Credit the web with helping to create the boon in cover-song videos, which has brought dozens of new artists to attention and made stars out of acts like Jacob Collier, Dirty Loops, and Knower. Established musicians are now jumping into the cover craze, with no finer an example than Nashville’s the Bottom 40, an energetic ensemble of Music City session aces led by keyboardist Mike Whittaker and anchored by Adam Nitti and drummers Keith Carlock and Marcus Finnie. The band’s pulsating debut, Luvalation, is brimming with harmonic and rhythmic reimagination. Adele’s “Hello” is recast in a major tonality, Katy Perry’s “Firework” gets both a jazz-standard and twisty-funk treatment, and the O’Jays’ “Give the People What They Want” takes on a Latin persona. Throughout, soaring vocals, seat-grabbing unison riffs, and a high-powered horn section invigorate the music, including three originals and songs by Stevie Wonder, Sting, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles. On the bottom, Nitti displays his full stylistic range on ten of the tracks, nailing deep R&B and tumbao grooves, fretless forays, slapped and tapped step-outs, and a searing solo on “Higher Ground.” (Andrew Gouché guests on Pharrell’s “Happy,” and “Come Together” rides Whittaker’s keyboard bass.) We spoke to Adam at his Aguilar clinic in New York City to get some insight.
How did the Bottom 40 come together?
It’s the brainchild of Mike Whittaker, who moved from L.A. to Nashville around the same time I got to Nashville. We met and have done a lot of projects together. He got the idea a couple of years ago, inspired by Dirty Loops’ rise to fame. Mike’s original concept was to do a vocal-based project with his new arrangements of R&B classics, and he soon added contemporary pop tunes, as well. As the lineup has solidified, we’ve all been given creative input, and it’s now a true collective effort. The key to the band is we try to make sure the songs’ melodies stay pretty much the same as the original versions, even though the harmonies and the feels can be radically different. People can still sing along with our versions.
Did you listen to the original versions?
Absolutely—I love hearing and understanding where it all came from, and I want to keep the spirit and the intent of those versions. There’s a lot to learn from the original bass lines, too, especially on the older material, like Anthony Jackson’s pick-and-flanger part on “Give the People What They Want.” How do you improve on that? But we never had the notion to make a better version of the songs. We’re just taking our influences and personalities and bringing them to the table to create a different vibe.
How detailed are the bass charts?
There’s a lot of notation because the arrangements are specific, with plenty of unison lines and some crafted rhythm-section passages. But there’s no hard-and-fast rule that it has to be note for note, so I carried interpretation into everything, aside from the unison stuff. You’ll hear variations in the bass parts as the songs go along. I make sure I’m satisfying the intent of the arrangement, but I get to be myself and inject my personality. The fun is getting to express myself in different styles; I enjoy the challenge and the variety.
What’s your approach to the bass chair?
I’m going for a traditional, Fender-style, round sound with some punch. I’m mostly using my new signature Ibanez 5-string, which is very Fender-like. That seems to sit better in the context of this music, with all of the vocals, keyboards, and guitars; it seems to hold its own space better. I’m trying to stay out of the way but still cut through. Musically, we all encourage each other to play aggressively. We wanted to capture what a live show would sound like, so we recorded together as a rhythm section without a ton of overdubs. I try to play as spontaneously as I can, not spending too much time with a plan for my improvised parts; I leave things up to the interactive side. Unlike my records, where I do everything, I’m trying to be the bass guy and bring support in as creative a way as I can.
“Englishman in New York” separates itself somewhat from the rest of the album.
That’s probably my favorite arrangement, and it’s definitely the song with the most space. Ron Hemby’s vocal has a Sting quality, and Mike’s arrangement captures the sense of longing in the lyric. I use a thumb-pluck-and-palm-mute to darken my part in the verses, and the whole track has a suitably darker tone. The extended outro, with just Ron and Mike’s piano, was improvised, and thankfully they kept it.
You play fretless on “Hello.”
I approached my part from a hybrid fretted/fretless perspective because of the power and momentum of certain sections. Overall, I thought about the fluidity of the fretless and trying to make it sing, but some of the playing and fills, like under the keyboard solo, came from a more fretted mindset.
What’s the next step for the band and for you?
We have a worldwide following, so we’d like to get out there and bring the music to those folks. We’re also working on our next record, which will be a combination of originals and covers by different band members. I’ve got some originals and a secret stash of covers I’m working up arrangements on. Outside of that, I’ve been working on my next record, while doing clinics and spot dates with Kenny Loggins. Fortunately, it’s a creative time for me.
The Bottom 40, Luvalation [2017, Luvalation]
Basses Signature Ibanez ANB205 (5-string), ANB1006 (6-string), and ANB306E (6-string); fretless ’90s Yamaha TRB 5-string
Rig Aguilar AG 700 head with SL 410x and SL 112 cabinets, DB 751 head with DB 410 and DB 112 cabinets
Strings D’Addario NYXL Nickel Wound (.032, .045, .065, .080, .100, .130), D’Addario Half Rounds for Fretless
Effects Aguilar TLC Compressor, AGRO Overdrive, Chorusaurus, and Octamizer; EBS Bass IQ and Dynaverb; Visual Sound H2O Liquid Chorus and Echo, Creation Audio Holy Fire, and Funkulator; TC Electronic Ditto Looper; Daring Audio Phat Beam
Other Bartolini pickups; Essential Sound Products cables