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Bass and the Creative Mindset: A Conversation with Ray Peterson

From Editor Jake Kot…
Bassist Ray Peterson is the author of the Jaco Pastorius Bass Method. He studied privately with Jaco, and now resides in New York sustaining a busy career. Here is an interview conducted by bassist Barbara Wiesenberg featuring Ray’s thoughts as far as creativity on the bass is concerned.

By Ray Peterson and Barbara Wiesenberg

In March of 2010, with the approval of the Pastorius estate, Hal Leonard Corporation published Ray Peterson’s book / CD package: Jaco Pastorius Bass Method: Lessons, Tips, and Techniques from His Private Teaching Archives, By Ray Peterson, ISBN: 978-0634020315, a bass instructional book containing a CD of all the included musical examples, based on the teaching methods and recorded work of the great Jaco Pastorius. Ray grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and during this time, he began private studies with Jaco Pastorius. Ray subsequently relocated to New York, where he landed the bass spot and recorded with legendary saxophonist Eddie Harris. Ray has performed with Les McCann, Blood Sweat and Tears, steel drum master Othello Molineaux, Paul Butterfield, Israeli rock legend Shalom Hanoch, Mike and Leni Stern, The Funky Tenor All-Stars, featuring Eddie Harris, Pee Wee Ellis, Karl Denson, and Larry Goldings.

“I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed.” Igor Stravinsky

“A vivid intuitive imagination, for new ideas are not generated by deduction, but by artistically creative imagination.” Max Planck (Father of Quantum Theory)

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How would you define “creativity?” Is it safe to define creativity simply as “the ability to create?”

I’m not sure that artists really “create” in the strict sense of the word. I think “discovery” or “manifestation” might be more apt terms. This is particularly true, I find, in composition. I usually feel that a piece I’ve composed already existed, and that it has simply revealed itself to me. I see creativity as bringing into physical form that which was previously unmanifested or latent.

So, you’re saying “discovery” is a key part of the creative process. How would you describe the mechanism of discovery throughout aspects of creating music, such as composing, practicing, transcribing, and performing?

It’s more like the story about a sculptor visualizing a finished statue in a lump of clay, and then chiseling away any clay that isn’t that statue. The work of art is already there, you just have to “receive” or “perceive” it, as it were. The creative process, then, becomes more a matter of receptivity or perception, of tuning into a flow of creative energy as opposed to an imposition of one’s ego onto the material. In this sense, the artist becomes an active participant in the process, rather than a dictator of the outcome. Instead of forcing a solution, I find that it’s really important to listen with the inner ear for that solution.

What are your thoughts about creativity as a concept? Is it something you’re born with, or is it something you have to cultivate and develop?

I try not to think about it too much. I feel creativity is a combination of genetic talent (the “gift” aspect) and acquired skill and knowledge. Both in composition and improvisation, I generally feel as if the best ideas simply made themselves available to me through some unknown process of communication. It seems to me that these ideas already existed somewhere in the universe, and that I was simply fortunate enough to stumble upon them. On the other hand, although perhaps with less inspired-sounding results, sheer craft and skill can also yield creative results. Even in the latter case, I think some degree of intuitive inspiration still comes into play. Either “pure” talent or technical skill can lead to creation, but the combination of the two yields the best results. Each enhances the further development of the other.

Most musicians are aware of their strengths and weaknesses. What suggestions would you have for bassists seeking to balance their skill-sets while at the same time maintaining artistic freedom and integrity?

Confront your weaknesses when practicing. Work on the things you’re not good at which need improvement. Practice playing melodies. Drill yourself while practicing, but play from the heart and inner ear in performance. The more you develop your technique, the more you’ll be free to do just that. Don’t be afraid to experiment, or to make your voice heard, but remember to focus on your role as the bass player in the band. Lock in with the drummer, define the groove and the rhythmic momentum, keep time, support the soloist, and be aware of how your part helps define the harmony. What’s going on around you should help to determine your approach. Always be aware of the musical context of the present moment.

How do you establish the “creative mindset”? Do you employ specific methods and techniques, and if so, what are they?

I find that anything that taps into the subconscious, expands the mind beyond the confines of self, or stimulates either the senses or the emotions into a heightened state can activate the creative mindset. Activities like prayer, meditation, communion with nature and even simple physical exercise are tried and true methods of facilitating a creative state of mind. In live performance, the energy from the audience can help activate creative intensity. However, one must acknowledge other types of stimulation as being, in some cases, effective means of attaining an altered state of awareness conducive to creativity. I leave it to the imagination and discretion of the gentle reader to decide both what those methods might be and whether or not any of them would be appropriate to his or her own creative endeavors. Breaking with mundane consciousness is the key. The method one employs is a matter of personal choice. I’ve been inspired by simply reading a book or watching a movie. I suppose you could say it’s a matter of heightened emotion triggering increased receptivity to incoming creative ideas.

What’s your feeling on the spiritual aspects of creativity-in-process?

I think that it’s ultimately about channeling the divine in order to achieve the liberation of the spirit from its servitude to the day-to-day grind. The creative process can perhaps be viewed as one of co-creation with the universal creator. Therefore, as an artist, the more energy I put into fostering that state of spirit, the more I am able to enter into the act of co-creation.

What are your thoughts about creativity as a habit?

The more you do it, the more habitual it becomes. The more habitually you create, the more you can develop your own creative process. The more time you spend “in the zone,” the more natural it becomes to enter therein. I think of creativity as having two “poles,” as it were. As Stravinksy said about his masterpiece, The Rite of Spring, “I had only my ear to help me. I heard and I wrote what I heard. I am the vessel through which The Rite of Spring passed.” This quote supports what I was saying earlier about receiving inspiration and has really helped shape my own creative approach to playing and composing. However, learning to set limits also comes into play. As Stravinsky also pointed out in his Poetics of Music:

“I shall go even farther: My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

To my mind, this can take the form of study and discipline, or of asking oneself at the point of inspiration, “Where is this idea leading me, and where do I want to end up? Is this a ballad, an uptempo “burner,” or something else?” Sometimes setting up a rhythmic groove first can lead to a melodic idea that will fit over it. Having a general target like this can help to define the piece and give it organic unity, as opposed to waiting for the next lightning bolt to strike. Also, when you get down to the point of considerations like chord choices, good voice leading, rhythmic clarity, and so forth, the more rational, formal aspects of training come into play.

In short, I see artistic creation as a combination of the inspired (Dionysian) aspect of creative play and the disciplined, ordered (Apollonian) aspect of creative work. Finding that balance can be challenging, to say the least, but it also yields the greatest rewards.

Are there “good” habits of creativity in playing bass? What are some pitfalls or mistakes one can acquire as habits that can inhibit imaginative and inventive flow?

Yes, a most important good habit is to relax when you play. There are plenty of bad habits that can inhibit the creative flow: overindulgence in alcohol and drugs, being physically unfit, lack of concentration, not practicing, and putting one’s talent into the service of earning a paycheck on gigs one probably should not be wasting one’s time on, to name a few.

How would you define and describe music that is devoid of imagination, if such an entity exists?

I think even bad music shows some kind of imagination, with the exception of totally sampled music. I may be old-fashioned here, but write your own stuff, for crying out loud. At least play a cover version yourself.

In approaching the bass as an instrument, what makes the bass unique vis-à-vis achieving an ingenious approach and attack?

One of the things that sets the instrument apart, notwithstanding the dreaded keyboard player who plays the bass notes with his left hand, is that the bass player has the low end covered. This means that the bassist has to have the sensitivity and ears to know what lows need to be played as well as what needs to be left out, while simultaneously defining the rhythmic pulse along with the drummer. One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever gotten was from a fan of one of the bands I played in who told me, “You’re the glue that holds it all together.” That pretty much expresses how I feel about the role of the bass player.

So, you’re saying a good bass player has to be intuitive.

Even in situations that call for playing note-for-note parts that are dictated by the composer/arranger, every musician has to be intuitive. In a lot of reading situations, I’ve often felt a sense of what will come next, before my eyes get to the next bar or phrase. Then there is the ongoing monitoring of a given performance: “The drummer is plodding a little tonight. How do I adapt?” You can’t always rely on a set textbook answer to these types of situations. You generally have to feel your way through them.

What else would you say about active creativity, or creativity in operation?

Musical relevance is a very important factor in this. What you are creating should be meaningful in the ongoing musical context. How often do we hear a soloist play the same phrasing over a straight-ahead jazz groove and a funk groove? They’re different feels, different traditions. Why play the same rhythms in phrasing the solo? Audiences really respond to unity coming off the stage. All the elements should gel into a perceptible whole. This starts with the awareness and focus of the musicians.

What examples of bass pieces would you cite across the genres of classical, jazz rock, metal and funk bass that you think exemplify the creative thought process in practice on the instrument? What is it you see in these choices that impacted you, personally, in your own discovery and practice of creativity in your craft?

Jaco’s work on his debut record and Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, especially “Continuum” and “Havona.” Just about anything from the Bill Evans Trio’s Village Vanguard Recordings, with Scott LaFaro on bass. Marcus Miller’s The Sun Don’t Lie. Paul Chamber’s work with Miles Davis. Jack Bruce on Cream’s Wheels of Fire and his classic solo album Songs for a Tailor, Cliff Burton on Metallica’s Master of Puppets, Steve Harris’ work with Iron Maiden, Lucky Scott on Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, Bernard Odum on numerous James Brown recordings, and Duck Dunn on many, many Stax recordings. These great bass players bring a sense of composition to their playing. Some are more up front, some are more supportive, but all of them know how to create memorable lines, asserting their own personality while bringing out the best in the composition being played.

Name the composer(s) you feel personify mastery of form, function and feel. What do you draw from this person that you find indispensable in your own practice as an artist?

It’s hard to pick one, but the two that always really hit home for me are Bach and Stravinsky. They both get to the point. I always feel like I know “where we are” in their works, and they never get cute or waste musical time. Everything seems to have a meaning. In the jazz realm, Wayne Shorter is the composer, in my opinion. His sense of harmony and texture and the way he uses melodic ideas to paint a picture are awesome. I’ve been greatly influenced by his approach to re-harmonizing a motif.

Describe “reharmonizng a motif” as you understand it.

One example in Shorter’s music that comes to mind is the bridge section in “Fee- Fi-Fo-Fum.” The first time the melody is played in the bridge, he simply uses Eb7 for 2 bars, followed by Bb7 for 2 bars, which is sort of breather from the steady harmonic rhythm of a chord change on every other beat that is utilized in the A section. He then repeats this melodic figure, but this time he harmonizes the Db and C natural in the seventh bar of the bridge with Bbm7-Eb7 (ii-V in Ab), using this variation as a transitional return to the two-chords-to-the-bar harmonic rhythm in the last section coming up. Instead of repeating the last Ab note in the bridge melody (which he used the first time around at the end of the phrase), he ends on A natural, harmonizing it with Am7-D7 (ii-V in G), which leads back into the head. Shorter’s music is full of these subtle little twists and turns. For the listener, reharmonization of a motif creates an effect similar to looking at the same object with a different shade of background behind it, or perhaps from a different angle.

Same “mastery” question, only, which bassist?

Jaco. He once told me, “I’m not really a bassist, I’m a composer who plays bass.” It’s hard to argue with that when you analyze the compositional element of his great solos. I think he brought the mind of a serious composer to the instrument. If not for his ridiculous technique on the bass, I’d be inclined to agree with him. In my opinion, there’s a sense of compositional cohesiveness in Jaco’s work that is simply unequalled by any other bassist. He possessed a combination of brilliant musicality, originality, incredible technique and impeccable feel.

At which point do you integrate discipline, training and practice with ingenuity? Do you ever find yourself conflicted between the freedom creativity seems to demand, and the traditions of form and execution on the bass?

Personally, I have to think the opposite of discipline, training and practice when creating, at least in the initial stages. In the case of a composition, the discipline stuff tends to come into play during fine tuning, when I’m putting it into more concrete shape. In playing the bass, discipline and training are more a function of practicing. The basic ideas expressed in creative work should be subconscious, more from the heart. Conflicts arise when one loses sight of the context of the moment. This can lead to the dreaded “practicing on stage,” or playing a solo that has nothing to do with the composition being played, for example. Moment to moment awareness of one’s purpose “in the now” is the key to avoiding such conflicts.

How do you determine “when” you’re switching modes, from the practicing to the creative mindsets? For example, do you say, “Okay. I’ve practiced enough. It’s time to be creative now?”

There’s still creativity going on in practicing, it just takes a different form. All of the activities you named involve creativity, they merely require somewhat different approaches. The situation determines the mode, basically, except in the case of a deadline, where I have to write something. I generally compose on impulse, when I feel the need to create. Practice is more of a routine and habit, something that needs to be done regularly even when I’m “not feeling it.”

How would you describe creativity in action in different situations, like composing, soloing on bass and improvising? What are some similarities in the processes? How are the processes different in each case?

If you’re soloing, there is no cleanup, it’s all in the moment (except in the studio, of course). In a live situation, there is also the energy from the audience which factors in, and learning to receive and channel that energy is an art in itself. Solos in the studio are more compositional in the sense that anything you don’t like can be fixed. Not so in live performance, obviously. You’ve only got one shot, so it obviously pays to be focused in the moment. In composition, I find myself going back and forth between the receptive inspiration discussed earlier, and the more disciplined, formal process of putting the ideas into shape. I may have, for example, an idea I like for an A section, and a nice B section that has come to me through intuition, but I need to think about how I want to handle the transition from one to the other in a smooth fashion. The initial ideas may have been intuitive, but the connection between these often requires some further thought and knowledge.

Writers get “writers’ block.” Ever have “bass block, “ and if you have, can you trace its origin to an interruption of creative flow?

I think it’s one and the same thing. Lack of practice can also cause bass block. When the hands become much slower than the brain, the results are generally inferior.

What do you do to get into “the zone” when you’re doing each of the following: practicing, transcribing, composing, performing?

It’s a bit different in each instance you just named. I used to practice scales for an hour at the beginning of a practice session, mainly to loosen up the hands. These days, I tend to go straight to the Bach. That usually establishes a strong musical footing immediately. Transcribing is a combination of listening and repeating. I like to use transcription software, and playing a phrase over and over at half-speed tends to create a mental zone of its own. In composing, I‘ll sit down at the piano or bass and start experimenting, allowing whatever wants to come out, come out. It’s helpful to have a general target stylistically, but within that framework, I try to let the mind be free. Any of the activities I’ve mentioned can help get one into the creative mindset before composing. For performance, it’s a good idea to do some practicing that day, and to get some exercise so that you feel physically fit up there. It’s great to feel unimpeded by physical limitations while performing.

Do you have any final words of wisdom and advice for bass players seeking to develop and refine their creative approach to the instrument?

I recommend listening to a lot of music – not just the bass, but all the instruments. Listen for the interaction between the bass and the drums. Understanding that interaction will make you a valuable part of any rhythm section. Find music you’re passionate about, and concentrate on that. People respond to the energy coming from a performer who really loves what he’s doing. Next, take what you’ve heard and bring your own creative impulses to the table. I’ve found that a lot of improvisation or jamming helps bring this about. Play in as many situations with as many people as you can, as that spontaneous dialogue with other players tends to bring out your own ideas. Influence is inevitable, but have the courage of your own creative convictions. No one can play you like yourself.

Jaco Pastorius Bass Method: Lessons, Tips, and Techniques from His Private Teaching Archives, By Ray Peterson is available at BassBooks.com

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Jane Kostopoulos

    March 27, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    One word: AWESOME!

  2. Raul Amador

    Raul Amador

    March 28, 2011 at 12:51 am

    My favorite thing about this is that Ray was introduced to Jaco by his dentist!!
    see …dentists can be cool! 🙂

    Other than that… very thorough method… worth spending some time on!

    Well Done!

  3. Andreas Farmakalidis

    andreas farmakalidis

    April 1, 2011 at 3:10 am

    Great
    Loved the article – especially his concept on creativity.

    Very well done. – i guess i have to check that method soon.

  4. Tony Storey

    August 4, 2011 at 4:59 am

    What a fantastic article. It’s incredibly instructional. I’m off to buy the book.

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