This document of my thoughts and observations is composed and shared annually with colleagues and students at the Berklee College of Music. Chairman of the Bass Department Steve Bailey asked that I share it with the broader BP audience. Thanks Brian Fox and Chris Jisi for the genuine hospitality and positive vibrations you extend to me each year at Bass Player LIVE!. Let me preface these notes by mentioning that one concept I’ve been teaching students of the bass for the last 25 years at Berklee and beyond is this: If you can identify a bassist with at least one unique musical idea, you come away with a distinct sound image that serves as a future model for your reference purposes. If you learn more than one concept, that’s cool too!
The Saturday evening concert at the Fonda Theater was a tribute to Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler. Many of metal’s finest bassists performed Sabbath tunes and consequently had to learn Geezer’s lines. So the question was asked to Dave Ellefson (Megadeath), Billy Sheehan (Winery Dogs), and Frank Bello (Anthrax) was, “What did you learn in terms of ‘Geezerisms’ when you set out to survey his parts to prepare for the evenings tribute?” Frank offered this to start the discussion: “Geezer's bass lines tell a story within a story of the song. Geezer invents and consequently makes me want to study and learn more. He is the reason I started playing bass, and is the reason I continue to play bass.” Dave Ellefson commented that it was an eye opener to learn that Geezers parts were primarily built from the 5th fret and above where the guitar parts were from the 5th fret and below.
The panel made mention that the bass parts didn’t stock follow the guitar riffs. Conversely the bass parts weave in and out of the guitar parts. Billy Sheehan commented, “The constant unison that guitar players often insist upon us bassists sometimes sounds like they’re just stepping on an octave pedal. Geezer moves around and gets a counterpoint, which I love.” Billy further referenced the first time he heard Bach: “There was one line doing one thing, then another line doing something else, creating a third unknown line in your mind which is the end result of the counterpoint. This was all realized after dissecting Geezers lines. It was a revelation.”
The evening concert was epic, cemented by prodigious low end from the panel above and augmented by the soulful vocals of Dug Pinnick (Kings X), along with the relentless groove heavy drumming of Charlie Benante (Anthrax). For an R&B bassist like myself, I came away from the show a fan of all the musicians onstage and have begun researching lots of their music. This is a huge bi-product of BPL every year. I’m now a huge King’s X fan!! Lee Rocker started off the evening with a rockabilly set that featured his thumping hook-laden acoustic bass parts, lead vocals and a contagious energy. Tal Wilkenfeld took a departure from her usual funk fusion to mellow down the mood with some singer/songwriter vibes featuring her vocal debut. BPL will undoubtedly enrich your life and musicianship as it does to those of us who make the trek each year. Here’s a breakdown of the clinics attended.
While demonstrating his stereo set up (one clean, one distorted) he played a beautiful chord version of the A section to Errol Garners “Misty,” a jazz standard from the ’50s. This display of chording with melody on the top voicing went relatively unnoticed by the crowd gathered. The follow-up question was related to gear. Gems like this appear and quickly disappear frequently at BPL. They reveal a keen sense of musicianship that otherwise would remain latent if you were to never attend a clinic like BPL. I was hangin’ in the audience jaw-dropped, waiting for him to play the bridge! Never happened, sadly.
On Locking In With A Drummer
“The first time I ever played with a drummer, he taught me when drums hit, you play.” Billy talked about watching his drummers’ transition out of a fill, enabling a clear illumination of where to find and nail the next downbeat.
I likened this to what the great big band drummers did that beautifully set up the horn sections ensuing rhythmic shape.
“Before a tour, I like getting together solely with the drummer and running parts. Each musician treats the concept of time differently. I like to learn it. If you observe folks walking down the street you notice everyone has a different gait.” Will Lee had a similar anecdote when he visited Berklee years ago, and spoke to us about developing one’s own unique sense of time.
Billy’s first band Talas used to cover classic rock tunes. Billy demonstrated King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man,” Cream’s “Crossroads” and “Badge,” Vanilla Fudge’s bassist Tim Bogart’s raking technique. There was mention of Paul McCartney, the Jaco/Stanley years, Oscar Peterson, Bach, Debussy, and Paco de Lucia. “Some of the music nuanced emotion and feel from harmony, other more rhythmic,” he said. Billy struck a nerve with us thru laughter when he played a tune from his one terabyte iTunes music collection. “You’ve all got to hear this,” he said. It was a tune called “I Whooped Batman’s Ass.”
Van Halen was a huge influence on Billy, who proceeded to play songs for us. Every part performed with clarity, precision timing, and a timbre that rocked the house.
On Touring with David Lee Roth
“On tour the worst night of 40 shows was spectacular!”
On Studio Work
“I get called by people who want me for what I do.” Session players are chameleons, and that is an art in itself. Don’t misunderstand though. I enjoy being selfless forcing me to do something I don’t normally do.”
On Recording and Touring
“The last week of a tour the performances are great. You wish then you could go back and re-record the record.”
On Technique and Style
“If there were a choice between two mountains, one with bears and another with a nice rounded off slope, I’d choose the one with bears!”
“Technique often gets in the way. Musicians are impressed. Don’t fall into the abyss of technical stuff.” That being said, Billy demonstrated for us his breakdown of right and left hand technique and his step-by-step approach to proficiency on the instrument. It was beautiful to watch a master musician work out his thought process and practice regimen.
Nope, just music. “It’s the greatest art form. If I’m not playing, I mess around with my iTunes collection!”
On Vision and Potential
“Potentially anyone can do anything in music. The odds, well that’s another story.”
Nathan was joined with bassist (and Berklee alum) Janek Gwizdala for a duet to open the hour. The two had never played together before. Janek called the Miles Davis standard “Solar,” and began playing the melody. It was clear that Nathan East either didn’t know the exact chord changes to the song or he was reharmonizing some extraordinary tonalities, as the song took on an interesting air. All was fine either way. I’m an optimist and when it comes to music and respect for collective improvisation you could see and hear why Nathan East is the elite sideman of the highest order. The “time feel” that he set up for Janek oozed with soul, a tenacious command of the beat along with swing expressiveness reminiscent of all the Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Balantonisms known to be stylistically appropriate yet it surprisingly sounded entirely like Nathan East playing. This is a compliment beyond compliments. If you can take a style that has a historic lexicon and still make the groove and bass line shapes sound like your own, well that’s masterful bass playing! The duet was entertaining, gratifying and conversational. At the conclusion Nathan played the melody with beautiful phrasing and timbre emanating from his electric upright bass. This actually led me to conclude that he was reharmonizing the bass line and chord motion for performances sake.
Janek wowed and dazzled us with melodic flourishes ranging from blues to bop that melted your heart. His command of the harmony that Nathan’s bass accompaniment cemented in support was indicative of the brilliance these two artists shared. Next, Nathan began the Paul Chambers bass line for the song “All Blues,” kicking off another stellar performance.
On Daft Punk
Remembering something Herbie Hancock related to Nathan from his days performing with Miles Davis conceptually went like this. Miles said, “Don’t come on stage playing what you practiced last night. Keep searching on stage!”
Nathan entered the studio and was greeted to some incredible groove heavy tracks. They said, Let’s put some bass on these tunes. That was the mindset. “You heard the record, we had a blast!”
On the Goal of Practicing
Having an idea in your head and being able to play it.
This is why you shed bass lines, scales, arpeggios, and melodies.
Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, Tower of Power
Starting on Bass
Nathan’s brother David played guitar in church. Nathan went to the alter and picked up a bass, learning tunes by rote. He learned about melodic intervals outlining chords not just notes for chops sake. Nathan learned early on that the bass players role is that of support.
Nathan began playing the verse to Tower Of Power’s ‘What Is Hip,” demonstrating the left hand choke along with strong and steady right hand technique.
On Studio Work and Reading Charts
There are minimal charts, if any. More often it’s a demo of the song, leading Nathan to writing a sketch of a chart. If someone else has written a chart it saves him time. Interesting how Nathan commented that charts are merely suggestions leaning towards the art of improvisation and coming up with a part that is indicative of his taste that serves the song. The concept of 10,000 hours to success came up.
Pecuniary Stuff (AKA $$$)
Nathan told a story how when he was 16 years old, Barry White hired he and his brother’s band to go out on the road. They were offered a low figure and despite the amount celebrated by high fiving each other in front of Mr. White.
On Commercial Appeal
Nathan designed a track using a loop pedal. It started with a lead line that was harmonized three times. Then came a low register bass line with lots of space aligning a kick drum like pattern. This was followed by melodic improvisation containing smooth riffs tinged with nuanced melodic development. Nathan demonstrated his calculating musicianship, seemingly aware of everything he plays and doesn’t play in terms of rests and breathing room. His impeccable sense of time, crisp timbre, along with controlled articulation make Nathan East a master player who is in full control of his commercial viability. For the second year in a row I came away from this session with the highest respect for the artistry of this ubiquitous bass player.
After a brief introduction by bass player and author Ed Friedland, Michael set out on a journey commencing with his deft use of an EBow. This subtly gave an arco effect with sublime dynamics creating a symphonic vibe that captured everyone’s attention in the room. The harmonies were polyphonic in nature and the composition was awe-¬‐inspiring. He demonstrated a herculean sense of harmony, creativity, and artistry all supported with a hypnotic groove underneath. Dishing out a formidable foray of melodic development Michael finally quoted a recognizable riff, the opening clavinet part to Stevie Wonders Superstition. I thought it was interesting to note that a considerable time had passed before he decided to quote this recognizable and often used motif. His sense of originality is daunting.
Michael’s first words to us were, “I just love the bass. It is capable of expressing enormous poetry, color, all kinds of emotion, elegance, and finally that it is capable if dong something important.”
On Stylistic Brevity
Michael said he got in the habit of saying yes to playing all kinds of music. He couldn’t let go of sounds, goofing around, and just creating stuff. Finally a band he was in gave him a 1 bar break in a song. This escalated into a 2 bar break. Finally he was asked to play four then eight bars. Until one day he was invited to perform a solo show. Michael couldn’t resist the temptation to improvise. With possibilities in the air he was asked why not switch to piano? I loved Michael’s answer. He said a piano timbre is fixed, and so is its pitch.
Rather than looking at the EBow as an adjunct to his rig, Michael looks at it as part of the instrument. That is a hip way of looking at effects in general!
Michael was obsessed with how to produce a good timbre with dynamics. His quest was always, how to get one note to sound good. “I try to practice with a goal in mind. Always have a focused goal to your practice session he said. Regardless if working with scales, arpeggios, ragas, you must work on tone/timbre creation. This was certainly evident as his sound and the sound in the room were indeed enormous and beautiful.
On His Zon Hyper Bass
Michael took a considerable amount of time tuning his Hyper Bass, which has extension tuners on each string both at the nut and at the bridge. He proceeded to play his composition Selene. It was absolutely brilliant. Asked if it took a long time to tune the Hyper Bass Michael replied, “it’s something I like to do and yes it is a commitment.”
Do you always know what note you are on when using the Hyper Bass?
“I always know what tonality I’m on for instance a b6 of a key. How notes relate to the tonality center is what I know. It is always exciting when you play a wrong note and then ask yourself where can I go from here.”
Bartok, Stravinsky, electronic music, Neil Young
Picking up his fretted bass, Michael played Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me.” Similar to Billy Sheehan’s clinic it was clear that a complete and thorough understanding of harmony and rhythm were in place enabling these performers to display virtuosity, honesty and some really great music that touched everyone in the room.
Finally getting to hear Jerry Jemmott break down his concept was the highlight of my weekend. I have been enamored with his playing since I first heard him on both Aretha Franklins and King Curtis’ Live At The Fillmore West recordings. Jerry is a natural teacher. He cares that everyone present is engaged in the learning process. His speech is clear and concise. The meaning and intent of each concept is fully disclosed. This was masterful teaching by a brilliant bass player with a warm and endearing heart.
On Jamming with Drummer Steve Ferrone
Jerry instructed Steve to play an 8th note groove. He demonstrated how to groove while not duplicating the drum part but rather dancing around it. Jerry injected sweet tidbits of concept throughout the hour-¬‐long clinic. He pointed out how we as bassists add harmony to rhythm. “The drums are the rhythmic drive. We the bass players are the harmonic propulsion.”
Jerry demonstrated Full Time 4/4, Half Time 2/4 and Space Time, which was playing around with all aspects of the groove subdivision.
“Bass parts are actually a sub melody to the true melody.”
1) Type—style, cultural heritage, instrumentation
2) Meter—basic beat
3) Tempo—the feeling of music
4) Vision—feeling of the groove
5) 2 part, shuffle, 4 part (16ths)
7) Chord usage, harmonic propulsion
9) Listening and learning
10) Call and response
On "Row Row Row Your Boat"
Jerry played this well known melody to various grooves that Steve Ferrone set up:
1) New Orleans Funeral March
4) Romantic—this was a fun one. Following the performance at 40BPM (very
very slow) Jerry said in jest he didn’t think any baby’s were created during that one!
On Playing Over Changes
“It’s actually easier to play over changes as you don’t have to think too much. Playing over one chord is tougher.” I believe this is a mind-set taken by someone with a jazz background.
On Creating Bass Lines
This was a hip teaching moment! Jerry said lets break down a 16th-note groove like “Memphis Soul Stew” by King Curtis. “This is really a montuno.”
Salute to Tommy Cogbill
“He was the greatest and I miss him dearly. He was underappreciated when he passed away.”
On Seizing the Moment
“It was my first recording session for Atlantic. Wilson Picket was recording a song called Deborah and the bass player didn’t show. I got a call to come down to the studio. There was a two bar break. I figured if I could make this real hip and special, my career would benefit. I played this descending minor scale riff. They loved it.” The rest is history!
Armed with a drummer, keyboard player, and two auxiliary bass players Nate displayed why he for the last 40 years has been Stevie Wonders bass player.
Getting the Stevie Wonder Gig
“Ray Parker Jr grew up down the street from me. I had been a trumpet player and then switched to bass. I am self–taught, having learned to play songs in my basement. When I went to audition after having played the bass for two years, there were lots of bass players who had been playing longer than I had. What got me the gig was that I was able to play songs. I had an ear from playing the trumpet. There were no charts!
Folks from the audience were calling out Stevie Wonder songs and the band would play. There were two auxiliary bass players who would solo and play the melodies. Nate would lay down the pavement like he does on the bandstand. He took one very brief solo on “Do I Do” and then retreated, proclaiming, “I ain’t no showboater!” He pointed to one of the other bass players who soloed endlessly. At one point Ready Freddie Washington came up on stage to play on the song “As” using one of the auxiliary bass players’ instrument. Interestingly when Freddie played, the timbre of the bass changed drastically, becoming more clear and full sounding. Just goes to prove that the timbre really does come from player’s hands primarily.
This concluded the weekends performing festivities and clinics. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention all the gear and manufacturers of basses, amplifiers and effects that were present. The environment is friendly and if you wanted to try an instrument, amplifier, or talk to a luthier, it was easy to do. The vibes were hip, real cool and easy. Bass players are decent, fun and inspiring folks to be around. The weather in Hollywood was a gorgeous 75 degrees and sunny if you cared to take a breather out on Sunset Blvd.
Bass Player LIVE! is a wonderful gathering that serves the bass community at large. As an educator I take away a few things each year. The level of inquiry was particularly impressive overall. Questions ranged from technical to conceptual, harmony related to rhythm oriented. I found the intentions of the presenters were excellent and the audiences were receptive to the various music styles presented.
My interest in Metal bass playing is forever piqued and I now have lots of homework to do. In terms of teaching and what to bring back to my classes at Berklee, the concept of teaching with honesty and integrity hits a nerve. Regardless if you play music as a hobby or you tour constantly throughout the year, the kindred spirit felt over the entire weekend was beautiful. The knowledge shared was prolific. Networking was in full swing. It was a special treat to meet some of my online students past and present from Berklee Online. I look forward to sharing the knowledge gained during Bass Player LIVE! 2013 in my teaching as it is enriching and empowering. If we are all in fact unique performers with individual tastes and perspectives, this conference truly embraces that idea. From 4 string to 6 string fretted and fretless, electric to acoustic, Metal to R&B, this was indeed a happening event for bass players! Try to make the next one; it’ll be worth your while.