Discussion With Oteil Burbridge
A vibrant personality singing through one’s instrument would be a fitting one liner for Oteil Burbridge. His musicality is unquestioned, which is evident in a variety of musical settings from laying down a serious groove for the Allman Brothers, sitting in on a Bass Day event with the likes of John Patitucci, Victor Wooten, Steve Bailey, and Michael Manring to name just a few, or displaying his second-to-none scatting ability behind a very honed in chord/melody approach he’s developed. His obvious love for playing coupled with his talent and a very positive attitude keeps him on a tremendously busy schedule with a number of different projects.
His influences are vast, and after hearing who some of them are you can better understand his unique approach to playing, as well as his effortless ability to communicate. Does this player have chops—–absolutely. Is this a focus for him as a player—–not at all. He’s completely clear on his role as an artist and has no problem communicating how grateful he is to be involved “as” an artist. He has a lot to say, and after speaking with him, I have absolutely no doubt about his sincerity. His commitment to the “Music” is noteworthy, and more than evident.
Jake: I know you’ve been touring with a lot of different projects, but if you would, give me just a bit of history on your band the Peacemakers.
Oteil: The peacemakers started up around 1996. We weren’t touring a lot, just playing a gig here in there to begin with. The band was actually an outlet for some of the tunes I had written. We ended up touring more and more up until about 2007-2008, and in 2008 I had to take the band off the road because the Allman brothers canceled a lot of dates that year and I couldn’t afford to take the band out for while. It’s been a little over the year since I’ve played with the Peacemakers and I miss it—we did a lot of great gigs. It was a pretty magical time for me you know, it seems you can never be 100% satisfied unless possibly it’s your own project. But the players in my band all landed good gigs, and I’m very happy for them.
Meanwhile I’ve been very busy with the Allman brothers. It’s their 40th anniversary. We’re doing our annual stint at the Beacon theater, and we’re doing fifteen shows, I believe, which are all sold out. We have a lot of special guests coming in each evening, so it’s kept us pretty busy. I’m also working on my new album at my house. My brother got me the Logix software for Christmas, so I’m giving time to that, and I have all kind of players rolling through my house.
Jake: Do you have a potential release date for that?
Oteil: You know, I’m not putting a release date out because I’ve always been so rushed every time I do an album. This is the first recording project that I’ve got to take my time on, so I’m almost hesitant to talk about it because people are always asking when is it coming out, when is it coming out. I don’t want to release this until I’ve got it right, and who knows what kind of time period we’re talking. But I’ve already got some great tracks down because I can take my time on it, and I’m very excited about it. Usually I dread the process of making album, but this time I’m really enjoying it. In the past I’ve always been rushed, and then I’m never happy with the end result. And now, the fun part is not going to be the album coming out; the fun part is going to be making it.
Jake: I saw an interesting quote written about you, speaking of your ability to create new sounds within an old framework. If you would, tell me about how you approach the projects you’re involved with, like the Allman brothers, from a musical standpoint.
Image: Courtesy of Jessica Shouse Photography, www.jshousephotojournalism.com
Oteil: A lot of the bands that I work with are improvisationally based, and it’s a treat to have that as a mandate in your music. There should at least be the threat of it changing, if not actual change, and in addition to that, potentially drastic change (laughs). Lots of times the songs are really simple, but you get into the jam part of it and anything might happen, and usually does. But if you’re playing very simple songs, and doing them every night, you’d “want” to change it, you know. It’s just about everybody getting on the same page with it. Some people do the same set list every night and play the songs the same way every night, and there is nothing wrong with that, but in this kind of music it’s more about the players, and getting them to do something different if they’re so inspired. There’s no excuses for being bored—if you’re bored, it’s your own fault. I think it’s more of an attitude, or a state of mind to pursue that if that’s what everybody wants to do. It means we’ll allow ourselves to make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes can create a different avenue that we wouldn’t have considered before. So it kind of just gets down to trying things, and being open.
Jake: Like many of your contemporaries, there seems to be a lot more about your musical life than just the music. How do you draw the more personal or spiritual side of you to your musical endeavors?
Oteil: Again, I think it’s the state of mind that you’re in. I will say this; I definitely favor playing music that I find to be spiritual in a sense, because the older I get, the less time I have on earth, and I want to make it all count. I want it to be all the way—I want to go as far as I can spiritually, because I think that’s the most important thing. Life with humans and dealing with each other, and all the problems that we have, some of those being spiritual problems, reminds me that we all need healing, and hope, and inspiration. So in essence, I like doing music that opens that door for healing, hope, an inspiration. I fully understand that in this society, money is a factor, but I hope I’m able to not have to play for just the money itself. A lot of the projects that I’m involved in that don’t get noticed as much are really the most important ones to me.
Jake: A lot of the artist’s that I’ve talked to kind of agree with this philosophy, and we all seem to understand that even though it can be challenging, it’s a gift to be able to go through life following your dream as an artist.
Oteil: Life itself is a real gift, and an opportunity. I’m really grateful to my parents. When I was young they really stressed that you can make choices in your life, and not always have to go with the flow. If something doesn’t feel right to you, don’t chain yourself to it. People actually tried to talk me out of being a bass player for a living. My parents were definitely worried, but they said if I was100% on it that they we’re going to support that decision. Everything is a risk, and I find that people in general are very afraid to take risks. They’ll chain themselves to their own misery, for something that they never quite felt was right anyway. If you have faith, and a source of hope and inspiration, it gives you the courage to go for it. And you’re going to need a source healing as well when you do go for it, (laughs) because sometimes you’ll pay the price for it. But that certainly shouldn’t stop one from trying. If you abandon art, you abandon culture itself. Self-expression is what separates us from the animals—-true creative expression. That should be up there as one of the most important things we can experience. That need to create is a need, not a luxury. It comes out whether you like it or not.
Jake: It seems with a lot of today’s more contemporary music, crossing genres is becoming more and more prevalent. Is this something you think about at all, or try to employ within the project’s you’re involved in, such as the Peacemakers?
Oteil: You know, people used to grow up and die in the same town, and that still happens in some places, but now with the world being the way it is and technology exposing us to all these different things, you almost can’t help crossing genres. Let’s put this way… if you’re a mom or dad, and you cook at home every night, and you’re planning the meals for the week, you’re not going to cook the same type of dish every night—you’re going to have some Mexican food, you’re going to have some Italian food, and on it goes, as long as it’s good, and there’s some good in all of it. I like good Indian food, and I like good Indian music—I like good Latin food, I like good Latin music—I like good Jamaican food, I like good Jamaican music—I like good soul food, I like good soul music—you get my point. When I find something good I want more, that’s the best I can explain it. I got exposed to jazz, and gospel music, and classical music through my parents. I got exposed to funk and soul music basically from being black in general. I got exposed to delta and bluegrass music from living in Georgia. And ironically I got exposed basically to Rock & Roll music through the Allman brothers, with the connection it had to the blues. Warren Hayes turned me on to country music, although I have to say that my dad had quite a bit of country music himself. So crossing genres seems to be kind of a natural evolution as far as I see it, and it just seems to come out in your music, and you’re not even aware of it sometimes.
Jake: I think this is analogous to when we speak of someone, and talk about their “voice”. As you’ve just stated, that “voice” many times is a combination of many influences, many that we’re probably unaware of, but those are probably the factors that make it unique.
Oteil: I tell my students this all the time. You don’t work on your voice that you speak with—right—and it sounds like you. If I play Jaco’s bass, and Stanley plays Jaco’s bass, and Victor Wooten plays Jaco’s bass, and Chuck Rainey plays Jaco’s bass, it’s going to sound like four different basses, because it’s the “person”. So really, it’s about having the balls to let yourself sound like yourself, and not try to make it sound like somebody else, not trying to mold it into what you think it should be. Just take a step back and listen to what it is. You can’t hold back your fears, or your joys, or you’re pain. You have to leave all that in there and then take a step back and look at it, and see what it is. And then you’ll find you “do” have your voice. Again, I don’t work on the voice that I speak with, so you want to approach your voice on your instrument the same way, letting it come out naturally in your playing.
Jake: Speaking of your voice, your chord/melody playing has become a big part of that. How did that you evolve for you, and do you still work on that side of your playing, as well as improvisation?
Oteil: I do still work on that. I’m always thinking about melody. I think it’s the most important thing, to me, in my playing, and I hear a lot of other players focusing on that as well, but let’s not go there. I heard a preacher once say, “Comparison destroys contentment.” It’s an easy thing to fall into. If you compare yourself to Victor Wooten, that’s going to be a brutal experience. Nobody’s ever going to play as good as Victor. I see younger people emulating him and working hard to do what he does, but you can’t compete with Victor because you’re going to lose. So it gets to be about just focusing on “playing music”. I’m always thinking about melody, whether I’m on a 6 string or a 4 string, or playing with the Allman Brothers or the Peacemakers, the melody is always first and foremost in my playing. It’s the key to musical freedom for me.
Jake: I noticed on your website that you kind of invited people to join in and speak in a philosophical mode as well as musical. So my question is, with the country being in a bit of a troubled state, what role do you see music playing that might help change the conditions were all under these days?
Oteil: It’s the same role it’s always played. The reason musicians are still doing well even though times are tough is because people need music when they feel bad, and they need music when they feel good.
I don’t know what it is that is so mystical about music—I guess maybe it’s because everything vibrates, and music essentially is nothing but vibrations. It’s a vibration that we take in with more than just our ears. Sonically is the first place we connect with it, but I think it’s more than that—it must be, because its effect is too profound. You see music in every religion, and every culture. It’s everywhere, and I just think it’s one of those things that we need. And we lean on it in tough times and it gives us hope, it gives us inspiration, and it gives us a healing. And I think people that play for those reasons are always helping—more than their hurting certainly. We’re just part of the continuum; we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done. And I’m really happy to be part of that continuum that has gone on for so many millennia. Sometimes it feels like things can get so bad, but we’re still here, and we haven’t completely self-destructed. So if it takes music to help us hang on for that one more day, or one more hour even, then great, I’m going to keep on putting it out there.
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