John Patitucci - 21st century schizoid bassman
John Patitucci never got to rock out with Bon Jovi. There have been many, many events in the bass player’s career that would more than compensate for this omission. There’s his work with his jazz heroes Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, for instance, and just recently sharing a stage with Joni Mitchell was a special thrill.
Somehow, however, Patitucci makes his session work as a double bassist in a string section on a distant Bon Jovi album sound like second prize, the one that got away. He could have played the bass guitar part if they’d asked him, because rock ‘n’ roll is where he began the journey that brings him back to work with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at the weekend, this time as featured soloist in a new concerto by Mark-Anthony Turnage.
To listen to Patitucci talk is to glimpse, however exhausting it is to read his CV and however far he has reached as one of the world’s leading double bassists and bass guitarists (he’ll play both with the SCO), the inner enthusiast that drove him to learn to play music in the first place. One minute he’s raving about John Bonham’s virtuoso drumming in the visceral riffing of Led Zeppelin, the next he’s recalling the impact Ray Brown and Ron Carter’s double bass playing had on him as a youngster, and the next he can’t get enough of the SCO’s string sound.
"I like a lot of different stuff, particularly if it involves good playing," he says. "But a lot of music these days is more about being famous than playing well and in some ways, it’s almost become uncool to be good on your instrument. There’s this idea that because you’ve gained a certain amount of knowledge, you can’t play emotionally any more. Well, having been through the situation of learning to play by ear as a ten year old and then being trained so that you know where to go and how to get there on your instrument, I think that’s wrong and I don’t want to go back."
Patitucci’s early years on the bass guitar were spent playing along to Cream and Beatles albums with his brother and in rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul, funk and latin bands at school. One day his grandfather turned up at the family’s New York home with a big box of records. This treasure chest proved to be his introduction to jazz and he was struck by the rich, personal tones that Ron Carter and Ray Brown especially drew from their double basses.
"I had a mentor, Chris Taylor, who introduced me to a lot of jazz, too," he says. "Chris played me things like the classic Miles Davis Quintet and Chick Corea, and I remember after our family had moved to California seeing a film of the Newport Jazz Festival, watching guys playing double bass and thinking, Wow. So when I was fifteen and big enough to handle one, I got a double bass and that’s when I got involved in classical music."
He went on to study classical double bass at San Francisco State University and Long Beach State University. By the time he left the latter, though, he was picking up session work – his now countless credits include albums by Sting, Was Not Was and Bonnie Raitt – and beginning to get known on the jazz scene.
"My teachers had a vision for me to play in an orchestra for the rest of my life and when I started playing jazz on the double bass, it was much to their chagrin," he says. "But I’d had a different dream. I think everybody starts out with these dreams, although you don’t necessarily expect them to come true."
In 1985 Patitucci’s dream started becoming a reality.
"That was the year I joined Chick Corea’s band and – actually, this sort of thing still happens – I found myself looking up and thinking, Wow, there’s Chick. What’s he doing here? Wait a minute, what am I doing here? I’ve never, ever taken that sort of situation for granted. In fact, the other week I did a gig with Herbie Hancock, who was receiving a humanitarian award from the Thelonious Monk Institute, and I thought, jeez, I used to listen to this guy and now I’m here onstage with him."
Not long after Patitucci began his ten-year stint with Corea, he also started working with another hero, Wayne Shorter, whose saxophone playing has been a dominant sound in jazz since the 1950s. He played on Shorter’s 1986 release, Phantom Navigator on down time from Corea’s band and when Shorter formed his current quartet with drummer Brian Blade and pianist Danilo Perez in 2000, Patitucci made it his top priority.
Patitucci describes Shorter as a genius whose impact as a composer, musician and person on his life is incalculable. Working at Shorter’s these days more sedate gigging and recording pace – the former Miles Davis and Weather Report mainstay is now well into his seventies - does leave plenty of time for other projects, however, of which Patitucci has many.
"About ten years ago I decided it was time to get back into classical music, because I missed it," he says. "I’ve written some stuff for chamber orchestra and string quartet and it’s also really good to be back playing in the orchestral environment, especially with the SCO. I play with orchestras all round the world and they’re up there with the best."
Patitucci’s previous experience with the SCO involved Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Scorched, in which the composer arranged music by jazz guitarist John Scofield and managed to turn the orchestra into an extended version of Scofield’s band.
"Of all the orchestras we’ve played that music with, the SCO was my favourite, they really grabbed a hold of it," says Patitucci. "Their rhythmical playing was superb, their sound was exceptional, and it really felt like, with the jazz band at the centre, the whole thing was integrated. For me, chamber music is a lot like playing in a jazz quintet. You have similar interaction and you can tell when everybody’s loving the music."
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s work has been a particular eye-opener for Patitucci. As a composer himself he found Turnage’s orchestrations initially overwhelming and now finds himself noting how the composer achieves certain effects and unashamedly filing the information away for use in his own music.
The concerto that Turnage has composed for Patitucci – they’ve already performed it in Sweden and Estonia - has four movements, with double bass and bass guitar both featuring in two movements and allowing room for improvisation. Patitucci appears to make moving from one instrument to the other easy, although he’s not so sure.
"They’re completely different," he says. "They’re physically different and the touch you need on each one is different. Sometimes I feel a bit schizoid, to be honest, and the practice I have to put in to keep both not just up to speed but improving is brutal. But it’s a passion of mine. I’m doing what I always wanted to do and that’s a privilege that doesn’t come to everyone."
From The Herald, November 2007.