John Patitucci: Manhattan Mindset
John Patitucci has gone through a number of personal transformations since moving back to his native New York in 1996 following a longtime residency in Los Angeles. The first transformation was his weight. Shortly after returning to the East Coast, the Brooklyn-born bass player put on about 25 pounds from indulging in all his favorite fatty foods that weren’t readily available on the West Coast (i.e., New York style pizza and calzones, New York style cheesecake and cannolis, New York style bagels and knishes, ad infinitum). The second major transformation was becoming a Daddy 18 months ago, a situation that has left him spending roughly as much time listening to the music of Barney and Teletubbies as John Coltrane and Samuel Barber. Thirdly, he has experienced a continued loosening up of his musical aesthetic, embracing a sparser, more fundamental approach to the bass as he engages in more freewheeling conversations with musicians on the Big Apple scene. The result of having played over the past couple of years with veteran East Coast drummers like Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Bill Stewart, Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts, and Terri Lyne Carrington is that these days Patitucci sounds closer in spirit to Paul Chambers or Charlie Haden than the fleet-fingered phenom who burst onto the scene in 1985 with Chick Corea’s Elektric Band.
That less-is-more, slyly syncopated aesthetic can be heard on Now, his second project for Concord Records and by far the most dynamic of his nine albums as a leader. With Stewart on drums and with John Scofield, Chris Potter, and Michael Brecker cast in featured roles, Patitucci lays into the music with a deepened sense of maturity, adopting an almost subliminal bottom end presence on original compositions like “Grace,” “Out of the Mouths of Babes,” the haunting ballads “Hope” and “Forgotten but Not Gone” and the lazy N’awlins crawl “Labor Day.” Even when he picks up his 6-string electric bass, as on his gentle and lyrical rendition of McCoy Tyner’s ballad “Search for Peace” or his highly interactive duet with Stewart on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” there’s a newfound sense of restraint and relaxation in his playing. You can hear him breathing now, phrasing in more soulful and organic ways than ever before. It’s a far cry from the relentlessly fluid, horn-like chops grandstanding of his self-titled debut on GRP a decade ago. It may well have something to do with returning to New York. Or it might have everything to do with approaching 40.
“Coming from New York originally and also having had so much original inspiration in jazz from New York, it was a frustration when I was living in Los Angeles for a couple of reasons,” he explains. “One being, it’s not the jazz town that New York is. And two, sometimes people in other areas of the country and the world didn’t know how heavily I was involved in jazz. Because I lived out there it was just assumed I was a fusion guy. But I’ve always, since I was very young, been inspired by jazz music. I’ve also spent a lot of time playing as a sideman with different artists in a straight ahead vein. It’s just that when I hit with Chick’s Elektric Band I got branded as a fusion player, even though we did eventually do acoustic music with Chick as well. So there was a lot of acoustic music inside of me that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. And the time finally became optimum to do it. Certainly the location is optimum, being here in New York, where you have access to players who play this music. The abundant crop that you have here is pretty stellar.
“I’m just a lot more comfortable here, I gotta say,” he continues. “You can take the boy outta Brooklyn but you can’t take the Brooklyn out of the boy, I guess. I’m back and it’s what needed to happen.”
When he was living in Los Angeles, John also gigged on the side with a host of superb L.A. drummers like Vinnie Colaiuta, Tom Brechtlein, Will Kennedy, Dave Weckl, and Chad Wackerman. But their aesthetic, he admits, was quite different than the drummers that he’s been collaborating with lately in New York. “Those guys I was playing with in L.A. are incredible and they are artists in their own right. But the music we played together often switched from groove things to world music to straight ahead. And I was yearning to get a chance to play with drummers who concentrate on acoustic jazz and who have developed their sound in that area.”
Getting to play with Paul Motian on his 1997 Concord debut, One More Angel , was a particular thrill for Patitucci. “You hear him on all these Bill Evans records and he sounds great but it’s nothing like playing with him. That’s just the sensation with certain guys, that you never know until you sit with them. Sometimes you can hear somebody on record and they sound like they’d be easy to play with and then you get with them on the gig or in the studio and they’re not. The opposite is true of Motian. When you play with him, it’s even better than you could’ve imagined. I mean, his time feel is just ridiculously great. I was struck by the fact that you hear him on records and he sounds so loose and very free. Then you play with him and you also feel how incredibly strong his beat and his time feel is. It’s very powerful, even though a lot of times he’s implying it more than hitting you over the head with it. It’s real strong. It’s that wide roots beat, which goes all the way back to Baby Dodds. So playing with somebody of that stature, it can’t help but influence you. It just opens up another way to play.”
Last summer, Patitucci experienced another personal thrill doing a brief trio tour with pianist Danilo Perez and drumming great Roy Haynes. “Getting a chance to play with Roy was a very important moment in my life,” he says. “I feel like that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to play with somebody who reaches all the way back...I mean, all the way back to Lester Young and Billie Holiday through Bird and Trane and all that. That was very emotional for me, very exciting and I hope to get to do more with him and Danilo. We had a lot of fun. I felt affirmed by the experience. Because when you go into a situation like that you feel, ‘Oh jeez, now I’m playing with a giant chunk of history here. I sure hope my playing feels right to him. Otherwise, I’m gonna really be depressed.’ And he was very encouraging. He seemed to really enjoy it and I certainly felt like I was just thriving on every minute of it.”
Patitucci got a similar kick playing alongside Scofield on Now . “One of the most lasting and powerful effects that he had on me was his album Rough House [Enja, 1978],” he recalls. “That was the one that made me a Scofield fanatic 20 years ago and I never stopped liking him. I have just about every record he’s ever done as a leader. I just think he’s a phenomenal musician. I actually did record with him on one of my earlier records [two tracks on 1990’s Sketchbook , including the tribute number “Scophile”]. But to do a whole record together meant a lot to me.”
In retrospect, Sketchbook was indeed a collection of varied musical sketches that Patitucci would later pursue in greater depth on subsequent albums. It included the classically influenced piece “Two Worlds” featuring an overdubbed arco string quartet, a direction he would investigate on a much grander scale in 1991 on the orchestral offering Heart of the Bass . There was a token taste of Brazilian music in “Greatest Gift,” a soothing samba featuring the vocals of Dori Caymi, who would later appear as a special guest on the bassist’s 1994 Brazilian concept album,Mistura Fina . Sketchbook also included a trio romp with Michael Brecker and Terri Lyne Carrington on Patitucci’s “’Trane.” But that stab at acoustic jazz was far busier and full of tension than his playing in that mode today.
“Hopefully I’ve grown up a little bit,” he says. “I’m also really trying to make a conscious effort to utilize certain aspects of my playing in a more economical way. That also gives you much more of an element of surprise too. It keeps the listeners on their toes. If you can use a lot of different angles in your music then when you happen to break out something where you’re going to flat out burn then it’s going to mean more if you’ve taken the time to develop a bunch of other things in the music. So I’m trying to be more effective with that.”
The great bassist plans to continue on this musical path with his next Concord release, which will feature another great New York drummer in Jack DeJohnette, who played alongside Patitucci on Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Images [1991, Blue Note] and on Mike Stern’s Give And Take [1997, Atlantic]. “I’ve been a huge fan of Jack’s for many years and it’s really exciting playing with him,” he says. “The way he plays is very unique, very exciting to me. I’m dying to play with him again.”
Meanwhile, he’s been pursuing his classical muse in a more low profile setting. “At our church we have some amazing players. There’s the violist from the Emerson String Quartet who’s wife also plays violin with St. Luke’s symphony orchestra. We have a singer named James Courtney who is the bass baritone with the Metropolitan Opera. He’s an elder at our church and I get to write for him and the string orchestra. So I have an outlet now for that, which is pretty amazing. It just sort of happened when I moved back here and I’m real excited about exploring that.”
“That’s another great thing about being in New York,” he continues. “It’s a classical music mecca as well. So I feel like I’ve had an opportunity to grow in that area as well. I started studying when I came back, which I hadn’t done in a long time in terms of classical bass, and I studied for a couple years solid until the baby came. Now I’m gonna try to get back into it but it’s been rough.”
At that moment in the interview, his daughter Sachi Grace started crying. He had conducted this phoner at home with her on his shoulder. And now he had to go. It was feeding time at the Patitucci household.
John’s main upright since his days with Chick Corea’s Acoustik Band is a West German Pollmann bass. He also has a 125-year-old Austrian-Hungarian five-string bass that he uses exclusively for classical playing. He uses D’addario Helicore strings on both upright basses, medium gauge on the Pollmann, and orchestral strings on the five-string. On the acoustic bass he has a Fishman blender box to mix the signals from a tiny Crown GLM 100 microphone that goes directly inside the bass and a David Gage-Ned Steinberger creation called The Realist, which is a pickup located under the bridge. For live situations he may also have a third channel for a microphone in front of the bass, depending on how loud the band is. “With Roy Haynes and Danilo we used quite a bit of mike out in front of the bass as the meat and potatoes of the sound,” he explains. “So you were hearing the wood, which is great.” His main electric bass is a John Patitucci six-string model that he designed for Yamaha. He also uses a 5-string Yamaha prototype for some sideman work. He uses stainless steel D’Addario strings on both electrics. John plays through a Walter Woods amplifier for his acoustic bass and an Aguilar amplifier and pre-amp with Bag End speakers for the electric bass.
Herbie Hancock: Gershwin’s World (Verve)
Mark Turner: In This World (Warner Bros.)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Samuel Barber: Essays for Orchestra
Frank Sinatra: Portrait of Sinatra (Columbia)
John Coltrane: Dear Old Stockholm (Impulse)
John Coltrane: Crescent (Impulse)
Emerson String Quartet: Beethoven Quartets
Wayne Shorter: Speak No Evil (Blue Note)
Miles Davis: Nefertiti (Columbia)
Brad Meldhau: Art of the Trio, Vol.3 (Warner Bros.)
Keith Jarrett: Trio ‘96 (ECM)
Originally published in April 1999