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Before bassist Brian Bromberg received his first GRAMMY nomination, before he had a single hit in the Billboard Smooth Jazz Charts, before he had taken his first tour with saxophone legend Stan Getz (a friendship that would result in a nearly 20-year creative partnership), he was a young music fan in Tuscon, Arizona, with an obsession: the music of Jimi Hendrix.
This was the 1960s. Hendrix was in his prime, and Bromberg, like many open-eared youths at the time, found something that resonated in him whenever this left-handed, blues-shouting, hard-living guitarist let loose. "He was this larger than life entity," said Bromberg in a conversation with JAZZIZ. "The passion and the power that came out in his music, his entire vibe — was so raw and so real." And while Bromberg's musical sensibilities would ultimately lead him toward jazz — through a career that included stints with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Ernie Watts — he says that Hendrix has remained a guiding light.
For the most part, that guidance has been subtle, Bromberg borrowing more from Hendrix's free spirit than from any particular technique. He views this spirit as something that defies genre, and says that for a musician, it's important not to get caught up on how other people define your sound. "Hendrix's insistence on freedom was itself a form of improvisation," said Bromberg. "It helped me and so many other jazz musicians connect to a music that wasn't jazz, per se. It allowed us to do our own thing."
Over the course of a career with more than 20 albums as a leader, Bromberg has recorded a number of tribute projects, most notably his 2006 standout Jaco, which was dedicated to the music of another of Bromberg's heroes, the groundbreaking bassist Jaco Pastorius. Bromberg saw clear parallels between the music of Jaco and Hendrix, but the thought of recording a collection of Hendrix tunes never occurred to him. Then, in 2012, two close colleagues urged him to do just that. Bromberg took to the studio with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta to lay down tracks for Brian Bromberg Plays Hendrix, which was released on Mack Avenue Records. Recently the label announced that the album will be reissued with additional bonus material (and a brand new audio master) for a special release on September 18, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Hendrix's death. JAZZIZ executive editor Brian Zimmerman spoke to Bromberg as part of the JAZZIZ LIVE video series. The following is an excerpt from that conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
JAZZIZ: When was the first time you heard the music of Jimi Hendrix?
Brian Bromberg: I was in single digits, I know that. My brother – who’s a drummer by the way – had all of Jimi's records, and listening to them, I remember having this incredible connection and chemistry with Jimi. I used to look at his pictures all the time and I'll never forget the day when he passed. I was 10, I believe. And I was sitting on the floor of my room and I was just bawling my eyes out, looking at his record covers. For some reason, he really struck a chord with me. I don't know why other than the fact that he was a genius. I mean it wasn't just because he was a great guitar player, a great singer. He really even wasn't even a singer; he spoke to you. And even though I was a little kid in Tucson something about him, it just touched me.
[caption id="attachment_31761" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Jimi Hendrix in Helsinki, Finland, circa 1967[/caption]
Do you consider Hendrix a jazz artist?
In thinking about Hendrix now, I’m just reminded of all that improvisation and free spirit. That’s what jazz is, after all, that spirit of improvisation. There was a rock vibe, sure, but listen to Mitch Mitchell's drumming on in that stuff. He's like soloing constantly. So it was a very free, open improvisational experience.
Even harmonically, I think Jimi was tapping into some jazz language.
Sure, and I’ll take the connection a step further. Bernie Kirsh, the recording engineer who did most of Chick Corea’s records at Mad Hatter studio, used to work at Electric Ladyland studios in New York, where Jimi did a lot of his recording. He told me that there was a session booked with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis. And the session was booked for two weeks after the day Jimi passed. Could you imagine that happening? Hendrix and Miles Davis together? My God, I'm getting goosebumps. That would have been life-changing music.
Speaking of life-changing events, when did you start playing the bass?
I think I was 13 or 14. I was in the orchestra. I also played cello, and was horrible (laughs). So my band director suggested I try the acoustic bass. I remember going home and talking to my dad and my brother about it. They were both drummers, and I realized that I could play with them instead of having to wait my turn. The rest is history.
One of your biggest heroes on the bass was Jaco Pastorius. A lot of people like to put him in the same conversation with Jimi. Do you think that’s a fair comparison?
It's an incredibly fair comparison, and I look at it from a lot of different angles. He took the bass and completely transcended music. It wasn't just about bass playing: Jaco's composition, his arrangements, his vibe, it's all of it. He was just this massively powerful source, and what he did on the instrument, no one had ever done.
Jimi was no different. No one had done what Jimi did, the way he did it. Everything he did was backwards. It was upside down, it was left-handed. It was “wrong,” which of course made everything he did right. So yes, they are both very, very much groundbreaking musicians. They changed the music.
There’s no guitar on your new album, right? It’s just Vinnie Colaiuta on drums and you.
That's it for personnel, yes.
And what did you enjoy most about doing this recoding?
My God, it was so much fun. I mean, just to be able to shred, not think about radio, not think about edits, not think about format, not think about anything, just to blow and have a great time. Especially with somebody like Vinnie, who's like the most in demand drummer in the world. This guy's a freak. It was just so much fun to do with no preconceived ideas of anything. And it was about Jimi’s music. It wasn't about trying to learn Jimi Hendrix licks. I don't copy any lick of Jimi’s on the record, not one phrase. He already did all that, I was trying to do my own thing.
And I guess the thing that I'm the most proud of is the fact that everything you hear besides the drums is me. It's overdubbing, and building it was like putting together an erector set. And to me, it breathes, it sounds like music. It doesn't sound like a guitar store demo (laughs). There's peaks and valleys, there’s air, there’s improvisation. It really moves.
There’s actually no guitar on this record, although it sounds like it at times. What instruments were in your arsenal?
I played steel string piccolo bass, acoustic piccolo bass. I think I played nylon piccolo bass. I played four-string electric, five-string electric, fretted upright electric, upright tenor bass. Each instrument has a voice and has a spot in the music, and the questions is: what is its role? Every part that I play has a different role in the music, whether it's a rhythm part or a bass part or lead part or a background part.
I can imagine one of the biggest challenges was trying to capture the power of Jimi’s voice through your bass.
You just hit it on the head. You identified by far the most challenging part of the record. Like I said, Jimi wasn't a singer; he communicated to you, he talked to you. So it was monumentally challenging and essentially impossible to take a steel string on a metal fret and go and try to communicate the same way. You just can't do it! That's why there's a lot of fretless bass melodies on the record, because the warmness is much more like the human voice. There's no metal bar making the note; it's your finger. You gotta be in tune, but you can move your finger and give it some soul and some vibrato, which makes it more human.
This album was originally recorded in 2012, but is being reissued on September 18, 2020, to mark the 50th anniversary of Jimi’s passing. What is different about the new release?
Well, it just sounds a lot better. I mean, we got another octave of low end on it. We've got clarity. The technology in the studio, and just the computer power of what we had back in 2011 and 2012 versus now, is sonically a lot better. We got rid of a lot of digital crosstalk and interference. I wanted the record to sound better, and it does. The basses sound better. They're much more present, much more in your face. The bottom sounds better.
Not to mention, there's the inclusion of an original track, right?
Yes, called “Jimi.” And Vinnie is just insane. I just love the intro, when the band comes in and that group starts, it's just like … it’s so powerful.
[caption id="attachment_31764" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Vinnie Colaiuta[/caption]
It's also a nice summation of Jimi’s sounds. Even though his career was somewhat truncated, he went through his fair share of phases, and had different facets of his sound – the really hard-driving stuff, the bluesy stuff, the jangly, human-sounding stuff.
Thanks. You know, when I think of Jimi’s cleaner sounds, those single-coil sounds, I want nothing more than to emulate those sounds. They were just so human. There's something so real about it. It’s a little bit harder for me because I’m a bass player; I play with my fingers, so I don't get the attack that a guitar player gets. So between not being able to bend the notes like a guitar player and not having a pick, there are certain things about the sound that I have to do differently. I wish I could get closer to it, but I don't play with a pick, man. I’m a bass player (laughs).
The reissue of Brian Bromberg Plays Hendrix will be released September 18 on Mack Avenue Records. On September 25, the bassist will release Celebrate Me Home: The Holiday Sessions, also on Mack Avenue Records. The album was recorded during the COVID-19 lockdowns and features an all-star roster of special guests: vocalists Walker and Maysa, saxophonists Everette Harp, Elan Trotman and Gary Meek, flutist Najee, guitarist Ramon Stagnaro and steel pan master Kareem Thompson. They join a remarkable band of longtime collaborators that includes keyboardist Tom Zink, guitarist Ray Fuller, saxophonist Andrew Neu, drummers Tony Moore and Joel Taylor, and percussionist Alex Acuña. For more information, visit Bromberg's website.