“Do you still play your Bass?”
I was often asked this question by friends from years past, and perhaps more tellingly my family every now and then – and it frustrated me. What place did music have in my life now?
I was disconnected from it, and from the instrument that had represented not only a creative and expressive outlet in my formative years, but that had been synonymous with my sense of identity since childhood. This severance, this silence, was perhaps easier than admitting that I had failed.
“Dare to be honest…”
Robert Burns, (1789)
If truth be told, my motivation to play had dissipated as I slowly began to reach a perceived plateau in my playing – both in a technical sense and in the enjoyment that I gained from it. There was a feeling of there being too much space in what I played, more room for articulation and punctuation, but I lacked the tools to fill it.
Like most bass players, I had taught myself to play the instrument in the traditional manner – that is, with the purpose of playing bass lines. This was after all, the instrument’s purpose – to support, to provide a foundation and underlay of tone for the good of the musical collective – wasn’t it?
Conventional finger plucking and ‘slap’ technique lent themselves well to this role and playing style. However, from my own perspective, in approaching the instrument in this way, the spatial-temporal limitations determined by such techniques seemed to increasingly represent expressive and creative constraint.
In other words, my hands couldn’t create the language I wished to speak – the type of language I heard listening to Victor Wooten.
Esteemed as one of the most talented musicians of our time, and one of the pioneers of Solo Bass playing, he has been my chief musical inspirator.
When I listened to his music, I heard boundaries being broken, a sound unlike any other. The innovation, the intelligence, his playing almost seemed ‘alien’, from somewhere unknown, unreachable, powerful in its ability to evoke, but equally convey feeling. All ten-fingers were used – most notably the thumb – he tapped, slapped, screeched, drummed – nothing seemed impossible, wielding the instrument with such mastery as to create a sound more akin to a four-piece band – drums, bass guitar and keys intertwined seemingly effortlessly.
All with just four strings…
I revisited Victor Wooten’s work in my early twenties as I approached a natural cross roads in life. Could I learn how to play like him? Absolutely not, for who could? However, I thought that if I could even begin to emulate his techniques, I perhaps stood a chance of unlocking new levels of expressive and creative freedom. Perhaps, this was the key to ‘finding my voice’, in speaking a new musical language.
I contemplated if the multi-faceted commitment such an undertaking would require, was worth it. Glaringly apparent was the reality that I would need to start from the beginning. I would need to re-learn how to play my instrument.
I regret, that this was not to be – at least, not yet. The saying ‘life gets in the way’ perhaps best conveys why my journey stalled. The Bass stayed in its case for the best part of a decade. In truth, it may have been easier to give up than consider the prospect of failure, more appealing to focus on other things, to make excuses.
Upon reflection, my motivation to play the bass was perhaps over-reliant on the pursuit of its mastery, and the perceived sense of achievement and success that came with it, rather than from what had drawn me to pick it up the guitar in the first place: a need to express; to create sound; to feel; to connect; to perform; because dad played it.
“Music is related to everything, especially nature and language, but in order to speak it naturally, I had to first make myself a part of it.”
Victor L. Wooten (2008)
‘Bass à Alba’ – meaning ‘Bass from Scotland’ in Scottish Gaelic – represents the culmination of my experiencing somewhat of a musical renaissance in more recent years, and my own realisation of its meaningfulness.
In 2019, revisiting my instrument after a long lay-off, and with a great deal of study, observation, and time – a great deal of time – I began to develop some of the techniques exhibited by Victor Wooten over the many months that ensued.
It was during this period, that I began experimenting with utilising them in playing some of my best-loved music from Scotland. Nothing felt more natural, more connected.
Scottish Traditional Music was after all, to me, the music of family, of home, of childhood, of celebration, of sorrow, of nature, of inspiring landscape, people and places. A familiar language, that left little in wanting as far as a creative stimulus was concerned. I pursued emulating the sounds and melodies made by traditional Scottish instruments – namely the fiddle and bagpipes – with my newfound tools.
Fuelling my motivation and aspirations further, was the news that The Wooten Brothers would be performing in London at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in November 2019.
As a fan, I was thrilled at the prospect of being able to bear witness to my greatest musical influencer – but moreover, it seemed that doing so may offer a unique dimension from which new perceptions of their playing could be drawn. I hoped that this would make my mission more tangible, perhaps even more achievable – I hoped. At the very least, I thought it may offer the formation of a novel construct in my mind to refer to in my journey.
A ‘Bass Quest’ my father and I jested, as we travelled to London on the Caledonian Sleeper.
When we arrived at the venue, fate – or so it would seem – was on our side. We were ushered to our seats – stage-side.
As I watched my idol perform less than 5-feet from where we sat, and their family of truly gifted musicians, it was euphoric, elative, inspiring.
It was truly humbling.
I watched him slacken his strings out-of-tune, as if to change them, and return them to perfect pitch – mid-song, – without a single note of discord sounding out-of-place, but rather purposeful, meaningful, musical.
I watched him and Reggie Wooten play each other’s instrument’s simultaneously with their own hung from their shoulders, brilliantly… even to describe it is baffling.
Perhaps most impressive of all – he barely looked down at his instrument. The eyes, unphased by his show of hands, engaged with the audience and his co-performers almost for the entirety of the concert. Every corner of the stage was walked, and he ‘spoke’ to every person in the room.
I couldn’t stop smiling. I hadn’t smiled so much in years.
The trip to London was fuel to the fire. It made my solo bass aspirations a certainty, and the prospect of failure incomprehensible.
Making my debut busking at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2020 was what I set my mind to. Well, it would technically be a debut – at least of sorts – for I had busked with my bass on the Royal Mile as a teenager during summer months ‘slapping’ and ‘popping’ my favourite Flea bass lines.
In light of COVID-19 however, this prospect diminished, and my focus shifted to recording. I adapted to the idea of launching a digital presence, that was perhaps, a little more daunting. However, to postpone or delay felt wrong. I thought I would seize the day, as after all, who knows what tomorrow would bring.
This was the story of how ‘Bass à Alba’ (to the best of this writer’s knowledge) Scotland’s First Solo Bass Creative Works came to be.
What a privilege it is then, in our modern age of creative and expressive liberty made possible by technology, to pay homage to the musical heritage of Scotland, in my own small way.
Significant to me, is that I have done so with the instrument gifted to me from my father, a former ‘Tartan Amoeba’, without-doubt my most important musical influence.
My father’s instrument, ‘Dad’s Bass’, depicted on the cover-artwork of my debut EP, that as a boy I had watched him play from its pubs, halls and castles – to the sound of the pipes.
I guess it will always be his, whether he likes it or not. The same way it has always been a part of me.
I can only hope that I have done it all, and the gifted creators of whose music I have chosen to perform, some justice,
I hope others will hear and enjoy listening to Traditional Scottish Music spoken in, perhaps, a new language.
Bass, it would seem, or at least mine, will be in the eye of the beholder.
• Robert Burns letter to R. Graham of Fintry, dated 9th December, 1789.
• Victor L. Wooten (2008) ‘The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music’ Berkley Publishing Group; Illustrated Edition.
Artist Official YouTube Channel
‘Bass à Alba’ will be released in the coming weeks.