Featured bass Interview – Chicago Bassist Chuck Webb
In this issue, we sit and chat with Chicago bassist Chuck Webb about his new CD/DVD project. Chuck, for those who may not be aware, has a very long resume of being a sideman to many great players. He has toured and recorded with many musicians who are known around the world. In addition to that, he also maintains a very active teaching schedule.
Bass Musician Magazine (BMM): Chuck, thank you so much for taking the time to sit and chat. We appreciate your fitting us into your busy schedule. Word on the street in Chicago is that you and your new band, The Chuck Webb Band just recorded a new CD/DVD. Can you tell us a little bit about what you chose to record, where you recorded…and the line up of players you used? Of course, please tell us the title of your new CD and DVD.
Chuck Webb (CW): Firstly, Vuyani I really want to thank you for the opportunity to talk to you & BMM readers. I truly appreciate it! Yes, after many years of being a sideman last year I decided to start my own band project, The CWB (the Chuck Webb Band).
I really have my wife to thank (or to blame) for giving me the kick in the behind to finally do this. Just before my birthday last year she decided to throw me a party at a very popular weekly jazz event here in Chicago hosted by the Hyde Park Jazz Society. Not only did she arrange for the party to be held there she also booked ME to be the featured performer! I put together some of my favorite players and we performed two sets of straight ahead jazz & contemporary jazz/funk to a packed house.
The whole event went over so well that I knew I had a great concept for a band. After several great performances around the city I decided to take it to the next level and record the CD/DVD “No Smoke, No Mirrors.” I knew that even though I’ve been touring & recording for quite a while, I am a new name to a lot of people, so I wanted this CD to be a good representation of all of my bass identities.
Since I am a doubler on upright & electric, the CD is half acoustic and half electric. I chose to record the whole disk live with an audience in great little studio called Sound Mine which is just minutes from my house on the south side of Chicago. Some of my favorite jazz and contemporary recordings are live sets so I wanted to capture that same energy but with the audio quality that you can only get in a studio environment. Best of both worlds!
Some of the best musicians in the world are either from Chicago or still live here & I was very fortunate to pull together the best of the best for this project. You know, sometimes I get a little disappointed when I get a CD from a musician that I really like and the music on it is all about their compositions, or their production chops and they don’t really get down and play. I can guarantee that listeners won’t be disappointed with “No Smoke, No Mirrors” because we play our hearts out!
The line up on the CD is:
- Me on electric & upright bass
- Ben Johnson on drums
- Buddy Fambro on electric & acoustic guitars
- Tom Vaitsas on acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and Hammond B3 organ
- Steve Eisen on tenor sax & flute
- Michael Scott on vocals
BMM: You definitely brought out the big guns, in terms of players, for this project. Your concept of recording live with an audience pays homage to the essence of jazz performance. The emphasis on “getting down and playing” fits in very well with the Chicago musical culture. Can you talk a little bit with us about the songs on “No Smoke, No Mirrors”? How were they chosen? Did you include your own compositions?
CW: It was really tough to decide on what tunes to put on “No Smoke, No Mirrors”. I felt that I needed to show as many sides of my musical personality as possible & still have the record be cohesive. That was a challenge because I play in and love so many different styles of music. My heart is in straight ahead jazz, electric funk, and R&B/ soul music so that is the essence of what the CD is about.
I included two of my original songs on the CD. “Swank” is an angular minor blues that features some cool left hand piano doubling the bass line and some ridiculously killer solos. “Momo’s Groove” is a song that I wrote for my mother (affectionately called Momo by the family). It’s a modern take on that 60’s Soul/Jazz sound that I grew up listening to as a kid.
I chose the cover tunes to represent the music that I love & the artists that influenced me. On the acoustic side there’s the beautiful but not often covered “Beatrice” by Sam Rivers. I first heard Chet Baker’s version of this song and fell in love with the elegant melody. It features me on upright bass in a traditional trio setting. Next is “Armando’s Rhumba” by Chick Corea. I always dug this tune for it’s Spanish/Latin vibe. I actually played this song a lot on tour with Ramsey Lewis. Most of the other versions of this song are played really fast and, for me, that kind of kills the groove a little bit. I decided to slow it down to what I call South Side Chicago Groove tempo! It’s actually very danceable the way we played it. We did it all acoustic with piano, upright, drums, acoustic guitar and a brilliant performance by Steve Eisen on flute.
Finally I covered “Song For Bilbao” by Pat Metheny. I first got hip to this tune from Michael Brecker’s version. I rearranged it a little to feature our drummer, Ben Johnson who IMO is one of the best soloists on drums today.
For the electric tunes I paid tribute to Charles Mingus with “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.” A lot of bass players have done this tune but I put a different spin on it with an extended solo electric bass intro and melody (on my Sadowsky RV5) and some interesting re-harmonizations.
We also did Thelonius Monk’s “Epistrophy.” I heard Russell Gunn’s version of this while I was driving one day & almost crashed the car it was so funky. I adapted that concept for my version and did a lot of slapping for the funk fans. I knew I wanted to do some straight up R&B or soul songs on the CD, so of course I went with the Godfather-James Brown. My all time favorite JB tune is Get On The Good Foot. The simplicity and the groove factor are just killing on that tune. I always loved the little bass breaks James put in the record but I wished the were longer, so of course for my version I did an extended bass solo on that break section. I used my Fender Road Worn P-bass on this track so there’s some real P-funk going on.
And finally I had to do some Stevie Wonder because he is my all time favorite composer. I chose a version of “Living for the City” that features the bass playing the 3/4 interlude section as a solo and some hot New York style sax and piano solo sections. Michael Scott came in and laid down some serious vocals on these tunes for me live with the band in one take. Smoking!
BMM: Your selection of tunes sounds great. I’ve always loved “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat”, as well as the bulk of Stevie Wonder’s catalog. Of course, you can’t go wrong with any James Brown song.
Although we are focusing on your new Chuck Webb Band CD/DVD release “No Smoke, No Mirrors”, we should talk a little about your background. I know, from a conversation I had a couple years ago with our mutual friend, Nashville bassist Roy Vogt, that you attended the University of Miami. In addition to that, you toured, recorded or performed with a spectacular list of artists from various genres. In your opinion, what gigs, tours or music classes were pivotal in helping you arrive at this point in your musical development and career?
CW: I have been very very fortunate in my career. Even though I’m not a household name I’ve been able to sustain a great touring, studio, teaching and local schedule that has supported me & my family for many years. I’ve toured or recorded with Al DiMeola, Ramsey Lewis, David Sanborn, Grover Washington Jr., Freddy Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Bill Withers, Joe Sample, Jerry Butler, Phil Perry and many others.
As far helping me to arrive at where I am today, the Al DiMeola situation taught me to never underestimate your potential. I was living in Chicago and got a phone call out of the blue from Al’s tour manager that my name was put on the list to be invited to audition for Al’s upcoming tour. At that time I was only vaguely familiar with Al’s music. Of course I was hip to his Return TO Forever work but not much else.
My initial impulse was to say thanks but no thanks to the audition because I didn’t think an unknown Chicago guy like me would ever get that gig. Fortunately, my inner voice said “You’ll always regret it if you don’t at least try!” So, I bought a round trip ticket to New York for that Thursday morning, returning that same night!
The audition was at S.I.R. in Manhattan & when I got there the hallway was literally packed with bass players all shredding DiMeola licks! I thought to myself “Oh hell no, no way you’re going to get this gig!” When it was my turn I went in & the cats in the band were very cool, friendly & laid back. I really didn’t know any DiMeola tunes but my reading was decent so we went through some things. I thought I did pretty well on the basic parts of the songs, but there were some 16th note unison lines that I knew I didn’t nail.
When it was over everybody said nice job & I cabbed it back to the airport and came home. I figured I wouldn’t get the gig but I was proud of myself for giving it my best shot. 2 days later I got the call that I did indeed get the gig and I toured with Al for close to two years from 1987 to 89.
I found out after the fact that the reason I got the gig over the other players was that even though a lot of them knew the tunes & could play all the fast licks Al & the band liked the way I made the music FEEL and they dug my groove the best. They said they could tell that I could learn all the licks, but the groove was something you either had or you didn’t have. Needless to say GROOVE FIRST has been my credo ever since.
Another big lesson I learned was on a short tour with David Sanborn. David & the guys in that band played with such intensity it was like every gig was the Superbowl. That taught me the importance playing with complete conviction at all times. Ramsey Lewis taught me about the power & importance of playing softly. Most inexperienced players play too loud all the time.
In Ramsey’s band we had to be able to groove as hard as hell but do it at a whisper volume. When you can do that it makes your loud playing really mean something. If you just play loud all the time it’s like someone shouting at you. Eventually you just tune it out.
BMM: Those are great lessons! Teaching is another significant part of your career. Currently, you are the Director of Bass Studies at Columbia College in Chicago. How has teaching impacted you as a player?
CW: I really love teaching and I am a MUCH better player because of my teaching experience. Having to continually teach basic concepts to intermediate level students really solidifies my knowledge of the essentials of theory and functional bass playing. Then when I get the occasional super talented & gifted student it really makes me bust my butt to stay a step or two ahead of them so I have something fresh to teach in each lesson! The administrative roles that I have at Columbia came about by really being a reliable, professional presence and being the kind of person that will get the job done no matter what, no excuses.
BMM: As a doubler on acoustic upright bass and the electric bass, what do you do to keep your chops up on both instruments?
CW: Practice a lot! (laughs…) Really, there is no other way. I try to practice every single day and if I have to miss a day for some reason I feel “off.” My practice time is split about 65/35 upright/electric. Because I have more years behind me as an electric player it comes more naturally to me. Upright definitely takes more time and effort for me. I start every upright session with arco studies.
I’ve found that the other big thing about being a doubler is perception. It’s important that people in your musical circles know what you do and perceive you the way you want them to. When I really got serious about playing upright I only listened to acoustic jazz for about a year. I would go to jam sessions and just be seen on the jazz set. It worked so well that some people didn’t even know that I played electric bass. You have to REALLY love to play both instruments because it’s a lot of work to play them both well and authentically!
BMM: Thank you for being so candid in sharing how much effort you put into being the first call double you are. Most of all, we appreciate your sharing how much of your practice time you devote to each instrument.
When is “No Smoke, No Mirrors” being released? Aside from your website (www.chuckwebbmusic.com), where else will it be available for purchase or download? I hope you are planning a CD/DVD release party as well so Bass Musician Magazine readers can hear about that.
CW: “No Smoke, No Mirrors” will be released on May 23 on ITunes, CD Baby, Amazon & my website (www.chuckwebbmusic.com). Clips from the live recording session will be on YouTube and my Facebook page (facebook.com/chuckwebbbass).
BMM: Thanks so much Chuck for taking the time to talk to Bass Musician Magazine. We hope that your CD/DVD project “No Smoke, No Mirrors” will be wildly successful for you!