Global Bass Online February 2002
By Brent-Anthony Johnson
Has anyone ever asked you, "where were you when you first heard…?" Well, I certainly remember the first time I heard the eponymous 1993 Lost Tribe release…
I was minding my own business in a coffeehouse, in downtown Denver, CO. I had arrived early to meet a friend. The goal was to play chess, and drink a lot of coffee! As I waited for my friend to arrive, I chatted with the pretty barrista behind the bar, and ordered my usual - Irish Cream Chai. Yummy. The conversation turned from my wife, and the daughter that was born to us that year, to music and dance. She was a dancer, and had recently begun to "jazz dance" at a Denver studio. Her instructor was a choreographer who had recently come to the city from the East Coast.
Since I am a musician, she wanted to play her current favorite disc for me – one she had been introduced to in dance class. She handed me the disc’s cover, and my heart immediately sank. Windham Hill?! Oh boy. I began to hear the sounds of whales, seals, and a flock of seagulls could be heard in some distant corner of my mind… Let alone the thought of this new found friend, writhing about like someone at a Grateful Dead show. You know… that, "Heeeey, maaaan! I can catch my own hand", thing? YIKES!
But, I then turned over the cover to see a photo of the band. I expected to see gaunt, anorexic, bearded, "conscious… just ask me", folk.
Instead, I saw New York musicians. Wait a minute… this thing smelled like funk! Windham Hill…? Funk?! I almost choked on the blistering hot tea.
By then, the first tune had started, and I listened intently to the sounds of a city street. Then… it happened! David Binney’s alto sax played the tune’s head, David Gilmore’s loop guitar line began dancing around my head… and THE FUNK hit me with a ton of the absolute necessary! "YYYYYYYES!"
I was in love with whatever this was. The tune was "Mythology". I looked at the street-scene picture of the band, and spotted the bassist. His name is Fima Ephron. I ran to the pay phone, and called every friend I had at that time. $2.50 later, I had told every one who needed to know about this important disc, and I found my own copy a couple days later.
My quartet began playing the tune immediately, and I’ve since included the tune in the set-list at every opportunity. But, enough about me…
From Lost Tribe, to Screaming Headless Torsos, to MeShell N’degeOcello, to the Greenwich Village Orchestra bassist and visionary Fima Ephron lays down mercilessly creative and some of the funkiest bass lines on record. Most recently (10/23/01) Fima has released his premier solo disc, "Soul Machine", on the Tzadik label. The disc features musicians Edward Simon, Jim Black, and David Torn!
I finally tracked the busy Mr. Ephron down, through a good friend in NYC, and wrote an email. He responded by the following day, and we began a conversation that went like this…
BAJ: Fima! Thank you taking the time to chat with Global Bass Magazine, man! You’re an incredible player, and I’ve wanted to talk with you for some time!
To my knowledge, you came on the NYC scene, with Lost Tribe, in 1989. What were you doing before Lost Tribe, and how did that band form?
Fima: Thank you for the complement, and I am honored to be asked to do this interview. Before Lost Tribe I had been playing in a lot of different musical situations with people as diverse as Cissy Houston to Jacky Byard.
I had been in some funk/rock oriented projects, and some fusion projects - one of which was called "Current Events", which made a record for Verve. I played in some Latin bands and also hung out in the downtown loft scene playing some totally free music. Basically I was just trying to work and explore lot of different musical experiences.
BAJ: Where did you grow up, and please talk to us about your upbringing.
Fima: I was born in London England, and at the age of three my family moved to New York. The rest of my life has been spent mainly on the East Coast. I Lived In Tanzania when I was ten for seven months, and I also lived in Seattle for a couple of years. When I turned thirteen, I returned to New York and began attending Music and Art High School - which was really the beginning of my musical development. My parents were your typical hippie artist types, so I was exposed to lot of interesting people and art at a very young age.
BAJ: Wow! That’s incredible, man! The band’s most recent disc is 1998’s "Many Lifetimes". Will there be another Lost Tribe disc?
Fima: I hope so. At this moment there is nothing in the works.
BAJ: Me too! Please let me know if and when that happens, and I would love to break the story to our readers.
The times I’ve been able to see you play, you’ve played a 1970’s, Jazz Bass. Is that you’re favorite bass? Or, are you now favoring the MTD (see photo) your more recent pictures display?
Fima: I have been going back and forth between a couple of different instruments. The Jazz Bass of which you speak has been sitting in its case lately. I have been playing the MTD, which has a great sound and sits in a mix beautifully. I recently picked up a 73 Jazz Bass that has a maple neck with black block inlays. I have done a couple of tours and recordings with this bass, and it has a very warm tone - which I like. I also found a cool old Hofner, which I think they call the "Club Bass".
BAJ: I really dig the tone of the Jazz Bass you’re known for playing! But, you have a tone that definitely comes from your hands.
Also, I’ve noticed that you are a dedicated 4-String bass guitarist. What are your thoughts on the extended range basses?
Fima: I have on occasion been known to break out a five. I have used five's on Natalie Merchant’s tour, on Me'shell NdegeOcello's tour, and on a tour that I did with Alana Davis. I just recently picked up one of Mike Tobias' (MTD) Korean five string basses, he calls it the "Kingston". It is scary how good it is and how cheep it is! Having said all that… I do still feel more comfortable on my four string basses.
BAJ: Are you incorporating more acoustic contra bass in your arsenal, lately?
Fima: I have a turn of the century flat back German which I enjoy playing. I have been studying with a great acoustic bassist by the name of Tony Falanga. He is a virtuoso classical bassist who also can walk a mean jazz line. Tony's debut release is called "Soul Of The Bass".
BAJ: Really?! I’m hip to Tony Falanga! Folks, you can get "Soul Of The Bass" at CD Baby.
Since we’re on the subject, please tell us about the rest of your instrument stable, and also about your live rig.
Fima: Aside from the instruments that I mentioned above, I have a Fernandez bass called "The Function" that I bought new in the late eighties. I ripped the frets out of it and put on some heavy gauge flat wound strings. It is something that I take out, once in a while, to create another flavor.
I have been using a Euphonic Audio Amplification system that is small and portable… Perfect for lifting up four flights of stairs after a gig.
BAJ: Yeah, man! I was watching the Steely Dan concert on PBS, and I spent most of the show wondering how Tom Barney got that enormous Eden cab around New York! Also, my dear friend, Mark Peterson, plays Euphonic Audio gear. It sounds great! Check them out here: http://www.euphonicaudio.com
Switching gears, a little… How did "Soul Machine" come about, and how did you settle on the line-up of musicians you played with on the disc? Congratulations, on the release of your premier statement as an artist, by the way!
Fima: Thank you. I hope that this is the first in a long line of records to come. I had made a demo of some tunes and had been looking for a label that might be interested in doing something. It was suggested that I contact John Zorn who I had worked with on one occasion, a few years ago. I got him a tape and followed up with a call. In my conversation with him, he expressed some interest but we needed to find a concept that would work on his label.
I thought about it for a couple of days and decided that I wanted to try to integrate elements of Jazz, Jewish folk melodies, electronic sounds, and my own tunes. He liked the idea, so he gave me the green light to move ahead with the project.
As far as the musicians that played on the disc, I just thought about guys that had a strong vibe and who I felt comfortable playing with. I was humbled by the talent these guys have : Adam Rogers, Dave Binney, Jim Black, Edward Simon, and David Torn!
BAJ: Tell us about some of the other projects that we, outside of NYC, haven’t heard about yet. Thanks!
Fima: I did a recording with the bands "Hasidic New Wave", and, "Yakar Rhythms". It’s called, "From The Belly Of Abraham."
I have been working with a great guitarist by the name of Brad Shepik, I just recorded with a beautiful singer from Mali (her name is Ramata), and Gene Lake played drums. There are a few people that come to mind that I have been listening to that I think deserve to be more widely recognized: Kurt Rosenwinkle, Ben Monder, Scott Colley, Mats and Morgan, and Hermato Pascal.
BAJ: You tend to play with many of the East Coast visionaries – Me’Shell, Adam Rogers, and David Binney come to mind. I’ve always been curious… Is it your own forward-thinking disposition that places you in the same musical environment as your roster of band mates? Or, do you simply see the musicians you play with as, "the Cats I know?"
Fima: I think that it comes from being on the scene. The New York musical community I think is actually quite small. Many of the people that I play with also happen to be my friends.
BAJ: That’s really happening! I’d love to be a fly on the wall, and catch some of those hangs!
Let’s talk a bit about your Jewish heritage, and how that’s effected your compositions… I’ve come to understand that a strong understanding of one’s ethnic background is a proponent in allowing ‘the musical dance’ – and more understandably "THE FUNK" - to occur naturally. What is your take on this matter; living and playing in NYC, and how the two are related?
Fima: This is an interesting question… I think that ultimately what we are searching for musically, and in life, is the truth. One of truths that we are all born with, is the fact of who our ancestors were. My ancestors happen to be of a Jewish heritage. One of the things that was interesting for me, was learning to see myself not just as an individual which is how I usually identify myself… but also as part of a culture and ultimately as a small part of the human race.
I have often wondered what it is that gives people an individual sound or feel, maybe what you are saying is that one's sound and feel are an extension of ones cultural awareness, I would add to that, that it is also a reflection of ones self awareness. Growing up in New York, I was exposed to many different cultures, hopefully I have been able to integrate these influences and bring something unique to the music.
BAJ: Well said, and I agree with this statement whole-heartedly. I’ve just completed a study that brought me through hearing a number of bassist from various parts of the world who are involved in my definition of "World Music": Michel Alibo, Kai Eckhardt, Jimmy Haslip, and yourself… I heard similarities in the approach to the World View of music, and yet, the players are such different people! Maybe, this is the self-awareness we’re discussing here! I understand a little more about this! Thank you for this comment, Fima!
What does your current practice regimen consist of? While we’re at it, I want to say this… your approach to thumb-style incorporates an "old school" vibe, with a deepened sense of rhythmic interplay. I would like to look at the tune, "Mythology", and ask you how you decided upon the approach you took for that particular piece of music?
Fima: On the days when I find the time to practice, I work on my bowing. I will run major and minor scales in a cycle of fourths using duple fingering. I tend to practice for specific gigs. As for the old school vibe… I remember going to a gig at the Paramount Northwest, when I was thirteen, and seeing Larry Graham and Graham central station. Needless to say, that changed my life! And, at the time I was just picking up the bass.
My first bass was a Fender Coronado, I remember trying to learn how to slap on that instrument… not a pretty sound! When I finally got an instrument that I could slap on, I think I over compensated a bit.
As for "Mythology"… Binney came in with the tune, and I just heard it with the thumb. It, kind of, just played itself.
BAJ: Cool. The band’s vibe on that tune is so natural… so flowing… I had to ask about that experience.
Are you planning to tour "Soul Machine", and if so, who are you scheduling to play with you as part of the live outfit?
Fima: At this point I am not planning to tour "Soul Machine". I may do a couple of gigs in the New York area. I am hoping to use the same guys that are on the record.
BAJ: If any of those gigs happen to get filmed… Please let us know!
What are some of your other interests beside music?
Fima: I like to read books on a variety of different subjects: Philosophy, Business, Poetry, Woodworking, and Fiction. I enjoy spending time with my wife and my son. I like to cook, and I have Studied Tai Chi and Aikido. I am also trying to learn how to speak Spanish.
I have an interest in film and hope to one day be able to play around with that medium. For me, life is filled with so many things that I find fascinating, the more time I spend on this planet the more curious I become, curiosity is I think a vital part of learning and developing as a human being.
BAJ: Right on! What’s next on your life’s agenda?
Fima: I am in the process of building a small studio - which I hope to use as a base for developing some of the musical ideas that I have kicking around in my head.
BAJ: Cool! Here’s a question… Who do you think would win a fight between Britney Spears, and Cher?
Fima: Maybe Cher would… the bionic woman. She probably has had more work
done then the six million dollar man. But if Britney decided to use some of her per diem, she could probably come up with some form of bionics that would give Cher a run for her money.
BAJ: (Laughter) Any closing comments for our readers?
Fima: Dave Holland once told me… "if you are not moving forward in your development as a musician you are moving backward."
This is something that I think about. I try to keep that spirit of curiosity alive within me. I also think that it is important to write.
Thank you for taking a moment to speak with us, Fima. I have wanted to write this interview for years, and you are an incredible Human Being! You are also a gracious man, and I hope "Soul Machine" gets the recognition it deserves!
Check out Fima with Lost Tribe, Screaming Headless Torsos, and anywhere else Fima Ephron is listed in the disc credits! Read about Lost tribe, here: http://www.ejn.it/mus/l_tribe.htm and read about Fima, and "Soul Machine", here: http://www.tzadik.com
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