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John Patitucci’s Soulful Bass

On his latest album, the virtuoso gives us his most personal statement yet

John Patitucci
John Patitucci (photo: Peter Freed)

In the late 1970s, John Patitucci heard Dave Holland’s Emerald Tears, one of the rare solo bass albums and an influential record for bassists of Patitucci’s generation. “His playing inspired me, but it was a little intimidating,” Patitucci says. So much so that it took him 40 years to make a solo album of his own.

His new record, Soul of the Bass (Three Faces), is a compendium of mostly original compositions performed, with great sensitivity and spaciousness, on six-string electric and acoustic upright. Patitucci came to prominence in the mid-’80s as a virtuoso with fleet fingers and a deep sense of funk, but at 59, he has mellowed and feels he has less to prove. Such an attitude led him to produce what is perhaps the most understated—and self-assured—album of his career. Not that he didn’t have some reservations about making such a personal statement. “I was a little afraid,” he says, “to jump in the water on this one.”

In a recent interview at a coffee shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Patitucci discussed, among other things, the new album, his faith, and his longtime affiliation with Wayne Shorter.

You’ve mentioned that you worked out the themes for your album from bits of solo bass improvisations. Sometimes I’d pick up the instrument and start improvising, and turn on the phone if I thought I might have stumbled on something. I felt that if I could keep each piece concise so people could hear a melodic shape and a form, it might be interesting for them.

You write in the liner notes that you see this album as a kind of followup to your 1992 album Heart of the BassHow do you feel you’ve grown since then? With this recording, even though the tracks are short, I felt like I had more time than ever. I think I’m finally getting to a place where I’m more relaxed. Sometimes I’ll hear things back and inevitably, I’m pretty self-critical—I’ll say, “Wow, I should have taken more time with this phrase or that.” This is the only time I could listen to a whole record and feel as if I didn’t rush any phrases. I think I had to get a little older and play a lot more gigs, practice a lot more, and just experience more of life. My wife and I, we’ve been raising these two daughters forever now—they’re 21 and 18—so that mellows you out. It shapes you. I think it changes your music. Also, being around Wayne Shorter—he’s been like a second father to me.

Shorter is a practicing Buddhist. Do you two talk about religion? We’ve had a lot of discussions. We love each other, and even though we have different ways of expressing our faiths, there are a lot of things we can talk about where there’s also common ground.

What has being in the quartet with Wayne, Danilo Pérez, and Brian Blade for the past 20 years been like? It’s opened us up, because he gave us so much freedom to blur the line between written music and improvised music, in real time. And he really trusted us to do that.

Are you working on anything new with the quartet? He’s 85, so he’s really not traveling anymore. I don’t think we’re going to play any more gigs. But he is trying to write and finish this opera. It wasn’t going to have the quartet, but I think somehow we are going to be involved. The music is beautiful. The guts of it are written; he’s just gotta finish all the orchestration.

Is it possible that Emanon could be the last of the quartet albums? It’s possible. That was very emotional when we won the Grammy for that album. I was crying. This was a dream project, where he could do the illustrated novel and all the multilayered things. Even in his storied recorded output, this was very personal.

Your own record was pretty personal, too. You included your wife and kids on a couple of tunes. My wife has been on a bunch of my records. She plays cello beautifully, and it’s great to have her in-house. My daughters both have really good ears. The younger one isn’t pursuing music—she’s going to be in fashion or something, but she’s singing in her high-school musical right now—and the older one is a singer/songwriter out in L.A. She does these big clustered vocal tracks, so I thought she was just going to do that and I was going to play afterwards. But we were sitting in the studio and I realized, Oh, you probably want a pitch reference, right? So what was going to be a guide track she started singing along to, and I started improvising with her. Then we added my other daughter, because they have such a good blend together, and it turned into what became “Sarab.”

Aside from the solo bass album, what else do you have going on? I wrote this chamber orchestra piece called “Hypocrisy,” which I’m going to perform in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Danilo and Brian are going to play with me. It’s a protest piece on the whole situation that we have right now. Because I’m very committed to my faith, I was troubled by the fact that some people over on the right …

Like the evangelical community? Yeah, they had sort of signed off on this guy who was so far from anything you can imagine being associated with a spiritual practice where you’re supposed to serve people and feed the homeless and take care of the immigrants and do all the things that I believe Jesus was all about. So that was troubling to me on a lot of levels. I used almost a hymn theme, but the harmonies are very turbulent. 

Will the piece be unveiled before or after the next election? January 2020.

So right around the next inauguration. Maybe for your purposes it would be better if Trump got re-elected. No, no! [Laughs] I definitely hope it’s not so current at that point—and it’s maybe a look backward.

I feel like you project this anxious persona but it doesn’t really comport with the performer that you are. I’m an artist, so there are always insecurities that pop up. But by the time you get to the stage, you have more peace about it because you’ve wrestled it. Also, for me, it’s a spiritual thing. It’s much bigger than me. When I lean on the author of my faith, I’m chill.

Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel is a freelance writer whose work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and The Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications.