Jazz Interview with jazz contrabassist Peter Paulsen. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Peter Paulsen: – I grew up in Bergen County, North New Jersey, in the 1960’s, and the soundtrack to my childhood was the pop/rock music of the times. Along with the influence of my grandfather, who loved all kinds of music from Brahms to Elvis and played piano completely by ear, there was the influence of my parents who had all their favorite big band singers but also saw all the acts on the Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Jack Benny, Steve Lawrence, etc. shows, and also the influence of the friends I kept, who all had good sized record collections. A few of the bands I was really drawn to were Blind Faith, The Yardbirds, Cream, Jimi Hendrix and, of course, The Beatles. In 1968, I bought my first two jazz albums, Miles Davis “Nefertiti” and “Coltrane’s Sound”, both of which I didn’t completely understand but knew there was substance there! I studied piano, trumpet and guitar as a teenager and did not start playing the bass until finishing undergrad art school at 21 years old.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the contrabass?
PP: – I attended Art School outside of Philadelphia and vividly remember seeing/hearing the John Coltrane Quartet on Philly television around 1972, possibly on the Mike Douglas Show, and at one point the camera stayed close-up on Paul Chambers’ right hand during a bass solo…I couldn’t quite believe that what I was hearing could be connected to what I was seeing his right hand execute!! My curiosity became obsessively insistent and I eventually went to a 2nd Ave. pawn shop in Manhattan and bought a plywood Kay for $350.00! The music of Charles Mingus was also very influential and motivating in my early development.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the contrabass?
PP: – My first teacher was Owen Cummings of the Baltimore Symphony, who graciously took me on as a student before I could read a note of music…up to that point exclusively playing “by ear.” He introduced me to some of the standard double bass method books and beginning classical solo repertoire. I did my Undergrad Bass Performance degree with Dr. Irving Cohen, continuing with classical etude books and orchestral repertoire, while at the same time studying jazz with Al Stuaffer in his Philadelphia studio. I continued two years of private studies with Homer Mensch at the Julliard School and jazz studies with Rufus Reid, followed by Graduate Performance degree studies with Mike Shahan, Assistant Principal Bass of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Of course, the studying and learning is never finished, and I continue to glean insights from recordings, players on all instruments, videos and students in my studio.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
PP: – This is a complex, elusive and ever changing/developing pursuit that manifests itself in a variety of ways, depending on style of music, nature of differing ensembles, nature of the physical environment, amplified or acoustic, pizzicato or arco, etc.. Therefore, I feel that we have to be extremely flexible in our approach to sound and nimble in accessing and executing what is required for each situation.Listening to players that came before is one of the most important sources and inspirations in recognizing what a great sound means to you. I remember while in school practicing in the dark to better focus on sound without distraction and also hyper-sensitive attention to intonation through the “feel” of fingering, hand position, string crossings and shifting… without “sight”. There are so many crucial physical aspects of the type of string, quality of instrument and bow, type of rosin, bow arm weight/speed, definition of right hand in pizzicato, left hand “weight” and fingering articulation in stopping string. I have certainly experimented with and made numerous changes to my amplification equipment over the years and approach the “search” for a better sound as an ongoing pursuit without end. A regime of slow, deliberate practice (especially Bach) in order to create the necessary time and environment towards attention to sound is detrimental.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
PP: – Most of my practicing is done with the bow (arco) and centered around, first, scales and arpeggios in a broad variety of speeds, rhythms, bowings and specific written exercises, always with a metronome and a drone note to play “against.” Secondly, playing lines through chord progressions (tunes) in many keys, either written out or completely improvised, always with a metronome. Thirdly, working through solo repertoire (especially Bach) at incrementally developing tempos, from VERY slow up to performance speed, always with a metronome. My rhythmic curiosity is insatiable and my Latin friends quickly make me aware of how much more I have to learn!! Also, studying scores and seeing/hearing rhythms notated is a huge help, as well as conceiving/notating rhythms in my own composing.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
PP: – For me this could be considered an unanswerable question for a musician to confidently answer. It would be rather similar in asking a writer what his/her most frequently used word or sentence is, or a painter what his/her favorite color is. The first dilemma is that this like or dislike would change over the lifetime of an artist, and the second would have to do with the effect another color would have on a “preferred” color. Appealing and appropriate harmonies and harmonic progressions would have as much to do with what chord proceeds or follows, as with the individual chords themselves. At the risk of getting too technical, I would say generally when playing other people’s compositions, I strive to“discover” singing melodic linesand harmonic relationships worthy of the piece, and in my own writing, I am attempting to “say” with conviction something that might “surprise” the listener and myself, either melodically, harmonically rhythmically, etc..
JBN.S: – Which are the best ten jazz albums for you this 2017 year?
PP: – The majority of my listening is of a varied sort, with jazz music compromising only a small percentage. Four albums stand out in my 2017 purchases, Ron Stabinsky’s “free for one”solo piano improvisations (we work together); Nina Simone’s “Nina Simone & Piano” (Nina’s 20th Century art song recording); Kenny Werner’s “Coalition” (incredibly creative quintet);Tony Glausi’s “Christmas” (I had the pleasure of playing with Tony when he won the International Trumpet Guild Jazz Competition…and it’s Christmas, after all).
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?
PP: – The Boy Scout motto, “Be Prepared” is so simple yet provocatively multi-faceted advice. Continue to master the craft, be responsible and dependable, have a love and passion for what you are doing and present it with conviction!
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore,can jazz be a business today or someday?
PP: – When the priority becomes the business outcome, the creative art of any discipline is adverselychallenged. My doctor (who is an amateur trumpet player) always has said to me that we refer to “the practice of medicine” precisely for the reason that medicine is an art! That is not to say that a musician (or a doctor) should not make money at making the art, but that the “core reason” for the music’s (or medicine’s) existence should exhibit a balance between communicating the artist’s intensions (or doctor’s diagnosis) with enhancing the listener’s (or patient’s) condition. This is a very tricky and illusive subject that I do not pretend to have a definitive answer for.Perhaps Dave Eggar, a free-lance cellist in New York, expresses this best…”In an ideal world we’d do exactly the work we want to do and we’d get paid for that. But that doesn’t happen for anyone, even the people who have that image. Major pop stars have to answer to labels or other business interests. Composers that look like they have totally envious careers from the outside still have to answer to artistic boards and the symphonies (orchestras) they write for. There’s compromise in every system, so everybody has to make intelligent choices about their careers that they can live with.”
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
PP: – Even at my age, this “generational distance” was also a challenge for me as a developing musician. When I was first being introduced to the Tin Pan Alley and Jazz standards I was almost two generations removed from the popularity of these tunes and could have easily looked at them as “old-fashioned” and not worthy of consideration on a set list. Most of my students today don’t seem to have any of that disinterest in these songs and, even with at least four generations of distance at the present, they understand the substance and value of studying and learning this repertoire. The amount of study material online certainly helps, as well as the occasional pop singer that puts out a “Standards” recording. As for the public mass audience, that’s a completely different challenge and most certainly is influenced by the vast media machine (TV, online streaming, YouTube, Spotify, movie scores, etc.). That being said, we persevere and entrust the younger generation of musicians coming out to continue to present the full scope of the repertoire. We can’t forget that jazz (all “genres” of music) is a fluid expression of the times and should ever becreatively growing and changing in order to be vital and relative to our time!!
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
PP: – As a Christian, the life, example, sacrifice and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ proceeds all I do as a person and musician. The gifts we are given are all from God and ultimately are really gifts given to glorify Him!! Life will go on without music…music is not detrimental to sustain us…however, if music humbly nurtures, spiritually inspires and truly magnifies the mercy and love of God through Jesus Christ, then it has accomplished its purpose.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
PP: – I am both optimistic and skeptical in my thoughts of “expectations of the future.” We have no say, of course, in what the future may bring, and certainly should not have any expectations of what, in fact, the future WILL bring. If we look at the recent history of what creative culture has meant to the masses, we could be led to believe that an interest, or even the slightest tolerance towards, anything fresh and original is hopeless…but, at the same time, the vitality and conviction of artists has never been so bold and filled with a passion to express and magnify all that is our culture.Creative endeavor brings immeasurable joy to those who “need” to create but, at the same time, comes with a price…solitude, marginalization, financial challenges, rejection, doubt, purpose…that has the potential to either overwhelm and stifle, or initiate change and liberate. It all depends on the attitude the work is created in that may, or may not, give it meaning.
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
PP: – As a performer, mastering control and command of the instrument is the path toward expressing what the music holds. For me that means having either a self-made (improvised) routine of practice or a repertoire-guided process of finding what is necessary for me to communicate “something” when I play. As a composer, framing the “seed” of an idea into a rhythmic, lyric and harmonic “personality”, then (and possibly most importantly) developing that “seed” into something far greater than I ever could have imagined from the start. Surprise is a welcomed friend!
JBN.S: – Are there any similarities between jazz and world music, including folk music?
PP: – Genre has become a hot topic of lately and “eclecticity” (my word) the goal among musicians!? Conglomerations of disparate musical styles and influences are more and more common in recent composition and instrumental/vocal performance techniques. While we can distinguish “styles” or “genres” of music, they all are made up of the same fundamental building blocks: sound, rhythm, melody, harmony and in vocal music, text. In a recent article in Chamber Music America, Peter Margasak writes, “in a world where popular culture increasingly flattens the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art and technology has made the entire history of recorded music just a click away, genre is often a dirty — or at least useless — word. More than ever, the lines between jazz and classical, and between improvisation and composition, are drifting and disappearing.”Referring to the demands this “freer outlook” of mixing styles places on free-lance performers, trumpeter Amir Elsaffar says, “It can be overwhelming , and being in different environments socially and musically — there are different protocols and behaviors. Performing is less about compartmentalizing and more about stepping into an environment.” Drummer, composer Tyshawn Sorey adds, “Genre doesn’t mean anything. It’s a way of marketing the music to a particular audience, but for me it doesn’t mean anything. For me genres don’t exist. If something inspires me to create something, whether it falls under whatever category, that’s really not up to me.” Violinist Jennifer Koh comments, “If I believe anything it’s great musicians and bad musicians, great art and bad art. I think that should be the defining metric. I feel like genre is pretty reductive for every art form. What I find interesting and what I’m interested in doing is building community. I think genre can marginalize different forms and that’s the issue I have with it.” Objectively, there are too many categories and sub-categories — scenarios and situations — cultures and nationalities, to form a general opinion. Subjectively, the range of what any category means to a musician as opposed to a listener — characterizing the source of inspiration — defining what appeals or doesn’t and why, couldn’t possibly lead to a beneficial answer.While I certainly appreciate and encourage relaxing any dogmatic limitations imposed on the process of creative art, an inevitable “price” will probably have to be “paid” for the loss of the discipline, focus and conviction that a genre demands of its practitioners and fans. So…”are there any similarities between jazz, world and folk music?” That seems to depend on who you ask — having much to do with the “ear of the beholder!” As we’ve heard,some would say bring it on, while others might ask, does it swing?
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
PP: – I teach both an improvisation course and an arranging course at the university so I do a huge amount of listening to the recorded examples I’ll use for the assignments. This list can range from early standards and folk tunes, through modern jazz and classical pieces, to music written yesterday. I have a tendency to check out things on YouTube, especially new stuff, and make it a habit to share these with students and colleagues, who in turn share back other things. Igor Stravinsky’s music is very important to me, and recently I have been spending a lot of time with “Symphony in D” for string orchestra and “Symphony in Three Movements”. Puccini’s opera, “Tosca”, is a favorite, as well as Benjamin Britten’s operas, “Turn of the Screw” and “Peter Grimes”.Actually, just this evening I went to Philly to hear the Philadelphia Orchestra and on the program were the “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten.Hearing that live was thrilling and humbling…witnessing how brilliant the balance of orchestration and counterpoint Britten was capable of. In the past week I’ve spent a lot of time with the tune “Elsa”, transcribing a few Bill Evans’ versions for a chart to be played on an up-coming concert.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
My classical instrument is not labeled, but believed to be a Bohemian double bass made around 1810. I have a set of Flexicore Deluxe strings on that for a warm arco sound and a resonant pizzicato. My jazz instrument I have had for over thirty years and was made by Harold Jaeger, Czechoslovakia 1933. I have a set of Thomastic Rope Core strings on that bass for a full, sustaining pizzicato sound and a manageably responsive arco sound. I use two pickups on the Jaeger, a Kolstein Planet on the bridge and a Gage Realist between the bridge and top. These two pickups are blended through either a Ravens Lab or D-TAR two channel preamp in order to separately EQ each pickup. I’ve used Walter Woods amplifiers exclusively throughout my career and recently have been using a LemurMusic ONYX flat-tuned cabinet with a 12” woofer and 5” tweeter. There are always other components on my “wish list” to try out and the quest for a better sound is an on-going journey.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan