Jazz interview with jazz contrabassist Jasper Somsen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jasper Somsen: – As far as I know music was already around me when I was born. My father being a professional musician, teacher and conductor. My mother (not a professional) but intensely into music a.o. as a singer and conductor in the church choir. I always wanted to listen to music from the start. Around the age of four I remember I got in touch with the music of Johan Sebastian Bach. Jazz and Pop music a little later. I urged my parents to let me have church organ lessons, which I started at the age of five. My grandmother loved Jazz music and got me into Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Errol Garner etc. Via friends of my sister I heard The Police and Sting when I was six years old and loved this music ever since. A little later a.o. Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson “joined”.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the contrabass?
JS: – I started with church organ at the age of five, then got into some drum and guitar playing. Nothing very serious yet. When I turned twelve I started my first band with my best friend, both playing guitar and trying to write our own tunes. Although we were very dedicated, our musical level was still very very basic. I got some guitar lessons, but got pushed by my friend to pick up the bass, after we ran into a drummer. I hesitated at first hand, but quickly found out all my fave musicians were excellent bassists, composers and band leaders: Sting, Paul McCartney and Johan Sebastian Bach … exactly what I wanted to be. First, I started on bass guitar. When I was fifteen I found my first bass teacher who turned out to be a double bassist too. In a very short time he got me in touch with the greatest of jazz and fusion a.o. Miles Davis, John Scofield, Chick Corea, Bill Evans, Yellowjackets, Dexter Gordon. So I fell in love with bassists such as John Patitucci, Miroslav Vitous, Eddie Gomez, Jimmy Haslip, Darryl Jones (who played with Sting!), Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Marcus Miller … and I never stopped listening. My parents bought me a double bass instantly, knowing this was huge turning point in my life. I finished my high school as quick as possible and got admitted at the Utrecht Conservatory at the age of seventeen for both double bass and bass guitar.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today?
JS: – I had many great teachers. Tom Jansen (my first teacher, back then still a conservatory student) was very important. He turned me on Jazz completely and let me try his double bass. At the Utrecht Conservatory I decided quickly to dedicate myself to double bass, since I wanted to be both a Jazz and Classic double bassist. I abandoned the bass guitar for a couple of years. My principal teachers at the UC were Frans van der Hoeven for Jazz, Peter Leerdam and Peter Stotijn for Classic double bass. Masterclasses with Hein van de Geyn and Duncan McTier were a major influence. After my bachelor degree at Utrecht, I decided to do a master in Jazz and a bachelor in Classic at the Conservatory of Amsterdam with the late great Koos Serierse (Jazz) and again with Peter Stotijn, learning a lot from masterclasses by a.o. Niek de Groot, Bozo Paradzik, Hakan Ehren, Paul Ellison and Edgar Meyer. Besides that pianist/composer Bert van den Brink (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Toots Thielemans) was a very important mentor back in Utrecht. Privat lessons with John Clayton not only changed my bass playing, but also changed my life completely. He was a role model first and a friend later.
JBN.S: – What made you choose the contrabass?
JS: – The sound and the instrument felt so natural to me from the very first start. I just couldn’t stop playing and practicing!
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JS: – Too many influences to mention. Great considering sound, timing and depth for me were (and still are): Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Marc Johnson, Charlie Haden and John Patitucci. These are just a few. For classical bass I loved more to listen to cello players like Mstislav Rostropovich and Steven Isserlis.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JS: – Most important is that whatever you practice, it always should be based in music. Of course there are a lot of technical exercises, but they have to serve your music, your inner voice always! One of the too many to mention exercises is one by drummer Peter Erskine. He showed an exercise shifting small and larger rhythmic patterns on his snare drums while playing medium swing. I used this concept to combine it with my arpeggio studies: add right hand rhythmic variations to my left hand arpeggio studies. It’s so much fun!
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
JS: – Enrico Pieranunzi once said: ”Every tone fits any chord, every chord fits any tone”. There is no such thing as “preferred” harmonic, melodic or rhythmic patterns … music is a galaxy free of boundaries and stylistic limitations. It’s all about form and adding the right musical ingredients at the right time.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
JS: – First of all, don’t loose faith, trust yourself and never give up. Fame and fortune aren’t in this business, except for a few. Most important is to live a happy life and make (some of your) dreams come true. Set realistic goals for the short, mid and long term. Acknowledge it takes several years to get your business going (like many other businesses it might take five years), use your creative mind for your business as well (it’s not only about money) and use the force of collaboration good and honest with other people/musicians. Many musicians are trapped by the idea they want/can make it on their own. Everybody stands out in their uniqueness. Join forces and have fun together in making your dreams come true.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
JS: – Yes, but it takes lots of time, patience, energy and dedication. It’s a way of life.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JS: – There’s no expiry date on great music. Monteverdi, Bach, Beethoven, Ravel, Ellington, Cole Porter, Gershwin … they all prove this. Jazz is one of the most dynamic and free musical expressions on stage. It’s not the tune, it’s always the musician who makes the difference. Next to that you have to get into composing as well to really understand the nature of our art.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JS: – Life is not only about music, but music is all about life! For me it’s the best way to express myself and to communicate and share it dearly with others.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future?
JS: – Lot’s of music coming up, making new plans and be flexible and open others, to create new opportunities for more than myself and most important to except life as it is and make the best out of it.
JBN.S: – What brings you fear or anxiety?
JS: – We’ll deal with that, when it comes around. Such is life for everyone.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
JS: – There are no boundaries and limitations. To narrow it down: most likely and hopefully more trio jazz albums, such as my favorite pianists as Enrico Pieranunzi, Jean-Michel Pilc and many many more.
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
JS: – Jazz is world and folk music. It’s based on African folk music, mixed with European folk and later European classical music, influenced by American native folk music … there’s no distinction. Music is one big galaxy, all ingredients for great music are there.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JS: – Pat Metheny solo guitar albums, Enrico Pieranunzi’s solo piano music amongst many others. Although I love to listen to bassists and other instruments, just piano or guitar gets me in touch directly with the heart of the composition.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
JS: – I’m playing a double bass build by Jerome Thibouville Lamy (Paris around 1895-1900), since 17 years. It’s an original four string bass, which was odd for French basses in the 19th century. Maintained by my fave luthier Harry Jansen, Amsterdam.
Evah Pirazzi (medium) strings by Pirastro, which fits for any style I play.
A Roger Lotte French bow (build around 1930-1935), black bow hair.
A David Gage Realist pick up, directly into a MarkBass Mini Mark 121 amp.
A Audio Technica or DPA goose neck clip on mic directly to the FOH mixing console.
I’m just a part of my bass’ life, I love to take very good care of “her” long and beautiful life.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan