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Steuart Liebig: Mentone Mentor Merges into the Fast Lane

By Published: November 21, 2006

AAJ: Where'd you go to school?

SL: I studied double bass at Cal State Northridge. I did pretty much the whole classical thing. I had an upright bass and I used to get together with [pianist] John Beasley every Sunday morning and play McCoy Tyner tunes. But that's completely different from playing with a bow, and trying to play all these intense written parts. I could read chord changes, but I couldn't read a whole mess of notes, so I had a huge learning curve when I went to school. They reamed me when I got there. "You shouldn't be doing this, you should leave and become a janitor. By the time I got out, they were saying, "That's the best senior recital we've heard in a long time. I'm so obstinate; I just had to show them they were wrong about me.

In orchestra rehearsal, a lot of times the bass players weren't playing through certain things, so I'd get the scores and I'd be going through the scores checking out what everyone else was doing. I took comp classes, got really interested in the writing aspect of things.

AAJ: Was that your introduction to theory?

SL: No, back in high school I went to a free school. We had a theory teacher who was a studio guitarist. Nice guy, but he had to leave. They were trying out some other people, and they hired this new guy, and the first day he comes in, the guitar guy says to the new guy, "Yeah, I've been teaching them about jazz, you know the good stuff, not like [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman. And the guy says, "That's actually my favorite stuff. The guy's name was [mulit-instrumentalist] Dean Drummond, and if you ever see a copy of [composer] Harry Partch's The Delusion and the Fury (Columbia, 1999), he's one of the people playing on the cover of that. He was a second generation Partch disciple. We'd learned diminished scales, but this guy started hitting us with analysis, and turning us on to really different stuff. Got us into Partch, went and saw one of the big concerts at UCLA, turns out Nels [Cline] and Alex [Cline] went too. We were probably fifteen rows away.

That's where I got more into theory. And then Nels and I had the same theory teacher at Santa Monica College. That's where I met him. We met in the jazz band. We used to do stuff in between all the boring Neal Hefti tunes. We do quasi-[guitarist] George Benson-y things, because Nels was really into George Benson at that point. He wanted to do that kind of thing, plus all the other weird stuff he was already doing. That's where we hooked up.

AAJ: How did the contrabass guitar come into your life?

SL: When I got out of Northridge, I wanted a six-string bass. In certain bands, I was playing 3 different basses with 3 different tunings. So, I went to the NAMM show, played this bass, was completely floored. My mom helped me cosign a loan, I sent off the money and hoped I liked the bass, because it was more than I'd paid for an instrument ever. I started playing bar gigs on guitar to pay for it, so there I was playing "Brown Sugar. I can fake [guitarist] Keith Richards fairly easily at certain points. The truth is, I don't really love the sound of the electric bass. The technique is what I grew up with, and a lot of what I hear is based on it.

Sound-wise, I like the acoustic bass better, so I try to find that in there. I'm developing a sound I like on electric, but most electric bass players, not doing it for me. The bow is a humiliation situation for me, because if I'm going to do it, I need to do some bowing. Many, many hours of diligent hard work. I got my degree in the thing, but to get a good sound out of a bow, not easy. Everything's really super precise, it's very unforgiving. I've had the six-string now since the second tour with Julius, twenty one years. I'm sold on the higher register, it gives me a lot or range.

AAJ: You must have played the Century City Playhouse.

SL: The only time I ever played there was with Wayne Peet, and this other guy I knew from my High School who said I should go to Northridge, a rock-jazz-classical guy, now he's doing country. He ended up doing a lot of casuals, and got burnt out, so he just wanted to play country music after that. He got me into [composer Krystof] Penderecki. He knew [trombonist] John Rapson, [multi-instrumentalist] John Stephens, and Wayne Peet. They wanted him to play bass on something, and he recommended me. I played with the Joe Dopler Quintet, or something like that. I think they called it a quintet, but there were more than five. That's how I met Wayne, and I think that's the first time the Clines met Wayne. I remember talking to them about Wayne afterwards.

I wasn't really into the whole Century City Playhouse thing, I was much more like a satellite out there somewhere. I was doing rock bands, and more mainstream jazz. I was playing with a Latino disco band out in Pacoima. I played with [singer] Dianne Reeves and [pianist] Billy Childs at the Comeback Inn in Venice, every Saturday night for six months, and Sunday matinees. I was the sub-bassist.

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