As the world continues to recover from the Coronavirus, we're all finding ourselves in unfamiliar territory given the subsequent lockdown that is keeping us off of stages and confined to our homes. Luckily, there's comfort in the fact that we're all in this together, and that there are still many outlets for us musicians to keep us active and sane throughout this quarantine. We're checking in with bass players from all over the world to see what they're doing to stay entertained, healthy, productive, and safe during this trying time.
Bass Player: Alex Al
Bands & Artists: Michael Jackson, Sting, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon, Herbie Hancock, John Mayer, Beyonce, Carlos Santana, Janet Jackson, Slash, Jeff Lorber, Lady Gaga, B.B King, Joe Satriani, George Benson, Jackson Browne, Byrdie, Keith Urban, Seal, Andrea Bocelli, Los Angeles Master Choral Orchestra, Miles Davis (posthumously)
Home: Los Angeles, California
How have you been passing time during the lockdown?
Checking on my loved ones daily, praying with them and for close friends, amid the current crises. With so much going on, I hope we can learn to treat each other better in the process of flattening the curve of this pandemic, and achieving racial equality.
What have you been working on in terms of your bass practice routine?
Each morning after prayer, I generally practice the upright bass for a couple of hours. Depending on if I’m practicing certain phrases with the bow or preparing for a session at my studio, it could go longer. Then normally I switch over to the electric bass, and literally it’s like driving an Indy 500 race car on the freeway. The instrument races through my hands every time I make the transition, during my practice time. It has kept my practicing exciting and creative. Lately I’ve been listening to Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys album, and Alan Holdsworth’s early guitar work with Bill Bruford and Tony Williams Lifetime. My brothers, who are both great musicians, turned me onto these amazing and inspiring recordings long after they were recorded. I’ve been studying how I can incorporate Hendrix, Holdsworth, and Jeff Beck’s fluid soloing styles and phrasing onto the bass guitar. I think it’s of great benefit as a bass guitarist to listen to and transcribe solos of musical icons like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, and iconic vocalists from Frank Sinatra to Stevie Wonder, for unlimited ideas on how to phrase melodically on the bass.
What music, songs, recordings, artists, bass players have you been listening to as a source of comfort and inspiration that you can recommend?
What has always been comforting to me and a part of my daily music lifestyle is listening to gospel and classical music. Both music forms are relaxing, inspiring, and spiritually rejuvenating all at once. I guess it’s also a heavy influence from my parents. My dad was a classical musician, and my mom, a gospel singer and pianist. My dad—a classical virtuoso on trumpet—played in classical, jazz, and gospel settings his entire life, and he enjoyed fusing the styles together. I have some of his music practice books, so I try to read something out of it each week. I feel close to the amazing musical legacy my dad left on my life. He could also out sight read me any day of the week!
I’ve been listening to classical double bassist, Edgar Meyer, whose phrasing with the bow is truly amazing and unique; the instrumental music of J Dilla and D’Angelo, who each always have creative bass and drum interaction going on; Stanley Clarke’s Journey to Love, which was such a groundbreaking record, and so organic-sounding—as a result never leaves my vintage Technics 1200 MK II turntable; Weather Report’s 8:30—Jaco’s playing and approach still floor me; and Prince, the most prolific artist of our times, who was also an amazing bass player, and is my biggest musical influence.
And lastly, Michael Jackson's music especially moves me for the times we’re in right now. I had the amazing blessing of working with the King of Pop for over a decade. I heard MJ’s “Man in the Mirror” the other day. It made me stop, think, and feel that everything will be okay if we strive to be the better version of ourselves, and work together through many of today's crisis. Michael’s “Earth Song” brings to mind that we have to care for one another and our planet; it’s truly up to us. I often wonder what Michael would record today, to reflect these current times, struggles, and racial challenges in our country. I’m sure it would be epic, healing, and enduring.
What bass gear have you been playing and trying out?
I’ve asked my tech, Jamie Alexander, to run down my latest gear additions:
“On the bass guitar side, Al is known all over the world for playing his vintage ’70s Fender Jazz Bass in Michael Jackson’s blockbuster movie, This Is It. Al’s Bass Mods Jazz Bass comes closest to the sound of his Fender in a 5-string bass, for the studio. Al favors an Ernie Ball SR-5 bass on many modern dance records he’s recorded on. Out the box it has an amazing tone that many producers request. Al is often seen playing and recording with his PRS “Pink Cloud” 5-string. It was designed for Al by Paul Reed Smith, with some of Al’s original ideas incorporated. It’s striking visually, with a beautiful, melodic sound, and it can also be very funky. Al uses the Chase Tone Gypsy Wah on both bass and guitar for it’s incredible sound, and he’s just completed a design for his own Kala U-Bass solidbody.
On the key bass side, Al is known for his unique approach to the instrument using vintage Rolands and Moogs. Live and in the studio, he also uses the Arturia MatrixBrute Analog Synthesizer, which sounds incredible, as well as the Roland AX Edge Keytar, to bring sonic balance to his heavy use of analog bass.
On the upright bass side, Al can be seen playing an early 1900s Hermann Stolzer double bass, which he first used with Quincy Jones. It has a Yamahiko Double Bass Pickup System model CPS-DB designed by Kiyohiko Yamaya, which has an amazing, modern sound. On his other German bass, Al uses a vintage Underwood pickup for a ’70s, Ron Carter/Stanley Clarke-like sound that he's inspired by. Al uses Blue Mix-Fi headphones exclusively when recording upright bass, which enables him to hear what his bass truly sounds like when miked; the Khan DI designed by Obeid Khan, which is versatile, warm, and sounds great; the Nino Mute by Nino Ocampo, which is excellent for muted and Latin bass tones on both Al’s upright and Ampeg Baby Bass. He uses a Chase Tone Secret Preamp to go direct on the Ampeg Baby bass, through an early ’60s Ampeg B-15, which is period correct to the B-15 James Jamerson used.”
What non-music activities books, shows, movies or workout recommendations do you have?
Physical exercise is essential for all of us, especially to keep stress levels low and our immune systems up. Eating right and having a healthy lifestyle is a great daily regimen. Reading Bible scriptures each morning has given me clear focus for current situations, my career, my professional life—in a business that’s traditionally brutally hard on musicians—and during challenging times in my personal life. For entertainment, I’ve been watching everything from comedy and action movies to biographies on my favorite artists: Jimi Hendrix, Prince, Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams, Bob Marley, Tupac Shukur, and Nipsey Hussle. I had the great experience of working with both hip hop icons, Tupac and Nipsey.
What projects do you have coming up when the world gets going again?
I’ve been working on two solo records, one jazz fusion, the other funk/rock. Fortunately, I’ve been able to also keep my recording schedule afloat in the midst of all of the unfortunate current crises, with home studio sessions on bass, guitar, and keyboards, which is a blessing. At the same time, with everything that’s going on in the world, especially in our country, it can be hard for any of us to concentrate musically. Honestly, it’s never far from my mind and heart that people are in need of help, support, and equality all over the world, and right here at home, now more than ever.
What advice can you offer fellow bassists for staying positive and keeping morale high?
I hope bass players and musicians alike are creating at home; taking advantage of the digital age, and using it to continue putting as much positive and creative energy back into the universe as possible. This is our mission statement as creatives. We need love, understanding, racial equality, and support from one another right now. We also need original music that is a refection of the times we’re living in, in a big way. There are a few songs and a chilling awareness song that I want to share, that I’m very fortunate to have been a part of:
“More Than Thankful,” Brian Culbertson [XX, BCM, 2020]. This is a gospel track, by keyboardist Brian Culbertson featuring vocalist Avery Sunshine. The lyrics didn’t truly sink in for me until Brian sent me the final mix. The song is about being thankful, even in the worst of times. I hope when people hear it, it will uplift and bring some positivity.
“Favor,” Tomi Malm [Walkin’ on Air, Contante & Sonante, 2017]. When I cut the track I was very focused on the bass part and several pages of music, with many clever passages. Once I heard the finished mix, I was able to take in the true meaning of the lyrics. The song is about the “favor of love” that we can all give one another. It’s something unconditional. It’s something rare. However, the realization is that it’s something we all very much need. (Listen HERE)
“All My Friends,” Madeon [Good Faith, Columbia, 2019]. French DJ/producer Madeon asked me to play bass, guitar, and additional keyboards on the song. We spent an entire day recording multiple bass lines with different tones and approaches, as well as several guitar parts and keyboard overdubs. We had a blast creating together. The song is basically about what the title says: Wanting to be around all your friends, the people that know you best that you really care about—which is pretty much the opposite of social distancing. Many people are suffering with the anxiety of not being able to be with their friends and loved ones right now. I think this song represents something to look forward to for the future, when things get back to normal health-wise and we can all celebrate life together again with good music and great friends.
“Strange Fruit,” Dianne Reeves with John Beasley, Nicholas Payton, Terreon Gulley, and Alex Al. This thrilling Billie Holiday classic—interpreted here by the great Dianne Reeves—was written 81 years ago, describing the horrific practice of lynching innocent African-Americans by white-American people. It’s unconscionable and unacceptable that lynching is still happening today in various forms, politically, socially, mentally, and physically, due to police racial brutality—and also how the justice system continues to fail us. It is only after public widespread outrage following the release of horrific video which showed evidence of a racist father-and-son team shooting an unarmed Ahmaud Arbery to death that steps are taken. It is only after public widespread outrage followed the release of horrific video which showed former police officer, Derek Chauvin, with his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes, ultimately killing Floyd, that steps are taken. There are many others, like Breonna Taylor, who have had their lives brutally ended by racially motivated killings by the police, and many of those who lost their lives due to racial hate crimes by racist civilians. Not to mention countless innocent Black American lives killed unjustly by racial injustice, without the happenchance of civilian video recording. Today all cultures must stand together against racial hatred, racial hate crimes, and the racial profiling and killings of Black Americans, and help both Black Americans and all Americans feel equally safe in this country.
My heart and prayers go out to all the families around the world that have lost loved ones recently from the Covid-19 pandemic, and the many lives lost from racial injustice in our country. Stay safe! “God Bless”
Read all 180+ Bass Magazine Check-in Features: Here
All check-ins compiled and edited by Jon D'Auria & Chris Jisi