As a jazz fan with a particular soft spot for bassists, I am beyond pleased to share this interview with John Goldsby. As the bassist for the WDR Big Band, John is happily busy playing with the world’s greatest jazz musicians. His great groove, inventive ideas, and masterful technique make him one of the most respected bassists on the globe (and a personal favorite of my own). I am very honored and grateful for John’s wonderful responses.
An Interview with John Goldsby:
Aidan Plank: Is there anything you would like the WOBC audience to know about your music?
John Goldsby: I think a connection to the jazz tradition is the most important thing that I want to convey through my music. I play all types of jazz and modern improvised music, and I like to present forward-looking styles that are rooted in the traditions of the jazz legends. I have found my path by walking in the footsteps of giants.
AP: I seem to remember that you have played at Oberlin before. Is that true? And if so, what was your impression?
JG: I think I played at Oberlin years ago with Claude Bolling, a French pianist and composer. He was doing his “Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano,” and “Suite for Guitar and Jazz Piano.” I don’t really remember much about Oberlin because the gig was at least 20 years ago!
AP: I am curious who influences your playing. What music really struck you as being significant as you were forming your own concept?
JG: I started out playing rock music, like many players of my generation. From rock, I discovered jazz fusion, like the ’70s music of Miles Davis, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report. From there, I explored ’60s jazz and then bebop. When I moved to NYC in 1980, I played mainstream, straight-ahead jazz, but then I found myself often on gigs with swing players, playing music from the ’30s and ’40s. I got into early Ellington, Basie, Jimmie Lunceford.
The thing I came to realize about all of the music that I love is that good jazz has a great groove—whether it’s Ellington from 1930, or Miles Davis from 1965. All great jazz has an underlying pulse which is compelling and joyful. There are, of course, huge technical advances in the abilities of jazz players over the years, but technique alone does not make for great music. I am inspired by the players who have a great command of rhythm, melody and drama—the ones who can really tell a story.
As for specific influences on my bass playing, I would have to say Jimmie Blanton (w/Duke Ellington), Oscar Pettiford, Red Mitchell, Paul Chambers—and countless other bass players. From a solo perspective, I’d say players like Lester Young and Sonny Rollins inspire me greatly, as do guitar players like Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Raney.
AP: Are there any musicians that you feel mentored you?
JG: In Louisville there was a whole group of players who were inspired and mentored by Jamey Aebersold, the great educator and saxophonist. I learned a lot from Jamey, and I continue to be inspired by his tireless dedication to the music. When I moved to NYC, I took lessons with great players like Rufus Reid, Michael Moore and Dave Holland. I consider all of them to be mentors. The most influential mentor to me was Red Mitchell. He heard me and realized that I was emulating him. At that time, I was listening to Red and transcribing his playing and doing my best to sound exactly like him. Red took me under his wing and gave me some gigs (I played bass for him when he played piano on a few gigs). We often hung out until all hours at a famous club called Bradleys in Greenwich Village. Red was and still is a great inspiration for me. He is one of the greatest improvisers I’ve ever known. He would often say that he was improvising his entire life, so when he went to play music, the improvisational aspect was very natural for him. When I listen to Red, I can hear that in his playing—he has a natural approach to playing music that is unique.
AP: How did you wind up working for the WDR?
JG: In the early ’90s, I was working with drummer Louie Bellson in his small group and big band. We went on a European tour with the big band and played at a festival in Maastricht, NL, where we happened to meet the producer of the WDR Big Band. He invited Louie and I to be guests with the WDR Big Band in ’92. When I was there, I found out that the regular bass player was retiring and the bass chair was open, so I applied for the job. After a long audition process, they offered me the permanent position in ’94. The WDR Big Band is a permanent job, somewhat like an orchestra contract, but we play jazz projects. There are about 220 musicians employed at the WDR Radio and TV station: a symphony orchestra, a radio orchestra, a choir and the WDR Big Band, which is funded by a tax and government funds. For me, it is the perfect situation to have a nice family life, play good music with the WDR Big Band and still have free time to pursue my own projects. I play electric bass and double bass with the WDR Big Band.
AP: What have been some highlights for you in playing with the WDR big band?
JG: We’re doing all kinds of jazz and world music projects constantly, so it’s hard to name the “best” ones! We recently played with John Scofield, which I enjoyed very much. McCoy Tyner was a fun project. Gary Burton was incredible to work with—what a master of sound. I’ve been having fun lately with the Music of Charles Mingus project that we’ve been doing. We have the good fortune to always work with top soloists, and top arrangers like Michael Abene, Vince Mendoza, Bill Dobbins and many others.
AP: What are you currently listening to?
JG: At the moment I am enjoying Pedro Giruado’s music on his album “Córdoba”—he’s an Argentinian bassist who writes for big band. I also like Tim Lefebvre, who plays bass with Rudder and many other bands. I love Bill Carrothers album “Joy Spring” with Bill Stewart. Today I put on Barry Harris at the Jazz Workshop with Sam Jones and Louis Hayes . . . it doesn’t swing much better than that!