John Patitucci & Jeff Berlin: The Electric Bass in Acoustic Jazz

A Chops column on making the bass guitar work in straight-ahead settings

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John Patitucci (photo by Gus Cantavero)

When it comes to straight-ahead jazz, the upright bass largely remains the low-hertz instrument of choice. Historically, many bass guitarists possessing expertise in walking and swinging got there by way of migrating from the double bass. Take Steve Swallow and the late Bob Cranshaw, for instance: Both played and recorded on the upright before transitioning to bass guitar and mostly never looking back.

Still, bias against bass guitar in straight-ahead jazz is real. And working bassists who either don’t play upright or can’t bring the hulking instrument to a bar or wedding gig will ultimately need to emulate the double bass when someone calls for “All the Things You Are.”

It can be done, says John Patitucci, a bass doubler who started on the electric bass at age 10 before expanding to upright at 15. He has earned a distinguished career as a solo artist, an integral player in renowned working groups led by Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, and a vital presence on hundreds of jazz recordings. Another low-end virtuoso, electric-bass specialist Jeff Berlin, agrees. He switched to his instrument at age 14, after a decade studying violin, and has gained acclaim for his work as a leader and with artists including fusioneers Bill Bruford and Scott Henderson.

Originally from Brooklyn, Patitucci first tuned into walking bass courtesy of his maternal grandfather, who brought home records featuring jazz’s greatest acoustic bassists: Ray Brown, with the Oscar Peterson Trio; Ron Carter, with Wes Montgomery; and Jymie Merritt, in Art Blakey’s band. “That came when I was young, without any real understanding—just ‘Wow, what a sound,’” Patitucci says over breakfast in Clearwater, Fla., following a long day of rehearsals at Corea’s nearby studio. (Corea, Patitucci and drummer Dave Weckl recently relaunched the Akoustic Band, starting with two shows in nearby St. Petersburg, recorded for album release.)

In California, a teenaged Patitucci studied with Chris Poehler, who hipped him to the bass’ function in jazz. “It’s an architectural role,” Patitucci says. “Ron Carter embodies all of that … the way he creates basslines that spell the harmony but give the rhythmic feeling. They create an environment for the other musicians to feel free.” The young bassist’s immersion in the playing of Brown, Carter and Merritt was followed by time listening to Israel Crosby, Charlie Haden, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Garrison, Paul Chambers, Oscar Pettiford and Rufus Reid, who became a mentor and close friend, among many others.

Patitucci, of late playing the custom Yamaha semi-hollowbody six-string that can be heard on his 2015 album, Brooklyn, approaches bass guitar in a manner heavily influenced by his upright work. “It informs the way I think sonically, beat placement, note placement,” he says. Rule No. 1: “You can’t have a bright sound. It doesn’t go with the music.” To help achieve those dark colors, he cuts the treble frequencies and tamps down the high-mids. Also important: Use open strings, no matter what some instructors say about avoiding them. “You have to have those when you’re walking, because you have to pull off.” Don’t make the ornamental figures—including triplets leading into a note—louder than the downbeat, he suggests. “An acoustic bass player never makes the triplet thing stick out. It’s going somewhere; it’s not isolated.” And consider pumping up the sustain via hand placement. “I angle my hand sometimes, as if I were playing the big bass, so I get more meat [finger] on the string.”

Berlin, a Queens native who studied at Berklee, says he’s experienced a bias against bass guitar in straight-ahead jazz, despite his success in that arena on such solo releases as 2013’s Low Standards. “A lot of top players were fairly adamant that electric bass guitar doesn’t belong in a traditional setting, and I agree,” Berlin says from his home in Nashville. “Electric bass players sometimes employ a tone that isn’t suited to filling the lower sonics  in a jazz group.” He’s currently working on a new version of his ’80s fusion favorite “Joe Frazier,” and developing his Jeff Plays Bruce album project, with rearrangements of Cream tunes and other Jack Bruce compositions.

Jeff Berlin (photo by Arnie Goodman Photography)
Jeff Berlin (photo by Arnie Goodman Photography)

Playing the Rithimic Series four-string bass he designed for Cort through two Jeff Berlin signature Markbass combos with 15-inch speakers, and using an EBS chorus pedal, Berlin incorporates a particular plucking approach to warm up his sound. “I use the side of my plucking finger so that the string sometimes rolls with the bass tone. It’s not a punch of the note but rather a graceful caress,” he says.

And he teaches a particular method of walking. “It’s a left-hand [fingerboard] experience,” Berlin explains in a YouTube video. “Instead of using the plucking hand to try to swing music, use your left hand to pull off the note while your right hand is doing downbeats. The pull-off implies the downbeat while playing the upbeat. Jazz is a downbeat music.”