Freddy Villano catches up with Gregg August and finds out what it takes to be in the zone
“I didn’t even know you bowed the bass until I saw Sting on the video for the song ‘Every Breath You Take’,” admits Gregg August. That’s a pretty funny admission from someone who’s heralded as one of the most sought-after jazz and classical bassists in New York today. “I met him recently and thanked him for that,” he continues. “He apologised – it was a funny exchange.”
Humour aside, August is revered as a true musician’s musician, and is labelled as such because of the incredible swing in his playing and an immense and diverse musical vocabulary, which spans not only jazz and classical, but also the Latin and avant-garde worlds. All of these genres are adeptly showcased on his recently released CD, Four By Six (Iacuessa Records), his third album as bassist, bandleader and composer. Well-crafted songs like ‘For Calle Picota’, ‘Bandolim’ and ‘A Ballad For MV’ bound effortlessly from one style to another, and the performances capture the kind of lively, in-the-moment interplay between musicians that so rarely exists on modern recordings nowadays. Featuring both quartet and sextet band formats, Four By Six embodies what is perhaps most important in music: presence.
In addition to his solo work, August holds down the principal bass chair of the Brooklyn Philharmonic and performs regularly with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. He’s also a member of Arturo O’Farrell’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and remains a member of both the JD Allen Trio and the Sam Newsome Quartet. Oh, and he’s also a faculty member at both the University of Connecticut and New Jersey City University. It’s hard to imagine, with that type of workload, that August almost never even become a bassist.
Though he grew up in a musical environment, August’s passion, as a kid, was for the drums, not bass. His muse was R&B, and sitting behind a drum set playing along to records by Blood, Sweat & Tears, Chicago and specifically, Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, was how he spent his childhood. “Rhythm was the thing that was always guiding me musically,” he says. “But my dad, who played the piano and had a band that rehearsed at the house, made me learn to play piano before I could take drum lessons.” In addition to learning basic piano technique, he was also taught theory and harmony by his aunt.
These lessons eventually prepared him for an opportunity to play bass. “When I was in high school we had no electric bass player in the jazz band, and my brother had an electric bass,” he reminisces. “I understood the instrument from playing piano, so I got into it a little bit, but my school didn’t have a string programme.” His brief affair with the instrument ended as a result and didn’t resume again until college. “I wanted to go to school to experience the classical music thing and to become well-rounded, but I didn’t really want to do it on percussion – I didn’t want to lug all those instruments around,” he laughs. “So I started playing bass while I was attending State University New York, Albany and from there went to Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York.”
After college, August went to Spain for two years where he became the principal bass chair for the Barcelona Orchestra. But it was a two-week trip to Cuba that really changed his approach to music. “I wanted to get deeper into Latin music and play some gigs, so I drove to Canada and then flew into Havana,” he says. “It was so vibrant – I hadn’t really experienced music on such a visceral level before. The degree of sensitivity and sophistication, and this applies to everything, not just music, is mindboggling: it gave me a new source of inspiration. I was electrified for years.” He went again with Arturo O’Farrell’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in 2010 and while there visited a local conservatory to teach a master class. “The kids played first and I thought, ‘Man, what are we going to play? These kids are so happening’,” he remembers. “They weren’t playing a lot of notes, they were just laying a spacious vamp in the key of E, but the expression was so sophisticated and powerful.”
When traveling to places like Cuba, and just about anywhere else in the world for that matter, August almost always uses a rental bass provided by local promoters, but his main instrument for years was an Italian-made instrument from 1916. He used it exclusively on Four By Six as well as all of the JD Allen Trio recordings. “But it’s almost getting too dark, tone-wise, and it doesn’t really pitch the same way: I don’t feel it any more when I’m playing,” he admits. He recently switched to a newer instrument built in 2006, by Giuseppe Capodivento in Puglia, Italy. “When you’re playing double bass you want to feel it, like a drum,” he says. “The newer bass has that pop.” For amplification he uses a Gallien-Krueger MB150E that he doesn’t “have to take out too much” and a Demeter Tube Direct Box “that’s phenomenal when combined with a DPA 4099B microphone.”
The real secret to August’s tone, however, is in the strings. “You usually want a stiffer string for a classical set-up so the bow will respond properly, but for pizzicato or plucked you’ll probably want a less taut string, so I had to find the right balance. My top string is always a Pirastro Oliv wrapped gut. It’s not thin-sounding. When you pluck steel strings the bottom is fine, but when you get to the top strings the sound is usually too thin and twangy.”
He explains that the reason string instruments sound better with guts is because there’s less tension on them and they can therefore breathe more easily. “Listen to a baroque orchestra playing period-style. Instead of tuning A440 they’ll tune A414, almost like a full step down, and that allows the instruments to resonate really well,” he says. “There’s just so much less tension.” He also recommends checking out recordings made before 1970. “They used gut strings exclusively, and the bass always has a really punchy sound as a result. Nowadays we’re required to play fast and fancy, and you want a string that’s a bit more consistent, and steel is definitely that.”
Consistency and quality are also integral to August’s musical pursuits. The nuances of the genres he so deftly commands demand it. But August is turning heads not just because of technical prowess alone: it’s also the vibrant presence and vital essence he brings to the music he plays, across all the aforementioned genres. So how does he do it? “To be honest it’s just a matter of reminding myself that I can do it,” he confesses. “I have some exercises, but it’s really more of a mental exercise, focusing and making sure that my ears are really working. If I had to generalise, the goal is to get myself into a mental place where I’m really relaxed: that’s what I’m always working towards. If you’re relaxed enough, all kinds of stuff will come out. That’s the biggest challenge as I get older: trying to find that zone. It sounds clichéd, but I’ve experienced it. Not every time I play, but if you’re really relaxed, and let the music come to you, you become a participant and you’re not dictating what’s happening. The trick is to get into that space.”
The 42-year-old does not envy the younger generation when it comes to developing such a broad-based skill set. “The issue nowadays for younger players is that there aren’t a lot of opportunities to perform. If you get one gig a month with your own band, you’re considered busy. And it’s really hard to build anything musically with one gig a month. We think of guys like Bird and Coltrane and Mingus and ask ourselves, ‘How were they able to develop that stuff to such a high level?’ The answer is, because they were studying and playing all the time. Today we study all the time, but we don’t have quite the same opportunities to perform.”
August recommends listening to the Thelonious Monk record from 1957 at Carnegie Hall with John Coltrane (Blue Note, 2005) to understand what he’s talking about. “Their level of interaction and relaxation is phenomenal,” he says. “They were playing nightly at the Five Spot in NYC for months before that, and that’s the only way to nurture that type of performance. When I played with JD Allen at the Village Vanguard we did six nights a week, and at the end of a week, not only was I physically stronger, having played two hour-and-a-half sets each night pummelling the bass, but musically I was also in such a different place. It was like, ‘Man, this is why I do this!’”