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John Patitucci: The Gentle Soul


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Every jazz musician inhabits a private inner world of amazing energy and light, where they live, dream and fall deeply in love with their unique craft while creating this extraordinary and improvised music. Through the years, some become masters of their instruments, and a selfless interaction with the world takes place, where they share what they learned and even help others find their own voice. This way, paying it forward becomes an act of brotherhood, a present for the future of jazz to behold.

Bass virtuoso John Patitucci believes in the goodness of heart that relies on the musical gifts of those willing and able to create powerful, deeply heart- rooted music. He spends a good amount of his time mentoring and teaching the skills he learned long ago, cherishing every experience as an opportunity to acquire an even deeper understanding of his own dexterity on the bass. This teacher is always a humble and valuable student himself, a constant work in progress. His reward is a worldwide-stage audience looking at him in awe.

Giants such as Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner and Chick Corea have bonded with his unique musical sensibility. A deeply spiritual man, Patitucci has found a gentle equilibrium between his faith and his appreciation of music; everything is part of a whole, and that whole is full of beautiful possibilities. His playing is both energetic and tender, with a technique that is as personal as his relationship with God, almost impossible to emulate.

This is a musician with a heart wide open.

All About Jazz: Tell us a little bit about your involvement with ArtistsWorks.

John Patitucci: They approached me a while back, early last year or something like that, about this new project that they are doing, this new concept. And I thought that it was very interesting to have a situation where people could study with you from anywhere in the world, in a way that was more complete and just so well thought out: the idea about creating a community with the knowledge of bass and creating not only a little academy where they can study bass with someone that they wanted to study with, who also had a particular view point, but also the students would get to know each other, too, and share the experiences and what they learned from it, and benefit from each other's questions. I have been teaching all my life, but not like this. This is a different concept because of the way that it is set up, being able to send a question about their instrument-filmed questions-to me, and I am able to film the response as well; all the answers are posted on the site, together with the questions, and anybody who belongs to the site can look at them any time.

AAJ: As far as teaching goes, like you said, you have been teaching for a long time; you were the artistic director of Bass Collective, you are also involved with the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz and the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program, and you were professor of Jazz Studies in City College in New York.

John Patitucci Remembrance JP: Yes, I left City College in order to do a job for Berklee College of Music; I am now an Artist in Resident, with Danilo Pérez and the Global Jazz Institute and also the Bass department. I have switched after 10 years teaching at City College, and I am now teaching at Berklee School.

AAJ: Teaching has to mean a lot to you.

JP: Yes, it does, and it is kind of strange to me because I started teaching when I was a teenager. I was teaching electric bass to people older than me when I was a kid. That was very odd to me, and I didn't quite understand it, but people wanted to study, so I started learning what that was, and I don't think I have learned so much over the years. Who knows, sometimes I wonder who's learning more, you or the students [laughs]? You learn a lot about communicating, when you have to teach something you have been working on so hard all your life. Some things come easier to you, some things come hard; each student has a different way of understanding the material and actually processing the material that you give them, so you have to be creative in how you teach each one individually.

AAJ: Why do you think it's so important to teach, to you?

JP: I guess you have to feel called to do it. It's a calling; you have to have a desire to reach out and help younger musicians. I think part of the reason is because I had a lot of older musicians that mentored me that really helped me out. When I moved out to California from New York-I lived in California for a number of years before I moved back as an adult in 1996-I had a lot of people help me along the way, and there was a man named Chris Poehler-he was a big mentor to me when I was about 13. He turned me on to jazz, a lot of jazz that I didn't know about, and he also made me learn how to read music, because before I played by ear only, and then he also got me interested in studying classical music as well.

AAJ: What is the difference, if there is any difference to you as a musician, between the electric bass and the acoustic bass, as far as attraction to play it? What makes a musician decide to play both?

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.

AAJ: What is it about classical music, from your point of view as a jazz musician, that actually attracted you?

JP: Well, I think for me it was more of a cultural bond because my family is extremely Italian, and I grew up hearing opera in the house- records of great tenors singing opera-which had a profound impact on me as a musician, and even my identity as a bassist, and my desire to always sing on my instrument. Plus I sang a lot, too. And I love that music, so it was part of my culture. It was inescapable, in a way. So it was a big part of who I am and also very, very organic, I would say, with me. And also because of Chris Poehler, my teacher-he furthered that connection when I was getting ready to go to college. He said, "You really need to study classically." He said, "It would help your playing. It certainly will help you play the instrument better, but there is a lot of music that would inspire you." I was a Classical double bass major. I studied Bach's music in counterpoint class. I had theory and all that. I think because jazz, harmonically, is a very sophisticated music, I think there is a tie with the harmonic tradition of European classical music. But it is also mixed with the harmonic ideas that came with jazz music, too-you know, extending the harmony in different ways. So that's tricky, a hard question to answer, in a way, but in another way it was very organic with me because of being Italian.

AAJ: Tell us more about your Italian roots.

JP: Well, all the family is from the poor regions of the south. That is an old story in New York Italian culture because most of the people that came to New York were from the south-the part of Italy that was struggling the most with poverty and stuff. So the Patitucci side of the family is from Torano Castello. It's a very small hill town, which I visited last year for the first time in my life, and they made me an honorary citizen [laughs]. I took my father-my mother is no longer alive, so I took my father-and his new wife, my wife and kids. It was very emotional. I played a big concert there. So my Italian roots are very important in my family. I was raised with the cooking. The culture was very strong. My grandfather came when he was about 16, on a boat to the new world. My grandmother, his wife, was also from the same place, Torano Castello. I think they met here, though. And so, that side of the family is from Torano Castello.

For my mother's side, you have to go back to the immigration that happened in the 1800s, towards the latter end of the 1800s. They were part of the families from Naples, and the other part was from Padula, which is near Salerno, which is not that far from Naples, either. So the cultures were very powerful. The cuisine was very strong; in fact, I cook, myself, too. I can make handmade ravioli. I love to cook. I have a great appreciation for Italian wine. I was raised in maybe a stereotypical fashion. Food was a pretty high priority in my family [laughs]. All those things were part of it. I'm also an espresso nut. I love the culture of the music. I love Puccini. I have the same birthday as Puccini. I love all kinds of music. I love Vivaldi's music, too. There are a lot of things about the culture that I feel very strongly connected to. And I speak some [Italian], too. Even though my father- his father didn't really want him to speak Italian, he wanted him to learn English. My Dad understands quite a bit of Italian, but he doesn't speak much. He speaks a little dialect from the south. My grammar is not so great, but I get by pretty well in Italy.

AAJ: You are also known to be a very kind man.

JP: I appreciate that. But I think, for me, it has to do with my faith. That's the most important thing in my life. God requires a certain kind of expression. If I say that I'm a Christian then I have to walk as closely as I can in the footsteps of my King. And Jesus is my King. So I feel like I have to really live it. If I tell people that that's what I believe and I don't live it, then I'm a hypocrite. So I'm trying the best I can to do this, and it's very important. I mean, my brother is a pastor. And uh, you know, I work. I am an elder at a Presbyterian church out here in New York; we're actually trying to plan a new church in my town. It's the way you treat people and the way you talk to people. The way you express yourself in this life is important to me. I am trying to live a certain way. And I know I have my limitations. I know that I am like anybody else that is a human being; we have our flaws, and we have our problems. The other thing, too, that helps me keep me straight and on track is that I have an amazing wife and two daughters. And when you're a father, it is a very humbling experience. I have two super-power little girls-they're not so little anymore. They are 14 and 11. But they have a lot of energy. And they are also very smart. So the times when I live up to my faith, and when I'm walking the way I talk, they receive that. They resonate with it. But if I am not, they will tell me about it[laughs]. Yes, they are powerful little ladies.

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.

AAJ: In 1986, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences voted you MVP on acoustic bass. Still being very young, how does something like that make you feel?

JP: I was in Los Angeles, and I was there for quite a while; that was a very intense thing because I was very young and trying to fit in. The whole studio scene in L.A. was very political and very intense and very serious, and so many people were competing to get a chance to have jobs in the recording world because it was a very huge scene out there in L.A. And I always had kind of mixed feelings about it because I was very idealistic always, so I wanted to play with certain people, and I wanted to experience certain things. Sure, I also knew that if I got in the studios that I could actually make a living playing music, and I wouldn't have to do anything else. And that was also appealing. But I also had a huge love for jazz, and, you know, sometimes in the studio world, it wasn't all great artistic music. I had to learn how to develop the skill to do the best I could even if the music wasn't particularly trying to be very deep. You know what I mean? It's one thing to play on a car commercial. It's another thing to play in someone's recording of his or her original music. So I had to learn that, no matter what, I had to be honest and give as much as I could. That was my feeling. I wanted to really be strong and committed no matter what music I was playing and not look down on music that wasn't my favorite sometimes. Sometimes in L.A. there was this perception, "Don't tell them you play jazz." It was sort of like a prejudice against jazz in certain ways. Pop music and the movies were all the things that were financially important to the business people in L.A. Those were the things that got the most respect.

AAJ: Your three Grammys.

JP: Two for playing. One is with the Chick Corea Acoustic Trio; that goes way back. And another one in 2005, with the Wayne Shorter Quartet for Beyond the Sound Barrier (Verve, 2005). So those are the two playing ones. Then there was another one around 1987, or 1988, for the writing Chick and Dave Weckl and I wrote, a song that was best R&B instrumental of the year. It was light years away from that Chick Corea Electric Band Record. That was one of those things that they gave one statue to Chick and Dave, and I got little certificates[laughs]. I have two of them-little statues in my house somewhere. I don't actually have them out in the open. I sort of have them in a little thing. They're kind of up in a cabinet. We have a nice thing that a bassist made me years ago in California-really neat guy who was a really close friend. He was also like a phenomenal carpenter. So he made me this thing to hold like my stereo stuff in there, and also now we have dishes and glasses and home stuff in there. Then there's a little place up in there for a couple of Grammys[laughs].

To me, what means way more is having the many, many years of playing with these guys that were my heroes. You know what I mean? That means more than all of the Grammys in the world, really. Those 1960's records that I heard from Miles where he had Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, and then later Chick played with him, and Jack DeJonette and all these guys; I know them and have worked with them for many years now, and they've inspired me so much. That, to me, is really exciting. It's wonderful to get an award, and people appreciate what you do, and they like it. But playing with these guys, that is like-it's beyond what I can even say.

AAJ: A higher recognition?

JP: Yeah! Those are the guys I feel like they inspired me and gave me the excitement and the desire to get into the music and really grow, you know? And then they became my friends, which is a huge blessing.

AAJ: Are you more of a musician than a composer?

JP: That's tricky. Hmmm. I think sometimes it's a really tricky conflict in life because I know that if I played less and composed more, I could probably get better at composing than I do. Now I am always working on practicing to be better playing and also working on my craft as a composer. Part of me says I can't do that. I have to do both. I could never stop playing. You know? I think that was my first calling. I think composing came afterwards. But at the same time, composing has become very important. I do a lot of classical stuff now, too. I write a lot of different kinds of music. I love composing, but I think I have to have a dual calling. You know what I mean? Do both. I have some composer friends, and that is all they do all the time-is write music. And I feel like my craft as a composer isn't as strong as theirs because they devote all of their energy to that; but I am trying to learn as I go as much as I can and just keep pushing the level upwards. There's only so many hours in a day, so..[laughs]. And when you have a family and all these other things, it's a big challenge. That's kind of how I feel about those two different things.

AAJ: Is there any difference in playing for others and playing as a bandleader?

JP: Band leading is something that took me years to get comfortable doing, because of all of the other things that are associated with being a bandleader that are away from the bandstand. For me, I just got back from a two-week tour with my own trio, and it was really exciting, and I loved it. But it is a lot more responsibility because I don't take a road manager with me. I do everything. I'm watching out for the guys, making sure all of the logistics happen correctly and that sort of stuff. So, it's a lot more responsibility when you do your own thing. I've also been playing in other people's bands for many years. In a way, it becomes a lot less stressful sometimes when you go and you just show up when it's somebody else's group and play, and you hang out, you relax and you do your thing. You don't have to worry about the logistics or anything. But, at the same time, it's a joy to get to play the music you've written. It's a big deal.

AAJ: What have you enjoyed the most about the music so far?

JP: I started going on the road when I was 19. So, I've already been out here a pretty long time, actually. It's kind of crazy because I started so young. But I am hoping also it will last, like a lot of my older musician friends, like Wayne, or look at Roy Haynes-he's 87. So he's still playing and traveling. That kind of thing is encouraging to me. So it's hard to say, but I guess being in groups that are really close-like, you know, I've been in Wayne Shorter's Quartet now for a while, this steady group with Brian and Danilo, we've been together now for, I don't know, 12 years-and that's a huge thing because not a lot of bands stay together anymore. It's difficult. It's hard to keep a band together sometimes, scheduling-wise with people, especially if they are very active. But with this, it's like a family, and everybody makes it a priority to do the group even if they are doing their own thing. So that's been one of the most exciting things I have ever been a part of.

AAJ: Wayne Shorter.

JP: He's a genius, actually and very sweet and kind, too, and funny. He knows everything about movies. He is just a brilliant man in a lot of ways. I'll give you little story. One time we were sitting there in his house, and I looked across the room, and there was a little sculpture of Nefertiti, and it was beautiful. I said, "Where did you get that?" And he said, "Oh, I did it when I was 20 or so." He did it! He sculpted it. And I was like, "You what?" [Laughs] I was freaked out. So there are a lot of things like that about him-an unusually brilliant man in a lot of respects. He has many gifts, and he has cultivated his gifts-a composer and orchestrator for large orchestras as well. He's maybe one of my biggest inspirations as a composer. He's great. He's always reading books or watching movies. He is wonderful with young musicians and little kids. He is one of those geniuses that are trying to get back to that real pure state that you have when you're a kid. He'll say stuff like "I want to play like I don't know how to play." [Laughs]

So he's pretty amazing in many, many, many respects. And we've known each other a long time. I've been in that band. I've known him longer than the others. I started working with him around 1986. I recorded with him on Phantom Navigator (Columbia) in 1987. I did a couple of tracks on that. From time to time, I would play gigs with him and his band. I was still a full-time member of Chick Corea's stuff at that point. So then when I stopped being full time with Chick in [around] 1995, I got in touch with Wayne because I would play with Wayne every once in a while; even during that time where my schedule with Chick was very full, I would still play with Wayne. Every once in while, he would call. And then when I left Chick finally as my main gig in '95, I called him and we stayed in touch. And toward the end of the '90s he said, "You know I'm putting together a group. Do you want to be in it?'' I said, "Absolutely, man. Are you kidding?" Then these last 12 years have been amazing.

AAJ: Was it a shock to you the first time you played with him?

JP: Yeah[laughs]. He was so deep. I remember playing, and when I was first in the band I was only playing electric bass because he was doing music from that record called Atlantis (Columbia, 1985), which was the record when he first came out as a solo artist from being in Weather Report and leaving Weather Report. That's the first solo record he had done in quite some time. Then when he did Atlantis, that would have been around '86, the band used electric bass. I remember because I played electric bass sometimes when we were on these tight stages, because I remember playing the Blue Note in New York and also in Tokyo. And he would play these unbelievable solos, and then he would turn to me and say, "Do you want some?" You know, "Now it's your turn." And I was like, "Oh my gosh!" I don't know how to play after that[laughs]. It was so overwhelming because there were no licks. You just played pure music. And I felt very immature when I tried to play after that. And it was a big moment in my life, actually. Because I had worked very hard to become fluent on my instrument, and I worked very hard to be a true improviser. And I felt like that was one of the strengths that I had. And next to him, I felt like an infant [laughs]. I felt like a little baby, like I had nothing [laughs]-really, really humbling-and it forced me to really rethink some things.

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