Oteil Burbridge's Long, Strange Trip

Oteil Burbridge is as in-demand to his fan base as he is professionally.
By Chris Jisi | Photograph By Jay Blakesberg ,

Oteil Burbridge is as in-demand to his fan base as he is professionally. There’s the muso crowd that laid early claim to him for his jazz and fusion-informed fingerboard feats and straight-to-the-heart, scat-’n’-play solos with Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit, followed by uber-respectable credits with Victor Wooten, the Jaco Pastorius Big Band, and Herbie Hancock. There’s the extended-range bass brigade that beamed with pride as Oteil took the 6-string to uncharted territory, particularly in the chordal realm. There are the jam-band devotees who view him as a native son for his 17-year, deep-grooving tenure with the Allman Brothers Band, and satellite projects with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, Vida Blue, Frogswings, BK3, Gov’t Mule, members of Phish, and his own Peacemakers. And now there are the adoring Dead Heads, fit to be tie-dyed over their new singing bass hero in Dead & Company. The secret to Burbridge’s success? He’s an open channel, fast to pick up on both the musical and social nuances of his surroundings.


Oteil with John Mayer and Bob Weir in Dead & Company

That growth extends to Oteil’s solo side, where his first album in a dozen years, Water in the Desert, has a vocal-and-lyrics focus. Featuring brother Kofi Burbridge on flute and keyboards, vocalists Alfreda Gerald, Mark Rivers, and David Ryan Harris (who also produced and played guitar), drummers Lil John Roberts and Sean O’Rourke, multi-strings by Miguel Atwood Ferguson, the late Col. Bruce Hampton on guitar, and Oteil, primarily on his ’69 Gibson EB-2, with cameos by his Modulus 6, Fodera 5, ’63 Precision, and banjo bass, the exceptional nine-track effort addresses the question once asked and answered by early Oteil heroes Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, and Steely Dan: Why can’t vocal music with singable melodies and allegorical lyrics have interesting harmonies?

Burbridge’s ears have always been wide open, thanks to his highly musical upbringing. Born in Washington, DC, on August 24, 1964, and raised in the shadow of the White House, Oteil (Egyptian for “explorer” or “wanderer”) was saturated by music thanks to his audiophile parents and older brother Kofi, a classically trained flute prodigy. After taking up drums at age eight, Oteil found a Beatle Bass copy Kofi had left home after a visit from music school, and by 14 he was hooked on bass. Both Kofi and his dad plied Oteil with recordings featuring Jaco, Stanley Clarke, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, and other greats, while he discovered the funk of Larry Graham, Verdine White, and Bootsy Collins. Upon receiving a Fender Jazz Bass for his 17th birthday, Burbridge began gigging locally and found his way to the Virginia Beach cover-band scene, where he met fellow bassists Victor Wooten and James Genus, and switched to 5-string.

Three years later Burbridge moved to Atlanta on a friend’s advice. He admittedly had hit a rut until drummer Jeff Sipe introduced him to the mystical Col. Bruce Hampton. Hampton had a Monday night jam where all sorts of frustrated musicians would come down to pursue the process of making honest music by learning to express the core of who they are as players. “Bruce saved my life spiritually and musically,” says Oteil. Eventually, a quintet of star pupils formed with Hampton, Sipe, Burbridge, guitarist Jimmy Herring, and mandolinist Matt Mundy, and the Aquarium Rescue Unit was born. They opened for Widespread Panic, who also helped them secure a record deal, and Burbridge began building his global fan bases. We checked in with the affable bassist to look back over his long, strange trip to bass stardom, and dissect his latest role with Dead & Company and his new solo record, which is where our detailed discussion began.

This is your first vocal-centered album, and you’re the sole lyricist, as well.

That was the only concept or theme going in, that it be vocally oriented. I started writing these songs about ten years ago, but they definitely grew and developed in the recording process. Lyric writing was a challenge, and I’m certainly no Joni Mitchell, [Dead lyricist] Robert Hunter, or Leonard Cohen, but the songs capture what was in my heart at the time. I got a book called Writing Better Lyrics [2010, Writers Digest Books] by a Berklee professor named Pat Pattinson, and that was a big help. He talks about concepts like metaphors and making sure the story progresses as the song goes on. I also have a cover of “Little Wing” featuring Atlanta guitarist Dave Yoke, and another original tune, which I’ll put out as bonus tracks.

How did you choose the musicians and producer David Ryan Harris?

We all had a connection to Atlanta, where I recorded the album. Kofi and I used to play with Alfreda and Lil John in bands there back in the late ’80s, and everyone on the album is based there except me. David is one of the most under-recognized talents in music, having worked with folks like John Mayer, Alicia Keys, India.Arie, and Mariah Carey. His self-titled solo album [1997, Sony] is one of my all-time favorite records. He’s as good of a songwriter as he is a singer, guitarist, and a producer who knows his way around the studio. He was invaluable, whether it was changing one word in a lyric that made everything fall into place, or coming up with the drum loop on “Enough for Two,” or singing lead on “Let Somebody Love You” and adding a killer rhythm guitar part to the bridge.

The title-track opener establishes the record’s harmonic flavor, including the use of non-root tones in the bass.

Back when I was living in Birmingham, Alabama, a friend of mine turned me on to the First Baptist Church of Kingston. I would go there to check out the music, and I’d always leave with tears in my eyes. They wanted me to sit in, but their chord movement was so different, I realized I would need charts. They didn’t have any, but they gave me a DVD of a concert they’d done, and after I charted out about ten tunes I was like, Oh, I hear it now. I wrote “Water in the Desert” soon after; it’s my version of that old black gospel music I was hearing. One of the keys is the sound of a straight major chord with the 5 in the bass, like on the Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” I’ve gotten into that and using other non-root tones, which I do all over the album. Another good example is “She Is Love,” which has the same kind of gospel-in-three vibe as “Water.” I wrote that on a little M-Audio keyboard that Kofi gave me.

“Chasing” recalls your Oteil & the Peacemakers sound, although you don’t sing-and-scat your solo.

I wrote that song on bass; it’s kind of a blend of the Peacemakers influences, with some Motown, Curtis Mayfield, and Steely Dan in there. I purposely didn’t do any sing-and-scat solos because I wanted to try to capture that breathing, vocal quality on the bass alone. Solo-wise, I didn’t even want to do any on this record—I wanted to feature the music, the vocalists, and Kofi—but I knew I had to take a few. For me, soloing in the studio is more difficult if we’re not recording live, where I can just rip one out. It takes me a while to stitch something together. In general, I’ve been thinking more melodically with my solos and trying to incorporate chord–melody.

“Ocean” is the lone instrumental track.

That’s my tribute to my all-time favorite musician, [jazz drum legend] Elvin Jones. He’s probably the reason I write so much in three. He was famous for playing in three on top of his kit, while his bass drum was in a slow four [sings the cross-rhythm]. My wife asked me what Elvin makes me think of, and I said, “waves crashing in the ocean,” thus the title. It’s also the last thing I recorded with Col. Bruce, who plays guitar on it. I wrote it on my 6-string while exploring voicings, and I thought, This doesn’t even need a melody or chorus or bridge; we can just vamp through the changes and have everybody play in a sort of group improvisation. I’m the least free, with my motif that holds everything together. [Drummer] Lil John Roberts is the key—he’s so elastic, and he keeps it all flowing.

“Enough for Two” is one of the most interesting pieces harmonically, augmented by real strings.

That song was inspired by two musical concepts. One is from the Weather Report vocal tune “Can It Be Done,” sung by Carl Anderson [Domino Theory, 1984, Columbia], in which the melody is conventional but Joe Zawinul radically reharmonizes the chords. I think that way in general with my music. The other aspect is something Gregg Allman liked to do, which is where you have a vocal line or a melody and you hold over one note when you go to the next section of the song, to tie it together. I especially like doing that when the key center changes completely, so you sense the dramatic shift but you also feel the connection between sections. I do that here for each section. The string arrangement is by Miguel Atwood Ferguson, who I met when I used to do the Music in the Park program in Atlanta. He overdubbed all of the stringed instruments and truly tapped into the spirit of the song. He hears voicings the way I do; to me, that’s where the science and mysticism of music meet. There are only 12 notes, but why do certain voicings make you feel something strong emotionally? Take one note out of a chord or move a note, and it does something to your DNA. All of my harmonic heroes, like Kofi, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Zawinul, George Duke, and Allan Holdsworth, have that gift.

What was the inspiration for “Nothing”?

That’s my tribute to [Atlanta funk-rock pioneers] Mothers Finest. To hear a rock band when I was coming up where the bass player slapped, man … that was huge. I got to meet Wyzard [bassist Jerry “Wyzard” Seay] in Atlanta—he’s an early hero of mine. That’s how I used to hear Led Zeppelin; if I’d have played with them, I would have slapped on all of their music. The key here is drummer Sean O’Rourke, who has toured with Mother’s Finest and has that John Bonham, Steve Ferrone-with-Chaka Khan thing down. Also, the blues is a big part of all of my music. [Flecktones drummer] Roy Wooten noticed that; he said, “I figured you out, dude. You’re just playing the blues!”

“Let Somebody Love You” captures your Southern roots.

Yeah, I’ve been down South for 30 years now and I love it. There’s something about the music; it has a dark magic. I wrote the song mostly on acoustic guitar. I was a bit nervous when we finished, because the first few chords are reminiscent of [the Allman Brothers’] “Melissa,” but Kofi and I take it to a whole other place. I had just gone through a divorce when I wrote it, and I was rethinking my entire life. I had made so many mistakes simply from being young and bold. At the time, I said I’d never get married again and never have kids—now here I am, married and having had my first kid at 50! I guess in a way I’m telling myself with the song that you have to let somebody love you, and that starts with yourself. Loving yourself is the hardest thing to do, but the most important. I used to think I didn’t deserve to be loved after the mistakes I’d made. What helped me turn it around was the thought that if hypothetically God is love, and if God loves me, who am I not to love myself? Having Nigel, who is now three, made it crystal clear. My love for him is unconditional. And I can see what’s lovable about myself in Nigel. That’s how love sees.

Love seems to be the theme of the album.

That’s what the record is all about, at its core. I think every problem we have on the planet now in some way comes back to the lack of love—whether it’s how we’re screwing up the environment because we don’t love our children and grandchildren enough, or the lack of compassion we show as a nation that was built on immigrants. We need more love, and I’m not just accusing others, I’m calling myself out, as well.

“By My Side” has a cool mélange of influences.

It’s like a musical paella. The intro is my prog-rock nod, because I was a big fan of Peter Gabriel and Genesis; there’s some Steely Dan in the verse, and I’m thinking of Paul McCartney’s Hofner in the bass line; there’s some Allman Brothers in the chorus, and Chaka Khan with Rufus in the rideout; and then there’s the double-time jam in the fade. I’m looking forward to playing all of this music live and seeing how it develops and grows onstage through the musicians.

The closer, “Until You Come Home,” is the lone track to feature your lead vocal and your 6-string chordal work, and it has a cool dual-bass outro.

I wrote that while I was on the road with TTB about being away from my wife, who was living in Africa for the year on photo assignment for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. It was a tough time as she was pursuing her dream in a rough part of the world, and I was able to convey my feelings in the song. I had Mark Rivers, who was in TTB with me, do a pass, but I realized it was something I had to sing because he has a powerful voice and it needed to sound more fragile and frail, which is how I felt when I wrote it. I wanted to feature my 6-string in chordal mode at least once on the record, and it’s here in the first chorus. As for the outro, that wasn’t planned. I was stretching out with my bass line when we cut the track, and then when I went back much later to add a solo over the outro, this natural counterpoint between the basses happened. I didn’t give it any thought, or try to make it a call and answer; I was probably just reacting to the track.

Let’s talk Dead & Company. How did you get the bass chair, and how did you prepare?

I got a call from Bob Weir’s manager, Matt Bush, asking me to come and play with the guys, because they were thinking about continuing on after their final show in summer 2015. I had done BK3 with [Dead drummer] Bill Kreutzmann and Scott Murawski, so Bill and I had developed a chemistry, and I had played with Bob, Phil [Lesh], and Jeff [Chimenti], so it went well. Then I saw photos of Mike Gordon at the Dead’s rehearsal space, so I figured he got the gig. A couple of months later Matt called and said, “You’re up.” Apparently, Mike had to pass on the gig due to Phish and his solo album. I knew about 20 Dead songs from various projects I’d done, and I picked my favorite 50 out of what they seemed to be playing a lot. Then I called John [Mayer], who was already onboard, and he knew 70 songs, so we compared lists, and I learned the extras, as well. By the end of rehearsals, we were up to 80 or 90 songs.

You’ve called the gig a revelation for you.

For sure. Friends have been trying to get me into the Dead since high school, but I had to be older and more mature, having attempted to write lyrics and sing, to fully appreciate their music. There are two key elements: First, the gig is very challenging, because the music is quite intricate. As Bob said to me, “Oteil, we were not dabblers!” It’s like architecture the way the songs are crafted, between the lyrics, the melodies, the chords, the grooves, the odd meters, and the wide variety of influences. There are tunes that seem like a jam, and all of a sudden, 15 minutes in, the first verse starts! Or a bridge will happen three-quarters of the way in, and never again. Or each verse of a song will switch one chord. Like “Box of Rain”—you wouldn’t believe how hard that song is. At the same time, you’re under absolutely no obligation to execute the songs correctly. Musically, I’m using everything I’ve ever learned; it’s the ultimate gig for me. We cover as many styles as we did in the Allman Brothers, but with a wider scope of harmony, and the lyrics are farther out as well; these guys are poets. The other key is that from their start, this is a band that rejected preconceptions. There were no rules, which connects them to my biggest influences, like Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Delta blues, Jimi Hendrix, P-Funk, and Col. Bruce. I keep asking myself, Why didn’t I recognize this sooner? Yet, in a way it feels like it was all supposed to happen now for me.

How have you approached replacing Phil Lesh?

Well, considering how brilliant Phil is and where he comes from conceptually, when you take that out of the mix, in a sense you don’t have the Dead anymore. He’s that big a part of their sound and feeling, and neither I nor anyone else can replace him. Phil’s approach was to do the opposite of what the expectation was. He uses a Beethoven quote, “It’s every artist’s duty to confound expectations.” As a result, there really aren’t a lot of set bass lines in the Dead’s music. “Truckin’” has one, as does “Shakedown Street” and “Dancin’ in the Streets,” but most tunes don’t. So I got a clean slate, in a way. I come from a more traditional way of bass playing, which is rooted in the African tradition of the groove. But what I didn’t realize is a lot of the Dead’s music comes out of the same tradition. Bob hears a lot of reggae and funky halftime bass grooves in his head. For example, on “Estimated Prophet,” Bob always wanted Phil to play that kind of bass line, and Phil wouldn’t do it. With my roots, I naturally played it that way, and Bob dug it. He’s encouraged me to take that approach on everything—play what you are. As a result, I always say I won over the crowds’ asses before I won over their ears.

On the other hand, your improvisational abilities seem to mesh with the Lesh template.

Absolutely. There’s so much I relate to in Phil’s playing. I try to cop his style on “Bertha,” but in my voice. In some ways he’s like a rock & roll James Jamerson, playing counterpoint melodies on the bass, and it’s all improvised. And he loves to throw in chord substitutions and reharms. Those are the areas where I can connect with him. I’m like, Great, I don’t have to play repetitive lines all the time, and I can play different notes that change the harmony, and no one will get mad at me! Plus, I get a solo spot on “Eyes of the World,” which I really don’t need because there’s so much improvising on the gig, but it does allow me to try some chord–melody ideas. In general, I’m playing the most stretched-out stuff I can think of … in stadiums! Are you kidding me?

And you’re singing lead on some songs, as well.

Can you believe it? I sing in stadiums and people dig it. It blows my mind. That’s another part of my personal growth from this gig, thanks to the guys’ insistence that I sing some songs. I’m doing “Comes a Time,” “China Doll,” and “If I Had the World to Give,” and I’m sharing lead with John on “Ship of Fools.” We just added the Band’s “The Weight,” which I’m singing, and I’ve learned a bunch of Jerry Garcia ballads that we’ll add, too, like “So Many Roads” and “To Lay Me Down.” In-ear monitors have really helped me; I can sing higher than I thought, and they help me sing my background vocals in tune. At John’s recommendation, I take one out when I’m singing lead.

Will the band continue to tour, and might you record?

Tour-wise, we have dates through 2018, and there’s been some talk of writing and recording. Bill sent us all some Robert Hunter lyrics to write music for, and after the guys mentioned what they liked, I took an unclaimed song and wrote music for it. I think it will happen; the band has such good chemistry, and we’ve developed our own sound. I’m grateful that the fans have embraced me. They’re the most loyal fans on the planet, and they’ve been amazing. After a few shows on my mini-solo tour this past November, I started seeing the same faces every night!

What are your thoughts on the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s 30th Anniversary tour and Col. Bruce Hampton passing away?

His passing obviously hit me hard; I had a gig at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and couldn’t be at his 70th-birthday show that fateful night. I’m grateful for the time I had with him, and I’m glad he knew how much he meant to me. Without Col. Bruce there would be no Allmans, no Dead & Company; I would be a fusion musician playing in Europe. It was a rough year, with Col. Bruce, Greg [Allman], and Butch [Trucks] all passing, and Kofi being ill and thankfully recovering.

The reunion tour in 2015 was a blast. Going in, I wasn’t really into playing the old songs, but then I got with the guys, and we started laughing about old times, and I realized this is ARU—if you’re tired of a song, you don’t have to play it the same way!

How do you reflect on your time with the Allman Brothers?

The greatest gift from that experience was learning about rock & roll and other genres from the people who created them. I learned so much that I didn’t know about black music, from a long-haired white guy who looked like a biker, in Gregg Allman. He’d play me amazing recordings of old soul artists I had never heard. Like the Dead, the Allmans are a unique gumbo of styles, with the influences of jazz, blues, R&B, British Invasion rock, folk, country, bluegrass, New Orleans, and Latin music; it was all stirred together. Plus, I got to meet and play with an insane number of greats at our Beacon shows—Roy Haynes, Stanley Clarke, Taj Mahal, Levon Helm, Hubert Sumlin, Little Milton, Dr. John, and Billy Gibbons. I stepped into history with that band. Musically, it made me feel so patriotic. The Allman Brothers taught me to love America!

How about your Tedeschi Trucks Band stint?

For years, I thought Derek Trucks and his wife [Susan Tedeschi] should have a band together, and for it to happen and to get to be in it with Kofi was a blast. It was good timing for me at first, with my wife away, but my plan since the Allman Brothers ended was to have a kid at 50 and stay home as much as possible. When you have an 11-piece band like TTB, you have to gig a lot to keep it going. I didn’t want to be on the road that much, so I stepped away after two years and two albums. But all the miles and the hard work we put in, you can hear it in the music. The live album we did really captures the band firing on all pistons.

What’s the story behind your passion for the banjo, and how has it affected your bass playing?

I took up 5-string banjo at that same point, when my wife was away and I joined TTB, and it has become a passion. It’s rhythmically rooted but also melodic, so it’s like playing bass and drums at the same time. I started in the bluegrass/Earl Scruggs-style, with three fingerpicks, but then I got into the instrument’s African-American roots, where they use a technique called clawhammers, which involves the thumb, index, and middle fingers primarily playing downpicks. Out of that, I wrote a whole album of material that I call “Afrobilly.” It’s got African grooves, odd meters, vocals, and my style of harmonies, and I need to release it. As for the connection to my bass playing, banjo has had a considerable impact. Banjo is all about playing rolls, which are sequences of notes; when you find the right roll for a song, you can improvise variations from there. I’ve been incorporating that on bass, working out odd meters and rolls that go over the bar line. It may sound like I’m overplaying when I do it, but it’s banjo concepts on bass. That’s why Victor Wooten is the perfect bassist for the Flecktones—he was already “playing banjo” on bass.

Have any young bassists captured your ears?

Absolutely. Thundercat is amazing and one of my favorites; Mononeon, too. It’s great to hear younger guys who have their own voice. Let’s not forget the super-talented Esperanza Spalding and Tal Wilken-feld. They all make me feel proud, as one of the older cats now. I’m not panicked about dying [laughs]; I can see that the contributions of the greats who preceded them will live on strongly through their music.

What’s ahead for you?

I’m going to tour with my record in 2018, as well as doing the Dead & Company dates. I’d like to release my banjo album, and when it comes to new material, I’d like create music that gets more back to Africa—incorporating the bass and the banjo, but with traditional drummers and dancers, too. I’m also emboldened through my recent singing and writing to do a good chunk of my next record myself: write, sing, and play all the instruments. I’ve finally learned to just be myself and not be hindered by supposed limitations.

Bass Oasis
Water in the desert may be a vocal album at heart, but there’s plenty to drink in on the bass side, courtesy of Oteil Burbridge’s deep-set grooves, non-root tones, tasteful fills, thematic solos, and full-on 6-string chordal work. Example 1 contains Oteil’s slapped bass line on “Nothing,” played on his Fodera NYC 5. Dig his greasy hammer from G to G# in bars 1, 3, 5, and 7, even though the harmony is E minor. Example 2a shows Oteil’s brief melody/solo 2:51 into “Let Somebody Love You,” played on his ’69 Gibson EB-2. Let all notes ring, and use the open E and A strings to help facilitate the part. Example 2b has the first six measures of Oteil’s Modulus 6-string solo later in the track, at 3:49 (written here for 4-string, an octave lower than he played it). Note the alternating meters, and his use of major and minor 6ths in the solo, which culminates in a gorgeous cross-rhythm phrase in the final two measures. Lay back and think vocally.
Example 3a is the A-section bass line of “Until You Come Home,” which, like much of “Nothing” above, Oteil played on the E and A strings of his EB-2 for a fatter, up-the-neck sound. “I did that a lot with the Allmans, to get under the low end of the guitars on my 4-string Fenders,” he says. Finally, Ex. 3b shows the first chorus of “Until,” at 0:51, with Oteil’s rich Modulus 6-string chords. While many of the chords can be fingered 1-2-3-4 in the fretting hand (Bbmaj7/13, Cmaj7/13, C69, Bb6/9, and C2/E), others present a challenge: F#m9 (2-3-4-1), Fmaj7 (1-3-2-4), C (1-3-2-open C), and D2sus4 (3-1-4). Keep your fingers stretched, and fret with your fingertips as much as possible.

INFO

LISTEN

Oteil Burbridge, Water in the Desert [2017], Believer [2005, Rattlesby], The Family Secret [2003, Artist House], Love of a Lifetime [1998, Nile Music]; the Allman Brothers Band, Hittin’ the Note and Live at the Beacon Theater (Video) [2003, Sanctuary]; Tedeschi Trucks Band, Live: Everybody’s Talkin’ [2012, Masterworks]; Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Mirrors of Embarrassment [1993, Capricorn]; Herbie Hancock, The Imagine Project [2010, Sony]; Zac Brown Band, The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 [2013, Southern Ground]

EQUIP

Basses “O-Teal” green and purple Modulus Quantum 6 semi-hollow 6-strings; Fodera Signature Monarch 6-string; Fodera NYC 5-string; 1969 Gibson EB-2; 1963 Fender Precision Bass; fretless Joe Perman 6-string and fretted 5-string; Goldtone Banjo Bass
Strings D’Addario EXL170-6 (.032, .045, .065, .080, .100, .130), D’Addario XL ETB92 Nylon Tapewounds Medium (.050, .065, .085, .105)
Rigs Epifani UL501 head with PS210 and PS115 cabinets; UL902 head with two UL410 cabinets; Piccolo 999 head with two D.I.S.T. 112 cabinets
Effects Way Huge Aqua Puss delay, MXR Bass Distortion, MXR Bass Envelope Filter, MXR Bass Octave Deluxe
Other JH Audio in-ear monitors, Rowin LT-901 tuner, Planet Wave cables, Curtis Novak pickups, Jenny Shuman straps