Interview - Don Thompson

This is the first in a series of interviews with Canadian bass players. The questions are geared towards practical advice for aspiring bassists, although I've quickly learned that all musicians, from beginners to pros on any instrument, will get a lot out of reading the responses. Don Thompson has long been a hero of mine and I'm thrilled to share his insightful and valuable comments.

Don Thompson

Pianist, vibraphonist, bassist, composer, arranger, producer and educator Don Thompson has been a major international jazz figure since the early 1960s. He has performed and recorded on Juno and Grammy winning recordings and performed worldwide with legendary artists such as John Handy, Paul Desmond, Milt Jackson, George Shearing, Mel Tormé, Kenny Wheeler, Jim Hall and countless others.

What are some important musical and other lessons you've learned that you can pass on to aspiring bassists?

Important lessons I've sort of learned or at least am still working on.

     One of the most important things I ever learned about being a bass player was that it's a lot easier to learn how to play the bass than it is to learn how to play music.  Playing the bass, or any other instrument is not much more than learning where to put you fingers in order to play the notes.  Playing music is all about knowing the melody, the harmony, the inner voice movements, all the possible alternate chord progressions and the bass line and being familiar enough with all this information that you can play the tune in any key or time signature. 

    Bass players are often obsessed with "locking in" with the drummer in order to create what they perceive to be the "groove".  I've found that a good band will usually have a collective time feel and it's often better if the bass player and the drummer just play with the band rather than trying to get the band to play with them.  A lot of young bass players are concerned about their ability to play time but usually, if they are asked to just play quarter notes on a single note their time is perfect.  I believe that most time problems are the result of the bass player not really understanding the music.  I know, myself that if there's anything at all in the music that I don't understand my time will be the first thing to go.  If you don't know what notes to play there's not much chance that you'll be able to play them in time.

     Soloing is really important to me.  When I began playing bass (in 1954) there were no pickups or bass amps so soloing was pretty difficult.  There were a few guys that had recorded some terrific solos but playing solos live was really difficult simply because it was almost impossible to even hear the bass in most playing situations.  As a result many bass players went through most of their playing careers never playing a solo.  Today however, with every bass player being amplified they are all expected to play solos whether they know the tune or not and whether they even want to or not. 

     My biggest problem with most bass solos is that they sound just like bass solos.  The bass is an impossibly difficult instrument and every bass has it's own limitations so I, and most of the bass players I know have spent years trying to find a way of playing anything at all.  Most of what we play is a compromise between what we'd really like to play and what the bass allows us to play.  When I began playing professionally I was playing mostly little dance jobs and bar gigs and I never actually got to play any solos but eventually I wound up in jazz situations and so I had to come up with something.  For a couple of years I'd just play random stuff and try to do little things but it was all pretty meaningless 'till one night I heard Stan Getz in a concert and he played Quiet Night of Quiet Stars.  When he played the melody he changed one note at the end and it was so pretty I couldn't get it out of my head.  As soon as I got home I picked up my bass and played the tune and I changed that note.  It was the first time I'd realized that I could play something on the bass that had been played on the Saxophone.

     From the day I heard Stan Getz change that note it's been my mission to take the music of the players that I really love (Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Paul Desmond, Sonny Greenwich) and just see what there is in their playing that I might be able to borrow and play on the bass.  It might be the way they play the melody, the way they use vibrato, the way they hold notes, the dynamics within the phrase (Bass players are taught from the beginning how to get a big sound and some of them take this seriously to the point that they just play loud all the time) the way they anticipate the harmony, the way they outline the harmony in their solos and everything else that goes into making the music beautiful.  I've spent years, for example trying to play (on the bass) the first eight bars of "I Want to Talk About You" the way Trane played it.  Charlie Parker played something at the end of his solo on "Old Folks" that was so beautiful It's hard for me to play the tune without playing it.  It's not about "lifting" exactly what they play.  It's about the idea of what they play and the feeling in their playing.  I could never play, on the bass what any of them played but I think that someday I might play something that gets across the idea.  To me it's about how I feel, what I'm feeling and how to get my feeling into the music so that someone listening might feel it too.

     I think it's important to know why you like the music you like and conversely, why you don't like what you don't like.  We all have our favorites and the music we love is usually the inspiration for the music we end up playing.
     Another thing I learned a long time ago is the importance of listening to classical music.  I've been obsessed with Bach's music for years to the point that I can't really imagine my life without it.  There are so many "most important" pieces there's no point in naming them but I've often thought that it should be a requirement that all jazz bass players listen to and study Bach for at least two years  before they actually go out and play in public.  This may sound a bit extreme but it's impossible to overstate the importance of Bach's music.

What are three of your favourite recordings that you consider essential for any bassist to check out?

#1 - Pretty well anything with Ray Brown.  Ray's concept of Bass Lines and his groove are as good as it gets, for me at least.

#2 - Everybody likes Hampton Hawes (the one with the alligator on the cover).  Red Mitchell was my first favorite soloist on the bass and his solo on "I Remember You" is perfection.

#3 - Waltz for Debby (Bill Evans with Scott LaFaro)  Scotty's playing generally changed the way I thought about playing bass but this record changed bass playing for all of us forever.  Scotty brought a whole new approach to playing bass in a jazz group.  He was able to become an almost equal partner in Bill's trio playing contrapuntally in a way nobody I'd heard do before.  It's important to remember though that he played acoustically and that if he'd been amplified a lot of his stuff might have been pretty intrusive.  It's also interesting to remember that Red Mitchell was a really good piano player and that Scotty was originally a Tenor Saxophonist.  Red was also Scotty's teacher.

Can you share some practice ideas? What should aspiring bassists focus on? What worked/works for you? I realize this is a very broad question that varies with individuals' needs, but I'm looking for some general ideas, and in particular what worked for you.

Concerning practicing.......I practice a lot and it's usually stuff I know I'll have to do in order to get my hands ready for my next gig.  I've been playing along with records as long as I can remember and I now have a playlist in my itunes that includes Opus De Funk (Milt Jackson), Bag's Groove (Miles Davis) Blue and Boogie (Miles Davis) and Chasin' the Trane.  My playlist is well over an hour long and a real work-out.  Just getting through Chasin' the Trane is a challenge and Blue and Boogie is really a burner. 

     When I was with George Shearing in New York I'd have one feature tune each set and I'd usually spend two or three hours in the afternoon getting the two tunes together for that night.  I'd play the melodies in a bunch of keys 'till I found the key that was best for me and my bass.  Then I'd just play the tune and solo on it for the next couple of hours 'till it started sounding like I knew what I was doing.  I did this pretty well every day.  The last time I played there we were in the same club for eight weeks, five nights a week, two sets a night.  That comes out to eighty sets and eighty tunes.  I got through the eight weeks without repeating a tune.  When I left George Shearing Neil Swainson replaced me and I think he did the same thing.

     Now I just practice the hardest tunes in the hardest keys all the time.  I figure that if I can play those tunes in those keys everything else will be pretty easy.

Do you have any gear advice (specific pickups, strings, amps, etc. and what to look for)?

Concerning pick-ups and amplifiers etc...I'm not really that interested in most of that stuff.  I think the most important thing is to get a good instrument and then to get it set up so it's easy to play.  If you have to fight with the bass you'll never enjoy playing it.  It's important to figure out what kind of sound you want and get it on the instrument first.  Then find a pick-up and an amp that works for you.  I have an ATM mic. that attaches to the bass that I really like.  I put the mic in the house PA and use my amp for an on-stage monitor.

What's coming up for you and how can we follow you (website, social media, etc,)?

I don't have many gigs coming up and very few of them are on bass.  I spend a lot of time writing music and most of the work I do is with Diana Panton.  I love playing duo with Reg Schwager but that is a guitar/piano situation.

Any other thoughts to pass along?

One more thing that I think is important.  If you really want to know what is possible on the bass check out Joel Quarrington.  Joel is probably the greatest classical bassist in the world and he's renown for his flawless technique, perfect pitch and fantastic sound.  I think the biggest challenge for any musician is to make the music more important than the instrument or the player and Joel is the only bass player I know that is able to do that.  When I listen to him play It's all about music.  The bass and all of his technique are simply there to make the music happen. 

     One final thought.  Always remember that when you're in a band your first responsibility is to the music.  The bass player is really the most important player in the band and can make the band sound great by simply playing what the music needs.  The bass player can also completely destroy the music by playing too loud, not listening to the rest of the band and basically playing for himself (herself) instead of the music.  Remember that there's only one best note and always try to find it.