Anyone who hears Damian Erskine's new album So To Speak is about to find out what both keyed-in locals and hardcore jazz/fusion bass enthusiasts already know: There’s a world-class virtuoso bassist living in Portland, Oregon, and most nights he’s out there hustling like the rest of us.
“[Drummer] Reinhardt Melz and I play with dozens of guys in town, and we never really get to ‘get to it’ like we do in my basement,” says Erskine, 36. “This album was an excuse for us to have fun, but also to make a statement and make an album that didn’t sound like anything out there.”
So To Speak combines Latin, jazz, funk, and more Latin for a fusion of the highest order, all anchored by Erskine’s amazing right hand and highly developed sense of groove and idiomatic authenticity. Tunes like “American Gyro,” “Aslant,” and especially “Cabrerina” feature Erskine shooting out bursts of conga/tabla-like percussive fury countered by a relaxed, mature melodic sensibility. In two words, it’s masterful and unique.
Damian grew up watching his uncle, legendary drummer Peter Erskine, play in New York clubs with John Scofield, Jaco Pastorius, the Brecker Brothers, and other greats. “Peter’s personal influence on me, though, was more one of professionalism and work ethic. He always maintained a Zen master ability to operate at a high level, without anxiety and with intentionality.”
Looks like the mentoring worked; Damian was actually a drummer first, and switched to bass principally once he got to Berklee. Pretty good way to develop a groove, come to think of it.
When did your interest in Latin jazz first develop, and how has it shaped you as a bassist?
I’d never played Latin music at all until moving to Portland, but once I did, I fell in love. It’s the best of both worlds! You’ve got a deep pocket and interesting harmony along with amazing rhythmic dialogue. My best friend here, Reinhardt Melz—who plays on both of my CDs—is an amazing drummer. He’s always challenging me rhythmically. He’s really tuned me into the rhythmic grid and the infinite ways one can navigate it.
Who are your biggest bass and compositional influences?
Probably Victor Wooten for his pocket and emotional perspective, and both Rich Brown and Etienne Mbappe for just sheer beauty and musicality. Compositionally, it’s gotta be Avishai Cohen. I just can’t get past him … he’s an obsession for me.
What’s the story behind your righthand technique? What inspired it?
Probably being a drummer and loving rhythm so much! I subdivide everything rhythmically with my right hand like a drummer plays ghost notes, I think. I also experimented a lot with the palm mute sound, but finding more comfortable ways to get that sound and keep my facility intact. I now have this weird hybrid way of muting with my pinky and using my thumb, index and middle fingers. I toured a lot with a great banjo player, Tony Furtado, and I would get him to show me banjo exercises for my bass. That helped a lot.
What are you trying to say with So To Speak?
I don’t think of myself as a composer, but I very much wanted to develop some material that would give me a vehicle for playing the way I enjoy playing and not holding back. I always wanted to keep it musical, though— I can’t really take “shred” albums.
Can you briefly discuss your use of oddtime signatures and metric modulations in your compositions?
Again, this was just my chance to play the way I naturally play when not on someone else’s gig. I kept asking myself what my voice was. Each song was born out of me experimenting at home with the types of grooves I come up with when left to my own devices. “Fif” is one that seems to throw people. That one, for example, came out of me playing with my metronome. It’s in 5/4, and has quarter-note triplets in the bass and eighth-note triplets in the melody. It’s where you place the spaces in the lines that really seem to trip folks up—I feel it more like an African groove. I also can’t count and play, so I have to feel it to play it.
How big is the role of education in your life as a bassist? What is your mission statement as a bass instructor and music educator?
Personally, I learn better on the stage than I do in the classroom. I don’t take many students, but when I do I always try and achieve two things: One, teach them how to teach themselves through honest self-assessment and creative thinking in regards to problem solving; two, try and impress upon them the importance of really learning the foundational stuff. Reading, transcribing, scales, arpeggios, chords, etc., so that they know the neck inside and out and can really interpret the music and their instrument unhindered.
What’s your ultimate goal as a musician?
To play music from the inside out. I want my brain out of the equation, and when that happens, everything else will come together, like feeling compositionally mature and developed, being less selfaware when playing certain styles. I play best when I’m feeling, not thinking!
HEAR HIM ON
Damian Erskine, So To Speak [2010, notneK Music]; Intervision, Intervision [2010, Intervision Music]; Gospel Chops, Bass Sessionz, Vol. 1 [DVD] [2009, Gospelchops.com]
Basses Skjold Erskine Model 6-string, Zon TJ-4 4 string, Fender Reggie Hamilton Jazz Bass
Live Rig Alembic F1-X tube preamp, QSC power amp, Accugroove Tri 115L cabs
Studio signal path Alembic F1-X preamp (direct), live rig (miked)
Effects Boss Octave OC-2, Boss RV-5 digital reverb
Strings D’Addario EXL170 Nickels (.035–.130)