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.
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