Gotham guitar legend Mike Stern’s long-running gig at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village has served as a veritable apprenticeship for swinging on the electric bass, from Jaco to Jeff Andrews to Janek Gwizdala. His most recent plucking protégé, Teymur Phell, is no exception, with his smooth, deep-pocketed strides and soaring solos. In fact, Phell has done more than walk the walk, authoring a new book on the subject, Killer Walking Bass. The 66-page edition borrows the changes from standards like “All the Things You Are,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Giant Steps,” and the blues to demonstrate such concepts as shapes and sequences, repetition, trajectory, call and response, tension and release, non-root tones, harmonic substitution, and intervallic skips and jumps—all with an accent on melodicism and musicianship.
Born in Baku, Azerbaijan in 1987 and raised in Haifa, Israel, Phell grew up in a musical household, as both his grandmother and father were pianists and composers. He showed little interest in music until he was 13. He remembers, “I was watching MTV one day, and my dad walked by and said, ‘That’s a nice bass line.’ I asked him what he meant, and he explained it to me. I got it in my head that I wanted to play bass. I pestered him until he rented me a Fender Squier. Before he went to work, he named the strings and showed me how to use my right and left hands, and by the time he got home, I was playing along with Will Smith’s ‘Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.’” Phell plunged into records, videos, and method books by Jaco, Ron Carter, Ray Brown, John Patitucci, and Victor Wooten. He auditioned for and was accepted into the local arts high school, where he switched to 6-string. Later, he attended the Jerusalem Academy of Music, where he studied upright with Michael Klinghoffer.
In 2011, Phell realized his dream of moving to New York City, and he began attending Stern shows at 55 Bar. After introducing himself, it took months until Stern invited him over to jam, and almost a year of regular jamming transpired before the guitarist hired him for his first 55 Bar gig. Since then, Phell has racked up credits with Randy Brecker, Leni Stern, Gary Husband, and Arturo Sandoval, and he’s begun work on a solo album—all while maintaining his coveted slot with Stern, including the guitarist’s latest effort, Trip.
What led you to put together Killer Walking Bass?
It was the idea of my co-author, bassist Jim Kalbach. He came to one of my gigs and we chatted, and then we got together and I showed him the variety of approaches to walking bass lines I was working on. We picked the best bass lines and structured them from simple to more advanced, and Jim got the accompanying text together. There’s a lot of material out there on bass soloing, but as I tell my students, you’re not going to get hired to solo. To work, you need to get your sideman skills together at the highest level, and that’s all about groove playing and bass line construction.
You cover numerous walking approaches in the book. What’s the balance when you play?
Balance is the key word, as too much of one approach is not good. For me, 40 to 50 percent is solid, old-school walking—the kind that seeps into our DNA as we listen to the greats and develop muscle memory. Then, 20 to 25 percent is listening and reacting to the soloist and where that takes you spontaneously. Last, 25 to 30 percent is trying to use melodic ideas and other concepts I cover in the book to inspire the soloist. What first got me to think more creatively about my walking lines was studying with John Patitucci. He stressed that the bass line should clearly state the changes; a listener should be able to know what song we’re playing from just the bass part.
Let’s talk about walking on electric bass and the stigma that somehow remains.
It’s true—I’ve heard it so many times, that you can’t swing on electric bass. As a doubler, I can say it’s simply not true. In 2018, some of the music you have to deal with not only requires you to walk on electric bass, it’s preferable to upright. It gives the music a different vibe. What it all comes down to is whether you can make a band feel good, no matter what you’re walking on. That’s how my favorite electric bassists sound when they walk, like Jaco, or Anthony Jackson, or Marcus Miller on Dreyfus Night in Paris [2004, Dreyfus].
What areas can electric bassists improve upon when walking?
A lot of players overdo the extra notes and ghost-notes. I want to be able to hear 11 or 12 solid quarter-notes before I hear one extra eighth-note or triplet. The other issue is that electric bassists use their plucking hand to play those extra notes, which makes them too pronounced. Upright players use their left hand to add those embellishments, which is more subtle. Another key is tone: On J-style instruments, I’ve found that it’s best to favor the bridge pickup slightly, and then pluck where the fingerboard meets the body. It gives you a more legato, airy sound, like an upright. Then, as the band gets louder and the drummer opens up, I gradually move my right hand back toward the bridge. Moving your hand to get a range of dynamics is something Jaco did so well.
What are Mike Stern’s walking preferences?
Generally, after we play the head, we start very open, with a lot of space; he’ll play a phrase and we’ll react to it conversationally—we call it quarter-time. Then we’ll go into half-time, with me playing in two; then, after giving each other a look, it’s full on walking. Along the way we’ll do some pedaling, maybe play the pedal on the two and four; it’s all about gradually building. What I’ve learned from Mike is mainly how to build the energy of a tune: start low, get to the middle, and then go higher, and when you’re at the top, take it even higher. One walking concept he showed me is how to mark the form by anticipating the next section by an eighth-note. Little moments like that make a performance special.
Mike Stern, Trip [2017, Heads Up]
Teymur Phell & Jim Kalbach, Killer Walking Bass: Melodic Lines for the Advanced Jazz Bassist, Vol. 1 [killerwalkingbass.com]
Basses F Bass custom BN6 6-string (34.5" scale length, slightly wider nut); Yamaha Silent Upright Bass
Strings DR Strings Hi-Beams (.030, .040, .060, .080, .100, .120)
Rig Markbass Little Mark Tube 800 head with Standard 104HF cabinet
Effects Boss OC2 Octave, Electro Harmonix Pitch Fork, EBS DynaVerb
Other RC3 Loop Station, Fusion gig bags, Asterope cables