Brian Bromberg: Countless Choices
"Bass-player records are boring to everybody-except bass players that want to learn how to play cool."
Bassist Brian Bromberg is talking about those sorts of chops-heavy but musically uninteresting CDs that low-enders will often cut when they get their rare shots to be leaders. It's not surprisingly then, to find out that the one type of project Bromberg has chosen not to do so far is a "bass player" CD.
But make no mistakes: Bromberg is astoundingly adept on both acoustic and electric bass, and he can confidently go in any jazz direction he desires, from mainstream to contemporary to fusion. Prime examples: the all-acoustic and mainstream Wood (2002); the controversial fusion tribute Jaco (2003); and his new smooth-jazz recording, Choices (all for A440).
Consequently many have been confused by the Tucson, Ariz.-born artist's polymorphous paths. "At times I get a lot of flak for that," Bromberg says, somewhat annoyed, from his home studio in the San Fernando valley in California. "'Well, you're a bass player and should be making bass records.' No, I'm a human being, a musician, I happen to play the bass and am fortunate that I'm making music."
These days Bromberg gets to record his music at home, in a house he purchased three years ago and has invested a lot of time and money into refurbishing. Now this unassuming suburban dwelling contains a cozy state-of-the-art recording studio with DVD-audio capabilities. In fact, Bromberg did the entire 5.1 surround sound version of his Jaco album, and he works on mastering and producing many of A440's other releases. He has also produced projects for saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa, guitarist Richard Smith, saxophonist Kim Waters, among others.
"My years of now being a producer, and the fact I'm doing so much production, have enriched the musicality of my bass playing," Bromberg says. "That in turn has helped me with the big picture to make better records-and not just bass player records."
Choices symbolically represents the myriad of musical decisions Bromberg has made over the years-and their possible ramifications. While he tries to be oblivious to things of that nature, he still has concerns about how the recording will be received. "I'm scared to death about it because it's been a long time since I put out any new [contemporary/smooth jazz]. But there's a lot of really exceptional music on this record."
Bromberg feels You Know That Feeling, his 1998 contemporary-jazz CD, might be easier for listeners to get into (it featured three radio hits) than Choices, simply because the new CD is so diverse. The new album features Bromberg playing piccolo bass (which sounds like acoustic guitar) along with South African rhythms and textures, R&B grooving and soulful vocal choruses. Some of the players on Choices include percussionist Alex Acuna, keyboardist Jeff Lorber and reedists Eric Marienthal and Gary Meek. The bassist/producer was delighted to have vocalists Lisa Fischer and Roger Treece helping out, especially on "Hear Our Cry." "The intro has two and a half minutes of this incredible vocal arrangement, and it was so cool that I just left it a cappela. I was going to play over it or mess with the voices, but it was too damn amazing."
Brian Bromberg has been engulfed in music ever since he was born, in 1960. His father, Alex, and older brother, David, were drummers. Young Brian followed in their footsteps, and he was playing professional gigs by the time he was 13. In elementary and middle school Bromberg also played cello, but he says he struggled with it. He tried acoustic bass on the recommendation of his band teacher and instantly took a liking to it, leaving his drums behind. Soon afterward, he became so proficient that he was playing with an assortment of local bands on a regular basis.
Despite his talent, however, the budding bassist wasn't popular in school and he led something of a double life. Due to being overweight and quiet, Bromberg was teased constantly during the day at school. Meanwhile, at night he received accolades and respect from musicians and patrons much older than him. Bromberg doesn't wish the sort of cruelty he faced on his worst enemy, but he is glad to have experienced the adolescent persecution because he says it made him introspective then and, as an adult, very humanistic.
While Tucson isn't anything like the jazz meccas New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, Bromberg believes it was a great training environment for him. "It was enough of a city to still have all the city issues, but it was very small and much mellower than L.A. or New York. Because it wasn't that big, there was not a lot of competition or a hundred bass players going after the same gig. Fortunately I could play, but there were only a handful of musicians. So I got to do a lot of different types of gigs all the time. If I'd been in big city, I probably wouldn't have gotten to play as much, especially if the competition was Rufus Reid or Buster Williams. Surprisingly, some of the musicianship there was pretty darn good, and basically we were the scene."
Bromberg's first big national break was with saxophone icon Stan Getz in 1979, and since then his list of sideman jobs comprises a who's who of jazz: Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Richie Cole, Toots Thielemans and many others.
"The whole first part of my career was being a sideman, and growing up I never even thought I'd play on a record, let alone do my own," Bromberg says. "During those days all I ever cared about was being a great bass player."
One of the most unique things about Bromberg's career was that he didn't have to do the typical migration to a bigger city to find gigs. When pianist Bill Evans and bassist Marc Johnson did a weeklong engagement in Tucson, Bromberg, then 18, came out every night for their sets. The duo, especially Johnson, befriended him and eventually listened to him play.
Although the young acoustic bassist practiced relentlessly and was always busy in the desert town, he wasn't sure how he'd match up against big-city competition. Evans and Johnson were very impressed with Bromberg's playing, but they didn't tell him to leave Tucson. Six or seven months afterward, Bromberg, based on Johnson's recommendation, got a call from Stan Getz to come to New York and audition for his band. The years practicing and studying had paid off, and the bassist had his life quickly transformed.
The bassist gleefully recalls his beginnings: "One day I'm sitting in Tucson practicing with a band in our laundry room and the next thing you know I'm in New York playing with Stan Getz."
He stayed with Getz for a year before moving on to other gigs.
After a few years of constantly being on the road doing mainstream jobs, Bromberg headed back to Tucson and contemplated his next move. During that period, two very significant things happened that greatly impacted his life and career. Bromberg had been totally committed to playing acoustically-that is, until Jaco Pastorius came on the scene. He met Pastorius and started experimenting with piccolo bass. "Jaco totally blew me away," Bromberg says. "Alex Foster, who I played with in Europe when I lived in New York, introduced me to him. But what was really cool about it was when I met him it was as a peer from one of the guys in his band. I didn't think he had a clue of who I was. Unbeknownst to me, he'd seen me play in Miami with Monty Alexander.
"Jaco goes, 'Hey man, I know you' and tells me how he snuck into the club for takeout and checked me out. I was swallowing golf balls, because if I'd known he was there-I would have died. So he knew about all the weird stuff I did [such as emulating Stanley Jordan's guitar techniques on acoustic bass], and he liked it, which was cool. We ended up playing till six in the morning after he finished the gig with his small big band. He treated me really well and there was a lot of respect. After that, anytime I'd see him in New York or whatever, he'd yell out to me from across the room and [brashly and profanely] tell everyone about me."
In the interim between touring and his first solo recording, Bromberg also bought an eight-string electric bass, which he'd always found fascinating. He experimented with it and discovered his dexterity and strength, even on acoustic bass, improved considerably because of the instrument's difficulty. Out of curiosity, Bromberg removed the lower strings to find that it sounded like a guitar. That innovation was a turning point for Bromberg and beginning of his love affair with piccolo bass, which he features regularly on most of his recordings. "That was the accidental transformation in the sense that I could do something different and things started happening.
"So I had a funk-fusion band and had the nerve to bring that thing to a gig," Bromberg says of the modified electric bass. "I told the keyboard player, 'I'm going to blow on this, so play bass with your left hand. It was at that moment that I realized there were so many options available to me musically. It was such a challenge and I loved it-this was my path. For me I loved playing roles in music that I didn't play before. I never comped and played changes before-well, I played them before-but I was a bass player and didn't have to play four notes at a time, just one. I incorporated all that into my first recording, [BASSically Speaking (Nova) from 1985]. Overall, it forced or put me in musical situations that made me a better musician."
With CNN muted on his 36-inch video monitor, Bromberg sits at his computer- audio workstation and talks about bassists Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. He has the utmost respect for them, considering them "the best of the best." Yet his musical outlook differs greatly from theirs, with those players regularly featuring highly demonstrative bass-player moments on their CD. Bromberg just doesn't feel it's right for him, however. "I'm not saying my way is the right approach, it's just the only way I know. My identity isn't that one thing that's like your hear someone play a few notes and you instantly know who it is. My 'one thing' encompasses many different things, and maybe it's going to be a tougher and longer road and journey because of that. It probably would be more lucrative for me if I had a sound that people instantly know. I've paid the price for being in several worlds and it's harder this way. Still, I would go crazy if I had to do one style of music or play one instrument. I can't do that."
In fact, the front and back cover of Choices don't even portray Bromberg with a bass. Instead he's pictured as a likable, average guy you could encounter almost anywhere. Except for a sticker with a quote from a old JazzTimes review, you wouldn't have a clue that a bass player who heads up the CD.
When informed of the marketing sticker, Bromberg is surprised. "Obviously, I want to be identified as a bass player, but this record is not about bass playing. It's just about my music, and I just happen to play the bass."
Originally published in April 2004