Jack Bruce - Bass

This article was first published in Jazzwise in December 2011 in The Player section of the magazine

The fact that Jack Bruce is still with us is remarkable in itself. Not only has he recently come out on the right side of a liver transplant, but as he is at pains to tell me, dodged death early on in his career. “I got electrocuted very seriously once at the 100 Club in the very, very early days. Something was up with the electrics in the club and I basically got fried…. but I felt quite good for a few days afterwards!”

Bruce grew up with a mother who sang Scottish folk songs and a father who was a piano player in the style of Fats Waller. “He had a kind of dubious left hand,” says Bruce. “But nevertheless, he swung like the clappers. He was also a very good mandolin player”. In his late teens the young Bruce entered a music competition. “I got a scholarship to study classical cello at the Royal Scottish Academy for Music and DraaMaa (he makes a play on the AAs) – but I didn’t go for long, and now they’ve given me an honorary doctorate! So it shows you that what you should really do is go for a few months then drop out – I recommend that to every student.”

So why did he take up the bass? “I played bass in order to supplement my income and meet girls,” comes the candid reply. He remembers buying his first upright bass from McCormacks Music in Glasgow. “There was a William Tarr bass in there [a celebrated English maker from the mid 19th century]. It was in the window and it was lovely. I’d saved up enough money to put a deposit on it and I went in there and the guy said ‘Oh, we just sold that to Ray Brown last week’. So I didn’t get that, but instead I got a plywood yellow blonde one that was quite fashionable at the time. The funny thing is that I met Ray Brown many years later and he said – ‘Oh I’ll give it to you… but he never did.” Bruce later bought a 19th century full size German bass, which he still has.

After playing in jazz bands in Glasgow and American air force bases in Italy, Bruce eventually landed in London where he got a gig with Alexis Korner’s Blues Incorporated. From there Bruce moved on to the Graham Bond Organisation, where he played electric bass. “In those days I never really was in love with the sound of the Fender Bass, although I did have a Fender six string, and I don’t think anybody really did anything great with the Fender bass until James Jamerson. I wanted to get something that was closer to a guitar sound, which is why I picked up the Gibson short scale EB3. He famously used his EB3 through the Cream years, “although I also played a Danelectro,” before moving on to Warwick instruments in the early-1970s. “I was recording in Germany and went into a guitar shop and one was hanging on the wall. It was a fretless. I picked it up and liked it. So I bought it”. Bruce prefers the four string. “It’s the classic instrument and I feel the limitations are important. Warwick have made me a couple of beautiful basses, my favourite is the Thumb bass which is a special custom model. It’s a “Rio rosewood bass, the only one of its kind. The (Brazilian) wood was cut in the 1960s and you can no longer get that wood.”

When it comes to strings, Bruce used to use LaBella flat wounds but now he’s using SITs on his Warwick instruments. “The great thing is that they stay in tune – although you’ve got to give them a good stretch.” He continues. “They’re made in Akron, Ohio. The company isn’t big, but unlike big companies you don’t have to go through three or four sets before you find a good set.”

In the early days Bruce used to cobble together his amplification, as he says – “very dangerously”.

“I remember using a Grampian amp, as there was very little else available in those days. Then of course with Alexis, both he and I went into the same amp. I used to just stick a microphone in the tailpiece of the bass wrapped up in a duster. Marshalls? We all started using Marshalls in the mid-1960s. In those days there was no real sound reinforcement on stage, so you had to play loud to get the effect that you wanted. But of course nowadays you don’t have to play that loud to get the effect that you want. Actually I’m not that keen on them, although I did have a 50-watt Marshall that I liked a lot. For many years I’ve been using Hartke. Larry Hartke used to do the sound for Miles Davis, which is when I got to know him. Then he did my sound for a while. Eventually he came up with the idea of using aluminium in the speaker cones, which gave a much wider dynamic range – but that wasn’t the sound I was looking for. But now they’ve moved on to combine aluminium and paper in their speakers and of course they’re now the biggest bass amplification manufacturer in the world.” More recently however, Bruce has been experimenting with Jonas Hellborg amps which are manufactured by Warwick.

Bruce is still hard at work and touring; in March he starts a UK tour with his Big Blues Band. But he is now more circumspect about life and music. “Music’s been part a big part of my life for sure, but I obviously have the things that we all have in common – like having a life. The dog isn’t very well today, so I’m a bit worried about him. So it’s not all just about music.”

– David Gallant

Nicolas Meier - Guitar

One of Meier’s latest albums Breeze reflects a highly tuned, sensitive and joyously creative mind. He says: “Music describes feelings, pictures, landscape, culture. It should be taking you on a journey.” Meier grew up in a family of physicians who were “into art”. “They are,” he says “very interested in all the arts, painting, sculpture and music. They love ballet, opera and like most styles of music, including jazz. My father used to play flute and saxophone. He has a big collection of jazz LPs from Miles, Coltrane, Rollins and Jarrett, to more contemporary players like Scofield and Brecker. Every time I go home, I have the chance to discover some more music from his collection. And he is still interested to hear what’s new now and what I’m listening to. Living close to Montreux (in Switzerland), my parents regularly used to see concerts there and took me along to some of them in my teens. The first one was the Santana Group with Wayne Shorter as special guest, which I enjoyed very much. On that very first night in Montreux, there was a last minute unscheduled performance from rock guitarist Joe Satriani after Santana, which was a fantastic surprise for me as my father had just bought me his latest record Surfing With The Alien, which I fell in love with.”

Meier began with the classical guitar when he was 11, having had ‘rhythm’ classes when he was six and having tried to learn the flute when he was nine. “I started with a cheap acoustic guitar, then after a year I switched to electric. I got a Weston electric guitar from my parents which got stolen on a trip to London a few years later. Every summer when school was out, I used to work [doing electrical jobs in the state hospital] to be able to buy either a new guitar or a new amp.”

Having gone to college in Fribourg and then a music conservatoire “where I had a fantastic open minded tutor and a great guitarist named Francis Coletta,” Meier secured a place at Berklee in Boston. “I was at Berklee College of Music for three years, which was perfect because it allowed me to play many more styles. While I was still focusing on jazz, I met so many musicians from different backgrounds and I always loved to hear their music. My first band at Berklee [which was the start of the Nicolas Meier Group], included a Brazilian drummer

Juliano Zanoni, a Uruguayan pianist José Reinoso [now living in Barcelona], a French bass player called Ben Zwerin and a Spanish and a Swiss saxophonist. I have fond memories of my time at Berklee and still think about all the advice I received from my teachers.”

Meier had turned up at Berklee with his Ibanez ‘Scofield’. “I had the feeling that I had to find something more personal and that’s when I picked up my first Godin Multiac nylon acoustic guitar. It was love at first sight and I have since bought another seven models which include two Multiacs, one Fretless, one ACS [full body], one classical model, one steel string, one Multiac jazz and one Glissentar [11-string guitar, that’s like an oud]. I also have an endorsement from Godin guitars and I’m very proud to be featuring in between John McLaughlin and Steve Stevens.” He’s clearly forgotten something.

“I haven’t mentioned my trips to Turkey. I bought an oud [11 strings], a small baglama [seven strings] and a big baglama [again seven strings but with different tunings] and then finally when I was there just last week I bought this incredible electric baglama [it has all of eight strings] that I’m very excited about and which I intend to record with on the new album and play live in 2012. I use Augustine gold strings because I like their tension and feel and as for amplification “use an AER amp for my acoustic guitars,” he says. “Even for my Multiac jazz, as I believe it gives the best natural acoustic sound.”

Over the last ten years Meier has further expanded his musical horizons. “I’ve really got into oriental/world music,” he enthuses, “especially Turkish music. I love the guitarist/saz player/composer Erkan Ogur, clarinettist Hüsnü Senlendirici and the composer/singer Sezen Aksu. Also, my band members have been a major influence in shaping the music we create together with their feel, knowledge and background. Gilad Atzmon, Asaf Sirkis, Pat Bettison, José Reinoso and the trio with Demi Garcia and Paolo Minervini have all been instrumental in pushing and expanding the musical envelope. It’s a real gift to be able to play and to compose music, and it’s my great joy to finish a concert and feel that I was able to communicate with the audience and make them feel emotional about what we played.”

– David Gallant

Roger Beaujolais - Vibes

“I should really get those brakes adjusted,” says Beaujolais, commenting on his set of fine Musser vibes. “They have a tendency to move forward very slowly. Once I fell off the front of the stage. Fortunately it wasn’t a high stage.”

Listening to Beaujolais, you’d think that like one of his heroes, Milt Jackson, he was born to play the vibes.

“Both of my parents came from an era where there was no TV and not much radio and as a consequence, they had both learned piano as children. But I was brought up in a musical vacuum, in a house where there were no musical instruments, at least not until a piano arrived when I was 14. Music was never discussed and they had no interest in the music that I liked and couldn’t conceive that a career in ‘popular’ music was possible.

“When I was 15, some school friends got a rock band together and needed a drummer so they suggested that I get a drum kit and join them, so I did. I’d never played a drum kit before and bought it with money that I got from working in a factory in the summer holidays. I had a few privately tutored drum lessons from an old dance band drummer, then six months later I started having piano lessons at school, mainly so I could play blues and boogie-woogie as that was what I was interested in at the time. My piano teacher at school was a war veteran and only had one arm. Some people have suggested only having a few possible notes to play was a big influence on me!”

Beaujolais bought his first set of vibes when he was 24. “I’d never played a set before, but I loved the sound of the vibes and the atmospheres that it seemed to be able to create. I liked the fact that it was unique and unusual and that it’s so visual. The seller was a friend of someone I worked with and they lived over the road from where I was living at the time in Earls Court. It was a Premier 701 that wasn’t in great condition and cost me £200. I tried to find a vibraphone teacher but there were only three jazz vibraphone players in the UK that I was aware of at the time: Bill LeSage, Lennie Best and Frank Ricotti, and none of them would teach me. I considered going to Berklee college in Boston but I didn’t have any money and eventually realised that I needed to work it out for myself and as a result I am completely self taught. I also asked a lot of questions and practised a lot!”

Eventually Beaujolais found himself a slightly cleaner Premier 701 set. “I seem to remember it costing me £300,” he says. “By that time I’d started gigging and didn’t want to have to take my vibes apart after every gig in order to practise. Around the same time I also bought a Deagan Electrovibe, as I was having trouble hearing myself playing with drummers. These days I think the drummers I play with are good enough to be able to play with intensity at low volumes.” Like many musicians Beaujolais was always looking to upgrade his instrument as and when he could afford it. “About four years later I bought a set of Bergerault vibes and sold my original Premier set. I think they cost £450. Then within a year or two of that I had bought a Deagan Aurora vibraphone and sold my Premier set. They cost me the princely sum of £1,500.”

So how did Beaujolais come by this beautiful set of Musser vibes? “I joined a pop band called Fairground Attraction and toured with them for nine months. I refused to let them take my Deagan Aurora vibraphone on the road, as it was very old and not in great condition and I had the feeling that if roadies were going to be carting it about, it would soon be unplayable. So they bought a brand new Musser M55 ProVibe for me to play. As they had just had a number one single and album, companies were falling over themselves to offer them equipment to endorse, so they bought it at cost price. When the band split up they owed me money, so they gave me the vibraphone. Ever since then the M55 has been the vibraphone that I use for gigs, although I occasionally still do some gigs where to play acoustically would mean I would be inaudible, so on those gigs I play my Deagan Electrovibe.”

When it comes to mallets, Beaujolais is very matter of fact. “I use Chalkin mallets, as they are the most convenient to buy in this country. All mallets are graded in terms of hardness. Too hard and the sound is really harsh; too soft means I’m unlikely to be able to hear myself. So I take a selection of weights of mallets with me to gigs and see which ones will sound best in the room and with the musicians I’m playing with. My preference is the medium soft mallet. I like the sound, but more often than not I wouldn’t be heard (or be able to hear myself) if I were to use them.” Most of Beaujolais’ gigs are acoustic, so there are no pickups attached to the Musser. “I’m at the mercy of the PA, if there is one. With my electrovibes I have to take an amp and for that I use a Gallien Krueger keyboard amp. When I need more power I use a Carver amplifier and Hughes & Kettner speakers. For all ‘electric’ gigs I also go through a Roland M120 mixer and use an Alesis reverb unit.”

Although Beaujolais clearly loves his M55 Musser, I get the feeling that he’s keeping his options open. “It would be great if I could find a vibraphone that I could just get out of my pocket and play,” he says, tongue in cheek. “It would stop me from hearing for the millionth time, ‘I bet you wished you played flute’.”

– David Gallant

Martin France - Drums

“I recently attended one of Steve Gadd’s master classes at the Royal Academy in London”, says Martin France, “where he struck a very personal chord. He demonstrated so obviously that it’s not so much what you play, but more importantly how you play it, the musical intention behind everything you do.”

Like so many musicians, France has a musical pedigree. “My mother played classical piano – and still does – and my father as a youngster played fiddle in Scottish country dance bands.

France started his musical journey on a snare drum at the age of nine. “I was very fortunate to find an excellent local teacher by the name of Geoff Riley. He had just written a couple of tuition books published by the Premier Drum Company, the first of which was entitled Matchsticks in which he explained the ‘Matched’ grip. However, my drum heroes of the day all played traditional grip so I walked in and said “I want to learn this way, not matched” and he seemed completely unfazed by a nine-year-old walking in and saying this and off we went. He was a tough teacher, sometimes he’d send me back week after week if I didn’t get it right. I went to him every week for many years and then one day when I was 14 or so, we got to the end of a particular book and then he just got up and said ‘Right, that’s it, we’ve come to the end, that’s all I can teach you. Good Luck’. We then shook hands and I left.”

“My first kit was a Premier, with a Beverley Snare Drum which was their copy of the Ludwig Supraphonic. I then worked my way through all the American manufacturers, starting with Gretsch – and I’ve come full circle. With Gretsch you can pretty much cover everything, they just have a musical sound and I find I’m playing my old Gretsch more and more now. Their advertising slogan of the day used to say ‘There’s Gretsch . . . and then there’s everything else’ – and I think it’s true. They just record so well too.” France however, is less complimentary about drums that are, as he puts it “in the power depths”.

“The heads are too far apart and this generates strange harmonics because of the relationship between the two heads –the bottom head doesn’t resonate sympathetically with the top one in the same way as it would with a shallower drum. Particularly with bass drums, it’s difficult to dial out the ‘cannon effect’.”

Like most drummers, France owns a selection of snare drums for different situations. “I tend to use wood snares more often than not, but if it has to be a metal drum as I prefer the sound of the older brass Ludwigs. I have a couple of 1960s American Rogers wood ply snares which I really like, they’re very flat and dry with a dark tone. I also have a couple of solid wood shell snares, but personally don’t think that they sound superior to ply shell drums, it’s just a different sound, a little more cleaner and defined.”

When it comes to jazz cymbals, there’s no question which package France prefers. “The first time I heard Miles’ Four and More I became hooked not only on Tony Williams, but on the sound of the original K Zildjian cymbals from Istanbul. That was the sound I wanted, and still is. I use so many different cymbals depending on what I’m doing and what the situation requires, but the rides I usually like to play for jazz are my Zildjian K 20” Custom Dry Light rides. Some people say they’re too dry but I like to play ‘into’ a cymbal and it just gives so much definition and doesn’t swallow up too much of the sonic spectrum which cymbals by their very nature can do.”

“Sticks? I use Vic Firth SD11s. They’re made from Maple as opposed to Hickory. Maple seems lighter and feels less dense than Hickory. This means I can have a bigger stick in my hand which I like, but without the weight. They’re really nicely balanced too.” How about brushes? “I gotta’ tell you this,” starts France. “Years ago when I started travelling to London I spent some time studying with Kenny Clare. He was a marvellous brush player of course and one day he said ‘right, let’s play some brushes’. So I started to play and he said: ‘no, no, no’ . . . and then went on to describe where I was going wrong. My inspiration he said, should come from the physical movement of an admirably and robustly proportioned young woman as she swings her way down the street. ‘OK’ I answered, somewhat confused as I was expecting more of a technical suggestion or inside secret. But of course all these years later and after much study, I can confirm that his wisdom and advice was indeed correct.” France currently uses Zildjian non-retractable brushes because “they have a slightly longer handle and feel nice to play and the wire is not too rigid. So there’s a little more ‘give’, which allows you to play more dynamically.”

“But at the end of the day, it’s all in the touch”, says France. “The sound is in the drummer’s hands. After all, Buddy Rich didn’t care what drums he played, he would have played your old mum’s biscuit tins if you’d paid him enough.”

– David Gallant

Dill Katz - Bass

“Rent-a-bass” could be Katz’s calling card. But that of course just refers to one small part of this seasoned player’s arsenal. Not only does he hire out his two uprights to visiting American and European musicians, he’s also been a solid professional for more years than he probably cares to remember, playing with the likes of Nucleus, Paraphernalia and District Six. A well respected teacher, he can also regularly be found laying down the line at one of London’s premier jazz venues, the 606, either with his own quartet or with Steve Rubie’s group Samara.

Growing up with a father who was a classical violinist and a mother who was a classical pianist meant that Katz was immersed in music from an early age. “My parents performed as a duo, as well as being respected teachers.” Katz started his musical journey at the age of ten having some private lessons on the classical guitar, “I guess I agreed to classical guitar lessons to appease my dad, whose regard for populist music was somewhat negative!” Katz would later have private lessons on the double bass – again classical. “This had nothing to do with school,” says Katz. “It wasn’t particularly noteworthy for having a good music department. My only musical contribution at school was to form The Nocturnes, a ‘Shadows style’ group with talent drawn from two local grammar schools.”

“Music college – what music college? The truth is out! I’m ‘formally self taught’, as Jaco put it. In my teens I had been listening to a lot of populist guitar culture, before I started to embrace the whole bebop and post-bebop cult, listening to all those great bass lines.”

Katz started his professional career in 1963 settling in Dublin. “I initially started out as a guitarist, then when the bass player in the band unexpectedly left, I volunteered to take the bass chair. I guess that must have been late-1964. I remember trading in my 61 Strat for a 63 Precision – aaargh, if only I’d kept all those part-exchange axes!”

Back in London Katz became aware that there was a market for hiring out double basses and purchased his first double bass in 1968 for £149 from a player in the Covent Garden orchestra pit. “It was a French Mirecourt and it was in a sorry state [hence the price], so I left it in the capable hands of luthier Neville Whitehead who lovingly brought it back to its original splendour. He had it for over a year. Fortunately he finished it just in time for Eddie Gomez to use when he played a season at Ronnie’s with the Bill Evans Trio.” Katz continues. “As this bass proved to be such a popular hire instrument, I was constantly on the lookout for a similar second instrument to cope with the occasional double booking situations and it wasn’t until sometime around 1983 that I found another Mirecourt sitting in a tiny violin shop which used to be situated by Tower Bridge, and which has sadly since closed down. This bass clearly had a better provenance than the other in terms of the quality of workmanship and a different tonal quality, making it a nice contrasting alternative for the visiting bass players to choose from. Essentially you were either after a Gomez, Clarke, Patitucci or, a Haden, Brown, Grenadier performing instrument!”

Back to bass guitars. “This gets a bit vague,” says Katz. “I traded in the 63 Precision for a Gibson EBO in 1965 – I think it was at Selmers. And then in quick succession I suffered from bad ‘trade in’ deals on a Gretsch and a Fender Mustang at Selmers and Jennings music shops respectively.” This experience clearly coloured Katz’s dealings with the music stores and he has bought all of his subsequent instruments through private hands. “I bought a maple neck/ fretboard Precision and a converted fretless Jazz bass privately in 1973. They were both in very good condition – I believe they were both 1970 vintage. Then I bought a Musicman Stingray (with a maple fretboard) for session work, once again privately from the same source in around 1978, which I still have.” Katz strings up his electrics with medium gauge Elites – “it’s part of a sponsorship deal.” The French Mirecourt uprights get the star treatment though – Pirastro Evah Pirazzis (also part of a sponsorship deal). When it comes to amplifiers, Katz has perhaps understandably, lightened his load. “Throughout the mid-1980s to 2000 I was endorsing Trace Elliot products. But as my lumbago has since become annoying, I’ve moved on to the Ampeg Portabass range of lightweight products. I use two PB 250 pre-amp power amps, one of which I hook up to two PB 112 cabs (12” speakers) for gigs, while the other gets coupled to a PB 11O cab (10” speaker) for rehearsals and teaching.” He continues. “They’re great little units. Not only are they lightweight, they’re also modular and easily portable and they sound exceptionally good – not only for bass guitar but acoustic bass too!”

“My double basses are fitted with David Gage ‘Realist’ pickups. They may not necessarily be the ultimate choice – the Fishman ‘full circle’ is very popular – but I believe the Gage pickup suits the tonal responses of the French Mirecourt basses, taking away the slight tendency towards G string whine and adding the right ratio of bottom end richness without boom.”

“What do I currently play? A 1962 fretted Jazz that I acquired in 1989. And I can only describe it as coming back to a very welcome place!”

– David Gallant

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