Rich Brown Lays It Down

World-class bassist Rich Brown talks to Chris Tarry about music, practicing, and what it means to be part of the Canadian music scene in this exclusive ActiveBass interview.
Chris Tarry: Hi Rich, thanks for hangin out with us here at ActiveBass! You are a great electric bass player and one of Toronto's busiest side men. Can you tell us a bit more about your background and influences as a Canadian bass player?

Rich Brown: First of all, thanks so much for asking me to do this interview. It's a real honor. I was born in Toronto, but spent my teens in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Living in Florida with Jamaican parents meant listening to a lot of Reggae and Funk/R&B music. I started playing bass in 1987. I was 17 years old, and played guitar for a few years, then I started hearing bands like Weather Report and Level 42. The bass playing was like nothing I had heard before. I thought, "That's what I have to do." I would lock myself in the basement and learn tunes. I wouldn't come back upstairs until I could play whatever tune I was learning upside down and backwards. I didn't realize at the time that I was doing some invaluable ear training.

CT: You play so many different types of music. How did you develop the ability to play all styles?

Rich: I am fortunate to live in a city that has gained a reputation for being a "cultural melting pot." Here in Toronto, I have been blessed with the opportunity to play many styles of traditional music from Africa, Brazil, Cuba, the Middle East, even a band that played traditional Japanese music. In every situation there was always someone who educated me on the nuances of their country's music. They would show me how to play more in the style, or say, "Check out this player on this album." Every single situation I have ever played in has taught me a lesson. I take those lessons to the stage, or the studio, or the session every time I play no matter what the musical setting may be. That's how we grow as musicians. The more I take that to heart is the more I realize there are only 2 types of music. And they ain't "Country" & "Western" [ed. note: see The Blues Brothers movie]. Either music is good, or it sucks.

CT: In Andy Milne's Cosmic Dapp Theory you play a lot of odd time feels. How does the band make them feel so natural?

Rich: Whenever we tour with Andy's band, we are given the opportunity to do clinics. Every clinic starts the same way. First we play a tune, then Andy asks if there are any questions. Someone raises their hand and asks, "What time signature was that in?" We all then respond with collective shoulder shrugs.

With Andy's music, 99% of the time the drum part (called the "chant") is very specific. It's like another melody. Once we are all comfortable with singing the chant, the time signature becomes irrelevant. So, with a lot of the tunes we really don't know what the time signature is. It doesn't matter. We play off of the chant as opposed to boxing ourselves in by counting. The groove feels far more organic that way. One of the best things about playing with Cosmic Dapp is playing with a drummer as monstrous as Mark Prince. You see, every rhythm (be it odd or even) has a pulse. Mark never lets the band, or the listener lose sight of the pulse. He could play the freakiest odd-time groove and still make you dance and feel that groove as if it were in 4. It makes my job in the band easy.

CT: What kind of basses and other equipment are you currently using?

Rich: Well, for R&B or funk gigs I use a 5-string Fender Jazz that was given to me by a close friend. But my main bass is a custom 6-string made by Kenneth Lawrence. The guy is a genius. I think he builds the most beautiful basses I have ever seen or heard. The amp that I use is made by a company in New York called Aguilar. I play the Aguilar DB359 with a 2x10 cabinet. The amp is a 200 watt tube amp so it has a sweet side, but it can growl when I want it to. I like equipment that doesn't have a sound associated with it. That way I can dial up what ever sound I want depending on the situation. Then the gearheads can't say, "Oh that sounds like this brand or that brand". It's just my sound.

CT: A lot of the players here at ActiveBass always want to know what to work on in order to become a professional bass player. What do you think are the things that make up a strong pro player?

Rich: Melody, melody, melody. You know, we as bass players should come out of our shells way back at the back of the stage. I can't stress the importance of learning melodies. "Learning" isn't even the right word. You should try to emotionally express those melodies the same way a singer or a horn player would. Learn all of the ornaments and nuances of a melody to any song that moves you. Vibrato, trills, whatever, if you can hear it, you can play it. I stopped listening to bass players for a long time and got into singers and horn players. I wanted to sing like Stevie, play like Miles, phrase like Scofield, and do it all on this instrument. It's amazing what that mentality will do for your playing. You become a stronger soloist, and stronger accompanist, a stronger rhythmic player, and your basslines will be far more inventive and melodic. Everyone expresses emotion differently, once you have figured out how to say what YOU want to say, you're bound to stand out in a sea of bass players as someone who is worth taking note of. That's when the phone starts ringing.

CT: What bass players are inspiring you these days?

Rich: My favourites have always been Jaco Pastorius and Marcus Miller, but I've also loved players like Reggie Washington, Victor Bailey, Jimmy Johnson and Steve Swallow. For the last few years, my favorite player has been Matthew Garrison. His playing just kills me every time I hear him. The really good players are the ones who are so in touch with their instrument that you can tell who it is after 4 bars. That is one thing that all of these players have in common. The other thing is that some of my favorite players live here in our own backyard. There is a bass player here in Toronto named Ian De Souza. I could listen to him for days. The guy has such a great feel and his time is impeccable. Also, I was recently inspired to dust off my fretless when I was floored by a certain bass player playing with a certain band called Metalwood.

But it's also important to look beyond your instrument to other musicians for inspiration. Lately people like Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Jan Garbarek, D'Angelo, and especially an Armenian Duduk player (Duduk is an Armenian instrument whose tone is somewhere between clarinet and oboe) named Djivan Gasparian. His playing is so beautiful and emotional. I swear sometimes it sounds like a woman crying. Those players have had just as much of an effect as the bassists have.

CT: What is it about the bass that you enjoy the most?

Rich: Wow, that's a tough one. I love the experimental side of the bass. Finding new sounds and new ways to play can bring so much to the music. We are all so blessed to be able to play such a simultaneously rhythmic and melodic instrument that provides the foundation for so many styles of music. Exploration into both of those aspects (rhythm and melody) is what allows our instrument to evolve. That's what I love the most. It's the experimentation and the constant evolution of our instrument.

CT: What kind of stuff do you practice now?

Rich: Well it is true I have been practicing a lot of fretless. With that, it's all about playing in tune. All the chops in the world are useless if your not in tune. I start by playing scales slowly, making sure every note is in tune. Also playing along with simple songs gives you a tuning reference. Once the rudimentary stuff is feeling comfortable, then I like to practice soloing on the fretted. Playing all the way through a tune from start to finish. I will usually learn the melody of the tune before soloing on it. That way the solo is always in context with the original idea of the tune. I have to admit it took me a while to learn that a solo was not a platform for my chops. I went to see a singer friend of mine play one night. He's a drummer/singer and before solos he would look at the guitarist or horn player, and say, "Tell me a story". To this day I hear those words before every solo. That was an important lesson. Music is a language and everyday the goal is to say something. That's what I try to do.

CT: You play with a lot of different drummers. What makes a good one?

Rich: A good drummer has rock solid time, and a relaxed feel. Even if he or she has nothing else, if you have a drummer with good, relaxed time you have a good drummer. There is only a small hand full of drummers with rock solid time. I have noticed a few things in playing with a lot of drummers. Those who become preoccupied will 100% of the time drag a groove or slow down. That has been my experience. Good drummers are focused on the music as a whole. They see the beauty of the big picture and the colour they give to that picture. There's also something that's a bit harder to explain. There's something about the way a really good drummer finds the right sound at the right time. Being able to hit a tom or a cymbal in just the right way. Elvin has it, Steve Gadd has it, QuestLove (The Roots, D'Angelo) has it. It's that thing that makes us all go "OHHHHHHHHH!".

CT: Being Canadian myself I would love to find out what it is about this country that always brings you back. I always get the question "When are you moving to New York?". I have my own ways of answering that one but I wanted to find out your take. What keeps you here when you are playing so extensively with musicians from all over the world?

Rich: I hear that a lot as well. But you know Chris, you gotta admit, you and I are in pretty fortunate positions. I'll get to that in a second. But first, the fact is that I love Toronto too much to leave it. It's that simple. Here, I get called to play all sorts of gigs. That alone has put my name out to a lot of the different ethnic musical communities. There are different ethnic scenes in New York, but it's such a huge city that those communities are a bit more exclusive. I don't want to be known for playing just one style of music. Toronto is where I stand to grow the most as a musician at this point in my life. You and I are both fortunate to be in successful touring bands. While on tour with Andy, I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet some of my favourite musicians, and my name has been thrown into some pretty big hats. Should any of those opportunities come to fruition, I would do the same thing everyone else does. Fly out, rehearse, do the tour, and come back to the T-Dot. There really is no reason for me to leave such a beautiful city.

CT: Any words of advice for fellow ActiveBassers out there wanting to get better on their instrument?

Rich: The hardest thing about playing any instrument is finding your own voice. First, take yourself out of the established role. Miles never thought of himself as a trumpet player. That allowed him to transcend the instrument. If you see yourself as a bass player, you will play that way. That's not even a bad thing. But there are some of you who want more. Next, list five of your favorite musicians. I'll give you my list in no particular order: John Scofield, Joe Zawinul, Jaco Pastorius, Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, Stevie Wonder. Of course, there are tons more, but these five immediately came to mind.

So what specifically appeals to you when it comes to your five? Now go ahead and see if you can lift some of the things that move you the most. It doesn't have to be a fast lick or some crazy run. It could be that wrong note at the perfect time, or their interpretation of a melody. You don't even have to lift complete solos. Try to learn those things that appeal to you. Not just the notes, try to capture the feel of the phrase. The challenge here is to recreate the same feeling you had when you first heard the phrase. It's tough and sounds easier said than done. But have you ever heard the bassist Jamaladeen Takuuma and noticed how much he sounds like Ornette Coleman. Or how Steve Swallow phrases like a great jazz singer. Really, what is the difference between them and you and I?

If they could do it there's no reason why you couldn't. Everyone has a voice, and everyone has a message to share with the world. In my case, I realize I've been blessed with a gift. We all have really. Over the years I have collected and compiled phrases from singers, sax players, guitarist, a duduk player, hey even bassists. These phrases form my vocabulary. With this ever growing vocabulary I try to convey a simple message of gratitude to God for giving me this gift. Every time I put that strap over my shoulder, I want to find a way to musically say thank you before the night is over. That's what I'm about. Your message may be different, but it deserves to be heard by all of us. Best of luck to you.

CT: Rich, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. You are one of my favourite bass players anywhere and it's been a great pleasure to hopefully introduce you to some players that might not be aware of the great work you are doing. Keep it up!

Rich: Thanks so much for having me Chris and thanks to the ActiveBassers. Peace & Love, and God bless you all!