James first caught my ear with his outstanding work with the Brecker Brothers. These recordings were a lesson in grooveology and James was at the heart of it. He also worked on Michael Breckers solo efforts, which was a natural setting for this consummate groove artist and doubler, as Michael’s tunes definitely crossed genres in a most prestigious fashion. Take the time to check out the videos I always include within the articles to confirm the strength of this particular bassists voice beyond any doubt.
The Brooklyn based Genus is one of the busiest doublers in New York, with an impressive discography to back that up covering everything from hip hop to the deepest routed jazz ensembles on the scene. If you’re not able to catch his discography, and have any doubts, you can go to Youtube and check out one of his 1030 hits with his name on it—a testament to this man’s versatility and musicality. He shines as the consummate sideman, weaving a less-is-more approach in one setting, and stepping up to the plate with ease when the focus falls on him within a harmonic structure. There are no books on how to develop this kind of musical flexibility, and as I’ve experienced in previous interviews, it’s hard for those that own that ability to explain how they got there, or how they execute it. Players on this level own a great deal of the responsibility for how good something “feels” when we hear it, and James is right at the top of that list.
As with many of the greats, this is a very humble artist that is happy as well as appreciative for the work he’s given, and most certainly has earned. You’ve probably already heard him without knowing it, but it would be to your advantage to check out some of the work he has done and experience the magnitude of his presence within an ensemble.
Jake: I’m going to step back here. It turns out you’re the second bassist I’ve interviewed that had an early relationship with the Wooten brothers, the first being Keith Horne. If you would, tell me a little about that time you spent together.
James: I was a teenager, and we were doing talent shows in the area. Actually, Victor was dancing at the time, doing break dancing as well as playing. After getting to know his brother’s a little better, we would all get together and jam all the time. We would be up all night playing, taking short naps, and then play again. We’d put a band together and played Busch gardens a lot of the time. I was actually playing in a country band at that point in time as well—we were all taking every gig we could get our hands on. It was great—we had all these musicians coming together and everybody brought something different to the table, which was a great learning experience. We would revel in all the different types of music we were exploring, and having a great time doing it. There wasn’t any type of competition going on; we were just all enjoying the moment.
Jake: You’re on a very short list of players that have the ability to double on your instruments as well as cross genres in a heartbeat. Is your ability to cover these two avenues with the expertise you do something you thought out early on, or did it just develop purely from you’re playing experience?
James: It actually developed from what you were just talking about. I never really thought about it. With all the sessions I was doing at the time I never really thought of myself as this type of bass player or that type of bass player. I love playing all kinds of music, and whatever the situation called for, I would just immerse myself in it. I know it’s probably hard for a lot of people to go that route. As you said, it’s a very short list of players that can actually pull that off. I always try to consider “how” to approach the bass in every situation. I started playing acoustic bass my sophomore year in college, and I only did that because basically they said I couldn’t get a degree unless I played it. It was rough in the beginning as I was still playing a lot of electric bass, and I had to put a lot of time into the acoustic, but I actually grew very fond of that instrument overtime. It definitely wasn’t a conscious effort as far as playing both instruments is concerned, I just fell in love with doubling and the genres that doubling opened me up to. When I first moved to New York, a lot of people didn’t even know that I played electric. I also realized after being there for a while that there was a very purist attitude about playing jazz. But that didn’t stop me from playing both instruments as much as I could.
Jake: Do you feel that there is still that type of purist attitude going on, or has that finally dissipated over time?
James: I think it has dissipated. I think people realize that it’s all about the music. You have to think about what you grew up on. A lot of people didn’t grow up on jazz, much less creating an attitude about it. We’ve all been exposed to a variety of genres over the years, so why should that experience be suppressed. I’ve always kept myself open to any musical situation, and I can see a change that has occurred as far as being labeled an “electric” player, or an “acoustic” player. I’ve learned a lot by being called for such a variety of different musical situations and it has unquestionably made me a better player overall.
Jake: You’re ability to quote unquote “groove” is at a very high level which is totally validated by your overwhelming discography, my personal favorite being your work with the Brecker Brothers. As hard as the answer to this question is to pin down, what are some of the elements that you feel helped shape your concept on how to approach creating a groove to compliment the music surrounding you at the moment?
James: It always depends on the situation. If it’s a recording date, you don’t get much time to think about it—-live is a whole other thing. I guess one way of saying it would be you should never go in to a playing situation and try to force the quote unquote groove. I approach the situation first off by making sure to establish a connection with the drummer. One thing that works for one drummer might not necessarily click with another drummer, so I’m kind of internally thinking, how will I make this connection, and if that connection is not made, it just won’t feel right. As generic as this may sound, it’s kind of a push and pull effect, and I do my best to understand where their approach is coming from, and then I try to make it feel good… to me.
Jake: Along these same lines, and this is something I’ve asked about in many of my interviews; with the extensive recording experience that you’ve had over the years, what might be your ritual, for lack of a better word, be for preparing for a recording session, or conversely, is there no ritual at all?
James: As far as sessions go, a lot of the time you don’t know what the music is going to be about. If it’s something that’s rather involved, I try to make a point to check out the music beforehand, if possible. Some of the sessions are purely about sight-reading. That becomes difficult in the sense of it being different types of music all the time, and there’s a certain amount of interpretation involved. So I kind of see it as finding “your” place in the music. It could be pop, jazz, R&B, whatever, and I try my best keep true to the genre. I know I’m making it sound kind of simple, but it’s a matter of having the ability to go beyond what’s on the paper and making it work, something I find rather difficult to put into words. It kind of goes back to something we were talking about earlier. It’s all about the music, and here comes the remarks like, oh, he’s a jazz player, or whatever. So I do my best to just be literally “the bass player”, and react accordingly to the music at hand, and approach it from my perspective of where it needs to be. I’m always trying to be conscious of the style or the genre that’s involved, and be true to it, again, from my perspective.
Jake: Repeating myself here, your discography is nothing less than overwhelming, but with all those people you’ve worked with, I wonder if you could share your thoughts on one relationship in particular, that being Michael Brecker, and how that relationship affected you musically, as well as personally?
James: He was an amazing person. I remember hearing a Pat Metheny record in 80 or 81 and going, who is that saxophone player—it just floored me. And beyond that, one of my favorite all time records was one by Don Grolnick called Hearts and Numbers. And that particular record is my favorite Michael Brecker recording of all time. He sounded amazing on that, and it had a major impact on me. I started listening to him all the time. He was an idol to me—his playing moved me so much, and I never thought I’d be able to play with him. And then, I was on the road, and I got a call from him. You know, I couldn’t believe I was talking to him on the phone. They were putting together the Brecker Brothers Reunion Tour and he told me that I was one of the bassists being considered for the tour. What can I say—-my jaw just dropped to the floor. And then we got together, and it worked out, and we had a relationship together from that point on. I was fortunate to also be able to play on his solo records as well, and got to play both acoustic and electric on those recordings as we covered quite a few genres. After listening to him, and talking to him, and playing with him, I got to see that our approach to music in general was very similar. You know, the great ones always cross over musically, like Herbie and Miles, as well as Mike—it’s just all about playing music—that’s it! That music for music’s sake philosophy was definitely my connection with him. Beyond that, Michael had a great sense of humor, and it seems there was no subject that we couldn’t talk about in depth. He was always thirsting for different types of music, and he turned me on to a lot of different styles I hadn’t been familiar with. Knowing him was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I’ll never forget him… never.
Jake: As busy as you are, I wonder what your thoughts are on how music has progressed over time, from your eyes. Said another way, did you feel yourself being more challenged as a player in the past, or are some of your more recent projects equally putting you through your paces as well?
James: I feel at this point that people are beginning to check out a lot of different genres or styles of music for sure. I guess another way of saying this would be that the underground music is not underground anymore. It seems like that kind of music that I’m labeling underground is more prevalent these days, and I guess this would represent what I would consider to be the quote unquote more challenging aspects of playing. For quite a period of time this music that I’m referring to wasn’t heard much over the airwaves. I think it was always there, and it seems as of late it has been surfacing more and more. I’m actually talking about something that we spoke of earlier, as far as when I first moved to New York, how close minded people seem to be. The world is most certainly changing around me and I want to keep myself open to those changes that are happening. And I think we as listeners and players were able to get “Joe Public” to begin to be aware of these changes as well. It’s hard to give definitive answers on how music has moved and progressed because of the overwhelming variables that are involved.
Jake: OK, here’s a question I wanted to get to. It’s definitely crunch time out there as far as the business goes. From your perspective, what would you recommend players focus on in these times to keep their schedule alive, as well as their artistic growth I might add?
James: I guess you have to look at it and approach it at this point in a different way, but I also think that in a sense, you almost have to kind of approach it in the same way. It seems like sometimes you have to edit yourself from doing particular jobs or gigs, and now might be a good time to check into that. But clearly you want to keep yourself open to different musical situations that may open doors in directions you haven’t thought of. Said another way, it’s a good time to check your attitude in at the door, and be open to situations you might not have entertained before. If work is shy, what do you really have to lose by checking some other musical alternatives out—you may surprise yourself with the possibilities that could open up. One door closing can easily open up another door with new possibilities.
Jake: Final question here. Is there a solo CD anywhere in the near future?
James: One of things I think about as far as a solo CD goes is looking back on Michael Brecker. He didn’t do his solo CD until much later in his career. I certainly don’t mean to be comparing myself to him, but even though I’ve played on so many recordings as well as all types of musical situations, I just hadn’t felt it was the time to do it—I just wasn’t feeling it. I’ve been asked many times about this, but I want to make sure that I’m not doing it just to do it. I also feel that I need to make sure that I put something out there that says, this is me. I want to make sure I take the time to sit down and think this through. I have to admit that sometimes I feel like nobody really wants to hear what “I” want to do, but I could be wrong about that. It’s not to say that I feel overlooked or anything like that, but it’s easy to be looked at as just a sideman, and I definitely feel that I’m more than just a sideman, and it’s that thought that kind of assures me I will do something eventually.
Jake: I think there are more people out there than you realize that would enjoy hearing you under those circumstances, and would like to see you pursue that… Great talking with you.
Visit online at www.jamesgenus.com