Conversation With John Patitucci
This very talented musician’s voice has been with us for decades. The Chick Corea Electric Band represented a significant turning point in contemporary jazz history, and John Patitucci’s contributions to that entity were nothing less than stellar. His vision for the architecture of contemporary bass has been an extremely noteworthy contribution to the evolution of the bass’s role in “any” type of contemporary setting. But we’re just scratching the surface of John’s depth as a musician. Beyond the excellence of his jazz expertise, his ability to cover any genre with extraordinary taste becomes evident after an examination of his discography which includes countless Jazz icons and artists such as BB King, Sting, Bon Jovi, and Bonnie Raitt to name just a few—an eclectic journey that speaks well of his diversity as a player.
This type of virtuosity is a rare find, and he complements it well with his more than personal persona and his outspoken concern for the state of music. Add to that his ever-growing compositional prowess and you have the consummate evolving artist. His latest work Remembrance featuring a pianoless trio with Joe Lavano and Brian Blade is a wonderful example of the 21st century artistry set to a historic trio setting. Featured as well on this CD are Johns masterful and ever evolving compositional skills with an array of colorful compositions showcasing his devotion to both the electric and acoustic side of his artistry.
There are quite a few legendary bassists out there that are still a significant voice in the industry, many of whom John holds in great esteem, and I believe we’ll see sooner than later that John will easily become part of that historic hall of fame litany.
Jake: Before we talk about your new release Remembrance, I’d like to step back with you if I could. Understanding that any gig can be a training ground, how did your extended stay with Chick have an affect on, I guess I’ll say your musical life in general?
John: Well, that was a huge thing. I loved Chick’s music from the beginning…I really wanted to play with him. Sometimes people get gigs with somebody they really like a lot but don’t know that much about their music. With Chick, I was totally into him. I had listened to his music for many years. I went in with a pretty strong love for his music, and knowledge about a lot of the music that he had made. So for me that was like an ultimate gig. I was thankful, and I felt privileged. I had been speaking with people years prior to try to get an audition, and it came about in a much more organic way. He used to throw these parties at his house on Valentine’s Day and get all these musicians to come and play and hang in a nice laid back setting. We were both living in L.A., and I was playing in Victor Feldman’s trio at the time. I had already been playing with quite a few people and was getting the chance to play with a lot of great players, as well as doing studio sessions. There was actually a lot of work at that point in time, so I was very, very fortunate. I met Herbie there, I met Chick there, and I met Wayne there—I was lucky to meet so many great players.
Anyway, I got into Chicks band because he heard me play at his house one night, which was kind of a very informal thing. He said to me, listen man, I can hear that you can play the acoustic, but do you also play the electric bass? And I said sure, the electric is what I started on. He asked me to send him some stuff, so I sent him some records that I was on and recordings from the Baked Potato and other places I had worked out there, and he called me back one day and said I’ve been listening to your stuff and you sound great. So I was getting kind of excited, and then some time went by as he was listening to a lot of stuff—there were a lot of players that wanted to be in his band. So he called me back, and actually I was on a recording session when he called, and he was saying, I know you’re a real busy musician and you’re working a lot, but would you like to be in my band, and I said, are you kidding—when do we start? It really was a gig that I really wanted to do. I played with Joe Farrell and Airto, and a bunch of people that had worked with Chick, and I remember I always used a bug Joe Farrell and say when is Chick having auditions. I just knew there was something there I wanted to do, and I would get to play both instruments as well, which happened. I just really knew that I dug his music and that I could learn from playing with him. And I had no idea what would ensue, and he ended up taking me all around the world. We traveled, he got me a record deal, and he encouraged me to compose…he was really very, very supportive, and sort of paved the way for me to be known in the world. And I grew a lot—you have to get a lot stronger to be able to play with him. I was the first to come on in the band, he hadn’t got Dave yet. He had heard about Dave from Michael Brecker because I remember asking him, who’s going to play drums with us. And Chick said Michael Brecker tells me there’s this kid in New York who’s really good named Dave Weckl, and I had never heard of Dave. And then the rest just flew from there, and I had no idea what was going to happen. I knew I had a dream gig, but I had no idea we were going to be able to do all the things we ended up doing. That time was very fertile, and I got to know Wayne through Chick, and Herbie as well. And those relationships later on would turn into something I enjoyed immensely.
Jake: I see you as one of the advocates for bringing the electric bass to mainstream jazz. With that in mind, do you feel you’re approach to the electric has gone through any kind of transition over time?
John: I started playing on the electric bass when I was ten, so I’ve been playing that instrument for 40 years already, and the acoustic bass since I was fifteen. The electric bass was my principle instrument first, before I was big enough to hold an acoustic bass. So when I first heard jazz music, I had to do it on the electric bass. I grew up in the sixties, so I got all this different input from blues and R&B, and Motown, and rock and roll…all kinds of music. When I was eight or nine I heard my first jazz record. I was rather eclectic in my musical tastes. So I was actually going to jazz gigs when I was thirteen or fourteen, and all I had was my electric bass. People would just call tunes and there I was walking away on my electric bass. Early on I was used to using it in different situations. I didn’t really have a choice at first, and I definitely wanted to make it a fit. I feel it’s important to have an in depth connection to the music at hand.
The problem has been that many times electric bass players don’t have enough of a connection to the music they might be involved with. When you’re talking about the music from the thirties, swing, bebop, post bop, it’s important that you have listened to that music, a lot. And the converse is true. If you have a jazz musician who doesn’t really like R&B, who doesn’t like funk, and they’re playing those kinds of tunes, it’s not going to sound right, because they don’t love it, they haven’t listened to it enough, even though in my mind those genres are totally connected. I’m real eclectic in that regard, and I think a lot of people who play one or the other of the instruments just tend to not like the other music. I think that’s why you don’t hear many electric bass players walk, to me, and make it sound like jazz.
Jake: Listening to you over the years, I’ve always felt you have a very definitive voice on upright. I feel like I could do a blindfold test and be able to pick you out. Hard as this question may be, what do you feel encompasses the dynamics of your approach, or maybe your philosophy on this instrument that tells me it’s you?
John: I’m glad to hear you say that, you just never know how you’re coming across. That’s a complex question—how do people hear your voice on a particular instrument—how does that work, and how did they know. I don’t have a direct answer to that question but I think there are characteristics and inflections that each person brings to their instrument, the priorities they have of expression, things that they gravitate towards. For me, on the acoustic bass, I’m a product of my influences, a couple of them being Ron Carter and Ray Brown, definitely early on. Getting a full sound and getting the rhythmic power that those players had was important to me…what swing—what depth—what soul. And also having a connection to the blues. When you hear those guys under certain settings you can hear their affinity for the blues. When you hear Ron with Wes Montgomery or you hear Ray with Oscar Peterson, you hear the blues part. Horn players also influenced me as well, as far as improvisation is concerned. Players on all sides were influencing me, especially bassists such as Oscar Pettiford and Blanton, and George Mraz and Dave Holland, and Eddie Gomez—many different players from many different styles of jazz on the acoustic bass. And there were a lot of heavy classical influences as well because I studied classical music in college, and my teachers all assumed that I was going to be a symphonic bass player, until I quit school after three years and went on the road. (Laughs) I guess that all sorts of mixes together, my love for a lot of different kinds of music. So I guess I’ve found a voice, and I’ve had people say that about both instruments—the six string bass as well. And that maybe a little easier to understand in a way, because there’s not that many people out there that are making solo albums that play a six string bass—not that I know of any way. I could be wrong, because there are so many people out there making records these days. Anybody can make a record, and I see an upside to that because people have more of a chance to express themselves. And then there’s a downside, which is, you can’t keep track of it.
Jake: Gary Willis talked about that same thing as far as records go, any felt the upside of the earlier days when you pretty much had to have a label was the fact that it filtered out a lot of what he felt was more or less non-worthy material.
John: For me, I was always thankful that I had a record deal, and that I still do. So I guess you can answer the question better than I can as far as what it is about a certain player that you recognize.
Jake: Well, there’s another whole interview, which I would enjoy, but let’s move on. Let’s talk about your new release Remembrance with Joe Lovano and Brian Blade. Did you anguish at all on who to hire for this recording?
John: No, because this is one of those organic things that happened. We were rehearsing for Communion around 2001 and I was using a bunch of different players on that record. Bryan was doing some tracks and Joe was also doing some tracks, with Brad Mehldau on piano. With Brad’s schedule, he wasn’t able to make one of the rehearsals, so we went up to Joe Lovanos house in upstate New York and Brian, Joe, and I started playing. And we went, wait a minute, hold on a second, this feels incredibly great. Obviously, we knew we were going to make the record with Brad, and that turned out great, Brad played beautifully. But I never forgot the openness and intimacy of the trio. Brian and I have spent a lot of time together over the last ten years, and we would comment about that every so often. And so I would see Joe Lovano every once in awhile and say remember that time at your house, and it was truly a remembrance that we carried around for years, and I always want to do something like that. And I thought, I’ve got to get these guys in the studio to do a record with them. It was just this incredibly special hook up. There was a lot of chemistry, and a lot of warmth, and a lot of intensity, and a lot of fun. I thought to myself, this is a no brainer. I had to wait till the time was right. The record company was open to the idea too, and I just felt like this was the time. Brad and Joe were totally into it, and we went in and had a really enjoyable experience; it was a lot of fun. We all set up with no headphones; we played it just like we were playing a gig.
Jake: Did you find the writing, the compositions, challenging to get together?
John: I’m always writing all year long every year. But this was interesting, because I wanted it to be open, I wanted people to be able to hear the harmony, but I also wanted it to be contrapuntal and linear in nature. And I didn’t want to over-write so it would just be these cerebral compositions with all these lines and craziness. I wanted it to be a combination of factors, and I also wanted it to be a tribute to those great players such as Sonny Rollins and Joe Henderson that did those trio records that we all love and are legendary—a trio—tenor, bass, and drums. So I was trying to deal with those issues, and make a good record. I also didn’t want to just have that one color the whole time. I’ve been working on my composing for years now, and I didn’t want to make the record and say the only things you’re going to hear are bass, drums, and tenor. So hence the other tunes and different sounds. And I chose to have the six string in there as well. But I also tried to do some different things with it, like the chord melody stuff. There’s also a track with a string octet that my wife and I overdubbed with four cello parts and four bass parts. I tried to bring variety to the equation.
Jake: Under this type of trio format, the opportunity to reharmonize is much more prevalent. Did you find that to be a part of your thought process at all in the performance of these tunes?
John: The performance with those guys was wide open. Once they understand what the particular piece of music is, their ready, and those guys are master improvisers. So basically the music can go anywhere at anytime. I was free to change the direction of the harmony with the bass notes I chose, and that was the idea, to vary the textures.
Jake: In my interview with Jeff Berlin, he had a one liner that stuck with me, and I found myself being in agreement with. He stated, it’s not the music business anymore, it’s the entertainment business. Do you share that same opinion, and if so, any thoughts on how we could possibly begin to turn that around?
John: We’re trying. We talk a lot about that with Wayne Shorter’s quartet. We’re not only trying to stretch, and take chances, and play new things, but we’re also very mindful about the direction of society, because the statement that Jeff made also relates to the malaise of our society which is instantaneous pseudo communication with all the tools that are out there—the instant messaging, the Internet, the “fake” friends, and all that crazy stuff. It’s not only about entertainment, it’s like 24/7 input—24/7 media junkies. This is a big deal. Not just for music and art, but for society and families. It goes way deeper than just the collapse of the record business. I think people should become more community oriented, and start that with small microcosms of community, with family, and groups of friends that actually communicate on a greater level than that superficial cyber relationship way. I think it would make a difference if people became involved in a community or a group instead of the American thing of individualism being the most important thing—be by yourself and don’t worry about anything else. That obviously doesn’t work very well, and that’s why my solution to this is to be involved with people that are going in the other direction, even if it’s not always popular. That’s what Wayne (Shorter) has been about all his life—the art. He tries to reach people with very honest art that takes a lot of chances, and hopefully encourages people to do the same in their own lives no matter what they do, whether it’s music or something else. So that’s one way to look at this—we could be here for hours talking about this, and spiritual matters as well because I have a lot of deep convictions about this—that’s a whole other thing. It is very difficult now. Here’s a for instance; I’m a huge fan of R&B and soul music, and if you look at the history of it, its ride through the fifties and sixties, all those Motown people like Stevie and Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway later on, they could actually sing live. Aretha Franklin, James Brown, all these people could sing live. There are people now that are supposed to be R&B singers, and 95% of them can’t sing live. That clearly states the difference between entertainment and music. Look at that for five seconds and you can see that something’s wrong.
Jake: Welcome to auto-tune. One more question if you would. I think a lot of players out there are trying to find themselves, I guess I’ll say trying to find their voice on their instruments, something I feel you have more than captured over the years. What might you suggest to be a focal point for younger players that are on this path of trying to find themselves?
John: I think sometimes that crosses everybody’s mind, I’ve got to find my voice, and sometimes it seems the harder you concentrate on it, the tougher it gets. Sometimes it just takes patience and realizing that you’re a collection of influences. What goes into your sound and what makes you who you are starts from your physiology–what your hands are shaped like, what your body size is, and how that affects how you touch the instrument. Then there’s all the different people that you’ve listened to, that have been influential in your life, that taught you, or mentored you, or been there to encourage you. For some, it shapes around some of the struggles they’ve been through in their life, and music becomes an outlet and a release for them to sort of talk about those things through the music. As you can see this is a very wide open subject which I could speak in great depth on. But the most important thing to me is about being honest about what you’re hearing and what you’re doing. It’s really about being transparent in your playing. I used to think that was sort of a cliché, but actually it’s very true. If you’re getting a really good connection, and have learned how to play your instrument with enough technique to express yourself, your personality really comes out on your instrument. I guess you can see this is a multifaceted subject. It’s when you try to become someone else that the trouble really starts, and we’ve all seen that. In the earlier days it was guys like Stanley and Jaco that became the big cult heroes, and then you saw all people that tried to copy what they did–to try to sound like them, to get the same equipment, to try to play everything like them. I had this great mentor who lived in the Bay area and he told me; learn from those guys and learn their stuff, but don’t become a clone, because the best version is already out there, and it’s already happened. Just play like you.