SA Bassists With Martin Simpson – An Interview with Nippy Cripwell
For this month’s interview, we return to Johannesburg where one of South Africa’s veteran bassists is waiting to greet us. Ladies and Gents, may I present to you, Nippy Cripwell.
Now that you are a mature player, are there any changes?
I like to think I have evolved into a different space. Definitely calmer, more studied, perhaps.
What inspired you to become a bassist?
The Pop Group explosion in the early ‘60s made me want to play in a band. I played violin as a boy, but hearing the Beatles/ Byrds/ Animals/ Stones – I just knew I wanted to be part of that. Most groups in my home town Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), had guitars/ drums/ singer, but generally no Bass players. So that was my gap. Bought a red vinyl covered, Fender shaped Hofner, second hand and I was off and running!
The iconic moment? The opening bars of the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” when Chris Hillman played that octave gliss from low D up to the high D – helloo!!
The Bass guitar cut through on those 60’s records, gave the bottom end definition. Suddenly you noticed it. That was the power, the thing that moved me. That’s what I wanted to play. In quick succession I picked up on R&B, Detroit / Memphis Soul, Motown and the riff orientated Rock stuff – Cream/ Hendrix/ Deep Purple.
Like so many of us, The Jaco album was hugely influential. I had decided to study Double Bass when I turned professional, so switching to fretless was natural. My Precision Fretless was my axe of choice for many years. I could cut anything on that. Percy Jones (Brand X), Colin Hodgekinson (Back Door) and Misters Chuck Rainey, James Jamerson, Anthony Jackson and Rocco Prestia (Tower of Power) were my Main Men.
On Double Bass on the Classical side it was Gary Karr and, more recently, Edgar Meyer who made an impression. In my early days Scott Lafaro with Bill Evans left me dumbstruct. At the time I had no idea what he was doing but it spoke volumes. All Miles Davis’ Bass players (Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Michael Henderson, Marcus Miller) have been influentially wonderful. I could go on and on.
I am aware of trying to be more concise in my playing – hopefully leaner and ideally meaner! Listening to good players, I am so much more appreciative of the appropriate note or phrase in the specific context. Sometimes that single note in that place is just so right, one just marvels at the sense of it – a Wow moment. When I was younger I tended to look for those ‘Great Moments’ of technical brilliance that killed you. Of course they are still great, but now the performance within the whole concept of the composition, is more important to me. I was listening Herbie Hancock’s ‘River’ recently, which features Dave Holland on Bass. He is a contemporary of mine and I remember him from back in one of Miles Davis’ bands. Such a wonderful player then and has always been in a variety of settings. On ‘River’, his playing is so refined, almost simple, yet so effective. That is what I relate to now. So for me, the ‘Less is more’ approach is what I strive for.
Your Concept of Bass playing?
Maybe this question should have preceded the last one! But they probably are interchangeable.
My philosophy/concept of Bass playing is that it is the catalyst in any composition. It links the rhythm to the core of the harmonic progression which ultimately enhances the melodic theme. Any great melody played or sung on it’s own will always come to life when the right rhythmic/harmonic colour is added. And right in the middle of that musical creation is the Bass line – the core. That right note, that right phrase, is what one should look for. One’s Bass line should try to be the ‘Some of all the musical parts’.
Has your interaction with other players changed?
I am much more at ease with other players now. I have a confidence in my ability in any given situation. It’s more important to find the middle ground between players on a gig, than to try and assert one’s self. A good Bass player can really ground a band. If you are functioning properly – steadying the rhythm section, pinning down the harmonic progression (irrespective of the other guys’ abilities) – everyone has a good time. Everyone relaxes, everyone plays to their own strengths, and the music comes alive. My greatest thrill is to hear someone say they enjoy playing WITH me.
Musical reputations can get in the way a lot of the time. The sooner that stuff gets put away the better the performance becomes. I work to be as open and approachable as possible to any musical suggestions. If people feel their contributions are valued and considered seriously, it’s amazing the response one will get.
For many years the average gig would see the bandleader say, “This is an up tempo rock thing”, count the band in, and away you would go. As the Bass player you would lock into something and kinda hope that was okay. These days it goes a whole lot better if the communication is a little more informative BEFORE the count in – even sounds like everyone’s reading off the same page!
At your age, are there still challenges?
There must always be challenges. You can always improve, but at the very least you need to make sure you maintain your standards.
On a personal level I like to set myself a musical goal every year. I heard Edgar Meyer perform the Bach Solo Cello Suites. My goal is to play just one movement, probably the simplest, but to aspire to his musicality. You know there are many transcriptions of music adapted for performance on the Bass, but they tend to become ‘circus music’. ‘The elephant on the trapeze’ scenario. Edgar is one of few people whose performance transcends that.
I was discussing this topic with a Bass player friend of mine, Charlie Johnstone, and he put it well when he said, “It’s important that you regard your limitations as current and not permanent.”
Bass playing is pretty physical. Does that physicality catch up with you?
Definitely. It’s time to hire a roadie to hump my Bass to the next gig! More seriously, I find I HAVE to warm up before playing now. My posture and core strength are things I have to watch for stamina. I think the most important issue is flexibility and suppleness. Regular consistent practicing and playing takes care of a lot of that, as long as you are mindful of your physical execution and take regular breaks. You know, just like when you’re driving your car!
What have you learnt?
The lesson that keeps repeating itself over the years is what I call the Boring Basics. You have to keep the edge on your time, intonation, tone and phrasing constantly. If you don’t, it comes back to bite you at the worst possible times! Some people are blessed with natural ability, and don’t have to work that hard. I’m like most people I have to do the time.
On the up side, there is no better feeling than being on top of your game, being able to play with that freedom which comes from a secure technique and confident theoretical knowledge. That’s when inspiration can come straight from the head, down through the heart, and out through your hands, into the universe! Or something like that.
Keep humble and be constantly amazed at the power all kinds of music has to move one. I heard Abe Laboriel playing on an Alison Krauss session. So restrained, yet he just poured himself into each note. During an interview later he said there were ‘no games played’ and he was so moved by the ‘honesty’ of the music. That’s the depth of perception that underscores great players. A Soul Man.
On reflection, would you change anything?
I would have liked to have had time to play in rehearsal bands. Thrash out ideas with like-minded guys, cutting loose and being more adventurous. The bulk of my playing years were a continuous routine of studios most days and gigs /shows at night. Always precious little rehearsal time for anything. You constantly are left with that feeling of: with a bit more rehearsal, it could have been SO good.
I would have liked to have a good teacher/mentor in my early years to put me on the right track, aim me in the right direction. I am largely self – taught and, of course, I wasted a lot of time going down dead ends in the process.
My musical reputation has been based on my ability to play well in diverse musical genres. I sometimes think it would have been great to be really good in one bag and just okay in the rest.
Your thoughts on younger players.
They are fearless! And that’s great. There has always been that saying, “The confidence of youth”. They seem to have an immediacy which, is almost ahead of themselves. It’s probably because communications networks have opened everything up so much, musical scope is infinite. Almost anything is possible. They know it and they go for it. My generation was more laid back, you know, ‘wide eyed and wondering’. Stuff happening overseas seemed to be on another planet. We could buy records and maybe, listen to the radio. Today you can hear, see and access anything right here, right now. Our problem now is Musical Overload.
Many of my teaching friends acknowledge that many of the younger players are struggling to identify what they specifically need to move on, out of all the available musical options. Hopefully there are guys locally who can help with that and point them in the right direction.
Older players knew who the influential guys from previous decades were. I just wonder if that legacy is being handed down, first hand, to our younger guys. America is wonderful that way. That heritage is well documented and so many of those musos know that history. You can hear it in their playing, they know those different bags.
Are they more aware of what’s happening?
They certainly have more access to what’s going on. The challenge now is to work through all that stuff and decide what you need, but probably more importantly, what you don’t need.
How does the mature Bass player function in modern times?
It’s all about attitude really. If you are on top of your game, you can bring a wealth of musical knowledge and experience to any situation. You can immediately settle a rhythm section because you know what will work, how that stuff should be played. It can go anywhere from there.
You have to deal with the initial skepticism of ‘isn’t this guy a bit old for this?’ But usually everyone relaxes when they realize the bottom end is being held down pretty well, and hey, this is gonna be alright! There are lots of questions as to ‘how do know that stuff?’ when of course you grew up with it. There are a lot of modern takes on old tunes, but because you know the originals, you have a lot of reference.
I just love to play. Anything! I think that attitude is infectious and makes for a great gig.
Do you know who you are as a Bass player?
It’s a question we all need to answer honestly, sooner rather than later. You need to try and be objective – try and see yourself as others see you. In a sentence: I am an experienced, functional Bass player – good time, solid harmonic concept, musical. I don’t have incredible technique, am not a great soloist, but I can play something appropriate – so if you’re looking for a flash guy in a jump suit doing cartwheels – don’t call me!
Are you at peace with yourself?
It’s taken time – but yes I am. Through the years you continually strive to play like this guy or that guy, but inevitably you come up short. The good thing is that all those efforts, one way or another, helped make you the player you are today. Now you tend to think, ‘that doesn’t add up to too much!’ But one’s individual experience IS unique and one should cherish one’s talent, no matter how subtle that may be. If you play to your strengths, it usually works out okay.
Any out – takes?
Yes! I was musing about how some Bass players seem to have a richer harmonic/melodic concept than others. Bass players who are composers seem to have that edge. Melodies or themes are usually simple in line and phrase, but are very difficult to spontaneously compose. Players who sing their way through solos tend to be far more melodic – think George Benson. Coming up with a strong melody is everyone’s dream. That is what usually makes a composition memorable. I am more moved by Bass players who say something musically, be it a line or a phrase of relevance, than those who shred a whole bunch of notes and technique on the chord changes. Long live Melody.
Could you tell us a bit about the Instruments you’ve owned?
Not too many actually. I had a Hofner violin shaped Beatle Bass for a while. Looked cool but was a little limited soundwise. In ’66 I bought the love of my life, my Fender Jazz. It’s ‘home’ for me – I’ve had it for my whole career. There have been two modifications: the original neck with CBS fret markings bowed terribly and I was lucky enough to replace it with a slim A ’64 neck – it’s just gorgeous. The other thing was a Bad Ass bridge – great!
My Fretless Precision was an evolution from a basic Fender Precision Fretless (looks great – a maple neck on an all black body). The original P Bass pickups were a bit muddy so I changed them for DiMarzio’s – better. Later came a DiMarzio J Bass pickup in the bridge position with a Bad Ass bridge. The X Factor was a Music Man preamp unit I had put in. To this day it has such a distinctive sound, a wonderful instrument.
I have a 6 String Ibanez with Seymour Duncan electrics for extended range stuff and a Crafter Acoustic Bass Guitar (it cost me nothing but has a great sound).
In ’71 I bought a Giuseppe Rocca (1851) Double Bass from my teacher. I was lucky; he had financial problems and so agreed to sell me the Bass. It saw me through my orchestral days. It was a very valuable instrument, which made me petrified to take it out to play. I sold it recently and it has been restored to wonderful condition by a Master Bass craftsman, Martin Lawrence, in Britain. My only regret is that I didn’t get to play it again after it was restored. Apparently it sounds amazing. I draw comfort from the fact that instruments like that pass through our hands temporarily on their musical journey and we are blessed to enjoy them for a while.
But right now I have Frank (short for Frankenstein!). He got his name from the numerous butchers who ‘worked’ on him. In spite of this he actually sounded great. But there is a happy ending…Frank has been restored by a wonderful young craftsman called Svend Christensen – looking good and thundering!
Lastly, you may be one of the older players in this Country but you’re also one of the fittest – you’re in the army and you’ve run our grueling Comrades Marathon a number of times. What do you get up to when you’re having a rest from music?
I was in the Army some time ago. Unusually, they had a String Orchestra, which played at gala State functions for visiting overseas and local dignitaries. The heyday was during President Mandela’s term. You know he set a precedent by coming personally to thank the Orchestra for their contribution to the occasion, every time we performed. Of course, protocol required any other dignitary present to follow suit; A wonderful gesture from such a great man.
The running thing is my personal way of keeping sane. To get outside in the fresh air, in beautiful surroundings, and burn off some energy, is a great way to clear your head and keep the old parts moving. Comrades is like taking on a difficult piece of music. If you put in the time in preparation it doesn’t have to be grueling; A long effort, yes, but immensely satisfying.
So what do I do for fun? I like to drive to out of the way places and run. There are road races in some wonderfully obscure corners of this country. Way to go!