Monday, December 28, 2009

Jeff Berlin-Impact and Thoughts

I was lucky enough to study with electric bass great, Jeff Berlin a couple of times throughout my life; while I was at Musicians Institute (although I was 18 and intimidated and mostly just sat and listened to his playing), privately at The Bass Centre, when it was near Laurel Canyon (now only in London), and lastly when he taught for a year at CalArts, right before he started his Players School in Clearwater, FL.

He is, without a doubt, one of the top-two, best pedagogical experiences I have ever had for tonal improvisation. (Gary Willis and him are tied as far as I'm concerned. Both an extreme wealth of information.) I still work on the material he gave me 15 years ago; partly from procrastination on my part and mostly because of the overwhelming amount of information to absorb!

Jeff's material is not always the best in my opinion, but his playing is undeniable. A true master. Forget what people think or say about him and listen to what he plays, it is of the highest caliber and unlike any other bass player out there. No licks, all idea-based improvisation, and all with a deep knowledge of harmonic thinking.

Listen: Bass Solo on "Manos de Piedra"
Listen: Bass Solo on "Water On The Brain Pt.2"
Listen: Unaccompanied Bass solo "Dixie"

As an extra: There is a lot of bullshit reactions on the internet about Jeff (from people who don't know Jeff, or have ever met him quite frankly) and some of his pedagogical beliefs: not using metronomes, fretless bass, 5 & 6 string basses, anti-tablature, and so on. The fact of the matter is that these are his truths and he is passionate about them. A lot of people thought Charles Mingus or Miles Davis were a dicks as well. Doesn't negate their genius, end of story.

I have to say when I studied with him, I was (and still am) a 5-string, fretless bass player and you know what? He called me on it and I explained that this is what I wanted to do (I had been playing fretless exclusively for 4 years in 1994, when I last studied with him. I didn't even own a fretted bass from 1990 to 1996). In the end, he told me, "To each his own" and talked about the extra work to get your ears developed and a couple of lessons later gave me my biggest compliment by saying that I "didn't sound like Jaco". I think that is THE highest compliment a fretless player can hear after so many were subjected to third-rate Jaco clones for so many years.

Also, on the matter of metronomes, even though Jeff doesn't advise using metronomes*, I have used metronomes all throughout my practice time, clicking only on 2&4, only on 1,2,3, or 4, etc. I think they can help a bit, but I also think that using a metronome hasn't been the major reason for success in my time feel. Over the last couple of years, I have become a bit ambivalent about them. I attribute "good time" more to the learning and thinking in subdivisions that studying Indian Tala has taught me, i.e.: What speed (subdivision) are we in? 2 speed (1/8th), 4-speed (1/16th), 3-speed (12/8)? I think that in thinking in this way, It has become easier to play with metronomes.

Let's be clear: That is the opposite effect of what is supposed to be the prescribed course of "playing w/ metronome=good time".

My observations.

*(He's hardly the only one. Tabla master, Swapan Chaudhuri also told his tala class on the first day not to use a metronome; as well, I heard West African drummer Alfred Ladzekpo tell his class to listen for speeding up and slowing down instead of using a metronome)

Monday, December 21, 2009

A List Of 21 Must Listen Fretless Bass Recordings

From the jazziness of Jaco to the wildness of Mick Karn, I've compiled a list of twenty-one recordings that have fretless bass featured, if not exclusively, at least prominently on them. This is in no way a comprehensive list, although I did try to include as many players as possible, I also tried to include many landmark albums of players like Jaco and Gary Willis, who are two of the more prominent players of the instrument.If you are serious about playing fretless, I feel these recordings are a great place to start and are basically required listening to get a sense of the wide variety of sounds and styles out there for the fretless bass. Also check out: Michael Manring, Baba Elefante, Bill Wyman, Sting, Mark Egan, Alphonso Johnson, Tony Franklin, Steve Bailey, Jeff Ament, Les Claypool

  1. Jaco Pastorius - Jaco Pastorius
  2. Masques - Brand X (Percy Jones)
  3. The Waking Hour - Dali's Car (Mick Karn)
  4. The Secret of Association - Paul Young (Pino Palladino)
  5. Us - Peter Gabriel (Tony Levin)
  6. Heavy Weather - Weather Report (Jaco Pastorius)
  7. Bright Size Life - Pat Metheny
  8. Nomad - Tribal Tech (Gary Willis)
  9. No Sweat - Gary Willis
  10. Slaughterhouse 3 - Slaughterhouse 3 (Gary Willis)
  11. Night Passage - Weather Report (Jaco Pastorius)
  12. Tin Drum - Japan (Mick Karn)
  13. Elegant Punk - Jonas Hellborg
  14. Hejira - Joni Mitchell (Jaco Pastorius)
  15. Bestial Cluster - Mick Karn
  16. Polytown - Torn/Karn/Bozzio
  17. Paul Motian and the Electric Bebop Band - Paul Motian (Stomu Takeishi)
  18. Actual Fiction - Gary Willis
  19. I, Assassin - Gary Numan (Pino Palladino)
  20. Antipodes - Steuart Liebig
  21. Have We Met? - 3 Squares (Daren Burns...hey it's my list!)

Monday, December 14, 2009

New Onibaba project

Working on a new project with Kio Griffith. It is going to include Onibaba, Kio's video art, and a butoh dancer. I'm going to set set the stage like a contemporary Noh play and have been working with some design thoughts.

Working on a proposal and I am going to actively pursue grants and other options of funding to get this work performed. Hope to perform the work a few times and maybe do a little tour. We'll see. I am pretty excited about it so far.

The project is going to be about America, its current status, past, and future. Kind of like an apocalyptic "A Christmas Carol". I think there are some good ideas present.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Fretless Bass

This kind of goes with Jaco's birthday. I am really into fretless bass and I play it mostly because of his influence. I played it exclusively from 1991 to 1999 (meaning I didn't even own a fretted bass and didn't care about losing gigs because of it. I had a sink or swim attitude and played it exclusively) and still, it is the only bass I really practice. It is my default bass and passion.

Over my career, I have been lucky enough to study with Gary Willis when I was 18-20 and also Baba Elefante, both fantastic fretless players. In fact you probably know who Willis is....Baba, everybody should know, he is one of the hardest working, and the single most overlooked bass player in my opinion. Phenomenal.

Well, this article is about the fretless electric bass. most people think Jaco invented it and that it is used as a replacement for upright bass in jazz, which is somewhat accurate but not completely and actually not really at all. The first player I know of to play the instrument is Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones on "Paint It Black", I believe (Roberts, Jim (2001). 'How The Fender Bass Changed the World' or Jon Sievert interview with Bill Wyman, guitar player magazine December (1978)). Many people do not know this and Bill Wyman never really advertised it, he was just looking for a sound and just did it.

Over the years, there have also been many other players of this instrument that have nothing to do with jazz or the "Jaco" lineage. For instance Mick Karn, Jack Bruce, Percy Jones, Tony Levin, and Pino Palladino. Some developing right alongside without knowledge of Jaco and others after, but not really influenced by Jaco's sound. In fact, these guys are really known more for rock types of music and not jazz. That to me is extremely interesting. I also believe that Alphonso Johnson was playing fretless in Weather Report before Jaco joined than band.

This is ripe for research in a musicological area. I highly suggest you checkout some of these other players to give the fretless bass a new perspective.

John Francis Pastorius III

I just saw it is Jaco's birthday today. For those who don't know, he was the equivalent to electric bass guitar that Jimi Hendrix was to electric guitar. The way that the instrument is looked at was forever altered and it's possibilities dramatically increased by his contributions. He passed on in the late 80's. I was a youngster just starting on bass an was mostly into Def Leppard and Kiss, when my life was forever changed by two records I bought simultaneously: Stanley Clarkes first album and Jaco's first album.

Not only did Jaco bring fretless bass to the masses, he also possesed uncanny abilities; the use of harmonics in particular (guys really didn't know what he was doing it was esoteric and uncharted territory for the vast majority of players). His facility and fluidity were just about untouchable, light years beyond most bassists and the best part, his groove never suffered. His time feel is organic and never seems to falter.

Also, in the days of muddy bass his tone was crisp, punchy, and up front. Not always the ideal bass tone for working bassists, but you hear him play one note and you instantly know it is Jaco.


Listening List:

Jaco Pastorius- Jaco
Joni Mitchell - Shadows and Light
Joni Mitchell - Hejira
Jaco Pastorius - Word of Mouth
Jaco Pastorius - Twins I & II
Pat Metheny - Bright Size Life
Albert Mangelsdorff - Trilogue - Live!