“I’m one of the lucky ones,” says the musician as he barrels down a desolate desert highway accompanied by a massive 300-year-old acoustic bass. Together, they had embarked on a three-week road trip traversing the country beginning in Southern California en route to Reading PA, then on to Nashville TN, returning through his hometown of Tucson AZ and finishing in the San Fernando Valley outside of Los Angeles. During the trip, Grammy® nominated bassist Brian Bromberg played a handful of shows, including a preview performance featuring music from his new Compared To That album at the annual Boscov’s Berks Jazz Festival in Reading before heading south to teach a master’s class in Nashville. And since he was road tripping, Bromberg figured that he would visit his mother for Passover. His vehicle contained several piccolo and electric basses along with assorted amps, but the reason for the cross- country drive instead of flying was the irreplaceable acoustic instrument.
“Last year, one of the airlines dropped it and it cost a fortune to repair. I can’t take any more chances with it,” he explains. “Besides, it was a great trip. I enjoyed taking the time to see the country like this. It’s a really exciting time in my career.”
Indeed Bromberg does imbibe rarified air. The purpose of our conversation is to discuss his three uniquely different, artistically divergent albums slated for release this summer: Compared To That, Bromberg Plays Hendrix and In The Spirit of Jobim. But he also oozes enthusiasm for a labor of love project: the launch of the world’s first online radio station for bass players, bassonthebroadband.com.
“Most bass players will never get airplay or a record deal and I’ve been blessed to always have both. bassonthebroadband.com is about the instrument. It’s an enormous undertaking, but nothing like it exists for bass players. They don’t have any outlets exclusively devoted to playing the music of bassists, which blew me away; thus we’re building it from the ground up. We’ll air music and video clips featuring the greatest bassists in the world in all genres of music, including submissions from all over the world from amateurs. I’ve been talking to some prominent bass players about hosting a show on the station and potential sponsors about sponsorship. It’s all very exciting and I’m certain we can grow the station and the site while generating revenue. But for me, it’s primarily about creating opportunities for bass players to be heard.”
After Bromberg refuels at a gas station near Palm Springs, it’s necessary to refocus him. This is the norm for the musician-producer-composer-arranger who has achieved accolades, respect and success, commercially and artistically, as a solo artist in both straight-ahead and contemporary jazz. It’s not that he is forgetful. Like a yogi, Bromberg is simply focused on the present moment. Once complete, he immediately sets his sights on the next endeavor.
“I never plan what I’m going to play or how I’m going to play it. I don’t write down any of the notes I’ll play or the changes and certainly I never pre-plan my solos. I’ve always been a diehard jazz guy—an improviser. I get it done in the moment by simply letting the music ‘come through me.’ I channel it. Planning it would suck the life out of it for me. After recording, I have to listen to what I played in order to relearn the song and how to play it because I forget it instantly,” he reveals.
Journalists and fans typically want to know at least the highlight reel moments of an artist who has amassed an extraordinary discography of credits and accomplishments, but due to his limited focus on the mountain ahead, it takes a bit of arm wrestling to get much out of the humble man who has had a signature line of basses in his name for more than a decade.
“Playing in Stan Getz’s band as an 18-year-old out from the desert [Tucson] was a life-changing experience, probably the single greatest experience of my career. Earning a Grammy nomination in 2007 for Downright Upright was certainly another highlight. Of course, I lost to Herbie [Hancock], but that’s okay,” he chuckles.
Jazz sax titan Getz is one of many legends and icons in all genres of jazz and popular music with whom the versatile Bromberg has recorded, played and/or toured. “I don’t think about it ‘til someone asks me in a situation like this, but yes, when I look at the credits I’ve been fortunate to accumulate over the years, it’s pretty astonishing.” The list of bold faced names boasts Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Dave Grusin, Nancy Wilson, Sting, Elvis Costello, Steven Tyler, Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Diana Krall, Andrea Bocelli, David Foster, George Benson, Bob James, Lee Ritenour, Kenny G, Chris Botti, Boney James, Dave Koz and many more. But Bromberg is grounded and maintains perspective.
“I’m incredibly blessed to have played with the greatest musicians in the world. You have to have the realization of who you are and the relationship with the Spirit, or God or whatever you want to call it, and be able to communicate it at a high enough level to be able to play with the greats. Then success is the byproduct of the spiritual space.
“Truth is that I didn’t know what to do or how to do it when I first started out. Most bassists don’t [know]. I learned completely on my own. And you can hear the growth and development on each of my solo records. Everything is getting better—the production, the songs, the playing. Hear the evolution, go on the journey and experience the growth,” Bromberg says about his 20-album solo career that began with the release of his 1986 debut disc, A New Day.
The first of three musical offerings to be released in 2012, Compared To That, showcases Bromberg on the finely aged acoustic instrument on more than 70 minutes of music. Performing on the record that was recorded live over two days followed by three months of meticulous production work are Alex Acuña, Gannin Arnold, Charlie Bisharat, Randy Brecker, Vinnie Colaiuta, George Duke, Bela Fleck, Mitch Forman, Larry Goldings, Jeff Lorber, Gary Meek and Tom Zink.
“Surround yourself with excellence and you’ll get excellence,” Bromberg declares. “Compared To That is a jazz record. It’s live and you hear that energy. It’s the mentality, spirit and artistry of a spontaneous jazz record meets the highly produced production of a big pop record like David Foster would make. I have no idea what the reaction to it will be, but I love using state of the art [recording] technology. I tried to make Compared To That a true blend of time consuming modern audiophile production and live spontaneous improvised classic mainstream jazz. It’s a completely live jazz record with heart and soul, and is totally honest and has integrity.”
Initially Bromberg contemplated making a funky, contemporary jazz record, but label execs (Artistry Music/Mack Avenue Records) suggested that he take a more straight-ahead jazz path instead. “Sometimes I forget that I’m an artist. Many bass players aren’t afforded the ability to be artists, yet I have that opportunity. For me, it’s always been about being more than one-dimensional. I write, produce, arrange and play. Thus I had to get into a more artistic space and listen to the art inside. Music is my heart and soul, and sometimes it’s painful to express. It’s important to me to push the envelope stylistically whenever it makes sense. You can groove to Compared To That; it grooves me from beginning to end. It was really fun to make and there’s a lot of levity and a lot of adventure on the album. It has a nice balance of fun, entertaining tracks along with deeper material.”
Bromberg wrote eight new songs specifically for Compared To That favoring a swinging, walking bass approach. “Be-bop jazz is not what I normally do, thus it was fresh and exciting for me. I got spoiled by the horn section from [his 2009 album] It Is What It Is. On stage, I love the live horns so I wanted to use them a lot on Compared To That. The horn section brought a lot of energy. It’s neat the way the record unfolded.”
According to Bromberg, the title track sounds like a standard. “It sounds like ‘60s-‘70s nightclub jazz. It absolutely has that vibe.” Horns provide power punches to the energetically swinging big band tune on which Bromberg’s piccolo bass dispenses fast and feisty guitarlike riffs. The bassist uses a variety of piccolo basses throughout the album to croon lead melodies. Although they sound like guitar, there is virtually no guitar on the album.
On the playfully titled “Rory Lowery, Private Eye,” the frenetic horn section mimics the piccolo bass lead on the sweaty, straight-ahead Spy vs. Spy workout that possesses a visceral air of mystery. At nearly 10 minutes the composition is sprawling, providing ample ground for Forman’s nimble piano etchings.
“I’m not a prolific writer and this one just showed up. I literally just started playing the tune,” says Bromberg about the sassy, Southwestern seasoned “If Ray Brown Was A Cowboy?” Pondering and gregarious, it is the only track on the album performed by a trio: Bromberg on acoustic bass, Zink on piano and Colaiuta on drums. “Ray was one of the most important bass players of our lifetime and I’ve got nothing but love and respect for him. I was lucky enough to meet him and hangout with him a few times. The song is a simple, feel-good song with a cowboy twang and a tongue-in-cheek title.”
Bromberg calls “Hayride” the centerpiece of the collection. Massive in scope both compositionally and instrumentally, including strings by The Rising Sun Orchestra from Tokyo and Grammy-winning violinist Bisharat, the frolicking call-and-response dialogue between Bromberg’s acoustic bass and Fleck’s jangly banjo is the focal point. “Be-bop meets Nashville or country jazz with a vibe,” Bromberg snickers. “I love it and I’m very proud of this one, the hugeness of it. I was touched by Bela’s willingness to play on the track and what he brought to it.”
Changing directions entirely, “A Little New Old School” dishes up deep, horn-powered funk of the vintage variety with rich contributions from Brecker and Lorber. “Picture ‘70s Miles [Davis]—free funk. It’s a very loose jam tune with incredible horn arrangements by Nathan Tanouye.”
On the gorgeous “Forgiveness,” the orchestra adds depth and emotion to the cinematic melody sung somberly by Bromberg’s steel-string acoustic piccolo bass. Acuña’s unobtrusive percussion helps churn the groove. “This is another one of those songs that came through me. It’s real, honest and introspective. It’s not exactly jazz, but it is too important of a composition not to be included on the album,” shares Bromberg.
Snappy horns add sunshine to the first radio single, Bromberg’s coolly swinging version of the Chicago hit “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” “This is one of a handful of songs from the Great American Pop Songbook. It was swinging from day one. The original had walking bass with horns and was essentially a jazz tune, yet it was an iconic pop hit.”
Brecker’s muted trumpet helps spark the hard-charging “I’m Just Sayin’.” “The first part of the melody is kind of simple, yet it’s a real jazz tune with vibe and attitude. It has great energy,” says Bromberg about the fiery swinger.
The usually jovial and energetically positive Bromberg found it difficult to solo on the emotional and pensive “The Eclipse.” “It’s the darkest tune spiritually. Stylistically, it has a New York jazz sound.” Brecker’s flugelhorn adds class to the astute, scholarly statements emanating from Duke’s piano.
Bromberg loves covering the unexpected and he closes Compared To That with a very unlikely cut: an inventive, swinging rendition of the Rick James hit “Give It To Me Baby.” “No one would ever expect this tune on a jazz record,” Bromberg laughs. “But Rick was a bass player and the song has a unique and prominent bass line. It’s a real jazz tune with a lot of energy and real players. There are reasons why a song is a hit. So if you’re going to do a cover, why not make it your own?”
The second album Bromberg will release this summer is a surprising 10-song collection of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix’s hits that was recorded without the use of a single guitar. In fact, it is just Bromberg and Colaiuta on Bromberg Plays Hendrix. “If it is not drums, then all the instruments you hear are me. This project is not a gimmick; it’s very musical and real. It’s all about the music for me.”
Two different record executives from two different cultures suggested the concept for the recording two years apart. “I respect both these guys. They are both very successful and very experienced. Initially, I thought it was rather bizarre when one suggested that I make an album saluting one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, but when the second suggestion arrived I began to seriously contemplate how to do it creatively.”
It turned out to be more challenging than Bromberg anticipated. He used a lot of fretless bass in the role of lead guitar. “I find the fretless bass to be more human. Hendrix didn’t just sing melodies; he spoke to you. He was a true genius and a true American icon. It was monumentally challenging and it took a while to figure out how to capture his delivery and distill the melodies from his vocals.”
The collection rocks hard as Bromberg innovatively crafted smoldering versions of Hendrix’s hallmark hits including “Fire,” “Manic Depression,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “All Along The Watchtower,” “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze.” “It sounds live yet it was all overdubs. The tracks have peaks and valleys. It sounds like music and I’m most proud of that. I didn’t want it to sound like a bad guitar player or a NAMM demo. It breathes, it shreds and it’s musical,” he says.
Taking another left turn to salute another 1960s seminal figure, In The Spirit of Jobim is comprised of five classics made famous by Brazilian legend Antonio Carlos Jobim—“One Note Samba,” “Wave,” “Tristeifinado” (“Triste” and “Desafinado”), “Corcovado” and “The Girl From Ipanema”—and seven Bromberg compositions emulating Jobim’s style. Bromberg harnessed The Rising Sun Orchestra and surrounded himself with Brazilian musicians in an effort to foster authenticity. It’s a stunning and romantic collection. “I love Brazilian music and it’s a blast to play live. The music is so positive and energetic. The songs are simple and melodic. It’s just beautiful,” he gushes.
In The Spirit of Jobim and Bromberg Plays Hendrix were previously released in Asian territories, but Bromberg recut, remixed and remastered the collections. “I played new bass parts using my line of Carvin guitars. It’s amazing. Both albums sound entirely brand new,” Bromberg enthuses.
He is thrilled about the rare opportunity to release three vastly different albums in a six-week span. “It truly is a blessing to be able to put out three diametrically opposed projects pretty much at the same time. My hope is that people will listen to the albums and embrace them for what they are versus what they aren’t.”
Stepping back to gaze at the big picture, Bromberg reflects on the significance of his cumulative body of work along with his major contributions to the bass. “From a legacy perspective, mine is constantly being created and evolving. Over the years from album to album, you can hear my contributions to the instrument. It’s been positive and at times painful, and it’s grown deeper and more real. As an artist, my ability to communicate, to really share what I’m trying to say, has grown. It’s taken a career to find my way yet I’m only scratching the surface.
“Recording is a musical window to the soul. It’s who you are as a person that’s coming out. I’m trying to say something musically. The most rewarding thing for me is when people get it, when they feel it. And people respond to what they feel in the heart and soul.”
Bromberg’s creative muse is much like that cross-country journey with his triple century-aged acoustic bass. His commitment to greatness is unwavering and patient. He’s passionate and relishes adventure. Audaciously, he forges his own constantly evolving musical path striving for significance and depth. Serious about his art, his sense of humor is only eclipsed by his attitude of gratitude, his communications honest and soulful. Indeed, Brian Bromberg is one of the lucky ones.