Bassist Tony Bunn – Why Is Music Important (The Panel Experiment) by Brent-Anthony Johnson…
Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Tony Bunn. Although I self-identify as a bassist, I’ve worn quite a few hats in my time here. I’ve been a bassist, a composer, a mathematician, a rocket scientist, and an author; and now I’m trying my hand at being a father. Basically, I guess I do what I do when I do it…
Who are your primary musical influences?
I’m affected by everything I hear, and by everything that I’ve heard. Despite having begun the study of music with a desire to play the saxophone (after becoming thoroughly enthralled with Maceo Parker’s sound when he was with James Brown), my list of primary influences runs the gamut. The orchestral works of Stravinsky, Dvorak, Mussorgsky, and the piano works of Liszt and Mozart are among my favorites! As I was a child of the ‘60s, the Motown sound (with the great James Jamerson on bass) was an inescapable influence on me.
One of the first albums that I purchased (around the age of 14) was Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Tarkus, – primarily because I dug the artwork on the cover. That was my introduction to the British progressive rock movement. The group YES (particularly the Close To the Edge recording) was a powerful influence on me around the time that I began to gravitate toward the bass as my primary instrument.
By my junior year in High School, I was steeped mostly in rock music: Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, King Crimson, etc. At the same time there were still a lot of fascinating things happening on the R&B and Funk scenes. Anthony Jackson’s bass playing on the O’Jays’ For The Love of Money really turned my head… around and around! Also, Larry Graham’s approach has always excited me, even before I decided to focus on the bass!
Then I became aware of Stanley Clarke, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, and the jazz-rock movement; and, through that music, I was opened up to the world of Jazz. Miles Davis’ body of work was a huge influence. After tracing back through his jazz-rock innovations to his beginnings, I found my greatest joy in listening to Davis’ Filles de Kilimanjaro and Water Babies recordings.
As far as bass players go… the list is a long one: James Jamerson, (for his bounce), Ron Carter (for his finesse), Stanley Clarke (for his versatility), Jaco Pastorius (for his audacity), Anthony Jackson (for his courage and precision), Larry Graham (for his rhythmic down-hominess), Charlie Haden (for his humor), Paul Jackson (for his earthiness); also Chuck Rainey Carol Kaye, Alphonso Johnson, Miroslav Vitous (for his lyricism), Abe Laboriel, (for his passion), Bootsie Collins (for his intelligent silliness)… and the list goes on and on!
Sun Ra, who was my first professional employer, was also a tremendous influence upon my thinking, and not solely with respect to music. As an acknowledged master in the art of forging one’s own unique path, he was a quite powerful mentor – though I was in his orbit but for a brief period.
What are you listening to musically, in the past 12 months that has enhanced the way you think about music and your craft?
I haven’t been so much a conscious listener, over the past few years. There’s such a wealth of great music available these days, and it all just seems to be part of the mix that’s regularly playing.
With the above having been stated… I must admit that I’m presently in the midst of personal redefinition. I’m involved in the process of evolving my voice, among other things, so it’s imperative for me to look within in order to arrange that which is inside me into a form that’s suitable for external presentation. As I’ve said, “I’m affected by anything I hear… and by anything that I’ve heard.” I was deeply moved by an Ethiopian group that I heard in a club in Virginia, in December 2013. Their songs were in the Amharic language. There is something magical about the combination of the sound of the language and the way it was treated in the melodies they sung. The cadences of the melodies were very different from those I was accustomed to hearing in other types of music; they seemed to always imply motion, even when they’re weren’t moving!
How does your personal musical voice directly relate to the function of the basses? Also, what are your main instruments?
I began playing the clarinet in elementary school, and then I progressed downward in frequency/voice through the alto clarinet, alto saxophone, bass clarinet, trombone, contrabass clarinet, and tuba. Looking back at my early development as a musician, I’m fascinated by my slow gravitation to the bass voice. However, I’m also glad that I had the early experience of actually feeling the other instruments’ voices from within… rather than simply hearing them from an observational perspective. Rather serendipitously, that survey provided me with a better understanding of the role of the bass, as I began to get involved in performances of improvised music.
The bass voice imparts a distinct gravity to an ensemble, and this is true whether that voice occurs in the form of a stringed instrument, drum, or wind instrument. As the gravitational center around which all the other voices (and rhythms) can be seen to orbit, the bass provides a coherent frame of reference to the music. Interestingly enough, it does this even in periods when it is absent from the music. Such is the great power of the bass voice! It provides a type of order that allows even chaos to be itself and still be musically relevant. It is that function of the bass that speaks to, and from, my soul.
When I began playing the bass guitar, during my junior year of high school, there was only the four-string version of the instrument available. After a couple years of working as a professional bassist, I found that 4 strings didn’t provide the depth of range necessary to support what I was trying to express through my music. So, I convinced Paul Reed Smith to build for me what was arguably the first modern five-string electric bass designed for extension of the lower range (with a low B-string). Of course, Fender had a five-string instrument, the Bass V, which had a high C-string. Introduced in 1965, it was discontinued in 1971.
I’ve been playing the 5-string bass (with a low B-string) since 1977.
In 2009, I shifted my focus to begin developing a complete mastery of the fretless bass. July 2014 marks the 5-year anniversary of my most recent release Small World, on which all the bass parts were performed upon a single 5-string fretless bass. The 5-string fretless bass guitar is an extremely lyrical instrument.
Describe your musical composition process.
That’s easy… I have no defined composition process! My compositions tend to be organic outgrowths of my life. Actually, I often wish that I had the discipline to sit and focus on composition from a structural perspective. Then, perhaps I might be a bit more prolific with my compositional output!
Strangely enough, I have a much more disciplined approach to composition of the written word. Then again, with words, one must make sense with a bit more immediacy than is necessary with music. In my case, music tends to be very visceral and I depend upon inspiration to drive me through to completion of a composition. In such a state, the exigencies of the particular moment determine the processes through which I will operate.
Sometimes a melody comes to mind; and then I build the supports necessary to allow it to sing. In other instances, a foundational groove might present itself for further development. Much unlike the fashion in which I deal with words, the path through which my musical compositions emerge is quite obscure… often even to me.
How does music affect your culture and immediate environment?
I’ve been involved in the study and practice of music for so long that it’s difficult for me to draw distinctions between that which is music and that which is not (music). I tend to view any sound as being a part of the soundtrack of my life.
When I look back over my life, I find that there are periods in which I have a voracious appetite for the music of others. While during other periods, I have no desire whatsoever to listen to music. During those latter periods, it’s probably the case that I’m unconsciously involved in the re-synthesis of mine own voice. Perhaps that’s my process of realigning my voice in accordance with the pulse of the times. I’m currently going through one of those phases. Until now, I’ve not given the issue much thought. Interestingly though, others who are close to me often remark about how odd it is for a musician to so often not want to hear music. Whenever I listen to music, it’s never from a casual perspective! Instead, it’s a very active engagement of my complete being.
What would you be, if not a professional musician?
Back in the early 1980’s, I bought into the concept of having something to fall back on in the event that I would be unable to develop a sustainable career (economically speaking) as a musician. So, after 5 years on the road, I went to college to study mathematics. During the period in which I was earning my degree, I came to love the practice of mathematics! Following graduation, I worked in various scientific industries for well over 20 years. In fact, I had a strong hand in developing the flight dynamics systems for satellites that are currently orbiting the Earth! During that period, my involvement in music took a back seat to the work that was paying my bills. Sometimes, I find that diversion of path regrettable, as I wonder “What if …?” with respect to my progress as a professional musician. However, in most instances, I appreciate the richness of experience that comes from having travelled where I’ve been. Once one develops the mental framework of a musician, it never goes away.
Despite my deep involvement in other endeavors, I was never far from the musical life. For me, music has always been about full engagement of my being, and I find that no other realm of interest provides quite the nourishment of spirit that I derive from the creation, practice and performance of music. I returned full-bore to the life of a professional musician about 10 years ago.
Strangely enough, this interview finds me at another point of lull with respect to the economics of my music business. This time, I’m expanding my reach to another branch of artistry: namely, writing. I have very recently completed writing my first book (which has nothing to do with music, per se), and I’m finding much of the passion that I developed as a musician to be directly transferrable to the art of writing.
Still, there is neither art nor science that rivals music with respect to the degree of intimacy that is part and parcel of its practice. Therein lies the singular beauty of music! Perhaps the only human endeavor that’s more intimate than music is sex. (By the way, the book that I just completed is a non-fiction work about human sexuality. As anybody who’s in the knowwill tell you… bass players really do, “do it better”!)
What is the greatest sacrifice you’ve ever made while in the practice of being a musician, and how did that sacrifice affect you?
Music is so much a part of what I am that there are no sacrifices attending my practice of the art.
Describe your standing practice regimen. Also, what technical (and musical) aspects of your playing are you currently working on?
As is the case with my compositional discipline (or lack thereof), my standing practice regimen… sucks. Now, my sitting practice regimen is another matter! But, it sucks, too.
There was a time when a bass was in my hands for 8-hours, or more, every day. There are still periods during which I approach the “working out of concepts” with a high degree of focus and intensity. However, there’s not what I would call a disciplined approach to the way I currently treat my relationship with music.
With regard to the technical aspects that are chief among my concerns, as of late, intonation, Intonation… and INTONATION. With my almost exclusive use of the fretless bass, these days, a mastery of the connection between ear and finger is essential to my being able to express exactly that which I intend. One of the techniques I’m investigating (particularly during live performance) is how to intentionally place bass notes in the microtonal cracks, so as to either broaden or tighten a particular chord within a given progression. It’s a very curious and nuanced science.
What does music, and being a musician, mean to you – at the deepest level of your being?
Absolutely nothing. I am what I am. I am music. What I do is seen as the work of a musician. No matter where I go… no matter what I do.
How important is it to understand the Language of music?
I think it to be quite essential. If one doesn’t understand the language, then one can achieve no intimacy in one’s communication with one’s fellows… and music is all about intimacy, if nothing else.
How do you collect the series of seemingly random influences and articulate them through music?
(Laughter) I just do it!
Can music ever truly become commercial? Why, or why not?
In western society, music has always been commercial. It’s always been bought and sold. If no one buys music, then one will not be able to create it! At least, not for long. An individual can’t persist in an endeavor to which one’s environment will not lend its support.
Bach’s music was commercial; he produced it at the pleasure of (and through the support from) royalty. Likewise for the music of James Brown, Kiss, Chick Corea, etc. In each case, their music flourished owing to support from the social environment. If no one bought it, it would cease to exist.
At the core of the term “commerce” is the concept of “exchange”, and among the definitions of that term are included the exchange of not only goods and commodities, but also the exchange of views and attitudes and energies. Seen in that light, music is not only a medium of exchange, but in fact, it becomes a palpable instantiation of commerce itself.