string, Lakland Skyline 55-02 5-string, Performance Guitars 5-string, Stagg electric double bass
Rig Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550, 1001RB, and MB800 heads; Gallien-Krueger NEO412 and MB110 1x10 cabinets; Avalon U5 DI
Effects EBS Micro Bass, EBS OctoBass, EBS MultiComp, EBS MultiDrive
Strings Black Diamond Nickel 550 roundwounds, Black Diamond Chromium flatwounds, Super Sensitive Red Label double bass strings
Synths Korg MS2000, Korg Microkorg, Korg Triton Extreme, Korg Kronos

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