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An Interview with John Patitucci

Quintessential musician whose credits read like a "Who’s Who" of modern music. Consummate bassist who has written several new chapters in the vocabulary of contemporary jazz bass. Acclaimed sideman, as well as solo artist in his own right. Multiple Grammy-winner. Highly-respected educator. One could go on and on when attempting to adequately describe John Patitucci’s career accomplishments to date.

Truthfully, John’s combination of jaw-dropping technical virtuosity and sheer musicality has made him one of the most influential musicians of our time. It was fantastic to discover that John is also an exceptionally friendly, easygoing, genuinely humble man with a deep love for the Lord. His insightful perspectives and articulate manner made this interview a real treat...particularly because John’s been a personal hero of mine for many years.

John and his family reside in New York. In addition to serving as the Artistic Director for the Bass Collective (a comprehensive vocational school for bassists in New York City), John is currently touring with the Wayne Shorter Quartet. Both he and his wife, Sachi (a world-class cellist), are also actively involved in the worship ministry at their home church, located north of New York City.

For further information or to check out John’s tour schedule, visit him on-line at www.johnpatitucci.com.



What are your earliest musical recollections?

In the house, my father sang with Mario Lanza records, and he used to like opera a lot (and still does, actually!). And I also remember riding around in the car and hearing old Motown records. I’m 42, so I have a pretty vivid memory of the music of the 60's (and 70's, of course). The first stuff that really impacted me was all of that music coming out of Motown, as well as the Beatles. Then right around the time I started playing bass, I started listening to jazz. I had a box of records from my grandfather that had a bunch of stuff from Wes Montgomery (with Ron Carter & Herbie Hancock), Jimmy Smith Organ Trio records, Ray Charles, etc. It was very inspiring being around so much great music. I remember as an altar boy growing up in the Catholic church, I was exposed to a lot of the old hymns, too.

Was there any particular music, or maybe even a specific tune, that actually inspired you to pick up the bass in the first place?

I would have to say James Jamerson’s playing on "I Was Made to Love Her".

I know that you have formal music education, but there was also a period of time where you were self-taught.

Yeah, when I started out, it was exclusively by ear. My older brother, Tom, played guitar, and he was initially teaching me how to read & play guitar....but because I’m left-handed, it always felt really unnatural for me, for some reason. It was frustrating, because he’d be showing me "Little Brown Jug" out of a Mel Bay book, and here I was not being able to cut it! You know, I’d be trying to count the lines and the spaces. "Wwwwell, I’m not into this." [Laughs.] But Tom saw it, and very smartly suggested that I try an electric bass instead. It was great: I could use my fingers, it felt natural...and I didn’t have to use a pick. So I went on playing by ear, and gradually he started showing me whatever he was learning on the guitar, and I would adapt it to bass. So I did that for a couple years.

Eventually, I met a guy by the name of Chris Poehler, who ended up becoming sort of a mentor to me. He’s the one who conned me into learning how to read! I’d been playing exclusively by ear, and had actually developed a pretty good ear: I could hear things pretty well, and had learned a lot of harmony just by ear. But Chris got me interested in studying and going to college. I’d already been considering fooling around with the acoustic bass, and by the time I turned 15, I had finally grown tall enough to be able to do it! I eventually studied classical bass at San Francisco State University and Long Beach State University.

I went on to do a ton of recording work in L.A., doing a lot of stuff that nobody has ever heard! A lot of R&B-ish, gospel stuff...very pop. And I enjoyed it a lot; that stuff is part of my roots, even though a lot of people aren’t familiar with that part of what I do.

What are some of those projects, for those folks who might want to go track some of them down?

I did sessions for Roby Duke, Bob Bennett, Twila Paris, Chuck Girard...and a bunch of others that (sorry to say) I’m not recalling at the moment. I was doing quite a bit of session work in those days. I was pretty busy, because Abe (Laboriel) could only be in one place at a time. Thankfully, I was picking up some of the work he couldn’t do! He was very gracious to help me out...I’m sure he made recommendations on my behalf.

Abe’s an incredible guy.

He was a really big encouragement.

You’ve said that the groove stuff is actually some of your favorite stuff to play.

Yeah, I love that. When I get a call to do that these days, I have a ball.

That seems to be one of the paradoxes: you’re a ferocious soloist, AS WELL as an incredible groover...yet, because of your reputation as a soloist, you probably miss some calls for groove stuff these days, don’t you?

I think so. There are some false perceptions about music: people think that if someone is able to stretch out a bit and do other things on their instrument, then they couldn’t POSSIBLY have a nice feel, too....because they KNOW too much. [Laughs.] It’s rather ridiculous.

What are your thoughts on the role of the musician in the worship environment?

I think we have a goal to lift people to a higher purpose, to get people into an attitude of praise and worship.

You know, REALLY...we should be trying to do that ANYTIME. Regardless of the geographic location of where we’re playing, we still want to bring who we are, and what we believe, and everything about us, to that place where we’re playing.

So it doesn’t have to be such a delineation. But it does call for a lot more responsibility, because it’s easy (and a lot of people make this mistake) to make it where your only outlet for playing music is with your band in church, and you begin to look at it as a gig. It’s not just a gig; it’s music for the Lord.

When you’re playing in a worship setting, from a technical standpoint, do you approach anything differently than when you’re in a secular environment?

Well, I just play to the tune; whatever the song calls for, whether it’s a sparse thing, or whether it needs to be driven a bit more, or if there’s singing...I just try to serve that. It just depends upon what’s happening, and trying to be sensitive. I really try to make sure that my part isn’t distracting, too.

That seems to be the primary musical objective of any worship musician: having the ability to serve the tune and worship time in an effective way, while not being a distraction. To that end, what are your thoughts on the relevance of technical practice for church bassists?

I think the more command, and the more ease, and the more flexibility you have on your instrument, the better you’re able to serve the worship time....because then you won’t have to focus all of your attention on, "OK, I’ve got to move my finger to the 7th fret now". No, you shouldn’t have to even think about that. The goal is to be able to play your instrument without having to focus on the mundane, technical aspects.

This can be a problem sometimes, especially if you’re playing a particularly challenging piece. Last weekend at my church, we were playing through some fairly complex, serious stuff...and it was a definite challenge, because I was trying to play the piece without getting completely swallowed up by it. You know what I mean? And that can happen with even very simple worship music, if the player hasn’t been playing the instrument that long, and doesn’t know the fretboard that well. It’s very easy to get distracted with the technical aspects.

So that’s the thing; you’ve got to get comfortable. And that doesn’t mean that you have to be a virtuoso, but it does mean that you’ve got to work at it, and maybe tell yourself, "ok, here are the tunes we’re playing through this weekend; let me work through them beforehand and make sure I KNOW them really well." I think it’s good to spend time and learn the music. If you get different music all the time, just try to be diligent and practice your instrument, and get free on it. Concentrate on trying to worship instead of getting hung up on the mechanics of the bass.

That will help enable you, as a worship leader or facilitator, to somehow make it possible for people to forget about everything else in their lives and concentrate on worshiping...and that’s difficult when you’re thinking, "third finger...second finger..." [Laughs.] That stuff has got to be out of the way. And let’s face it: a lot of the contemporary worship tunes are pretty straightforward - not like "Giant Steps". They’re within the capabilities of most players. But it depends upon your attitude. Some people have a bit of a cavalier attitude, where they’re just going to "play some music in church". Well...it’s a bit more than that, you know? It’s a whole lot more than that.

And we ALL have to watch out for that. If you do the same thing every week, with the same cats, hanging out and having a good time, it’s easy for it to become like a gig.

Let’s talk about time & groove.

Now we get into the area where it is part-knowable and part-mystical. [Laughs.]

You can’t really teach somebody how to groove, but you can certainly point them to all of the records where groove is happening. Then they can saturate themselves in that music until it becomes part of them. You can’t really impart such an emotional thing. But if they listen enough, and play enough...they’ll get it. But it’s impossible to achieve it without listening to the records, and getting immersed in the emotional aspect of whatever style you’re talking about.

With regard to "time": you can do more things to work on time. But there’s a bunch of different levels of it:

One is that you’ve got to have internal time...so you’ve got to put in time with a metronome.

But playing with records is good, too, because there’s humanity in the sometimes shifting aspects of time. Time is an agreed-upon thing within the group. It’s not just absolute, and in a lot of great music, there has to be room to move within that. Like in classical music, there’s a lot of tempos sliding, and waiting for somebody to finish a phrase, then snapping back into tempo. In jazz, there are certainly elements of this, where you’re sometimes pushing and playing with a little edge, or laying back. But the deal is that you should have control over it. It shouldn’t be the instrument pushing you, with you having no causation about it (you just HAVE to rush, or HAVE to drag). Based on your emotions and what’s right for the music, it’ll dictate where to put it, and then you’ve got to have the muscle control to actually do it.

Another point is to develop your internal time so that you don’t have to lean on the other musician. For instance, bassists sometimes are too dependent on drummers, to the extent that the drummer feels like they can’t ever try other things because the bass line will just fall apart. There should be a sharing of the time, instead of a musician feeling like, "Boy, I’m dragging a truck through cement". [Laughs.] With a lot of players, unfortunately, that’s their tacit understanding about time-keeping - that it’s the drummer’s domain. But that’s not entirely the case: the feel of the piece is not the same if only the drummer is laying it down, and everyone else is sort of bouncing off the surface.

So you have to practice playing with other musicians, and you have to practice playing with a metronome...being good with the click. All of this is especially important if your intent is to make a living as a bassist.

Did you develop this rhythmic vocabulary by woodshedding along with Jamerson records, and that sort of thing?

I think the early part of that came from listening to Jamerson, or Ron Carter on all of those old jazz records. It wasn’t even about analyzing them empirically, but listening to them about 8 million times, you know what I mean? Where it becomes part of you. And where it gets beyond theoretical knowledge to...what it feels like. That’s super important.

Then the other part of it - the less mystical side of it - is that you have to have enough control over your instrument to make that thing happen. Kinda like Jamerson; he had a great flexibility on the instrument - he could get around. He didn’t have any barriers. If he felt like putting something somewhere, feel-wise or otherwise, it was effortless. That’s a key thing.

People get confused a lot these days about "technique". To me, technique isn’t real unless it can be put in time and feels good. If you can wiggle your fingers fast, and have "NAMM Show Chops", that’s not technique. [Laughs.] It’s just a bad case of the "hoodleys".

Do you have any advice for bassists who find themselves playing with less-experienced drummers, where tempos might be shaky? What might a bass player do to help keep a drummer solid, or otherwise salvage the ensemble when things are falling apart?

That’s a tricky thing. Ultimately, drummers are more powerful, sonically - unless you’re playing an electric bass, in which case you could turn up the volume - but that doesn’t necessarily solve things if somebody’s not sensitive and listening as you try to gently lay it down.

Again, it has to be agreed-upon and shared. If you’re playing with someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience, and you try to muscle it and say, "I’ve GOT it"....it’s not going to work without some agreement. If you’re playing with a drummer who is dragging, and they’re just going down the tubes...your tendency as a young player is usually to try to pull them along. It’s very difficult - nearly impossible...unless, again, the drummer is sensitive and willing to go. You can’t just pull them into time. It doesn’t work that way. I know, because I’ve tried to do it! [Laughs.]

But you CAN gently...kind of, sit on things if a drummer is really surging ahead. But there’s not a whole lot of room to work with before you’ve got a chasm between the drums and the bass. At that point, it’s not about being right or wrong.

You should probably try to make the best of it while you’re playing, then find a tactful way to discuss it. I try to phrase things more like, "I think maybe we could put a little more edge into that ‘B’ section", or, "Maybe we’re letting it drag a bit here, and I’m going to do my best to try to keep the momentum going" (making a point of saying "we" instead of "you"). That seems to work a lot better than saying, "You know what? You’re DRAGGING there!"

"Maybe if WE hit our hi-hat in THIS manner..."

[Laughs.] Yeah, it’s always helpful to try to make it a "team thing".

It’s something that should be talked about, but it shouldn’t be OVER-talked about, if you know what I mean. If you talk about it TOO much, then people get freaked out, and they try to think too much...and it never feels right after that!

Your instructional videos, "Electric Bass" Volumes 1 & 2 (DCI Music Video), are fantastic. Are there any other resources you’ve found helpful, particularly in the area of improvisation?

Thanks. I’d say study Bach’s music. In terms of learning how to compose better bass lines (whether they’re walking bass lines or otherwise), listen to baroque music, or Bach’s "Brandenburg Concertos", Vivaldi’s music - anything where there’s a Continuo, and see how they outline the chords.

For ear training, David Baker’s put out some great stuff. "The Jazz Theory Book" by Mark Levine is nice; very organized and useful for expanding your harmonic understanding. ANY of the books by Chuck Sher (Sher Music) are high-quality and well thought-out...very good stuff.

In terms of broad groove playing, I don’t know that there’s a lot of material out there, book-wise. It’s really about "Go-get-a-James-Brown-collection-and-learn-every-groove-off-of-it"! There is that James Jamerson thing, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" (Dr. Licks), where every hit he ever played on is written out. If you don’t know how to read music, then go get the records! There are a lot of different things you can study. Check out Willie Weeks on "Donnie Hathaway Live"...I could go down the list.

In terms of your Brazilian and African influences, were there any resources you went to, or was it more of that "immersion" thing that you were describing earlier?

Yeah, it was that immersion thing, plus I learned a lot of stuff from guys I know - players like Armand Sabal-Lecco. There’s one record that I’d definitely recommend for anyone interested in getting into African music: Salif Keita’s "Soro". It’s incredible; that one inspired me a lot. There’s a book by Oscar Stagnaro about Brazilian & African music which is GREAT ("The Latin Bass Book: A Practical Guide", Sher Music). I highly recommend it. Also, Cliff Korman and Nelson Faria have a new book out called, "Inside the Brazilian Rhythm Section" (Sher Music) which is VERY cool.

How many hours a day are you playing these days?

It varies. It really depends upon where I am: when I’m on tour, I’ll play a couple hours for the show, plus soundchecks and rehearsals. When I’m at home, sometimes I don’t get a chance to practice until late at night, once the kids are in bed. It really varies.

Do you try to practice every day?

Well....you know....at this point, it’s not always a reality. I’d LIKE to. Sometimes it’s more like, "ok...they’re in bed..." and I’ll practice for 3 hours. Other times, I’ll go for days without practicing...but I’m gigging, etc.

But when I was younger, it was constant. Hours and hours. And I think that’s essential; you have to put that time in. As a young person learning their instrument, there’s no negotiating that part.

At the peak of your early days of woodshedding, how much time were you putting in a day?

Probably around 6 hours a day. Lots of gigging with different groups, as well as practicing.

Have you ever experienced any playing-related hand or arm problems?

I’ve been pretty fortunate. I think there was one time, when I was with Chick (Corea), and we were just going crazy, playing all the time with the Akoustic band. I somehow strained something in my right hand, and had to chill out for a little while. But haven’t really had any problems since then.

Do you have any sort of warm-up or stretching regimen that you go through?

Not really...

So you’re just genetically HAPPENING.

[Laughs.] Sometimes I do the thing where you hold your hand with your fingers aiming up (like you’re saying "hi" to someone), and you take your other hand and bend the tops of those fingers back and stretch them.

Now that I’m a little older, I’m noticing that stuff doesn’t naturally stay as loose. It’s been 32 years since I first picked up the electric bass, so I’ve been playing for a long time. I have to watch things and take care of myself a bit more now.

Congratulations on your Grammy nomination (Best Instrumental Composition) for the title track from your most recent solo CD, "Communion" (Concord Records). What an astounding piece of music.

Thank you very much; it was nice to be nominated. Those were almost exclusively people from our church who played on it, other than Branford (Marsalis, soprano sax) and Brad (Mehldau, piano).

It was incredibly emotional...a very moving composition and performance. It was also really interesting how it transitioned from the string quartet vibe to more of a jazz ballad, with upright and soprano sax.

Thanks...it was a lot of fun to do. I’m actually working on a record right now, tentatively called "Songs, Stories and Spirituals", that will also include string quartet and other stuff along those lines. It will feature Brian Blade, John Thomas, Tom Patitucci, my wife Sachi Patitucci, Ed Simon, Luciana Souza, and a number of other fantastic musicians who also played on the last album. Brazilian stuff...lots of singing...should be good. I’m going to keep trying to expand my orchestrational side as far as some of the things you were describing from "Communion".

Looking forward to it! By the way, what an absolute luxury to have players of that caliber on your worship team...

Yeah, it’s pretty wild!

I’ve got to also mention one of your earlier projects, "Heart of the Bass" (Stretch Records). That has to be one of my favorite projects ever. The writing and performances were so passionate and emotive.

Thank you...yeah, that project was actually done during a REALLY difficult time in my life. I was going through a definite "valley" experience...and I’m not talking about the San Fernando Valley! [Laughs.] In addition, I didn’t do a lot of the writing on that project (most of the pieces were written by others), and schedules worked out such that I was rushing to learn a lot of that music at the last minute. So it was a rough time.

But as far as the performances, I always just try to be transparent, and get out of the way, so to speak.

How did you come to faith?

I grew up as a Catholic, but eventually started asking a lot of questions for which the priests didn’t seem to have good answers. I was really searching. When I was a teenager (by this time, we’d moved out to California), I was drafted by my teachers to play in this big band that they had at night. There were several members who were Christians, including the pianist who was the music minister at his church. He befriended me, and used to hire me to come and play at his church. There was a bunch of young people there who were actually HAPPY at church! There seemed to be a real joy. And I remember (over a period of time) talking to my friend and asking a lot of questions...because I wanted to be close to God, but I’d never really known anything about having a relationship with God, or how to study the Bible, etc. And that summer, I got saved.

That’s awesome. Thanks so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to share your thoughts, as well as your heart, with us. Do you have anything else you’d like to add in closing?

Thank you. If I could offer any parting words of advice, I’d say: keep diligent in your faith as a Christian, to ensure that your spiritual identity never gets swallowed up by your identity as a musician.

God bless you...

[This interview was published in "Bassic Communication," Christian Musician magazine (Jul/Aug '02).  Reprinted by permission.]


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