View from the Bottom with Rick Suchow: Chatting with Jimmy Haslip

Meet Rick Suchow –

Greetings, fellow bass musicians, and welcome to this first installment of ‘View From The Bottom’. It’s an honor to be writing for this online magazine, for clearly its readership is the cream of the crop of accomplished bass players. In months to come this column will offer valuable insights from many of the bassists we all listen to and respect, whose records we buy and shows we attend. I’ll be spotlighting new and noteworthy albums as well and try to get the artists who release them to offer their own viewpoints and background information regarding those recordings. Most importantly, I look forward to hearing from you, the readers of Bass Musician Magazine, and plan to print your unique insights, tips and comments in addition to those of our higher profile bass heroes.

Recently, before joining BMM as a staff writer, I had the opportunity to interview bassist Jimmy Haslip at length for another bass publication where I’ve been writing for the last two years. The magazine is UK based, and not widely read on these shores, so I thought I’d share a few excerpts from that interview with you here. Of course I’m mindful of the fact that BMM editor Jake Kot already did a fabulous in depth cover story with Haslip in August of 2008 (the text of which is available in the Archive section of this site), so I’ll avoid redundancy and leave out the areas covered by Jake. I think you’ll find the following answers from Jimmy both informative and at times fascinating.

Those of us familiar with the Yellowjackets know of Haslip’s great facility on the fretless bass, and how much that element contributed to the Jackets’ sound for many years. I asked him if the fretless was still in his arsenal. “Not as much as it used to be,” Jimmy responded, surprising me with the reason for his answer. “I played fretless exclusively between ‘88 and ‘98, and then I just kind of hit a wall. A lot of changes were happening at that time; our drummer William Kennedy left the band, we lost our management and booking agent, and our record deal with Warner Bros went out the window. I kind of felt that I was up against the wall and not really creatively motivated, so I decided to go back to playing fretted to see if that would kind of shake the tree a little bit. And it did, it made me think about what I was doing in a different way. I was really getting into chord studies on the bass, and that opened things up for me too, because whereas playing chords on a fretless is really challenging, a fretted instrument is a lot more forgiving. I just took the fretted in and felt like it was taking me to another place. It’s like when you listen to a record for the first time and get the vibe of what the record is and get excited about it, and then that wears off after listening to it maybe a thousand times, and then you don’t listen to it for a long time. You come back three or four years later and you listen to that same record and have a whole new way of listening to it, you know. And that’s what happened with me and the fretted bass, I kind of re-fell in love with playing fretted and I feel like I’ve got a lot more to go with that. I’m still feeling like there’s more to pull out of the instrument.”

Any serious discussion about fretless bass invariably brings up the subject of the great Jaco Pastorius, and I was eager to ask Jimmy about the circumstances that led to his friendship with Jaco back in the seventies. “It was 1975 and I was rehearsing with a band that was being managed by Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, who also managed Weather Report,” Haslip recalled. “They hooked up a bunch of rehearsal dates for us at this private rehearsal facility in Hollywood that belonged to Frank Zappa. There were two rooms, we were in the small room, and in the large room was Weather Report, who were rehearsing for a tour. I peaked in a bunch of times and saw that there was a new bass player– I was expecting to see Alphonso Johnson– and I was just flabbergasted at how good he sounded. Of course it was Jaco. I had to meet him so I waited around until they came out of the rehearsal hall and told Jaco I was playing in the room next door, and that I had heard him play and he sounded absolutely amazing. He was very cool about that and said, ‘you wanna hear something?’ He put headphones on me and proceeded to play his cassette of ‘Donna Lee‘, which had not been released yet. It blew my mind. He asked me if I was hungry so we grabbed a bite to eat and ended up hanging out until about 8 o’clock in the morning, just jamming and talking about music. We talked about Bach and Charlie Parker, bebop, ethnic music, Cuban music, and he played me more of his record. I just couldn’t believe it, I was totally blown away. My place was only two blocks from the hotel he was staying in, so for the next ten days or so and I hung with Jaco that whole time he was in LA. I probably got an infinite amount of energy and knowledge just hanging around the guy. Then we both went out on tour, I was playing with Flora Purim and Airto at the time, and I just kept running into him on the road. We were doing a lot of festival dates with Weather Report, so I got to see him a whole bunch that entire year. Over the coming years we stayed in touch here and there, but I started slowly noticing a difference in his personality, and then the stories started floating around.”

I asked Jimmy to pick one thing he could pass on that Jaco taught him. “I remember trying to learn this one little thing he was showing me and I couldn’t quite get it. Jaco said, ‘Well just sing it‘. So I sang what he played and he said, ‘Good, if you can sing it then you can play it.’ That made a lot of sense. And since then that’s how I’ve learned a lot of things when I’m having a little problem with something phrasing-wise or whatever, I just try to sing it first. Once you’ve got that then you can kind of sing along and try to emulate that on the instrument. Jaco also taught me about trying to play things like a horn player, with that kind of expression and feeling, that sense of melody.” With that in mind, I asked Jimmy what his typical practice session consisted of. “Over the past ten years I’ve been really obsessed with improvisation and being able to come up with motifs or patterns at the drop of a dime. I sit around and practice stuff like that all the time, just playing patterns or riffs off the top of my head, or thinking of some progression and learning by ear what the chords are, and improvising over those chords. Whenever I do master classes or seminars, one thing I always talk about is practicing as much as you can on your own to just come up with melodic motifs from scratch. The more you prepare, the more it builds confidence in you as a person and a player, as well as your ability to contribute to whatever the situation is.”

Having played with many of the finest drummers on the planet, I asked Haslip his thoughts on the drummer-bassist relationship. Does he feel time differently with different drummers, or is his sense of time hard-wired, so to speak? “My sense of time is solid,” he explained, “and if I’m on my own I create my own clock and it will be very steady and strong. But when I’m working with a drummer I always feel out what the drummer’s doing, and of course every drummer is different. Some guys play on top of the beat, some guys behind, some dead center. And depending on what kind of music it is, some play with different feels than others. So I’m kind of amoebic in that sense, I’ll pick up pretty quickly on where a drummer is at feel-wise and groove-wise, and I’ll just try to lock to that. I kind of feel that drummers are more apt to just play what they play, so as a team player I’m interested in locking to wherever they are. I’m into making the foundation and groove as strong and as powerful as possible.”

I wrapped up our interview with a question I’ve posed to Will Lee and other bass players I’ve interviewed in the past. Did Jimmy have any advice to offer young bassists who want to make a career out of it? “I think a good piece of advice is to continue to practice hard and be the best player you can be, but also diversify. There’s nothing wrong with learning to do other things that involve music. It could be engineering, production, programming or even contracting. Arranging is a cool thing, if I had a minute I would go back to school and study arranging. Production work and composition are also good, that’s just another whole facet of being a musician and being involved in making music. I think that’s what a young musician needs to look at in today’s day and age, to open the door for other kinds of work. If you are that passionate about music don’t sell yourself short. Open yourself to other types of things that involve music, therefore you don’t have to just be waiting by the phone for somebody to call you to come play bass on something.”

– Rick Suchow

Rick Suchow

About Rick Suchow

Rick Suchow has been an in-demand bassist on the live New York music scene for more than three decades, logging nearly 4000 gigs in a career that has taken him from Lincoln Center to the White House. He is also a songwriter whose tunes have charted on Billboard, are included in best-selling music books, and have been recorded by a Beatle. Songs he has written (or co-written) have been released on more than 50 albums to date.

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