Interview - Ken Lister

Ken Lister

Ken Lister has been a professional jazz bassist since 1983. (Junos: 2012-The Phil Dwyer Orchestra; 1997-The Hugh Fraser Quintet). Ken’s career took an interesting turn in the 90’s when he lived off-grid on a remote island, raising his young family. From there he toured nationally and internationally. Now based on Vancouver Island, Ken teaches bass (and yoga) and continues to perform, record and tour. Some of the many great musicians he has played with include Don Thompson, Linton Garner, Ross Taggart, Ingrid Jensen, Steve Davis, Slide Hampton, Chucho Valdes, and many others.

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

Knowing why you want to play music is important. I believe that playing music is to some degree a calling, rather than a career choice. In particular, being a bassist is chiefly a supportive role, so it really helps if your desires are in line with that role. I see the role of the bassist as being to unite and anchor the group.
Learning to listen to others and hear yourself in the context of the whole group is a crucial skill. Also, learning to hear musical sounds, notes, chords, rhythms, etc. as part of a language, rather than theoretical concepts. Discover the value of space and simplicity.
One of my teachers, Wyatt Ruther, once told me "take what you do seriously, but never take yourself seriously". I'm not sure that I understood at the time what he meant, but I have come to understand that a lot better now.

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

Normally, I would suggest Live at the Village Vanguard with Scott LaFaro and Bill Evans, (or any recording with Scott LaFaro). Literally, the day I heard this album I traded all my records for jazz albums, switched my focus to acoustic bass, and threw myself into jazz. These recordings have been mentioned already, so I am going to offer three others which I consider to be influential and important to me:

Miles Smiles (Ron Carter, with Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams); Ron is so well recorded on this record and it is a great example of a bassist who really knows how to anchor and support a group of other strong musical personalities, and displays a beautiful balance between support and leadership. I originally got this record by mistake, but it blew my musical mind at a crucial point in my development. Ron is a master.
Live at the Pershing with Ahmad Jamal on piano, Vernel Fournier on drums and the GREAT bassist Israel Crosby. His playing is so unique and inventive that I continue to feel excited when I hear it today!
The Paris Concert with Bill Evans, Joe LaBarbara and bassist, Marc Johnson. In my opinion, Marc successfully integrated Scott LaFaro's approach and Eddie Gomez' influence while clearly speaking with his own voice. He really got what Scott was trying to do, melodically and conversationally, without sacrificing the supportive role of the bassist.

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.

One idea I like personally, is warming up by playing melodies with the bow. Playing like that with a standards play-along is also a great way to work on tuning, possibly reading, learning tunes specifically, and how melodies feel in your hands, generally. It is very useful for the bassist to have a strong connection with the melodies of tunes. This type of practice can have huge spill-over effects into soloing, too. And, it's fun!
I love playing Bach, with a bow, with a metronome on, very, very slow….The Cello suites are great for practicing in the upper register. I also use an edition adapted for the double bass which uses the entire range of the bass - a fantastic opportunity to experience the deep musicality of J. S. Bach. Check out Bach SIX SUITES for String Bass Solo by Mark Bernat.
I think the benefits of playing along with recordings cannot be overstated. When I first became interested in Ron Carter, for example, I would play along with any recording of him I could get my hands on and try to play "into" his groove and sound, echoing any interesting articulations or cool lines I could grab on the fly - great for the ear and super-fun! Eventually, for some of my favourite tracks, I would lift the whole thing and then try and play it so I couldn't hear myself as separate from Ron. Hard to do, but again, totally worth a million bucks. I think that doing that influenced my overall feel to this day, more than anything else I did.
Another focussed type of practice is when I have an upcoming gig or recording where I might have specific tunes to learn, (it could be a list of standard tunes, or written arrangements, preferably with accompanying recordings). In cases like that, I always take great joy in creating a playlist in iTunes, and running through the set of music over and over, so that by the time the gig arrives, I am familiar with the sounds I am working with. A huge part of my preparation involves listening while walking outside in nature. I will listen to the music until I know what to expect. Knowing what to expect means I can make musical choices based on sound.
Another mind-blowing way to practice is with a drone, like a tamboura, for instance. I got the idea from Ingrid Jensen. I remember watching her warming up with a shruti box for long tones. Amazing! I found an app for my phone and computer that I can put in any key. There are also many recordings of tambura drones available online. I highly recommend this technique for anyone who wants to improve their confidence around tuning.

Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?

Whenever I encounter difficulties, I try to precisely identify the issue, and then focus on problem-solving. Sometimes, we can find ourselves playing the same passage over and over, in an attempt to improve, but it doesn't get much better because we are not dealing with the real issues that are preventing the easeful flow of the music. For instance, if I am having trouble with a specific passage of music, I identify the movements that are difficult or awkward, and then come up with a strategy that makes sense. I then improvise a short exercise that teaches the new movement to my body-mind. Eventually, the new movement becomes a habit that is also useful later in improvisation. The important thing is to keep yourself in problem-solving mode, rather than boiling over with aimless enthusiasm, or collapsing into frustration. (What would Yoda do?)
The bass is a very physical instrument. It is supremely important to consider the physical body and it's relationship to the instrument, as well as the toll that playing can take on your body. Yoga has helped me enormously to undo many of the negative effects of repetitive movements, and to develop an overall awareness of how I use my body to play, stand, walk, breathe, etc. Also, I have a pair of ten pound dumbbells that I use for doing arm curls.For some reason, this seems to chill out my forearm muscles. I think that engaging the muscles in this way has a therapeutic effect.

Do you have any advice for players just beginning their careers? What worked for you?

Forging connections with other musicians is crucial. Making friends with like-minded players, paying respect to more seasoned players and learning from them whenever possible. I think it is very important to get out and in the scene. When I was first getting started, I was perhaps a little unreasonably bold. I had friends who were way better players, but who were reluctant to play in public because they felt they weren't "ready". I learned a lot by putting myself in situations that I might not have been "ready" for. I managed to bumble through and learned a ton by being in sometimes embarrassing situations. I found myself playing with much older, experienced players who were calling tunes I didn't know. These guys never played with charts and sometimes would start playing without telling me the title of the song or even the key. Bringing a fake book to the gig was not an acceptable option. I started carrying around a little note book to keep track of the tunes I didn't know, and I would learn them. Then, when they would ask "do you know such and such a tune?", if I didn't, I could counter with one of the tunes they had previously called that I had since learned. That helped me a lot. Whenever possible, I would go to other people's gigs, to listen, and maybe sit in. I pretty much never asked to sit in, but would always say yes when asked, even if I was terrified.
I think it is important to know what music you love to play, and to immerse yourself in it until it becomes like a language to you. It is also helpful to be able to adapt to a wide variety of musical situations, and to be flexible.

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

My main instrument these days is a 1962 Pöllmann 3/4 bass, with a custom made endpin, set at an angle, which makes the bass sit back in a very ergonomic way for me. I have Pirastro Obligato strings on the E & A, an Innovation Golden Slap on the D, and currently a LaBella Golden Tone nylon-wound Gut on the G. The Innovation Golden Slap D string is a synthetic gut-like string, but with a much clearer tone and sustain than any gut D that I have tried. It gives me the sound I have longed from from a real gut D string but with more sustain, a clearer tone and, it's less expensive. Over the years, I have tried many different kinds of steel and gut strings, but always come back to something brighter on the bottom, and something softer on the top. I really like the bounce of gut strings, and they are much, much easier on the hands than higher tension steel strings.
My pickup is a Fishman Full Circle, which so far is the best overall pickup I have tried. It is even in tone, doesn't move around, and doesn't feed back. My amplifier is an Acoustic Image combo amp, and I have an AMT microphone that clips on the bass. I use the mic instead of a DI whenever possible.
Finding the right instrument can be a tricky thing. I am a small person, and I have always wanted to produce a big, warm sound. I played a great big 7/8 bass for many years which I thought was the perfect instrument for me. However, although it had a big sound, it was actually too big for me and caused all sorts of trouble with my body. One day, out of the blue, a smaller bass came into my life and once I started playing it, I realized I had been struggling needlessly. The 3/4 bass I now play is easier on my body and gives me the sound I want.
It is important to ensure that your bass is set up properly. If you aren't sure, then ask your teacher, or another professional bassist for their guidance.
When all is said and done, although your instrument, strings, setup and other equipment can have an enormous impact on your body, and your tone, it is important to realize that ultimately your sound is going to evolve to be your sound. Changing how you play will make a bigger difference in most cases, than the instrument you are using. While finding the right gear is important, looking for the sound you want, in some physical object you do not yet possess, is a distraction. Most of your sound is in your hands, arising from your imagination.

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

In addition to playing music, I am currently teaching bass lessons, coaching small student groups, and managing a yoga studio. I try to keep my public appearances listed on my website at: I also have a Twitter account: @kenlister.

Any other thoughts to pass along?

Playing music is both a privilege and a joy. I believe everyone can develop a unique voice if they are honest and practice diligently with focus. The thing that others will hear in your playing is mostly independent of your instrument and even your technique. What people will hear that matters most, is the quality of energy you bring to your playing, and the degree to which you are willing and able to listen to, and interact skillfully with others. Music is really all about communication and communion with other humans; expressing something beautiful, spoken in universal terms through music.