Ask Dave #2 (Dec ’10)

“Do you have a regular practice routine that you do, or in what ways to you organise your practice schedule?”  – Luke Sellick

I divide my time between technical practice and creative practice. Of course, the two areas overlap and support each other.

Like most musicians I use scales and arpeggios for a lot of my practice material. There are endless variations. I also have a series of exercises that works particular aspects of bass technique. Basically left hand technique, pizzicato and bowing.

The creative practice involves just playing through ideas, sometimes within a given framework and sometimes just in a free association kind of way. I might be working on ideas that relate to music that Ill be playing on gigs. I try to have a focus to my practice and I often have several things that I will be working on at any given time..

“What are the attributes you look for in musicians to play with? Is there any common factor among the musicians you play with?” – Scott Price

I think the fundamental thing is how it feels to play music together. Music is a universal language that has many dialects but In the end playing with other musicians comes down the quality of communication. I like musicians that play with their heart and their head.

“I’m often boggled by the deftness of your ensemble, where players are doing inspired soloing in all kinds of time signatures, even implying contrary meters or tempos, without the slightest discernible encumbrance. I’ve always wanted to ask, are you guys mentally counting the music? Or do you just feel it? Or both? (Or neither?!)”  – Tom McCarthy

At it’s best we all just feel it, but when we’re working on new music we sometimes have to keep track of the meter. The more you play a piece, the more you just feel it. I find that sometimes it helps to feel a kind of clave that can work as a guide. I and many musicians I know have done a lot work to expand their rhythmic language including studying the rhythmic language of other cultures. I still feel that I have a lot to learn!

“What are some sources of inspiration other than music that influence you?  I know many musicians are inspired by reading books on various topics, and novels.  Are there any particular books that you have been inspired by, or that you highly recommend?”  – Alex Silverbrook

I find other art forms can stimulate my imagination and give me new perspectives. I enjoy reading all kinds of books, fiction and non-fiction. I like books that make me question my assumptions.

Music expresses our ideas, emotions and life experiences. so places, people, events all contribute to the feelings that a musician can draw on for inspiration.

“What qualities do you look for in an upright bass?” What would you recommend for someone making the transition from electric to an acoustic instrument?” – Shawn Only [paraphrased]

Finding the right bass is a very personal matter. On a fundamental level it’s important that the size of the instrument physically suites you, that it’s not too big or too small for your body size. I look for a bass that has an even tone throughout the range and that has a decent sustain. These qualities can be improved by having the bass setup properly by a luthier that understands the qualities that your looking for.

Some concepts that you develop on the bass guitar can be transferred to acoustic bass but there are many things that are unique to each instrument. A good teacher is always a good place to start.

Many years ago I attended a concert in London that featured Ron Carter in the Miles Davis quintet and Jimmy Garrison in the Archie Shepp group. Ron and Jimmy each had their unique sound but I found out later that they’d both played the same instrument as Jimmy’s bass had been delayed by the airline. That was when I really understood that sound is mostly about the player and not the instrument.

My question is how do you renew your spirit with touring, practicing, and various daily demands? I would like to share your advice with my daughter who is studying cello at the Cleveland Institue of Music. She struggles with incorporating practice time, study time with her daily responsibilites. She has many demands so as she considers her future, it would be wonderful to hear advice from musicians who have been able to find a freshness within each challenge.  – Kazuko Ono

There are only so many hours in the day so I try and prioritize things. My practice time varies according to what else I’m trying to get done. If I’m very busy I try to create a schedule for the day that will allow time for the things that need to do.

As for renewing my spirit, I like being around nature and natural beauty. When I’m on tour I often walk around the places that I visit, sometimes going to a park, a museum or whatever else seems interesting. I like to take a break from the music and my various responsibilities so that I can give myself time to daydream for a minute.

Ask Dave #1 (Nov. ’10)

As I mentioned in my recent email newsletter, we are starting a monthly feature on my blog called simply, “Ask Dave.” I receive quite a few questions about my career and playing music in general via email, and rather than respond privately, I thought I would make my answers available for everyone to read. We will pick several submissions at the end of every month and post the answers here. You can ask questions about my career and music or ask for advice about your playing—anything, really.  However, please direct your inquiries about bookings for live appearances or teaching engagements to the appropriate contacts.

If you have questions for me for next month’s feature, you can either pose them in the comments sections of this post or send them to me via email at

This month’s questions come from a fan who is working on a research paper about my music.  If you have any follow-up questions, you can post them in the comments section.

1.  Your first album as a leader (“Conference of the Birds”)  was released in 1972. But my question is: Has composing always been a part of your musical life? Does the process of composing have much earlier roots in your life?

I wrote my first compositions around 1967, when I was living in London, and I wrote them for bands that I played with. There was a trio led by John Surman and another group that was put together by John McLaughlin. They were both writing and I wanted to make a contribution, not only as a bass player but also as a composer. Since then, almost all my writing has been for particular projects. When I moved to New York in 1968 to play with Miles, he encouraged me to work on my piano playing to expand my musical vocabulary. This helped me develop my writing as well as my playing. Jazz composers who have influenced me include John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman and Kenny Wheeler. Classical composers include Bartok, Stravinsky, Ravel and Debussy.

2.  Did the “British invasion” of rock in the 1960s have a big effect on you? Are there any bands that specifically influenced you early on, or recently, other than jazz artists?

I joined my first band in 1959, when I was 13. I was playing bass guitar at the time and we played cover versions of the popular songs of the day by early Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues artists. American music influenced a lot of the young musicians at that time. Many working class kids like myself found an escape in music and a lot of the groups that developed in the sixties came from the same background.

3.  In your recent group configurations you employ the use of vibraphone as your harmonic anchor. How does the timbre of this particular instrument influence your composing for these groups?

The reason I have vibraphone in the band is because of the way Steve Nelson plays it. Working with Steve for the last 16 years has been inspiring. He’s a great improviser and has although he’s deeply rooted in the jazz tradition he’s developed a very personal approach. His style of playing and the percussive and sonic nature of the instrument has certainly influenced my composing.

4.  Early on in your career you seem to have preferred very dense improvisations over free structures. There seems to be a progression to more consonant harmonies and melodies.  Can you describe this progression?

Not really. I have just tried to follow the musical direction that have seems relevant to where my musical interests lie and to the times that I’m living in. The people I’ve played with have certainly influenced my writing. I try to write music that will provide a creative vehicle for their individual approach. My musical experiences have always taken a number of parallel approaches, and as I’ve developed I’ve tried to weave them into a cohesive statement.

5.  Your association with Miles Davis is well documented. Can you describe how his band-leading processes have influenced you?

He had a way of stripping a composition down to it’s essence and then letting the musicians fill in the spaces. I think he trusted the musicians in his band to find our own creative solutions. We were given a lot of creative freedom, and I like to do that with my groups. I know that I’ve always enjoyed playing music that has a clear intent but that also gives me room to make a personal contribution. It’s all about choosing the right musicians. Then, like Miles, you don’t have to say much!

Hands: My New Album w/ Pepe Habichuela

I’m pleased to officially announce “Hands”, a collaboration between myself and the great flamenco guitar master Pepe Habichuela. Also featured on the album are Josemi Carmona and Carlos Carmona on guitars and Israel Porrina (Pirana) and Juan Carmona on Percussion and Cajon.

Meeting Pepe and playing this music with him has been been a very special experience for me. We first played together in 2007 and since then I’ve made an annual trip to Spain to perform with him and the group. During my visit in the spring of 2009 we recorded “Hands” in a studio in Madrid. Eight of the ten compositions featured on the album are written or cowritten by Pepe and are in the true flamenco tradition. This was a new musical language for me to learn and at the rehearsals I asked Pepe to teach me about his music and he graciously and patiently introduced me to his musical world.

I wanted to really get inside the music. Pepe is true, deep Flamenco and I felt that I would only dilute that music if I treated it in a casual way. I wanted to bring my own voice to the music but do it with a deeper understanding of the unique musical language of Flamenco.
The other two compositions are mine and they feature Josemi Carmona. He also played an important role in the organization of his father’s music for this recording. He is an accomplished musician in his own right and was one of the original members of the popular Spanish group “Katama”.

This project matured over several years and was nurtured by the care, love and passion given to it by the musicians and their families and friends. It was a great feeling to finally hold the finished CD in my hands and know that we had documented that music and could now share it with more people.

Below is a video interview with the Artistic Director of the Cheltenham Jazz Festival about my work with Pepe.

Being “DIY”: A Response to NPR’s Tom Cole

This summer, NPR ran a very nice profile on me for their show Weekend Edition Sunday and it caused their Arts Editor, Tom Cole, to wonder in a blog post if being a DIY musician with my own record label and website has negatively impacted the time I spent making music. I thank him for his kind words about my music but I do want to provide my perspective.

The jazz community that I know and grew up in has, to one degree or another, always had to take responsibility for making things happen. The life of a jazz musician requires that you both create music and create the opportunities to play that music. You can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen.

As a young musician I would often rely on others to take the initiative, but while I was learning about the music I was also watching and learning about how various aspects of the business work. During my time touring and recording as a sideman I began to learn about what was involved in leading a band. I was told of the benefits of having your own publishing company so one of my early acts of business independence was to start my own publishing company, LoJac Music, in 1973.

I eventually started my own band in 1983 and in the early years it really was DIY. My wife Clare and I were running the business side of things on our own, doing everything from calling promoters to mailing out press kits. It’s what you have to do when you start a band and we gradually started developing an audience for the music.

We launched the first website in 1996 in part because I wanted to provide accurate information about my work and activities to writers, promoters and fans. Our current site also provides an outlet for recorded and printed music.

Since 1997 we have been working with Vision Arts Management. My manager Louise Holland was the person that put together the business conditions that allowed Dare2 Records to happen. The decision to start the record label was not because there were no other alternatives. It was to have more control of how and when the music is recorded and how it’s marketed and distributed. It also enabled me to retain ownership of the masters.

While I may no longer work with a record label in a traditional sense, I do have a team of talented individuals that I work with, led by my manager. Musicians may not need traditional record labels as they have in the past, but we do need help and advisors. You are correct, Tom, our jobs as musicians are first and foremost to make music. Having my own label is something that I had been thinking about for some time, but I needed to do in a way where I could still have a support system of professionals.

As for networking, I look at interacting with fans online as analogous to a set break at Birdland. I like to say hello to people, shake their hands and when I can talk with them for a minute. I’ve met some great people and the reason I’ve had the privilege of performing my music for so long is the support of the fans. The audience completes a circle of energy in my music and I am grateful for it. Twitter, Facebook – forget the channel through which it is done – you should always make time for interacting with and thanking your fans for their support.

Also, social media has also been an extraordinarily valuable substitute for the steadily decreasing number of traditional media outlets. NPR is one of the rare national media organizations that pays attention to jazz, but unfortunately profiles like the one Mr. Cole recently edited do not come around very often. Should jazz music marketing plans simply be reduced to “Get NPR or the NY Times to cover it”? Musicians can’t rely so heavily on an increasingly small handful of outlets to gain exposure for their work. I’ve worked to build an audience for my music over the years, and I must take advantage of my ability to interact with them directly.  For younger musicians, technology affords them ways to grow an audience I could have never dreamed of when I started my first band.

Inevitably time spent on business matters is time that can’t be spent on the music. However, I feel that it’s time well spent as it opens up new opportunities and helps me achieve the creative goals of the music.

Niklaus Troxler & Pathways

I have heard quite a few compliments about the distinctive cover art for my Dare2 releases. When I started the label, I knew I wanted my good friend, the world-famous graphic designer Niklaus Troxler, to do the artwork.

I first met Niklaus during the early 1970s. With the help of family and friends, he was organizing concerts in his hometown of Willisau, Switzerland—an activity that began because of his love of music. These would become the annual Jazz in Willisau festival. I immediately liked his directness and his positive energy, and discovered in him a wonderful sense of humor and intensity of purpose.

So many great images come to mind. Once, I was in Willisau to play a solo concert on a double bill with the Ron Carter Quartet. When we arrived at the hall, we were greeted by 20 large posters in a line across the entrance doors, each showing a lilac bass against a yellow background, with an arm at each shoulder of the bass playing the strings. On another occasion, a poster for a concert by Sam Rivers showed a pink fish jumping out of the bell of a tenor saxophone! Niklaus’ posters are full of bold colors—Niklaus himself favors clothes with colors and combinations of equal intensity.

For the release of Pathways, in addition to a standard CD, we collaborated with Niklaus and Grammy-award winning package designer Susan Archie (Albert Ayler: Holy Ghost, Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues: The Worlds of Charley Patton), to create a limited edition set (1,000 copies). This edition of Pathways comes in a 5” x 7” lidded box containing six postcard-sized reproductions of concert posters designed by Niklaus, including a poster commemorating the octet’s recording of Pathways live at Birdland in 2009. This set includes posters for concerts by Gateway, Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and the double bill with Ron Carter mentioned above. The CD comes in a 4-panel folder decorated with Niklaus’ art, as well.

I hope you enjoy his art as much as I do – and don’t forget to pay attention to the music!

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