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SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Trish Bailey


SA Bassists With Martin Simpson: An Interview with Trish Bailey

Meet Martin Simpson –

After quite a few interviews with male bass players for this Magazine, I thought it was about time I interviewed someone from the opposite sex. Who better than Capetonian veteran bassist, Trish Bailey. I spoke to Trish earlier this year and we had a good chat about life as a gigging bassist.

How long have you been playing, Trish?

I’ve been playing bass since I was 20. Prior to that, I studied classical piano at school, also played some violin and guitar. Once I discovered the bass I knew I’d come home.

How did you get started?

In my late teens a group of us folk guitar ‘twangers’ used to jam together. I always felt that there was a ‘bottom end’ missing and started picking out low counter-melodies on my guitar. Someone suggested I get a bass, of which I knew nothing. When I found out it was an instrument dedicated to the low end harmonies I was immediately interested. I borrowed the princely sum of R60 from my Dad to buy one. It was probably a ‘Gallo-speed-master’ special, even so, fell in love with all that is bass.

Do you come from a musical family?

My Mom’s side were musically inclined, I believe my Dad’s side to be tone-deaf, My Dad’s fav music is from ‘Paint your wagon’! Need I say more? (I love you, Pops!)

Ha, ha, ha – my parents also had that album – need I say more!!! Do your kids play

Both my adult sons are extremely musical though neither chose to study or take it up professionally. They play guitar, bass and percussion.

Who is your favourite band / solo artist?

How can I choose from the myriad of superb musicians out there…it’s all good!

My favoured listening would be jazz orientated, my bass heroes would be the likes of Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Jaco, Bromberg, Jimmy Haslip, Nathan East, Victor Wooten. All playing very different styles but all with buckets of soul. For me, the mark of a wonderful player comes not from his chops but from his heart, the way he/she ‘tunes in’ and expresses that connection with passion. I seldom fixate on any one player or band, nor do I try to emulate anyone. The sheer enjoyment comes in the listening to their mastery.

What are the amps and instruments you currently use?

My current bass is a Warwick Infinity neck-thru 4-string. It can deliver a variety of different colour tones thanks to the active MEC J/TJ pickups and MEC 3 way active circuit. Importantly for me it is not too heavy to hold for a 4-set gig. In combination with my Gallien-Krueger MB Combo I can dial in a rich deep and punchy sound. My preference is to try to achieve a ‘double bass’ sound for the jazz gigs. I also have an Ampeg Portabass and Roland Cube. But for sheer sound quality and portability the GK comes out tops!

I previously had a custom 4 string made by Kerry Callaghan in Durban, sadly it was attacked by wood borer and I ended up with a semi-acoustic…not funny! It’s like your beloved instrument has cancer! The ‘eaten’ wings have been repaired but the bass has not been the same.

What instruments would you like to have if money were no object?

I am hankering after a EUB, particularly something like the Ned Steinberger CR5M. I purchased a cheap full-size acoustic double bass a year ago but it was waaay bigger than me. I just never got to grips with it. So I’m thinking a EUB would be the answer.

Have you ever tried fretless?

Yes, I once bought a Washburn fretless, I fell in love with its long slim sensuous neck! Unfortunately it wasn’t the ‘right’ instrument to use for the type of dance music I was playing at the time and when my pianist started calling it ‘The Barfin’ Wolf’ I took the hint and stopped bringing it to gigs! Fretless is an instrument that requires consistent playing in order to get the intonation right otherwise it’s best left alone at home.

What have you been doing for the last five years or so?

I relocated to Cape Town in 2006 and since then have had the opportunity to play with many of the very talented local musicians in a variety of commercial dance and jazz gigs.

My audio production studio keeps me pretty busy and I usually end up playing bass sessions for the theatrical show tracks I am mixing as well as other commercial projects.

You’ve mentioned to me that you played in an all-girl band called Pantha …..

It was an interesting and exciting time in those years (late 70’s) to be playing with an all girl group. We were all reasonably competent and attracted some considerable publicity, especially being hot on the heels of top selling female band Clout. Our rep was mostly rock – playing covers of Boston, Earth Wind & Fire, even some Streisand, and many originals written by Penny (PJ Powers). We were playing every night at the Bella Napoli in Hillbrow. After the gig, around 2am, we would go listen to the boys like Jethro and Bobby Lowe at Plumb Crazy. After that, around 5am, WALK home back to Ponte’ where we were all staying. Can you imagine doing that in the Hillbrow of today?

One particular low point was playing a gig at one of the infamous Bapsfontein Konserts. I think Gene Rockwell headed the bill. The audience of Tannies and Ooms and their offspring were just gob-smacked by these 5 ultra-cool rocking meisies from the big city. We were swamped by demands for autographs afterwards…juslaaik!

And how was it to be managed by Eddie Eckstein – he must have had you girls in stitches on many occasions!!!

Sure, Eddie could be a lot of fun and we enjoyed being around him and other members of ‘The Bats’. They all gave us a lot of musical and performance mentoring.

Later on you moved into playing with older muso’s covering Dixieland and swing where you found your niche. Can you tell us a little bit about your experiences here?

I considered myself very fortunate to have been ‘adopted’ by these older jazz musos from whom I learned so much. They threw me in at the deep end, busking really old jazz and Dixie standards from the time my grandma was a kid. I had to learn fast on my feet (or fingers).

It was a fantastic musical education and I continued to learn and grow in the jazz field through playing live gigs.

I spent many years playing in dance groups in the nightclubs of that time. Worked in a couple of Big Bands, took the bass seat in many theatrical shows over the years for the then NAPAC Theatre Company which included a couple of shows with the Natal Provincial Orchestra. Somewhat daunting they were! It’s never a good thing to throw an orchestral score in front of a busking bassist!

What recordings that you’ve played on would you recommend for listening?

I’ve not done commercial recordings apart from a few SABC transcription recordings and “in-house” studio bass work on backing tracks and other audio productions which I’ve produced in my studio.

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

Nothing in particular sticks out, either high or low, there have been so many interesting times its all good!

Low points for me are usually when I have been given bad directions to a gig and I end up getting lost in dubious neighbourhoods (yea yea we all know girls can’t read maps, right!!) My partner recently bought me a GPS as he was tired of me getting lost…every muso should have one!

Comments on your experiences on being a female bassist;

When I started playing bass in the late 70’s there were very few female bass role models that I knew of. In fact at the time the only one I had heard of was Suzi Quatro. It seemed to me that she was more about the ‘rocker tuff chick in leather’ playing a big bass (she was pretty tiny!) rather than being a serious bassist. I also discovered, via her Bass Tutor books, Carol Kaye, the talented largely unsung bass mistress who played on so many top studio recordings in the 60s & 70s. Then, in those pre PC/Internet days, here in SA it was not so simple to find out info on who was who in the international pool. Life pre-Google. How did we ever survive! So Carol Kaye remained a mysterious name on a bass tutor and I had no idea who she really was until years later.

Actually such tutor books never worked for me. Although I had studied (and hated) classical music at school, I am non-academic in my approach to music (wouldn’t know a mode if it bit me) – I rely on listening and feeling the ‘shape, colour & emotion’ of the sound rather than reading music and applying a left-brain process to it.

So when I started, I was playing whatever gigs came up, the usual round of weddings, bar mitzvahs & parties, and learning bass by listening and trying to copy the bassists on commercial recordings. I have always had a good ear, possibly thanks to learning violin, and could accurately pick up what I heard.

My approach to hearing the ‘changes’ is to use the method of numerical interval relationship rather than note-specific to the key. This implies that if you know the sequence of changes, for example in the key of C major Cmaj7/F7/Ebmin7/G7 this translates to 1/4/minor3/5 and you can play that sequence of changes in one key, it works in every key and on bass this is pretty easy.

Being thrown into gigs and having to busk unknown tunes on the spot is amazing training, you cannot get this from a tutor and playing with different bands & singers is a great way to learn how to transpose the stuff you do know into different keys.

As I was the only female bassist in my area at that time I was constantly getting inane comments from male and female alike – ‘gee I didn’t know girls could play bass’ or ‘you play ‘good’ (sic) for a girl, etc. Such comments initially amused and then irritated me. And anyway I have always felt like one of the ‘boys’ and was treated that way by the band. I could not understand why this was seen to be an instrument meant for males alone. The traditional role of the bass can be interpreted as being female as it plays the role of supporting, nurturing and holding together the rest of the band, much as a mother would a family.

It has always felt like a soft yet strong dark energy compared to the hard-edged more aggressive male energy of a lead instrument.

It is possible that being subjected to these early comments from punters and the looks on the faces of male musos who did not know me when I pitched up for a sit-in gig, spurred me on to becoming a reasonably competent gigger and making sure I had my ‘stuff’ together before sitting in with a new band.

I also made a point of seldom refusing any gig and thanks to having ‘big ears’ have played with a large variety of musos in all types of functions, theatrical shows and concerts. Perversely I love the challenge of working with unknown bands on a gig and being able to handle it competently. The result of playing in many different situations meant I acquired a large and diverse repertoire which is an invaluable asset to a gigging musician. One young muso I work with calls me a ‘walking fake-book’. 😉

Actually I find it strange that I can recall songs I may have last played 20 years ago yet cannot recall what I did 24 hours previously. Selective memory!

I am really pleased that times have changed since the 70s and what with excellent university-level musical education now being available in SA, many young women are getting properly schooled to become pro musos and are fully accepted in the playing field…there are now many female role models to inspire them, bass wise I was recently blown away by the hugely talented young Tal Wilkenfeld who is ‘up there’ with the rest of the greats.

I am currently involved with SiS, (Sisters in Sound) a mentoring programme being developed for nurturing young women wanting to enter the pro musical environment. SiS aims to provide mentoring to female students by experienced professional women in various music related fields. Given the education, opportunities and mentorship by their peers there is no question at all that women are equally capable of becoming giants on their instruments. It’s a confidence thing, women often not having the same aggression and competitive ego such as males have, qualities that are sometimes necessary to push yourself to those heights.

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

It’s one of the very few times I can experience that elusive & desired ‘being in the moment’. When there is a groove going, (particularly with Latin jazz) I slip into a rhythmic meditation where the melody, chords and rhythm become geometric shapes and colours and the notes I play become complementary shapes, sitting in the spaces between them. It is a completely non-academic moment governed by feeling and co-creating with the rest of the band. It’s the synergy, the joining of minds, the unspoken connection between us creating a composite pattern of our individual thoughts, the many creating the ONE. It really can be a spiritual experience where you lose yourself in a few moments of nirvana (the experience, not the band!!)

And when this doesn’t happen, and it’s like walking uphill backwards in treacle (a dragging drummer, a pianist playing mundane voicings) – then the gig becomes just another paid job.

What is your approach to playing bass?

Ok, I guess this now becomes ‘confessions of a lounge lizard’…!

I am not a technical or solo player…have never spent hours trying to perfect flashy techs or super fast passages to use as party pieces. That type of playing does not ‘compute’ with me. Nor am I drawn to composition as I seem to have so many melodies in my head, whatever I write becomes derivative.
My aim and passion is to firstly play the ‘right’ notes, – this may seem obvious but it’s amazing how often bassists who dazzle with shredding techs can play downright incorrect notes or unmusical passages.

I learned swing bass by listening to Ray Brown – he is all about the ‘perfect notes, simply stated’. I strive to play interesting passing notes that will expand unusual voicings from the pianist or guitarist. Also to play in a manner to compliment and extend rhythmically with the drummer while keeping ‘it in the pocket’. For me, it’s all about the great joy of listening to your fellow musicians, not about trying to hog the limelight.

And yes, I am a self-confessed lounge lizard. While I have played every sort of commercial gig and musical style, it is my preference to work in a jazz trio or quartet for an upmarket function/dining situation – to weave from one standard to another, never quite knowing what is coming up next, but to follow the ebb and flow and create a classy tapestry of sound that is both recognisable for the customers and challenging and enjoyable for the musicians. There is snobbishness amongst some musicians about playing standards rather than originals, but there exists an abundance of exquisitely crafted compositions that can be re-interpreted every time you play them. With the right mind-set, it never becomes boring and after all, as a lounge lizard, you are paid to entertain, so there are plenty ways to get your jollies out of standard background music gigs as well as feed your family!

Anything that ‘blows your hair back’ about gigging?

I get my kicks when I’m called in to do a gig with musos I have not worked with before, it’s about being able to meet the challenge. If it’s a dance gig I will sometime request a set list from them and spend a few hours downloading unfamiliar songs and top ‘n tailing them prior to the gig. The only time I will refuse to sit in blindly is if their style of music is completely out of my comfort zone. That in my opinion would just be irresponsible 😉

Final Comment;

Just to be able to be out there, still alive an’ gigging, in 2010, is really good! As Jaco said, ‘Gimme a gig, man!’

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