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Interview - Neil Swainson

Neil Swainson

Neil Swainson has toured and recorded with George Shearing, Rob McConnell, Woody Shaw and many others. He has played on numerous recordings, five of which have won JUNO awards.

What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?

Let's see... I remember when I was just starting and practicing all day, wanting to play high and fast. I played a few gigs with older musicians, who liked what I was doing but pointed out various shortcomings in my playing. Basically what they said was "your solos sound good, but your bass lines suck. Check out Ray Brown!" Which is always a great thing for any bassist to do. As I matured, I started to hear the greatness in many bassists whom I initially overlooked because they didn't play high and fast. I realized there are certain things that are absolutely best in the low and mid register and that bass lines are vital to everyone else on the bandstand!
Another thing that stuck with me was when a colleague mentioned that you should hear everything you play, and not just play a bunch of notes.
When I was 19 or so I got to play with some great players coming through Victoria, where I'm from. One of them was saxist Sonny Stitt, who was notorious for being hard on rhythm sections. The pianist and I were young and green, but luckily he liked us! We played a couple of nights, and I remember he played some alternate changes, and chromatic 2/5s and things, which I didn't quite know what to do with. He took me aside after the gig and after a few words of encouragement, he asked me " Do you play piano?" I said "no" . He said " Learn".
So I would suggest to young bassist to learn at least functional keyboard for harmonic understanding. Listen to all the great jazz bassists, and try and learn from the things each one does best. Listen to all the great horn players for how they play melodically, harmonically and rhythmically one top of the chords. Listen to the players you play with, don't just close your ears while your playing together.
Finally, play with better, more experienced players whenever you can, and DONT BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS! No matter how dumb you think the questions are.

What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?

Well I think there are more than three, but three of my favourites are :
The Essen Jazz Festival All Stars, featuring Coleman Hawkins, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford. Oscar plays great as always. Check out Willow Weep for Me.
That's the Way it is, Milt Jackson quartet featuring Ray Brown. Ray in all his glory.
A fantastic bass feature on Tenderly which is full of techniques he uses in playing unaccompanied solos later on.
Thirdly, I love Everybody Likes Hampton Hawes.
Red Mitchell plays beautifully. Check out his solo on I'll Remember You.

Can you share some practice ideas? What should aspiring bassists focus on? What worked/works for you? I realize this is a very broad question that varies with individuals' needs, but I'm looking for some general ideas, and in particular what worked for you.

I spent a lot of hours in my early years practicing. In hindsight I think there was a fair bit of time wasted, but you need to put the time in initially to bond with the instrument. What I did a lot of was play along with recordings. I find if you get the volume right, you can get the feeling of being in the rhythm section. Also if you don't really know the song, you can practice hearing your way through in real time. It's also great for playing hard tempos! I think bassists should study with the bow at least for a few months to get a good start on that. It's a whole other ballgame but if you want to apply the bow to jazz, get someone to show you how it works.
As for pizz technique, start by copying your heroes until you can sound like them. Look at videos of Ray Brown, Sam Jones, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, then look at guys like Eddie Gomez, Miroslav Vitous, Dave Holland, Neils Henning Orsted Peterson and Christian McBride. Note the similarities and the differences. Pick what you like from everybody.
Practice bass lines with a metronome on 2 and 4. Practice soloing the same way.
If you want more dexterity make yourself your own exercises using 8th notes, triplets and sixteenths. Transcribe horn solos on the bass. Learn as many melodies as you can on the bass as well as the chords. Make yourself a list of standards and jazz standards, and memorize them.
Play bebop heads on the bass. Play melodies in different positions and keys.
And most importantly play with your peers often. You can share knowledge.

Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?

If you encounter difficulties don't be afraid to seek help. Most musicians are pretty generous with their knowledge and experience!

Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?

As far as gear goes lm pretty much a minimalist. I want the pickup and amp to sound as close to the acoustic sound of the bass as possible.
I will say for aspiring bassists, one of the biggest leaps in terms of progress is finding a good instrument. That may require help, but if you're dedicated it will be worth the sacrifices.

What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?

As far as my gigs, I'm still enjoying playing a lot, perhaps more than ever!

Any final thoughts?

If you are truly dedicated all of the work seems worthwhile.

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