Interview - Kieran Overs

Kieran Overs

Toronto-born bassist Kieran Overs has been active on the Canadian music scene since 1970, first on guitar and electric bass, and for the past 34 years on acoustic bass. Overs holds an Honours Diploma from Humber College, a B. Mus. from Humber/BCOU and an M. Mus. from McGill University (Montreal). He has also studied privately with renowned Danish bassist Neils-Henning Orsted-Petersen and arranger Rick Wilkins. He has toured internationally with Moe Koffman/Dizzy Gillespie, Jane Bunnett, Sophie Milman, Carol Welsman and Emilie-Claire Barlow, among others. Overs is currently a member of The Nancy Walker Quartet, Ted Quinlan Trio and Inside Out (with Lorne Lofsky and Barry Romberg). To his credit Overs has 4 CDs as leader/producer and more than 80 as a sideman. He is an adjunct faculty member of the music departments at Humber College (Toronto) and Mohawk College (Hamilton), and is active as a freelance musician, clinician and bandleader. His current band is an all-star lineup of Canadian musicians, Overs’ Eleven.

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

At the end of the day, it’s all about the music. On whatever gigs I do, I’m thinking about how, as the bassist in the group, I can best contribute to making the music happen. You have to think about how you affect the harmony, melody and rhythm of the music you’re playing. You have to think about the time feel and hookup between yourself and the other musicians – with the drummer, of course, but with everyone in the group. Sometimes you’re the time-keeper, sometimes you have an independent voice in the group, and occasionally you’re the peace-keeper. Given the basic function of the bass, freedom isn’t exactly what you signed up for. But there’s a dichotomy in being a jazz bass player: you have to walk the path between solidly “laying it down”, and being a key factor in enabling the music to really lift off.

I think it’s important to listen to music of all genres and cultures. My listening includes everything from Mahler to Charlie Parker to Toumani Diabaté to Lyle Lovett to David Virelles, and everything in between. The more steeped we are in a broad spectrum of music, the more well-rounded we can be as players. As important as it is to have the technical fundamentals under our belts, it’s equally important to feel the music. Here’s a simple example: I’ve had students who have a really hard time playing a waltz. They have an intellectual understanding of what a waltz is, and they can certainly count to three, and apply some polyrhythmic concepts (dotted quarter notes and so on). But it feels strange to them, and the musical result doesn’t flow. It’s often only after they’ve really done some good listening to tunes in ¾ that they’ll “get it”.

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

Leroy Walks by Leroy Vinnegar. The thing that always puts a smile on my face is great groove and sound on the bass. The title says it all.

Duo 2 by Kenny Drew/Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. This recording can be a gateway to duo playing and to European-influenced jazz. From the time Niels-Henning hit the scene in his early teens playing with people like Bud Powell to the end of his career, he never stopped evolving as a player. He exemplified a great combination of skill and spirit.

Anything featuring Ron Carter. He’s been so remarkably consistent on recordings. I’ve particularly enjoyed his playing on Brazilian and Brazilian-influenced recordings like Claus Ogerman’s orchestrations for Jobim, Rosa Passos’ recording “Entre Amigos” etc.

Sorry for the extras, but I think it’s worth mentioning these other three that have been on heavier rotation for me lately:

The Bridge by Sonny Rollins. Bob Cranshaw burns it up (especially on the title tune). Ben Riley is on drums, Jim Hall on guitar and Sonny Rollins on tenor.  Besides just generally killing me musically, this recording covers feel and concepts that we all strive to achieve. 

Lee Konitz Live At The Half Note. Jimmy Garrison is on bass, Paul Motian on drums, Bill Evans on piano, Warne Marsh on tenor sax and Lee Konitz on alto. I find every track on this recording outstanding, but the hook-up between Jimmy Garrison and Paul Motian on “You Stepped Out Of A Dream” is infectious.  Garrison’s sound, and the bounce he achieves in his walking, provide a rock solid time feel with Motian that’s pliable and inspired…totally “in the moment”.

Allegory by Adam Rogers. Scott Colley is the bass player, Clarence Penn is on drums, Chris Potter on sax, Edward Simon on piano and Adam Rogers on guitar.  Scott is one of my favourite players on the scene today.  I love his sound, time feel and ideas.  He’s a bass player who listens “big time” and he brings that to the table in all the varied situations he plays in.


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.

 Sometimes I get to a gig, and when I start playing I’m amazed that I can play at all.  This usually happens when the stuff of life has been taking up a lot of my attention and time.  I’ve realized that certain staple practice habits have helped see me through those situations. Although I continually reinvent the wheel when it comes to practice, over time I’ve settled on a few elements to my routine that remain constant.

I’ll get the bass and bow out, and work on various exercises I’ve accumulated over the years that work on right and left hand, bow division and articulation.  The bow is not my strong suit, but like parallel parking is to driving, so is arco a part of being an upright bass player! Then I’ll leave the bow, and play some melodies, walking lines through some tunes, scale exercises, arpeggios etc. (straight and swung), always with a metronome, concentrating on my feel, tone and articulation.

I’ll modify this routine, depending on what gigs I’m preparing for. I may have a gig involving some challenging written bass parts that need shedding. I may want to play some guide tone exercises that will help me navigate certain chord changes, or I may want to spend some time playing in a specific odd meter, and so on.

Do you have any advice for overcoming difficulties or obstacles?

 The most obvious obstacle would be a physical one, like an injury. As far as that goes, I’ve had a few.  The last couple of years I’ve dealt with a rotator cuff injury and arthritis in both of my hands. I’ve had to adapt a bit. I had to stop playing the instrument I played for 37 years because of its high shoulders, which I can no longer negotiate.  Fortunately I now have a German bass that sounds great and is a delight to play.  After 2 ½ years of playing, it actually sounds a lot like my old bass…or is that me making it sound like that?  Anyway, health issues can be hard on a musician’s career. Be vigilant about your health, and about your physical relationship with the instrument. I do some practicing in front of a mirror to monitor my posture and hand position. And I seek out physiotherapy and osteopathy when necessary.

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

For years I’ve used Thomastik Spirocore strings on E/C, A & D and always a different G string.  My 3 favourite Gs are Pirastro Oliv (my current string of choice), Pirastro Original Flat Chrome and Kaplan Golden Spiral (no longer available…I have a couple of old ones).

Pickup-wise, I love the Fishman Full-Circle. I also use (when a good sound system is involved) a Royer R-122 mic…fantastic!  I’ve always liked GK heads for upright and have a variety of cabs.  My favourites currently are my EA Wizzy 10 and 12 cabs.  I’ve always been happy with the sound of the Ampeg BA210…sweet amp, although a bit of a schlep.

I’m always looking for a sound that’s as close to my acoustic sound as possible.  When I’m trying to get a good sound in a new environment, I’m very aware of my surroundings and musical situation. Sometimes you’ll have to sacrifice your preferred sound or level of amplification for the greater good. It just goes that way in some situations.  Other times you may be able to influence the situation so that a consensus is reached to strive for a quieter level overall that will result in a more natural, acoustic sound.

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

I’m very much looking forward to playing with the fantastic vocalist from New York, Sheila Jordan, along with Don Thompson on piano at the Jazz Bistro in Toronto in April.  Sheila’s been a wonderful friend for years, and I cherish any chance to play with her and learn from the experience. A great jazz steel pan player named Rudy Smith is coming over from Denmark in the spring, and we’ll do some gigs here together. I have monthly gigs at the Rex with Barry Romberg’s bands 3 Blind Mice and 4 Blind Mice. I work fairly frequently with guitarist Lorne Lofsky. There’s always a mix of freelance work with various artists. I’m aiming to book more gigs with my 11-piece band, and more gigs as a guitar player (I’ve recently been back at that, my original instrument, in addition to the bass playing).  I keep working at composing and arranging. And, as you know, I’m also teaching at Humber College. 

You can find gig listings on my website,

(drop by sometime!). I’m on facebook, though I don’t have an artist page – you can just befriend me! And I have a twitter account, but I’m not a frequent tweeter.

 Any other thoughts to pass along?

Seek out a teacher or teachers to help you and guide you. What has worked for someone else may work for you. Find out what it’s like to play some other musical instruments. And look to other art forms beyond music for inspiration. I’ve studied photography, painting, and drawing in addition to guitar, drums, viola de gamba and arranging.  Each of those experiences has made me a better student of the bass by giving me a fresh perspective.