John Patitucci: The Gentle Soul
JP: I think I just fell into it. First, I'm born in 1959, so growing up in New York in the '60s, I heard a lot of Motown music on the radio, a lot of soul music, and that's what I think drew me to the bass, the music that was inspired rhythmically and culturally, ultimately from Africa. And then also my first instruments were bongos and maracas, and I sang and also tried to play the guitar because my brother played the guitar, and it didn't work out. I just didn't feel comfortable with it, so I started playing the electric bass. My brother put the bass in my hand and said, "Here, try this." My brother was my first teacher. I didn't like to play with the pick in my right hand with the guitar; I am lefty, but I play righty, and I just didn't like the feeling of that thing in the way of my finger and the instrument, so when I started playing the bass, my brother said, "Here, you just use your fingers; you don't have to play with the pick." So that feeling, it was as much about how the instrument felt in my hand as the sound itself, you know what I mean? A connection literally and virtually of how the instrument felt in my hands.
So then, after playing that for a while-I started playing the electric bass when I was 10- and by the time I was 15, I was already getting into jazz, and I heard the sound of the acoustic bass, the "big bass," and in high school there was a bass in the band room at school, so I tried to play it, and I got interested in playing it, too. Then my teacher Chris Poehler said, "You should study classical music, too," and I got interested in that as well.
AAJ: Do you remember when was the moment that you thought, "I like this music; I like jazz"?
JP: I think when my brother and I were pretty young, maybe 11 or 12, my grandfather came home, when we lived in New York, with a couple of boxes, and we didn't really know the story behind them, but he said somebody put them on the street-you know when people in New York move, a lot of times they put things out on the street, on the curb, to get rid of them-but these records were so good that you wonder, "Why would anybody want to get rid of them?" Maybe somebody got in an argument with someone, and the other person put their records out on the street, I don't know, but we couldn't figure out why someone would ever get rid of these records. But that was when we heard the first jazz records. And then, wow! Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse!, 1961), Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson Trio records with Ray Brown, and so forth. I heard Ron Carter on the Wes Montgomery records. Those were the things that really turned me on to jazz.
AAJ: So, in your case, it didn't strike you as something strange?
JP: Well, no, I couldn't understand what was happening, that's for sure. I think it was easier to start to assimilate Wes Montgomery records because they were coming from the blues, and he wasn't playing as fast a tempo. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' records were like really this other world, and it was like, "What is that!" It was like all this high energy. Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter were on that incredible record Mosaic (Blue Note, 1961). Something about the emotion of the music really touched me even though I couldn't understand it. I didn't know what they were doing.
AAJ: You also learned to play piano, right?
JP: Yeah, I think when you are interested in composing and everything, um ... In high school, there was a nice guy named Frank Sumares. This was in the Bay Area of northern California, and he showed me some chord voicing and a little about jazz piano, and I started writing tunes. So I got into using the piano as a compositional tool and also because I love to sit down and play chords and try to figure out melodies and compose. I learned a lot about the music through the piano because most of my heroes and the masters of the music also used the piano as a tool to get deeper into harmony and counterpoint and those sorts of things.
AAJ: Who was your most valuable teacher?
JP: Wow! I would have to list them. You know, it was first my brother, then Chris Poehler. He was also in the Bay Area-very important because of the time in my life; he set lot of things in motion, you know? Then I had other teachers in my life that were powerful teachers, like my classical teachers. I had Charles Ciani, who was the principal of the San Francisco Orchestra. I also had Abe Bluebuf, who played in the L.A. Philharmonic. I also had Thomas Martin, who was principal of the London Symphony and John Shaffer, here in New York, who used to be the principal of the New York Philharmonic many years ago. So I had some great teachers. Also David Baker, the great jazz teacher when I was in high school. I had some ear training and jazz theory with him. So those are the teachers that made a long-lasting impression on me when I was younger and even into my adult life.