Jazz interview with jazz bassist Alex Tremblay. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?
Alex Tremblay: – I’m originally from a small town called North Providence in Rhode Island, It’s on the outskirts of the capital city of Providence. I originally began playing when I was around 11 years old and that happened because my two best friends at the time, who happened to be brothers both played instruments, one played guitar and the other played drums. I would hang out with them on the weekends and one day my stepdad who was best friends with their dad for many years said “all you guys need is a bass player then you can have a band.” With my birthday around the corner I asked for an electric bass and that’s how it all began. I took lessons for years and it seemed to be the one thing that I really enjoyed and that came a little easier to me then other things I was trying, sports, etc . I was always pretty passionate about it but I think when I really realized it was what I wanted to do was when I first discovered Jaco Pastorius and then later Ray Brown. Both of those individuals had such a unique and identifiable sound that it blew my mind and really directed me in the path of pursuing this career for my lifetime. I would also add that years later when I was in high school I watched a lot of my friends take the normal minimum wage retail type jobs that every 16 year old or so gets and because I was gigging I luckily started making enough money playing that I didn’t necessarily have to do that and I thought that was pretty cool that I could at least make enough to have some spending money to call my own or save up for more gear.
JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound? What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?
AT: – Wow this is a great question. My sound has evolved a lot over time the more that I discover new music and new players/writers. When I was younger a big part of my love of electric bass was Jaco and James Jamerson, and I did everything I could to learn as much of their music as I possibly could from playing with records and reading transcriptions, etc. After I heard Ray Brown I fell in love with the upright bass and I really had a kinship with the instrument. Early on I was really influenced primarily by Ray Brown, Scott LaFaro, and Christian McBride, and It was during college at the Jackie McLean Institute at the Hartt College of Music studying under the great bassist Nat Reeves, that I started diving a little deeper into the history of the music and the bass. Nat had us studying such a wide breadth of the history from Slam Stewart to Paul Chambers and on and on. I’ve taken a little bit from a lot of these players and still listen to a ton of music to continue to develop. In terms of excercises and things that I do or have done, its kind of a lot of the same things most people tend to do. I’ve done a fair amount of transcription of both basslines and solos, not always writing it out but mainly just learning it, however, these days I do tend to write things out more than I did in the past. I’ve also practiced playing really slow when working on composing my own basslines over tunes. I’ve found that the slower I practice the more I can focus on the intention of my notes, note choices, note length, relaxation, breathing, my overall sound, and whether I’m enjoying what’s coming out of the instrument or not. I encourage a lot of my students to do this because its an easy way of simultaneously training your mind, ears, and hands to all work in harmony. I also feel that there are certain elements of your sound that improve as you develop as a person. You play the way you are, for better or for worse. The more you work on yourself and learn how you deal with adversity or conflicts in life directly carries over into how you sound on the bandstand. You’re a human being first before anything and it’s important for musicians to recognize that. In terms of rhythm, I tend to work with a metronome and clap difficult rhythms or claves that I may be struggling with. Once again, I do this really slow before even considering to work it up to a higher tempo. Orlando LeFleming has a great book called Gettin It Together where he addresses rhythmic vocabulary in a very systematic way that I’ve found super helpful. I learned a lot from taking a few lessons with him and working on the excercises in the book, and I tend to go through phases of making it a part of my practice. Studying harmony for me is all about writing music and sitting at the piano. I am by no means a very proficient piano player, but it’s the best thing for any musician to get familiar with regardless of their primary instrument. I tend to struggle at times with balancing all of these things because I feel internally that I should always just be practicing the bass and developing that. However, in these moments I tell myself that the overall arch of just working on Music on the whole is more important, and it ends up being all- encompassing. I’ve also become kind of militant when it comes to a practice schedule and a routine that I can follow on the daily. I feel that the more of a plan I have the more success and accomplishment I feel at the end of my session, so having a written out idea of what I want to address really helps, especially when my gig schedule is as busy as it is.
JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?
AT: – A lot of these things tend to be all about mindset for me. There are musical elements to it for sure. If the music is challenging original music, I isolate the most challenging passages. If it’s a rhythmic thing, I make sure I can clap the rhythm while counting it, this helps internalize it and make it easier when I do play it on the bass. If it’s a harmonic issue, I isolate that harmony and either improvise freely on that one sound until I have it in my ear, or, I’ll sit at the piano and experiment with voicings, or, I’ll try to slowly develop lines over that sound using all the different rhythmic subdivisions (i.e. Quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets…). In terms of Spiritual stamina, what I’ve done outside the bandstand helps the most with that. I’m a martial artist and have been training in Muay Thai for the past 6 years or so regularly. This, in conjunction with regular meditation and journaling has really given my life the balance that it needed for a long time and having that balance has directly affected what I can do on the bandstand. Playing music for a living can be a difficult task and a lot of the times many musicians battle with self-doubt, insecurities, and question their purpose. Add to that the occasional experience of feeling of disrespect by bar/restaurant staff or private gig client/s that want you to be glorified radio and it can turns into an emotional rollercoaster where the highs are incredibly high and the lows, incredibly low. There’s a stigma and false narrative in society on musicians that’s perpetuated by movies and tv and for many of us these assumptions are not based in truth, especially for musicians who are playing the style of music that I am. You’d be hard-pressed to find a group of people more dedicated to what they do then serious jazz musicians. This is the difficult element of what we do and unfortunately our families, if they are the supportive type, have to bear the brunt of what that can do to us emotionally. There are many places and people that do treat us with respect and love but the reality of playing music professionally, is that for most of us, especially younger artists who aren’t in the festival/major club circuits, those spaces aren’t the ones that we’re typically playing every day. Having a community outside of what I do for a living within music has afforded me a great space to deal with some of the day-to-day stress that can happen and I’m super grateful for it.
JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Thoughts & Images, how it was formed and what you are working on today.
AT: – This is an easy one. The Band. I have put together a band for this record that I knew was going to sound great playing the music but has even exceeded my expectations. Every gig we play goes by and it feels like 5 minutes. A couple of the shows that we’ve played our sets have run an hour and forty-five minutes long and we all look at each other in disbelief afterwards when we realize it. I’m super fortunate to have such a great band, all of which are great people and bandleaders/songwriters as well. Today I’m currently working on releasing another record with a longtime friend and guitarist Dan Liparini, whom I’ve known and have been playing with for nearly 20 years. We used to play duo all the time in Rhode Island as kids and we ended up going to college together. We recorded this duo record in two days and we each contributed some new compositions to it. For the Thoughts and Images Band, we have a couple shows coming up at Smalls and The Django in the new year and I plan on writing and recording a second album with this band in the new year as well. I’m also working on planning some tours and such.
JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?
AT: – I selected all of the musicians on the record based off people I thoroughly enjoy playing with and being around. I feel like its so important to the music and how I want my music to sound, that I feel comfortable and able to trust the musicians I’m working with. Pretty much everyone on the record I’ve worked extensively with over the years and I love them all as people which to me makes a big difference in the music. We’ve all had so much fun playing with this group so far and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the music continues to develop over time. I love the idea of creating a band vibe and an overall band sound. That collaborative nature is how we ended up with great bands like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Coltrane’s quartets, and Miles Davis’ various projects. Its important to me to continue in this tradition and to continue to provide opportunities to young artists to continue to hone their sounds in environments with this collaborative mindset.
JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
AT: – Interesting question. I think they ideally need to work together but soul is the more important of the two in my opinion. When it comes to playing music I feel its important to use intellect in the practice room to get to a point where when your on the bandstand you can abandon it and just play from what’s happening in the moment. Most great musicians that I’ve talked to tend to say similar things in that they try not to think too much when they play because if they’re thinking than they’re not fully present and listening. The more you’re thinking on the bandstand the less your truly in the moment. However, in the practice room it’s important to use intellect to intentionally figure out what you need to do to get to that point that when you’re on the bandstand that you can really be free to move and play within the present moment which only comes from excellent practice habits and awareness.
JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?
AT: – The relationship between the audience and artist is one of my favorites and I suppose that’s because I never know how they’re going to react to what we’re playing. You obviously as the artist want them to really enjoy the music and what you have to offer, but you also can’t necessarily play seeking their approval because you can’t control how anyone is going to feel about anything. I think overall if the artist is creating music that feels good and is executed at a high level combined with honesty, clarity, and sincerity; somebody, somewhere, will enjoy it. There’s a lot of negative aspects about online streaming these days but one of the positives is that its given smaller independent artists a platform and another way to get their music out there to audiences that they may never have been able to access before without physically being there. I’m in no way advocating for the streaming platforms because the pay per stream is laughable, but the crux of what I’m saying is that the available audiences are now wider which gives the artist more opportunities to deliver their music to more people.
JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?
AT: – There’s so many moments to be honest but one that sticks out in my head happened when I was on the road in Colombia in South America with the Kelly Green Trio. We were playing this concert hall and in the middle of a tune the entire power of the building went out and the whole place went pitch black. Being that we were playing all acoustic instruments we kept on playing in the dark and the audience lit up the stage with their cell phone lights until the power came back on. It was such a cool vibe, and the people of Colombia were such a pleasure to be around and to play for. They took really good care of us while we were there and it was truly one of the highlights of my career.
JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?
AT: – I think it has to do with how the music is portrayed to them. If we portray these songs as being a half a century or more old and tell them that its “old” music without explaining its relevance, than that’s what they believe. Jazz music or Black American Classical Music is the freshest and newest music that is out there, and its been that way for a long time. its about the source its coming from, who is teaching it, why they’re teaching it, and why its significant to everything that has come after it, in my opinion. First off, we need to really re-educate our teachers on this art form and its importance, not just music teachers either but all teachers of all subjects. This music a vital part of American history and its been pushed aside for racial reasons only being taught mostly during black history month, which is I think speaks more volumes than anything about our past and our hesitance societally to work to right past wrongs. Black History, including but not limited to its music, IS American History and is a vital part of it. Without the Blues, Gospel music, and Jazz, you don’t have the musical developments that have led to other styles, rock, Motown, soul, etc, that have led to the popular music that’s on the radio today. Everything comes from somewhere. The lineage is right before our eyes, and there just isn’t the education, dedication, and prioritization to open our eyes to it. Unfortunately, if we just follow what society and pop culture says jazz is we end up with a skewed and massively distorted idea of the true beauty of it. Imagine what would happen if young kids got to see master musicians play those same “old” standards on a regular basis at the highest level there is, live and in person, or experience what a jazz club like Smalls or the Village Vanguard is like from a front row seat. There are great organizations that are doing the work to try to make this happen, of which I’m fortunate to work for a couple of them, Newport Festivals Foundation, and BackCountry Jazz, but it needs to happen on a grander scale with support from all the educational systems in this country to affect any change. We prioritize math, history, and science, but, in all my travels, the one thing people abroad care about that comes out of the states is the arts culture. Music, television, theatre, and movies are the only aspects of American life that truly travels abroad, and it remains the subject that gets little attention and support within our country and in our educational systems, being deemed extracurricular or qualifying to be eliminated entirely from our young ones’ education. Its happened more than once while traveling that people have told me that’s even how they learned how to speak English, yet artists are still fighting here for a living wage, trying to negotiate with bars, restaurants, and clubs for a raise from an already low wage to something slightly lower. Respect for the arts and the artists is something that needs to change systemically and I feel the best way is to change how we educate our young people about it.
JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?
AT: – If I could change one thing in the musical world it would be for musicians to be respected as highly skilled craftsmen/women. What we do takes a long time to be able to do at a high level and I don’t feel overall we get respected on a fair scale for it. Along with being respected as a highly specialized person would also come with a much higher standard wage per gig which still for most musicians can be painfully low for day to day gigs which makes buying a house, feeding ourselves and/or our families healthy food, much more difficult.
JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?
AT: – These days I find myself listening to a lot of different things. There’s this great record by one of my favorite singers Nancy Wilson, called Live in Las Vegas. I’ve been loving this record, Buster Williams is the bassist on it, and he just sounds incredible from the first note to the last. I’ve also been checking out some of my peers’ music too. Vanisha Gould (who sings on my record) and Lucy Yeghiazaryan did a record called In Her Words that I’ve found myself going back to a lot over the last 6 months or so. I’ve also been listening a lot to Brad Mehldau Trio’s record called Songs on and off for the past year and a half or so. I studied with Larry Grenadier who has been a part of Brad’s trio for a long time, privately ,and I love his playing on that entire record. He has such beautiful sound and is such a solid and inventive bassist, I’ve been inspired a lot by his playing on many things but this one in particular. I’ve also been checking out JD Allen’s newest record Americana Vol. 2 with Charlie Hunter, Gregg August, and Rudy Royston. JD was one of my teachers at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program in 2015 and I’m a big fan of his music and concept.
JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
AT: – The message is simple. Be a kind person, care about others but not at the expense of your identity, and always look deeper into yourself. I want people when they hear my bass playing or my music that they’re receiving a hug from it and that they hear hope, light, and positivity from listening to it.
JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…
AT: – Great questions for sure, and I hope that I’ve answered them in a way that lets you deeper into who I am as a person and as an artist. Now question for you:
What is one of the most memorable of all the interviews you’ve done and who was it with and why would you choose this particular interview?
JBN: – Thank you for your answers. This question. In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul? with Barry Harris and Dave Holland, which was eventually edited and shaped like this. This question is the key, the whole interview is about this, or before this question and after this question, the interview should either be useful for the musician or interesting for the readers. You are good at answering the questions, some don’t understand at all because they don’t have intelligence, the most intelligent understand the reefs and cope well. I will not say that there are those who say that these questions are not about me, I only express my condolences.
JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?
AT: – I have given free concerts before in the past, mainly when I was younger. I do things now sometimes for reduced rates, especially if its for a good cause, but generally I’m a big advocate for maintaining high standards for myself and the musicians that I work with, so I don’t do many free things anymore. I’ve found that I can dedicate that time that I would be playing for free to growing as a musician or looking for work that will pay a more suitable amount. Bottom line for this interview, I hope that I’ve given you some great answers to work with and that even though I feel I’ve answered a lot of the questions thoroughly I hope that whatever makes it in the publication paints the picture of who I am and what I stand for as an artist and as a person. I’m a person who is kind, generous, loves having fun but is serious about what I do, and dedicated to constantly trying to develop as a musician and as a person. This interview was fun and I really appreciate you reaching out. Thank You!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan