Electric Bass Baggage

Back in 2011 I had what I saw as an “apex moment” as a bassist. My weird little network of connections in the freak music, Zappa, and Beefheart world led to me getting asked to play at a festival in France. The primary motivator in this was the unavailability of former Zappa/Mothers bassist Roy Estrada, and my limited but real connection to former Zappa frontman Napoleon Murhpy Brock and his band The Grandmothers. Two weeks after being asked, I was preparing for Rochefort en Accords 2011 at a house outside Paris.

I have already blogged about the while experience, but this little post is about what I feel now that I have some time, distance, and perspective on the situation. The short of it is that I paid a price for not having strong reading and transcription skills. My forte of having a voice and an ear of my own was trumped by me not being very good at playing like someone else. My ability to play Zappa and Beefheart music is based on my ear, and at times it was clear that my ear was not true enough. The way I hear the part was not going to cut it, especially standing next to people like Napoleon, or Beefheart alums like Jeff Tepper and Eric Drew Feldman. Add in my somewhat odd take on blues standards, due to not having played that stuff in a while, or my inability to play note-for-note off Jeff Tepper’s solo efforts, and the reslt was some competent playing, some fun playing, and one train wreck that I could have avoided by saying my least-favorite word: “no”.

The eventual result was me taking a break from bass, and putting time into synth and electronics. One big reason was to let the bass “rest” for a bit. But the thing that became clear with some time away was that there is a huge amount of baggage that comes with an instrument. When you play bass there is a feeling among other musicians, and other bassists, that the “easy” stuff must be easy for you, when in fact the easy stuff is not easy. If I walked on stage at your typical blues/rock open mic, I couldn’t get through Angie, or Wild Horses, because I don’t practice it, never have, and the intervals and harmony are alien to me. OTOH, play enough Zappa and you learn certain things that keep you on track and make it look “easy”. If someone called “Bamboozled By Love” I might very well nail it. Like most things in life it isn’t easy, but practice is one way to reduce the appearance of effort.

I have taken a hiatus from my instrument of choice before. Variously to play guitar, mandolin, harmonica, synth, dulcimer… or to focus on recording and composition. This time it is the same , but different. I feel that I may have run afoul of the bass-gods by not holding up my end on the basics. The road back from that can be hard, as I know, and it will involve some work that I have avoided for a long time. I expect that I will come back stronger and more versatile, but even if I don’t, I will come back wiser and more willing to put my foot down for myself and my muse. Bass is a cruel mistress. People expect you to hold down the bottom and stay out of the way. The depths to which that offends me are considerable, and I realize that I have to abandon much of what I have done in the past to achieve a clean break from some of those expectations.

I wont go as far as calling my Rochefort gig “Pyrrhic” since I don’t consider the aftermath to be devastating. To the contrary. It was what I said it was: “apex”. It was the apex of a journey started more than 10 years earlier when I put my bass up for consignment and took off on a vacation to Italy with my wife. I have learned many times that you might have to divest of everything before getting a clean start. You might have to say “never again” to have the opportunity present itself, again.

The new journey began much like the last one: a project with my friend Peter Riccio, with a goofy band name and no particular expectations. I don’t expect this journey to be easier, harder, better, or more fruitious. But it will be a journey, and with any luck it generates something I can look back upon with pride, and maybe it has an apex on par with that week in France, and maybe I will have learned enough not to worry about apexes by then.

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