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Jazz's John Patitucci Gets to the 'Soul of the Bass'

Versatile, veteran jazz bassist John Patitucci releases a (mostly) unaccompanied bass album on his own imprint—demonstrating a wide variety of ways the bass can take the lead.

Soul of the Bass
John Patitucci

John Patitucci

19 April 2019

Last month, the superb and in-demand jazz bass player Larry Grenadier released The Gleaners, a recording for solo acoustic bass on the renowned ECM label. It was riveting playing, getting into a variety of styles and methods. And perhaps something is in the air, as Soul of the Bass is a release by an equally important and enthralling bassist, playing (mostly) solo and showing listeners how an instrument usually in the role of accompaniment can take the lead, alone.

John Patitucci is one of the finest bass players of his generation—he turns 60 in 2019. In the early 1980s, the Brooklyn-born Patitucci was a first-call Los Angeles studio musician. Beginning in 1985, he began playing in both the "Elektric Band" and the acoustic bands led by jazz superstar pianist Chick Corea. In 2000, he became a mainstay of the new quartet formed by saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter. Along the way, of course, Patitucci led his own bands and recording sessions, composing and playing music at the highest level on his own terms. The differences and similarities between Patitucci and Grenadier are instructive though: both have played in significant jazz groups (Grenadier has played with Brad Mehldau's trio, for example, as well as with Joshua Redman and Pat Metheny) and been connected to more popular strains of jazz, yet Patitucci has more experience in both classical music and jazz-rock fusion and has been less associated with next generation jazz artists on the New York scene such as Mark Turner, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Julian Lage.

Soul of the Bass, then, gives us a quirky and diverse program that matches the personality of its maker. While it is largely comprised of Patitucci compositions for solo acoustic bass, there are also a few different settings. A couple of groove tunes pair the bassist with drummer Nate Smith, for example. On "The Call", Patitucci overdubs several electric bass parts, including parts for piccolo bass, six-string bass, and a fat and funking four-string. The result is a fun track that sounds a good bit like some of the old Stanley Clarke tracks from the 1970s: a sound that fans of Patitucci's from his Corea Band days might associate with the earlier Corea bassist. Better is when Smith returns for "Seeds of Change", sharing the track with the leader's rocking acoustic bass on the bottom and some additional electric parts that are wise to largely stay out of the way of the driving rhythm. The latter track is the better one, eschewing too much flashy fusion in favor of a bottom that knows what it's about.

Earlier in the program, "Seeds of Change" is played by solo acoustic bass, and it is even more appealing here. Patitucci plays the syncopated bottom groove, but he alternates it with a few other melodic chunks to create an intriguing pattern of funk and flavor. The following track, "Morning Train", is a spiritual that is equally grounded in funky bottom notes that repeat and keep your ears interested with blues intervals even as you can feel the impulse to dance or sway creeping up from the ground to your hips.

The other solo acoustic bass pieces are more contemplative miniatures—and the excellent heart of the album. "Trust" uses a catchy repeated phrase, but it leans more heavily into the gorgeous sound that Patitucci gets from his acoustic instrument. We can hear all the resonance, particularly as the bassist plays harmonics and double stops. "Mystery of the Soul" consists of repetition, with variation, of a sensual and melancholy arpeggio figure that Patitucci plays with his bow in the instrument's upper register. Eventually, he supplements the piece with a whisper of overdubbed sounds, just silky edges that fade into the aether. The title track sounds almost like a blues etude, with a tricky pattern recurring and giving Patitucci the chance to play intriguing variations.

If that sounds a bit classical, well, the bassist goes down that path as well, playing the Allemande portion of Bach's Cello Suite No. 5 on his six-string electric. Written for a bowed cello, it is interesting to hear the piece or played by plucked fingers on the sustain-rich electric, and the playing is impressive—but it's also hard to relate to it as much more than a very sophisticated exercise demonstrating a kind of brilliance. The work doesn't really sing on electric bass.

Singing is an important part of "Sarab", on which Patitucci collaborates with his daughters Gracie and Bella, who layers wordless vocals above the six-string, creating a lovely exercise in texture and tension. Also in the family is the brief "Truth", with the leader's wife, Sachi, adding overdubbed cellos to arco acoustic bass in a pleasing choral of strings.

With so many different sounds, Soul of the Bass is easier to listen to than Grenadier's recording—or event than the classic Emerald Tears by Dave Holland, a solo bass recording that inspired both of these contemporary works. The sonic variety keeps your ears jumping, but it also disturbs the mood. Funk and fusion sit side by side with baroque and moody texture pieces. All of this is a reason part of Patitucci's art, and it would be unfair to critique the man's diversity of style and approach. But, as an album, Soul of the Bass doesn't feel like a whole work of art as much as a set of remarkable performances, each of which is tight and contained.

John Patitucci, of course, has made deeper and more cohesive music. His playing with Wayne Shorter's group, particularly, seems to inspire him to passions and daring that he merely tiptoes toward on this recording. But for bassists or bass-lovers who want to hear how many different ways the instrument—and he really plays more than one kind of bass—can be used and also pushed into the lead, Soul of the Bass provides an expert demonstration.


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