“The band never really existed in the first place. It was kind of a goof,” laughs Flim & the BB’s co-founder Billy Barber. “We were friends and saw each other anyway. It was never really that much of a plan.” Despite being a semi-amorphous side-project of four Minneapolis studio-scene veterans, the BB’s managed to craft eight stellar studio albums from the late 1970s through the early ’90s, becoming digital-recording pioneers in the process. The band comprised Barber on keys, Jimmy “Flim” Johnson on bass, Bill Berg on drums, and after the first album, Dick Oatts on woodwinds. From the get-go, the BB’s embraced a sophisticated crossover jazz sound and a genre-spanning compositional approach, garnering fans from the jazz, rock, and pop worlds. Hi-fi enthusiasts, too, appreciated their then-groundbreaking digital technology-driven approach to recording. In particular, Tricycle [1983, DMP] quickly became a must-have reference disc for discerning audiophiles and sound engineers.
Studio ace Johnson is well known by fans of the low end. Live and studio collaborations with major-league artists stud his resumé; long-term associations with guitarist Allan Holdsworth and singer–songwriter James Taylor figure among the many standouts. Johnson also notably worked with Alembic in the mid ’70s to create the first viable 5-string bass with a low B string.
“Invention” — the opening track on the penultimate album by Flim & the BB’s, New Pants [1990, Warner Bros.] — is a spirited compound-time romp built around Barber’s infectious melodic motifs. “New Pants was our first record with [producer] George Massenburg and our first with Warner Bros., so the pressure was ratcheted up a bit,” Barber explains. “We’d already done quite a few tracks but were looking for one more, so I holed myself up in a hotel room over the weekend and came up with two songs. The first had vocals on it and was a gimmicky sort of pop number. I explained it to the guys, and they looked at me like I was from Mars,” Billy laughs. “Then I played them ‘Invention,’ and they said, ‘That’ll work.’”
Johnson recalls: “I think Billy had the sections and the general shape already together, except for the solo-trading. We’d generally get together to rehearse before going into the studio, and that’s when we'd try to come up with the song forms. I’d usually scribble some shorthand notes just so I could remember what came next. The band all played live together, but it’s very likely I punched in here and there. We were celebrating our ability to take advantage of modern multitrack recording.”
To record his part, Jimmy used his 1987 Alembic Series II fretted 5-string, strung with GHS Bass Boomers (.045, .065, .085, .105, .130). “I’m fairly sure I was still using my Simon Systems [DB-1A active] DI boxes at that time,” he notes. “The unusual thing about the BB’s albums was that I recorded the basses in stereo and panned the two channels very slightly left and right, featuring mostly the bridge pickup. It sounds like a mono bass, but doing that slight split opened up the sound even more. The only other time I did this was when recording with Allan Holdsworth.”
The track opens with Barber sounding the sprightly main theme on piano, while Johnson provides a pedal-point F under the subtly changing chords. “I’m fingering an F on the D string and an F on the G string simultaneously, and alternating picking between them,” he explains. “One is darker than the other, so it sounds almost like it’s jumping octaves, but it’s the same pitch.”
Note how the vivacious melody retains a natural and coherent melodic flow despite the regular time changes. Offers Barber: “Bill Berg in particular was a big fan of time-signature changes. We were all fine with it; I don’t think we ever looked at time changes as a gimmick. It was more like, ‘This needs a breath here,’ or, ‘This needs a little twist here.’”
At letter A, the bass and keys switch roles, with Johnson picking up the main theme and Barber offering chordal support over Berg’s military-tinged snare accompaniment. Here, dig how Jimmy uses slides and pull-offs to create mellifluous, flowing phrases. From bar 19, he restates the theme using artificial “harp” harmonics, in which the right-hand thumb halves the length of the string in relation to the fretted note, thus giving access to notes beyond the fingerboard range. “I’m not sure I’d used them in this way before,” he says. “Jaco [Pastorius] was the guy who made us all aware of these notes beyond our usual notes.” (Jaco famously used this technique to play the opening melody on Weather Report’s “Birdland.”)
The bass and piano combine from bars 21–23 for a chord-tone-based unison line that briefly steps out of the home key (F major) before returning via the C7sus–F (V–I) in bars 23–24, leading into the bridge at letter B. Note how the harmonically rich bridge uses secondary dominant chords to spotlight different aspects of the key. For example, the D7 to Gm progression in bars 26–27 highlights the supertonic chord (Gm) while the E7 to Am chord change in bars 28–29 emphasizes the mediant chord (Am). Here, the secondary dominant chords are D7 (the V of IIm) and E7 (the V of IIIm) within F major.
For this section, Jimmy utilizes open strings to facilitate a series of wide-ranging arpeggiated lines. “I often do that open-string run thing; this just happened to be a good spot for it. Generally, I use the open strings a lot because they sound good on these [Alembic] axes. And I seldom use the B string above the 4th or 5th fret except in passing, because that fat string does not sound very good up there. The overtones get pretty weird.”
Regarding the slightly tricky 15/8 measure (bar 32), Johnson advises: “Count to three, play the hit, and then let your foot tap another couple of beats. It’s not as hard as it might sound.” (Tip: Mentally recasting this 15/8 bar as a measure of 5/4 — each beat comprising triplet eighths—will help here.)
The main theme reappears at letter C, leading to a bubbling interlude at D. Note Johnson’s harmony-fortifying octaves in bars 51 and 56, and his use of propulsive staccato throughout the section. Letter E reiterates the main theme (check out Jimmy’s hip syncopation in bar 64), heralding the spellbinding central section at F. “The whole middle section is improvised,” explains Johnson. “I think the concept came from knowing that many of the great classical composers way back when could just ad lib entire pieces in the style they were presenting.”
Barber provides further details: “We realized we could just stay within the F major framework and do a lot of embellishments on top. We probably did three of four takes of that section. They were all different and all pretty cool, but in the end, it was Flim who made the editorial decisions. Actually, I remember Flim joking when we screwed up a take, saying, ‘I think our invention just blew up!’” Group members weren’t counting measures when recording this section; rather, they were listening to each other and reacting spontaneously. “We just kept the groove going with no obvious bar lines,” Jimmy says. “Then at the end, we eyeballed each other, picked a downbeat, and Berg filled us into the bridge.” To make this rhythmically fluid section read as simply as possible, we’ve utilized time-signature changes that reflect the phrasing of Jimmy’s improvised lines, thus providing a series of downbeat markers that help to orient the ear as the intricate interplay unfolds.
From bars 61–82, Barber, Johnson, and Oatts each take a short solo break. This process repeats from bar 83 — but note how at the end of Johnson’s descending scalar line in bar 91, the piano and sax (and later the bass) begin borrowing melodic fragments from each other to build layers of overlapping melodies that combine to sublime effect. From bar 104, Barber’s increasingly complex chordal adventuring over Johnson’s low-F pedal ensures the excitement continues to build through the blues piano-tinged build-up (from bar 112) that presages a return to the bridge at G.
Letters G and H reprise sections C and D, respectively, with the band then cycling the chords from H while Oatts cuts loose on tenor sax. The piano, bass, and sax then combine at I to sound the main melody one last time, before the song draws to a close via an unexpected measure of silence that allows listeners to finally catch their breath.
Looking back on his time with the BB’s, Jimmy muses: “We had some fun as a band, and I think each album had some nice musical moments. We also had fun with the recording technology and got to work with some great engineers.” Johnson remains busy today: “I’m still enjoying playing music with a lot of talented artists — from home over the past year, of course. And I’m about to return to the road with James Taylor on his rescheduled 2020 tour. Fingers crossed that it goes smoothly.”
Keyboardist Billy Barber On Flim & The BB’s
At first it was just the three of us. There was a deli in Minneapolis called the Lincoln Del; it was really more about eating there than putting the band together. But we loved going there together, and we thought we may as well jam afterwards or before, so that’s how it started.
When writing the BB’s albums, we might have swapped the occasional demo, but usually we’d be off in our respective corners and only had the barest of bones before recording dates. At least half of it was done on the spot. I’m happy to say it was very spontaneous. Looking back, it was actually more of an achievement than I thought. We never really notated anything. Maybe the lead lines for Oatts, or perhaps Flim Johnson would do a little chart if it was a group composition — real threadbare, maybe just a couple of lines on the time changes or where the chorus hits.
We always did everything thing live and used a lot of visual cues — a lot! — so we had to be able see each other. Flim would overdub a bass part occasionally, and Oatts might beef up a little sax, but other than that, it was just the four of us playing live on all those records. Structurally, the band did tracks that were more pop-oriented: verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, outro, etc. Even though it was a bit jazzy — or however you want to describe it — it wasn’t like Miles Davis playing the head of a tune, soloing for a while, and then going back to the head. Our stuff was more song-like.
Flim was classically trained; I had a dozen years of classical piano and played flute and trombone; and [Dick] Oatts’ dad was a music teacher, so he really had it down with different styles and cultures. [As a studio musician] you’d be called upon to do country one day, then rock & roll the next. So, we were all pretty comfortable tipping our hat to different styles. On the BB’s records, those different styles would float in and out, and we didn’t really think anything of it. We put out eight or nine records, which is kind of a lot. I don’t really listen to them anymore, but “Invention” was particularly fun to hear again. It holds up pretty well.
Today, I still write and I’ve got a studio, and I still get together with people and do tracks. But I’m pushing 70 now so I’m semi-retired, I guess. I recently did a TV series called B Sharp about a fictitious music store on 48th and 7th in Manhattan, where you had Manny’s and Sam Ash and all those places. For decades, rock stars and jazz stars would hang out at those places, playing and looking at new guitars and stuff. Then one day, it all just kind of disappeared. I built a set, wrote scripts and hired actors, and all the music was done live. It’s kind of a love letter to the music industry. It was a real time-, energy- and money-sucker; it’s a lot easier making a record than a television show!
Jimmy Johnson’s Three-Finger Technique
“I think my style developed from keeping all the strings quiet,” says Jimmy Johnson about his unique right-hand approach. “The resting position is: thumb between the B and E strings, index finger on the A string, middle finger on the D, and ring finger on the G. From that position I tend to play the A string with my index finger, and the G with my ring finger. Moving down, I’ll shift my hand so the thumb rests on the B, and then it might move further either to the closest pickup or just float. I’m self-taught, so I only think this is how it developed.”
From Bach To The BB’s
The title “Invention” is a nod to J.S. Bach’s celebrated two-part contrapuntal studies [BWV 772–786], which explore various means of melodic development within a relatively short time frame.
Download the transcription PDF: HERE