Right on the release of his fourth Solo CD, Slippin’ ‘n’ Trippin’, Victor Bailey reminds us that he’s alive and well, and a very busy man. He keeps his live straight-ahead band V-Bop at the forefront, while also gigging with his trio featuring Booby Broom on guitar and Poogie Bell on drums, not to mention teaching and sessioning.
Victor’s history is deep and embellished with partnerships sporting the best of the best in the jazz and funk worlds, something he’s earned and most certainly has coming to him. His commitment to music for music’s sake is more than evident, and his voice on his instrument becomes an easy call for anyone listening…a serious challenge for any player. And that work has been documented in his latest book, “The Victor Bailey Bass Book”, by Hal Leonard.
Victor fesses up in the article about turning 50, and my only need to bring that up is to follow with—the man still practices every day, religiously. That’s not just a statement in my opinion, it’s a philosophy, one that any younger player should appreciate, and more importantly, aspire to. Role models can be a tough call these days, but I believe Victor fits that paradigm.
Jake: Let’s start with talking about your new CD Slippin’ n’ Trippin’. What prompted you to bring in your musical expertise beyond bass (vocals, keys, & drums) for this effort?
Victor: Since turning 50, I felt that I needed to establish all of the things that I am and can do before I leave the planet. A lot of what has been in the public eye has been me as a “groove bass player”. I’m ok with that, but I’m so much more than that. I have a pretty great Protools based studio at my loft in Brooklyn NY, and I always make really elaborate demos of my compositions. On those demos, I play all of the instruments. In the past I have always recruited my many friends as guest stars on the records. But in the process the original feeling I had on the demos always changes. That’s not a bad thing necessarily, not when your friends are Mike Brecker, Dennis Chambers, Wayne Shorter, Jim Beard, etc. But I always missed some of the original feeling I had. I wanted to keep some of that feeling this time. You know, the record company I was with went bankrupt in 2001, so I spent seven years being told they would be back up and running. So I had a lot of time to listen to this music and it sounded too good to change. I also wanted to establish a few things; I’m more than a “groove” player. I’ve played on a million records and gigs playing that role, but that’s a little fraction of what I do. I was doing things like Countdown back at Berklee College of Music in 1978. But I’d never recorded anything like that, so it was time. I also wanted to establish the fact that I sing, and play drums and keyboards. I’ve played piano since I was seven years old. I’m no Joe Zawinul, but can create the right feeling to make a song happen. My first instrument was drums. I don’t have chops, but I can groove all day long. And I always sang. I’m not Marvin Gaye, but once again I can create the feeling necessary to make a song happen.
Jake: I’ve always felt that bassist’s in general tend to see the bigger picture in any ensemble…more than most. What might you communicate to a younger player to get them to realize the importance of having that perspective?
Victor: Younger players must recognize that there is a difference between playing the bass really well and playing MUSIC really well. Today’s music media is full of so-called bass heroes who I have never seen on a gig, or on anyone’s record. No one will hire you because you have a lot of chops, or can solo. Players that have chops and solo but can’t groove are heroes at the NAMM Show, and at clinics, but end up giving lessons because they have no gigs. You have to make other peoples’ music sound and feel good to them. It starts with knowing the context. Are we improvising or keeping it in the pocket? Does the artist want me to create or stick to their basslines? Do they like a prominent bass personality, or do they just want support? Then you have to connect with the drummer, with the time and feel. Play what’s best for the music. Please note that in my philosophy “what’s best for the music” doesn’t necessarily mean “simplicity”. Sometimes simplicity is the key…sometimes not. You might need to stay out of the soloists’ way. Other times you might need to jump in there and kick butt, to help push the soloist higher. Other times you might need to take over because things aren’t going anywhere. You could play one incredible fill and the whole band lifts up off the ground. You are the anchor between the rhythm, groove, melody, and harmony. In the hands of the true MUSICIANS of the bass, this is all second nature, because they focus on the quality of the music first. Of course there are guys who just want to do the virtuoso thing .They’re very important too, because they keep the instrument moving forward, and inspire young players to work hard. If you want to just focus on the virtuoso thing my advice is to make sure you have your teaching chops together, because that’s what you’ll be doing.
Jake: You pulled off a great scat solo on Coltrane’s tune Countdown. Being that improvisation is an ongoing process for any artist, what are some of the study methods you’ve employed towards improve that helped develop your very recognizable voice on your instrument?
Victor: I have no methods, other than practicing every day. I’m always looking to find new ways to improvise, which mostly entails looking for new harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic approaches. Every day for instance, I’ll play a blues, but try not to play thing things I’ve already worked on. I might spend hours just trying to find a new way to play through a III-VI-II-V chords sequence. Just by practicing every day, you’re constantly finding new ways to improvise and to play the instrument. If I have any method, I guess I could only say that I try to do everything everyday. I’ll pick up the bass a number of times during the day and each time do something different…grooves, soloing, chords, slapping, tapping, basslines, and standards. And whatever gig I have coming up I’ll play through that music every day. No matter how good things are feeling or sounding to me, by playing every day, things are always getting better. I have borrowed from everyone I ever heard, and through years of being determined to sound like me, have developed a personality of my own.
Jake: The CD flourishes with multiple groove settings which most certainly have your mark on them. It’s always a tough question, but what goes through your head when you’re deciding on a rhythmic approach to a tune?
Victor: Nothing goes through my head actually. Rhythm is not a “decision making” process for me. It is a “feel” process. I “let go” of the mind and just play until it feels right. I pretty much instinctively know what feel I want from song to song. Once I begin, it’s just a matter of playing until the whole song feels right. I have a gift of pretty much just being able to hone in on what feels good right from the beginning. I have no idea how to tell you what that is, except some people have it, and some don’t. Any bass player that’s always working does.
Victor: It is a book of transcriptions of some of my most notable basslines and solos from my solo CD’s. All over the world, for years, I have been asked about the availability of transcriptions of my work. I was finally able to connect with a great company like Hal Leonard Books to get it done. To answer the main question I’m always asked regarding the book, the transcriptions were done by ME, by hand. So you can be sure they are completely accurate. It has sold very well since its release, and we’re very happy with it.
Jake: Lifting lines from our contemporaries has always been a forum for debate. Some feel it’s very useful, while others feel it might be counterproductive. What are your thoughts on this subject?
Victor: There is no better way to learn than to study the work of the greats that came before you. You can learn about ways to play your instrument, and ways to apply musical knowledge to your instrument. From guys that have already mastered the art. I can’t imagine how it would be counterproductive. The only trap to watch out for is not getting caught up in one guys’ style, or copying another player. As a young musician, I transcribed tons of solos, but avoided playing the things I learned verbatim. Just learn from what you find, and try to create your own approach. I never transcribe whole solos anymore, but sometimes I’ll hear a hip line, or a great reharmonization, and I’ll go back and figure it out. Out of that always comes tons of new ideas. As I said, I can’t imagine how it would be counterproductive.
Victor: There is nothing specific. I am not a teacher. I do not give lessons. My Skype lessons are more like a “bass player hang” than a lesson. I just play back and forth with that particular student and determine what it is that the player needs. Almost everybody wants to learn chops and soloing, many of whom can’t hold the bass correctly yet. If you don’t know that the first fret on the A string is B flat, don’t ask me about soloing. As I said earlier, you’ll never get any gigs soloing if you can’t groove and don’t know what you’re doing. My main focus is to analyze where each player is and try to show them the things they need to work on to become a working bass player.
Jake: What’s coming up in the near future for you that we need to know about?
Victor: I have a couple of projects I’m working on. The first is my straightahead group called V-Bop. I have always been first and foremost a JAZZ musician. Because I play electric bass, I’m not established in the straightahead world, but that is my foundation. Most of the public probably knows me as a fusion/funk guy. But everyone in the business who knows me knows that from about the age of 16 I was burning on Giant Steps, Countdown, all that stuff. I have some great original tunes and arrangements of standards. It has taken me all these years to realize they will never get done unless I do them myself. I have always been able to swing hard, REAL swing, as hard as any upright player. Not “good swing for electric bass”, but true SWING. So I need to establish that before I leave the planet as well. I’m also about to do a trio group with Bobby Broom on guitar and Poogie Bell on drums. The group is called “Somewhere”. We used to play everyday when we were younger and had a very unique approach to swing and standards. It’s a lot more of a ‘Jazz’ group than most folks will probably expect from me and Poogie. And I’m going to release a vocal record. I have a bunch of great R&B music. I don’t know if it’s a “hit” in today’s market, but its good melodic R&B which is not necessarily what sells these days. It’s something I have, and I just want to put it out there. I’m no Stevie Wonder, but I have a little sound of my own (listen to the song Slippin’ N’ Trippin’) and know how to use it to make a decent song. So those are coming. Other than that, just trying to weather the changes in the business and the bad state of the world’s economy. As long as I can continue to make music, by any means necessary, I’ll be happy.
I’ve also included an interview with Victor conducted by my friend Helena Bouchez. Victor had some insightful comments in this interview, and I felt it was worth posting for those who may not have had a chance to read it.
Bassist Victor Bailey on Making Good Music
Interview by Helena Bouchez
Renowned bassist Victor Bailey (Weather Report) muses on how to go about making good music.
A young Victor Bailey, hanging out at Mike Stern’s New York studio with Jaco Pastorius, once tried playing Pastorius’ fretless bass. The neck was a wreck, the set up was horrible, and the strings were ancient. If that weren’t enough, it buzzed intermittently from the nut to the end of the fingerboard.
Eager to help, Bailey offered to jump in a cab and take it to be fixed. Pastorius took it from him and proceeded to make the bass sing. Bailey says he realized that Jaco knew every aspect of that bass; including every dead spot, every buzz, and every place he needed to dig in to get the sound he wanted. Not only did Pastorius know how to play that bass, he knew how to make good music with it.
“A lot of people are into playing, but not as much into music,” says Bailey, who is known for his solo records, playing on over 1000 recordings as a studio musician, and on numerous tours with pop mega star Madonna, and of course, succeeding Pastorius as bassist for the jazz/fusion group Weather Report. Weather Report keyboardist and co-founder Joe Zawinul remains one of Bailey’s mentors. He explains, “Zawinul was never concerned with how much chops someone had, it was always about the quality of the music. There’s a big difference between playing and making music.”
Bailey says he’s seen some phenomenal players do unbelievable things on the bass when they are on stage by themselves, but notices that in many cases he doesn’t see them as part of a rhythm section. Bailey remarks, “A lot of guys are amazing players, but don’t necessarily make quality music. The most important thing all the time for me and the people I work with is that the music feels and sounds good.”
“In order to make music that sounds good, you don’t necessarily have to be the most technically advanced player,” says Bailey. He says an overall musical sense and concern for the quality of the music can be much more important than virtuoso performances in many cases. Bailey advises, “Use what you have to make something interesting. There are plenty of musicians out there that may not have the most chops, but they know how to command the stage – and rock the house. Guys who can do that AND have lots of talent, knowledge and ability, now those are my kind of guys!”
If your goal is to be a first-rate player like Bailey, however, he says it’s absolutely essential to know what you’re doing. “You have to study your instrument until its second nature. When you hear chord changes and modulations, you can’t be guessing – you have to know where to go without hesitation. Anything that’s put in front of you – you need to be able to handle – immediately! That’s what separates the top players from everyone else.”
Bailey should know. He played his first gig three weeks after he got his first bass – he was 15. “I’ve always been a studious person. I came home from school and spread my books out and did my homework before I went outside. I read the encyclopedia. When it came to music, I wasn’t satisfied just knowing the bass line; I also wanted to know the chords and harmony. My dad, a master composer, arranger, producer and saxophonist, had a jazz collection of guys like Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown and I used to ask him, ‘Why did Ray Brown play this note?’ and he’d tell me, ‘Well that’s a flat 9.’ I’ve always been inquisitive, and I’m still that way, to this day. There are still a whole bunch of things I think I could do better.”
Bailey notes that even after 30 years of playing, if he doesn’t touch the bass for one day, his flow isn’t the same. “I noticed that if I play for just 10 or 15 minutes per day it keeps me connected to the instrument. If I don’t stay in touch with the bass, it might take me a whole set before I feel my flow is good. Practice gives you a natural connection to the instrument.”
When Bailey practices, he says he plays a combination of things; solo studies (currently, he’s working on a Bach piece) then he may groove for an hour, then maybe do some bebop soloing, or play some old R&B or rock bass lines. “I’m always trying to improve the quality of my playing – the sound, touch and feel. I’m always thinking about feel. As I’m playing the bass line, my head is moving to the groove – just as much as if I’m on stage. I’m thinking, ‘How long do I hold this note, should I leave a space? Should I play them perfectly even, or play one note with vibrato, and the next with no vibrato’?”
That said, Bailey acknowledges that depending on what someone wants out of playing the bass, it may not be necessary for them to practice all day, every day. He says players should determine what they want to be, and do what it takes to get there.
“I once taught a woman who ended up playing bass in a big rock band. I played Stanley Clarke’s School Days for her and she said, ‘I don’t want to play like that.’ She spent all day working on music – but it was writing songs. She wanted to be good enough to write good bass lines and to not have to search around all day to figure out where the song was going. She was very clear on what she wanted out of it, and I think that’s key.”
And most importantly, Bailey advises, don’t give up. He says developing skills takes time and consistent effort. Again, Bailey should know. He recalls a recent gig he played in New York, on Long Island. After the gig, a man came up to him, said excitedly, “Wow I really like how you play the bass – I’ve never heard anyone do what you’re doing. You should really stick with it, you really have a future in this business.”
Victor Bailey recently completed a new CD with the trio CBW – with Larry Coryell and Lenny White. Bailey says the new CD, recorded for Chesky Records, will contain jazz, rock, funk, fusion, “a little of everything.” Keep an eye on VictorBailey.com for details of upcoming concerts and tours.
Visit online at www.victorbailey.com