Global Bass Online April 2001
Tony Senatore, a studio bassist and
recording artist in New Jersey, will be manning a long-term series of articles
and interviews with bassists that make their bread and butter working in New
York City. From recording artists to studio musicians to club musicians, Tony
will find out what it takes to make it (or not) in The Big Apple.
GENE PERLA – A CLASS ACT
Gene Perla is unquestionably one
of greatest jazz bass guitarists of the 1960’s. In fact, Perla’s place in the acceptance of the
electric bass as a part of the world of respectable jazz is sealed. He laid down everything from straight-ahead jazz with Elvin
Jones and Sonny Rollins, to incredible funk with his band Stone
To fully appreciate Perla’s influence, we must start at the very beginning. In the early 1960`s, rock music was quick to embrace the electric bass guitar. Leo Fender created the instrument to free bassists from “the doghouse” -- his nickname for the acoustic bass. By the mid 1960’s, players like John Entwistle and Jack Bruce quickly broke from the pack and established themselves as electric bass pioneers whose innovations would set the stage for the 70’s, arguably the most prolific period for state of the art rock bass playing.
However, the jazz community was very slow to catch on, and the electric bass was not taken very seriously. In fact, it was looked upon with disdain. Fortunately, open-mined individuals like Dizzy Gillespie realized the potential of electric bass in jazz music and were not afraid to use it. Dizzy used electric bass as early as 1967 on an LP entitled
Swing Low Sweet Cadillac, featuring the fantastic bass playing of Frank Schifano.
Soon, electric bass started to make it’s way into the jazz world. Players like Bob Cranshaw, Sonny Rollins’ bassist, and Steve Swallow put down their upright basses and started to make a tremendous impact in the jazz world on electric.
Gene Perla sat firmly among this pack of pioneers. Trained on both acoustic and electric, his work was an inspiration to all -- including myself as a young bassist.
I was pleased to have the rare opportunity to interview this legend because I wanted to find out much more about the man behind the music. Here is what the great Gene Perla had to say:
GB: Let’s begin with the pedigree questions. Where were you born?
Gene Perla: I was born in 1940 in Hackensack, New Jersey.
GB: Are you from a musical family? Did your parents encourage you to pursue a career in music?
Gene Perla: The only family musical connection that preceded me, that I know about, was that my Mom’s father played something called the “boom-bar-ding”. I don’t know if that’s Italian slang, and I’m not sure, but I think it’s some kind of euphonium type of instrument. As I understand it, he wasn’t a professional musician, just did it for the enjoyment. I don’t think my father cared one way or the other about my musical enlightenment. My Mom, on the other hand, wanted to give me an appreciation of music and started me on piano lessons when I was five.
GB: Tell me about your earliest musical experiences. Did you start out immediately on electric bass?
Gene Perla: I don’t remember exactly, but I think I started on both acoustic and electric around the same time. I was a student at the University of Toledo, and I became mesmerized upon hearing one of my fraternity brothers performing with his Four Freshman-Kingston Trio type quartet. I begged them to join, and thank God they agreed. I became a jack-of-all-axeman, playing piano, trombone (which I played in high school and military school) singing, and a little bit of the basses, but I consider the time that I really started playing the acoustic bass was when I was twenty-four years of age. It was upon hearing “The Shape of Jazz To Come” by Ornette Coleman. Charlie Haden did it to me. The next morning I went to Berklee and changed my major from piano to bass.
GB: What kind of equipment did you use for the bulk of your career? Tell me about the Carl Thompson fingerboard extension.
Gene Perla: I used two main basses. First was the clear plastic jobbie by Dan Armstrong, then came my Carl Thompson bass. The only amp that I ever had was an early GK top with a BMF-18 cabinet. Don’t remember the exact details, but that baby really kicked. I came up with the fingerboard extension concept for electric bass some time ago. Carl Thompson re-did my early prototype, which was crude, but executable. The fingerboard extension had a tuning peg and a swiveling trigger to allow selection of E (closed) or C (open). Carl fine-tuned my idea, but to be clear, it’s not his concept.
GB: What bassists were influential to you in the 60’s?
Gene Perla: Many of them I gathered something from, but the ones that stand out are Charlie Haden for musical beauty; Gary Peacock for concept, who I believe has pushed the upright bass the furthest (and that was a long time ago); Ray Brown for swinging; Mingus for raw power; Scott LaFaro for melody; Ron Carter for slickness; Jimmy Garrison for pulse; and Slam Stewart for sweetness. My favorite all-around bassist is Paul Chambers.
Gene Perla: BTW, I wasn’t into rock or other types of music during this period so I can’t say that any electric bassists have influenced me. Later, when Jaco hit, (that) was another story. He was (and is), the man. Of course, there are many other great electric players, but Jaco, for me was the consummate musician/performer.
GB: Give me a brief overview of some of the artists that you’ve worked with.
Muchachos (Boston group with Don Alias), Willie
Bob, Jeremy Steig, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Elvin Jones, Sonny Rollins, Stone
Alliance, [and] Fine
GB: Tell me a bit about Stone Alliance.
Gene Perla: I had a couple of lofts in NYC for quite a few years, which allowed me to jam day and night. Musicians were constantly coming by, and we’d jam for hours. The people that were regulars were Don Alias, Steve Grossman and Jan Hammer. Lots of others came by (I’ve got tons of tapes). When Jan joined Mahavishnu, Don, Steve and I decided to form Stone Alliance. We did a few gigs around the Northeast, did our first record, and landed a 15-day tour of Chile. After that, we did an eventful tour of Europe, but for our last engagement at Ronnie Scott’s, Steve Grossman flaked on us, and we had to pull the plug.
We later reformed with Kenny Kirkland and Bob Mintzer, and did several gigs in the States, and several tours of Europe, then it stopped. During the last couple of years, Don Alias and I have revived several old tracks, and added some new tracks. We hope that it will be released at some point soon.
GB: Who are your favorite bassists currently playing? Also, are you still using the same gear as you were then?
Gene Perla: Gary Peacock, Scott Colley, who is a marvelous player, currently with Jim Hall, and many others I hear from time to time. I’m still using my Carl Thompson bass, and my German plywood with a spruce top upright, originally owned by Gary Peacock, and an old Polytone amp with two discreet inputs that I plug the Polytone and Underwood pickups into.
GB: Which records that you’ve played on are among your favorites?
Gene Perla: Stone Alliance’s Heads Up and Elvin Jones’ Merry Go Round
GB: What are some of your all time favorite recordings by others?
Gene Perla: Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue”, Bill Evans “Sunday at the Village Vanguard”, Ornette Coleman, “The Shape Of Jazz To Come”, and most anything by Frank Sinatra.
GB: Thanks for your time Gene, It was a pleasure talking with you.
Gene Perla: Thank you. By the way, I do an every other Monday night gig at Zuni’s in NYC (43rd and ninth) if you’d like to stop down.
I will definitely be there, and our readers should too. Gene Perla has worked with so many great artists. Here are a few links that will help you to learn firsthand just how influential he has been over the years:
By Tony Senatore
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