(This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Bass Musician Magazine.)
Eddie Gomez: Modern Master Of Bass
Interview by Rick Suchow
With even the most cursory glance at the long list of major jazz artists who have sought out his enormous bass talent, one thing is immediately clear: Eddie Gomez has blazed his own trail. Name after iconic jazz name such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner and Gerry Mulligan fill his discography and concert history that now stretches back over four decades. Blessed with an uncanny ability to find the right note, the right phrase, to instantly absorb the sound of each instrument that surrounds him and react with the perfect piece of the puzzle, hearing Eddie perform is an experience to behold. Through it all, his unmistakable tone and technique allow him to put his own personal stamp on all that emanates from his upright, whether in the role of supporting player or soloist. In short, Eddie Gomez is our modern master of bass.
Not that his low-end journey has been limited to the world of jazz, as his body of work readily reveals. Pop, R&B, Classical and Latin artists alike have all utilized Eddie’s distinctive dexterity in the studio and on stage. And yet when all is said and done, Gomez may perhaps be most remembered for the eleven years he spent with the legendary Bill Evans. Widely regarded as one of the most important jazz pianists of the 20th century, Evans made major contributions to recordings by Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and others before breaking out with his own trio in 1959, a group that included bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. When LaFaro, a revolutionary talent in his own right, died suddenly in a tragic car crash in 1961 at the tender age of 25, Evans suddenly found himself without the telepathic piano-bass connection the two had. He would hire various bassists over the next few years, but it wasn’t until Eddie Gomez joined him in 1966 that Bill was able to recapture that same level of interplay that made the Bill Evans Trio so unique. And although Gomez is the first to admit that it took him a while to settle in and feel comfortable with the trio, it’s apparent that Bill Evans immediately found his man in Eddie, and the two would be kindred bandmates for more than a decade.
In the 30 years since leaving the Evans fold Eddie’s career has never slowed, and he’s added a bevy of innovative and well received recordings to his discography, both as sideman and solo artist. Continually challenging himself with disparate and wide ranging live performance situations, he remains to this day an in-demand bassist of the highest caliber. Now at age 65, Eddie’s bustling schedule reads like the itinerary of a musician half his age, and he retains a fresh, youthful, energetic approach to the many projects he immerses himself in and a wide-eyed optimism about the musical possibilities that have yet to unfold. And make no mistake, the man is still bringing his A-game; just last year he was awarded with a Latin Grammy for best instrumental album for his Duets collaboration with Carlos Franzetti.
His musical endeavors are not limited to recording and performance either. Gomez not only enjoys success as a composer, writing for his own groups as well as various film and television projects, but he also finds himself in the prestigious position of Artistic Director of The Conservatory of Music Of Puerto Rico, where he has been professor and artist-in-residence since 2005. In fact, the PR Conservatory is merely the latest in a long string of educational positions that Eddie has held, which also includes Associate Professor of jazz double bass at Oberlin Conservatory, and artist-in-residence jobs at Stamford, North Texas State, and Georgia State Universities.
Our interview took place in April of this year, just days after Eddie returned from a week-long tour of Japan with drummer Steve Gadd. He was also just days away from preparing for a two week stint at New York’s famed Blue Note jazz club with pianist Chick Corea and drummer Paul Motian, a special event to be billed as “Further Explorations of Bill Evans”. Chick’s concept for the trio was to introduce some lesser known Evans compositions as well as a few of his own originals, all in the spirit of remembering and honoring the great Evans. Although this highly anticipated event was to be filmed and recorded for a future DVD and CD release, Eddie was not aware of the exact nature of the project when I mentioned it to him. It was on this topic that we began our interview.
You have a two week run with Chick Corea coming up at the Blue Note billed as “Further Explorations of Bill Evans”, which includes former Evans drummer Paul Motian. Can you elaborate on how this project came together and what you would like to achieve musically with it?
Well, Chick called me and actually didn’t elaborate on what we were going to do, although I assumed there would be some kind of connection with Bill Evans. Usually I try and stay away from Bill Evans tributes for various reasons, but I love Chick and I know that he’s one of the few guys that can give it some real credence and validity, so therefore I’m looking forward to it and I think it’s going to be great. I’m not going to do anything different than I always do with any of my groups, or with any other group. Bill is one of the people in my heart all the time when I play, whatever it is, whatever genre of music it is. So he’s not going to be any more or any less in my soul and spirituality for this project. But I’m looking forward to this, it will be interesting and certainly very compelling to think about what the results might be with Paul there. Paul and I both worked with Bill at different times, he was part of that first wonderful, innovative trio with Scott LaFaro. I came about five or six years later I guess, I joined Bill in ’66.
And Chuck Israels played in between.
Right, Chuck Israels, and also Gary Peacock and Teddy Kotick. There were really some wonderful musicians with Bill in between the initial innovative trio and myself.
Let me ask you about your time with Bill. How did he shape you as a bassist and musician in your eleven years with him?
He didn’t consciously shape me, but for me just being around him was really a huge lesson. His idea of growth and development, pretty much, was showing up for the performances and letting it happen, letting it all hang out on the performance. That was the essence of the development, and really the performance was kind of like the rehearsal, actually going out there and doing it. It’s like theatre I guess. I’m not an actor, but I think about the metaphors of theatre and sports, as well as other disciplines. I think it’s much like that, you go out there and you do it. You come prepared of course, but you let it happen and you let it be different when it can be different. You try different approaches.
One of Bill’s mantras was that the freshness and the creativity happened because you were doing more or less the same thing all the time, the same repertoire. It did change over the years depending on recordings and what was going on, but basically the repertoire didn’t change drastically and there were always certain key pieces of music that we revisited. So the growth happened onstage, during performance, in the club, in concerts. And certainly that’s how it happened for me, just by doing it a lot, just by the sheer work of all that playing, all that intensity, to make something happen every time you went out and played. It took me a while to get to that place where I felt like, well, I’m kind of comfortable here. It took a while to get to a comfort zone. In the beginning I was really raw, I had just come out of Julliard.
Your beginning with Bill?
Right, the beginning with Bill. I had already played with a lot of people like Gerry Mulligan, Benny Goodman, Buck Clayton, Paul Bley, and Marian McPartland, and had played quite a bit of orchestral music and a lot of different kinds of music. But it took me a while to really feel comfortable with being in the Bill Evans trio. The growth was probably happening all along, but it took me a while to get my legs under me and feel like this is some place where I belong and maybe I can make a contribution.
Was Scott LaFaro a big influence on you?
He was a big influence, but not unlike other great bass players. The big three for me were Paul Chambers, Ray Brown, and Scott LaFaro. But that’s not to say that guys like Sam Jones, Jimmy Garrison, and so many other great bass players I heard with different bands weren’t big influences as well. Eddie Jones with Count Basie, the bassist with Art Blakey and the Messingers, all of them. I just loved bass playing in all its different faces and forms and incarnations, I wasn’t only smitten with modern bass players like Scott LaFaro. Pound for pound– I don’t like to say better or best, it’s just not part of the way I look at things– but Paul Chambers was really a big influence on me.
Let me ask you something that you’re obviously in a unique position to answer, having played for years with both Chick Corea and Bill Evans. As players they seem to have much in common, but how are they different?
Well I think they’re very different, and both unique in different ways. I think first of all that Bill is a unique player in the history of jazz piano, as is Bud Powell and Earl Gardener– and Chick is too– but they’re very different I think. Chick has a lot of different approaches to playing, he will go out and play with his electric band, and he’ll do different projects, and aim a little differently, whereas Bill was pretty much into trio playing. The tenor of his approach to making music was pretty constant and straightforward and it didn’t vary a lot. Bill occasionally did different projects too, for example with quintets and he did an orchestra album which is certainly one of the seminal recordings, as many of them are. But the approach really didn’t vary much, he was always kind of in his ballpark, and highly recognizable. I think Bill had such a golden sound on the instrument, it’s just unmistakable the way he played. You know, some people accuse him of being a romantic. I spent eleven years with him and I think maybe he was, maybe not. Those are just words that are thrown around. But I always felt very touched whenever he played, and was deeply moved by his playing every time he touched the instrument, he was really special that way.
Chick is also a unique player, and has a wonderful sound on the instrument. I think he’s actually maturing in certain ways, I’ve known Chick since we were teenagers. He’s multi-faceted and has a lot of different looks and colors in his pallet. And again, Chick is one of the few pianists that can really revisit Bill’s music, play in a trio context, and give it some validity and with integrity.
Obviously you’ve matured as a player as well. How would you say you’re a different player today than you were in your earlier years?
Back then there was a little bit of going to war with the instrument sometimes, there wasn’t that comfort zone that I found in my later Bill Evans years. There was always a kind of like, “well let’s see what today’s gonna bring”. But for me now, I’ve really come to a peace, I’m at peace with the instrument. I’m not afraid of the instrument, and I feel that the challenge is always about making music out of the particular day’s events, whatever the music is. Whether I’m playing with Chick, or in my own group or trio, or doing a guest spot with someone else, it’s about rising to the musical challenge and making the most music out of that situation. I try and leave behind the idea of how I stand versus the rest of the world, the bass-playing world, I really have left that behind me. I’m just not all that interested in how I compare with someone else, either before or current, or with younger players or any of that stuff, I don’t think it’s a very interesting topic. So I’ve just come a long way, I think, where I’m very comfortable. I think my playing has matured in a lot of ways and I just feel like I’m able to breathe, take deep breaths when it’s necessary.You just got back from a Japanese tour with Steve Gadd. Like Chick, you and Steve go back together decades as well. How would you describe your musical relationship with Gadd?
Steve and I go back a long way, and it really kind of starts with Chick and some of those early albums we played on such as The Mad Hatter, Friends and Three Quartets. Those are all good albums that I like very much. And then Steve and I have also done a lot of things in various supporting casts. He’s played on my albums and has produced a couple of them.
What’s the musical bond you have when you’re on stage playing together?
Well I think we agree on what the purpose is. Steve really focuses on the groove, and on making something feel good, making the pulse and the rhythm sing. It’s a song, and we’re making it comfortable for each other and for whoever else is on the bandstand with us. It means being utterly simple and very direct, and to try and really weed out all extraneous non-musical events. It’s really just a matter of simplifying and making everything really work for the music from a rhythmic point of view. I enjoy listening to Steve play, I love the sound he gets, he gets a great sound on the instrument and he plays so simply. And he also has a huge dynamic color, he can play from really pianissimo to triple forte, and knows when to do it and he always serves the music so well. And I think we both like that. I also like the fact that with The Gadd Gang I’m playing the double bass– or the standup bass, the acoustic bass, whatever you want to call it– as opposed to the bass guitar, and I love playing that music with my instrument.
What are your feelings about electric bass? Does it have any appeal to you?
Not to play it, but to listen to it. I like the bass guitar, especially in a kind of functioning way. I love it in dance music– meaning in rhythmic music, groove music. I’m not always keen to listen to bass guitar solos to be honest with you, sometimes not even regular guitar solos or you know, bass solos of any kind. I don’t know, in bass solos I always hear technique, except when you go back more than twenty years. It seems that the bass has become very technical. The bass guitar certainly has, and so has the bass violin, so I hear a lot of that. I don’t always hear a particular unique voice or personality in the playing. I mean, I can tell certain players. I’ll tell you one player I’ve always liked, and he’s the one guy that does both very well, and that’s Stanley Clarke. I think Stanley plays both instruments with his own voice and brings a unique quality to both of them. And I enjoy listening, I get a kick out of it, you know. But otherwise to hear fast guitar playing, whether it’s a bass guitar or a normal guitar, I’m not all that interested. And that goes for the bass violin as well, or the violin, or the cello, you know. I’d rather hear somebody really dig down deep into their soul and their heart and play something elegant or beautiful.
But I do like bass guitar a lot, and I love hearing the old James Jamerson Motown things, hearing Will Lee play, and I like certain Jaco things. There’s a couple of other guys, I mean sometimes I don’t even know who’s playing, I just listen to the groove. I like certain pop music. I like the Black Eyed Peas. I like Prince.
That might surprise some people.
Oh I do, I love that stuff and I listen to that stuff. Sometimes I find myself listening to that stuff more than the so-called jazz. I like the grooves, I love the way it’s all put together. And besides, I love dancing, I think it works. To me music is singing and dancing, and when those things are happening– including in jazz of course, because jazz music sings and dances– it works. You know, you asked me about Steve Gadd, and with other great drummers too, it’s a dance we get involved in. But groove music definitely just goes for that right away, and I like that. So you’d be surprised what I listen to (laughs).I am! Let me ask you something else. You’re the artistic director at The Conservatory Of Music At Puerto Rico. As an educator, as a teacher, what are the important fundamentals that you stress to students? What important lessons do you try to pass on to them?
I started teaching down there about four or five years ago, and I’ve been the Artistic Director now for about a year. But before the Conservatory, even when I did these master classes– and I’ve done a lot of that over the years– it’s always been about stressing the importance of knowing the history of whatever you do. And in this case jazz, jazz music, it’s about knowing the language, the nomenclature, and understanding how your voice or instrument fits into that and where you are now and where you think you want to go. It’s a learning curve for me because education isn’t something you flip in an out of, you have to kind of be very serious and dedicated, and I’m still learning about it. I wouldn’t say that I’m an educator, but I’m enjoying this academic world and doing a fair amount of it. But it’s still in tandem with my performance life and going out there and playing. And to finish answering your question, what I do is expose students to what I’ve done and talk about those things, and I also play with them, I actually play with the students. So it’s a question of exposing them to me, to my world, what I’ve done, talking about it and really just giving them access to me.
Tell me something about your upright bass.
I play this instrument that was put together for me by Arnold Schnitzer, it’s really three basses put together, kind of like a Dr. Frankenstein thing. It’s relatively easy to play, meaning I don’t have to have a wrestling match with it. I’ve been playing it for a while. And it bows pretty well, which I like, and it’s comfortable for me. I have a couple of pickups, one that’s made in Japan that’s called a Yamaya pickup, and I also have the Realist by David Gage. I have them both on there, one covers for the other sometimes. I also use an Acoustic Image amp.
What are your current projects? I know you have a trio, you’ve got a quintet.
Right, and I do guesting of course, but I love going out with my trio and the quintet. I’m working on a record with the trio, and the quintet actually just did one a couple of months ago that I really like, that hopefully should be out soon. We recorded it in Europe. Let me see, I’m also going to Europe next week with Mark Kramer, who’s a great pianist, and Joe La Barbera on drums, and after these two weeks with Chick at the Blue Note we’ll be going to South America in May and June. Then later in the summer I’ll be out with a different trio, and the quintet as well. I’ll also be doing some teaching in Italy in the summertime, and then of course continuing my work at the Conservatory.
Wow. Do you ever get a vacation?
(Laughs). I don’t know if I’m ready for a vacation, my vacation is sort of just stopping. You know… stopping.
Clearing your head out a little bit.
Yeah, yeah, just kind of stopping all the action.
Hopefully you’ll get a chance to do that at some point.
Yeah, but you know the good news is that everything I’m doing is very enjoyable and it really keeps me going in a good way. It is intense, but I enjoy it because once I get where I’m going, it’s good stuff