John Patitucci: Celebrating Jazz Heroes

R.J. DeLuke BY

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As sayings go, "One man's trash is another man's treasure" is pretty straightforward, especially for those enamored with garage sales. For lovers of jazz music, it may hold a bit more significance, for it played a fateful role in the life of one of today's superlative artists in the genre.

John Patitucci is one of the finest bass players in jazz. A mainstay of the Wayne Shorter quartet for years, he's also blessed the world of music by augmenting the art of folks like Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, B.B. King, Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie, Natalie Cole, Queen Latifah, Sting, Carly Simon, Joshua Redman, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Mulgrew Miller, and many more.

But in the 1960s, young John and his brother—both into music—were investigating sounds of the day: Motown, Eric Clapton with Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles,The The Rolling Stones and other outfits from the famed British Invasion. Hey—it could have gone another way. Some things are inevitable, like Patitucci's immense talent. Who knows? But at times in history, seemingly minor things have resulted in twists of fate that have had major ramifications. Ask Mrs. O'Leary about her cow.

Whatever one's faith is in such, the road for the young Patitucci brothers was altered one day: "What happened one day was that my grandfather, he was fixing roads in Manhattan for a while with crews, with a jackhammer and all that," recalls the convivial and warm-hearted bassist. "Somebody comes out of their place in New York and they put boxes in the street that they wanted to get rid of. It was a box if records. My grandfather said, 'Wow. Can I take these? I have grandsons that are into music.' So he brought them back. It had all this jazz music in them: Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, Wes Montgomery, Ray Charles' Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse!/ABC-Paramount, 1961), which had Roy Haynes on it. All these people. The first Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band recording called Solid State (Solid State, 1966).

"They were new and different. I think the Wes Montgomery album helped us come in because it was guitar, and we had been listening to all this music that featured guitar. And here's Wes playing blues and jazz—bebop oriented stuff on the guitar, but with such an amazing rhythmic feeling that he really grabbed us... But the Art Blakey record called Mosaic (Blue Note, 1961) was in there. That killed me. It freaked me out. I couldn't understand it, but I loved it. That had Wayne Shorter on it, Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton. Incredible record. And obviously Genius + Soul = Jazz—that killed me. That was so soulful. 'I'm Gonna Move to the Outskirts of Town'—classic Ray Charles stuff."

It was his first exposure, and headed him down a path of investigating improvisational music. While he studied classical music in college, he grew to the point where he was doing jazz gigs on the side. He eventually left school and went on the road. The road has led him to today, where he stands as one the examples of excellence both in and out of jazz. The multi-dimensional Patitucci also writes classical music and dabbles in ethnic music.

The latest addition to his enviable resume is a new, adventurous and enticing recording Remembrance (Concord) with Joe Lovano on sax and Brian Blade on drums, each also masters of their respective instruments. There's some assistance from his wife, Sachi Patitucci, on cello and Rogerio Boccato on percussion. It's an outstanding documentation of dialogue among inspired musicians, on songs written by Patitucci in celebration of some of his musical heroes—among them, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Michael Brecker.

That's in the wake of a fine Jack DeJohnette trio recording which he was a part of, Music We Are (Golden Beams, 2009) which includes Danilo Perez.

The seed for Remembrance was laid down years ago. Patitucci was developing his Communion (Concord, 2001) album that included Lovano, Blade and pianist Brad Mehldau. The group went to rehearse at Lovano's home, but the pianist couldn't make it. The three carried on without him. The bassist recounts, "Joe has a really nice place upstate, and we had this nice room with a high ceiling and started playing together. The sound of it, the space of it, the whole feeling of it, and the connection that we had right away was just amazing. We felt it. We all looked at each other, like: 'Wow! We need to do something like this some time.'" Patitucci would bring it up periodically to the others when their paths crossed in ensuing years, and it finally came to pass.

"I started writing pieces. I'm always writing all year long every year, but I started writing pieces with that thought in mind: doing the trio record. I knew who I was writing for. So I just kept on accumulating things. And I noticed as I was writing them, a theme emerged, in that a lot of these things were things that were for people that I really revered—some who have gone on and some who are still with us," says Patitucci.

He says the idea for the title is "remembering and rejoicing in the inspiration that these great musicians have brought to us... It's not meant to be a mournful thing. The record is not a mournful thing, to me. There's a lot of energy on it. But also the idea to remember to be present and not wait for people to go away before you acknowledge and appreciate them. Do that right now. And also to try to be in the moment—not dwelling on what happened before and not always projecting what's going to happen in the future—remembering to stay in this moment right now."

It was mostly recorded live in the studio with the players in the same room—no booths, no headphones. Patitucci says he felt more harmonic and rhythmic freedom in doing so. "I'm very excited about it. Sometimes you have a little dream, and there's a wonderful way it can come to pass at the right time. The timing was just right for us to do this—something we had wanted to do for a long time.

With players the caliber of Lovano and Blade, the music was bound to be remarkable. The feel of it is a gas. All the musicians excel, but the group synergy is remarkable. They're digging in, expressing themselves, conversing. And having fun.

In "Messaien's Gumbo," which pays respect to classical composer Olivier Messiaen, Patitucci puts down a funky electric bass line, with Blade adding to the funk, but with subtle polyrhythms. Lovano plays winding lines through the thing with his creative swell and beautiful tone. The bass solo is melodic, but with one foot still in the funk. "Sonny Side" is a leisurely stroll that allows Lovano to make his statement about Rollins—not imitating, but showing he's a fan and follower. His darting statements do justice to the tribute.

"Meditations," for the Coltranes, is a haunting ballad on which Patitucci strums the electric bass for a fuller feeling. Blade's mallets, in parts, bring a dramatic feel; elsewhere he caresses and buoys the music with brushes, as Lovano offers thoughtful passages in a stream of ideas that appears endless. "Play Ball," for Ray Brown, is a slow-paced number—the bass walking but also playing contrapuntal lines behind Lovano's laid-back, but rich, story. Patitucci performs a short solo, "Remembrance," for Michael Brecker, playing both six-string electric bass and six-string electric piccolo bass to create an airy feel.

Patitucci displays why he's such an in-demand player. His sound is intense, adaptable, thoughtful, musical, with a great sound. Lovano continues to show why he is one of the greats of his era—robust and inventive, always playing it right even when taking chances. Blade is always busy, but sometimes it might be quiet tic-tic-tic here and a sweeping subtle pattern there. It's almost like he takes the polyrhythmic Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, tones it down a bit, spreads it out and comes up with a wonderful amalgam that utilizes deftness and expands further the legacy of those great trap masters.

"Joe is one of the great improvisers that we have now," beams Patitucci. "He definitely embodies that tradition. He's been affected by all the great history of the saxophone. You can hear that great swing and swagger and great feeling that goes all the way back to people like Lester Young but also through all the modern guys. He has an ability to understand rhythmically what Sonny and Trane, Joe Henderson and all these other greats that we love were doing. He understands all that; it's in him. But then he has a personal way of playing. I can always tell when it's Joe. He has a very personal sound. His sound is huge, too.

"Brian and I have been playing together for over 10 years and that's a blessing... I first heard him on a Joshua Redman album. I think I almost drove off the freeway. I couldn't believe his drumming. I said, 'Who is this guy? I've got to find him.' I was really intent on finding and playing with him. Finally it came to pass that we did some playing on one of Danilo Perez's albums (Motherland; Verve, 2000). That was the first time we played together. Then all the Wayne Shorter stuff. He's been playing with me on my recordings and in my groups whenever I can get him, because everybody wants to play with Brian.

"He's an incredible link in the tradition of great drumming. It's not just drumming, it's musicianship ... His feeling and his beautiful sound on the drums... For any kind of music, any kind, this guy can play. He has an understanding of so many different kind of styles, rhythmic feels. It makes him real special."

Speaking to All About Jazz in August 2009, Patitucci was in the middle of a week-long gig at Dizzy's Coca Cola Club in New York City with Lovano and Blade, playing a lot of the Remembrance material and more. "It's been amazing," he notes, "drawing good crowds each night. With the trio, we don't just have the music on the recording, but we can access a lot of different things. We can even play an entirely improvised set, if we want, because Joe and Brian are so great at being improvisers that there's always room to explore a lot of avenues."

He adds, "It's an interesting format. I'm always curious to see how people receive the music when you have a trio with no traditional chordal instrument involved. On a couple occasions, you have the six-string bass playing sort of chordally. There are no traditional-sounding chords being played. So it's interesting to see how people respond to it. It's a very contrapuntal and very linear expression that results when you do that.

The trio is also playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival (Sept. 18-20) in California. But his mates are so busy with other projects that it's hard for Patitucci to get them. Nonetheless, he continues his trio gigs this year with other fine musicians, including Marcus Gilmore on drums. On sax, John Ellis and George Garzone will do some gigs. Fine players, all. Patitucci himself has a variety of other projects he's involved in, as well as doing gigs this fall with Shorter's quartet.

He's come a long way from being a kid monkeying around with the guitar in Brooklyn. He was following his brother's lead on guitar, but didn't take to it well. He was left-handed, trying to play right-handed. He didn't have the patience for learning that way. "My brother said, 'Try the bass. This way we can play together and you can use your fingers on your right hand to play it.' So I tried it. It felt great. I had a little electric bass first. I started that when I was about 10. Before that, I had some percussion instruments. I had some bongos and maracas, and I sang. Everybody in our family sang. By the time I was a little bigger and could hold a big bass, I was about 15—in high school, where I had access to an acoustic bass. I started playing that as well and really enjoyed that too. I embarked on a path where I did both, and that was what was happening."

His fondness for the bass grew the more he played it. "It's not only the catalyst for the music—it's involved with every aspect of it—but it's also it's the crossroads of the harmony, the rhythm, melodic elements, the shape, the counterpoint of the music. All the aspects of the music come together with the bass," he says. "You're connected to the harmony, the melodies. You're supporting all the music. You're sort of the foundational bulwark. It's rhythmically amazing because you're part drummer, part chordal instrument, in a way—because you're still involved in the harmony. You change the bass note, it changes the chord.

"You're involved in an instrument that's absolutely essential to the music. The layman might not understand all that, but if you take the bass away, I think most people would feel something missing. Anybody who listens to music—who's not just casually listening, who's involved in checking out the music—they'd notice it. There's also a very visceral thing about the bass. It's really physical. I love that. You feel like you're involved in every beat and every bar of the music. It's not an instrument where you play the melody and then you stop and wait for somebody else to do something. You're in every bar, every beat."

Patitucci eventually moved to the West Coast and studied classical bass at San Francisco State University and Long Beach State University. While studying, he was also into jazz, playing gigs as he could find them. His major influences, he says, include Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland, George Mraz, Eddie Gomez, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton, Wilbur Ware, Percy Heath and Buster Williams. "I love those old recordings of Henry Grimes with Sonny (Rollins). There's a long list. I know I'm probably leaving out some important people."

While those remain his influences, Patitucci has never given up his love of the electric bass, and continues to do important projects employing that instrument. "At this point, I could never conceive of giving up either. When I was younger, I lived out in L.A., playing a lot of recording sessions with the electric and acoustic. Sometimes I'd be doing a session with the electric, but I'd have my acoustic with me because I was going to go straight to a jazz gig. People would say stuff like, 'When are you going to get that thing back to the museum?' about the acoustic bass. The jazzers—if I went to a bebop gig that night and I had my electric bass in a soft bag and threw it in the corner while I was playing my gig on the acoustic—they'd say, 'Make sure you play the real bass. Don't play that toy,'" he says, chuckling at the recollection.

"For me, it depends on the music I'm playing. I love them both. When I play the electric bass, like when I use it in my group, I use it with a jazz conception. I go for a darker sound. I believe you can swing on it too, although I use it for the other kinds of rhythms that we're doing ... It just depends on the music."

In school, studying classical bass, he didn't say much about his jazz leanings to his professors. "My teachers in college expected me to be an orchestral bassist. They were pretty angry when I left school ... I only went three years to college, and then I left. I went out on the road. I had to go in the direction I felt."

His first road gig was with pianist Gap Mangione. "From there, I played with Airto Moreira and Flora Purim; Joe Farrell; a bunch of the older Italian guys that came out to the west coast, like Frank Strazzeri, a great pianist; Don Menza; a bunch of different people." He was in Victor Feldman's trio and also played with Oscar Castro-Neves and Dave Grusin.

In 1980, he continued his career in Los Angeles as a studio musician and a jazz artist, doing album sessions with all kinds of artists in different genres. In 1985, Chick Corea came calling, and he spent a major part of the next decade with the pianist's bands, including the Elektric Band and Akoustic Band. "That took me all around the world and gave me an exposure that I never would have gotten, had I stayed in L.A."

"Incredible" is how he describes his time with Corea. "Brilliant composer. Brilliant pianist. Got me my first record deal [GRP]. Encouraged me as a composer. Encouraged me as a player. Really had a huge impact. Took me all around the world. People heard me play everywhere. I was able to develop a connection with a worldwide audience with Chick."

In addition to recording with Corea, he did six solo recordings for GRP before moving to Concord in 1996, also the year he moved back to New York City. He continued to be a busy bassist, performing with superior musicians like Jack DeJohnette, Roy Haynes and Herbie Hancock, and creating his own groups. In 2000, the legendary Wayne Shorter set up an acoustic quartet. He called upon Patitucci as well as Blade and Danilo Perez.

"Wayne is a genius. Flat out," avows Patitucci. "The nicest genius you'll ever meet, but he's nevertheless a genius. He's a musician of the highest level. I've learned a lot from being around him. I feel like I've been very blessed to be around him ... Wayne is a beautiful person. He's very generous, kind, very encouraging. He also encourages musicians to really stretch, take chances and grow. That group is such a family. So transparent and very connected in so many ways. It's just really, really, really lots of fun to be in."

So the bassist who was once perhaps headed for classical orchestra has made it to the top of the jazz world. And yet his open and expressive musical mind still hearkens back to the classical world and even genres beyond. "I still work really hard on that," he says about classical music. "I love classical music and I loved playing in the orchestra too. And I love chamber music. Now I'm doing more than ever. I'm writing commissions for classical music. I do different stuff. The last 15-20 years I got way back into it. I'm going to be 50 this year. When I was 19, or whatever, I walked away from those expectations.

"During the time I was playing with Chick, between '85 and '95, he was very encouraging about my bowing. He really liked the way I played with the bow. I started practicing that stuff as time went on. Then I made that record, Heart of the Bass (Stretch, 1992), which kind of inspired me to get back and working on the bowing stuff. From there, I started studying it again, working on my classical stuff again. It's sort of come around. It was my first music, anyway. I did develop a love for it and I did hear opera records around the house when I was a kid—tenors like Mario Lanza. Later on, my dad was into Pavarotti."

He adds, "I've also been involved heavily in ethnic music, like Brazilian music, African music, Afro-Cuban music, music from Venezuela, music from all over. It's exciting to me."

He's built a solid career and a solid following, earning respect as being one of the top on his instrument, and as someone who can fit into all kinds of situations and make it work. He's a complete musician.

"I've taught a lot of bass students over the years," he notes. "The two things that are most important, for any musician playing any kind of music, are your sound and the rhythmic feeling you play with. How vibrant that is and how it's supposed to make people feel good—the rhythm. You have to a powerful rhythm—a rhythm that's very confident and relaxed, but strong. Joe (Lovano) is a classic example of that. And then sound. Your sound, when you play for people, even if they don't know anything about music, the thing that they're reacting to is your sound—whether it's a beautiful sound, whether it draws them in. And also your time feel ... Those are the things I want to work on and make deeper."

Keeping a career moving is easier said than done in the topsy-turvy music business climate. Talent must be coupled with the requisite hard work. Patitucci writes instructional music books. He is associate professor of jazz studies at City College of New York, "so that I have health insurance and all that. Also, I love teaching. It gives me the opportunity, now that I'm turning 50, to not have to say 'yes' to all the road things. That's the tricky thing as you get older; if you have a family (he has a wife and two daughters). Travel is necessary, if you're a jazz musician and you want to make any kind of living, because America is not the place where you can gain the most acceptance and earn a living playing the music. You have to go to Europe and these places where people place a little bit more value on what we do. You have to hustle and be industrious and have a bunch of different ways to make things work. That's what I do."

And there's uncertainty in the record industry to cope with, as well as how to come to terms with difficult changes that the internet and new related technologies have brought to the arena. "The business of records is kind of crazy. I don't even know how to describe what it is anymore, especially with all the burning and stealing of music that happens through the computer. The computer is a blessing and a curse for our music. In a way, you can reach lots of people. But I tell my younger students—they think it's great to burn and do all this stuff—but when you write your music and you do your records, you're never going to get any royalties," says the bassist.

"The younger generation thinks that music should always be free. Which is a wonderful idea, but how do the composer and the musician make a living? If they can't, then the music goes away. Then where's your music? Would you call a plumber and have him come to your house and expect it to be free?" he says, chuckling. "That's just the reality of it, putting it very simply. It's going to negatively impact the young musicians who are using that. They often do that because maybe money is tight. They're going to college. They're big fans of the music. They wind up burning a bunch of stuff. It's become common for everybody to do that. But there will be some repercussions that are definitely not positive. There already have been.

"The positive side is, some guys are doing their own records, financing them and promoting them themselves. Theoretically, they'll get to keep more of the bread that they make when they sell one. It's just the distribution problems and all that. It's not so easy. It's tricky ... (But) that's a good thing if they can manage to save some money and put up the money up front; they'll do much better in the long run from the recordings. I guess, also with promotion and the internet, you can reach a lot of people. Hopefully."

However, it also feeds into a situation of oversaturation. The amount of CDs out there now for people to hear is tremendous. Many can get lost in the shuffle, ignored by being overwhelmed by the sheer volume. "More people are making their own custom records. I get kids coming up to me at my gigs, handing me their CD. They're so young, yet they've made a CD of their own already. There's good points to that and bad points. The good thing is they're getting experience doing it, and they're going to learn a lot. The first time they go and record their music in a studio, that's a learning experience that will change their lives. On the other hand, if you go in too young and you're not really ready to make a CD, what you're giving out is a business card, or whatever, that could potentially come back to bite you if you're not that developed yet. People will go, 'Well, OK,' and that indifference toward a musician or group can be something that sticks."

This immensely talented bassist is in a good place, for which he's grateful. "I've gotten to play with so many people. When you do that, you have greater exposure. People become aware that you like different kinds of music and you can function and bring something to those musics and bring a passion and an excitement to your participation. And that you care and that you're involved and making it happen. That's what was good about learning how to be a studio musician—somebody who could help another composer—another artist—realize their dreams. That's a good skill to cultivate," he says. "It's very important if you want to be a bassist."

Thankfully, the impetuous left-handed kid who didn't like using a pick with his right hand when trying to play the guitar became just that: bassist, extraordinaire.

Selected Discography

John Patitucci, Remembrance (Concord, 2009)
Jack DeJohnette, Music We Are (Golden Beams, 2009)
John Patitucci, Line By Line (Concord, 2006)
Wayne Shorter, Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005)
Hank Jones, The Great Jazz Trio, S'Wonderful, (441 Records, 2005)
Chick Corea, To the Stars (Stretch, 2004)
John Patitucci, Songs, Stories Spirituals (Concord, 2003)
Wayne Shorter, Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002)
Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker, Roy Hargrove, Directions in Music: Live at Massey Hall (Verve, 2002)
Roy Haynes/ Danilo Perez/ John Patitucci, Trio (Verve, 2000)
John Patitucci, Imprint (Concord, 2000)
John Patitucci, Now (Concord, 1998)
John Patitucci, One More Angel (Concord, 1997)
John Patitucci, Sketchbook, (GRP, 1990)
John Patitucci, John Patitucci, (GRP, 1988)

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