John Patitucci’s Sustained Intensity

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John Patitucci has embraced composition, leader projects and large-scale collaborations since his former boss, saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter, retired from touring.

(Photo: Peter Freed)

John Patitucci has really put himself out there the past few years. He’s been noticeably active as a first-call sideman, an ambitious leader and an all-around go-to guy in the realms of orchestration, production and composition since his former boss, Wayne Shorter, officially retired from touring in 2018.

A member of Shorter’s esteemed quartet with pianist Danilo Pérez and drummer Brian Blade for the past two decades, the Brooklyn-born Patitucci, 61, emerged on the Los Angeles studio scene in the early 1980s after studying classical bass at San Francisco State University and Long Beach State University. His prowess on both upright and electric basses immediately caught the attention of his West Coast peers and earned him MVP status in the realms of straightahead jazz and fusion. Then, in 1985 he began a career-defining association with Chick Corea.

Corea not only gave Patitucci plenty of work as a regular member of his Elektrik Band (with saxophonist Eric Marienthal, guitarist Frank Gambale and drummer Dave Weckl) and as a collaborator in numerous different ensembles over the decades, including the Akoustic Band. He also encouraged Patitucci as a player and composer, and served as a professional mentor and personal friend who helped get him his first multirecord deal on the GRP label.

“Chick’s belief in me at a young age enabled me to explore and push myself to try to be more like him,” Patitucci said shortly after Corea’s passing. “He had so many different types of compositions and styles of music that he could freely cross between, which was one of the reasons he was such a hero of mine. I wanted to be part of all that. I wanted to be able to play both my instruments, and then to experiment with everything, all the different kinds of grooves and even classical music, which he did so seamlessly through his career.

“Luckily, I was able to express my gratitude and my love for all he’s done many times over the last 36 years,” the bassist reflected. “We have continued playing, and we were supposed to go out again this summer with the Elektric Band.”

Beyond his high-profile work with Corea and Shorter, Patitucci has been an important presence on the New York scene since he moved back to the city from the West Coast more than 25 years ago. He has led multiple trios, both live and in the studio, including Irmãos de Fé, a group specializing in Brazilian music with guitarist Yotam Silberstein and drummer Rogério Boccato, whose self-titled LP was remixed and remastered for rerelease in digital and CD formats last year.

Trio, a new recording with pianist Bill Cunliffe and drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, is among a slate of new releases on the upstart Le Coq label featuring Patitucci. It was recorded on the spot at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles, where the three musicians had converged for 2019 recording sessions with Le Coq artist Andy James and suddenly found themselves with a few extra hours to spare. At the suggestion of label head Piero Pata, the impromptu trio agreed upon a list of standards they all knew in common—including many tunes that Cunliffe has been playing his whole life—and got to work laying them down, one after the other.

“Do you remember the Miles Davis sessions in 1955 where he had to do several records for Fantasy to get out of his contract so he could continue to work for Columbia?” Cunliffe said. “He went into the studio and in like two days he did his entire repertoire. He played all the things the band knew. So, it was a snapshot of where he was at that time, which is why I think those records have endured. This project was kind of a snapshot of where John, Vinnie and I are at musically. As a result, it was tunes that we all knew, and it was pretty much all first takes.”

Cunliffe was particularly impressed with Patitucci’s instincts and abilities in the studio.

“With John, you can put music in front of him, you can tell him there’s no music. You can tell him there’s a concept and he’ll follow it, or you can have him make up the concept,” Cunliffe said. “There’s kind of nothing you can’t do with John because he knows classical music, he knows jazz, he’s got big ears. And whatever he hears, he can go for, whether he’s playing acoustic or electric. It’s like John is the proto-, mega-musician who happens to play the bass.”

“John has that rare talent to be able to blend in and amplify the music of every artist we have worked with,” Pata observed of his house bassist. “He just knows when to shine through or just sit back and set the vibe. I wanted a very versatile player that could play any rhythm and style of jazz, Latin and flamenco that I thought would suit our ‘honest jazz’ theme here at Le Coq Records. John is just that player.”

From his ambitious 2019 solo album Soul Of The Bass (Three Faces), to the 2020 premiere of his Donald Trump-themed extended work Hypocrisy at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, to scoring a documentary film about gang violence in Chicago that’s due out this spring, Patitucci continues to approach every project and every gig with the same level of intensity that has long sustained his reputation as the consummate pro.

Patitucci made his strongest personal statement to date with Soul Of The Bass, an intimate recording that showcases the leader on multiple basses playing original pieces, improvising freely and taking on Bach’s “Allemande In D Minor.” The album features contributions from his wife, Sachi, on cellos, and his daughter, Greisun, on vocals. Drummer Nate Smith makes appearances on two tracks.

“That was a big deal for me, because I had heard Dave Holland’s solo bass album, Emerald Tears, in 1979,” Patitucci said. “And it was very daring. There weren’t any records like it that I’d ever heard. And Dave’s sound was really beautiful and well recorded. So, it took me 40 years to get the courage to do a solo bass record. I was almost 60 at the time. And I felt like, ‘It’s kind of now or never; I need to get up the courage to try to do this. Otherwise, I never will.’ So, I went for it.

“It was very liberating,” he continued. “And the funny thing was, I was really scared to do it. It was terrifying, but then it actually rolled right out pretty organically. I took a lot of seeds that I had recorded on my phone in hotel rooms, just little ideas. And then some things were completely improvised at the studio. And then, of course, the Bach. So, it was very organic, and it turned out to be something very honest.”

Patitucci has since put on solo performances at the Umbria Jazz Festival, as well as a few smaller-scale concerts in other parts of Italy. He considers it just another creative outlet and hopes to play more solo gigs as opportunities arise.

Patitucci’s film-scoring chops will be on full display this year with the March release of the faith-inspired documentary Chicago: America’s Hidden War, for which he wrote 88 minutes of music.

“It’s a beautiful documentary about a pastor friend of mine, Dimas Salaberrios, who went back to Chicago to help raise awareness about the gangs, the police brutality and the government corruption,” he said. “It’s all about those people—there are no actors. Dimas is interviewing and hanging with real people, and pastors who are trying to help these guys.”

The music Patitucci scored for one scene in particular was so heavy that he had to dial back the intensity at the filmmaker’s request. “I wrote a really scary thing with the basses—it was like Alfred Hitchcock almost, because there’s a sequence where they show a montage of all this police violence, and it shows George Floyd and all these different people basically being murdered by the cops. And I was like, ‘Man, I can’t write regular music for this. This is horror.’ Dimas came back and said he needed me to write something a little tamer because George Floyd’s family might come to this movie, and we don’t want to traumatize them again.”

Late last year, Patitucci learned that Chicago: America’s Hidden War was under consideration for the upcoming Academy Awards. “We made the first cut, and we’re praying that we can get a nomination,” he said. “It was exciting for me to finally do a film and have it be about something that I cared so much about.”

Hypocrisy was another work of passion.

“When 2016 rolled around and he who shall remain nameless became the leader of the free world, I was very upset for many reasons,” he said. “And also, as someone of faith, I was very upset that there were people who said they believed like I did, who would actually support someone like him. I couldn’t figure out how that equated with a faith that I considered was all about love and sacrifice, and helping the underdog and giving to the immigrant and the poor. That, to me, is what Christianity is all about. So, this other stuff—I don’t even know what to call it—helped facilitate the rise to power of the only dictator we ever had in America. So, I felt like I had to write this piece.”

Patitucci described how his feelings on the subject translated into music. “I used a thing that sounded like a hymn theme in some of it, but then I made the harmony get really thick and scary in some parts,” he said. “So, it was that kind of thing where something that you’re familiar with becomes twisted. And then I mixed it with this tune I wrote called ‘Agitato’ that was on a record of mine called Line By Line. There’s a fugue-ish section in Hypocrisy that comes from ‘Agitato,’ which is agitated and nervous. I thought that energy in there was appropriate for all the stress that came about after a certain person got in the White House.”

Patitucci, who performed the piece last January with Pérez, Blade and a small orchestra at the Royal Academy in Toronto, left some windows in it for improvisation. He also included dramatic sections where the musicians would pause and let the audience sense the chaos of what that hypocrisy had created.

“We had everybody playing kind of free but agitated; they could pick any notes from their part and play them at any speed,” he said. “So, you had the hymn melody that kind of got twisted with harmony, and then all of a sudden we would rest on things and the musicians would start to stretch and the whole orchestra would become kind of free.”

Patitucci continues to keep up a steady flow of creative output stemming from all corners of his wide-ranging musical experience. He has written and arranged charts as part of a jazz-meets-classical collaboration with the Harlem String Quartet that led to live performances with the group at Ravinia in suburban Chicago, New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center and a livestreamed February show at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He played a virtual concert of Neopolitan music in December for Boston radio station WGBH with saxophonist and fellow Berklee faculty member Marco Pignatoro’s Jazztet with Strings. He appears on keyboardist Steve Hunt’s brand new album Connections, and he has produced albums by bassist Janek Gwisdala (The Union) and bassist John Lang (Now Ear This).

Meanwhile, he has been preparing for the eventual premiere of Shorter’s long-awaited opera Iphigenia, which will feature himself, Pérez and Blade as the core rhythm section of the orchestra. “It’s been going on for two or three years now,” he said of the project, which features a libretto written by Esperanza Spalding. “In classical music and opera, the funding thing takes forever and it’s a different world. Things move much slower.”

He’s also looking forward to future recording sessions for the Le Coq label, including a project with Andy James singing tunes Patitucci co-wrote with his daughter for the occasion.

When you’re as talented and committed to excellence as Patitucci, opportunities abound, even during the most challenging times. Today, he stands poised to pursue whatever brings out the best in him.

“I’m not sure which thing I’m going to do next,” he mused. “But I would definitely like to do more orchestration, more film scoring and more writing projects of my own.” DB



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