Absolutely Larry Grenadier: September 2021 Issue
By David C. Gross and Tom Semioli
Absolutely Larry Grenadier: September 2021 Issue
Absolutely: with no qualification, restriction, or limitation; totally: used to emphasize a strong or exaggerated statement:
Chances are if you engage in a conversation with Larry Grenadier, the adverb “absolutely” will emerge several times when the bassist wishes to accentuate a point or two…or three…or four!
If you are a regular reader of this magazine or any other jazz publication, you know the name Larry Grenadier. His collaborations on stage and on record span Fly with Mark Turner and Jeff Ballard; Charles Lloyd, Pat Metheny, Brad Mehldau, Wolfgang Muthspiel, Tom Coster, Mike Stern, Chris Potter, D’Angelo, Herbie Mann, Paul Motian, Gary Burton, Stan Getz, Chick Corea, his wife Rebecca Martin, Harvey Mason, and Joshua Redman to cite a very, very select few.
Akin to many jazz musicians – Larry is as big a fan of the instrument and the genre as you’ll ever meet. His knowledge and passion for all things jazz are seemingly limitless.
We chatted with Larry for Cygnus Radio in early 2021 while we were still in Covid lockdown. Among the topics, we ruminated over included his 2019 solo bass album The Gleaners (ECM), his thoughts on education, the divide between classical and jazz, his motivation and inspiration, select recordings, Sinatra, Bay Area bass legends, and the state of the art form that is recorded music – and jazz.
LG: I was saying to my wife how easy it’s been in many ways. It’s nice to be home! It’s the first time I’ve been “off the road since I was 16… I miss my fellow musicians; I miss playing with a drummer. I’ve done some remote recording and a few streams, but other than that, I’ve been practicing – which I actually enjoy! The hard thing is to stay inspired. The gigs are usually what guide my practice. I’ve also been teaching online and it turns out that my students are doing the same thing as me – trying to keep the callouses from getting soft during written practice…it’s the physical things, especially with the double bass.
TS: I’ve read that your regimen is focused primarily on jazz, is that true?
LG: I’d say about 50% of it is. I have a hard time with the term ‘regimen’ because I’m not very disciplined. I look at it as fluid – that is, I move with what I am interested in now. A lot of times I approach practice as mastering an etude that I’m trying to get ready for a performance. I look at it pragmatically to increase my technique and then to correct my weaknesses with my technique.
Classical music for me does that really well. Whether it’s music for bass or any other instrument. And it’s the same with electric bass. Bringing the electric to the upright I take the approach of ‘how do I make this speak on a bigger, thicker stringed instrument? How do I achieve the same clarity? The same drive? So I look for different sources of inspiration. But no, it’s not necessarily a ‘regimen.”
TS: Interesting that you mention melding upright and electric because your former teacher, Ron Carter, is to my ears, one of those rare bass players who can articulate an upright very similar to the electric. Especially on the soul records he made with Roberta Flack.
TS: It’s kind of interesting how the electric bass obviously came so much later and really didn’t gain much respect in the jazz world until Jaco came along in the mid-1970s. You started out on electric thanks to your father, who gave you your first electric bass.
LG: He did. Most of the people of my generation and younger started on electric. And what we grew up listening to was very much informed by the electric. From The Beatles to Jaco Pastorius. We always had the radio on and absorbed what was on the charts.
DG: And you’re from the west coast so make that Jaco and Rocco! As in Tower of Power’s Francis Rocco Prestia!
LG: Yes! (laughter) The amazing thing about the East Bay – that moment in the late 60’s early 70’s we had Larry Graham, Rocco, Paul Jackson, Doug Rauch, and many others. And who was the guy who replaced Larry in Sly & The Family Stone?
TS: Rustee Allen!
LG: Yeah, Rustee Allen, he’s another great player…. but there was a guy who played with a pick – he’s still around. (Larry, David, Tom could not recall Bobby Vega whom LG was referring to….)
It was a great moment for bass in the Bay Area.
TS: And let’s not forget Jack Casady, Phil Lesh…
LG: Absolutely! I’m just getting into Jack Casady now and appreciating him after all these years. He’s not only a great player, but he changed the way bass is played.
TS: Was your father seeking a bassist to back him up and outline the changes!?
LG: (laughter) He had stopped playing by the time we were born, actually. But he instilled the music bug in me and my two brothers. My brother Steve played guitar, Phil played trumpet, and he thought the bass would be a good instrument for us to all play together. It could have been drums, I’m not sure exactly why he chose the bass.
I took to the electric bass really quick. I played in a band right away – one week of holding the instrument I was gigging.
DG: Well, it’s only four strings!
LG: (laughter) Absolutely, and you only have to play one note at a time! How easy is that! It was pretty easy for me to cop stuff off records. The idea of playing in a band right away – to me, that’s what music is about. I’m glad for that because I think about the opposite – having to practice by yourself for years before you even get to play with other people. That sounded so sad to me!
DG: One of the main reasons I wanted to have you on is to discuss how electric players can learn from acoustic players and vice versa. I was blown away by your double bass workshop in Britain where you went up your scales one way, down another, up another way, and down another way…and I thought ‘oh my God, I just got the idea for a new book!
[NOTE: the title of David’s book is: Learning the Fingerboard for the Six String Bass and The 6-String Bass Warmup which are available on TheBassGuitarChannel.com]
LG: (laughter) Great!
DG: Let’s talk about your bowing technique, I was listening to Edwin Barker: his bowing technique is amazing. Then I listened to your recent solo bass album The Gleaners (ECM) and I think “wow, that’s pretty flawless as well!” Would you say your classical practice is helpful, especially in terms of the arco technique?
LG: Absolutely, Classical is good for… everything! That’s why I encourage all my students to study classical. It informs everything – the right-hand bow technique, and the led hand becomes really magnified in some ways. Obviously with intonation… but with shifting, and moving around this really big fingerboard.
For example, this idea of improvising fingerings for scales, this kind of came out of that practice for me. Trying to feel comfortable with the whole fingerboard right away, have freedom of movement, and express myself in the way that I see fit – sonically – for whatever situation I see myself in. It’s important to not feel limited to a certain area of the bass – and to get out of your comfort zone.
To me, studying and practicing classical opens up the full expression of the instrument. And gives me the confidence to move around and to grab notes at any point – simply because you’re cool with it. And you know you can get that sound you’re looking for and the intonation is going to be good when you have classical chops. You can move around in any area of the bass.
And I think just musically – we’re talking seven hundred years of information that organized in such a beautiful way. Jazz definitely comes out of this type of music. For me, melodically, harmonically all that classical stuff really informs my jazz playing. The bow, to me, it’s a lot more than just the right hand. It’s a whole way of enlarging your scope of what you are taking in.
DG: I think also when you are going up and down the neck, in various ways, you’re beginning to hear intervals a bit differently. When I was at Berklee a million years ago when the electric bass was considered a ‘bastard’ instrument, so many of my teachers told me to get my ears in shape. Ear training became ear straining! At the same time, with your approach – being anywhere and being comfortable – is directly related to ear training.
LG: That’s true! Absolutely. You have to hear the note before you play it. Intonation is such a huge thing with the upright bass. We need to play it in tune, and that’s not easy. One of the things that really helps is hearing the pitch before you play it – so you can adjust right away if it’s slightly off. That’s another part of ear training. And also hearing it and knowing it is really the center of the pitch. And that’s another type of ear training. It’s not exactly perfect pitch, but you get to that point where you feel the bass vibrating when that pitch is really in the center. And once you can do that really well, then you can play around with the pitch – say you want to play a little flat – you can be in control of that.
DG: Your solo bass record, The Gleaners (ECM) – which I feel is essential listening – could not have been better recorded. ECM is the premier record company akin to Blue Note was in the 1950s in that they understand how to capture everything with regard to sound. Did you do any interesting tunings on The Gleaners or is that standard E – A – D – G?
LG: The discoveries for me when I was preparing for that record were checking out different tunings on the bass. I experimented for a while and found some that I liked – and they were typically all lower-pitched. When I tuned ‘up’ it was interesting, but sonically it did not move me in quite the same way. When I would tune things down, and they weren’t in perfect 4ths – I combined 3rds and 4ths – all of a sudden the harmonics changed but the way the bass vibrated changed! That consequently inspired me to play different music.
At first, it’s a way to come to the instrument anew. I would never have played it that way in standard tuning! On the title track, I believe the tuning is, low to high D – G – D – F#.
DG: Did you compose the title track for the artist Jean Francois-Millet about his 1857 painting?
LG: You know how these titles work! It’s the seed of an inspiration! I saw this great movie by Agnes Varda entitled The Gleaners and I (2000) and it connected with not only the times we’re in but what I was thinking about while practicing – so it came out of that.
DG: Tomorrow we have an interview with Michael Manring who is the “King of De-Tuning the Bass!”
LG: Yes he is! I started doing some solo concerts after the record came out and the tuning thing becomes kind of an issue. It breaks up the flow of a concert – luckily I’ve gotten much quicker at tuning on stage but in the studio, it’s much easier.
DG: Tom and I have always said there are the bass players who are pre-Jaco and there are the post-Jaco players. Pretty much every rock and roll bass player out of Britain, who was listening to the blues grew up on Willie Dixon. Is there a blues riff that Willie Dixon didn’t write?
LG: (Laughter) Hopefully Wille had some money at the end of his life! Yes, it’s a different thing. And I think, you know, in the 1970s and 80s, you know, we get more into the ‘rock’ and less of the roll.
That’s why it’s so important that we talk about history. Yeah, we want to be contemporary bass players or contemporary musicians, but we also need to inform ourselves so that our music maintains a certain groove and vibe, which to me comes from the past.
And the further we get from it, the more possible it is that we lose it. So that’s even more of a reason to continue to do research to check out from where this all came out of, which is primarily the blues. It informs our rhythmic parts mostly, phrasing… where we place the beat.
TS: A topic David and I address with all our guests is the album format in the 21st Century. With streaming videos and songs I can access music at my fingertips. Is a long-player collection of compositions by a single artist relevant anymore? The journey that the artist takes you on a record… which we played until it wore out – is that All important? Is it the best of times or the worst of times?
LG: That’s the big question!
I mean, I kind of base it on what I see my students dealing with since that’s most of my connection with younger people. It’s both. As you said, I think there’s a beautiful opportunity to see people play on YouTube. When I first went to Japan, when I was in my 20s, I used to go to this video shop that had bootlegs and gather all these types of people I had never seen before. Now it’s all available for free on your computer. And that’s cool.
However, there is this burden of information for young players which they are dealing with. I think there is a certain anxiety that goes with it. “I got to know how to play like Jamerson…I got to know how to play like Jaco…it’s a lot of stuff. And it may force people to move on too quickly. It’s an immediate feeling of “I got that, what’s next….”
Whereas we would sit with a single record for weeks or months and absorb it slowly. It’s a mix. I think it puts a lot of pressure on how we take in information. We have to make sure we are as thorough as we can be and not feel this pressure of moving through it all too quickly.
For example, I didn’t know how to play Cuban music at all when I came to New York. And then I started playing with Danilo Perez. And he would tell me who to listen to. He turned me on to these great recordings, and I soaked it up… I didn’t ‘master’ it at all. I was pragmatically getting it together so that I could get through the gig. And the reason is that you do not have to master everything! You need to get a sense of what the style is. Where is it coming out of? What is the essence of the music?
DG: Let’s chat about your new album The Gleaners. I love how once again, it’s an ECM recording. And once again, the sound is just fantastic. And the ECM album covers are works of art!
LG: Yeah, this is the whole aesthetic of Manfred Eicher (ECM founder/producer). It’s like the whole thing is connected, right? The way it looks is the way it sounds.
And you recognize it immediately. Manfred also is a visionary. He doesn’t really say much while you’re recording. He has more of a hand, I would say, in mixing the album very quickly, kind of off the cuff, but he finds it really quick. And he is great at sequencing the album – which was helpful for me.
You know, the mix was interesting because I recorded The Gleaners in New York, but I happened to mix it in France with Manfred, and a different studio. And did I think we started at 9:00 AM in the morning, and we’re done by 12:30? Super-fast! With him, it’s really kind of jazzy in that way. It’s like, kind of go with your instincts. You know he has great instincts.
And he is a former bass player so his affinity for the instrument is incredible. And that’s true of all the instruments on ECM records. I grew up loving those records in part because of the bass always sounding so great.
DG: Think about all of the ECM albums you have appeared on!
LG: The first ones I did were with Charles Lloyd and we developed a relationship over the years.
DG: Your version of “Lotus Blossom” on Charles Lloyd’s The Water Is Wide (ECM / 2000) has such a fabulous sound!
LG: That was a great record, and the very first record I’d played with Charles. I had played with Billy Higgins when I was a kid, well, I was 18. He was always one of my favorite drummers so to get to play with him again was really amazing. And that includes the gigs we did after the record came out. And I was playing with Brad at that time at a club called Largo in Los Angeles. So we did that record during the days… the vibe was just right. Everything came together and the sound matched that energy.
DG: And it’s scary how he can reproduce that “Rainbow Studio” sound anywhere!
LG: Right, well that was actually done in another great LA studio – yeah good engineers – good musicians! Most records should sound better than they do! It’s not rocket science! The sound has to be there from the beginning, it comes from the player. And then it has to be caught thoughtfully and carefully.
TS: When I think about your solo bass album The Gleaners, we bass players in the studio and on stage are always surrounded by other musicians – talk about the experience of being all alone!
LG: I wish I’d talked to you guys before I did because that’s the one thing I did not think about! (laughter) I was just concerned with the music. Once I started playing by myself in the studio I thought ‘whoa this is really bizarre!’ Because as you say, we bass players are always reacting. So that was a strange moment where I had to come to terms with it pretty quickly. We only had two days to record!
Once I could hone in on the sound of the instrument in the room, at Avatar in New York City. It’s not a huge room, but it has a nice sound to it. Once I could feel the sound coming back to me, that’s what I was playing to. I was reacting to that sound as opposed to a drummer or other instruments.
DG: The tune “Pettiford” I assume you have a strong affinity for Oscar Pettiford.
DG: There was one unreleased song entitled “Deep Passion” – are you familiar with that composition?
LG: Yes! With Lucky Thompson! I love that song – we used to play that tune with Fly (a trio with saxophonist Mark Turner, and drummer Jeff Ballard)
DG: On our radio show we’re going to play your version of “Pettiford” followed by “Deep Passion.”
LG: Great! That is a passionate song… I got into him very early. Somehow, I saw the record and I liked the cover and I bought it. I immediately connected with his clarity. And his melodicism and the way he brought the bass out front. I have so much respect for him and what he brought to the instrument. To me, he is one of those seminal figures between swing and be-bop. He really helped bring us all into another era.
DG: You take Jimmy Blanton, and then Pettiford is the next step.
LG: Absolutely, and then you have Ray Brown.
DG: Another thing I want our listeners to get is that to be a consummate musician – you can’t just listen to the idiom you just listened to!
LG: Well, this is what I am always saying about the beauty of the bass. And it’s great for electric bass players to know too – the bass’ function in every type of music is the same. What we give the music, how we show the form, the harmony – by playing the rhythm it feels better than if we were not playing. And then there is all this melodic content that is the counterpoint that is happening throughout the whole tune. And whether it is repeated as in pop music or it’s always changing as it does in jazz – it always has the same function.
The bass player is in a great spot to recognize that all music is the same… and our sources of inspiration are endless! We are in the position where we can go to Bach…we can go to Jimi Hendrix…we can go to Delaney & Bonnie… it’s all wide open!
TS: Early in your career you worked with many legacy artists
…Joe Henderson, Stan Getz, Jack DeJohnette, Charles Lloyd, Paul Motian…now think about all the great bass players they worked with and made great records with – Charlie Hayden, Ron McClure, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro…the list goes on. When you worked with these icons – did you ever try to reference those players?
LG: I think I did that in my early years. I had soaked up a lot of influences from those people you mentioned. Some of it was transcribing and some of it was just figuring out just by doing a lot of listening to their records. So when I went to play with those people, I wasn’t consciously thinking of it – but at certain moments I would think of those players and it would just come out!
That’s the thing, you take all these influences and then you sift through them and then eventually at the end – it’s you.
I can listen to certain records I made and say ‘oh yeah, I got that from Charlie Haden… I got that from Ron Carter…’ I’m hoping that other people don’t hear it like that. I hope they’re hearing this whole thing that becomes me.
TS: This shows the importance of knowing the history of the instrument.
LG: Absolutely. Every once and awhile I run into somebody who has no idea of the history of the instrument, and yet they still play really well. But I think being aware of those who came before us helps us, it informs us and helps us develop our own sound eventually.
We’re at a different point now where there is so much information out there…and so easy to access it – so it can be a bit overwhelming. When I was a kid I had one record coming in a month, now you have millions of records available with a click.
You have to study. It’s like anything else – if you want to do it well – even if it’s cooking – you go to someone who does it better than you. How do you learn to walk on the blues? I’m going to listen to Paul Chambers. I’m going to listen to Ron Carter. Or Jimmy Garrison. And why wouldn’t you want to do that if you are trying to do something! You go to the source!
The only drawback is if you get super hooked up on one person.
TS: David and I were recalling the 1970s wherein it seemed that every bass player added a bridge pickup to sound like Jaco!
LG: Right! And that’s the thing – no matter what – nobody can really ‘sound’ like Jaco Pastorius no matter how hard they try.
DG: Tom and I have an idea: if you give two ten years old’s a bass each, one electric and one acoustic; the electric player would be given links to YouTube and the upright player would be given Simandl.
LG: Right! You know, I have this issue with classical and jazz. It’s extremely separated from the way it’s taught in schools. In addition to the physical walls, there are mental ‘walls’ between the two music departments. The jazz student may be able to take one lesson per month with the classical teacher, but never does the classical student take a lesson from the jazz teacher. It’s a territorial thing that does damage to both musical disciplines. It’s not helping either music to grow.
I think it’s a little better now than it used to be. Like you men.on David about how the bass guitar was viewed negatively at Berklee. And that feeling still exists. In the States, I still find this distinction between the departments.
I’ll just come out and say it – I feel the classical musicians just don’t understand what we are doing as jazz musicians. They think that we are playing whatever we want to play off the top of our heads! So they don’t really see it as relevant to their own music and how it can inform their own playing. Now that’s not everybody, but I’m speaking in general.
DG: I agree with you.
LG: It does a disfavor to the music as it grows into the 21st Century.
DG: Solo bassist Gary Karr once said “I like to paint myself into a corner then find my way out!”
LG: See, to me he is the exception. He always appreciated jazz bass players connected with Richard Davis – he is the great example to me of how jazz informed his classical playing and vice versa. Just like with Edgar Meyer and how his bluegrass country music is informed in the same way. But in academia, it is very confined. And to me, that is very limiting. So I always ask jazz bass students to take lessons from classical instructors. And classical players should show up to the clubs and see what we are doing.
DG: So let’s talk about Wofgang Muthspiel and D’ Angelo.
LG: Oh, yeah, Wolfgang, yeah, yeah. I met him in 1990. When I was playing with Gary Burton in Boston.
My friend, Donny McCaslin, who was playing saxophone, told me that Gary was looking for a bass player. I went out there. I met Wolfgang, as he was playing with Gary that year as well. Yeah, we just kind of connected and we started to play together once we both led Gary, I guess in ‘91 as he started getting his solo career going. And we were playing a lot in Europe at that time.
I’ve always appreciated his compositions. Like me he’s another guy who was very much influenced by classical music and brought that into this composing, we’re kind of connected in that way. And then these records he did for ECM, you know, he kind of put together kind of an all-star band. With Brad (Meldau), Brian Blade, and Ambrose Akinmusire, people like that.
It was just another one of those things where you go into the studio, it sounds good right away. It’s like, you can’t really mess it up because it’s all cool. Like even if you mess it up, it ends up sounding good, you know?
Earlier when I was in New York, I did a record with D’Angelo, which was his first record. When I first heard his stuff. I was like, ‘oh my God, this guy, he’s got everything harmonically, rhythmically …it was a no-brainer that this guy was going to be huge. To play bass on his stuff was like playing with Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway!
DG: For our show, let’s talk about your trio recording of the tune “Ode” and then we can segue into the song “Toward The Light” when Pat Metheny joined in.
LG: Well, first of all, ‘Ode’ to me is an amazing composition. I think Brad has written some tunes that could be classified as standards. I’m sure they will be thought of as such. He has a unique fingerprint with a composition that steeped pop music, classical music, jazz… certainly a unique voice.
‘Ode,’ is a kind of a pop tune with a lot of harmony. It’s also one of those tunes, like with Brad, you’ve been playing so long, and he’s written so many tunes that over the years, what we’ve done touring wise, it’s kind of always been doing new material. You know, as he writes it, in the last few years, we’ve been talking more about, let’s bring in some of the older tunes, let’s place those tunes that we played at the beginning of the middle and just reinterpret them as we are now. And that song is one of them that we were playing up until the Covid pandemic. It’s kind of neat to do that too, to see how we play them now, maybe ten years later.
With Pat, I had been playing a trio with Pat, let’s see, that would have been, you know, the late ‘90s off and on that time. Pat and Brad were big fans of each other. There was definitely a musical admiration that goes in both directions. It just seemed like the right thing to collaborate. I remember that recording really well because my wife Rebecca was pregnant and about to deliver any day. And I was going back and forth into the city to record hoping to get back in time. It was a bit of added anxiety for me to do that record.
But what else do I also remember that we did it in the studio, that’s no longer there, in Midtown Manhattan on the far West Side – Right Track Studio. I had never been in such a huge studio. It was like, you had to almost get a golf cart to go from one end to the other! We weren’t really that close, it was kind of a weird setup because it was such a huge room. It was one of those things like, ‘I hope this works!’
Then we went out and toured for a nice big chunk of time after that and got to play a lot of that music together live and to broaden it and expand on it. Like anything, it just always gets better. It gets more open. Playing with each other, we figured out how to go to a deeper place. And it’s funny because I was thinking, ‘wow, it would be so great to do it again.’ Now, whatever it’s been like fifteen years later. So hopefully, that will could be something that we could get to some more and see what develops!
DG: This morning we went out to get coffee and I had ‘Ode’ on in the car and my wife said ‘that reminds me of a Stevie Wonder song!”
LG: Oh yeah, it’s a really beautiful tune. Rebecca wrote some lyrics to it. And we’ve recorded it too and played it live. It is kind of a pop tune actually. Harmonically it’s pretty inventive. And also, just the way Brad arranged the layering of the bass which is kind of ‘out’, and then it kind of joins in with the melody and gets really a different setting.
DG: I’m a big Sinatra fan. And when you were playing with Ethan Iverson, you did “What’s New?”
LG: That’s a great tune. It’s a classic. I mean, if you always if you want to learn standards, go to Frank Sinatra! He covered all the great ones. And if you go back to a lot of these early singing versions, there are different keys – so you learn them in different keys, which is always helpful as a musician just to be able to move through keys on the same tune, but also how the key of the song greatly affects the mood of the song.
DG: It’s interesting that he picked that song from that record, because to me, “Only the Lonely” may be the greatest Sinatra record, bar none, with Lee Konitz – there’s a whole “Lennie Tristano” thing going on there as well.
LG: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, that was a fun record (Ethan Anderson / Costumes are Mandatory – 2013). That was another record that was probably done in like six hours. We had not all played together as a quartet before. Lee Konitz was amazing. He was one of those guys you notice from that generation in one note! Sonically it’s right to the center of the heart. I remember on that date I was looking down and he had a towel in his horn while he was recording! I wasn’t sure if he was aware that he led it there or he was trying to get that sound! I didn’t say anything. A little later it was out of the horn, perhaps he led it in! Those guys could do no wrong!
DG: But don’t you find it interesting that you’ve got this chunk of metal and can tell Coltrane to Konitz to Barbieri in a note or two!
LG: Right! It’s unbelievable. And you know, I always think of that with the piano too, which is such a mechanical instrument. But you have two piano players sit at the same piano, you get two different sounds. You know electric instruments unique like that, too. Electric guitar, electric bass…So that’s the beauty of music, it’s made up of individuals and personali.es that change the way we think about that instrument.
DG: It’s all in the hands, the heart, and soul!
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