CATCHING UP WITH STEELY DAN’S 13-piece juggernaut at New York’s Beacon Theater in August meant getting a chance to see one of the preeminent rhythm sections out on tour this year. Los Angeles session legend “Ready” Freddie Washington, first-call drummer Keith Carlock (who powered sets by Tal Wilkenfeld and Verdine White at Bass Player LIVE! 2008), keyboard savant Jim Beard, and guitarist/ musical director Jon Herington provide punch, precision, and perspective for the Dan’s singular blend of sophisti-pop. Backstage, Freddie discussed his approach to 35 years of grooves by such professionals as Chuck Rainey, Anthony Jackson, Tom Barney, and Dan co-leader Walter Becker.
“The first aspect of the groove is to lock onto the tempo. Then you focus on your bass part and come together with the drum part. I listen to where Keith puts his kick, hi-hat, and snare, and to the intent behind it—what he’s trying to do. Then I try to blend with his subdivisions. For me, my body language signals that the groove is really happening. I’m always thinking in half-time when I play; I have a half-time pulse. If I’m moving like this [sways in halftime], it’s grooving. If I’m standing still it means I’m waiting to see where the groove settles [laughs]. Once that’s accomplished, the other essential ingredient is to make sure the groove stays there and has consistency. A key with Steely Dan is that when the groove is happening, it makes the songs sound less sophisticated.”
Space & Note Duration
“I’m way into space and simplicity. I listen to what everyone else is playing and think, how can I stay out of their way? I’m comfortable leaving space because I know someone else is going to fill it in. My thought process is, How can we all dance together? Often, it comes down to the length of notes. There’s an art to note duration— how long you let them ring and where. I’ll play a short note to let Keith’s snare release because it makes the music clean.”
“My playing is all about finesse. The lighter I play, the bigger the sound I get; the harder I play, the more choked the notes sound, so they’re not going to project. I learned that from starting out on upright bass.”
“I tend to reduce bass lines down to their key components. For example, ‘Peg’ is a fairly busy part, but my focus is on locking in the three-note accent [sings the dotted-eighth, dotted-eighth, and eighthnote pattern]. In a slow shuffle like ‘Home At Last,’ I’m just focused on the downbeat. Everything else I play in the middle means nothing if I don’t hit that downbeat. Same with ‘Babylon Sisters’; I’m aiming for the downbeat and the rest is all about waiting, which is so much of what groove playing is. On the other hand, on ‘Glamour Profession,’ Anthony Jackson never plays on the one, so my goal is to make it feel like I’m playing on one.
With busier parts, like ‘Gaslighting Abbie’ or ‘Kid Charlemagne,’ I still look to nail the downbeat. A lot of players get intimidated by 16ths, and they end up playing them rushed and all the same. Because of my half-time approach, I think of the pulse in eighth- or quarter- notes. The rest is just filling the blanks in-between with ghost-notes and dead notes. It’s almost like hide and seek—play here, hide here, but keep it all in the flow. What’s cool about ‘Charlemagne’ is that it’s a bit looser in the pocket. I think of the pocket as a sine wave, and you want to make the bass line do this [runs hand above and below the wave].”
“Everyone has their own rules and methods to achieve a groove. Ultimately it’s about what you feel the groove should be, and if you can make people believe and feel what you’re feeling and playing.” BP