Recording Solo Bass: Some thoughts on my new Podcast…(Part II)

Sorry it’s been a while since I last posted on here. There hasn’t been the usual flood of gigs to tell you all about. I’ve used this little gigging hiatus to develop the solo bass project and work on the Podcast.

Hopefully by now most of you will have already subscribed to the Podcast. It’s available at the iTunes Store or directly from my page at Podbean. 
Since I started the Podcast a few months ago, I’ve had a chance to examine some of the tracks in greater detail. As I mentioned in my previous blog post on the podcast (you can read it here), at some point in the near future I’m going to take the best tracks and develop them further for re-recording to make up a complete album of solo bass material. Whether the reworked tunes will bare much resemblance to the original improvisations remains to be seen. I’m assuming that the primary loops will from the backbone of any reworking, as the majority of the tracks currently up on the Podcast have only a vague suggestion of a melodic theme anyway.
Which brings me to my first point. Some of the tracks (For example, Quietly Now, Sometimes It Rains In August or A Little Light & Shade) have a clearly defined melodic line which came about through repeated improvisation over the initial loops before I started recording. These had become fixed early on in the creation of the pieces. Other tracks have a less identifiable melody, mainly because the ‘tunes’ were improvised along with the underlying loops. In more recent posts (mainly since the addition of the Looperlative to my recording setup), I’ve purposely recorded passages which could be repeated later on in the track to act as main themes. This sort of spontaneous composition is only really possible with the Looperlative. My previous setup did not allow loops to be dropped in and out during a live performance and consequently if a particular track was to feature a specific melody (as in Bells II; I still can’t believe I recorded that track with just the Boss DD6! It’s so far away from what I can do now with the LP1), it would have to have been written/worked out in advance so that I could play it live at the beginning and end of the piece.
My question is this; at what point does a particular passage in an improvised performance become the theme? I notice that as I listen to the tracks together more and more, each one (including the tracks with no particular melody) has it’s own little motifs which I end up singing along to. I’m just not sure whether this is through increasing familiarity with the material or because I subliminally had a theme in mind during the original performance. Sometimes these little motifs are at the point where a pre-written tune would come in, sometimes they are the loops themselves.
When I listen to the solo bass music of Eberhard Weber, I can sing along to the themes on virtually every track. His recorded solo material is intricately through-composed, featuring some fantastic counterpoint and cross-rhythms. I’m really attracted to this style of playing and am planning on sitting down at some point and writing specific music for my solo project. I think a good mix of improvised and composed material would greatly enhance my playing. Thus far the only ‘composed’ piece featured on the Podcast is the very first track Bells II, which I wrote for a solo performance a few years back. When you compare it to the music I’m producing now, it really does come unstuck as a performance, but I’m glad it’s still up there in all it’s out-of-tune glory if nothing more than as a marker for the progress I’ve made over the last few months.
Now. One of my favourite Eberhard Weber tracks is ‘Epilogue’ from his 1988 album Orchestra. If you haven’t heard this album yet (and the fact that you’re reading this blog post tells me that you must have at least a passing interest in this music!), then go and buy it now. And Pendulum. It’s mainly solo bass, with a couple of tracks also featuring a small brass ensemble. It really is a masterpiece. Anyway, back to Epilogue. For me, this one track differs to all Eberhard’s other solo music in that it does not have any particular tune. The piece grows organically as Eberhard layers up a series of simple diatonic loops to create a beautiful contrapuntal soundscape which serves as the basis for the improvisation. In fact, the blowing doesn’t actually start until halfway through the track. The main body of the piece is the minimalistic building up of melodic layers, and is very much typical of the way Eberhard performs solo bass live. Which is specifically what I’m working on at the moment.
Playing purely improvised music in a recording situation can be rather a tricky business if you are a perfectionist like me. It usually takes a whole afternoon or evening to produce a track I would be happy to post on the Podcast. There are a few exceptions up there, but in general they take a long time to come out right. I’ve learnt that there’s a certain degree of abandonment that needs to come into play when publishing improvised music. At some point during the recording process I literally have to step away from the bass and take time to properly listen back to the results. Becoming too picky with the material would inevitably lead to nothing being posted. It would also completely obliterate the creative process, as well as the premise of posting material to gain feedback from listeners.
Repeated listening (check out my profile if you don’t believe me!) to the Podcast tracks have shown up a few general points in my own playing that I intend to address. Much as many jazz musicians rely on a set of pre-learned “licks” to provide a basis for improvisation, I have come to recognise a series of solo bass licks that I have settled on over the last few months. And a lot of them have come from listening to too much (if there is such a thing) Eberhard Weber. I am constantly annoyed at the number of times I use bass harmonics in the initial loops. Really must investigate some other effects. The problem is they sound so good in reverse! A couple of Eberhard’s melodic licks have crept in too. Whilst this is not necessarily a bad thing, I would hate to be accused of ripping him off!
My most recent solo adventure has been the introduction of the Chapman Stick into the project. For those of you unfamiliar with the Stick, it is a 10-stringed touch guitar which was invented by Emmett Chapman in the late seventies. You can check out the Stick Enterprises website here, or go check out the excellent European Stick Center site for a more detailed description of the instrument and some great video and audio clips. I only managed to get my hands on one of these about a year ago and have been struggling on ever since. It is as difficult to play as it looks folks. A whole new world of confusion.
The joy with using this for the solo project is in the fact that I have absolutely no chops whatsoever on the Stick. A recent lack of inspiration on the bass has been easily remedied by getting out the Stick and just seeing what comes out. I literally cannot play any of my usual stuff on the Stick, which forces me to play in completely new ways. I haven’t used much cross-tapping on the Podcast, having gone for the Tony Levin/Trey Gunn method of just playing one side at a time, thus exploiting it’s massive range in a single-line setting. It has broken me away from the harmonics, the parallel 5ths and the tunes doubled a third up (!) that I seem to have settled on with the bass, and shunted me into a whole new world of funny noises, chordal work and distortion.
There are currently two tracks live on the Podcast using the Chapman Stick; A New Start? and last night’s Walking Alone….. They are both similar in that they evolve organically via a process of layering various sounds and motifs in order to create internal counterpoint. Neither has a distinct melody line. I have become more interested in the specific sounds since the addition of the Lexicon MPX G2 multi-effects processor to the looping setup. It really is the mutt’s nuts for the Stick. I’ve had it a while now, but only recently got hold of an MPX R1 foot controller to really allow me to use it handsfree. The Chapman Stick tracks bare little resemblance to the bass tracks because they tend to lean more towards the prog side of ambient music. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on the Stick tunes as compared to the solo bass tracks.
So we move into the next phase of the solo project. As I mentioned earlier, I will be recording some pre-written arrangements in the near future. I am also intending on somehow bringing the two disparate styles of improvisation (ie: Bass vs. Stick) together to meet somewhere in the middle. It is in this happy medium where I think I will find my true voice. Not too far to go now…
Sorry if this has been a long, rambling load of nonsense. If you’ve found it interesting, then do leave your comments below. I’d love to hear your thoughts and perhaps compare similar experiences. And please do leave your comments, ratings and suggestions on the Podbean site when you next check in. I really do need your feedback. And a big thanks to Matt Stevens, who has just featured my track New Toys on his fantastic Guitars & Samplers Podcast, which can be found both on iTunes and Podbean. Cheers mate! Always glad to have someone help spreading the word.
On another note, I just got through my copy of Steve Lawson and Jez Carr’s 2002 duo album ‘Conversations’ and frankly can’t stop listening to it. It’s been a big inspiration this week. Go forth and purchase people! I got my copy from CD Baby.