We are bass players living in the Internet age. Information comes to us from everywhere, a click away, in an instant. We all travel the same musical frequency, ask the same questions, but suddenly the amount of access we have to potential answers is staggering, especially in contrast to life back in the day when there was only one or two monthly print magazines dedicated to our instrument. This little low-end world we inhabit hasn’t been little for quite a while, and in fact seems to be booming exponentially. Anything you want to know, you can search for. That’s the upside.
Of course, there’s a downside: it seems like everyone is out there teaching us how to play. There is no shortage of folks offering to educate, advise and instruct, regardless of their qualifications. They can do this because in the Internet world, if you call yourself an educator, you get the free veil of authority that comes with having a forum. So what’s a knowledge-seeking bass player to do? The short answer: seek out those you know, those who inspire you, those who have proven themselves to be worthy of your time.
When it comes to jazz bass, few are more known, more inspiring and more worthy than John Patitucci. Since exploding onto the scene in 1985 with Chick Corea, John has pushed the bass envelope a little further than most everybody else, on both electric and acoustic, and on both the performance and educational fronts. He is the bassist’s bassist, lending his talent to a long list of stellar artists that includes George Benson, Randy and Michael Brecker, B.B. King, Natalie Cole, Dizzy Gillespie, Sting, Herbie Hancock and many others. He’s a two-time Grammy-winner (nominated 15 times) who has released 12 well-received solo albums, and has been a member of Wayne Shorter’s group since 2000.
In addition to his phenomenal playing and recording achievements, Patitucci has been at the forefront of bass education for years. He’s taught numerous seminars at prestigious music schools worldwide, been involved with The Thelonius Monk Institute Of Jazz and the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program, and was the Artistic Director of the Bass Collective– a comprehensive school for bassists in New York City which was the first of its kind. In 2002, he began teaching at The City College of New York and was appointed to Associate Professor of Jazz Studies three short years later. This year he joined the Berklee College of Music as Artist in Residence.
All of this makes even more remarkable John’s recent decision to hook up with the forward-looking company Artist Works and create a platform that allows him to offer affordable lessons to any bassist on the planet with Internet access. Which begs the question: If you have the opportunity to study jazz with John Patitucci, why in the world would you ever want or need to go elsewhere? I caught up with John earlier this year to discuss this latest eye-opening development in his long history of connecting with bass students, and spoke with him on a bunch of other topics as well. This is the first of a two-part series; be sure to read next month’s January issue of Bass Musician for Part 2 of my interview with this gifted giant of bass.
I’m excited about this new interactive online bass school that you’re involved in. What’s the basic concept?
Well, it’s not something that I came up with, I was approached by a company called Artist Works, out of Napa, California, started by David and Patricia Butler. David was somebody very high up in AOL at the beginning, and he did extremely well there. But he was also an amateur jazz guitarist, and at the time he was interested in studying with someone on the east coast, and because he was not on the east coast it was hard for him. So he was trying to figure out a way for people to study with those who they really desired to study with, and who they looked up to in terms of methodology and everything, even if they weren’t in the same geographical area. And he also did a lot of research into the way people learn, how they thought about it, and it’s really brilliant what they came up with.
As far as the concept, the first thing that has to happen is that the teacher has to put in a colossal amount of work, and put online an entire curriculum that can be streamed 24/7. So that’s what I did, I basically gave birth [laughs]. It’s a jazz curriculum, the one that I did, and it starts from beginning acoustic bass — you know, like, here’s the bass, these are the strings, this is how you stand, and then from that, all the way through beginning, intermediate, and advanced.
So it’s a series of videos that you did?
Yeah, like little tutorials, and they’re all bite-sized so that they deal with things very systematically and very succinctly– but clearly, and then people can digest it at their own pace.
What’s the interactive part?
Well, here’s the deal. The person looks at all the content online, the whole curriculum’s up there. So they start, and at various strategic points in the curriculum I call for a video from them. It will say if you’d like to, if you’ve been working on this material, now might be a good time for you to send me a video so I can see how you’re doing. And then they send in videos, and I give short responses, maybe 5 to 10 minutes. Now, each response is then put up on the site, so people can learn from everybody’s questions, and if people keep asking the same sorts of questions– which is invariable– then I can refer them to other videos. I dealt with this question with so and so on this date, so refer to that, and then if you’re still having problems, send me another video and I’ll try to help you.
So it’s pretty well thought out, and this whole idea of the “video exchange”, as they call them, between the teacher and the student… all those video exchanges get posted on the site, so anybody who subscribes and pays the yearly fee can look at any exchanges. They can find answers to all kinds of questions, coming from different angles– because everybody sort of learns differently, and people have different struggles, as we all do with the instrument. And it’s very inexpensive when you figure it out over a year, it’s like a fraction of what it would cost to study with me privately, you know? I think what you pay for a year gets you maybe a couple of lessons if you came to my house. [laughs]
It sounds really cool.
Yeah, it’s pretty cool, and it’s pretty cost effective for everybody I think.
When did you put all this together?
I did the curriculum a while ago, the end of last summer maybe, but then they were also filming a pop/electric bass curriculum with Nathan East, and wanted to have both of those curriculums up to launch the bass academy. So I had to wait, and then Nathan did his whole thing, and now he’s done. So the Bass Campus now consists of myself, Nathan East, and a girl named Missy Raines who did the bluegrass curriculum. Her stuff was already up, she was the first one they signed I guess.
But there’s all kinds of other instruments too, like Luis Conte just signed a phenomenal conga academy. So each instrument has its own academy, and each person has their own little school. And then the guys that log onto your site have an opportunity to communicate with each other, so that they can create their own community as well.
What also will happen from time to time is that I’ll send little messages from the road, or interview people, and put it up on the site. I already recorded some really nice footage playing with Brian Blade on drums and Jon Cowherd on piano, some trio-recorded videos, that are all going to be sprinkled in there.
It seems like a lot of work on your part.
I did a lot of work, man. I went out there and it was like, you know, a week solid of filming. And a lot of pre-production before that. In fact today I’m getting a tutorial with the tech guy there, I’m gonna set up my little video room downstairs. I have a little studio in the basement, and I’m gonna set up my little backdrop, play on all the equipment and get ready for the technical part about all this. Which is yet another time issue, because I’ve gotta kind of get up to speed and learn all the equipment.
Being a bass educator has obviously been a big part of your life, including your work at The Bass Collective and at City College.
Yeah, and I just stopped after ten years, I’m leaving City College because (pianist) Danilo Perez has stolen me to be an Artist in Residence at Berklee. So I’m doing that.
You had taken over for Ron Carter back at City College?
Well, I sort of came in after him as the bass teacher. I didn’t take over all his duties because he was the head of the grad department. I was part of the grad department, but I’m not a person who relishes administrative duties.
I’m sure. Where does your passion for teaching come from?
You know, I guess God put it in me. When I was a teenager in high school, I was teaching electric bass lessons out of my house. My mother used to laugh, because I was 15 or something, and guys in their 20′s were coming to take lessons, so it was kind of strange. My brother was my first teacher, and I had a mentor in Chris Taylor, who lives in Northern California, and we’re still really close. He’s a great musician, he’s always been in my life to be a mentor and a help. So right off the bat I had a couple of great teachers and mentors. And then as I grew and got to play with different people, the older masters also passed on a lot of stuff. So I guess because they were so generous with me, I felt like I should be sharing all that as well.
So you do come from a musical family?
Well, only starting with our generation, my brother’s generation. Before that there were people who were talented, but no one ever did anything as a career with music at all. My mom and dad sang, they had good ears, but they didn’t really study music or anything like that.
When it comes to teaching, what are some of the concepts you like to stress to your students?
Well, the more I’ve taught– and I’ve taught now to different age levels and at the university level– I would say that, if you had to break it down to two elements, probably rhythm and sound are the two most primary things that have to happen. Your rhythmic concepts, your control of rhythm on your instrument, and your ability to communicate rhythm, because rhythm is what most people respond to in music. They don’t necessarily understand all the inner workings of harmony and melody, and all the theoretical aspects of it, but they do feel rhythm. And that’s how you communicate with other musicians around you and also the audience. That and sound. Sound means a lot of things, not just pitch, but sound in terms of the quality of your sound, the fullness of your sound, your touch, your ability to play with dynamic range, different sounds and colors on your instrument.
Those are huge things. Those two are primary things, because let’s just say that you didn’t have those two things, but you knew a lot about theory and you can wiggle your fingers quick and all that, but you didn’t really have good rhythm and you didn’t have a great sound. It really wouldn’t have any impact, compared to if you did, you know what I mean?
Right, of course.
So rhythm for a bass player is huge. It’s a big job we have, we’re in the rhythm section. The drums and the bass have the ability to change the music for the better rhythmically, and anchor it, and provide a foundation, and also inspire change and be catalysts for a lot of creativity in the music as well.
So those two elements are at the heart of my approach. And then also, you know, the normal technical things. If you’re going to play the bass you have to work on feeling comfortable really knowing the entire neck, and the traditional methods of learning your scales and arpeggios still apply. I try to make it interesting for my students.
When you’re teaching students about soloing, what are some of the most common mistakes you see bass players making?
Well, a lot of times people think it’s all about licks and stuff like that. They don’t have any ears to hear the harmony yet, and really, improvising is all about ear training. You can’t play what you don’t hear, and you don’t really know harmony until you can hear it deeply within and know the sounds, and know how to react to and play off of the sounds without having to get stuck. Your ear has to be strong, otherwise you’ll be a strictly theoretical improviser, and that really never moves anybody. If you know all the right scales, and you know what goes with what, but you can’t hear it– it’s a big difference in the way you’ll sound.
If you can hear the sounds and react to them, like colors, and get a sort of visceral feeling response from the sounds, then you’ll be making melodies and statements quicker than if you just know the cerebral, theoretical information, because that’s not enough. And actually, if someone has ears and can hear the stuff and react, they’re gonna be much farther along than the person who knows the theory but doesn’t have the ears. I’d rather the person have really good ears and be able to hear the stuff, you know? That’s much more important to me than whether they actually know the names of what they’re playing. Because I’ve had students that know the names of everything, and they sound terrible because they don’t have good ears. That’s putting it bluntly, I’m sorry for being blunt.
And that applies to all of us, it applies to me too. If I just know cerebrally the theory behind a certain sound, but I’m not really hearing it, then what I play is going to be less informed and be more like a textbook than actual melodies.
You’ve been playing with Wayne Shorter for quite some time now.
Yes, and he is the embodiment and the essence of what I just said. He has all of it, he’s a genius– he can hear anything and access anything. And he actually knows very well what’s happening theoretically. [laughs]
In what ways has he influenced your concept of improvisation?
Well, the thing that’s so great about him is that he’s always been inspiring and very encouraging in terms of really exploring group improvisation, and using a compositional approach to group playing. So there’s a lot of trust and vulnerability, and a lot of chances taken, you know? It’s very fulfilling.
Your last album Remembrance had a unique trio configuration, just you with Joe Lovano (sax) and Brian Blade (drums). That must have been quite liberating for you as a bassist, to not have a chordal instrument on your album.
Playing with those guys is a dream come true. They’re such amazing creative individuals, it was an honor and a pleasure. And historically that’s a very interesting configuration, you have the Sonny Rollins records like Freedom Suite with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach and Way Out West with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne. You’ve got Joe Henderson’s State Of The Tenor records with Al Foster and Ron Carter. So there’s a lot of historical documentation on the freedom and the freshness of that sound. And that inspired me a lot, as well as from just playing over the years in situations with larger groups where it would break down to a trio, where the pianist would lay out and it would just be saxophone, bass and drums.
In Wayne’s group it happens that way sometimes, in fact sometimes it’s just Wayne and I. So there’s an openness harmonically in that sound, where the bass can dictate the harmony. Or the saxophone can go other places without worry that the pianist won’t be able to follow, and be able to try a bunch of different things without the chords sounding. They’re going to create the harmony from the linear exploration that they’re doing, you know, the melodies and the lines that they play will spell the harmony without block chords having to be sounded. For the bass, its a lot of room contrapuntally and harmonically. You can fool around and do a lot of stuff rhythmically, harmonically and melodically. You can play lines against a solo, you can play more foundationally, you can do a lot of different things.
I always assume that the great upright players start out on upright, but you started on electric. Who are your early electric bass influences?
James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Willie Weeks, Paul McCartney. Guys like John Entwistle also. I was being influenced by all the R&B and Motown records that were being made, and even the British rock records like the Beatles, the Who and the Stones, and all that sort of stuff. And Jimi Hendrix too. Being born in ’59, the sixties were an interesting time when I was coming up, as a young person hearing a lot of incredible music on the radio. But the Motown music and the soulful bass playing definitely made me want to play bass.
And then after that I heard Ron Carter and Ray Brown. I heard many people, but Ron and Ray were the two primary, foundational guys for me. I heard the guys around in the 70′s who were very active, such as Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland and Charlie Haden. I heard people like Sam Jones and Percy Heath on recordings, Niels Orsted Pederson, Rufus Reid, you know, different people. And then down the road, of course, I heard Pettiford. I was listening to so many records, and buying so many records.
And you soaked it all in.
Yeah, I basically tried to soak as much as I could. As I got older I really got into Pettiford, he was unbelievable. And also Paul Chambers, I have to mention him.
You have a Pro Tools setup at home for recording on other people’s projects. It would seem that you could stay as busy as you want with your own performances and your own projects. What’s your motivation for the outside work?
Being home sometimes! [laughs] And having people come to you with their music, instead of you always bouncing around. So I have the Pro Tools studio in the basement, and I have lots of good engineer friends. So, for example, if somebody sends me a project from Europe and they can’t get here, it’s too expensive for them to fly here and book a studio in New York, and a hotel and all that, it makes it easier for me to put some bass on their project. Of course, it has to be the kind of project where that would work, you know. But in the times that we live in, people do it that way. I have to confess, I still come from a time where I really love getting in a room with four other people and just tracking, making music live. That’s my preferred mode. [laughs]
Right, the Pro Tools setup could turn out to be a little sterile.
Well it can be wonderful too, you know, you can still put in a lot of yourself and all your emotion onto the parts that you play. The major difference obviously is the interaction in the moment. I can interact with the music that people send me, but they can’t interact back. I can play off of what they did, and I’m used to doing that, but they won’t have the opportunity to respond in the moment. I mean, they can respond if they overdub some stuff after I do my stuff. But for some projects it works fine that way. It’s about a different kind of production aesthetic, or whatever, a different kind of music they’re doing… then it’s fine. Of course for a strictly jazz project, I like to be with people.
So people will send you a file of their project, or something.
Yeah, they’ll say can you put bass on this. And it goes in waves, sometimes you get some response and sometimes it will be a while before you hear from people. I live in New York so I still get called to play live, I go and work on people’s records when they come to town.
I’m sure you’re getting called constantly for that.
Well, I wish more even. When I was younger the studio scene was more vibrant on both coasts. Now there’s not as much density in the work that there used to be. But I’m still pretty active, so I can’t complain.
Would you say there are any shortcuts when it comes to improving sight reading?
The best shortcut I know of, and the one that’s maybe most difficult for people to discipline themselves to do, is to do it every day. Every single day you’ve got to practice your sight reading if you want to get better fast. And one of the big rules is that you’re not allowed to stop. So do it every day, at least for a half-hour, and set the metronome at a speed where you can get through the whole thing without screwing up. If that has to be really slow, let it be, you know what I mean? Because the whole idea is for you to practice the skill of focusing, and making it from top to bottom without a mistake.
And not stopping and correcting your mistakes?
You learn how to keep going. You see, that’s a big skill. Sometimes that was really hard for me, if I made a mistake I would want to stop. But If you’re playing with other people you can’t just stop every time you make a mistake, they expect you to keep going.
Are there any particular books that you would recommend for improving sight reading?
Well, I have a book titled 60 Melodic Etudes, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. That could be a help. In that book there’s a lot to deal with technically and melodically, so I didn’t make the rhythms too hard. There’s a lot of eight notes and quarter notes, but not a bunch of syncopation in that book. But all the syncopated stuff you can get online nowadays, there are a millions places where you can get your chops up on sight reading. What I used to do when I was a kid was to practice out of drum books for rhythmic variations. I would just play one note and practice all these different rhythms. When I was coming up one of the books that was popular was Louie Bellson’s Modern Reading Text. But there are others as well.
(PLEASE NOTE: The third and final part of this interview was not published due to time constraints, however I will add it to this page very shortly. Thank you for your patience. - Rick)