Three Recent Bass Inspirations

I am, in general, pretty picky when it comes to bass things that inspire me. Sure, there are Instagram videos that offer up 15 seconds of cleverness that raise a smile, but I’m still for the most part a long-form listener, so am left ultimately a little underfed by social media fragments.

But there are a number of bass players around doing supremely wonderful things with the bass, and today I’ll tell you about three that have been inspiring me recently:

Ruth Goller is easily one of my favourite bassists around – she’s in a tiny group of players whose presence on a record means I’m immediately interested in whatever the project might be, such is the quality of what she brings to projects, and her good taste (others in that group include Mike Watt, Charlie Haden and Tony Levin…) – she’s recently been working on an amazing project that features just her bass and three layered voices, called Skylla. Here’s the first track from it to be released, but there’s an EP or album to follow, I gather:

Skylla – ‘M1’ (Ruth Goller, Alice Grant, Lauren Kinsella) from Ruth Goller on Vimeo.

Another player whose work I’ve been enjoying immensely recently is Björn Meyer – he’s been part of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin for a long time, and put out a solo album last year on ECM. But this album from 2016 is one that I only found on Bandcamp about a week or so ago, and I’ve been listening to LOADS since. It’s a trio of bass, drums and bass clarinet, and is full of awesome:

And finally one from earlier in the year that actually has me on one track – I’ve been a fan of Aaron Gibson’s playing for quite a few years, having discovered him through the lovely guys at No Treble. And I’d actually already pre-ordered this album before Aaron got in touch to ask me to play on it. As he says in an interview with No Treble,

“When I had finished writing “Webs”, it had this middle section that I could hear a melodic, Steve Lawson-ish, solo over. I could totally hear Steve’s tone and phrasing in that spot, but I didn’t think that I would ask him to do it. I also didn’t think that he would say yes and then get it to me within days. It’s brilliant.”

Here’s the track that I play on, but definitely go and listen to the whole album, then buy it – it’s glorious, is mostly just bass, voice and string quartet, and is available on vinyl too 🙂

Like I said, I’m funny when it comes to bassists – some of the people who are most celebrated in bass-dom do very little for me at all, and some of my favourite bassists are actually people who wouldn’t class themselves as bass players, so end up with really original approaches to our beloved instrument. Some of the others I come back to time and time again include Michael Manring, Mike Watt, Julie Slick, Rich Brown, Doug Lunn, Divinity Roxx, Dylan Desmond and Robin Mullarkey. Check out those links if you’re looking for some new inspiration – there’s quite a range of sounds in there 🙂

I don’t really divide up the things that inspire me by instrument, or even art form. Sometimes the things that drive me to create are literary or drawn from theatre or even comedy. But there’s still such a direct connection with people using the instrument I’ve committed so many years to understanding in interesting ways. I’m super-grateful for the kick in the arse all this amazing music gives me, and the challenge to make evermore meaningful music.

Got any current favourites? Stick ’em in the comments 🙂

How To Play Your Pedals

You may have noticed that I tend to split my pedal board between the floor and the top of my rackcase. You may also wonder why I still have so many analog pedals when I also have the MOD Duo (written about here) which sound so incredible. So let’s have a look at what pedals offer.

I’ve said many times that I don’t think of my instrument as being a bass and all the rest of the stuff as being a way of processing the sound of the bass. My instrument starts at my fingertips and ends at the speakers. if I was being even more picky, I’d suggest that the acoustics in the room we’re in were part of it too. But I certainly view the entirety of my musical equipment as an instrument, comprised of many working parts. In the same way that a pianist doesn’t think of themselves as playing keys while the hammers are just an effect that changes the sound of the strings, with the wooden body being an amplifier, I don’t see any of the stuff that goes into making the sound as any more or less significant to the overall picture.

Which means that when it comes to thinking about the range of possibilities for an improvised performance, I want to be able to access as many possible combinations of sound from my instrument as possible. So I like to keep a bunch of my pedals at hand height in order to have all of the possible settings available to me, and also have the option to use them to change sounds as they are happening – hitting a sustained note and turning one of the many controls on the Pigtronix Mothership 2 synth pedal will offer all manner of bizarre and beautiful evolving, morphing sounds.

The MOD Duo is an absolutely exquisite sounding device, but the specific interface of each pedal reflects its performance possibilities – even down to how tricky it is to reach certain controls, or how sensitive they are. It would be possible to set up a bunch of that stuff as MIDI control on the Duo – and I have got LOADS of real time control over it, with the ability to stack multiple parameters on each of the two knobs, but having all those knobs AND all the controls on each pedal gives me a far far greater range of performance possibilities, and allows me to react to things in a more instantaneous and serendipitous way.

The degree to which I ‘learn’ what any pedal does depends on what I’m asking from it – when I have either the Aguilar Filter Twin, or MXR Bass Envelope Filter at hand height, I tend to have quite specific settings in mind, and move between those sounds I know to be what I’m looking for. Whereas the aforementioned Mothership 2, or the Subdecay Virtuvian MOD ring modulator are both pedals I can just set to random combinations and see what craziness happens. I was talking to Tim LeFebvre about the Mothership 2 recently, and he mentioned that he always turns the ‘glide’ control up – that’s a portamento function that makes the pitch of everything really slidey and imprecise. Which is exactly what a pedal like this does so well – the temporary ceding of some control to the whims of the pedal mean that your instrument becomes a partner that you’re now negotiating with over what the hell is going to happen next. This stuff isn’t just a tool box that you’re using, it’s a hostage situation and you’re trying to sweet talk your way out of the whole world of sounds caving in on you. 🙂

The number of pedals I have at hand height changes from month to month – at the moment I’m in a fairly settled phase with the Mothership 2, Vitruvian MOD, TC Electronic Flashback and then a Kaoss Pad mini KP… which is ALL about hand control. the touch interface is where all the magic happens, and the fact that the mini version allows very limited save and recall functions again makes it all the more interactive. I quite often just spin the dial and see what comes out, responding to whatever sound I land on and finding something new in it.

But there’s another great advantage to having pedals at hand height – the need to stop playing. There’s an age-old conversation that goes on between horn players and guitarists – the horn players are constantly trying to learn how to do long continuous melodic phrases like the guitar players, but learning circular breathing techniques, and the guitarists often end up on a journey towards learning to phrase lines in a way that breathes, that has natural pauses.

The interaction with pedals by hand leads you to such interesting and unexpected compromises between how to play the notes you want to have happen and how to make the sounds change and evolve in the you want. I’ve learned various quite specific techniques for combining sustained notes with altered pedal control, and I also use delays to set up extended phrases that I can then manipulate with whatever is downstream. Sometimes I have a looper right at the front of my signal chain so I can just focus on the pedal manipulation (and I have a 2nd mini Kaoss Pad after the aux out on my Looperlative looper so I can send anything that’s looped in there through the KP and manipulate that too, often at the same time as I’m trying to play bass, and percussion via the Quneo…)

All of these interactions are how I try  to circumvent the possibility of mundane, predictable things happening. They give me a massive range of sonic choices, but also set up an enhanced likelihood of random, unexpected semi-chaotic music happenings that I’m then called on to rationalise and put in a context that makes sense of them. It’s that back and forth with my own playing that makes any performance a collaboration between the actual and the expected, between what’s there and what I imagine it can become… The whole thing is about the unfolding rather than just the execution of a preordained, precomposed thing. There is no ‘ideal’ version, no external reference for what is and isn’t the ‘right’ thing to do. There is only what’s happen and the range of possibilities for what can happen next, and manipulating pedals is a huge huge part of the expanded range of possibilities in the moment.

So, if you’re a musician who uses any kind of signal processing, have a think about how best to interact with it all, how you can make it do interesting things. Have a watch of the video for an older tune of mine, Vertigo, below and see if you can see exactly what’s happening with the Kaoss Pad and the pedals…

Fun With Field Recordings And Found Sound

The latest addition to my music making set-up has been the inclusion of field recordings that can be triggered to play under (or over) whatever else I’ve got going on. I have them assigned to pads on the Quneo – my MPC grid-style MIDI controller – so I can trigger them in amongst the rest of the drums and found sounds that I use for percussion tracks.

So far I’m mostly drawn to sounds recorded in forests, to water and to gentle urban soundtracks. I’ve not really experimented with playing over the hustle and bustle of cities, but that’s next, I guess 🙂

I’ve been using field recordings from a Bandcamp account called “Free To Use Sounds“, run by a bloke called Marcel who travels around the world recording cool sounds and making them available to buy and use on Bandcamp. Awesome, eh?

I’ve also been using them a lot when teaching – for improvisors, a field recording soundtrack can really help to give you something to play TO without having to work with an ensemble or loop pedal. Interpreting the vibe of a recording in a forest, or a street scene, or a bunch of monkeys or whatever helps you compare and contrast the relationship between your musical choices and the context for those choices. It’s had some magical results with my bass students, for sure!

The latest track I’ve just uploaded for subscribers uses a recording of a street scene as the backdrop for an improvisation on my Rick Turner Renaissance 5 string fretless – it’s such a beautiful bass and I don’t use it anywhere near enough, so expect to see and hear it more over the next while 🙂

If you’re a subscriber, the new track has been added to the album Stepping Stones. If you’re not a subscriber yet, what are you waiting for? 🙂

If you need more convincing, this is the title track from the my last live subscriber only solo album, The Field Of Strategic Possibilities, and it includes a field recording of a skate park, part of which gets caught in one of the drum grooves, adding a back-peddling bicycle to the sound in a super-cool way:

Along side the field recordings from Free To Use Sounds, I’m a big fan of many of the found sound percussion kits from Mode Audio – I use their samples of toys, kitchen implements and glitched-out drums. Some of them are used in ways where you can tell something of its provenance (like the rattles from the toy set!) but other sounds are layered in complex ways to make beautiful and strangely unfamiliar percussion sounds. I never trigger whole loops for percussion – I just arrange the sounds as single hits in Drum Rack in Ableton Live and play them all via the Quneo, so every time I play new things occur. Check out the latest bunch of subscriber recordings for an insight into how those sounds are developing…

5 Inspirational Bass Recordings with No Drums

Spend more than 5 minutes online talking about bass, and you’ll encounter some variation on the theme of ‘groove is king – the idea that the only things that matter for musicians who play bass are those that relate to the function within a normal band line up is pushed pretty hard in most contexts.

But so many of my favourite bits of creative bass playing (in my own career and from others) happen when the bass is freed up from that idea of a ‘role’ and the musician is free to contribute to the music in whatever way works best for the music. Sometimes that’s still very much within the understanding of what the bass ‘should‘ do (as with Pop Pop here) but other times it breaks away from that.

So here are 5 drummerless albums that feature some absolutely exquisite bass playing in the context of wonderful music! (as always these are in no particular order) ::

 

  • Carla Bley, Andy Sheppard & Steve Swallow – Trios

Steve Swallow has one of the most singular, recognisable voices in the history of the electric bass. This trio is possibly my favourite setting for his playing ever. So much space, and his melody work is astonishing. To hear him with a drummer, have a listen to Bartalk by John Scofield. An incredible trio record with Adam Nussbaum on drums.

 

  • Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler, Bill Frisell, Dave Holland – Angel Song

One of my desert island discs, everything about this is perfect. It was Bill Frisell that lured me in, but Dave Hollands playing here is exemplary – his tone!!! This has to be one of my favourite recorded bass sounds ever, and his solo on this (the first solo on the opening tune of the album, no less) is just perfect. The feel is beautifully relaxed throughout, particularly in the interplay between Dave and Bill during Bill’s solo. Incredible.

 

  • Duke Ellington And Ray Brown – This One’s For Blanton

Jimmy Blanton changed the way all of us think about about the role of the bass, that much is true. That he died at 23 is mindblowing and deeply tragic. I can’t imagine what he’d have accomplished had he lived. The Ellington band of the 40s that Blanton was a part of is one of the most amazing groups of musicians ever assembled. This One’s For Blanton is a fitting and rich tribute, and who better to take the bass role than one of the true greats who followed on from Blanton’s lead in making the bass such an important instrument in Jazz, Ray Brown.

I can’t embed this video, as it’s blocked on YouTube, but it has to be this track for the unbelievable solo intro, and the incredible elaboration of a standard walking line that Ray goes into – Sophisticated Lady: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZFTDxYV7ss

 

  • Paradoxicon – Gianni Gebbia And Michael Manring

This is a REALLY unusual record. for much of it, the sax is playing a more rhythmic role than the bass, particularly on the opening tune, where Michael is all texture and what groove there is is from Gianni’s sax. Some beautiful writing, and a wonderful space for Michael to explore.

 

  • Rickie Lee Jones – Pop Pop

This kind of breaks the rules, in that 3 of the tunes on the album have percussion on, but the rest of them are so great, and Charlie Haden does drummerless bass playing SO well that I had to include it. I also really wanted a great vocal record in here to show what can happen when you free bass up from the ‘groove’ obsession in a song context. Charlie Haden may well be my favourite drummerless bassist of all, every note he plays is exactly where he wants it to be. The economy of notes is counterbalanced by the obvious care and attention given to every part of every note. Astonishing.

 

Over to you – what are your favourites?

5 Solo Bassists Who Shaped My Musical World

It’s a truism that most solo bass struggles in ‘pure’ musical terms. It’s so easy to get caught up justifying our ‘right’ to play solo by doing clever acrobatic things that the meaningful deployment of those acrobatics, or the avoidance of them for more musical ends gets lost along the way, and YouTube ends up as a fumbling bass-circus.

For this reason, there are very few solo bassists in my list of musical influences. But those who are there are towering monuments to what’s possible on this amazing instrument of ours, and their influence on my music and musical outlook is massive.

So, in no particular order, here’s 5 solo bassists who shaped my musical world: Continue reading “5 Solo Bassists Who Shaped My Musical World”

New Live Solo Tunes!

Recorded at Friday night’s gig at the Islwyn Guitar Club in Crosskeys, Gwent, South Wales, here are two new tunes that ’emerged’ – they’re both improvs, but I like ’em, so will probably have a bash at something like them for the new album…

The recordings are remarkably good considering they’re just on a little Tascam digital recorder thingie (recorded by Andrew Buckton – fab singer/songwriter who came with me, and sang beautifully on the gig too).

here they are – enjoy!

New Tunes from Islwyn Guitar Club by solobasssteve

Marketing By Accident

I’ve written a lot over the years about the power of curiosity – that most of my own best disoveries have just happened because I was interested in something and decided to investigate it without waiting for any kind external confirmation that that was ‘OK’ or ‘wise’.

So yesterday when a link from a friend landed me at xtranormal.com and I saw that there was a ‘create’ button, I set to work writing a comedy script for two people talking about a solo bass house concert.

Since then it’s had about a thousand views (pretty good going for overnight on a Sunday!), and I’m sure has quite a journey to go on yet… All because I saw a link, clicked it and played around.

Try it, sometimes it can really help 🙂

Anyway, here it is. “Solo Bass. It’s The Future.”

Feel free to share it around, or make your own videos. It’s pretty time consuming, but well worth it 🙂

[EDIT] it’s worth noting that the first place I shared this was Posterous. An awesome blogging platform, that I’ll write more about v. soon!

Two More Contrasting Solo Bass Experiment Videos.

Since Saturday’s upload, I’ve put 2 more videos on Vimeo for your delectation and delight, which contrast the different ways that the Looperlative can be used to either simply provide a loop for a piece of music, or be integral to the way it’s created, and the sound that emerges.

I’m fascinated by the relationship between technology and end result, and by the methods that we as musicians can use to keep our own technical thoughts and experiments subservient to the greater artistic and communicative aims… Continue reading “Two More Contrasting Solo Bass Experiment Videos.”

10 great basslines.

10 great basslines from Bass Guitar Magazine

A few months back, I was asked to put together a list of 10 of my favourite basslines by Bass Guitar Magazine. I sent them a list of 10, and a little note about each one, but the article is now out without the little blurb. So here’s the blurb. They also numbered them, as though there’s an order to them, which there clearly isn’t. Music doesn’t work like that. and If I wrote the list again today, it’d be different.

But anyway, here’s the list, with links where possible, and a little bit about each one…

Le FreakChic : one of the funkiest lines ever from the Beatles Of Disco. I could’ve picked just about any of their hits. Bernard’s tone and feel are a thing of wonder.
Refuge Of The RoadsJoni Mitchell : My favourite bassline from my favourite album ever. Every note Jaco plays on the whole Hejira album is sublime.
Maxwell MurderRancid : carrying the ‘punks that can really play’ torch forward, Matt Freeman manages to be full of energy, inventive and a chops-monster at the same time.
OrphansDeacon Blue : one of the first pop songs I ever heard with chords on a 6 string bass. This is almost all just bass, voice and tambourine. Beautiful
Chicken Grease D’Angelo : Pino was The Man in the 80s, and he’s still The Man now, only instead of slide-y fretless and a curly mullet he’s the cool king of hip-hop. My whole understanding of rhythm changed when I heard this album.
SeleneMichael Manring : not exactly a ‘bass line’ but without a doubt one of the most beautiful pieces of solo bass music ever recorded.
I Keep Forgettin’Michael McDonald : what locking in with a kick drum is all about. Louis Johnson shows restraint, digs deep and has a bass tone to die for.
Forget Me NotsPatrice Rushen : My favourite ever slap line. Freddie Washington probably even has a funky heartbeat.
I’m In Love Frank Dunnery : Matt Pegg, son of Dave, basically soloing through most of this tune, in a way that sounds neither wanky nor out of place. Exceptional playing and writing.
Spirits In A Material WorldThe Police : again, could have picked one of about 15 Police lines. Something magical happens when Sting gets with Stuart Copeland, even though they both play ‘out of time’ most of the time. Proof if ever it were needed that you don’t need protools to make incredible music.

Feel free to post your lists in the comments. Would be interested to read them. But please, don’t bother with the ‘what??? how could you miss out ********** (insert bassist here)’ – there are only 10, it’s not a definitive list, as I said it’d change now, and it’ll be different again tomorrow. So relax, and gimme a list of great lines. 🙂