Interview - Paul Novotny

Paul Novotny

Bassist/composer/producer Paul Novotny has created Juno nominated and winning recordings for Carol Welsman, Joe Sealy and himself. Paul has performed with Cedar Walton, Joanne Brakeen, Junior Mance, Kenny Wheeler, Lynn Arriel and Geoff Keezer as well as with singers Holly Cole, Molly Johnson, Jackie Richardson and Louise Pitre. Novotny and Sealy have performed in Canada, Scandinavia, USA and opened concerts for Charlie Haden/Brad Meldau, Herb Ellis/Red Mitchell and Michel Petrucciani. Paul has composed themes for CBC National News, CBC The Hour, with George Stroumboulopoulos, CBC News Now and scores for feature and documentary films.


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

1) It takes time to refine yourself, be patient and work at it everyday.

2) You can’t be a great musician without being an even greater listener. Learn to listen like a hawk and make your decisions with consideration for the entire sound of the ensemble. Always be glued to the melody.

3) Make sure that when you set up in an ensemble, listening, blend and sight lines are your guiding principles for placement. Remember that 1 foot = 1 millisecond.

If you set up 20 feet away from your drummer, his perception of your note placement will be late by about 20 milliseconds.

4) For small ensembles that perform at a natural dynamic level, about (80 to 95 dba) never put your bass amp on the floor and at your feet. There will be too much smeared bottom end, as the amp can make the stage and room physically resonate.

I elevate my amp and set its level and tone seeking a natural blend with the acoustic bass itself. For a big band you do need to play louder, but the amp off the floor is still helpful for a clear sound.

5) Dynamics are everything. Music is the language of emotion and dynamics are the first tactic toward defining the emotional range of music. There is nothing worse for a listener than a persistent single dynamic presentation. Jazz presentation can often be this way.

6) Don’t play your instrument too hard. Acoustic instruments tonally sound most balanced in the 40 to 60% range of their energy output.

7) Bass must always play in the best range needed to support the music above it.

I hear many bass players who choose to play parts an octave too high, which then congest the tenor range. Always consider the harmonic overtone series when you choose your range. Understand the tessitura (vocal range) of the bass within the context of the music. Choose the best note for the vertical chord structure, while creating a linear bass line that has good voice leading. The bass part should be a melodic counterpoint.

8) Don’t overplay, let the breeze blow through the sound and the groove. Everyone should get a chance to contribute in the dialogue. Ensemble playing is a co-operative assembly of willing participants. Contribute with initiative, but respectful of others.

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

1)1969-Quincy Jones, Walking in Space: This recording intoxicated me with music at the age of 13. As a bass player it introduced me to Ray Brown and Chuck Rainy. As a composer it introduced me to jazz composition and arranging that I viewed to possess an ideal balance between writing and improvisation. As a producer it introduced me to “state of the art” recording and mixingwith inspired performance from a very well-chosen cast. Quincy's arrangement of What's going on (Marvin Gaye) completely knocked me out. Looking back, I now realize it was my first exposure to jazz music that was combined with social commentary. When I read Quincy’s book I also learned that Walking in Space was very significant for him since he was leaving the musically subservient world of film scoring in order to undertake a jazz project that did not need to support picture and the directors vision. He wanted musical freedom and Walking in Space was his chance to stretch out. I'd encourage any young bassist to get very close to the bass lines on Oh Happy Day, and every other song on this recording. It’s timelessly inspiring for me.


2) We Get requests (1964): is a favourite but all OP trio recordings are great.


3) Hampton Hawes, ...All Night Session; Red Mitchell, Jim Hall Eldridge Freeman.

A recording that I will always love.

These are all jazz recordings and there are many others I could mention, but if I were to add something different I’d suggest gaining an awareness of Olivier Messiaen.

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.

I love practicing. For me I start with about 30 minutes of physical stretching in a meditational quiet environment to prepare my mind and body to delve into music.

I always warm up with metric subdivision exercises and long tones with click and drone. I do this to measure my daily level of physical control on the instrument. I divide my practice into sections and choose different topics each day, but I always practice sight-reading, arco - (Bach) and odd meter. I also dedicate a section to repertoire and work on learning songs. Daily practice is a chance to build inspiration and a continuum of individual experience with music.

Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?

Learning to engineer personal solutions is what becoming a good practitioner is about in any discipline. These days my method is to be as analytical as possible about all the aspects of a given piece of music. Observe, document and then bring that information into the woodshed. For me inspired practice solutions happen fairly naturally, but I try to listen to music that is outside of my own comfort zone in order to learn what possibilities exist, then figure out my own way in that door, or take a few lessons for an extra nudge. Always be curious, … your individual creativity will drive you forward naturally.

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

I'm not into bass gear too much. However, I have a string bass that is maintained and set up very well. I like a dynamic mic on my string bass for live performance. GK and Markbass amps sound good to me, but I like a tube sound and I have a Summit Audio DI for that purpose. It’s great on my all my basses, Yamaha 6, Hofner, Fender J and P, as well as my 150 year-old German string bass.

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

As I write this it’s a few weeks before Christmas and I have several duo gigs coming up with Robi Botos. We’ve recently recorded a piano/bass CD titled Look Ahead.

It will soon be available (Winter 2016) at in 5.1 24/96, surround sound and as well in 24/96 stereo. Physical CD’s are currently available at concerts and by mail order through my record label, iTunes will follow in the spring of 2016. 12/12/15: I’m at Koerner Hall with my associate Joe Sealy for a Frank Sinatra tribute. The best way to follow me is on social media.

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