Multi-genre and multi-situational bassist Robert Hurst has been part of three innovative jazz groups. From anchoring the mighty Tony Williams band, to his all-star showing with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ celebrated mid- 1980s ensemble, to the muscular and joyous music of tenor saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ early quintet, Robert Leslie Hurst III has been a first-call magic man for over 30 years. In that time, Hurst has lent his supple technique and organic tone to the music of Paul McCartney, Diana Krall, Beyoncé, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, Woody Shaw, Geri Allen, Diane Reeves, Lou Rawls, Norah Jones, and many more. Through the years Hurst has also found time to document his own musical journey, recording the popular and critically hailed Robert Hurst Presents: Robert Hurst [1992, Columbia], One for Namesake [1993, Sony], Unrehurst, Vols. 1 and 2 [2002/2010, Bebob], Bob Ya Head [2010, Bebob], and Bob: A Palindrome [2013, Bebob].
Currently teaching at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Hurst’s latest endeavor is the Afro Cuban-meets-Brazilian blowout Black Current Jam [2017, Dot Time]. Look for upcoming Hurst music with GBD (Golden Brown Delicious trio) and a Geri Allen trio album with drummer/composer Karriem Riggins.
What basses did you use on Black Current Jam? It sounds like you used more than one bass per song.
For a lot of the chordal stuff, I played an Abe Rivera 5-string. I mostly played a fretless 4-string; for some tunes I played melodies and chords. I also play the fretted Abe Rivera bass, the one I used on The Tonight Show. But there aren’t any bass overdubs on the record. There are some fixes; on one tune, I didn’t like the bass sound, so I recorded it again. When I’m playing melody, there isn’t another bass [under it]. Each track has a single bass.
You spent your formative years in Detroit, working with members of the Funk Brothers, who recorded many Motown classics. What was your takeaway from that period?
I played with [organist] Earl Van Dyke a lot, and drummers Pistol Allen and Uriel Jones, who are in the Standing in the Shadows of Motown documentary. Even when playing a jazz standard, they’d always have a hook in what they played. They treated it like a rhythm-section part, like a roadmap. Many guys who play straight-ahead [now] are improvising all the time. They’re not thinking holistically about the form of the entire piece. With Earl or the other guys, we’d play the vamp for the soloist, and then a walking bass for another part. If I wasn’t doing that, they would call me out—especially Earl Van Dyke: “Hurst, what are you doing? That’s not how we do it. You hear the voices going up—why don’t you go down?” I was 16. I got used to hearing them go off on me, but it was tough love. They didn’t treat me like a kid. A lot of younger musicians are coddled these days, but those Motown guys put me in the fire, and I appreciate that now.
What did Earl Van Dyke mean about going down when the voices go up?
For instance, once, we were playing the second ending of “Green Dolphin Street.” The melody rises in pitch, and I’d play an ascending bass line. Van Dyke said, “If your walking bass line goes down as the melody goes up, it makes the whole band sound bigger.” It made the music more dramatic. They taught me how to “ride the bass drum” or essentially play the same rhythm the bass drum plays within a groove. Many people can do that on one chord, but how do you do it throughout a song? James Jamerson was brilliant at that. He also played more upright on Motown songs than people realize, like “Jimmy Mack” and other early Martha & the Vandellas tunes. Jamerson played really busy, but he still played the bass line. Church musicians and pop and funk players have that sensibility, but it gets lost in jazz. We’d rather play some hip shit. The Motown guys made me aware of keeping it in the pocket.
Paul McCartney took a lot from Jamerson.
I asked him about that when I recorded his album Kisses on the Bottom. He said he never met Jamerson, but he learned his bass lines and was a big fan of how his bass sat in the tracks on Motown stuff. I think that influenced how the Beatles mixed their later records, like Revolver. Paul wanted to get that vibe, even though his tone is a little different. He loved Jamerson. I could see in his face that he was still bugged that he hadn’t been able to see him live.
Did McCartney have ideas for the bass on Kisses on the Bottom?
He did, actually. That was quite helpful. I was playing kind of passively, and Paul was in the booth. I was playing in two for one song, and he wanted me to walk, so he would look at me and start pantomiming upright bass playing. In his process for recording standards, he started channeling Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, singing in their voice. We were paint-by-the-numbers, but he wanted it to be like jazz. He was finding his footing. We were on pins and needles, but he is super easy to work with.
There’s no walking bass on your latest album.
It’s just the way the music came out. A lot of the grooves were derived from playing with our Cuban percussionist, Pepe Espinoza. “Bella Bunda,” “Keepin It Rio,” and “Coneys and Vernors” are from the first time I went to Brazil with Wynton. I bought all these Carnival records. We do something on the new album I call “Detroit clave,” which is our interpretation of Afro-Caribbean music from Trinidad and Tobago with a calypso feeling, and also from Cuba, Africa, and Brazil.
Anything surprise you when teaching jazz to young bass players?
Since hip-hop is a dominant musical force, a lot of students can’t differentiate how to play funk from how to play jazz—making that connection with the ride cymbal in the jazz context, and then making the connection with the bass drum in various forms of soul and pop music. I run the small-group program at U Mich, and I have everyone write a blues that they are required to sing in the traditional blues style. The students have no idea of what that is. They don’t understand the connection between the blues and everything else in popular music. We teach a lot of privileged white kids who can afford to come to school here, and that information is not readily available in the culture. Because of racism, people don’t get their just due regarding relevance in all of the music in the world, but certainly in the music of America. Americans don’t talk about jazz. Go to Germany, and people talk about Mozart and Beethoven. In France they talk about Fauré and Ravel. Everywhere else they celebrate their own music, but we don’t celebrate our own music in America.
The students don’t know Howlin’ Wolf or Son House?
No. They think it’s some old black man stuff. They think it’s not relevant anymore, when the blues is completely relevant. People don’t understand the connection between Kendrick Lamar and the blues. They don’t understand that the blues is the basis for everything.
What sessions stand out from your career?
Barbra Streisand was hilarious. She was really knowledgeable. We were doing a song at 73 bpm, and she asked if we could do another take at 72. That day, I left home at 5:30 AM and got to L.A. at 11 and recorded with Streisand. I had a few hours to kill, so I went to the Biggie Smalls movie at the Magic Johnson Theater in Crenshaw Mall, the hub of black culture in L.A. and everyone talking to the screen. Then I came home the same day. I did a Charles Lloyd session with Eric Harland and Geri Allen, and then a Beyoncé session for the Super Bowl, also on the same day. That was really cool.
What do you practice?
I practice intonation, a lot of stuff with the bow. The bow is the truthteller, the lie detector. On an acoustic bass if you pluck a string, it just dissipates; it dies. When you play with a bow, it’s a long note, and you get a chance to really feel the instrument vibrate. You can feel the intonation and feel where the next note is; you can hold the note and hear and feel the timbre. I’ll practice bebop tunes with the bow, and then on electric I’ll set up a drum-machine groove or play with drummers. At this point in my career, I try to multitask when I practice. I practice my compositional skills to ensure that I’m playing in a compositional manner, as well as groove stuff as well as technical things. It can seem random, and sometimes it is, but it’s working for me.
Upright bass 1890s Joseph Bohmann ⅞ acoustic
Pickup David Gage Realist Copperhead
Strings (upright) 5-string standard Evah Pirazzi, 4-string standard Evah Pirazzi, 4-string Evah Pirazzi strings w/C extension
Electric basses 1974 Fender Precision Bass, fretless Ken Bebensee 6-string ABG, ’80s Schechter Pstyle, Abe Rivera 5-string
Strings (electric) DR Strings Handmade Coated Extra Life Black Beauties
Amps (upright) Gallien-Krueger MB112; (electric) Euphonic Audio White Face iAMP (250-watt Model C/L 110)