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John Patitucci: The Gentle Soul

By Published: November 5, 2012
AAJ: What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in music?

JP: Music? I think if I had to boil it down to one thing, I think it would be what I heard about a lot of people that I admire, like John Coltrane and a few others; John Coltrane was also very searching and very interested in the spiritual aspect of music. Also Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea. They have shown me in their playing that the band concept is very important to them. In other words, a lot of people in our culture worship the individual. It's always about the cult of personality and the individual. But in great music, and this also comes from the African tradition that really created this music we love called jazz, it's about community. It's about a number of people coming together to create and give to each other and make the music strong. The music can go way higher when there is a community and not just an individual. When musicians try to prioritize their own individual thing over the group, the music always suffers. The irony of that is that when everyone is looking out for each other and serving each other and making the music soar, their individual gifts and who they are as a person comes through way stronger anyway [laughs] because they are giving themselves to each other. So when you give to the community and give the best you are, it comes out way stronger, anyway.

AAJ: What would be the most valuable lesson you have learned in life so far?

JP: The more I am able to focus outward instead of always being absorbed with myself. Because I think, as musicians and artists, we all struggle with this. Being an artist, it's too easy to become self-absorbed or a narcissist. I think there is a danger there, not just in art and music but also in life, obviously, you know. I think the more you can become spiritually mature and get outside of yourself, not only will it make you a better person, but it makes the music a lot better, too.

Here's another interesting thing that opens up another can of worms. Danilo Perez and I are like brothers. We are very close. We have been for many years. In his case, he was very moved by the poverty in Panama, his own country of birth. I have gone down there with him and been part of the work with young musicians and trying to help people through his festival and foundation. I feel like music is a powerful tool for healing, and really we need to be using it for what they call social justice. That kind of stuff goes hand in hand with ministry. I believe it is the church's job to help people, to reach out-and now more than ever, the world being what it is economically and everything. People need help. There is too much greed that is obvious to everyone, I think. But I think the more we as musicians can use the music to help with that-get involved with causes and actually getting involved with reaching out and helping people to have opportunities, the better. Doing that kind of social work-that's really important to me. That's one of the reasons why I took the job with Danilo up at Berklee School of Music at his Berklee Global Jazz Institute. Because that's one of the big things it stands for: using music as an instrument of change. Not just "Well this is my art and this is my career and this is what I want to do," but, "How can you help other people with it, too?"

AAJ: In a sense, you are talking about paying it forward.

JP: Absolutely! And when I go back to my spiritual convictions, it goes even deeper than that. I believe I am supposed to lay down my life and give to other people. I feel like that's a metaphor for a lot of things. You know what I mean? Instead of always being concerned with being comfortable. Instead of always worrying about: "Oh yeah, I want a certain quality of life and I want to have this and I want to have that." That's a challenge for all of us. No matter what we have or don't have, it's easy for us to fall into a trap there. You know what I mean? Whether we live a very comfortable life or whether we're struggling, it's interesting that no matter what we do have, anybody can be selfish. So that's a challenge.

AAJ: Could you tell us about your recording of "Jesus on the Main Line."

JP: I wish I had written that melody, but I didn't[laughs]. It's an old spiritual. There's a story behind that. You know Brian Blade, who is the drummer on that record-and he is a sweet man, oh my gosh. He is like one of the nicest people I have ever met in my entire life. He is part of my family, too. Danilo and I and him are strong friends and close. So his father is a Baptist minister-Brian's dad-and Brian knows a lot about old music. I mean, he knows a lot about a lot of music, but one of the things that we sometimes talk about is the old blues and gospel music that came from the South in the early 1900s. And in the mid-1900s, there was a guy named Mississippi Fred McDowell. Now, Mississippi Fred McDowell had a version of "Jesus Is on the Mainline" that Brian played for me once. And I just flipped out. It just freaked me out. It was so beautiful. And I said, "OK, well, that's it." I felt like I needed to make a solo bass version of this to try to get the feeling across of that kind of old spiritual. Because the recording was one guitar and this guy singing. And then there's a couple of other ladies. You can tell there's some old men and women singing, and it's like a field recording. It's like maybe they're sitting in a little church somewhere. And it's amazing!

So that's where I got the idea for that song. I don't even know who wrote it[laughs]. I'm not so sure that Fred McDowell wrote it. I think that it may be an older spiritual, and sometimes it's hard to say who did write it way back when. That's one that is very important to me. That's one of my favorite old spirituals, you know? Because the lyrics are great, and it's about that type of relationship of people talking to God. I think it says something like "Jesus is on the mainline. Tell him what you want." [Laughs] It says, "Call him up; call him up." So it's talking about trying to have that real direct relationship with God.

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