Following the dissolution of pioneering fusion band Dixie Dregs in the early 1980s, Andy West, the group’s co-founding bassist, found himself at a fork in the road. In a novel twist, he walked down both paths simultaneously, carving out a successful career as a software developer while continuing to record and perform with a host of diverse musicians, including Mike Keneally, Vinnie Moore and Henry Kaiser. West has also released sides with his own groups, Zazen, FWAP, and Rama1.
Recently, the Arizona native teamed up with composer/arranger Craig Pallett to release a five-track mini-album, Zen Walk. Andy picks up the story: “I’ve known Craig for going on 25 years now. A long time ago, I played on his album YNOTand we’ve always stayed in touch. When he asked me to do something on another of his projects recently, I suggested we do an album together.”
The resulting download-only album is a meticulously crafted, synth-friendly offering, often evoking such electronica icons as Tangerine Dream and Jean-Michel Jarre—but with West’s expert hands on the low-end tiller. “The music is really designed for you to close your eyes and listen, and see where it takes you,” he says. “It’s not so much about nodding your head into a groove, it’s more like putting your mind into a space.”
We’ve transcribed the title track, “Zen Walk,” a seven-minute-long number that unfolds slowly through nuanced repetition, multilayered instrumentation and detailed arrangement. “I don’t even know what style you’d call it, but it’s certainly isn’t anything that’s super-fashionable,” says Andy. “There’s a lot of synth, orchestration and live playing as well. It’s kind of weird [laughs].”
To record his part, West played an order-made Geoff Gould 6-string bass fitted with EMG pickups and La Bella Limited Edition Super Polished Pure Nickel strings, which he plucked with a .71mm Gator Grip pick. He plugged into a Behringer audio interface and recorded directly into Logic on a 2008 Mac Pro. “I never use an amp. I always go direct and use plugins to adjust the tone. I just don’t see a reason to record with amps anymore.”
Note: Though Andy played his part on a 6-string bass, we’ve tabbed the part for a 5’er.
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The track unfolds with rhythmic synth-stabs and light percussion, bolstered in bar 7 by West’s authoritative low-C. The song kicks into gear at letter A, as Andy unboxes a flowing, 16th-based line that subtly outlines a Cm7 sound (C,E♭, G, B♭ ) over the synths’ prevailing C-minor substructure. (The Grammy-nominated bass-man refers to this section as “verse A.”)
Interestingly, West initially composed his part sitting in front of the computer—without a bass. He explains: “If I’m sitting at the computer and it's a bunch of chords I don’t know, I’ll hear a line in my head and then put that into the computer to hear what it sounds like. It’s usually a very keyboard-like line, so when I start to play it, it feels weird under my fingers [laughs]. But I need to make it more like a bass line, and that’s when it starts to morph into something else. As I start to write stuff on the bass I’ll put that into the sequence too, and hear how it sounds.”
The first harmonic change comes at letter B; a seven-bar-long subsection that Andy calls “verse B.” Here, he grounds the initial IV chord (Fm) in bar 24 with a strong root note, before constructing a staggered, arching line, fashioned around the chord tones of Fm and Bb7, respectively (hinting at a possible II-V-I progression in E♭ major that never materializes).
Letters C and D are gently refigured versions of A and B, leading—via a slightly tricky segue in bar 50—to the first of two piano-centered interludes (letter E).
Explains Andy: “The piano player is a guy called Steve Kaplan, who died tragically in his 40s. He’d played on some of the songs with Craig and his recorded MIDI parts became the genesis for the whole thing.” [The album is dedicated to Kaplan’s memory]. During this section (E), West dials his part down to match the half-time feel of the drums, employing more eighth-notes and initially cutting back on syncopation. Note how he harmonically enlivens the piano’s simple triadic chords to great effect, such as in bar 51, where he superimposes and an Fm6 vibe over the Gm keyboard chord. Dig also the introduction of chromaticism in bars 53–54—an idea he develops later.
Letters F and G revisit “verses A and B,” heralding in a finger-twisting chromatic section (H) that brazenly stretches the underlying Cm harmony. “That was a tricky section to do,” notes West. “I wanted it to warp sonically and pitch-wise, but I didn’t want it to be too dissonant. Being in the Dregs for so many years, I guess I’ve just been imbued with [guitarist] Steve Morse’s chromatic style.”
A further reiteration of “verse B” (I) steers proceedings toward a second piano-centered interlude at letter J. Though bars 99–106 use the same chords as the first interlude (E), observe how West reinvents his line through changes in pacing and note choice, tempering his part to match the mood of the developing piano lines: The low, pedal-C under the A♭-G♭-A♭ chords in bars 107–109 is particularly noteworthy.
Harmonically, letters K and L are akin to previous “verses,” but again, West conjures a fresh approach (note the deliberate lack of 16ths) that helps build a sense of anticipation as the song heads towards conclusion. As we swing into letter M—the outro—Andy puts his foot to the floor, subtly recasting previous material to create a series of rising-and-falling 16th-based phrases that ultimately drives the song to a juddering climax in bars 163–165. “That ending was very intentional. I wanted it to feel like a machine was running out of gas or something, but not in a bad way. I didn’t just wing it; I had a conscious idea of what I wanted it to be.”
Today, Andy has a renewed zest for music. He expounds: “I feel like I know how to do three different things: I can play in the Dregs; I can do stuff like Zen Walk, which I love harmonically and is very orchestrated and composed; and then I can do the kind of out-there stuff like [experimental rock band] the Mistakes, for which you have to have a lot of facility. I appreciate all those things, but I just don't know how to make a living doing any of it [laughs]. Since the Dregs reunion thing came back up [in 2018], I’ve been focusing on that, and on music, a lot more. My full-time software job ended around the time that the Dregs were picking up again, so that worked out. Now I’m into a whole different phase. I may do some more software stuff, but right now I’m really focused on music.”
Andy West recorded his bass part for “Zen Walk” section by section via a series of punch-ins. Therefore, the suggested fingerings, especially between sections, may not feel entirely “natural” as you work your way through the track. Bear in mind that the tab—notated with half an eye on minimizing left-hand fatigue due to the stretches involved—merely represents one possible way to play the song; feel free to find your own alternatives. For the intrepid among you, try starting from letter A with your first finger at the third fret: It’s possible to play most of the song in this position with only a few shifts—if your left hand can take the strain. Observes West: “I never actually played ‘Zen Walk’ all the way through, top to bottom. My ‘normal’ fingering is to avoid open strings, but if I was to do that song live, I’d probably use a lot of first-position fingering. Normally, I’d use fingers one, two and four when playing B♭-C-D on the A string, for example. But for this piece, it’s a lot easier to play that using the open D string.”
Bass: For the Zen Walk album, Andy West used a 6-string bass built by Modulus Graphite founder, Geoff Gould. “We’ve been friends since the late-’80s when he got me into playing a 6-string,” West explains. “I’ve had about eight of his basses over the years. I had him make this one specifically for the Dregs tour I did last year. I played a 4-string on all the Dregs stuff but there’s a lot of notes in those tunes, so when I went back to relearn them I changed some of the fingerings to work on the 6-string. It’s got a tighter spacing than most 6-strings, with the width of a 5-string neck.”
Strings: “I’ve been using La Bella for a long time now. I used to use the exposed core Super Steps and I still have them on a couple of my basses. When we were doing the Dregs reunion tour I was listening to my original tracks which were done on the Steinberger or the Alembic. When I played the Alembic, 40 years ago, I used groundwound strings—GHS bright flats. They had the kind of bite I liked, but they were also smooth and flat. Before we toured, I was talking to Richard at La Bella and I said, ‘Do you guys make any kind of half-groundwound strings?’ and he turned me on to their super polished strings [La Bella Limited Edition Super Polished Pure Nickel]. They’re very similar to a bright flatwound, but very smooth, and really nice.”
Picks: “I previously used .88 Jim Dunlop picks, which are stiff enough to get some bite, but flexible enough to play really fast. But now I use .71mm Gator Grip picks. For me, a pick has to have enough bend so I can quickly cross strings when I need to, but it’s got to be able to dig in, too. I don’t really like a super-plucky sound, but I do like a clear pick sound. I learned how to pick from Steve Morse. His whole thing has always been up-and-down picking, even when crossing strings. I never learned the technique to his level, but I was fast enough to play the parts I needed to play. In the past few years though, I’ve also put some time into economy picking and I think there’s a lot to it.” –BM
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