Eddie Gomez

May 27, 2014
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"It has to be singing, and it has to be dancing.” That basic credo has served Eddie Gomez over the course of a remarkable career that has seen him guide the double bass viol from its pre- and post-bop plucking roots to a modern era of expression and experimentation. From his lengthy, landmark stay with the Bill Evans Trio, to his first-call status with such veteran New York jazz cognoscenti as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, Stan Getz, Nancy Wilson, and McCoy Tyner, to his pivotal role with an adventurous next wave of jazzers that included Chick Corea, Steps Ahead, Jack DeJohnette, and Dave Liebman, Gomez redefined the bass as an extension of the voice, bringing a whole new level of clarity and presence to the instrument. His über-melodic, always grooving style has remained a constant, through more than a dozen discs and countless tours as a leader and super-sideman—a fact recognized by the Berklee College of Music, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in October. Thoughtful, inquisitive, quick-witted, and observant in conversation, Gomez enjoys the various musical challenges of life behind his e-size bass. “I’ve always looked at myself somewhat like an actor diving into different roles.”

Born Edgar Gomez in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on October 4, 1944, Eddie moved with his family to New York City before he was two. He recalls his mother singing to him, as well as a “potpourri” of Americana music via the radio and TV. At age 11, he got into an orchestra class at public school, where his teacher surmised, “You look like a bass player,” and pointed him to the double basses. Soon he was playing duets with a friend whose older brother was into jazz. Smitten, he began buying records by Red Garland and Miles Davis and dabbling in improvisation. By age 13 Gomez was accepted into the prestigious New York City High School of Music and Art. There, he began seven years of study with N.Y. Philharmonic Principal Bassist Fred Zimmerman, made All-City Orchestra, and played in the Newport Festival Youth Band. Juilliard, at Zimmerman’s recommendation, was next, where his classmates included Corea, Hubert Laws, Gary Karr, and Itzhak Perlman. To support his young family while in Juilliard, Gomez began rotating gigs with everyone from Marian McPartland and Benny Goodman to downtowners Paul Bley and Giuseppe Logan. Vibist Gary McFarland provided Eddie’s first road gig and stability, followed by a nurturing stint with Gerry Mulligan. A few weeks after playing the Village Vanguard in the spring of 1966 with Mulligan, opposite the Bill Evans Trio, Evans called the young bassist—who was just beginning a week at the Copa with Bobby Darin—for a tour. A month into the run, the keyboard colossus invited Gomez to join his trio permanently. It would be the start of a prodigious path, and it’s where we begin Eddie’s long-overdue BP cover story.

Who were your main influences on bass at the point when you first met Bill Evans?

The first bassist I became aware of was Milt Hinton. I bought a Dixieland album that he did his slapping thing on. As a teen, I took a lesson at his house in Queens, and he was just the sweetest man; he showed me a great way to finger the chromatic scale. Then I discovered Paul Chambers through a Red Garland Trio record, and Ray Brown with Oscar Peterson, and they became my main guys. They could both solo, and Paul was a virtuoso with the bow, but it was their relentless groove, sense of swing, sound, and note choices that did it for me. I also loved Sam Jones, Wilbur Ware, Red Mitchell— and Charles Mingus; we later became friends when he was ailing, and I was the bass player on his last two albums. I was 17 when I first heard Scott LaFaro, and it was a defining moment for all of us young bassists. From his technique to his singing solos to his interaction with Bill, he was a revelation. I saw him once at a rehearsal studio but sadly never got to meet him.

What do you think Bill heard in you that led to your hire?

That’s a good question because there were a lot of great young players around, like Albert Stinson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. When I first said hello to him that week at the Vangaurd, when I was with Gerry, he said, “I hear something in your playing that makes me think we would sound good together.” Maybe it was something raw or underdeveloped he felt he could mould. At that point with Gerry, I was trying to break out of the traditional way of playing, and I had done duos with my high school buddy, [flautist] Jeremy Steig, which opened me up to different ways of looking at the instrument. It was a dream come true to be asked to join the Bill Evans Trio, but I was tentative at first, scratching and clawing my way through my own fears. And then being thrown into those early recordings with Bill and Shelly Manne—I still have trouble listening to those. It took about two years until I felt relaxed and comfortable in my own skin, thanks to Bill being very supportive on and off the bandstand. It also changed my life because it was a high profile role; people were aware of me globally, and that’s daunting.

How did you come into your prime with Bill, and what do you consider the highpoint?

I knew it was an on-the-job training process. I could play the instrument; what I needed to learn was the infrastructure of the music and furthermore the art. That’s what Bill had: the balance of cerebral thought, emotion, sound, development, and creation, and the ability to reach down so deep into his soul. I learned so much being around that, and it also taught me to keep asking questions and keep searching, to this day. I was at my best when my playing was interactive, contrapuntal, and swinging—with Bill the first rule was to keep the swing. For that reason, my favorite drummers in the trio were the ones who were not afraid to push and drive the band, and make things happen. Eventually, I matured to the point where I felt confident as a third equal voice, there only to serve the music. That came with a kind of freedom, and it felt very familial. If you’re talking about specific albums, I would cite my last few, particularly You Must Believe in Spring—that’s a poetic statement. When I left, I had no idea Bill was sick and would be gone in a few years. I wanted to be able to come back for a project. He was so imbedded in my heart, and he still is.

Let’s talk about your soloing side. You became known for playing up high. What was your inspiration in that range?

I guess I was sort of singled out for that early on, even though my ideal was, and is, to be known for playing the whole instrument. For me, it starts with singing—hearing my mother sing as a child, and then being influenced by all kinds of vocalists: Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Pavarotti. It’s the purest form of expression. If I could sing, that’s what I would have done. Instead I’m singing on the bass. When I solo or play melodies up there, I’m not thinking of a sax or horn player; I think of myself as a tenor bass. I’m going for what they call a lyric tenor sound. I’m thinking expression, sustain, and clarity—making it clear is very important. Every day I wake up with the fight for intonation and clarity. It’s difficult, but that’s part of the deal. As I’ve gotten older, I feel like my approach has changed in that I try to edit myself more; I’m less notey. I’m still going for the melody in everything I play, but breathing and space are front and center, too.

Counterpoint seems to be a key ingredient to your trio and other ensemble work.

It’s not really counterpoint in the strict sense, like a Bach Invention, where two voices are going simultaneously—although that does happen at times, as does the Dixieland approach, where multiple instruments play together and sort of answer each other. It’s more listening, interacting, and communicating in a conversational way, in the moment; with elements of call and response, tension and release, and dynamics. And you never abandon the time, groove, changes, or melody; they all have to be there somewhere. It takes a familiarity and a trust that comes from spending time together and understanding each person’s rhythms, phrasing, and breathing. There has to be a give and take, with space and silence, not overdoing it with too many notes. It’s got to be tasteful and musical.

You had the opportunity to sub for Ron Carter in Miles Davis’ second classic quintet, with Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, and Herbie Hancock.

I did; Tony called me the first time, to do a week in Chicago, and I also got to do Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and the Vanguard in New York. It wasn’t easy, because those guys had a special environment that was a very fertile place, but I enjoyed the challenge. Miles didn’t say much; I could just sense when things were okay by the band’s body language—occasionally he’d turn around and tell me, “Eddie, don’t play that note.” It was an absolute thrill for me, and I wish I knew then what I know now, playing-wise. We got to a where we were all comfortable with each other; Miles would tease me by whispering in my ear, “Hey, Eddie, you’re too little to play the bass!”

You departed Bill’s trio just in time to become the bassist of choice for a whole new breed of jazz musicians.

That started with Chick Corea. I first met and played with Chick in Boston, while I was still in high school, and we had a natural and immediate hookup. He called me toward the end of my run with Bill, and that’s what helped me realize that after 11 years I needed to move on to other things. I didn’t want to jump into another band, but I wanted to do different projects. That was a great period for me; it was an extension of my playing with Bill—that sense of experimentation—but with my own generation. In addition to Chick, there was Steps Ahead, which was a collaborative effort with my friend Steve Gadd, the late, great Michael Brecker, Mike Mainieri, and the late Don Grolnick, who was an amazing composer and pianist. It was a thrill and a lot of fun to be the bassist in that band, and I’m extremely proud of that body of work, which some say is undersung because the fusion label became attached. The other main group was the New Directions band, with Jack DeJohnette, John Abercrombie, and Lester Bowie. There was so much music simmering in each of those settings; we were all willing to live near the edge and venture out to parts unknown to try new ideas. Sometimes perhaps we went too far, which might have been the case with New Directions. But you learn you have to take risks if you want to grow.

Your three records with Chick from that era culminated in the modern classic Three Quartets.

Right; before that, Friends and Mad Hatter were very accessible and melodic, with great tunes like “Humpty Dumpty.” But Three Quartets was a milestone for us all—me, Chick, Steve [Gadd], and Michael [Brecker]. We put on our deep-sea suits and plunged into this unexpected world where the writing was so complicated and challenging, but so good that it brought out the best in each of us. It became an ensemble piece, with the perfect balance between the writing and the playing. My bass sound was tinkered with a bit in the mix, favoring the electric side, but it’s okay because it serves the music. Chick is a visionary and a terrific composer, pianist, and bandleader, like Bill, who was a major influence on him. But Bill was Bill all the time, while Chick is a chameleon who likes to change direction. He has an intuitive gift for choosing the right musicians for his projects. He got the late Paul Motian for the recent trio record we did, Further Explorations, and Paul was wonderful on it.

The Gadd Gang was the furthest removed from jazz of any group you’ve toured with. How did you approach that role?

That was a dream come true, to get to be an R&B bass player with Steve and the late, great Richard Tee and Cornell Dupree. I love groove music. I’m into Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, the Doobie Brothers, Prince, Black Eyed Peas, Earth, Wind & Fire; it makes me want to get up and dance. It’s human and vital. What happened was, we were all signed to the same label, and they wanted to put us in a project. That became Steve’s record—which I got to write for— and subsequent touring band. I was delighted to be playing upright bass in that context, where the whole idea was to hang with Steve’s bass drum and be real solid. I didn’t consciously try to change my sound or shorten my notes, nor did anyone ask me to; I just intuitively tailored my approach to fit the music. A lot of upright players have borrowed from the bass guitar, and I’m sure I have, because the instrument has gotten in my ears.

Have you played the electric bass, and what are your thoughts?

I haven’t played it much at all. I was asked to play one on an album with Bill where he was going to play electric piano. They rented one for me, and it was basically a disaster, which was no surprise to me. We abandoned that and went back in and did a trio record that won a Grammy [The Bill Evans Album, 1971]. But I love the bass guitar—I call it that because it’s part of the guitar family; I even advise students who play it to go back and learn the classical and Spanish guitar tradition. I love listening to great players like James Jamerson, Will Lee, Anthony Jackson, and Victor Wooten, and I’m a big fan of the playing and writing of Stanley Clarke, Jaco, Steve Swallow, and Marcus Miller—all of these guys have a voice on the instrument. Aside from not being able to bow the bass guitar, it serves the same function as the bass viol. I get that sometimes you want a bass guitar because it has a certain sound that’s needed. On the other hand, you have folks who prefer a double bass in jazz, yet there are plenty of players who can swing on bass guitar. I’d rather not have that division; there’s no squabble or competition for me. I don’t care which instrument is being played, or what genre it’s playing, as long as good music is coming out of it.

How do you reflect on your solo recording career, both as a bandleader and a composer?

There’s a part of me that feels maybe I haven’t done it enough, but on the other hand, I’ve released quite a few albums. A number of them have been crossover records, and I recall labels always telling me not to be so eclectic, that it confuses the audience. As a bassist leader you have to go more out of your way to define and cultivate your audience, because folks are not used to bass being featured. And I never wanted to be a crusader for the bass; I just wanted to make good records that all of the musicians contribute to. On the composing side, writing does not come so readily for me, and never in huge quantities. I have to work very hard at it. But when I listen back, I’m proud of what I’ve written, and it makes me realize I need to do it more in order to get better at it.

What will 2014 and beyond look like?

I’m excited about a new band called Jazz Stories that I’m doing with Kenny Baron, Wallace Roney, and Al Foster. As a leader, I tour regularly with my trio— with [pianist] Stefan Karlsson and [drummer] Billy Drummond—or we go as a quartet with a trumpet player. We have a whole new straightahead repertoire with my tunes and covers like “Joshua” and “Peace.” I also really enjoy teaching, at the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico and at Berklee, where I have residencies. You learn so much from students’ questions, in that it makes you conceptualize and verbalize how you do what you do. There’s a lot of great, young talent out there, with the energy and passion to match any previous generation. My next goal is to arrange and play my material with a small string orchestra and with a big band; that’s in the works. And I want to finish a classical/jazz record with [pianist/composer] Mark Kramer. There are a lot of projects left in me to do, and I plan on doing them!

Walk This Way

EDDIE GOMEZ ALWAYS presents new students with basic walking and bowing exercises designed to gauge and improve their feel. Example 1 shows two “Ray Brown-like” one-bar figures over a dominant 7 and a major 7 chord. Explains Eddie, “The idea is to get students familiar with the swing shuffle feel, to really feel and execute the triplet subdivision of the quarter-notes— and, through the ghosted and extra notes, to be totally integrated into the pulse, as if you have a drummer playing behind you. Start slowly, with a metronome on two and four, which really forces you to be precise, and then gradually increase the tempo. Be mindful of the left-hand index-finger plucks (some analogous to a pull-off or hammeron), as well as the triplet drop across the strings, which is played in one sweeping motion, usually with the right index finger. The goal is to sound like a purring motor as you repeat the measure over and over. From there, you can apply the figure to a blues form. The key is having the root on the first beat.”

Example 2 contains a bowing exercise over the second eight and first four bridge measures of “Rhythm” changes. “This is all about how to swing with the bow. We’re trying to emulate the phrasing and breathing of a vocalist or a horn player, as well as the swung, triplet feel of the eighth-notes. To play down and upstrokes for each beat would sound too staccato and choppy; we’re going for a legato sound, where the left hand articulates the eight pitches, all in half or 1st position, for each bow stroke. Start slowly, with the metronome on two and four, gradually increasing the tempo, and use the first two- thirds of the bow only. The breath for the upbow on the upbeat of each measure is typical of the swing feel. Listen to the bowing styles of Oscar Pettiford, Slam Stewart, Major Holley, and Paul Chambers to get the sound and phrasing in your ears.” Eddie adds, “I also give this exercise to bass guitar students and ask them to figure out how to play it legato without plucking every note.”

Larry Klein On Eddie Gomez

“Eddie Gomez’s playing has always been a beacon of originality and a standard of excellence to me as a bass player. There are very few players of any instrument who really carve out their own completely new musical voice, and who create their own melodic language to accompany that voice, and Eddie is among those greats. In the early ’70s Bill Evans only seemed to play at the Playboy Club when he came to L.A. Herb Mickman, who was my bass teacher during high school, was friendly with Eddie, and somehow—I still don’t know how he managed to do it—Herb got me into the Playboy Club to see Eddie with Bill Evans every time they played there. It was somewhat of a religious experience to watch Bill and Eddie’s musical interaction. You had to be 21 to get into the Playboy Club, and as you can imagine, being a 16-yearold bass player, sitting a few feet away from Bill and Eddie playing the repertoire that I had been listening to endlessly in my bedroom, all of this in the Playboy Club environment, with Playboy bunnies serving you your soft drinks … well, that’s about as good as life can possibly get! As time went on, and I was fortunate enough to work and play with iconoclastic innovators like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, or Wayne Shorter, I’ve always thought of Eddie as a member of that elite group of aforementioned greats who have gone beyond technique and craft to create their very own musical language.”

INFO

LISTEN

Eddie Gomez, Per Sempre [BFM Jazz, 2012]; Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez & Paul Motian, Further Explorations [Concord, 2012]

EQUIP

Bass “Frankenstein” e bass assembled from three different basses by Arnold Schnitzer of AES Fine Instruments (“It’s comfortable and easy to play and bow”)
Strings Thomastik Spirocore Kontrabass Solo e mediums
Pickups David Gage Realist and Yamaya (both bridge-mounted)
Bow Various French-style bows
Amp Acoustic Image S4 Coda (twochannel combo)
Recording Neumann mic by the ƒ-hole, and direct from the Realist or Yamaya pickup

CONNECT

Check out Eddie Gomez’ homepage, Facebook, and Twitter, and watch the promo video for Further Explorations. bassplayer.com/january2014

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