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SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Graham Jacobs

Meet Martin Simpson –

This month I’d like to introduce you to a Cape Town musician who manages to hold two occupations under his belt: one as an experienced bassist for more than three decades, and the other as a practicing architect. His time within the music scene has included work with prominent local and international artists. It includes a long-standing early relationship with the Cape Town folk arena, mainly as an acoustic guitarist and vocalist. Over the years, however, bass became his instrument of choice. As he says, his early exposure to everything from rock, blues, Irish, acoustic swing, a-capella vocal ensemble singing and even bluegrass music, has been invaluable in shaping him as a bass player. He is particularly fond of jazz, to which he now devotes most of his time.  Although he regards his musical base as Cape Town, South Africa, his home is the small country town of Darling, about 72km away.

How did you get started Graham?

Like most bass players, I didn’t start out playing bass. I guess you can say my musical career began when I started taking recorder lessons in Grade 1. Those years were enormously valuable in teaching me about performing in front of an audience. Recorder is not a difficult instrument to learn, so I was doing live performances by Grade 2. By Grade 8, I was playing piano and drums too. I wasn’t a particularly good drummer, though. The drum thing started purely because I happened to be a side drummer in the school marching band at that time.

A good school friend of mine (his name was also Martin, by the way) had been given a whole whack of band equipment by his parents who were reasonably well off and he was looking to start a group. We’re talking early to mid-1960’s in Stellenbosch which was still a reasonably small town and anyway, there were no such things as instructional music videos then (or video machines – or TV’s for that matter…. its hard to believe now that TV was then still forbidden in South Africa …….the apartheid authorities ironically regarded it as a device promoting moral degeneration). As a result, we school kids had to find our own way by experimenting. We just wanted to sound like the Shadows and the Ventures. No one really knew how to play any of the instruments properly, and it was assumed that because I could play the side drum (marching style), I would automatically be able to handle a full kit playing rock and roll! Well I lasted for a while only because no one knew any better. However, we soon realized that nothing sounded right without bass. The older brother of another friend volunteered to take over on drums if I would play bass. No one else wanted to, so I thought, “what the hell – I’ll give it a try”. The problem was, I didn’t have a bass guitar so I had to borrow one. The instrument that I got hold of had been homemade as part of a school woodwork project. It looked, played and sounded terrible – but it was a bass, and I was hooked.

I didn’t have an amp either at that stage, so my friend Martin built a gadget for me to practice through my parent’s radiogram in secret. I eventually blew the speakers and they never did find out that it was me. They must have thought it was all the fault of Frank Sinatra and Lawrence Welk  (laughs). At that stage, I couldn’t play guitar at all, so I had to work out all my bass lines by ear. This proved to be a good thing as it forced me to listen from an early stage. I subsequently moved on to guitar, and then a number of other instruments including mandolin and even banjo at one time. However, I found myself continually gravitating back to bass until about eighteen years ago, I realized that bass was where I was meant to be. I’ve been there ever since.

Do you come from a musical family?

Both my parents were very musical. My mom had a beautiful singing voice. She’s now over 80 and still loves to sing to little kids if she gets half the chance. Anyway, my earliest memories are of her singing to me. I must have been just over 12 months old. As a result, she says that I was singing before I could talk (I was a late talker). My dad was a drummer in a band before he married her. I only found that out years later as he never spoke about it. The sad thing is, he just stopped playing after they got married. I heard from friends of his in later years that he had actually been very good, which is a shame.

Who’s your favorite band/solo artist?

That’s a very difficult question to answer as I enjoy so many different kinds of music. However, if I have to go back to who the major influences were in my formative years on bass, I’d have to say James Jamerson and Paul McCartney. At the time I didn’t know who James Jamerson was, but every time I heard a Motown record on the radio (as I said, we had no TV then), I would be mesmerized by the bass lines. I still am – particularly when listening to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. As for Paul McCartney, I’ve always identified strongly with his melodic approach. Another bassist from that era that deserves a mention is Maurice Gibb from the Bee Gees. Now there was an underrated player. Just listen to his lines on “Gotta Get a Message to You”, for example. He could be just as inventive, yet tasteful, as McCartney. Of course, there was Jaco too – enough said! He was stupendous and such an unnecessary, pointless loss to the world of music. Like Hendrix, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, musical genius of that caliber seems irrevocably linked with tragedy. Apart from the more contemporary virtuosos like Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke, and amazing performers such as Flea, a guy who is really pushing the boundaries in upright bass these days, is Brian Bromberg.

I can go on and on, and then I won’t even have touched on the non-bass playing luminaries who have been such an important part of my ongoing musical education. I think particularly of Bach, Rachmaninoff, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Tania Maria, Tierney Sutton and our own Zolani Mahola and Amanda Strydom, to mention just a few.

Talking about great South African artistes like Zo and Amanda Strydom, what about your favourite South African bassists?

I was just going to get there. I don’t think that it’s at all surprising that we have so many good bass players here in South Africa, seeing as so much of our music is traditionally bass-driven. I think particularly of Victor Masondo, Bakithi Kumalo, Musa Manzini, Concord Nkabinde and my old bass mentor Spencer Mbadu..oh, lets not forget Alistair Andrews  and great bassist/arranger/producers like Denny Lalouette and Schalk Joubert. You’d better ask me another question if we’re not going to get stuck here……

Ok, well then tell me what amps and instruments you currently use?

I have a 2006 Warwick Thumb Limited Edition 4 string bass that I use mostly for rock and blues. It’s a beautifully made custom shop instrument with a P/J pickup configuration – very versatile. It also slaps like a monster.

For all my electric jazz gigs, I use a Brian Bromberg designed 5 string bass that I can best describe as a Jazz bass on steroids. Its made in Korea by Dean, and just shows how much the Far East is beginning to feature when it comes to quality bass instruments. It has a very crisp, clear sound, thanks to the Bartolini pickups that have replaced the original Dean’s (the Barts were intended to be installed in the American version of this bass which was ultimately never produced). This is a great instrument to solo on. Both this bass and the Warwick have been fitted with ramps.

I also have a Fender Precision fretless – well, at least nominally. Its been made up using bits and pieces of other Fenders and modded to include a jazz pickup at the bridge. It also has an epoxy-coated fingerboard so that I can use roundwounds without sawing through the neck (laughs).

My upright is a c1955 Czechoslovakian no-name carved top model with a plywood flat-back. I love it. It’s a bit beaten up but that just adds to its character. I’ve fitted it with a K&K 4-transducer bridge pickup including onboard K&K pre-amp. I use an Aphex Bass X-Citer pedal to help clean up any mid-range honkiness.  From there, it goes into a PA, which I prefer to a bass amp as it gives me a more natural sound. This system works pretty well and didn’t cost a fortune. I often get compliments about the sound when I’m using it.

My favourite strings are DR High Beams or Lo-Riders, depending on the bass I’m playing. I have to buy these over the internet as they’re not readily available in South Africa. When I can’t get them, I use Elixirs just because they keep their tone so long, although the DR coated strings also last well.

As for my amplifiers, I don’t use massive equipment like I used to in the past – I’m getting too old to lug big stuff around anymore (laughs). On the extreme tiny side, I have one of those new Roland Micro Cube amps that I not only use for practicing, but even for small gigs. It’s truly incredible. It’s relatively cheap for the quality sound it produces, and is easily plugged into a PA when necessary. For larger gigs, I use my Eden WT 550 running into Aguilar cabs.

You mention using ramps on two of your basses. Not everyone knows what these are, so could you explain why you choose to use them?

A ramp is essentially a profiled block normally shaped out of wood and usually positioned between the pickups. It provides an extended ‘table’ directly under the strings for fingerstyle playing, much like what you get when you play over the pickups. It’s not for everyone, particularly if you like digging in, but if you prefer playing lightly, like I do, it helps to even out your sound and allows you to play faster. The ramp on my Warwick is made of clear acrylic so it doesn’t spoil the look of the birdseye poplar top. Both this, and the ebony ramp on my Bromberg bass are attached with adhesive strips. I wanted to avoid screw holes. For those who want to find out more about ramps, go to Gary Willis’s website. He’s one of the pioneers and a big advocate of them. I had both of my ramps made up and installed by Foster van der Merwe of Cape Town. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the best there is in the entire Western Cape, if not further abroad. He’s a very talented acoustic guitar maker and looks after my upright as well.

Some would say that using a ramp to improve your sound and technique would be ‘cheating’. Obviously you don’t.

(Laughs). No – well at least no more than having a thinner neck would be cheating, or playing over your pickups or fretboard would be cheating. Jaco regularly played over his bridge pickup to improve his speed. So do other players like Billy Sheehan. It just comes down to what you happen to be more comfortable with.

What instruments would you play if money were no object?

I’m actually pretty happy with what I’ve got, but I wouldn’t mind trying out a Fodera to see what all the fuss is about. Jens Ritter’s incredible looking instruments also fascinate me and I understand they are just amazing to play. As far as upright is concerned, I’d love something I could fold up and take with me on an aircraft or in a small car. I hear very good things about the Volante travel bass by Maurice Du Pont. I’m told it’s better than the Yamaha SVB200, which I have tried and which would be my only other choice. Once you’ve played upright, stick basses and other EUB’s including the NS series are, quite honestly, poor seconds if you’re looking for that classic acoustic sound in a portable package. If you’re just looking for something that expands the electric fretless sound – well then fine, but don’t expect EUB’s to sound like an acoustic upright.

What do you think of bass guitars that have six or more strings?

I have messed around with 6 string basses but nothing larger. I can see 6 strings being great for playing chords – they certainly expand one’s horizons in this respect. You also get all those extra high notes for soloing. So yes, why not? The only problem I have is that I have small hands, which makes me less comfortable on wider fretboards, I think I would prefer a 5 string strung E A D G C with a Hipshot drop D tuner, rather than a 6 string if it came to choosing.

What have you been doing the last 5 years or so?

Life has been really hectic, particularly having to keep an architectural practice running at the same time. At one stage, I was touring a fair amount, which meant having to juggle things carefully. Thank heavens for the internet and laptops. I’d have to remain really disciplined when it came to conflicting workloads, especially while on tour. For example, I’d often have to sit in and work while the other guys in the group were lazing at the pool (laughs). Closer to home, I’d be running the practice during the day and doing shows at night for months on end which became really exhausting, particularly when show runs included Sunday nights. Things have calmed down more, now that I’m no longer doing shows – although perversely, I do miss them. For me, music is the ultimate de-stresser. In fact, if it wasn’t for my musical career, I don’t think I’d be half as good an architect. Actually, come to think of it, there’d be a lot less violence in the world if all politicians and generals were also musicians. Maybe we’d all end up broke, but at least things would be a lot more peaceful (laughs).

Living close to Cape Town, which is the cradle of traditional fusion music in the country, I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to the music of many incredible local musicians, many of whom I’ve been fortunate to share a stage with. I’m currently participating in a number of musical projects including the West Coast Jazz Co. (referring to our local West Coast, and appropriately based in Darling), Graham Burton’s Zoot Suits and my own B Sharp Ensemble.

Have you made any recordings you could recommend people to listen to?

Ironically, nothing I’m aware of, where I play bass. I have recordings of the a-capella vocal group I used to perform in during the folk festival tours of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Also the acoustic swing/bluegrass band in which I played acoustic guitar. Dave Marx had a fair amount of our stuff on tape too, although I’m not sure what he’s done with it now. I know of at least one good recording of a show I was involved in with Zolani Mahola, otherwise known for fronting Freshly Ground. This recording has, however, never been released due to unresolved copyright issues. One of the problems associated with my dual professional existence is finding the time to record. As you know, this can be time-consuming. I just simply have to make the time to do so, as I have written quite a bit and there’s a lot of material I’d like to put down. A close friend has a home recording studio and so hopefully this will be rectified in the near future.

What’s been the low/high point in your career so far?

I’m not the sort of person to dwell on low points. We’ve all had the experience of not being paid for gigs at times, while most have had to endure a key band member storming off the stage before a crucial performance – so no point in going there. I’d much rather talk about the high points, and there have been many. In fact, most times I get on a stage or do a gig, is a high point for me. Two experiences do stand out for me though. The first was meeting John Renbourn after a show in York, UK. He had just taken delivery of a new guitar made for him by the luthier Ralph Bown of York, and I ended up spending a couple of unforgettable hours jamming with him in his dressing room. He has enormous musical energy (even greater than mine), and we would probably have gone on longer if the theatre management hadn’t wanted to close up and go to bed.  The other was backing Zolani Mahola, who had taken a break from Freshly Ground to do a show on Ella Fitzgerald – a project that she had wanted to do for a long time. I remember being so drawn into her performances night after night that I would forget that I was part of the act. (Laughs). I almost forgot my cues on a number of occasions as a result.

What is your approach to playing bass?

As a vocalist, I enjoy harmonies, and I try to bring that approach to my bass playing. I have a good ear and rely a lot on my intuition when I play. I see my lines as the harmonic foundation of the music, and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. At the same time, I’m also complementing the drummer, so it’s vital that we’re on the same page. From my own drumming experience, I tend to play on the beat, and must admit that I do find it heavier work interacting with a drummer who drags – or even worse: doesn’t keep an even tempo.

I find it interesting that when I slap, I draw on my school band experience playing the side drum, and I’m struck by how similar the structure of slap bass solo is to a marching drum solo. I do however feel that many bassists overdo the slap thing, in the same way that I have a problem with guitarists who spend too much time tapping. I think of the times spent in music stores listening to basses being tried out. The prevailing impulse seems to me be to slap it if you can – and sometimes even if you can’t. And yet, unless you’re a member of a solid funk outfit, chances are you’ll be spending most of the gig holding down simple notes. I must admit that I’ve been guilty of this too, but have found playing upright to be a powerful antidote, fortunately. Exercising restraint is therefore something I try to remain conscious of when I play. I do feel that the overriding quality that a good bass player should strive for is good taste. My benchmark here is Nathan East, probably the most tasteful bass player around today.

In my case, one of the drawbacks of having a reasonably good ear is that it tends to make one lazy. It’s only in more recent years that I’ve bothered to consciously start applying to my bass playing, the musical theory that I learned playing recorder and piano all those years before. Up until then, I was useless at sight-reading musical scores for bass and I’m only gradually improving. For that improvement, I must thank Spencer Mbadu.

Anything that you particularly enjoy about gigging?

Definitely playing by the seat of my pants, as one has to do sometimes when filling in for someone else. I also love working with different musicians – the greater the variety, the better. This is when one learns the most. Undoubtedly.

What ‘goes on in your head’ when you are playing?

It’s not only what goes on in my head when I’m playing – it’s also what goes on in my head when I listen to music, wherever it comes from. I drive my wife crazy humming baselines to TV and radio commercials and I won’t even be aware of what I’m doing until she tells me to shut up (laughs). I’ve never been one of those people who can tune out when there’s music playing somewhere. All music has a message – even elevator music. I don’t necessarily have to like it to learn from it. As for what happens in my head when I play, it’s hard to say. All I know is that when it all comes together, I lose awareness of actually playing the instrument. It’s almost as if I become an observer…… probably the nearest thing I’ll ever get to an out-of-body-experience (laughs). When this happens, I become acutely aware of myself and the rest of the band through the speakers. It all becomes an uninterrupted flow of mutual consciousness. It’s a very special feeling when one gets there.

Apart from architecture, do you have any other interests outside of the musical arena?

I love art, particularly painting and sculpture. If I could find the time, I’d love to paint. I draw quite well. I also love watching cricket, rugby, F1 and, since the World Cup in South Africa, football. I’d also like to find the time to read more – particularly biographies.

What music are you currently listening to?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Brian Bromberg’s stuff that’s not smooth jazz. I think particularly of his excellent Wood and Wood2 albums of a few years ago. He’s really pushing the envelope with upright bass. He’s also done a good album with Gonzalo Rubalcalba, which I listen to quite often. In fact, I’m really into hot piano trio stuff, particularly when the rhythm section holds it down well. Michel Camilo’s ‘Live at the Blue Note’ is one of my great favourites for this very reason. I also end up listening to a lot of my teenage daughter and son’s CD’s in the car while taking them to school. It’s a 50km trip one way so that’s always quite an education. Fortunately, they’re good at discriminating between the trash and good stuff aimed at their generation. I like Avenged Sevenfold. I’m also impressed with Slipknot and the Muse. Great vocal harmonies.

What are your goals now?

To continue to develop my skills and become the best musician I can be. I also need to get that recording done. I have a lot of material that I’d like to capture before I become old and arthritic (laughs).

What advice would you give to other bass players, particularly those starting out?

Expose yourself to as much music, and as many musicians as possible. Learn to play at least one other instrument if you don’t already. Consider guitar and/or keyboards in particular. Understanding these instruments will help you develop your sense of harmony.  Make sure you can play in time. Use a metronome to practice, if necessary. Learn as much about other instruments as you can, and understand what makes them work the way they do. That will better enable you to provide them with the support they need. For example, while pentatonic scales naturally underpin much of what’s played on guitar and bass because of their layout and tuning, this isn’t the case with, say, a wind instrument such as a saxophone. Understand the pivotal place you occupy between the rhythm and the harmony. It’s a unique role in the band, and carries a great responsibility. If you can sing, practice singing while you play. Bassists who can vocal are in demand – I’ve landed a number of important gigs over more capable bass players simply because I could sing and they didn’t. Make sure you get on with the drummer – not just on the stage but also on a personal level. If you don’t click, nothing else in the band will.

Most of all just get out there and enjoy yourself!

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