John Patitucci: The Gentle Soul

Esther Berlanga-Ryan By

Sign in to view read count
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.
About John Patitucci
Articles | Calendar | Discography | Photos | More...



Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.