Malcolm Bruce: Prodigal Son

Godfrey Townsend, Kofi Baker, Malcolm Bruce

Malcolm Bruce, son of the late Jack, talks about life at the bass end.

I really feel the concept of style is sometimes overrated. It is good to learn one’s craft, styles, genres, history and so on, but bass players – and musicians of any instrument for that matter – who stand out are those that have become themselves on their instrument. The same applies to composers.

Having said that, I really just try to find what is appropriate to the form of the music in question. The right balance of elements: musicality, not overthinking, and certainly not overplaying – although I wouldn’t call myself a player who sticks to the root notes. I am a composer and multi-instrumentalist, and approach any instrument merely as a tool for expressing the music. With the bass in particular, I am looking for how it sits in the spectrum of frequency, and how it works within a particular arrangement. Sometimes the bass is supporting by staying under the radar, so to speak, and other times it is a central driving force of a groove. It is all, as they say, ‘down to the song’. Or, more specifically, down to the music in question.

I don’t often play five-string because the tradition of the four-string bass has stood the test of time. It can be good to limit oneself as well. More than four strings can be fun, but it becomes something slightly different from bass playing. I grew up listening to Mark King. Slap is impressive, but it defines the sound too much in one direction for me to find it a useful technique texturally. Slap is sport. That said, the sound of slapping the strings can be effective as an extended technique, especially in more creative forms.

The secret of playing bass well is approaching it as a musician first and foremost, fitting into the music. Listening. Blistering chops are all well and good, but amazing technique should serve the music, not the other way around.

I play Warwick basses, which are amazing. I never have any problems with them, perfect intonation and consistency and great tone. I’m also a Framus guitar endorser: they’re the sister company of Warwick. Thank you Hans Peter Wilfer!

Obviously my dad has been an inspiration, but again, he was not just a bass player, and he always approached playing from his own, very personal place. That itself has been an inspiration: how to balance having an intimate understanding of tradition with developing a personal voice. I love other players too, like Jaco, Pino, James Jamerson and so on. Charlie Mingus too, as a great player and also as a great composer.

Favourite bass tone? Wow, now you’re really trying to pin me down! There are just so many fabulous records with fabulous-sounding bass parts. I would check out all the Stevie Wonder albums for a start, if you want to be moved that is. Nathan Watts. Start with the double album Songs In The Key Of Life. But tone is so personal – it’s really just in the fingers.

The secret of great bass playing? Learn your craft. Learn the rules so that you can transcend them. Understand the infinite potential that you possess. Don’t get too caught up in worshipping others. Take care of yourself. Nurture yourself. Believe in yourself. Love yourself. Oh yeah, learn your harmony and your scales too. And the ability to be spontaneous will help immensely.

What am I up to? I’ve been touring a lot recently, including a world tour opening up for Joe Satriani a couple of years ago, and lots of gigging with Eric Clapton’s nephew, and the legendary producer Andy Johns’ son, Will Johns. I’m going to be releasing a new CD later this year and will be out promoting and touring extensively after that.

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