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An Interview with Dominique Di Piazza

Dominique Di Piazza, Bassist Extraordinaire

Fans of jazz fusion will recognize Dominique as the bassist on the phenomenal John McLaughlin album, Que Alegria. His amazing command and innovative approach to the bass (as demonstrated by blazing unison runs with John, sublime chordal work, and ridiculously swinging walking lines) sent many a bassist back to the proverbial woodshed.

I’d been in contact with him since mid-2000 (after an "e-introduction" by a mutual friend), and had the privilege to meet him in person a year later. I was blown away by the humility and graciousness that flows from this absolute monster of a musician, who became a Christian shortly after his stint with McLaughlin.

Born in Lyon, France, the 42-year old Di Piazza currently resides in the village of Codognan, about 15 km outside of the city of Nimes in the South of France.

(Transcript of interview from May 15, 2001)

Did you play music as a child? How did you get into music?

My father, a Sicilian (my mother is French), left home when I was young, and my mother remarried a man who was a gypsy. My earliest musical exposure was to his gypsy music, in the Django (Reinhardt, the highly influential guitarist) style. I also was exposed to a lot of other ethnic music, such as flamenco, Indian music (utilizing the Sitar and Tabla), eastern European music from Romania and Russia, as well as some music from the Orient. I think nowadays, it's just referred to as "world music".

My stepfather used to listen to that wide range of music all the time. At the age of 15, I started to dabble a bit with guitar. Years later, I met a guy from Africa, and I woke up to African music. I then started playing bass with his musical group, and stayed with them for 2 years. This was before African music was popular, as it is today. At this time, I was spending time both playing guitar and bass.

Around the age of 18, I started listening to a lot of bebop, and got totally into jazz. I was living in Lyon, France (where I was born), and used to see all of the big jazz festivals that came through. I saw all of the big American musicians, like Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass. I used to spend hours listening to Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and George Benson.

It was when I first heard Weather Report's "Heavy Weather" (with Jaco) that I decided to focus on being a bass player. It really reminded me of the upbeat African music that I used to listen to. At that time, I didn't know "proper" bass technique, so my technique was a combination of pick playing from my guitar background, and fingerstyle.

That's probably one of the reasons that you have such a unique voice on the instrument.

People have said that I am the most "guitaristic" bass player they've heard. It used to be very difficult for me, because people couldn't accept my approach to the instrument. At that time, John Patitucci was not known in France, and the only other similar player known in that country was perhaps Jeff Berlin. They used to tell me, "that's not bass", or ask me why I wanted to play "Donna Lee" or "Giant Steps" at really fast tempos. But inside, I sensed that this manner of playing the bass was my true voice. It was really hard for me to have this image; people weren't used to this type of bass playing. I'm not really a "groove player" in the strict sense.

You think of yourself as more of a soloist?

Yes, but the area where I think I really can groove is jazz, like walking lines. That's really my thing.

So you were in your late teens when you decided to fully pursue being a bassist?

Yes; I remember I spent one particular year practicing 12-15 hours a day.

I can hear Jaco's influence in your playing, although you definitely have your own distinct voice. Who are some of your other influences, particularly as a bassist?

I can say that my biggest influences were all of the upright guys, like Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, as well as NHOP. Otherwise, my influences were all non-bassists, like George Benson, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner.

Did you spend time studying their solos and vocabularies?

Yes, but in those days, we didn't have a lot of the machines available today to help slow down recordings. All we could do is pick up the record needle and move it back for another listen! I don't know how to read music, really...but I can hear intervals perfectly. I studied that music by ear.

I hear classical influences in your playing. The bebop thing is definitely happening, but there’s clearly a classical side to you.

Yes, I don’t know exactly how it happened. I love classical music, but I wasn’t really into it when I was first developing as a musician. When I started to really understand harmony, I came to discover that a lot of the exercises I had developed for practicing scale degrees and intervals were very similar to Bach.

How did you end up hooking up with John McLaughlin?

I was playing in a famous jazz club in Paris with a guitarist named Louis Vinsberg. I knew a guy who was a magazine columnist, and he liked my playing. He came up one evening and said that he was going to be doing an interview with John McLaughlin the following week, and asked if I had a recording of one of my solos or something that he could pass on to John. All I had was a little cassette tape recorded live on a Walkman, but I gave it to him and more or less forgot about it. Well, my columnist friend ended up giving the tape to John and said, "you must listen to this guy." John receives tapes like this almost everyday from people who want to play with him. He put my cassette in a box with a bunch of other tapes for the tour bus driver. Well, his driver, who was more into rock music, eventually got around to my tape, and put it in the tape player with the volume set very high.

So your solo was blasting out of the tour bus speakers?

Yes, and the bus driver was trying to turn it off, because it wasn't rock! But John told him to wait, and listened to the recording. When it was done, John pulled it out of the tape player and called my phone number, which my columnist friend had written on the cassette case. So I received a phone call, and the voice on the other line had an English accent, which I thought was a friend of mine trying to be funny! Well, this was a time in my life when I was "chasing the gig", and had no money...very hard time. So anyway, the man said, "I am John McLaughlin, and I listened to your cassette.". I replied, "ok...I know it's you, Stefan (a drummer friend), and do you know that Miles Davis just called you up yesterday and he wants to hire you!" (laughs) But the guy on the other line kept insisting, saying, "I've listened to your cassette, and I'm interested in meeting you, I thought it was very good." Since it was a very difficult time in my life, I began to get a bit agitated at my friend making a joke of my struggle. "Stop...stop it...are you not ashamed, my friend?"

Finally, the man quoted the name of the journalist who’d provided him with the tape! "Oooohhhh.....ok......John......I thought it was..." (laughs)

And he instructed me to catch a plane the next day to come to Monaco (John McLaughlin’s home) to come and meet him. I had no money for airfare, so John told me that he’d reimburse me. So I flew out and met him; it was 1990.

So you went down to play with him and hit if off? Did everything go smoothly?

(sighs & laughs) I knew that he played tunes like Giant Steps, and at that time, I was very proud of what I could do...so I was very at ease as we played through that tune and a number of other Coltrane songs. When we were done, he said, "ok...now we’re going to try something in 5/8..." 5/8??? (laughs) I didn’t even know how to count it! As I began to sweat, I thought to myself that this was it - he was going to kick me out. After we played through that piece, he proceeded to call out a tune in 9/8! As we played through, I was watching his foot tapping and was completely lost! After that, I was telling myself, "ok...he doesn’t need to speak a word...I know that this is not going to happen." But he told me that he’d give me the record and we’d meet in about 6 months to play through the songs again, perhaps with Trilok Gurtu (the legendary percussionist). For the following 6 months, I revived my past way of practicing (12+ hours per day), but this time it was useful! But as I said, I’m not a good reader; although I know harmony and chords very well, I can’t properly read music...so I couldn’t read the music I was practicing.

That is amazing. So you learned all of that complex music by ear...you must have really worked your tail off for those six months.

Yes. I was trying so hard to understand what Trilok was doing (hums a ridiculously syncopated and rhythmically nebulous groove). I was just sitting there, thinking, "...what??" (laughs)

Anyway, six months later, I went to do the audition, and I was green...my actual skin color was green! I was washing my hands every 5 minutes from the sweat. But it all worked out.

Was this material from Que Alegria?

No, it was from John’s earlier album, called "Live in London" (with bassist Kai Eckhardt).

Let’s talk about your technique a bit; it sounds like you have a fairly unorthodox right (picking) hand approach.

I mainly pick with two fingers: my thumb and middle finger. I sometimes add my index finger, so I can play triplet figures. They can be played all on one string, or can be spread out over several strings.

Did you develop that technique on guitar or bass?

It was on my bass, really. I already had a lot of that bebop music in my head before I started playing bass...you know, all of those arpeggios - I really like arpeggios - and I found that the easiest way to play them was with this technique. I also use a lot of left hand hammer-on’s, pull-off’s and slides in conjunction with my picking technique. But for the fast, staccato playing, it is mainly two fingers.

Did it take a lot of practice to get it so that notes picked with your thumb had the same tone as ones picked with your fingers?

Actually, that was mainly a matter of raising up the string action a bit, and also using slightly heavier gauge strings.

What gear did you use in the McLaughlin days, and what are you using today?

When I was playing with John, I had a Warwick Streamer 5-string and a Kubicki Factor 4-string. I am presently using Noguera basses, made by a French luthier. I have two (both 5-strings, tuned E-A-D-G-C); one is fretted, and the other is fitted with a special bridge system I made myself that gives it a fretless sound...sort of halfway between a sitar and a fretless bass (Ed. Note: Dominique has since become an endorser for Neuser basses and EBS amplifiers). It can be heard on the new Front Page album coming out in the States, on the tune, "The Eyes of Jesus Christ." I also endorse Warwick’s Pro Tube 9 amp, Line 6's Bass Pod, and Lakewood Guitars, since I’m starting to play guitar again.

Tell me about your new project.

Front Page is a trio with me, Birelli Lagrene (guitar) and Dennis Chambers (drums). Our new album is also titled "Front Page", and features John McLaughlin on one track. It should be available in U.S. record stores before the end of the year.

I understand there’s an interesting story around this record...

Yes. Birelli wrote about half of the tunes for this project, and I wrote the others. Many of my songs had titles that referred to the Lord. Particularly, I felt lead to name this one song, "The Eyes of Jesus Christ." Well, when we were in the studio recording the project, the manager was really giving me a hard time about the title. It got so heated that I left the studio to take a walk. I really wanted to not react in the flesh and get angry. To make a long story short, the head of the record company was also pressuring me to change that title, saying, "we can live with the other titles, but we really want you to change this one song name." I just felt that I wasn’t supposed to give in, so I didn’t. I didn’t know until the CD was actually manufactured that they ended up keeping my titles!

And the project ended up doing quite well in France.

Yeah...the project was nominated for France’s equivalent to a Grammy award! We were up against a very popular artist named St. Germain, who had sold about 500,000 units in France at that time, and we were being told that we didn’t have a chance. But we had a prayer meeting, and they ended up renting me a suit, loaning me a car, and giving me a bit of money to get to Paris to attend the awards show. When I arrived, people were asking me why I was there, since it was already pretty much decided that St. Germain was going to win. But when they announced the winner, it was our group! Birelli asked me off-camera why I had come, and I told him, "I walk with the Lord...I just prayed, and I came to win the prize!"

In 1996, during the years that I stopped playing, for several months, I was working in a factory to earn my living, since I did not want to touch an instrument for 4 years (I sold all of my equipment). I was convicted by the Holy Spirit one day while listening to my pastor teaching on the scripture that says, "if you don’t work, you don’t eat." I knew that I couldn’t take a part of the bible that fits me while rejecting another part...so I went to work in this factory. I struggled for many weeks, because I couldn’t wake up...I was a musician! I had to be at work by 5 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I was waking up at 3:30 in the morning to kneel down and pray for God to give me the strength to go to the factory that day. I know that it was the will of God, and I have experienced so many blessings from that time. It wasn’t His plan to send me there to kill me, but to bless me...and He did that, you know? It was not part of my plan to go and work in a factory, but I’ve been blessed just by obeying Him. I was working for several months like a robot, you know...like in a Charlie Chaplin movie! Even in the factory, some people would come up and say, "aren’t you Dominique DiPiazza? Aren’t you on that record with John McLaughlin? WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE?!?" (laughs) But it was incredible. I got a chance to share my faith with some of the other factory workers, and some of them came to the Lord! While I was working at the factory, I received 3 promises from God. The first was that I would experience a real forgiveness for my first father (my biological father), because I was really wounded and bitter, and didn’t have a relationship with him for almost 30 years. And 3 years after beginning my walk with the Lord, I experienced forgiveness...like God saying, "you are healed NOW." The second was that I would experience renewal in my marriage, and that came true for my wife and I like you can’t imagine. We have one daughter, Tchatcha (age 10). And the third promise was that I would be doing a record again. At first, I rejected the third, thinking that it was my flesh. I could believe the first two were from God, but the third one...that was obviously just what I wanted. (laughs) But it came true, too, four years later.

Tell me about that. How did you even come around to playing again, and what led up to the Front Page project?

We would do short mission trips to Italy. Sometimes there would be young kids or teenagers with guitars, so I would occasionally pick one up and strum a few chords and start praising the Lord with the guitar. My pastor came to me once and told me that he was discerning that I could use this gift for the Lord, and asked me if I would accompany a singer that evening on guitar. (deep breath) For me, it was a big thing. I took the guitar and played that night in church...and experienced a healing. Thank you, Lord. I began to practice the guitar, and composed a lot of Christian songs...

Vocal tunes?

Yes, and (in hushed voice) I’m sure that you would like them...good chords. (laughs)

So I started playing bass again around this time when John McLaughlin was playing in my area. The Lord told me to go there and share my testimony, because now I could speak English - before I could not, you know? I knew Dennis Chambers and Matt Garrison, and I went there and shared my faith with them. I spoke for a very short time with John about the Lord, but he doesn’t really want to hear about Him. Anyway, Matt was really wanting to hear me play, so I played a few lines on his bass...it was the first time I had touched a bass in years! But after that, I started to give lessons to earn my living, and working as a musician. I still had an old sequencer from before; it was the only thing that I couldn’t burn or sell, because it was not my belonging! But it was the provision of the Lord, because the owner finally came to me and told me that he was giving it to me. I composed the tunes for the Front Page project using that sequencer and a bass that was loaned to me. One year later, after much prayer, I felt liberty in the Lord to pick up the phone and call the manager about doing a record. You see, the manager told me as I was quitting the music business before that if I started again, to give him a call (Ed. Note: plans for a band with Dominique, Bireli LaGrene and Dennis Chambers were preempted when Dominique left music 7 years prior in 1993). So when I called, the pieces just all came together. It had been 7 years; 4 years from when I left music to when I was working in the factory (where the Lord really taught me how to work in humility), then 3 years to the time this new record was made.

Any upcoming projects?

Yes, I would like to do a solo album and an instructional video.

What sort of musical direction are you planning with your solo album?

I don’t know, exactly...but I would like to play some guitar on it, as well. I think I’d like to have piano and drums, but I’m not sure who I will call yet. I would like to have other Christian musicians; I’ve been trying to contact Alex Acuna.

That would be incredible.

Yes...I’d really like to experience fellowship with some great jazz musicians who are Christians, and to bring those people to tour in France. French musicians generally believe that Christian musicians, like John Patitucci or Alex Acuna, are Scientologists. They don’t understand that they’re Christians, believe in Jesus, are born again...they don’t know. I would really like to bring some of these Christian musicians to France, because I feel so alone in this area (being a musician in France as a Christian). I feel totally alone. But it’s good, in a way, because it’s a real mission field for me, and I have a real burden to share my faith. I like to go to a show that’s similar to the NAMM show in Paris, and play something really flashy to draw some people together, then share my faith with them.

Are there any players that you’re really liking these days?

I like Victor Wooten.

He’s fantastic; one of my favorites, as well.

It’s completely different...but I really like his music. I also like Matthew Garrison, Abraham Laboriel, as well as John Patitucci (both his upright and electric playing).

What is your philosophy about being a musician or artist, and being a Christian?

Well, on one level, I’ve come to find that there can be an anointing on even instrumental music. God can bless music and touch people through it. I also believe that music can really be evangelistic. I’ve also found that you can be both a Christian and a good musician. In France, there’s a mentality that if you’re a Christian, then you can’t be a good player. They picture a Salvation Army street band...that sort of thing. I understand now as a Christian that music comes from God, and He is the Giver of gifts...so it is an expression of praise now when I play music. I’ve been freed to really enjoy myself now as a musician, much more than before. As I mentioned earlier, I used to have a really bad self-image as a musician, because of the resistance I faced playing bass the way I do. But now I feel the liberty to be the musician God created me to be: who is to say that the bass has to be played like this, or that it has to sound like that? I now can say that I am this way by the grace of God, and although I know I can’t play everything that others do...what I play - my own little thing - it’s me. Even when I first started playing music as a Christian, I only wanted to play really soft, you know (hums long drones with lots of vibrato). And it was like I could hear the Lord quietly asking, "...what...are you doing???" (laughs)

But I’d also say that being a musician is not my identity. I know that my identity is in Christ; I first became a disciple before I began playing music again. So my real identity, or self-image, is in Christ. I think that’s really important.

What suggestions would you offer to young players today, especially Christians?

To pursue excellence in the way that God deserves. Why do we let the world do the best work, or the most serious work, you know? It’s sad to say, but many players in the church today, if they were playing out in the world, would be fired. That’s sometimes a reason why people in the world mock or laugh. I’m not saying that everyone has to be a virtuoso, but what they do...has to be with a servant’s heart...the best it can be...and really serving the tune. We should be really diligent & attentive to others, and to develop and really try to improve.


Dominique’s Story

I came from a divorced family, so I was hurting as a child. When I was eleven years old, I was at a camp in Switzerland, where they explained to me the plan of salvation for the first time. I realized that I was a sinner. I was a bad boy, in a way, because I was hurting so badly ever since my father left...but I discovered that God loves me, that He died for me. So this was in my heart, but I fell away after that.

Well, at that time, I was on tour all the time. For me, music was everything. I thought that I would be satisfied when I played with big musicians and became a big musician myself...with money and fame. But something was missing. So I got married, and that was very good. But after a while, between the responsibility and the routine of daily life, it didn’t seem as good as it was at first. So after two years, I had toured around the world. I had money. I was playing with John McLaughlin. I knew Chick Corea and many other guys like that. And I wasn’t satisfied. It was around that time that I began to realize that there was darkness inside of me, and I wondered what I could do.

In 1992 (about 25 years later), a drummer friend (who went to the church where I fellowship today) came to dinner at my house. My wife and I had been married for about one year. He shared his faith, and it reminded me of what I’d heard when I was a kid...and my wife got saved! (laughs) Praise the Lord. She was born again before my eyes. After that, she spoke of Jesus Christ and the Bible all the time.

One day, I went to find a quiet place, and I went into a small church in Paris. I began to think about my past, and realized that I was heavily burdened. I started reflecting on the words of the Lord from that Take 6 song: "come unto Me, and I will give you rest..." (so in a way, God spoke to me in English!). As I looked at the cross, I realized that God hadn’t changed, but that I had. I asked God why my father had left home. It was the hurt of my life. But I could hear Him answering me as He drew my eyes to the cross: "and why did My Son have to die?" I could feel a struggle going on inside me. Finally, I wept, and I told Him, "God, I want to know You more. I want to follow You. I want to receive...like my wife. Do something, if You’re really there." And you know, I immediately started to feel peace, and hope, and when I walked in the door, my wife looked in my eyes and knew I was changed. I was not the same any more...I was not the same anymore!

Visit Dominique at www.dominiquedipiazza.com!

A Selected Discography

  • John McLaughlin: Que Alegria
  • Michael Blass: Wait and See
  • Louis Vinsberg Trio: Camino
  • Gil Evans: Lumiere

Released since time of interview:

  • Dominique Di Piazza: Spiritual Hymns

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