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The opportunity to hear, hang with, and generally observe the masterful Alphonso Johnson was a personal highlight of the trip. Simply put, Alphonso contributed inimitably funky and tasteful bass to several ensembles and artists who redefined 20th-century music, including Weather Report, Wayne Shorter, and Billy Cobham. Beyond his bulletproof resume, Alphonso is one of the warmest people you’ll ever meet, always ready with a smile and a heartfelt word of support.
He emphasized that bass playing should start with the root, like a tree. A thought-provoking handout provided some relevant wisdom: “Everyone wants to be daring, creative, and original. Everyone wants to do things in new ways. But unless we return over and over again to the basics, we will have no chance to truly soar. Do not forget the root. Without it, we can never issue forth true power.”
Thoroughly convinced, the class then got Alphonso’s list of tools to embellish our performance:
1. Strong downbeat 2. Syncopation 3. Legato and staccato 4. Call and response 5. Attitude
To demonstrate the potential that each facet on the list can offer, Alphonso flipped on a drum machine and improvised the line in Example 3. He divided the room in half and had one side play Bar 1 and the other Bar 2. Slowing down to teach the students who couldn’t quite nail it, Alphonso patiently explained how the line demonstrated each part of the list. It was especially fun when he asked the students to apply some attitude. I got a good glimpse of some international “bass face.”
Bassist Stuart Hamm concentrated on teaching his fellow bassists the importance of physical health and breathing.
Solo bass pioneer Stuart Hamm may be renowned for his sophisticated tap technique and the remarkable self-accompanied tunes his chord-plus-melody concept enables, but his clinic was really focused on maintaining our physical selves for long, rewarding, and pain-free musical careers. While he did start with a stirring mash-up of the Beatles’ Abbey Road B-side and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” he quickly pivoted to tips and techniques to prevent nerve and muscular pain.
Most important to Stuart is proper breathing technique. Burdened with laying down a good groove, making the changes, and enhancing a tune, bass players often forget to breathe as their brains tackle formidable musical challenges. One simple but effective exercise he described was playing a simple major scale, inhaling on the way up and exhaling on the way down. Not only does this reinforce the subconscious relationship between the breath and notes, but it also has an undeniably calming, meditative quality.