A Funny Sting Story
CMB: Honestly, there was what I call a fun type of tension between Sting and I, because we’re both bass players. I’m not dumb enough to think that I was going to go in there and try to start any bass battles with him. I’ve been a sideman and been in the business long enough [to know] you don’t do dumb stuff like that. It doesn’t matter if I may have more chops than Sting. It doesn’t matter if I may know harmony better than Sting. It doesn’t matter, any of that. What matters is that, it’s his gig, he wants his music played a certain way, and if there’s anything he’s gonna be keeping an extra antenna up on, it’s gonna be the bass part. So you’d better play what that man asks you to play.
When we had the first full band rehearsal, he said, “OK, man, why don’t you play electric bass on this tune. I said, “Yeah, OK. But I didn’t bring it. You told me not to bring it.” He said, “That’s alright, you can use mine.” So I say, “Wow, cool, great, man.” So he gave me his bass. And—
BB: His P-Bass?
CMB: Yeah. And not really thinking about it – I mean, why would I, I’m just kind of just feeling the bass up, kind of playing a few notes here and there – I’m like “Wow, this is really great, I can’t believe I’m playing your bass, thanks!” And while I’m warming up, I don’t know what I played…I must have played some really fast Jaco run [sings “digidigidigidigi” staccato bass line] and Sting said, “Gimme that back.” And that’s the last time I ever touched his electric bass.
My buddy Clark Gayton, the trombone player, he pulled me aside and said, “Man, are you trying to lose the gig or something?!” [laughs] “What did I do, man?” He said, “Man, you can’t do that on the man’s bass!” I said, “What did I do?” and then I started thinking what I would use to play on my own electric bass to try and warm it up, and I thought, Oh. Oops. Sorry.
He really is a seriously wonderful musician to work with. He’s actually not very much a pop musician at all. His main gig before The Police was a jazz gig. And we all know what he did after The Police – he hired a bunch of jazz guys to play in his band. It seems like when most people talk about his career, obviously the standard is The Police, because that’s how most people recognize him, but that group was very much an anomaly for him. The Police were together, what, five or six years? And he said, “Considering all of the stuff I did before and after The Police, those guys are very much different from what I’ve done before or since.” I said, “Well, I think the experiment worked.”
BB: Yeah, that’s the burden of selling 30 million records.
Extended & Complete Thoughts On Innovation
CMB: With my past projects, I’ve always tried to be very balanced in trying to experiment, trying to push myself…I don’t think in terms of trying to push the envelope, because I don’t really think most of our great innovators really consciously tried to push the envelope. I don’t believe they did. Because when you ask most legends…you ask John McLaughlin about the Mahavishnu Orchestra, he’s not gonna say, “Well, I was really trying to think of something new, and trying to think of something that hadn’t been done before.” To him, that was a very natural extension. He was studying Indian culture and religion, so that was a very natural evolution for him. It wasn’t that he was really trying to redefine music, I don’t believe.
Same thing with Coltrane. It was a very natural evolution for him, and I think people who try to push the envelope…I just really have felt in my heart that you don’t really try to do that. You try to learn as much as you possibly can. Take in as much information as you possibly can. And as much as you take in, you start to form your own ideals and concepts of all that you’ve learned, and then something comes out of that. But if you just try to go cold turkey, and be like, “Well, yeah, I want to create something new,” but you don’t know it, [or] know anything, then 9 times out of 10 you’re gonna end up doing music that already has been done.
Everybody’s experimenting. Which obviously is great, you have to do that as an artist, it’s in your nature to explore. But at the same time, there’s a certain element that shouldn’t go anywhere, no matter how much you explore. And that’s what guys like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and John Coltrane and all of our great legends that we admire so much, no matter how out they got, there was always still this element of the root in there. Because I find a lot of that is missing these days.
I feel that, unfairly, a lot of musicians in our generation, all across the board, not just jazz, but in funk, in hip-hop, in rock, whatever it is, there’s always this thing where everybody’s [like], “Oh man, nobody’s innovating, nobody’s making something new, everything sounds the same.” Not only do I tend to disagree with that – because I think there are a lot of guys who do some real crazy experimentations, guys who really try to push the envelope – but there are times when you need to hear some music that just feels good. It doesn’t need to be innovative, it doesn’t always need to be on the cutting edge, it doesn’t always have to rewrite the script, so to speak.
I think I’ve always tried to take that approach when I’m writing music, because when you listen to guys like John McLaughlin, Joshua Redman or Jeff “Tain” Watts, they write these very impressive songs where they’ve got all these time shifts going on, all these real jagged melodic lines that are difficult to play. You gotta really, really shed hard to get it together. And a lot of modern jazz I think is written that way, with little bumps in the road just to trip you up, so it can keep you on your toes. But I realized with guys like Chick, and Wayne [Shorter], and Pat Metheny, and guys of my generation like Roy Hargrove or Nicholas Payton…their songs really aren’t that difficult. They sound difficult, but they’re not. They’re good, strong melodies that have a good harmonic structure, and I really noticed that with Pat Metheny, because [he ’s] recognized as one of our greatest living, most prolific composers. Most of his songs are really simple…they’re singable, they’re memorable, he’s not really trying to show off in any kind of way. So I think there’s a lot to learn from simplicity.
A Freddie Hubbard Story
CMB: The whole time I was in Freddie’s band we only played that song [“Theme For Kareem”] once, and I’ll never forget it. Freddie liked to try and trip you up. We’d be on the bandstand, [and] especially if he’d had a few, he wouldn’t realize that there were certain songs that maybe we didn’t know. This one night he turned around and said “Theme For Kareem.” We never rehearsed it, never even talked about it. So I remember going, “Thank God I know this song,” because I know if I didn’t, Freddie would be shooting me dirty looks, and cussing me out, and calling me a bunch of, you know… [imitates Freddie Hubbard]Aw, man, you a young motherf---er, you don’t know this stuff. Fortunately I knew it, so I didn’t have to bear his wrath.
Additional Outtakes From The Interview
BB: In your view, what elements comprise a standard, and how does a new tune become one?
CMB: Well, it’s taken me all this time to realize that “standard” has two meanings. There’s the standard form, like the classic 32-bar AABA, four eight-bar phrases. And then there’s the standard that means a song that spans generations, a song that becomes timeless. One of those songs like “Misty” or “Autumn Leaves,” one of those songs that they’ll still be playing at jam sessions 100 years from now. “Cherokee,” or something like that. In this case, a standard is just that. It’s a song that spans generations. It’s a song that’s venerable. That’s the first thing. A standard to me, in the second definition of the word, spanning generations, is a song that has a really good melody, and a song that has good changes, and is memorable. That’s the most important. The song has to stick. It has to mean something to you. It has to be one of those songs that, across the board, no matter how analytical you treat music, there’s this melody that stays in your head. So I think a song being memorable is the most important element in making it timeless.
BB: On “Starbeam,” how are you able to achieve that relaxed feel and melodic continuity both in the line and the solo? Can you give us a glimpse on what’s going on in your mind in a song like that while you play it, while you lay it down?
CMB: The chords in that song are pretty straight up and down. It’s in Eb, a lot of 2-5’s, it’s a pretty song. And songs that come from that “pretty” thing, you don’t need to play that much. You think linear instead of just keeping that one-groove-fits-all, that kind of dotted-quarter eighth-note thing going throughout, throughout, throughout. You can think in terms of making a line, a subtle line, but it goes through the chords. That’s actually one of those songs – that’s probably the only song on the recording that was kind of “through-composed.” It has the melody, and you just play the changes that fit the melody. You play a certain structure, and then there’s a melody line, and then there’s another structure for another soloist, and then you play another melody line. So that’s one song where I was thinking in terms of, compositionally, all the way through, instead of just head, changes, solo, head, out.
But I think in terms of a song like that, you just keep the bassline nice and simple, you play simple notes that are gonna fit the changes. Since the song is sort of through-composed, the bassline should be thought of as the same, but simple. And for my solo on that tune, I was trying to do the same thing. Just keep it very melodic. If I want to play any kind of fast runs, do it in the context of keeping everything around it really, really simple, so when you play a lot of notes, it means more. But a song like that, you keep it nice and simple
BB: You left Juiliard to turn pro at a young age, after only one year. When’s the “right” time for young players to make that leap, and how would they know if it’s their time to do it?
CMB: I think the most practical answer to that would be, when you see [on] your calendar you have a year’s worth of gigs that are going to interfere with your schoolwork. I mean, I know parents would like to hear it the other way around, but the truth of the matter is, I knew probably my second or third week of school that I had a lot of opportunities to start playing around New York with all of the guys who I really wanted to be around anyway. I certainly didn’t take for granted my time at Juliard. I knew I was going to the most celebrated music school in the country, if not the world. But I knew that I really wanted to be in New York, because all of my jazz heroes were in New York. When I started having opportunities to play with Bobby Watson, Wallace Roney, Roy Hargrove and all of these guys who I loved, I thought, “Man, I can see now that my calendar’s going to be really, really full.” That’s when the right decision was for me to leave, because I knew I would be working. Now, if I’d have left school and had no gigs, then that probably wouldn’t have been a smart move. But fortunately I had gigs, so I didn’t have to worry about it.
BB: Back to the duos for a second. Can you describe two of your favorite moments in the series so far?
CMB: Getting to record with Sting was a big thrill, and do the interview on camera, where we just talked about bass stuff. That was a big thrill, to do that with him.
The first duo that I did out of all of them was with George Duke. And as I said before, George Duke is like my second dad, and musically I feel so close to him. It was like having a conversation with a family member.
And Chick was great. He actually was on the radio show, so the interview that we did as part of the Conversations recording is actually from the radio show. So when Chick did the radio show, I got to ask him about his entire life. We just kind of went through his whole career chronologically. We even got to talking about sports, if you can believe that, because Chick used to be a football player in high school. So I really milked him on that.
Eddie Palmieri, it was great to talk to him, one of the kings of Latin music. Just to hear him talk about and dissect the history of Afro-Cuban music, and…oh man, what a thrill getting to be around all of these legends. Hank Jones, Billy Taylor…Gina Gershon, that was fun to play with her, because that one was pure comedy, it was just silly. People are really going to enjoy that one! Gina’s playing Jew’s harp, and we’re up there talking silly shit to each other throughout the track, so it was just a lot of fun. And Gina’s been a really good friend of mine for a lot of years.
So once again, it’s been really special because almost all of these conversations that I’ve done have been with people who I’ve known for a very long time. So it’s not like interviewing these people as a gig, or like, this is something where I had to do research on the person and really figure it out and get my assignment together. This was friends talking among friends. The only person I did who I didn’t know as well as the others was Angelique Kidjo, but if you know Angelique, that girl wears her heart on her sleeves. If you’re real with her – and if she likes you, she’ll be your friend instantly – she pulls no punches. I love her to death, man. She’s got a mouth on her like an Irish cop. [laughs] I love her.
BB: If you could have done a duet with Ray Brown, what would the tune have been?
CMB: Well we’ve actually done a few duets together on the CD that was released after his death. I think it was called Walk On [Telarc, 2003]. They had a couple of [tracks] from the two Super Bass recordings that we did [Super Bass, Telarc, 1997; Super Bass, Vol. 2, Telarc, 2001]. Ray always would do something very soft and very classical-style with John Clayton, because of John’s classical background; [he] played in the Amsterdam symphony for a long time, and he’s really strong with the classical thing, obviously as a jazz player and as an arranger, as well. But with Ray and I, Ray used to like to do that real swinging, funky stuff with the two of us, so I’m sure if Ray were alive and we got to record a duet, I’m sure we would have done some kind of blues, or something that would be blues-based.