Steve Bailey is all about reach, and that’s not even taking into account the handspan required to play his beloved fretless 6-string bass. Since the Covid-19-induced lockdown, Bailey’s globally-attended, weekly Berklee Bass Department/The Bass Vault Zoom seminars have brought together historic lineups of bass players you could never have hoped to get into a room together. And it quickly expanded to drummers, masters of other instruments, and singer-songwriters—all talking music, life, and even social issues like racial injustice and women’s equality. So it’s little wonder that Steve was able to corral a mind-bending lineup of partners for his latest effort, Carolina. The 17-track album features genre-spanning duets with artists ranging from Willie Nelson, Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson, and Becca Stevens to fellow feel-keepers Ron Carter, Anthony Jackson, and Victor Wooten. Throughout, Bailey’s bass serves as both the glue that binds song, style, and artist, and the visionary voice that summons your ear. Indeed, in his hands, six strings and a fretless fingerboard can become an orchestra, a big band, or a grand piano—all while adhering to his role as the foundation. The end result? Carolina takes the bass and the art of the duet a dramatic step forward.
Bailey’s concept for Carolina can be traced back to his high school days as a burgeoning bassist in his native Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “Bar bands around here were quartets or quintets, and I remember thinking, Wouldn’t it be cool to be able to play all the accompanying parts behind the singer on bass? The fact that we would be able to split the money two ways instead of five also crossed my mind! But mainly it was the challenge; I had no idea how to do it, nor did I have the tools yet, but I had the desire.” Over time, other Bailey tenets took hold, chiefly his unyielding commitment to the fretless 6-string bass guitar as his musical voice. This while his career went from playing jazz in New York City with Dizzy Gillespie and Paquito D’Rivera, to establishing a left coast legacy as a session player, member of the Rippingtons, solo artist, and instructor at Musicians Institute in Los Angeles, to forging a southern-based bass empire with his brother from another mother, Victor Wooten, via Bass Extremes records and tours, as well as camps and events. All the while, the notion to be a complete accompanist on bass persisted, via countless practice hours, a successful duet gig with a singer while he was a student at the University of North Texas, through the aforementioned Bass Extremes, and on Steve’s 2007 baddass, bass-only album, So Low… Solo.
Then came Bailey’s giant leap for basskind into the edu world, upon his 2012 hiring as the Chairman of the Bass Department at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. That’s when the mission for a duets album began in earnest—though the massive undertaking of managing and revising the Berklee bass program and curriculum meant it would be until his first sabbatical, in 2018, when the bulk of the album would be recorded and completed. Steve had simple rules: No additional bass parts via overdubs (fixes were allowed) and standard tuning only. He would use his identical Warwick Steve Bailey Signature fretless 6-strings (one in Boston, one in Myrtle Beach), with the same onboard settings for every track, to have his bass be the consistent voice throughout the record. The basses sported fairly new D’Addario ESP170-6 XL ProSteels [.30, .45, .65, .80, .100, .130] and were recorded direct only, via a Tube-Tech MP 1A or an API 512c preamp. And he would record each artist on his mobile recording rig—a MacBook with ProTools, Presonus Audio Interface or two Apogee One Audio Interfaces, and Nuemann U67 and Gefell M300 mikes—to maintain overall sonic consistency. From there he compiled his dream list of duet partners. He allows, “I knew I wanted vocalists and different combinations of instruments, the odder the better.” There was one unforeseen challenge that was quickly remedied. “I found I couldn’t give my full attention to three things at once: my bass playing, listening to the other musician’s performance as the producer, and dealing with the technical side as the engineer. So it was best to prepare and record my bass part first, and have that as an option should logistical or technical problems arise—which they did at almost every turn.”
Carolina In His Mind
The idea to call the album Carolina occurred to Bailey while watching his friend, vocalist Gary Brown perform James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” in Myrtle Beach, during his sabbatical. “I had been spending so much time down here in my studio that it started to feel like the center of it all, even though a lot of the album wasn’t recorded here. It was the vibe I was taking with me everywhere; the hometown theme and the sense of coming full circle to where I first got the accompanist idea over 40 years ago.” Indeed, he also decided to cover the Taylor composition and make it the opening and closing track. Brown’s version, though recorded first, became the restated closer. “At that point, knowing it would be a shortened recap, I went back and reharmonzied it and took some chances, wanting to go out with a bang.”
The album’s initial impact is no less resounding, with the singular voice of Becca Stevens delivering “Carolina in My Mind” in B major, a fourth down from Brown’s track and the song’s original key. Bailey had met Stevens at Berklee just before his sabbatical, and after hearing her sing and subsequently learning she was from North Carolina, he pitched her the idea to sing the Taylor tune for the album. The track was one of a handful cut in New York City at Chic bassist Jerry Barnes’ small production room in the Berklee-owned Power Station. “We did nine takes, some live and some to my bass track, and Becca took it to a different and special place each time. She has incredible pitch and rhythmc sense, and I learned so much from her phrasing and breathing.” Equally impressive is Bailey’s evolving bass part, for which he changes his approach each verse. “My goal throughout the record was to be the Tuck of Tuck and Patti, with the focus on Patti. And that hopefully what I do in support doesn’t disturb the average listener, while challenging the ears of the more astute listener.”
That’ll Be 50 Quid!
One of Carolina’s two showcase tracks is Bailey’s duet with flute savant Ian Anderson on an adaptation of Jethro Tull’s “Bouree,” the Bach piece the band famously covered on their 1969 album, Stand Up. Through Tull drummer Doane Perry, Bailey got to record six tracks on the group’s 1995 album, Roots to Branches, and he remained in contact with Anderson. “I approached Ian about participating and I said, ‘Before you say no, let’s talk about what we would do if you said yes,’” laughs Steve. “I told him I’d always loved ‘Bouree’ because it starts with a walking bass line. He said he would do it and he sent me all of these amazing live Tull versions with orchestras, so I tried to come up with an arrangement that paid homage to the original and also went in some other directions. I sent him the track with some thoughts, and I had Jeff Coffin ready to go if Ian ran out of time. Sure enough, right at my deadline, I woke up to an email from Ian with his track, and it was astounding! He took his original Tull solo and morphed it into a jazz solo, and he put great effort into all the other sections and rubatos. And he wrote in the email, ‘I left it open at the very end, where you play the low D, because it’s such a cool note.’
Admits Steve, “I had one more request, and I knew it would be pushing it, which this backstory will explain: A week into recording with Tull in 1995, it was going well, and there was a pause in the studio. I’d always dreamed of playing ‘Aqualung’ with the band, so I played the riff thinking the whole band would come in an jam out, and instead I heard laughing and saw heads in hands. Ian turned to me and said, ‘That’ll be 50 quid!’ Tull had a rule that unless they are in a concert getting paid, no one plays the old songs, particularly ‘Aqualung!’ Later, when I got paid for the sessions, they actually deducted the 50 quid. So knowing all that, I still summoned the nerve to email Ian and ask if he would consider quoting ‘Aqualung’ over that last low D. Sure enough, he sent it back with his brilliant, breathy quote of the riff!”
The track also proved the most technically challenging and time-consuming for Bailey, bass-wise. Although they don’t sound particularly difficult, Steve cites the second 8 measures—where he plays a harmonics counterpoint line above his walking bass line [0:16]—and the 8 bars of the second section after the modulation [2:40] as two of his proudest album moments. “Those took me months to work out and I can’t even play them anymore.”
Carolina’s other showcase piece is the stirring duet between Bailey and the inimitable Willie Nelson, covering Nelson’s haunting “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” The trail goes way back and encompasses another album track with Willie’s son, singer-songwriter and guitarist Lukas Nelson: Flashback to the mid-’90s, when Texas-based Justice Records would fly in Steve and drummer Greg Bissonette from L.A. for a week to cut various jazz, blues, and Americana albums. Bailey met and started playing and recording with the Austin unit, Titty Bingo, a “garage band” known for their private jets and Bahamian rehearsal compound. It was also the group Nelson would use when he wanted to deviate from his usual repertoire. Steve’s first gig with Willie and Bingo was Farm Aid 1994, at the New Orleans Superdome. Over the years of doing one-off gigs he got to know the Nelson family, including Lukas, who did some recording with Steve at his Myrtle Beach studio in 2012. Fast forward to a 2018 phone call between the two discussing their love of Tom Petty—particularly “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” with its movement from A minor in the verse to A major in the chorus. Afterwards, Bailey tracked a bass line using palm muting for much of the groove, and sent it to Nelson, who dug it, and they cut “Mary Jane” the next time the two were in Austin.
Bailey's playthrough of “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.”
Not long after, Steve revisited “Angel” while on a run. “I thought it could be a good vehicle for the record because it had more complex harmony and chord changes than other Willie tunes, and I knew from jamming with him that he likes jazz chords and diminished chords—he’s a Django Reinhardt fanatic. So I grabbed my bass, took the day to create a track, and sent it to Lukas. I said, ‘I know it’s a longshot, but can you play this for Willie and see if he’d be interested in doing it?’ It took a minute, but when he got back to me he said, ‘I played it for my dad and he likes it; if we can figure out the timing he’ll give it a try.’ I had made an album deadline of New Year’s Day, 2019. On December 27th Lukas called to say. ‘Willie is in Austin and there’s a chance for the 28th or 29th.’ I jumped on a plane from Boston and waited with my phone. On the 28th I got the call to do it at Willie’s Luck, Texas ranch, but then they called back to say not today, maybe tomorrow. I eased myself down, anticipating another cancellation. But the next day it was a go, and I was let in early to set up at the old wooden bar inside Willie’s world headquarters building. I had a mic and a stool for Willie, and a condenser mic across the room, to capture the natural reverb.” He continues, “Willie came in with his wife Annie, and said, ‘Ya know, Steve, I’ve never sang with just a bass before, but I’m known for trying anything once; let’s do it!’ We did two takes and then he asked if I wanted him to add some guitar. I said, ‘Let’s listen to them first,’ and afterward he said, ‘Sounds pretty good just like it is.’ And he was right because in retrospect, the weight he gives the spaces in his vocal is so impactful.”
For Bailey it was the closing of two circles: Finally getting to record a duet with Willie, and the realization of something he heard Miles Davis say. “When I was in Dizzy’s band, we went to Miles’ birthday party in 1984. He was married to Cicely Tyson at the time, and he hung out with her movie star friends all night, while the musicians loitered around the bar. But at one point he came over for a drink and perhaps seeing us crowded there, he blurted out, ‘You wanna know about phasing…? Listen to Willie Nelson!’”
Give The Bassists Some
With Bailey being one of the top ambassadors in bassdom, it was a given that some of his duets were going to be with admired fellow thumpers, and he assembled quite a diverse lineup for Carolina. Steve’s relationship with jazz legend Ron Carter has been one of the great unifiers in the bass realm, bridging musical, technical, racial, and generational boundaries. After agreeing to appear on the record over a cup of coffee, Carter suggested a series of lute suites he recorded on one of his Bach albums [Ron Carter Plays Bach, Phillips, 1987], on which he plays piccolo and standard bass. Bailey listened to them and worked up the piccolo parts, but notes. “I wanted to stretch, too, so for ‘Gavotte’—the one I chose for the album out of the three suites we cut—I added two open sections for Ron to walk over changes loosely based on ‘Alone Together.’” He continues, “We recorded at Ron’s New York City apartment, but I was having some technical issues so I had Ron play to my part while I engineered. Those problems led to Ron doing a dozen takes, and not only did the most recorded bassist in jazz teach me a lesson in patience and professionalism, he was developing his part, so each take had a unique approach.” The ear-grabbing results pay off on the track, as Carter is heard applying his trademark time stretches and superimposed rhythms in his walking line.
As imposing a figure as Carter is on acoustic bass, Anthony Jackson is the equivalent on contrabass guitar. Jackson, a friend who had guested with Bass Extremes, came to Bailey’s borrowed room at the Power Station and the two began playing over some written-out chord changes, to a click. They soon did away with the click and jammed for 20 minutes. Says Steve, “I wasn’t sure what we had but when I listened back it was Anthony at his finest. Even where I thought we were just noodling, he’s playing melodically; he hears melodies no one else would ever think of. He’s easily the most compositional bass guitarist, on top of being so articulate and eloquent. But I hated a lot of what I played! So I went back and started editing and swapping sections, and rewriting and reharmonizing some themes we’d hit upon. Then I played it for Victor [Wooten] at Berklee, and he loved it, but he asked if he could tweak the track. I left him in my office and he ended up staying there until 2AM. What he did was subtle but amazing with regard to the timing and transitions. He gave it an extra dose of humanity, and he reversed a few of Anthony’s notes from the main theme to start the track.” And thus, “Sweet Summer Suite” was born.
Soon after Susan Hagen, principal bassist for the Boston Pops Orchestra, joined the Berklee faculty four years ago, Bailey had a performance at the International Society of Bassists convention. Hoping to shake things up in front of an organization steeped in the classical double bass tradition, he invited Hagen to do a duet version of “Chanson Triste,” a standard piece for double bass and piano by Serge Koussevitzky. Steve studied and adapted the piano part to his 6-string and the performance was a success. Victor Wooten, who was in attendance, reminded Bailey of the piece for inclusion on Carolina. Says Steve, “I dug deeper into the piano part and added some collaborative sections. Susan sets the tempo for the first part, and then in the middle section I play an ascending bass line with a descending harmonics line on top. That becomes the tempo until Susan’s cadenza, some of which I doubled and harmonized.” In the initial spirit of irreverence from their ISB version, Steve also quotes “Purple Haze,” by Jimi Hendrix.
In addition to the indelible fretless bass lines Bakitihi Kumalo played on Paul Simon’s Graceland, one of the sounds that has remained in Bailey’s ears over the course of the two bassists’ long friendship is the clicking sound that’s part of the Zulu language Bakitihi speaks and sings fluently. While in Boston with Simon, Kumalo came to Berklee to record his duet— ultimately titled “Gullah Zulu”—and he brought a thumb piano. His part on the tiny instrument became the rhythmic backbone of the track, through the rubato opening that gradually picks up speed to the main groove it settles into. Steve then had Bakithi do a vocal pass, a pass with rhythmic breathing, and another thumb piano pass, with vocal clicks, to which Bailey later added harmonics notes and chords. He smiles, “Then Bakitihi said, ‘Do you have a bass? And I said, jokingly, ‘No, I’m the bass player, I’ll come up with something under this.’ And he said, ‘Well let me just try something,’ and he played the bass line that’s on the track. As soon as I heard it I thought, forget it, that’s the bass line; there’s no way I could ever come up with that line or make it feel that way! The cherry on top was later, when I sent Bakitihi the finished track, nervous that I had taken too many liberties; he called back and said, ‘You took me back to my village!’”
An interesting method of composing and a concert memory led to “Shrimp & Gritz,” Bailey’s duet with Victor Wooten. “Years ago on a gig in Prague, I saw Vic take a solo where he beatboxed with his bass and a mic—something he’s never done on record until now. For our duet, I gave him a click tempo and a mic and I said, ‘I want you to think like a beatboxer and let’s write a song while you’re playing, like we do at the beginning of our shows’—knowing he has such an acute sense of form, rhythm, and musicality. Sure enough, what you hear, minus one snippet I edited out, is Vic’s first take. He did a second pass and that’s going to be on the Bass Extremes record, with Bootsy joining us.” Bailey then added his bass, writing, and orchestrating over the form, and he brought Wooten back for the lyrics, “Shrimp and grits,” referencing a Charleston, South Carolina dish, in keeping with the theme of the album.
Perhaps no two tracks contain more wizardry than “Charleston Nocturne,” with harmonica savant Howard Levy, and “Low Country Funk,” with drum deity Dennis Chambers. “Nocturne” sprung from a duet recording Bailey and Levy did eight years earlier; except that when Steve went to look for it on old hard drives he could only find a few fragmented files. “I dragged all of it into a session and started recreating the puzzle. I rewrote some bass parts, reenvisioned the harmony, and I made a loop of one of Howard’s phrases, which runs throughout the tune like a rusty train track. That freed me up from some of the support duties, so I could be more conversational with Howard.”
“Low Country Funk,” with Chambers, sprung from a spontaneous recording of the drummer on a break from filming a DVD with Victor Wooten’s Trio, Trypnotix, at Wooten Woods. Bailey, who was engineering, got the okay from Wooten and Chambers, and brought his recording unit onstage. He found a tempo he liked, started the recorder, and cued Dennis, whispering when he wanted swing or funk feels. He relates, “I took that home and was amazed. His snare was so melodic and almost in a different time feel than his ride cymbal; it was deep, you couldn’t write out most of his rhythms. I created melodies around his snare, added a bass line, and came up with the form: A bluesy, jazzy head followed by the solo sections.”
As Bailey had anticpated and hoped, each pairing on the record led to some unexpected musical magic that played a key role in the track. For his cover of “Come Together” with Gotham guitar giant Mike Stern—which rides Steve’s palm-mute pulse—a spontaneously improvised middle section resulted in some compositional ideas. The same is true of the repeated ending on Bailey’s original, “Cabana Sunrise,” featuring soprano saxophonist Marcela Kucova from the Czech Republic. Elsewhere, Steve’s slow blues, “Conway Blue,” features the phrasing mastery of Austin guitar legend Derek O’Brien, while a comfortable cover of “One Note Samba” boast the scatting and yodeling gifts of Boston-based Swiss vocalist Gabriela Martina. And it was Steve’s desire to have a horn section tune after hearing Chicago on the radio that led to his cover of the band’s 1974 hit, “Call on Me,” featuring Coastal Carolina University brass ace Matt White on overdubbed trumpet and flugelhorn. Among the challenges for Bailey was figuring out how to play the melody and accompaniment, and then having to reconfigure that when the song moved from an open-string-friendly-key up a half-step!
For Carolina, Bailey knew the challenge he had set for himself on his instrument, potentially requiring the simultaneous use of any combination of such ingredients as bass line, melody, counter-melody, chords, arpeggios, and percussive backbeat—achieved via plucking, right and left-hand tapping, slapping, double-thumbing, palm-muting, hand-crossing, slides, and Steve’s signature natural and artificial harmonics. Not to mention the spectre of intonation on a fretless fingerboard—especially dicey in chords with close voicings. He laughs, “My daughter Ella has the second best ears in the house. She inherited them from her mom Leeann, who has the best in the house. Mine are third; but everything eventually went by that committee for approval.”
Yet there was more to be discovered. “I’ve always loved the subtle vibrato you can get playing chords on a fretless, but for this record I had to analyze just how I do that. Which meant the realization that I needed be able to play the bass note with no vibrato, the inner voices with vibrato, and the top note with a different vibrato—all at the same time.” He continues, “Another aspect I noticed is paying close attention to note values. For example, holding a bass note for the full length but stopping the notes in the chords sooner, so you have different durations in the same hand. It’s one of the nuances that can mean the difference between a chord sounding like it’s being played on one instrument or by two instruments. The same illusion is created by having the different vibratos in a chord, or sustaining a note while sliding harmonics above it; your mind registers it as multiple instruments. But of course none of this matters if the bass part is not solid and distinct. So that was always the starting point: doing what a bass player does!”
With his goal of being a complete accompanist on bass behind a duet partner fully explored on Carolina, what was Steve’s main takeaway from this massive, mileage-packed project? “Your dreams will eventually find you when they are ready to manifest themselves, but you have to clear the path for them through hard work and discipline. I dreamt of this as a teenager, and in many ways it is what pushed me to the extreme my whole career. Dreams coming true, at least in my case, were also contingent upon the building of solid and mutually beneficial relationships over the years. Good and healthy relationships make magic happen!” –BM
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