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Steve LaSpina

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Steve LaSpina

Upright Citizen Of Bassdom

He doesn't look like your typical jazz aficionado.

A friendly smile beams from the photos, looking more like a buddy from work than a trained highly professional musician. If he were thought to be a musician at all from these photos, if anything, it would tend to be more the photos of a middle aged rock musician. When asked if he has spent any time in any rock environment, Steve says, "Only in the studio, never on the front line".

Steve is 45, like myself well passed the age of tight-fitting outfits and it is agreed the world is a better place for not having seen either of us in Spandex. "I wouldn't want to go near it!' and he laughs.

The caliber of the recordings I have received from Steve's discography include 'The Road Aheadí and 'distant dream' is very high. Both albums exude a warmth, a clarity and an enthusiasm that is refreshing. Even the more pensive tunes transmit their emotions effortlessly. Perhaps it is a case of great recording techniques, matched with fine and relaxed playing, yet there is also a feeling that a lot of the strength lies in the writing itself. Steve himself figures prominently in both of these CD's, not only as a player but as a writer, the source of all the songs for 'distant dream' and 5 out of the 9 held on 'The Road Ahead'.

We first decide to address some of the recording techniques he decided on in recording his acoustic bass. The voicing of his bass is warm and clear and of course, we at GB are curious as to how he achieves his sound.

Do you go direct into the board, or use an amp/board combo?

Steve:  "Oh, I use a microphone. I have an exceptional little instrument that's very clean. It's an old French bass, about a 170 years old. That's my main instrument"

Do you play electric at all?

Steve:  "I do, yes, both fretted and fretless. I used to be a Fender nut, but these days I am playing a G & L. That's the instrument I'm really nuts about. My fretless bass is a Yamaha prototype that they gave me about 20 years ago. I just took the frets off of it, I think it was a BB2000. It actually ended up as a production model. I've never actually recorded electric fretless, I just do it for my own enjoyment."

ďTo me, the electric bass will never sound any better than what Jaco Pastorius did with it.Ē

Of course you find the two instruments, acoustic and electric fretless pretty disparate?

Steve:  "Oh yeah, the electric bass is definitely a guitar. No doubt about it."

For live work, to amplify yourself, what do you use?

Steve:  "Well for the last 12 years, I've used a Shettler pickup which is from Switzerland, and he decided to rebuild it, but he no longer makes the same pickup. I am not happy with his new pickup."

Does he know this?

Steve:  "Yes"

What is the difference between the two?

Steve:  "Well it was a double pickup before, two cork pieces that went into both sides in the holes of the bridge. He said he had a phasing problem with them. Now he only uses one, but it's a whole different sound. I've asked him to repair the old pickup, which he did and he sent back, but it doesn't sound at all like it used to."

So in light of that, are you looking at other manufacturers as well?

Steve:  "Well I have David Gages pickup ĎThe Realistí, which I like an awful lot. When thatís working right, itís great."

Do you find it a bit temperamental? Would it be to do with temperature or humidity?

Steve:  ďI donít know what it is, Iíll play it on some of my students basses and it sounds fabulous. It sounds fabulous on my bass on occasion. In other cases, I find I canít use it at all.Ē

Do you have a very fussy ear?

Steve:  ďI donít know so much if itís my ear so much as it is the feeling or the sound coming out of the instrument. Itís just gotta be right. Iím also using an Underwood pickup, which is the very first pickup I started with. Ē

So you are on kind of a search for the right pickup right now?

Steve:  ďRight, Iím just not really happy with anything. I may even, and I donít know if I want to spend the money right now, but Iím thinking of trying the Barbera. I know that a lot of people really like that pickup."

What do you think of some of these electric standup basses?

Steve:  ďI have one that I use on occasion. Itís a David Gage bass. Itís not an upright and not an electric bass. They are definitely an instrument of their own. I used it for a long time on the road.Ē

ďNot everybody can play Jazz every minute of the day anymore, it just isnít that kind of world.Ē

Is it odd not having the bulk of an acoustic up against your chest resonating?

Steve:  ďYeah it feels very strange. The one that I have was modeled after my other upright. It feels great to play but there again itís just not the upright bass.Ē

What do you think of some of the more exotic electric basses being built today?

Steve:  ďI just donít have time for them. For electric bass for me, Iíve gotta be able to get a couple of different sounds out of it. Iím an older guy and I like that round Motown kind of sound. To me, the electric bass will never sound any better than what Jaco Pastorius did with it.Ē

Have you ever thought of venturing into the 5 or 6 six electric?

Steve:  ďNo, and as far as I am concerned, and I am pretty adamant about it, the low 5 string I am not opposed to. If you listen to some of my CDís you can even hear that I have tuned the E string down a lot for some of the tunes. I hear that as being part of the bass register naturally. I donít hear the high B string. To me, you put 6 strings on a bass guitar, you are no longer playing bass, youíre playing bass guitar."

Your vehemence imparts the sense then that for you a six string is not true to what bass is about?

Steve:  "Itís just not the bass. John Patitucci plays the shit out of it, and nobody does it better, but itís not the bass. As far as I am concerned, if you want to talk about the electric bass, again it starts and stops with Jaco. This goes also as far as it being a solo instrument being played to its fullest extent.Ē

The two albums we received from you at GB were pretty consistent, a fresh feel, very live.

Steve:  ďThe technique was very important to me early on when I was very young. But Iíve never forgot the music and the music has to have soul.

Otherwise itís just a bunch of notes. The thing that I try to portray in my compositions as well as the choice of musicians that I use, is that I want to paint a picture. I want people to hear the music and to see something or to feel something. That to me is the ultimate form of communication and thatís really what itís all about.Ē

ďTo me, you put 6 strings on a bass guitar, you are no longer playing bass, youíre playing bass guitarĒ.

You started out professionally as a classical bassist at 15. Prior to that how long had you been working on the bass as a novice. Also what prompted you to start playing in the first place?

Steve:  ďWell I wanted to play the bass at a young age because my father played the bass. I never could reach it! I used to have to stand on phone books. There were no half-size basses around in those days, so I had to wait till I was in 6th Grade so I could start playing the bass. I played electric bass as well then.Ē

Itís been said that often with Jazz musicians you learn from them only through the school of hard knocks. They are not there to Ďbaby-sití you.

Steve:  ďYeah, nobody wants to hear any excuses.Ē

When you first moved from Chicago to New York, did you find yourself intimidated by this philosophy?

Steve:  ďWell not too much, because before moving to New York, I was playing with a lot of people from New York. I understood what I was getting into. Itís not as open or talked about when you are in New York about when these kinds of problems arise, but I did find upon talking to other bass players that this was a reality. Basically the bass is caught in the middle, and you learn how to deal with these drummers. There are some drummers I donít want to work with, but if I do have to work with them, I have to adjust my playing. Once I learned how to do that, the problem ceased."

These days with the number of solo albums youíve recorded, you now have control over who you work with. Youíve used drummer Jeff Hirshfield on these albums.

Steve:  ďYes, Jeff is primarily one of my favorite drummers. My thing with Jeff is not only where he puts the beat, but heís so darned musical! I can do anything with Jeff! Heís a soft-spoken guy but heís just brilliant when it comes to making music. He has his own style, his own kind of thing going. Itís not a super-flashy sort of thing, a lot of people have overlooked him that way. Technically, he does what I need. I am very fussy, Iím probably harder on drummers than I am on anybody.Ē

Has working with Steeplechase Records worked out well?

Steve:  "Well I have to give `em credit, he lets me do what I want. I have total production control of the music. I have had offers from other labels, and Iíve had to say Ďnoí because I donít want to do what they want me to do. He has given me a chance to put out six records, of really My Music. Iím not seeing the royalties I really should, he took my publishing on it, but heís not gonna get rich off that either! There was a lot of compensation I had to do, but I have gotten to the point where I have 6 albums out of my own music that I am pleased with."

Steve LaSpina clearly knows what he wants. Not in any way dictatorial, just with a clear route to his goalsÖ

Steve:  ďYeah, Iíve always been sure of that. I can be pretty loose, I am easy enough to get along with. I have the right guys in the band that have always been able to deliver what I want.Ē

This is a man with over 90 albums under his belt. Are other offers still coming in at this point? 

Steve:  ďI do a lot of recording work, be it Jazz or otherwise. So for some reason Iíve been doing a lot of cabaret, a lot of ĎSingerí records. I think Iíve probably done 10 so far this year."

So they come to you. You have that strong a reputation?

Steve:  "Well the studios know that I am not only a jazz bass player but I can play almost anything else they ask me to play on."

ďÖIíve never forgot the music, the music has to have soul. Otherwise itís just a bunch of notesĒ.

Are you asked to do much bowing on this material?

Steve:  ďOn a lot of this cabaret work I am being asked to do a lot of bow work. Iíve found that this has been a big part of my income. Iíve also just finished arranging music for a show at one of the resorts. A Motown piece, which I played on and also arranged. Iím trying to spread out my abilities to other things. I enjoy playing the Motown and I enjoy playing Classical, it doesnít matter what it is, as long as itís good music. Thatís really the bottom line. Not everybody can play Jazz every minute of the day any more, it just isnít that kind of world. I feel fortunate enough to be getting really good gigs in New York. Right now I am working with a guy named Michael Feinstein, a big shot Cabaret Sinatra style of singer. Weíre working at this real ritzy club on the East Side with a really good band. Itís what it is. Itís a good paying job."

Have you ventured into teaching over the years?

Steve:  "I taught at NYU for 7 or 8 years and then I taught upstate in Albany for another 7 years. Iíve also just started teaching at William Paterson University in New Jersey."

Not always, but often, I find that the more worldly-wise a player, the more well versed, the easier they are to talk to, yourself included.

Steve:  ďMost guys are, the higher up they are, oh there are a few that are kinda arrogant, but basically everybody is doing the same thing. Weíre all trying to be artists, doing what we do, making a living, and just getting by.Ē

Any plans for a new release for the year 2000?

Steve:  ďI really donít right now, what I would like to do, believe it or not, (and I was talking to the producer about it), Iíd like to go in and do a really straight ahead ĎOscar Petersoní kind of thing. Tunes done with a swinging kind of trio. Thatís something Iíve recorded at lot of as a sideman, but Iíve never done it as a leader. I think that is what Iíd like to do next. The other thing I had in mind was doing a duo record. I would like to do some tunes with just bass and voice. Also maybe with a cellist. I also have some music Iíve written for marimba, vibes and some violin."

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