AS A BASSIST, BANDLEADER, COMPOSER, AND MUSICAL director, Chris Morrissey grew up and thrived in the flourishing music scene of Minnesota. His innovative electric and upright playing landed him big gigs, where he excelled and explored the boundaries of modern jazz. But at a certain point Morrissey decided to take his playing to a larger platform, so in 2009 he relocated to the cutthroat music scene of New York City. Morrissey adapted quickly and soon found himself playing with the likes of Andrew Bird, Ben Kweller, and Mason Jennings. But it wasn’t until 2013 that Morrissey landed his biggest gig yet as the musical director and bass player for singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles.
With his new job in pop, the 33-year-old soon found himself touring the world and recording tracks at the request of Oprah Winfrey. But determined not to leave his jazz roots behind, Morrissey recently completed a solo album that honors his days of playing in his home state. Produced by his musical mentor and fellow Minnesota-native, drummer Dave King of the Bad Plus, North Hero showcases the dynamic range of Morrissey’s playing. His high-powered electric riffs and deft upright work blazes through inventive and difficult numbers that flaunt his ability to raise the bar for jazz bass.
What was your mentality going into the North Hero sessions?
When tape is rolling and it’s go time in the studio, my hope is that all of the technical elements disappear, and that the better I know the tune and my instrument, the easier it is to play the song. To have a technical objective or to try something new is more for the practice ring. On anybody’s record, my goal is to get a very unself-conscious performance on tape. That was something I was able to do on this album, although my hands and arms felt like they went through a garbage disposal at the end of those long sessions.
How has working with Sara Bareilles challenged you musically?
For the bass role it was a lot of new things for me, because live we’re playing to a click track, and I don’t have an amp with me on tour. Even in big shows with Andrew Bird or Mason Jennings or Ben Kweller, I always had an amp right behind me. It was interesting preparing for the gig and knowing that I wouldn’t be able to just turn around and adjust my EQ. That’s a tough thing to do, and it’s different from any other gig I’ve played.
What is your preparation process like when you’re called for a new gig?
If it’s for a recording session, I learn the music as well as I possibly can. It has to be something you know well enough to where you don’t need to have your head buried in charts. I try to avoid using charts in sessions and gigs, because you play differently when you’re reading. I find I listen a lot less and tend to play busier. When the music is memorized, it’s easier to bring your A-game. You have to make sure when you show up to a gig that you’re firing on all cylinders and you’re bringing everything you can be to that music.
How does playing both electric and upright bass make you a better player?
Anybody who plays only upright or electric should absolutely get the other and learn how to play both. And if you’re already an upright player, you should get a bow and learn how to play with it. For upright you need a strong left hand that you develop through practicing long bows and just playing your ass off. Do that and then go pick up a Fender Mustang—it feels like a ukulele and you sound like Jaco. If I’m in shape on my upright, then everything else is cool in my playing world. You need to stay consistent with it, though. When I get back from a tour of not playing upright, I feel like I’ve never even seen the thing before.
Chris Morrissey, North Hero [Sunnyside, 2013]
Bass 1971 Fender Mustang, Fender Jazz Bass, ’90s Chinese upright bass
Rig Aguilar DB 751, Aguilar GS 412
Pedals Boss OC-2, Fulltone Bass Drive MOSFET
Strings La Bella Flatwounds, Fender Nickel Roundwounds