Jimmy Haslip: Still Pushing The Envelope
by Rick Suchow
(This article was published in the May 2010 issue of Bass Guitar Magazine.)
What do Rod Stewart, Chaka Khan, Pat Metheny, Joe Cocker, Diana Ross and Al Jarreau all have in common? Well for one, all are giants in the world of pop or jazz, universally respected for their talent and success. And for two, all have used the services of bassist Jimmy Haslip, who in a nearly 40-year career has not only toured or recorded with each artist in this elite group but hundreds more equally as renowned. Yet even with this who’s who list of credits under his belt, Jimmy is perhaps best known for his work with one band, the veteran jazz group the Yellowjackets. Now approaching their 30th year together, founding Jackets members Haslip and keyboardist Russell Ferrante prepare to embark on their twenty-first recording in a phenomenal run that has seen the Grammy-winning group consistently remain one of the top draws in the contemporary jazz market.
Growing up in the suburban green of Huntington, Long Island, just miles from the electric pulse and frenetic energy of the New York City music scene, Jimmy took it all in as a teenager with a voracious appetite for recorded music and an unquenchable thirst for creative expression. Discovering the bass guitar in high school, the left-handed Haslip bought a standard right-handed bass from a local music store, flipped it over, and the rest is history. Jimmy immersed himself in learning the instrument and started gigging immediately, continuing to explore every great bass album he could get his hands on and learning the parts off the records. It wasn’t long before his growing interest in jazz and fusion sparked him to new levels on the 4-string, leading to a life-changing period of ten days when he met and befriended the great Jaco Pastorius. Now nearly 35 years later, Haslip has become one of the most highly regarded bassists of his generation, an improviser of extraordinary depth and a groovemaster with impeccable feel. Having recently mastered his forthcoming third solo album entitled Nightfalls, a project that features Alan Holdsworth, Alan Pasqua and Chad Wackerman, Jimmy graciously lent his time for this interview in between stops on his current tour with the Yellowjackets.
For starters, I asked him how he explains the Jackets’ longevity. "It has a lot to do with the chemistry of the people involved and my relationship with Russell Ferrante," says Haslip. "Russ and I have had a lot of good chemistry over the years writing and producing these records, and we have a similar vision musically. We’ve also had a really good team of business people behind us who’ve assisted in perpetuating us over the years, including management and booking agents, and we’ve had some very loyal people involved. So you combine all those elements, and it’s a full package of very motivated and forward thinking folks that have kept this whole thing alive, and it’s still going. We’re actually putting material together now for our twenty-first recording."
While Jimmy’s work with the Yellowjackets has always been firmly entrenched in the contemporary jazz genre, I was surprised to find that his earliest bass influences were predominantly from rock and R&B recordings (see his ‘Take 5‘ feature in BGM #50), years before his interest in jazz took hold. We took a look back at Haslip‘s evolution as a bassist. "Initially I was more of a rock and R&B player, so everyone from James Jamerson to Berry Oakley were big influences early on, including guys like Jack Bruce, Glen Cornick, Chris Squire and even Peter Cetera. I listened to all that stuff, and as time went on I got more into progressive rock and eventually Miles and some of the fusion bands of the seventies like Weather Report, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return To Forever. When the Jackets started getting into more of the traditional stuff it was apparent that I needed to study more of that, so I spent a good part of the five years from 1987 to 1992 really studying string bass players. Some of the guys that I fell in love with were Charlie Haden, Dave Holland and of course Ron Carter. I listened to as many guys as I could-- Jimmy Garrison, Eddie Gomez, Richard Davis, Scott LaFaro, Reggie Workman and Paul Chambers. And of course anytime I went to New York I would find out who was playing in town and go see them live, you know, get some juice from them. So I got really into studying string bass, and then it became kind of a project of mine to try to make the electric bass sound more like a string bass, if needed. I still work on it, I’m always trying to create, on some level, a string bass sound on electric."
And just how does Haslip achieve that sound? "It’s a little combination of things that I’ve figured out over the years, with muting and some EQ’ing that I do on the instrument, changing the position of where I’m picking the strings and finding the sweet spot. It’s a little more challenging to do on a fretted instrument, it’s easier on a fretless. And of course I don’t pat myself on the back too hard because I know it doesn’t sound like a 200-year old Czech bass or something, but I can create some sort of emulation of that sound and can give that flavor to a composition in a live setting or recording."
An unconventional aspect of Haslip’s playing, at least visually, is that he actually plays the instrument left-handed and turned upside-down, with the highest strings at the top of his fretboard. Oddly enough, I mentioned to Jimmy how natural it appeared to watch him play in that manner, in that he is physically reaching lower for the low notes and higher for the high ones. Could that be a more natural way to play a bass? "Well I don’t know what to say about that," laughed Jimmy, who found the notion rather amusing. "Conventionally the instrument is supposed to be played the other way around. What happened was that I started out as a trumpet player in high school and just picked up bass as a hobby. I didn’t really give technique much thought, I was going in blind, and taught myself how to play the darn thing completely by ear. I knew nothing about where the notes were or anything, I had no concept. And when I went to the store and couldn’t find a lefty bass I just bought a righty bass and flipped it over. It seemed to make sense, and like you say, the low string was on the bottom and the high string was on top. I didn’t really give it much thought until a few years later when guys who had more experience would see me play, and basically they said that I was screwed! And of course I tried to get lessons, and the teachers were appalled and would try to make me switch over to playing right-handed or switch the strings around. But at that point I had put a lot of hours into practicing and felt awkward switching so I just continued on. I said to myself, you know, this is what happened and I’ll just keep following this idea. It made me practice harder actually."
The hours of harder practice all paid off, as Jimmy’s technique and harmonic knowledge grew by leaps and bounds over the coming years. Interestingly enough, the string count on his basses began to grow as well. "That was sort of a natural progression," he explains. "I played 4-string for a long time, then in the early eighties I got hip to the 5-string through Jimmy Johnson, who‘s been a really good friend over the years. I went to a show he was playing with Claire Fischer up in the Hollywood Hills, and after noticing he was playing a 5-string I went up and introduced myself and asked him questions about it. At the time I had been endorsing Yamaha so I approached the company about building a 5-string, which they were somewhat opposed to. I kind of forced the issue though, so they built me a 5-string out of a BB3000, which was a 4-string, so it had kind of a thin neck but at least I had that low B string. So I got into that and toured with the Jackets with that bass, and before long Yamaha was getting tons of inquiries about where to buy the new Yamaha 5-string bass! It forced them into manufacturing the BB5000, which was their first 5-stringer, so I was kind of proud of that. Eventually I was looking for something to push the envelope and started noticing people playing 6-string, which I thought was kind of interesting. Being in the Yellowjackets with no guitar player opened the door for me to give it a shot so I had Mike Tobias, who I was working with at the time, build me a 6-string. And it really fit in with what the Jackets were doing at the time, it took me to a different place as a player and helped me evolve on many levels. You’re always looking for some kind of spark, some kind of situation that twists your head and puts you further in some sort of progression, and that’s what the 6-string did for me."
Another spark that progressed Haslip was switching to the fretless, which he eventually played exclusively for ten years. Of course, any serious discussion about fretless bass tends to bring up the subject of the great Jaco Pastorius, and I was eager to ask Jimmy about the circumstances that led to his friendship with Jaco back in the seventies. "It was 1975 and I was rehearsing with a band that was being managed by Cavallo, Ruffalo & Fargnoli, who also managed Weather Report," Haslip recalls. "They hooked up a bunch of rehearsal dates for us at this private rehearsal facility in Hollywood that belonged to Frank Zappa. There were two rooms, we were in the small room, and in the large room was Weather Report, who were rehearsing for a tour. I peaked in a bunch of times and saw that there was a new bass player-- I was expecting to see Alphonso Johnson-- and I was just flabbergasted at how good he sounded. Of course it was Jaco. I had to meet him so I waited around until they came out of the rehearsal hall, in LA, so for the next ten days or so I hung with Jaco. I probably got an infinite amount of energy and knowledge just hanging around the guy. Then we both went out on tour, I was playing with Flora Purim and Airto at the time, and I just kept running into him on the road. We were doing a lot of festival dates with Weather Report, so I got to see him a whole bunch that entire year. Over the coming years we stayed in touch here and there, but I started slowly noticing a difference in his personality, and then the stories started floating around."
I asked Jimmy to pick one thing he could pass on that Jaco taught him. "I remember trying to learn this one little thing he was showing me and I couldn’t quite get it. Jaco said, ‘Well just sing it‘. So I sang what he played and he said, ‘Good, if you can sing it then you can play it.’ That made a lot of sense. And since then that’s how I’ve learned a lot of things when I’m having a little problem with something, phrasing-wise or whatever, I just try to sing it first. Once you’ve got that then you can kind of sing along and try to emulate that on the instrument. Jaco also taught me about trying to play things like a horn player, with that kind of expression and feeling, that sense of melody."
As for the fretless, I asked Jimmy if it was still in his arsenal. "Yes, but not as much as it used to be. I played fretless exclusively between ‘88 and ‘98, and then I just kind of hit a wall. A lot of changes were happening at that time; our drummer William Kennedy left the band, we lost our management and booking agent, and our record deal with Warner Bros went out the window. I kind of felt that I was up against the wall and not really creatively motivated, so I decided to go back to playing fretted to see if that would kind of shake the tree a little bit. And it did, it made me think about what I was doing in a different way. I was really getting into chord studies on the bass, and that opened things up for me too, because whereas playing chords on a fretless is really challenging, a fretted instrument is a lot more forgiving. I just took the fretted in and felt like it was taking me to another place. It’s like when you listen to a record for the first time and get the vibe of what the record is and get excited about it, and then that wears off after listening to it maybe a thousand times, and then you don’t listen to it for a long time. You come back three or four years later and you listen to that same record and have a whole new way of listening to it, you know. And that’s what happened with me and the fretted bass, I kind of re-fell in love with playing fretted and I feel like I’ve got a lot more to go with that. I’m still feeling like there’s more to pull out of the instrument."
Curious to know exactly what the veteran bassist has been pulling out of his instrument these days, I asked Jimmy what his typical practice session consisted of. "Over the past ten years I’ve been really obsessed with improvisation and being able to come up with motifs or patterns at the drop of a dime. I sit around and practice stuff like that all the time, just playing patterns or riffs off the top of my head, or thinking of some progression and learning by ear what the chords are, and improvising over those chords. Whenever I do master classes or seminars, one thing I always talk about is practicing as much as you can on your own to just come up with melodic motifs from scratch. The more you prepare, the more it builds confidence in you as a person and a player, as well as your ability to contribute to whatever the situation is."
Having played with many of the finest drummers on the planet, I asked Haslip his thoughts on the drummer-bassist relationship. Does he feel time differently with different drummers, or is his sense of time hard-wired, so to speak? "My sense of time is solid," he explains, "and if I’m on my own I create my own clock and it will be very steady and strong. But when I’m working with a drummer I always feel out what the drummer’s doing, and of course every drummer is different. Some guys play on top of the beat, some guys behind, some dead center. And depending on what kind of music it is, some play with different feels than others. So I’m kind of amoebic in that sense, I’ll pick up pretty quickly on where a drummer is at feel-wise and groove-wise, and I’ll just try to lock to that. I kind of feel that drummers are more apt to just play what they play, so as a team player I’m interested in locking to wherever they are. I’m into making the foundation and groove as strong and as powerful as possible."
I ended our interview by asking Jimmy if he had any advice to offer young bassists who want to make a career out of it. "I think a good piece of advice is to continue to practice hard and be the best player you can be, but also diversify. There’s nothing wrong with learning to do other things that involve music. It could be engineering, production, programming or even contracting. Arranging is a cool thing, if I had a minute I would go back to school and study arranging. Production work and composition are also good, that’s just another whole facet of being a musician and being involved in making music. I think that’s what a young musician needs to look at in today’s day and age, to open the door for other kinds of work. If you are that passionate about music don’t sell yourself short. Open yourself to other types of things that involve music, therefore you don’t have to just be waiting by the phone for somebody to call you to come play bass on something."
Basses: MTD 6 and 7-string
Tobias 5 and 6-string fretless
Roscoe 6 and 7-string
Amps: SWR SM-500, SM-750 and SM-900
Cabinets: SWR Goliath 4 x 10 and 2 x 10
Strings::Dunlop strings, Dean Markley SR2000