Since moving back to New York City in 1996, his home for the first 11 years of his life, John Patitucci has taken a vertical path to elite status among upright jazz bassists. There’s his ever-probing solo albums, plus a cornerstone slot in Wayne Shorter’s quartet; flourishing musical relationships with East Coast luminaries like Roy Haynes, Jack DeJohnette, and the late Michael Brecker; and an esteemed teaching stint a City College lege of New York, replacing Ron Carter. It was enough doghouse diligence to make one almost forget about John’s dramatic ’ 80s impact on electric bass—specifically the 6-string bass guitar, which he played a major role in establishing as a member Chick Corea’s Elektric Band and via his stirring early solo sides. Fortunately, the 55-year-old Patitucci has continued to pursue the acceptance and advancement of the electric bass in a jazz context. That mission has at last moved back to the fore with a new band, a new album, and a new instrument.
Inspired by his Kings County roots, the John Patitucci Electric Guitar Quartet (with drummer Brian Blade and guitarists Adam Rogers and Steve Cardenas) has released the revelatory, eclectic, all-electric album Brooklyn. It stars not only John’s striking new semi-hollowbody Yamaha 6-string, but also his groove-inducing, flatwound-flaunting 5. Perhaps what’s most evident in the 11-track recording is the bar-raising level of nuanced phrasing and expression he has brought to the horizontal bass—be it from his hands-on relationship with the upright, or the huge, discerning ears he has always displayed in drawing from just the right vocal and instrumental influences.
Patitucci’s teen years in Northern California and versatile career in Los Angeles are a key part of his musical persona, but we launched our discussion by going back to his beginnings.
What is the new album’s connection to Brooklyn?
East Flatbush, Brooklyn, is where it all started for me: where I was born and raised among a big, extended, Italian family; where I first heard the Beatles and Stevie Wonder’s “I was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life,” with James Jamerson; where I picked up my brother’s guitar, and where he first put a bass in my hands. It’s also where we first heard jazz, through my maternal grandfather, John, who I was named for. His father had a speakeasy during Prohibition, and he was exposed to ragtime and stride piano; I would hear him playing piano by ear. One day, he brought home a box of jazz records he found in the trash while repairing roads for the city, and it was a treasure trove for us, with albums by Jimmy Smith, Art Blakely with Wayne Shorter, Wes Montgomery with Ron Carter, Monk, Oscar Peterson with Ray Brown, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis, and more. So Brooklyn holds all of these rich memories I wanted to represent. I also wanted to make an exclusively electric bass record, which I’ve never done. The connection was that the electric was the only bass I had to play back then; everything was interpreted through my little Sears Telstar Bass. To complete the circle, we cut the album live at the Bunker Studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is hand-built and operated by John Davis and Aaron Nevezie—John was a former student of mine back when I taught at the Bass Collective.
How did you select the music and the musicians?
Having been fortunate to play with so many great pianists, I thought about trying a new orchestration with a guitar-oriented record. I dug Marc Johnson’s Bass Desires and Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band, which each had two guitarists, so that was the direction I decided on. I reached out to Brian [Blade], who is like a brother to me and whose opinion I trust, and I called Adam, who I’ve recorded and toured with, and Steve, who I first met back in my L.A. days. As with all of my records, I wanted to cover a range of styles, and I knew all three guys were extremely versatile. What exceeded my expectations, however, was the chemistry between Adam and Steve. They had played together a bit, and I knew their styles and personalities would gel. But the way they comp and weave lines inside and out of each other is remarkable; they sound like they’ve been playing together forever.
The sound of the quartet is fully realized on the opener, “IN9-1881/The Search,” particularly with your role as both a third guitar voice and the supportive bass.
“The Search” is me tapping into my love of counterpoint; it’s a round, with the theme expressed and developed in three-part counterpoint. The solo section is essentially modal, in G minor, and then in the B section of the solos, where the guitars are blowing over the V chord, we shift from swing to an almost African rhythmic flavor. The intro to the track “IN9-1881” is our old phone number in Brooklyn. The more I listen to the harmony I used there, I hear a slight link to Russian classical music and composers like Tchaikovsky.
You play numerous basses on the West African piece “Dugu Kamalemba.”
That’s a song by the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré I had transcribed some years back. I used my flatwound-strung 5-string for the bass line, my solidbody 6 for the fills at the top and for my solo—I put foam under the strings by the bridge to make it sound like an African stringed instrument. And for the B-section melody, which is doubled by guitar, I used my piccolo 6. That’s my transcription of what Oumou sang on the original; I tried to emulate her voice and her phrasing, using slurs, slides, hammer-ons, and pull-offs.
What guidance can you offer for getting the wide range of expression out of the electric bass that you present on the album?
It starts with thinking about your touch and having a dynamic range on your instrument. That’s something younger players I encounter often lack. It’s hard to have a wide dynamic and expression range when your action is so low that the strings are resting on the frets. You don’t need a high action, but you have to be able to touch the strings in different ways and hear a difference. Another key is practicing without an amp; that’s the way I’ve practiced my whole life. Listen to vocalists and instrumentalists in a wide range of styles, and pay attention to their phrasing and note lengths. Then when you attempt to transfer what you’re hearing onto your bass, start at a slower tempo and use a metronome or click, because hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, and other expressive techniques have to be played in time to sound natural and authentic.
Your R&B groove roots come to the fore on “Band of Brothers.”
I wrote that on the road not long before we went into the studio. I wanted a little groove tune to showcase the two guitars playing together, and it turned out well. There’s a little of everything in there: Booker T., Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” the Crusaders, the Allman Brothers—their album, At Fillmore East [1971, Capricorn], had a big influence on my brother and me. I used my flatwound-strung 5 and just tried to pay tribute to some of my early bass heroes, like Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Duck Dunn, and Willie Weeks. Getting a chance to play this kind of music was a big part of the reason I wanted to make this album.
Your love of the blues results in “JLR” and the spiritual “Go Down Moses,” which combine straight and swung feels.
The dual feels come from Brian, who is from Louisiana, so he has that approach in his blood. And we’re still a jazz band at our core, which makes it natural to extend beyond traditional blues and R&B accompaniment. “JLR” stands for “Jive Little Rulebook,” a tune I jokingly wrote on the road about how difficult airlines make it for traveling musicians; Brian and I would sing it going through airports. I liked the song and I thought, I can get Adam to pull out his Tele, and it’ll sound like an Albert King record! I envisioned Bobby Blue Bland singing it, but instead I sing it on bass. This is the only time on a record of mine that I’ve soloed on a 5-string. In addition to the flatwounds on it, we got a little distortion by overdriving it a bit. For “Moses,” we took a New Orleans approach led by Brian, who used a 20" bass drum on the whole record, which definitely adds a funky groove element. My solo on the semi-hollow 6 is influenced greatly by my love of Louis Armstrong. I heard it back and I thought, Wow—I owe Pops some money!
Your duet with Brian on Wes Montgomery’s “The Thumb” is a showcase for your new bass.
Wes was such a huge influence for me and my brother. His records were in the box of jazz records my grandfather brought home, and they were our gateway to jazz because the music had groove and blues elements, and was so communicative. The new bass looks and sounds like Wes’ guitar, so I thought I’d do it as a duet. Then I had to figure out how to play the melody and solo while still walking and playing some chords in-between. I played the last part of the melody in octaves, in tribute to Wes. I should also mention Wes’ brother, Monk Montgomery, who helped pioneer the electric bass in jazz. He was an influence both musically and visually, seeing him on album covers as a bass guitar solo artist.
How did the new instrument come together?
The genesis was seeing ads for a D’Angelico bass on the back of Bass Player a few years ago. I’d played acoustic bass guitars, Guild Starfires, and Lee Sklar’s Warwick semi-hollow 4-string, but I wondered what a big box, jazz-guitar-style 6-string bass would be like. Yamaha is always asking me about a new model, but I love my solidbody, so I proposed a semi-hollow version. I connected with Pat Campolattano in Yamaha’s custom shop; he’s an amazing young luthier with guitar-making roots that go back to Brescia, Italy. I told him I wanted a big, thick bottom sound for walking and groove playing, and a singing high end for soloing. We talked about woods and designs and we brought in Aguilar’s Dave Boonshoft for the pickups and preamp, and the result is this incredible, unique instrument.
You can hear how great it sounds for walking on your Rhythm-changes tune, “Do You.”
Yeah, that’s one of the attributes of this instrument that make it so special. I wrote that tune for my Artistworks instructional site, and I thought it would be cool for two guitars. Adam and Steve really took to it; the part where they’re playing in 3rds, that just happened. It has taken me years to walk comfortably on Rhythm changes. The gold standard is Ron Carter, who is absolutely poetic when playing them, between his great voice-leading when he’s inside the changes, to his use of cycles, like starting on a II–V from the flat 6th.
What other advice do you have for walking authentically on electric bass?
Well, I first started walking on the electric bass, however, I developed more after I began playing upright. Upright let me bring in all the little triplet-based fills and moves, but the key is to be understated. A lot of electric players tend to poke out the triplets and accent them. Upright players tend to make their rhythmic fills less accented and softer than the actual downbeats they lead into. The downbeat is what you’re going for—the fills are just something that happens along the way. Another problem is electric players using a bright, pointed sound. I never learned how to mute the strings with my left hand to simulate upright, like some electric players do, but I do go for a darker sound. That can be accomplished with your tone knobs, or using foam or flatwound strings, or something I do, which is moving your plucking hand over the neck pickup or even the bottom of the fingerboard. The best place to start is by listening to and transcribing the masters, like Ron Carter and Ray Brown; they wrote the book on walking.
You go for back-to-back Monk tunes with “Trinkle, Tinkle” and “Ugly Beauty.”
Monk’s Underground [1968, Columbia] was in the box my grandfather brought home, and later, Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane [1961, Riverside] had a huge impact on me. I always loved “Trinkle, Tinkle”—I got to play it with Chick [Corea] and Roy Haynes. I thought it would be cool to do with two guitars, and I knew Steve had done a lot of the transcriptions in the Thelonius Monk Fake Book [Hal Leonard]. I came up with the intro, which was born out of a voicing I found on my semihollow 6 that had a Monk vibe. His beautiful balled, “Ugly Beauty,” was the only tune Monk ever recorded in 3/4; it wasn’t supposed to happen, but [drummer] Ben Riley suggested it on the date. I set it to an Argentinian 3/4 folk rhythm called a chacarera. The bass lays out on one and there’s a subtle 6/8 polyrhythm against it.
What was the inspiration for the interlude “Bells of Coutance”?
I was in Coutance, France, with Wayne [Shorter], and I heard church bells that had all of these incredible modal overtones. So I recorded them with my phone and wrote them out for brass choir. For this album, when I was trying to come up with different sounds for the guitars, I thought about adapting this piece, knowing that guitars can have a bell-like tone. I played my semi-hollow 6, and we all overdubbed, because there are a lot of parts. There’s also a bit of counterpoint where the lines are staggered, creating some offbeat motion.
What else is on your schedule?
We’re finishing a documentary about the making of Brooklyn, which was conceived by my brother-in-law, John St. Angelo, who is a fine filmmaker—that will be out later this year. Brian, Danilo Perez, and I just finished a Children Of The Light record. Wayne [Shorter] has tour dates, and there’s talk of a new recording project. I just did a film date for Carter Burwell and an album for vocalist Karrin Allyson that’s just me and [pianist] Kenny Barron. And I’ve been enjoying teaching at Berklee and for Artist-works, because it’s the first time I’ve taught electric bass in quite a while. I love bringing in classic groove recordings and taking about time, feel, and bass line construction. Mostly, though, I’m focusing on playing this new music on this new instrument. A lot of people have been asking me about an all-electric bass record, while I’ve heard from others who didn’t even know I still play it! It just feels like a good time to try to make a new statement on the electric bass guitar.
THE LOW-END LINK THROUGHOUT BROOKLYN IS THE DRAMATIC new instrument conceived by John Patitucci and designed and built by Yamaha Custom Shop luthier Pat Campolattano, with pickups and electronics provided by Aguilar’s Dave Boonshoft. Originally from Connecticut and educated at Berklee and Musicians Institute, Campolattano caught the building bug as a kid watching his grandfather do woodwork and make instruments in his gunsmithing workshop. Having built and worked on basses for Michael Anthony, Nathan East, Billy Sheehan, and Abraham Laboriel since joining Yamaha a few years ago, he calls the new instrument his “greatest accomplishment to date.” He offers, “John described what he wanted. I made some drawings and came up with an original shape, and it took a little over a year to build.”
Courtesy of Campolattano, the 35"-scale, 24-fret, bolt-on, semi-hollow 6-string boasts a solid mahogany body with a quarter-inch maple laminate stripe in the center that continues on the neck. Inside, the single-cutaway body is hollow in the wings, with a solid mahogany center block (the bass weighs 14 pounds). The top and back are one-inch solid flame maple, carved inside and out. Three top-mounted knobs adjust treble, middle, and bass, and inside the treble-side ƒ-hole is a bracket with two thumbwheel volume knobs (one for each pickup); the pickups are covered in ebony veneers. The neck is three-piece—maple/mahogany/maple—and matches the dimensions and string spacing of Patitucci’s solidbody 6. It’s affixed with five bolts and has two trussrods. The fingerboard is Indian rosewood with a bone nut, pearl inlays, and a flame maple binding (which also wraps the entire bass). The tailpiece is wenge, and the hardware includes a Yamaha bridge and Hipshot ultra-light tuners on an angled headstock.
On the sonic side, Boonshoft reports, “Pat and John described the design of the bass, and it was clear to me our DCB pickups would be the right choice. The DCBs have dual ceramic bars, so the strings are always in the magnetic field. As a result, they have a great balance between dynamic output and sustain content. That means having the punch and harmonic content on the attack of the note, as well as the harmonic details as the note sustains—where you hear it travel up through the overtone series, ensuring a rich, full sound, especially for playing chords and complex lines on extended-range basses. For the preamp, we went with the OBP3, which is a hi-fi, low-distortion preamp with bass, mid, and treble boost—each with smooth, musical slopes that add colorization.” Sums up Campolattano, “John is super-cool guy, very humble and grateful. I’m extremely thankful and excited that he plays the bass on his new album and put it on the cover. It’s a one-of-a-kind instrument for a one-of-a-kind musician.”
The Chords Of Flatbush
HARD-GROOVING R&B, LATIN-TINGED bebop, West African pop, Delta blues, and a harmonically rich solo piece are among the ingredients that give Brooklyn its unique accent. Example 1a and 1b show the opening/closing unison melody and the main bass line of “Dugu Kamalemba.” Says John, “Phrase with the guitars on the melody. For the bass line, I played up at the 12th fret to get the thick, dark bass sound heard on Oumou Sangaré’s original version.” Example 2 contains the opening 5-string-with-flatwounds bass line of “Band of Brothers.” “The key is to both lay back yet still drive the song forward—sort of a relaxed forward motion that the great ’60s R&B rhythm sections had.”
Examples 3a–d come from “Tesori,” the album-closing solo piece inspired by the new 6-string and dedicated to John’s wife and daughters. Example 3a is the chordal opening, with the D-string notes stems-down and the G and C string notes stems up. “Be sure to curl your fingering hand so the open G string can ring clearly.” Example 3b is the second section of tune (at 0:23), with Patitucci copping bluesy Dobro-style licks in the last three measures. “Check out recordings by Howlin’ Wolf and Mississippi Fred McDowell to get the vibe.” Example 3c has the main melody (at 0:58). “Get all the chords under your fingers first. The Am(maj7) voicing on the ‘and’ of beat three in bar 3 is tricky; I use a 1–4–2 fingering, low-to-high, on the top three notes.” Finally, Ex. 3d shows the four chords John solos over at the end of the piece (at 2:32). “There are different ways to approach blowing here: You can play F or F blues; you can make each change a II–V; you can play inversions of the triads—a cool Trane-like one to try is the 3rd, 5th, and 10th; or you can play more open and modal, using 4ths and 5ths.”
Brooklyn [2015, Three Faces]; Wayne Shorter, Without a Net [2013, Blue Note]; Ben Monder, Hydra [2013, Sunnyside]; Jon Cowherd, Mercy [2013, Artist Share]; Tia Fuller, Angelic Warrior [2012, Mack Avenue]
Basses Yamaha prototype semi-hollow signature 6-string; Yamaha TRBJP2 signature 6-string (35" scale); ’90s Yamaha TRB prototype piccolo 6-string; ’90s Yamaha prototype 5-string
Strings On 6-strings: D’Addario ENR71-6 Half Rounds on C, G, and D strings (.030, .045, .065), EXL165SL Nickel Wounds on A, E, and B (.085, .105, .130); on 5-string: ECD82 Chromes Flat Wounds (.050, .070, .085, .105, .130)
Amps Aguilar Tone Hammer 500 head, SL 112 and GS 410 cabinets
Effects TC Electronic Hall of Fame Reverb and Ditto X2 Looper, Radial Tone Bone
Recording Brooklyn “We used 95 percent of my miked Aguilar rig sound, with a bit of miked Ampeg B-15, and five percent direct signal.”
Other Vovox cables, Mooradian Cases