FROM HIS 15-YEAR TENURE AS A 6-STRING jazz/blues accompanist/soloist with the Derek Trucks Band to his duty as an R&B groove machine with JJ Grey & Mofro, Todd Smallie relies on his Atlanta Institute of Music education to navigate circumstances with subtlety and nuance. On This River, the latest from JJ Grey & Mofro, Smallie’s warm, round Fender P-Bass tone and syncopated grooves channel the vibe of old-school Motown. Songs like “Somebody Else” and “Tame a Wild One” feature some of the greasiest, most inspired R&B bass lines since the ’60s.
Your lines on This River have a spontaneous, improvisational feel, like old Motown. Was that intentional?
In the past, JJ would come in with a pretty good shell of an idea, and we’d add little things over it. This River was great because JJ, the drummer, and I got together and played live in the studio. From a bass-playing perspective, I think “Your Lady, She’s Shady” turned out well. It has a loose and improvisational feel because all of the parts weren’t settled in. I had a lot of freedom, and we didn’t get too critical about it.
What is the difference in your approach to working with JJ versus Derek Trucks?
It’s a great contrast between the two. With JJ you really get a chance to put all of your influences into his tunes. The main difference in my role as a bass player is that with Derek, the mindset was geared toward compositions like “Afro Blue” or a Wes Montgomery song or a straightahead BB King song. With JJ I get to take all of my influences, like Paul Jackson and Willie Dixon, and transfer those sounds to his music.
Did the Atlanta Institute of Music directly influence the trajectory of your career?
I went in 1990 and ’91. Russ Rodgers was the bass director, and Adam Nitti was the director after him. I was very fortunate to study with them. Jimmy Herring [Widespread Panic guitarist] happened to be teaching there, too. I got to know Jimmy real well seeing him play with Col. Bruce Hampton and also the Aquarium Rescue Unit. That’s how I met up with Derek—through him and Jeff Sipe and Oteil Burbridge [of Aquarium Rescue Unit]. It was an incredible time in the music scene in Atlanta; there was just an incredible amount of talented musicians around to feed off of.
You’re playing a Fender Precision 4-string with JJ, but you played a 6 with Derek for quite some time.
I played 6-string with Derek for years. The luxury of having one guitar player was cool, but I cut that out when [keyboardist / flautist] KofiBurbridge joined the band. There was no need for me to play the chordal stuff in the upper registers anymore. Tonally, I found myself trying to make it sound like a Fender Jazz, so I was like, “all right, go old school,” and I started using a ’62 Reissue Jazz Bass. And, as that band evolved we weren’t doing as many jazz tunes—we hit more of an R&B sound.
Was it challenging to transition back to 4-string?
I actually found myself playing so much 6-string, for so many years in a row, that I’d pick up a 4 every once in a while and it was like, “Man, I just don’t know how to get left to right on this thing anymore.” It was so easy to play scales in one position on the 6; you could get away with three-octave scales without changing position too much. It has an affect on how you approach a song. When I switched to 4-string I needed the Jazz Bass sound with Derek, so I went with that. If I needed more low end, it was easier to mimic a P-Bass with a J-Bass rather than vice versa. But you can’t really go wrong with a P-Bass—the engineers don’t complain, and more important, the bosses don’t complain!
JJ Grey & Mofro, This River [Alligator, 2013]
Basses 1978 Fender Precision Bass, Fender ’62 Reissue Jazz Bass
Rig Ampeg SVT Classic and 8x10 cabinet (live), Ampeg B-15 (studio)
Strings DR Strings Lo-Rider MH45