Joshua Ramos: The Chicago Low Down by Tim Seisser… In these upcoming interviews, my goal is to expose the readers of Bass Musician Magazine to some of Chicago’s most talented and underrated bass players. Many of these bassists are playing the bass at a very high level and are performing with some big name acts. Yet, strangely enough, they are also usually unknown outside of Chicago. My hope is that thru these articles, these bassists will get more of the recognition they deserve and Chicago will become more of a presence in the national bass community.
First up in this new column is Joshua Ramos. Josh has worked his way onto many upper tier gigs in Chicago thru his hard work ethic and ability to groove on both upright and electric bass. He is one of the most in demand sidemen in the city and can be seen performing anywhere from local clubs and restaurants to national and international music festivals. He currently holds the bass chair with the legendary Ramsey Lewis and his Electric Band. You can hear him on Ramsey’s album “Taking Another Look” as well as on the live DVD “Proclamation of Hope” recorded live at The Kennedy Center. In addition to sharing the stage with Ramsey Lewis he has performed with Red Holloway, Donald Harrison, Conrad Herwig, Wynton Marsalis, Carl Allen, Dave Valentin, Liquid Soul, CALJE, Samba Mapangala, The Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, Willie Pickens, Dan Nimmer and Tito Carillo to name a few.
Tim: So give the readers a little bit of background on how you became a bass player and your early musical development.
Josh: Well I remember my parents used to play a lot of music by Ron Kenoly, and his bassist was Abraham Laboriel, so I got to hear a lot of him at an early age. Even though I am Puerto Rican, I didn’t get to hear much Salsa and Latin music, because for my parents it was too secular. There was also a bass player named Marc Torres at the church I grew up at. He was an early influence and every Sunday I got to hear a great band at the church, which eventually I started to perform with. Then, of course, in high school I started playing bass in the jazz big band.
Tim: So your first musical experiences were in the church, high school jazz band, etc.?
Josh: Church, high school jazz band, some rock bands, concert band and I played in the orchestra a little bit, even though I was not adept with the bow at all.
Tim: Then you continued your formal training at Northern Illinois University, which is pretty well known for having one of the better jazz education departments in the country.
Josh: Yeah, I went for Jazz Studies.
Tim: And whom did you study with?
Josh: I studied with Marlene Rosenberg, who is a great bass player. I wish that I could go back and capitalize on that opportunity more. She is not a flashy bass player, and back then I was more impressed with other types of bass players. Marlene can walk a great bass line though, and maybe I could have learned more from her.
Anyways, at NIU I really became serious because I realized I was surrounded by such a high level of musicianship. In order to fit in I had to be able to play different tempos, practice more seriously, be able to solo, learn more tunes, and at the same time still do well in classes.
Tim: What was your introduction into the Chicago music scene like?
Josh: I broke into the scene playing with Dan Nimmer, who is Wynton Marsalis’ piano player. He actually lived right down the hall from me in the dorms. As I started getting more serious we started jamming, and then he started asking me to do some gigs in Chicago. I got to learn a load of tunes and really started to learn how to swing playing with Dan. Also, I ended up landing some gigs from going to sit in at the Velvet Lounge jazz jam session, playing with drummer Isaiah Spencer and saxophonist Fred Jackson. The bottom line was I was eager to learn and to gig. I would be willing to drive from DeKalb to Chicago or Gary, Indiana for little or no money. I ran into a lot of musicians working this way, though. Eventually, I ran into Ernie Adams who is a great drummer, and started doing gigs with people he introduced me too. From there on, things just snowballed and now I am just trying to maintain it.
Tim: Lets talk a little bit about the Ramsey Lewis gig. How did that come about for you?
Josh: Actually, it came about through me playing with some of his sideman. Ernie Adams got me on a trio gig with Henry Johnson, who is Ramsey’s long time guitarist. The gig was great and Henry and I had a lot of fun playing together. Shortly after I played that gig, Ramsey needed a bass player for an upcoming gig, and Henry recommended me to Ramsey. So one day I am on a duo gig with my wife, playing at a retirement home in Hyde Park. My phone rings, and thankfully I answered the phone call right away cause it was Ramsey Lewis. He said (speaking in Ramsey’s characteristic radio voice) “Hi, this is Ramsey Lewis here. I got your number from Henry Johnson. Are you available to do a gig next week in Florida?” I said, “I think I can. I have another gig in Seattle that weekend but I think could fly out.” Then Ramsey said sternly, “What do you mean you think you can?” I said, “Yes of course I can, I can do it.” So, we set it up and I started working on his music.
Tim: You’ve told me that when you got the Ramsey Lewis gig one of the things you had to work on was really focusing in on your upright technique, especially with a bow. What were your steps improving your upright chops, considering the short timeframe you were working with?
Josh: Well when I got the first Ramsey gig, I memorized all the tunes he wanted me to play. So even though the arco sections may not have been super killing yet, I had them memorized. I know I impressed him with the fact that I memorized around 30 of his songs. I started taking lessons with a couple different classical bass players around town. The one that I really started studying seriously with was Greg Sarchet from the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He had me playing scales with the correct fingerings, working on my bowing technique, and showed me how to shift and lift my fingers the right amount and in the right positions. We really worked on the subtle technical details of playing the upright bass. It really is incredible what I have learned from just six to seven months of upright training with an accomplished classical teacher.
Tim: I have seen you play with many other bands like Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble and Liquid Soul. How do you go about playing so many different styles of music so well? What’s the process like for you when it comes to learning the nuances of all these different grooves and styles of music?
Josh: All of the music I have been successful at, I have also really enjoyed playing. For example, with the Occidental Brothers I got to play behind Samba Mapangala. So, I went in search of some of his recordings, and the second I heard the recordings I was immediately in love with the bass playing. It had a lot of aspects of busier disco-like bass lines. The bass was funky, the beats were funky and it really drew me in. With CALJE, I had always wanted to play with trumpeter Victor Garcia and pianist Darwin Noguera. I got to do some gigs with them when I was coming up but at the time they were primarily using Victor Miranda, who was Al Di Meola’s bass player and a Cuban Timba master. When Victor left the band I learned the stuff and got the gig. I was always interested in Salsa and Latin music. It is very rhythmic and very funky. Then there are the different challenges that come with playing with the really good Funk and R&B guys in Chicago. You can play Jazz, swing, and take good solos, but it is whole other challenge to play a good pocket with a funky drummer and take funky solos and play R&B accurately. I have very wide musical tastes, which I think is really important. My wife is Bulgarian and I like a lot of that music, the Eastern European stuff, which is very rhythmic too.
Tim: Like most of the bass players living in Chicago, you have to be able to play a lot of different styles of music in order to survive and stay in high demand. To go even further you have been doubling (playing upright and electric) and trying to keep up your chops on both instruments. Do you think that there is a danger in being a “jack of all trades” type bass player? Do you think that performing with all these different groups keeps you from developing a personal sound?
Josh: The hope is that if I work hard enough, I will get to a high level on both axes. Like, for example, John Patitucci. He is probably the top doubler that I can think of. There are guys like Christian McBride and James Genus who double and sound great, but to me John Patitucci is the pinnacle of doubling. He is very influential on both axes. A lot of times when I fall into playing more upright or more electric, it takes a lot of re-gearing. It’s like I have this momentum built up from playing upright for a while but then I get a string of electric gigs. I have to reposition that momentum towards the electric so that I have some right hand finesse and so I can slap, and move my fingers with a lighter touch and not dig in too much, which I have a tendency to do. The other side happens too, where all of a sudden I see I have ten upright gigs in a row so I have to get my strength and touch on the upright back together. I look at the two different basses and try to play them very similarly. I really try to play the same bass lines on both. I try to find a middle ground where I can have them functioning parallel. With Ramsey I play upright and electric on every gig, so that has helped me get used to switching back and forth. Maybe if I just focused on one I would be better on that particular instrument, but I think my electric playing helps my upright playing and vice versa.
Tim: So other than Ramsey Lewis, what other projects have you been working on?
Josh: I have been playing with pianist Ken Chaney’s group and I recently did some gigs with pianist Bethany Pickens. I am always keeping up on the Occidental Brothers music; we have some cool gigs coming up. Working on keeping my Funk chops up for some gigs with saxophonist Skinny Williams. I have been doing some Salsa gigs with percussionist Joe Rendon and have some CALJE gigs coming up as well. I am mostly just trying to shed and keep my chops up for all the different styles of music I have to play. Also, I am playing a lot of upright and trying to keep my endurance up, and working on soloing, trying to play new ideas and working on the solos that I play with Ramsey’s group.
Tim: One last thing would be to tell me about the gear you are using right now and if you have any endorsements?
Josh: I have and endorsement with Lakland but am still waiting for some free gear. (Laughs)
Tim: (laughing) Welcome to my world. (Laughing)
Josh: I mean when do I get my free bass?
Tim: Or some free strings or something.
Josh: I pretty much use one or two basses for all my electric gigs. My Lakland Darryl Jones 5 string and a Lakland 55-01 with souped-up electronics. They have the same neck profile and scale length, which is really nice. I also pretty much have the feel and action set up the same for both basses. The Darryl Jones 5 is definitely my go-to bass. I have several other basses but I don’t regularly use them all. Carl Pedigo of Lakland is one of the nicest guys I have ever met and he helps me out with repairs and is really nice to deal with. My main upright bass is an Englehardt. I use the David Gage Realist pickup on my upright. To me, that is the one pickup that sounds most like an acoustic bass. It gets me the best usable bass sound. For most of my gigs I use a Carvin 2×10 with a Markbass Littlemark III. It works for upright and for 70 percent of my electric gigs. The other 30 percent are usually back-lined. I also have an Avatar 2×12 that I use for larger gigs and Salsa gigs. Also, for the Salsa gigs I use a Sendel Baby bass.
Tim: Well Josh, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.
Josh: Thank you.