What’s the best advice that you can give to a musician just starting out?
Listen, listen, listen. Listen to recordings. When I was 14, 15 I only had a handful of records. By the time I was 16 I had Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage by Herbie Hancock, which had led me to Kind of Blue and a few other Miles Davis records, but Kind of Blue was the one that hit me, which led me to A Love Supreme and Blue Train by Coltrane and I played those recordings pretty much endlessly for a couple of years. And there was a McCoy Tyner album in there as well, Sahara.
Listening is the key, but really listen. Don’t just have it on in the background. Put the record on, turn the lights off and listen repeatedly.
Listen to yourself and listen to your fellow musicians.
You hear in your own head, ideas. And the difficulty is to execute those ideas coherently, in real time. If you focus your energy on playing this or that pattern then you’re not listening and what will result will be like the monkey writing a book. Just because it’s right doesn’t mean to say it’s any good.
How important is it to understand the role of the bass?
There’s an argument for everybody learning what bass players do.
Bass players are concerned with clear movements from this chord to that chord over a sequence, bearing in mind the overall tonality of either the whole piece or the section in the piece that you’re playing. And they have to do it not only in real time but with a steady pulse.
But it’s significant that, until you get to a very high level, bass players have to put up with some pretty uncomfortable attempts at accompaniment because when they stop playing, the very thing that they’ve been providing, stops happening. And the other musicians have to provide something that is comparable. So the drummer has to provide a pulse which is easy to play with, that’s quiet but has energy and drive and that’s interactive and isn’t just keeping time. The pianist or guitar player has to play chords, in a rhythmic, musical way, which don’t mess up the rhythmic ideas of the bass player. And that’s a real art.
Is how you play important?
I’d rather hear someone play a really bad note but from the right place than either blather on or be too timid to play for fear of getting it wrong.
The being ‘too timid to play’ thing is more painful for the person concerned. But the blathering on is more painful to listen to.
But there is a way. If I’ve got an area to practice, I’m prepared to slow right down to nothing. In order to get right into the harmonic movement from chord V to chord I, I might have to, for the sake of study, turn the metronome off, stop attempting to give any kind of performance and just work on that sound, those notes, this movement. And internalise that information. But then, in the moment when it comes to playing, that has to be forgotten (in a creative sense). It’s not forgotten but it can’t be self-conscious.