Michael Valerio: Standing In The Shadows Of Hollywood

We sit down with one of the busiest and most in-demand bassists in the world to talk about his remarkable career

Michael Valerio: Standing In The Shadows Of Hollywood

We sit down with one of the busiest and most in-demand bassists in the world to talk about his remarkable career

Photo by Joanne Pearce Martin

Michael Valerio is the bassist you’ve heard the most whose name you don’t know. Valerio purposely keeps a low profile while occupying the principal bass chair and oftentimes doubling on bass guitar for major movie soundtracks. In all he has contributed to over 1,200 film and TV titles, not to mention steady jingle and recording dates as well as live performances. I first learned of Michael shortly after moving to Los Angeles through another session bassist, Dan Lutz. Every musician who mentions Valerio is quick to acknowledge his masterful technique, his rich sound, and the precision of his execution and expression in any musical scenario, on upright or electric bass. A look back at his journey from his native New York to Los Angeles begins to explain this unique yet under-heralded talent.

Born and raised in East Northport, on Long Island, Valerio grew up in a musical home with his mom, a fine cellist, and his dad, an excellent pianist and choral conductor. He recalls, “As a toddler, my parents had me singing pitch patterns before I could talk. It was great ear training. The first pieces I have a clear memory of hearing were the Brahms Requiem, lots of choral music, the first Star Wars soundtrack album, and the Beatles.” Drawn by his parents’ promise of a bass guitar, Valerio began playing upright in his junior high school orchestra. “There were two very important experiences. The first was a handful of recording sessions I did as a vocalist when I was about 11 years old. There was something about being in the studio that was very comfortable and natural to me. The next was getting to play string bass in the New York All-State Orchestra as a teenager. That’s when I told my parents I wanted to be a musician.” At 14, he indeed received his promised electric bass from his parents: a candy apple red Kramer Focus 8000. “I was so excited I stayed home from school to play it!” His folks followed up by buying him his first upright, a brand new Kolstein, during his senior year of high school.

Photo by Haoyuan Ren

Valerio continued his musical studies through college, which was split between the Eastman School of Music and Indiana University. Upon graduation, he was accepted into the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, a developmental orchestra in Miami with world-class players and instructors coming in. During his fellowship, he attended a summer program in Los Angeles called the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. While there, he got to work with Dave Grusin, Bert Turetsky, and Chuck Berghofer. “Chuck suggested I move to Los Angeles. I returned to the New World Symphony, and word got back to Michael Tilson Thomas that I had taken a liking to Los Angeles. Eager to help, he made some calls and recommendations on my behalf. As a direct result, I was hired to play on some movie sessions, met some lifelong friends, and made the move in August 1999.”

I joined Michael at one of his favorite restaurants after his session at Fox Studios to learn more about one of the most recorded and most discreet bassists we all hear on a regular basis.

Photo by Ben Gold

We live in an era when most artists have social-media accounts, a YouTube channel, and a web page. Why haven’t we seen or heard of Michael Valerio outside of the movies, television shows, and albums you’ve played on?

Because I’m good at my job. Especially in film and television, a big part of the job is fitting in, not drawing attention to yourself — and in the case of high profile projects, being discreet. Perhaps it’s an outgrowth of not drawing attention away from the screen with one’s playing. Perhaps it’s the number of NDAs I get to sign. Film scores are not the place to beat your chest about how great you play. I argue also that most music doesn’t call for that attitude in your playing. The tricky part is being able to turn on the juice when it’s necessary. Regardless, I don’t mind being behind the scenes as I’m a fairly private person. I know that this puts me in the minority of the content-driven society in which we live. Perhaps someday I’ll have a website, but for today I’m happy to have a phone!

Perhaps the most intriguing part of your career is how you balance the legit side of your playing with your improvisational side. How do you navigate that?

It has always come naturally to me to have variety. I was lucky that my parents are both musicians and went to college with Tony Levin, who was the first famous bass player I was aware of, even before I started playing the bass. Tony played in the Rochester Philharmonic with my mom, he played jazz gigs with my dad, he played with Buddy Rich and Woody Herman, of course later with Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, and many more. My folks knew him and he happened to be a very versatile musician. He made it okay for me to do a variety of things — different styles of music on acoustic and electric bass.

In terms of balance, if you zoom out far enough and look at a larger cross section of time, it’s actually in balance. Now, when you’re in the thick of it playing a lot of orchestral sessions, doing a long run of a Broadway show, or working on some jazz albums, it can certainly feel a little lopsided. That’s okay. The balance is there, and there’s joy in being able to revisit some past loves — whether it’s music I don’t often get to play, or a certain instrument that only comes into the rotation so often. I am usually not making a conscious effort to take X amount of legit gigs, X amount of jazz gigs, or electric gigs, or sessions, or live gigs. Often, I’m hired because I can do it all at a very high level; they have me there as an insurance policy, in case there’s an electric cue or two to tack on to the end of the orchestral date.

Photo by Haoyuan Ren

Do you find some film composers are sticklers for the written part, while others are open to your musical input with the bass line?

Yes, and it’s a case-by-case basis. I’ll give you a few examples: When working with John Williams, he means every note he writes. It’s on purpose, not a placeholder. We were recording the main title to The Adventures of Tintin, and John wasn’t all that convinced with one of the transitions from a two feel to a four feel. I suggested that the bass starts in two for a couple bars before going into four. John then asked me what notes I would play. It was very important that these notes not be left up to chance — he wanted specifics. I told him the notes I would play, played them for him, and he went for it, but not before saying that my Gb should be a little higher!

Another John Williams story: We were working on the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and he had a song for which he wanted me to play electric bass. He casually referenced the sound of the bass synth on the original “Cantina Theme,” saying to me, “Perhaps you’ve heard it?” So here was an opportunity to craft a sound for John Williams. I started with my flatwound-strung 1966 Fender Mustang, into an octaver with the dry signal off, into an envelope filter, into a compressor to smooth out the level. I was given a lot of leeway in the sonics department, but I played his notes verbatim. Also, I remember reading them up the octave to get the right sound out of the pedals. I believe the track is called “Canto Bight” on the soundtrack album.

Now, for most everyone else, if I can take what’s on the page and make it sound better, more organic, more in-line with the style or the scene in the movie, 99 percent of the time the composer is appreciative. There are some players who will try very hard to play exactly what’s on the page — folks from a more classical approach, usually. I try to make it sound right, and sometimes that means you must make some adjustments to the notes or the feel. It’s a good skill to develop where you allow yourself to fall in and out of the notes on the page. You’re reading the page but editorializing while it’s going down. This is something I happen to do well.

Let’s talk about the requirements of being a section leader.

There are of course the technical responsibilities — fingerings, bow speed, placement on the string, intonation, note length — but it goes beyond that. I’ve been fortunate to have learned much about leading a bass section from others. My colleagues are some of my greatest teachers, and many of them are excellent leaders, playing principal bass for different orchestras, or different composers on sessions. The thing that makes the studio scene different from the orchestra scene is that on any given day, any one of the folks in the section will be playing principal somewhere. It truly is a collection of experts. Respect is key, and allowing it to be a collaboration is always a healthy approach. I’ve learned much from studying the great conductors, and how they address the orchestra in rehearsals, where the work gets done. There’s a great deal of thought regarding the psychology of direction. It’s going to have an effect if you tell the section to stop playing badly, to stop messing up; it creates a rut, and you are basically guaranteeing that the same problems will happen. Rather than reinforcing the behavior you don’t want, it’s better to redirect— never rubbing one’s nose in it, but instead suggesting a different approach: “A lower Abperhaps.” A positive suggestion is always better than a negative reinforcement. If you can create a sense of collaboration, it makes the time pass faster, it keeps people engaged, and it makes for a better section, better music, and more fun. As a section leader, I try to keep the antenna engaged across the orchestra, checking in with the intonation and note length of similar instrumental groups, like the brass and the low winds. I keep an ear to the ground for note discrepancies, so they can be easily corrected. I try to keep a positive attitude, which doesn’t always come easily for me, and some of my colleagues let me know it!

You’ve played on so many scores. What have been some of your favorites, and why?

That’s a hard one, because at this point I’ve played on so many film and television titles, and I’ve conducted a handful of projects that were very meaningful to me. I got to play principal bass for Avatar: The Way of Water, and when I wasn’t playing, I got the opportunity to conduct. I was very fortunate to have been James Horner’s principal bass for several projects, including the first Avatar, so getting to carry on his tradition was deeply moving for me. Simon Franglen, an integral part of James’ team, seamlessly created a wonderful score which was equal parts paying homage to James and reaching forward at the same time. Getting to conduct a roomful of my friends and colleagues on that project were some of the greatest moments of my life. I’m most grateful for the opportunity. Many of the John Williams scores fall easily into a place of similar importance: The Terminal, Dear Basketball, and the last three Star Wars films.

Have there been scores where you were featured or relied on to carry a scene?

As a player in a section, there’s a delicate balance between enhancing the screen, and not drawing too much attention away from it. As a player in a jazz context, you sometimes get to become a character, a voice. Tower Heist, with composer Christophe Beck, is a good example of that; also The Terminal, with John Williams. In something like John Williams’ score for The Fabelmans, the orchestra was somewhat sparse, intimate. We had a small bass section of three players, and we could be heard, adding to the emotional impact of the scene. In something like the movie Mank, with music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, I created a bass section in my house, playing six different instruments with different bows, in different positions within the room. I played jazz bass cues from home, as well.

You toured with Chris Botti, which is a highly improvisational gig. What was that transition like, after spending so much time in the studio, often playing legit?

I very much enjoyed my time with Chris and his top-notch band. It was always great to remember what it’s like to play for people instead of microphones! I’ve been very fortunate to have a trio with Russell Ferrante from the Yellowjackets. Along with Steve Schaeffer on drums, we made an album entitled Inflexion [2021, Blue Canoe Records]. It’s a very nice album, and a nice “scratch” for my non-legit itches!

Let’s discuss doubling. How did you come to it, and where do you see the instruments as similar and different?

Well, I think the first question is: Why double? For me it goes back to having Tony Levin as an early influence, as I mentioned. He plays all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments, so it seemed to me that playing the bass meant you played all the basses. The other influence regarding multiple instruments is John Patitucci. When I was in my formative years as a young bassist, John was there to show that you could be a virtuoso upright player and also a virtuoso electric player. The importance of this example cannot be overstated. This was during a time when the prevailing school of thought was that you had to make a choice. If I had listened to that thought, I would not have the career I currently enjoy.

I want to bring up a very important distinction, which is the difference between the orchestral bass and the jazz/rhythm bass. I spend a lot of time playing in orchestras, and spent most of my educational years studying the orchestral repertoire. I found that if my focus was on building that orchestral foundation, my jazz and electric playing got better as well.

Photo by Ben Gold

Now, back to my doubling journey: When I was in college, I played with several groups, bands, orchestras, and combos. It was rather clear to me that the way to survive the onslaught of so many different experiences was to find the places of similarity. What are the common threads between these different styles and different instruments? This remains my go-to gear. It makes sense that one instrument will influence your approach to another instrument. Many times, I’m in situations where my knowledge of one instrument or style informs how I play the other.

When I was in my mid 20s, I played several tours with a pianist named Roger Williams. He was a living legend, and I learned a lot from him. The greatest lesson I learned on that gig was the fault of logistics. Roger’s music would have been most appropriately played on an upright bass. Because of travel restrictions, and budgets being what they were, it was cost-prohibitive to bring an upright bass, or to rent one. At the time my only electric bass was a red [Music Man] Stingray 5-string, which is what I played on Roger’s show. Now, as you know, the Stingray is a great bass, but not always touted for its versatility. This bass was not the sound of “Autumn Leaves,” “Dark Eyes,” and all the other tunes that Roger played in his regular rotation. So the task was clear: Find a way to make the Stingray fit. That gig more than any other time in my life helped me develop my sense of touch and tone on the electric bass. If I didn’t play the upright, I wouldn’t have that sound in my head, which was step one in trying to emulate it.

Photo by Dan Goldwasser.

Which begins to answer my other question about doubling, which is, do you bring techniques and concepts from one to the other?

Absolutely. Let’s begin by talking about getting a convincing upright performance on the electric bass. There are ways to do this, and many folks are out there who do it well. A lot of times it involves some sort of palm-mute right-hand technique, which changes the front part of the note, making it thump a bit. Others will utilize a muting device such as Nordstrand’s NordyMute. This is somewhat convincing, but it only affects the front part of the note. Most people aren’t looking at the back half of the note. The decay time of an upright bass is not an on/off binary situation. There’s a lot of gray area that is totally controllable with left hand dampening. I spent many years trying to play with excellent technique on the electric bass, with a left hand that was one finger per fret and up on the tips. What I was finding was that the sound I was getting with the “good” technique wasn’t what I needed. It was clean, but not convincing. There’s a saying I heard years ago that goes, “Let the sound dictate the technique.” This simple phrase got me thinking of how to get the sound I was hearing in my head. The electric sounds I go for require a lot of subtle shading of the tone, and great care of the amplitude of the note, as well as the decay and release. The techniques are a combination of right-hand touch sensitivity and left-hand dampening. Often I’m fingering the notes with the index and middle fingers, and controlling the decay time with the back half of my left hand, just letting the fleshy part of the hand control the ringing of the strings. It seems like a lot of extra work, but really it’s just about taking care of both halves of the note. And, it feels and sounds more like an upright, which is a good trick to have up your sleeve!

Funny enough, this is also helpful on the string bass. With the section bass work I do, there are inevitably pieces of music where we are required to play pizzicato passages that are marked to let the notes ring. This can be a danger zone. The notes on a string bass can ring out way past their welcome, and intonation will most likely be a factor. If we think of the notes as an on or off equation, we get release noises, a definitive stop to the note, which can be a distraction. But, if we can use some judicious left-hand dampening, we can blur the line between sound and no sound, which is very satisfying. Also, there are several ways to pizzicato the bass. I play the electric bass in many orchestral situations, with many fine orchestras. Sometimes it’s a pops orchestra, and other times it’s more of a “legit” situation. How to play the electric bass convincingly in the orchestra without sounding like the odd man out? It’s easier than you think. I can sum it up in the following statement: Play at the same time as the group, within the volume envelope of the group. If you can do that, you will be hired back. If you play too loud, you will be hated. If you play earlier than the group, it will have the same effect. Playing well with the ensemble is the most important thing you can offer.

Who are some of your favorite bass players?

That’s difficult to pin down, there are too many greats out there. Of course, Jaco, Ray Brown, James Jamerson, Ron Carter, Marcus Miller, Sam Jones, Israel Crosby, Anthony Jackson, Tony Levin, John Patitucci, Victor Wooten, Chuck Domanico, Paul Jackson, and Will Lee. But there’s also got to be room for Tim Lefevbre, Kaveh Rastegar, Thundercat, and James Genus. And let me back up and say Paul McCartney! I got to meet him at Capitol Records for a song project, and he was so nice. One of my heroes!

Do you have any plans to do a solo album?

There are many ideas in the mix. My good friend Kaveh Rastegar is helping me try to figure out which album to do first — the bass album, the songwriter album, the band album, the jazz album. There are lots of possibilities.

What’s upcoming in the rest of 2023?

There are several new films where I got to be creative in the score. Killers of the Flower Moon is the latest Martin Scorsese film, composed by Robbie Robertson. I played all sorts of different instruments including a washtub bass, two uprights, bowed, plucked, struck, and rubbed — and many electric basses as well. A very fun project. I’m currently working on the new Joker film, which looks and sounds amazing. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is out; I got to play some upright jazz bass, as well as bowed bass in the section. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is also just out; early on I did an experimental session building a library of odd sounds on the bass. Overall, I remain truly grateful for the career I have. I consider myself the luckiest person in the room, in most rooms.

Photo by Ben Gold

Gear Talk

What are your main acoustic basses?

I have a Santigiuliana bass violin, on a long-term loan from my friend Drew Dembowski. It’s from Veneto, Italy, and the label is dated 1839. That’s the bass I use for orchestral hits. I have a German bass from the mid-1800s that belonged to the late, great Chuck Domanico, which he can be heard playing on Carmen McRae’s The Great American Songbook (Atlantic, 1972). I’m playing it on “Escapades for Alto Saxophone and Orchestra: Movement 2,” on the album John Williams and Steven Spielberg: The Ultimate Collection (Sony Classical, 2017). And I have two other German string basses, an English string bass, and a washtub bass.

How about your acoustic bass strings, pickups, and bow?

I use medium Pirastro Passione for bowed bass and Pirastro Perpetual for jazz. I also use Evah Pirazzi Weich or Thomastik Spirocore Weich, it depends on my mood. For pickups I have the David Gage Realist Copperhead, Lifeline and Original Wood versions, and I’ll use an Underwood Standard Bass pickup in a pinch for big band and outdoor gigs. And I use French bows mainly, made byFetique, Vigneron, Reid Hudson, Horst Schicker, and George Pfretchner.

Photo by Ben Gold

What are your main electric basses and strings?

It depends on the gig, I would say the main basses in my rotation include numerous Fenders: ’55, ’65, and ’77 Precisions; a ’65 Jazz Bass; a ’62 Jazz Bass converted to fretless, Jaco-style; a ’66 Mustang; American Ultra and Deluxe 5-string Jazz Basses; an American Professional 5-string Precision; and a Fender GB-41SCE acoustic bass guitar. Then there are a half-dozen Fodera Imperial, Emperor, and NYC 5- and 6-strings; Music Man StingRay fretted and fretless 5-strings, and a Bongo Bass 5-string; a Moollon P Classic; a Nordstrand Acinonyx “Cat Bass”; and a Hofner 500/1 Violin Bass. Most of the basses are strung with nickel roundwounds, either Ernie Ball Hybrid Slinkys [.045, .065, .080, .100, .125] or Fodera [.045, .065, .085, .105, .125]. The flatwounds range from unknown strings on my Mustang to Pyramid Gold nickel flatwounds on my Hofner and my ’65 Precision. I have Pyramid Blue nickel roundwounds on one of my P-Basses.

Let’s talk about amplifying both instruments live, and how you record both instruments in the studio.

Live, I’ve had good luck with a Gallien-Krueger Fusion 550 head with an Aguilar SL 112 cabinet. That combination works well for doubling gigs. I’m able to get a very natural upright tone, and it’s good at handling the low B on my electric basses. In the studio it’s usually my 1960s Ampeg B-15 or 1960s blonde Fender Bassman for the electrics, and I’ll bring the A Designs REDDI. For recording at home I prefer my vintage RCA DIs. For the acoustic bass I like the Grace Design FELiX2, but direct boxes aren’t usually used for film scores. The gold standard for recording solo bass was [legendary engineer] Al Schmitt; he used two Neumann 149s spaced so that one was aimed at the bottom eye of the G string f-hole, and the other aimed at the point of contact of the right hand on the string. In a section, most of the time there’s one spot mic for every two players, and sometimes an overall mic, as well.

Photo by Haoyuan Ren

How about effects and accessories?

I’m a big fan of effects, even though I don’t use them regularly. I like the Diamond Bass Compressor/EQ, the 3Leaf Audio Wonderlove and Octabvre, the Empress Effects Heavy, and the Gamechanger Audio Plasma pedal. I use a Korg OT-120 Orchestral Tuner, and an Ernie Ball volume pedal, and D’Addario straps, cables, and picks — Duralin Precision light/medium 0.70mm. I’m a Fender, Fodera, Music Man, Aguilar, and Gallien-Krueger artist.

Photo by Haoyuan Ren

Michael Valerio’s 10 Favorite Film Scores He Played On

Monsters, Inc. – Randy Newman, 2001

The Terminal – John Williams, 2004

Cars – Randy Newman, 2006

The Secret Life of Pets – Alexandre Desplat, 2016

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – John Williams, 2017

Dear Basketball – John Williams, 2017

Mank – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, 2020

Avatar: The Way of Water – Simon Franglen, 2022

The Fabelmans – John Williams, 2022

Killers of the Flower Moon – Robbie Robertson, 2023

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