Interview - Rich Brown
Rich Brown has appeared on over forty recordings including his most recent as a leader entitled "Abeng." In 2012 and 2014 he was part of the faculty for the International Workshop in Jazz at the Banff Centre for the Arts. He has performed with Carol Welsman, Steve Coleman and the Elements, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Donny McCaslin and many others.
What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?
I can’t stress enough the importance of gaining influence and inspiration from musicians who are not bass players. This is especially true for musicians playing jazz. There are aspects to this music that can’t be learned by listening to bass players alone. Listen to horn players to get a better understanding of the bebop language. I thought I knew how to play over a blues until I heard Charlie Parker. I also listened to a lot of singers to get a better sense of how to make my lines more emotive. I gained a better understanding of things like vibrato and the ornamental nuances of a melody from singers. These are also the kinds of things that set you apart from other players.
I’ve also gained a lot from music indigenous to disparate cultures. I’ve learned so much by checking out music from Turkey, India, Morocco, Egypt, Ethiopia… The list goes on and on. I can pinpoint how each of these influences (and more) has directly influenced my playing over the years. We are, as musicians, the sum of all our influences. Obviously the more we take in and add to our vocabulary, the more we grow and find our own individual voice on the instrument.
What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?
Jaco Pastorious - Jaco Pastorius
Nearly everything you need to know about electric bass is on this album. This is a near perfect album that really does check all the boxes. It is a perfect example of tone, time, groove, melody, chops, versatility, and great music from start to finish.
2. The Tao of Mad Phat - Steve Coleman & Five Elements
With so many bands today delving into the world of mixed meter, this to me was one of the first (and might still be the best) examples of an artist taking a very different approach to rhythm and groove, and combining those ideas with funk, blues, hip hop, and of course jazz with seamless success. The bass player on the album is Reggie Washington. The way he and drummer Gene Lake handle these grooves makes it very easy to forget… we’re not in 4 anymore.
3. Graceland - Paul Simon
This is such a stellar album from top to bottom. Paul Simon recruited some of the best musicians from South Africa to play the music on this album. The bass player on the album is the great Bakithi Kumalo. To me, every single track on Graceland is a bass masterclass on African music. The invaluable lessons I learned studying that album not only helped me later on when I did find myself playing gigs with African artists, it also helped me to groove in a much more relaxed way and physically feel the music in my body. Every electric bass player should study this album.
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’ve always placed a very high priority on melody. I love playing melodies and learning all the little nuances that give certain melodies such an emotive quality. I think melody is the most effective way to reach any listener regardless of musical background or experience. When I play, I want to be able to speak to everyone in the audience with the same message in a way that the entire audience and the band will understand. Alain Caron had a great quote where he says he never wants to play faster than he can think. Sadly, I hear far too much of that specifically with electric bass players who have more chops than substance. That approach to soloing says nothing to me, and if you were to take out the rest of the band you wouldn’t be able to tell if you were listening to Giant Steps or Happy Birthday. I’m being harsh, but my point is this: When we let our ego get in the way of the music, we kill the music. To me the best way to remedy the situation is through pure melody. I like to work on this by playing ballads and slow bossa novas.
Also, I think there’s a lot to be said for transcribing, but there are a few questions to ask yourself while you do:
Is there a particular phrase or group of phrases that speak to you on an emotional level?
What is it about the phrase that moves you?
Is it the way the notes are placed rhythmically?
Is it the way the notes were chosen harmonically?
The answers to these kinds of questions are integral to your growth as a musician. Gaining a deeper understanding of the things that move you in music allows you to add those concepts to your vocabulary, as opposed to just lifting phrases.
Another important part of my regular practice routine is taking some time to make music by myself. I clear my head and try to play as honestly and openly as possible with no agenda. There are no licks or new things I’m trying to work in. I start with one note or one chord and try to hear and play what I think should happen next until I feel the improvised piece has reached its conclusion. Here I’m working on my musical instincts, and my ability to play whatever it is I’m hearing in my head.
Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?
I guess there are different kinds of obstacles. As soon as one says, “I can’t play that.”, or “I’ll never be able to play like…”, that becomes your reality. There’s no use for such language. We have to remember that we are all individuals with a unique voice. Your voice cannot be diminished by anyone but yourself. So practice diligently with an open mind and a forgiving heart. It’s ok to hit that wall sometimes. If you can’t get something today, it’s fine. Dedicate yourself and you’ll eventually think back to a time when you thought that now easy musical idea was a huge obstacle.
Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?
I’ve never really been much of a gear head. So much of my time was spent working on my own sound. To me this is the most important thing. I worked very hard on left and right hand techniques so that I would be able to take any bass, plug it into any amp, and still sound like me.
I choose to play gear that enhances my own sound as opposed to letting the brand do the talking. To me the best gear allows the players to be themselves. That’s what I’m looking for when I shop for gear. I’ve always loved Aguilar as well as MarkBass amps for that reason. Dunlop SuperBrights have been my goto string brand for a while now. I prefer the clean bright sound of nickel wound strings over stainless steel The treble control on my bass is usually set to 0, so the strings I use must have a certain quality in the high end without being too tinny.
What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?
Right now my main focus is on my latest project Rich Brown & The Abeng. I released my latest album this past October, and so far the reviews and overall support has been super-positive. I’m looking forward to booking more shows for the band in and around Toronto with hopes of taking this music across Canada, and to the US and Europe eventually.
I don’t have a major online presence, but anyone interested can find me on Facebook, and check out some music on my SoundCloud page.
Any other thoughts to pass along?
Never stop learning. Take each and every opportunity to grow as a musician and a human being.