Gerald Veasley is one of the true renaissance men of bass. The towering, soft-spoken Philadelphia native may be eight albums deep into his solo career, with his signature 6-string ranking among the most melodic, recognizable voices in contemporary and smooth jazz. But he has also mastered the exploratory support role with everyone from avant saxists Odean Pope and Ornette Coleman, and Philly legends McCoy Tyner, Pat Martino, and Grover Washington Jr., to Joe Zawinul’s Syndicate, the Word Of Mouth Big Band, Teddy Pendergrass, and the Four Tops. For his ninth outing, Electric Mingus Project, Veasley steps outside his lead-bass box for an exhilarating quintet take on the music of Charles Mingus. The two share a spirit rooted in the blues, which sparks this refreshing and engaging redux of Mingus classics. Gerald, who has taught at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts since 1992, also remains a top educator, with his popular Bass Bootcamp having just completed its tenth year. We spoke to “the Veeze” about his new CD, as well as music education.
What’s the genesis of your Mingus project?
Although Mingus wasn’t one of my initial jazz bass influences, like Ray Brown and Paul Chambers, after someone gave me his biography, Beneath the Underdog, I was immediately captivated by his mythology. That led me to Mingus’ music, and I was astounded by its sheer audacity and brilliance. About five years ago I got a grant to do an Electric Mingus Project concert, which was my little tweak at the jazz purists who had given me a hard time when I first hit the scene as an electric bassist. We recorded some music in preparation, but never fully realized what I had envisioned. So when I started my own label, Fanwave, with my partner Richard Waller, we decided one of the first releases should be an Electric Mingus CD. We recorded some new arrangements and remixed older material. My goal was not to replicate Mingus’ music but to use those incredible songs as vehicles of expression, filtered and interpreted through my own experiences in contemporary music, with his bold sense of exploration. There’s a great saying: We don’t seek to be like the masters—we seek what the masters sought.
“Haitian Fight Song” and “Boogie Stop Shuffle” are imposing bass lines to ponder.
Indeed; whenever I listened to any of the original versions, I tried to find what was essential about the song that I found compelling, and for “Haitian” and “Boogie” it seemed to be the relentless drive. When I worked with Zawinul, he coined the phrase “rolling energy,” which was how he wanted me to play his bass lines with a forward lean. That was the only way to play these two bass lines, pushing them along. What also blows my mind about “Boogie” is it’s a 12-bar blues, but Mingus has this incredible post-bop melody and amazing turnarounds that go to the major III chord! He was able to move from lyrical to abstract effortlessly.
Your bass playing is especially inspired on “Better Get Hit in Your Soul.”
I wanted the bass line and support behind the soloists to serve as sort of counter-melody. Zawinul had another concept he referred to as “nobody’s soloing, but everybody’s soloing.” So the bass can be an equal and important voice without soloing because of the improvisation and interplay created.
“Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” is perhaps the most elaborately recast song.
The original is Mingus’ ballad homage to his favorite composer Duke Ellington, specifically echoing “Lush Life,” written by Ellington’s cohort Billy Strayhorn. In studying the melody I heard an ethereal quality that I wanted to ground with an ostinato that implied a caravan moving across the desert—to make another Ellington reference! So I came up with a loping figure in the relative minor that functions like a pedal and creates tension against the rich chords. Also, because the song form is so long, I created a shorter solo form using elements of the harmony. I did the opposite on “Canon,” adding a new harmonic section.
In addition to the sonics, rhythmic feels seem to be the first departure point on many of the tracks.
That’s true—the overall electric sound is colored by Chris Farr and John Swana playing EWI [electronic wind instrument] and EVI [electronic valve instrument] in addition to sax and trumpet, but Butch Reeds’ drum grooves often set the pace. Some of them, like the halftime funk feel of “Haitian Fight Song,” the swung funk groove of “Blue Cee,” and the West African section of “Canon,” were planned, but others happened on the spot. When Butch tried the reggae pulse on “Work Song” we instantly knew it was perfect. That also happened when he played the New Orleans second-line feel under “Boogie Stop Shuffle.”
The CD has three spoken interludes.
I came to realize Mingus was a huge part of his own music—his fearless intensity in moving things along. I felt we could somewhat counter his absence by having several of his published thoughts about race, love and marriage, and being a musician read as narration between tracks. Kevin Wayne, a great front-of-house engineer who has a basso profundo speaking voice, portrays the voice of Mingus.
Your two originals really capture the Mingus aesthetic.
“Blues for Mingus” was actually written for another band after the initial Electric Mingus concert. I used Mingus devices such as angular melodies and blues tonalities, but mainly his penchant for changing tempos and feels. When he did it, it always served an emotional purpose as opposed to being a shock move, and that’s how I approached it—to express a melody that required a different time feel. “1863,” which is the year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln, comes from a code word a musicologist friend of mine uses to end arguments, meaning we’re free to have different viewpoints. In this context it alludes to Mingus, who embodied the sense of being free both on the bandstand, through his compositions and improvisational flights, and off the bandstand. As he once said, we create our own slavery, which remains true today with people of all races not fully realizing the freedoms they have in this country. Musically, it stands apart somewhat, sort of a back-porch jam in the Deep South. I played my acoustic bass guitar to get a more earthy, organic sound, and in lieu of drums, Butch [Reed] plays spoons and washboard and stomps his feet.
Let’s turn to your now-ten-year-old Bass Bootcamp. How would you describe the teaching concept there?
It was designed to have hands-on, close interaction with the instructors to try out their concepts, as opposed to spectators sitting in a clinic. We wanted to break down the wall between student and teacher, so our philosophy is everyone is a teacher and a student. There’s no bass god worship—we have no time for that. We want to create a level of comfort where the student is willing to try and willing to fail, which is essential to progress and growth. The camp is nurturing, not competitive; students are supported, not judged. We pack in 30 hours of private and classroom work, so it’s intensive. As a result, people leave with a hefty dose of both information and inspiration.
What have been the major revelations ten years in?
There are several. Initially, we thought we’d be teaching the next generation of hot young bassists, and we’ve had some of those students—like Adam Blackstone and Jeff Schmidt. But what we do best is cater to the everyman, such as middle-aged successful business people looking to add more meaning to their lives. We thought we were starting a program and instead we started an environment, and the students are the program; they’ve formed a community that stays in touch away from camp. The last revelation occurred a few years ago when we started offering Bass Bootcamp at Sea, on cruises where folks who’ve never played can try bass as an activity. It has been one of my greatest joys. The most fulfilling aspect of teaching is when a student has an “a-ha” moment of realization; well, with novices, it’s all “a-ha” moments.
Musically, visually, and physically, bass is unique in its accessibility. You wear it and you can feel the vibrations in your hands and body, and within five minutes you can be playing a two-note groove and making music. So my new goal is to teach 10,000 people to play the bass!
What’s your advice for a general path of study for bassists?
Private instruction is still the best method, especially for a beginner, because of the feedback, interaction, focus, and comfort level. All of the other sources—from YouTube and online instruction to classrooms and student ensembles—have value, but private studies have the highest degree of accountability and therefore the greatest rate of progress. Find a good teacher, state your musical goals, and away you’ll go.
Basses Ibanez GVB Signature 6-string with alder body, figured maple top, Bartolini pickups, and Aguilar OBP-3 preamp (“The new model is my most full-range bass yet, with more lows and extended highs”); older Ibanez signature 6; Ibanez EWB 5-string acoustic bass guitar tuned EADGC
Strings Dunlop Nickel (.030–.120)
Rig Aguilar DB 750 head with two GS 410 cabs
Effects Boss ME-50B Bass Multiple Effects
Other A-Designs REDDI DI, Essential Sound Products cables, Mono cases
HEAR HIM ON
Gerald Veasley, Electric Mingus Project [2011, Fanwave Music Group]; Gerald Veasley, Your Move [2008, Heads Up]; Grover Washington Jr., Grover Live [2010, LightYear]