Having a strong sense of history and a forward-minded vision have always been John Patitucci’s two greatest strengths. His penchant for unshakable, authentic, band-driving grooves on acoustic and electric bass — which have made him the go-to choice for Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, and countless others — can be traced to his fervor for such feel-first fanatics as Ray Brown, Jimmy Garrison, Paul Chambers, James Jamerson, and Willie Weeks. Likewise, his way-ahead-of-the-pack pronouncements on the 6-string bass guitar, particularly as a soloing and chordal voice, are rooted in his passion for John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery.
This dual-minded focus is once again on display on the 59-year-old’s latest outing, Soul of the Bass. Patitucci’s premise was to join the ranks of the major jazz acoustic bassists who have recorded unaccompanied solo albums, and indeed, the melodic, concise, beautifully captured acoustic-bass pieces that dominate the 13-track disc make this his most intimate and revealing recording to date. But with an eye to the future and his ever-present determination to have the bass guitar accepted and embraced in jazz, Patitucci includes a captivating 6-string interpretation of the Allemande from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5,” as an R&B throwdown with drummer Nate Smith that boasts overdubbed bass guitars in a nod to the instrument’s history, a 6-string-and-vocal track with his daughters, and boundary-pushing chamber writing via his cello/bass choir, featuring his wife, cellist Sachi Patitucci. We spoke with Patitucci amid a whirlwind of gigs and his teaching travels for Berklee and Artist Works to discuss his 15th studio album.
What was the impetus for the record?
Toward the end of my college days, in 1979, I bought Dave Holland’s solo album Emerald Tears [1979, ECM]. I was captivated by the idea of a solo acoustic bass recording, but I guess I knew instinctively I would have to wait until I was quite a bit older to attempt my own. Soul of the Bass came out of pondering the concept for years and decades. On recent tours I’ve been playing acoustic-bass improvisations in my hotel rooms and recording them on my phone. I deliberately left them short so the melodic aspect would be strong. I would think melodically, like I do when I solo, and try to find a little hook. From there I’d present the idea, develop it, and get out of the way. A good example is the title track, which has an almost AABA song form that you could write lyrics to. Some of the other acoustic bass improvisations were done at the Bunker Studios in Brooklyn, where I recorded the album.
You’ve cited Wayne Shorter’s influence on this approach.
It’s something I’ve learned from playing with him all of these years. He has a concept of improvising from nothing, sort of in zero gravity, or what [pianist] Danilo Perez dubbed “comprovising” — composing while improvising. In a group setting it’s special, because you’re doing it with the input of the other band members and composing together. Doing it while playing alone is quite a challenge. The key is to create building blocks of music that listeners can connect to: a theme, a harmony, a rhythmic phrase. Sometimes my improvisations would have a sense of a melody and a bass line happening simultaneously, like on “Earth Tones,” which uses open strings and 10ths.
What led you to include your 6-string?
Both basses are my voices. Plus, my “big 6” Yamaha semi-hollowbody has a special tone; it’s very organic and acoustic-sounding. It really blends well with my acoustic bass, which I’m doing some of on the record. I also wanted a sonic and musical departure to give the listener contrast from the sound of the solo acoustic bass. A huge debt of thanks goes to my co-producer, John Davis, who built and runs the Bunker Studios. John is an ex-student of mine and a great bassist who plays in Jojo Myers’ band Nerve, among others. He did an unbelievable job of capturing the sound of my acoustic bass, as well as my 6-string. He knows my playing and my music, so I was able to bounce ideas off him and experiment. He came up with some terrific concepts that enhanced the record musically and sonically.
How did you come up with the title and the cover art?
The title is a sequel to my 1991 album, Heart of the Bass [Stretch]. That record presented the bass in orchestral and group settings. Soul of the Bass is the contrasting bookend, intimate and minimalist. And because my playing is so exposed, the title applied. The album cover is a photo of a lone acacia tree in Kenya, Africa. It’s a fitting symbol, because the acacia is the most durable of trees, able to survive all kinds of weather and climate, and it also replenishes the soil. The connection for me is that the soul of a bass is in the wood. The wood evokes the spiritual sound of the player. And the instrument lives on, long after the player is gone, ready to reflect the soul of the next owner.
You have two versions of “Seeds of Change.”
When I improvised the melody on acoustic bass for the first version, I realized it had a powerful, declarative force; I could hear Tony Williams’ incendiary drumming on it. I fell into that long rhythmic phrase in 7/4 between the melody. That’s my favorite kind of odd-meter writing, when you come up with something naturally and then listen back and try to count it, and you go, Wait, that’s not in 4/4! Afterward, that groove was stuck in my head, so I decided to reprise it with Nate Smith on drums, and me adding chordal shapes and solong on my 6-string.
You always visit the blues on your records; here it’s “Morning Train.”
The blues — particularly early blues — and gospel are two huge influences of mine. Brian Blade turned me on to this spiritual by Mississippi Fred McDowell, and I was blown away. It’s just him on vocals and dobro, playing what’s basically a one-chord song, and stretching the time the way early blues artists often did. I thought it would lend itself well to acoustic bass, with the ability to slide around the notes like a vocalist or slide guitar, and the instrument has such a vocal quality that it worked out well. The lyrics are about going to heaven.
How did you put together “The Call”?
My concept was to have a funky track with Nate Smith on drums that also incorporated linear counterpoint to embody the ethic of classic R&B rhythm sections like James Brown’s band, where all the parts fit together to create the groove. In addition, it’s a nod to the history of the electric bass, with finger-funk, slapping, chords, and soloing. I used a number of basses that John [Davis] and I had at his studio to get different sounds. I came up with the main bass line first and then the subsequent parts, and I put them in a score in [notation software] Finale. Then I added some improvisation, including the dueling solos that almost sound like two people playing off each other.
Let’s talk about your bowing on “Mystery of the Soul.”
That’s a spiritual meditation that came from a studio improvisation. I used the bow to try to bring out the personal and vulnerable nature of the piece. I was going for the split-harmonics sound that saxophonists are known for. One way I did that was by lightly fingering a C on the G string and slowly sliding back toward the nut, while bowing ponticello — up near the bridge — which gives you a glassier kind of sound. I got lucky and found some overtones that almost sound like a wood flute. I’ve been working on the technique live over the years with Wayne; he loves when I use it. But this is the first time I’ve done it on a recording. I also played the melody in natural harmonics up on the fingerboard, John [Davis] looped some other harmonics I played, and I added a 6-string part with delay, all to enchance the track’s mystical sound and feel.
“Elvin” has an interesting shape and tonality.
This was another on-the-road improvisation; the swinging melody line reminded me of a tempo that Elvin Jones absolutely owns. The intervallic shape of the melody and the implied tonality is very Coltrane-like. It happened to be the harmonic color I had in my head at the time, and it’s something that Wayne uses, too. Basically, when you have an A13b9 sound, you can play off eight different triads: F# major and minor, A major and minor, C major and minor, and Eb major and minor. I think this is the only place on the record where I play walking bass, albeit briefly.
What led you to cover Allemande from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5”?
I came up at a time when bassists were practicing the Bach Cello Suites, which I did, as well. Listening to cello versions along the way, I discovered that my favorite recordings were by Jordi Savall, who plays them on a viola da gamba, a predecessor to the cello with six strings and frets on the lower half of the neck. Savall captures the true improvisational spirit of Baroque musicians. I transcribed some of his ornaments from “Cello Suite No. 5,” and I thought it would lend itself to the 6-string, where it lays well on the fingerboard and it would be easier to play chords. I interpreted some of his ornaments and added some of my own in the performance.
“Sarab” features your daughters and some ear-bending harmony.
My daughter Gracie, a singer–songwriter whose stage name is greisun, has the innate ability to sing stacked clusters; her pitch and her ears are very good. So I wanted to do a track together. I gave her an open chord [D-A-C] on my 6-string as a guide tone, and it ended up being more interactive, and we improvised off each other. She sings all kind of intervals against D — major and minor 3rds, the flatted 9th, which adds a Middle-Eastern flavor; “sarab” means mirage in Arabic. Then we added my daughter Bella, because she has a natural vocal blend with her sister.
“Trust” includes interesting pull-offs on acoustic bass.
That was an improvisation I did the first day I got in the studio. As I’d been doing, I’d play, and if I found a little hook, I’d develop it. This melody, which has a groove and harmonics at the end, is what came out. As for the pull-offs, I had never tried them to that extent on my records. They just happened in the moment, and I was lucky they came out clearly, because you’re not dealing with a high percentage of success when you have the action as high as I do on the upright. They’re influenced by my bass guitar playing, but also having the guitar and the oud in mind.
What’s behind your concept for the cello/bass choir featured on “Truth”?
The genesis was a bass choir I recorded for “Two Worlds” on Sketchbook [1990, GRP], for Michael Brecker to blow over. Then a wrote “Nocturne” for [cellist] Dave Eggar’s album Angelic Embrace [2002, Domo], which was for one bass, five cellos, and piano. The first time I employed the cello/bass choir on one of my albums was on “Scenes From an Opera” for Remembrance [2009, Concord]. I wrote “Truth” on a piano at Berklee before a class, and I thought it could work for the cello/bass choir format, which here is four cello parts and four bass parts. I’ve always loved writing for strings, and the low-string-choir concept lets me explore a unique sonic and harmonic approach.
What has it been like reuniting with Chick Corea to play Akoustic and Elektric Band music in recent years?
I feel like we’ve all grown in our conception of the music. For example, Dave Weckl came into the trio tour last summer with a completely different mindset, playing a bebop kit with special cymbals he had made. And Chick is always evolving; that’s what makes him so special. I’ve worked on my upright sound a lot since the original band. Being in such a dymanic ensemble with Wayne, Brian Blade, and Danilo Perez over the past 20 years has led me to experiment with mics to get a more acoustic sound. And playing with Danilo and Brian has reshaped my harmonic and rhythmic language a great deal, following them around and learning how to play odd meters but with grooves based on claves. Really, since moving back to New York City 23 years ago, I’ve had a tremendous growth spurt from being challenged by playing so many different styles with so many artists. It feels great to bring that back to Chick’s music, old and new.
You also played on Paul Simon’s latest album, In the Blue Light.
That was very rewarding and a lot of fun. The pianist Sullivan Fortner was doing arrangements for the record and he recommended me, Joe Lovano, and Jack DeJohnette for the song “Some Folks’ Lives Roll Easy.” Paul loved how the track came out, so he called me in to do four more. I got to work with Steve Gadd, Bill Frisell, and Paul’s late guitarist Vincent Nguini, and I recommended Nate Smith for a tune called “One Man’s Calling Is Another Man’s Floor.” The song is kind of a half shuffle in the style of a Willie Dixon Chess track. Paul is an encyclopedia of blues history, and I really enjoyed his dedication to high-level artistry. We got to spend some time shaping my part and picking the right instrument. Paul ended up liking my flatwound-strung Yamaha 5-string. We’ve stayed in touch, and I hope I’ll get to make some more music with him.
What’s ahead in 2019?
I’m doing collaborations with the Harlem String Quartet at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, and a solo recital at the International Society of Bassists Convention in Indiana. I did an album launch show in New York City, and I’d like to do some more of those in support of this record. I also want to book some gigs for my guitar quartet [with Adam Rogers, Steve Carndenas, and Brian Blade or Nate Smith] — people seem to respond to that band. And in January 2020 I’ll be debuting my symphonic piece, “Hypocrisy,” at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, which will feature me, Brian, and Danilo playing with the orchestra. Tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain is playing his own concerto, and we may get to play something together.
Soul of the Bass (2019, Three Faces); Yotam Silberstein, Future Memories (2019, Jazz & People); Wayne Shorter, Emanon (2018, Blue Note); Paul Simon, In the Blue Light (2018, Sony Legacy)
Basses Yamaha prototype #1 (large) semi-hollow signature 6-string; Yamaha prototype #2 (smaller) semi-hollow signature 6-string; Yamaha TRBJP2 signature 6-string (red, 35" scale); ’90s Yamaha TRB protoytpe piccolo 6-string; ’90s Yamaha prototype active 5-string with flatwounds
Acoustic Basses 1859 Gagliano; 2015 Trevor Davis copy of the Gagliano (used on Soul of the Bass); circa-70-year-old Pöllmann; Thomas Martin (solo bass with a C extension); Bisch and Daniel Navea Vera French-style bows; Gage Lifeline pickup, DPA 4021 clip-on mic
Strings On 6-strings: D’Addario ENR71-6 Half Rounds on C (.028 or .030), EXL165SL Nickel Wounds on G, D, A, E, and B (.045, .065, .085, .105, .130); on 5-string: ECD82 Chromes Flat Wounds (.050, .070, .085, .105, .130); on acoustics: Pirastro Evah Pirazzi and Olivs
Amps Aguilar Tone Hammer 350, 500, 700, or DB 751 head; SL 112 and GS 410 cabinets
Effects Strymon blueSky Reverberator, T.C. Electronic Flashback Delay/Looper, Electro-Harmonix Micro POG Polyphonic Octave Generator, Grace Design FELiX Instrument Preamp/Blender
Recording Soul of the Bass Miked Tone Hammer 500 and SL 112, and direct (via REDDI) for electric basses; for acoustic bass, Neumann U 67 mic and RCA ribbon mics
Other Vovox cables, Mooradian cases