Not long before John Patitucci’s 13th birthday, his grandfather returned from work on a New York construction site with two discarded boxes of records. Ray Charles’ Genius + Soul = Jazz, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band’s debut on Solid State, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Mosaic, Thelonious Monk’s Underground and Jimmy Smith’s Hoochie Coochie Man were some of the choice albums. It was Patitucci’s first exposure to jazz. Now 55, Patitucci still has the records, and over the past three decades he’s collaborated with many of the musicians he discovered in that thrown-away collection. On his 14th album as a leader, Brooklyn, his first self-released project and his first all-electric disc, with drummer Brian Blade and guitarists Steve Cardenas and Adam Rogers, the acclaimed bassist pays tribute to that formative moment and the borough that gave him his voice.
“So much inspiration came out of those boxes,” Patitucci says, seated in his “sanctuary,” a basement home studio in Hastings-on-Hudson, a commuter town about 18 miles north of Manhattan.
The critic David Hajdu has argued that the musical tastes we develop at 14, in the middle of adolescence, form the bedrock of the soundtrack to our lives, and with Brooklyn, Patitucci proves the point. His family moved to Long Island before he started high school, but the mix of hard bop, blues and R&B he heard on those first records and around the neighborhood left an indelible mark. For Patitucci, Brooklyn is not a nostalgia trip.
In a way, he never left. “There was so much jazz around me that I didn’t realize, like Max [Roach] and Freddie [Hubbard] and Joe Henderson. All these guys were living in Brooklyn,” Patitucci says. “Later, when I played with Freddie, sometimes he’d call a fast tune and he’d have me play a solo in the middle of it, and he’d be screaming, ‘Brooklyn!’ To them, Brooklyn was very important. It meant civil rights, Jackie Robinson and the color line-empowerment.”
Patitucci inherited the jazz bug from his maternal grandfather John, his namesake who went by Sonny. “He was a Renaissance man. He fought with Patton in World War II, and he could cook. I make his ravioli recipe,” Patitucci recalls of Sonny. “He didn’t get past sophomore year of high school. He was truant totally, but he liked stride guys like Eubie Blake and ‘Fatha’ Hines, so that’s exactly where the jazz came from.”
The younger Patitucci was born in 1959 and grew up in a predominantly Italian, Jewish and Irish section of East Flatbush, where his close-knit family shared a brownstone with his uncle and cousins; his grandparents lived only a few blocks away. “They had the ground floor, we had the upstairs. We didn’t have a lot of stuff, we just ate great. It was like out of a Scorsese movie,” Patitucci says. “We played stickball, slapball, baseball, football, roller hockey, all on that little street. I remember walking up Avenue D, and you could get an egg cream at the fountain and the best bagels and bialys next door. Then you had the pizza places, the Italian delis, the markets.” He even recalls the sound of live bagpipes. “It was a little bit of the old world moved into the new. It was really deep, and very unadulterated at that point.” In 1969, the Mets won the World Series and the Jets won the Super Bowl; in 1970, the Knicks won the NBA championship. With Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and the Temptations on the radio, 10-year-old Patitucci picked up the electric bass and began emulating the sound of James Jamerson. “It was really a magical time to be growing up in Brooklyn,” he says.
Patitucci chose to shoot the new album’s back-cover photo on his old block, but the front cover was done at pianist Aaron Goldberg’s neighbor’s stoop in Park Slope. “We tried to get a picture of me at the front of my old house, but it just didn’t look good. It was changed,” Patitucci says. “Also, now that I’m a grown man, it felt so small.”