Steve Rodby was, without a doubt, one of the nicest people I got to meet when writing for Bassist mag. Along with Michael Manring, Lee Sklar, Jimmy Haslip and a handful of others, he was one of the interviewees that inspired me as much by his personality, grace and enthusiasm as by his wise words and exceptional playing. His thoughts on soloing in this interview were particularly enlightening…
He’s also, bizarrely, one of the most underrated bassists on the planet. I’ve had the ‘who could replace Steve Rodby?’ conversations with loads of great bassists the world over, and no-one has yet suggested another player that does everything that Steve does as well as Steve does it in the Pat Metheny Group. His jazz upright playing is exemplary, his bowing beautiful, his rock and pop electric playing makes him sound like he’s spent the last 40 years studying nothing but great rock/pop bass playing. He’s a proper low-frequency master of all trades. So here’s the interview – again, frustratingly, it’s an edit of a very long and involved conversation that I wish I had transcribed… maybe I’ll have to start an ‘in conversation’ podcast – could be a fun project for NAMM… Anyway, have a read of this, then go and listen to any of the PMG albums that Steve plays on, and be amazed at what a great player he is. One thing to keep in mind is that when Richard Bona joined the PMG, he joined as a singer. That’s how good Steve is :o)
For 20 Years now The Pat Metheny Group has been one of the biggest selling acts on the contemporary jazz scene. It has consistently filled concert halls and arenas the world over, and produced a series of critically acclaimed albums that have touched on almost every imaginable area of contemporary music, from Latin to industrial, drum ‘n’ bass to avante garde and freeform improv.
Since 1982 Steve Rodby’s upright and electric bass grooves have driven the band’s sound, helping to define the style that is now instantly recognisable as the PMG.
Bassist collared Steve for the low down on all things Metheny-esque while they were in London earlier this year for three nights at the Shepherds Bush Empire.
SL – You started out as a Classical bassist, but made the switch to Jazz fairly early on. How did that come about?
‘I always thought I’d be a classical bassist. My father is a classical musician, so that seemed the obvious direction. I went to college to study, but I don’t think I was ever quite at the level where I would have landed a really good orchestral post.
‘Very early on I started playing pop. When I was in college I got a couple of calls for studio work and I took to those sessions extremely well. Because orchestra playing was kinda boring, I played this game with my self when I was a kid where I would imagine that there was a mic in front of my bass recording every note that I played and that someone was going to say “Rodby, come in here!” and then play the tape back and say “What were you doing there”'”
‘So when I finally got in the studio, it was a fairly stress free process as I’d been playing for imaginary tape recorders for years!!
‘I also started to play electric bass, and made the switch to playing pop easily as that’s the music I was listening to all the time.
‘I finished college got my degree in classical bass, but by half way through college I was playing fairly regularly on the Chicago jazz scene.
‘My big break came when the great bass player Rufus Reid, who played in the house band at the Jazz Showcase (prestigious Chicago jazz venue), moved to New York, so the gig was up for grabs. The owner of the club seemed to like the way I played, and I ended up playing five nights, three sets a night with all these amazing visiting musicians like Milt Jackson, Sonny Stitt and Joe Henderson. The drummer in the house band had played with Charlie Parker and the pianists were all 30 years older than me and knew so much about music. And here I was this nerdy college kid with a classical background and all I had going for me was my ear and a feel!’
How did you learn all the tunes?
‘When I first started playing bass, my dad bought would play guitar and we would play duets. To teach me a song, he would write the roots notes and bar lines down, with no information about what else to play, so I had to improvise from the very beginning.
‘On the gigs, I was doing the same thing – following roots and knowing instinctively what the rest of the notes were. The piano players would play the first few choruses very clearly until I had it. I learned on the bandstand rather than in the practice room or out of books. I never really studied as much as I wish that I had.’
How did you first hook up with Pat?
‘I’d met Pat at various jazz camps when we were younger, and had stayed in touch. He was looking to add acoustic bass to his band and was auditioning players. My name came up so he called me and I went to NY and auditioned. Shortly after that he offered me the job.
‘When I met Pat I was an unformed nobody from small town Illinois, who didn’t even know what chords were, and he was already the future of music – he was 18 and had it all figured out. He was so far ahead of the game it was unbelievable. But when we played there was something about the style of the music that I felt that I could understand that I couldn’t account for – It may have been similar backgrounds and a shared love of pop music, the Beatles. It just made sense. I used to listen to the first couple of PMG albums and say to myself – ‘that’s my music’. It really was my dream group.’
Was it intimidating to work with Pat after the succession of great bassists that he’d already worked with?
‘Mmm, not really. The only thing that could have freaked me was Pat’s relationship with Jaco. Not only because he played with Jaco, but he REALLY played with Jaco. Bright Sized Life was one of the best records ever made. The next time I saw Pat after he met Jaco he said, “Oh man, I just heard a bass player that is going to change music. He sounds like John McLaughlin and John Coltrane only better – and on bass!!” – Pat doesn’t say stuff like that lightly!
‘Once I heard Jaco I just said “forget it, I’m not even going to try!” I was one of the few bassists on the planet who loved Pat and Weather Report but didn’t get a fretless and transcribe Jaco’s licks. I’ve never transcribed a bass solo in my life! Hearing Jaco also kept me away from playing fretless. So I thought if I’m going to do anything, I’ll play acoustic bass and I’ll play fretted pop style bass. Playing acoustic bass with Pat gave me a lot of freedom because what I was doing was different to what Mark Egan, Jaco or Charlie Haden had done. That’s my way of being able to sleep at night, otherwise I would have shot myself a long time ago!!’
How did the group develop such a distinctive sound?
‘In the early days of the band, I think we had a feeling that we had to do something different from other bands, so we had a load of do’s and don’ts – don’t do fusion, don’t have a back beat. And then we spent a lot of time avoiding music that may have sounded borrowed. But now we’ve finally got to the place were we can play Happy Birthday and it’ll sound like us. So we can now do a tune like the opening track on Imaginary Day that sounds sorta Chinese, maybe a bit like Gamalan Indonesian music, but it still sounds like us.’
Live, on the standard, ‘How Insensitive’, you take the first solo that I’ve heard you play. Is this a new area for you?
‘For years I took some really bad solos, and then we started doing this tune and I began applying myself to soloing again. That’s the next thing to think about. Not just soloing, but maybe making a solo record. I’ve spent so many years not paying any attention to it, but now that I’ve finally started to do my homework, I’ve found a real satisfaction. I’ve managed to get beyond the plateau that I was on. I’m moving forward as a soloist, so maybe now’s the time to do my own record.’
What have you been studying?
‘Well, I’ve finally begun to realise that at the technical level – playing melodies and chord scales, playing faster, higher – that you need to be able to do it 20 times faster than you’ll ever need to in a song! My problem was that the fastest the highest the hardest that I ever played was in this little solo during the gig. I was always trying to reach so far over my head and it didn’t really work.
‘So I realised that I had to put in the time, getting my technique up to speed. Same with the chord scales – there is a set of musical materials that you need to know – with this chord, this set of notes are your primary musical material – you can do other things, but you need that reference point.
‘These are the things that beginning sax or piano players learn very easily, but bass players don’t seem to take to so well. Fancy bass soloists tend to learn a bunch of hot licks but often don’t learn the fundamentals of music. So I’m finally taking the time to learn what the chords are and be able to play them at soloing speed!
‘A great bass solo has to be a high quality melody that would sound like a high quality melody if it was played on another instrument. You’d go, “well, it’s down kinda low on the piano, and he’s playing a little slow, but that’s a great melody!” Most bass solos on any other instrument would sound kinda weak.
‘I have a million miles to go, but that’s what I aspire to, that’s what I’m going to work on for the next 20 years. I’m sat up there playing for myself and for the audience but I’ve also got Pat and Lyle, two of the finest melodic improvisers around, sat right behind me! I’m not going to get a smile out of them by playing fast, but my playing good strong melodies.”
Pat Metheny on Steve Rodby:
When you’ve played with the most highly respected bassists on the planet, the must be something pretty special about the guys that you keep in your band for 15 years. Here’s what Pat has to say about Steve –
‘The kinds of things I need in any musician who is going to be in the group, regardless of their role in the band, is a certain musical insight that includes, but hopefully transcends, a deep sense of what has happened on their respective instrument, particularly over the past 60 or 70 years of popular and improvised music, combined with the musical skill and vocabulary to sonically render their conception of what just what that history implies into a personal sound. Steve Rodby has the ability to do just that and so much more, and that is what makes him the perfect bass player for this band. His background in classical music combined with his extensive jazz playing and studio work has made him an exceptionally well rounded player with a genuine musical curiosity that transcends style. His relentless pursuit of just the right part, played with just the right intonation and sound are well suited for the basic musical aesthetic that our band aspires toward.’by