Even as his career heads towards its fourth decade, there are still moments where bassist Stuart Hamm gets no respect — or at the very least, he has to do a bit of convincing.
“You know, half of my life, dude, is just like convincing people I know what I’m doing,” Hamm says with a chuckle during a recent phone conversation from his California home. “When I do these solo bass [shows], I show up and they say, ‘Well, what are your backing tracks?’ And I say, ‘Well, I don’t use any backing tracks.’ They say, ‘Okay, well, where’s your looper?’ ‘I don’t have a looper.’ ‘Where’s your pedalboard?’ ‘I don’t have a pedalboard.’ I just do this one-man show where I talk about my career and I play and it’s really wildly entertaining and it’s been working for the last 37 years, you know? It’s just so hard to convince people that just me on stage with the bass will be interesting and entertaining, but it’s worked so far.”
He won’t be riding solo when he comes to Nighttown with the Stu Hamm Band, a power trio featuring longtime associates Alex Skolnick (Testament, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Alex Skolnick Trio) on guitar and drummer Joel Taylor (Al Di Meola, Allan Holdsworth, Stanley Clarke), but he will have at least two opportunities to share pieces from his “Petite Suite for Bass,” something that he put together to show off the versatility of what he’s been able to accomplish with the instrument.
“The guys in the band won’t let me do that many solo tunes when I’m doing a band gig, bless their hearts,” he says. “So I do a couple of them in the show, but certainly while I have the chance to play with two great musicians, I’m going to let them plug away. What I’ve been doing is that I usually play the first piece [from the suite], and then I ask for people in the crowd to yell out a number between two and seven and I play that piece of it.”
He says each piece of the solo bass suite is written with a different bass technique. One piece is all slapping, one is all tapping, one’s harmonics, one is chords, one is the blues.
“When I grew up, not that long ago, there really didn’t exist such a thing as solo bass or a slapping on the bass or tapping on the bass or harmonics and chords,” he explains. “Now, for bass players that are 15, you know, there’s this whole vocabulary technique that they’re expected to have a handle on that just wasn’t around when I was learning how to play bass. The suite is an attempt to create a catalog of music for the new art of the solo bass and it’s also sort of a teaching tool to teach these techniques and show you how possibly can you make a solo bass piece interesting.”
Hamm relishes the chemistry and camaraderie that he shares with his bandmates and says the show will feature new music but also some “old favorites” from throughout his career and a few “fun covers” rounding out the set.
“You know, it’s funny, putting a band together, you’ve got to really take into account personalities and musical abilities and what elements are going to blend together when you’re making a stew or something, right? Alex toured with me and I know we played Cleveland a bunch of times back down in the Flats in ‘91 when I did the The Urge
tour,” he recalls. “Now, it’s like, what, 24 years later and we’re touring [together again] and you know, the great thing is that now we’re just so much better musicians now. You know, we survived, we’re in shape, we’re playing better, we’ve got better chops, we’re more mature. He went back to school and studied jazz, so he’s got a little bit of that in his playing, but he still can just put his foot up on the monitor and bend notes and rock. He’s just an awesome guy to hang with and doesn’t mind being in the van for 10 hours.”
Joel Taylor and Hamm had played with fusion guitarist Frank Gambale, and then Taylor has been out with jazz great Al Di Meola.
“He brings a nice sort of jazz [vibe],” he says of Taylor. “You know, he’s great — he knows when as a drummer to join the conversation and sort of play off us and when he needs to, just lay down the funk or the rock and just keep the groove going. One thing I always tell the guys in the band is ‘Listen to the recorded version, but when we play “Lone Star,” I don’t want it to sound like Steve Smith on drums and Eric Johnson on guitar. I want it to be this band’s version and interpretation of those songs.’”
Hamm employed a similar approach when it came to making his latest studio album, The Book of Lies
“It’s a record of a bunch of songs that I was writing at the time and being a band leader, I think I’ve progressed, compositionally and as far as a producer of knowing the right guys,” he says. “For the song, ‘The Book of Lies,’ I sort of said, ‘I’m going to come up with my version of [a song] based on sort of ‘Cissy Strut,’ [by the Meters], which is a single unison line, that we can play as a groove, but I want to get a sort of New Orleans feel.”
As a result, Hamm came up with the riff and then went in the studio and called up his buddy John Mader, whom he describes as “this funky dude from the East Bay.” He says he knew he would come up with “a better drum part than I could, “and he recruited Lorn Leber, a guy he says is “one of the best unknown guitar players on the planet.”
“[I] sort of recorded their first impressions and had them bring what they do to the writing and recording process,” he says. “It was the same with ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.’ I had been out on the road with Carl Verheyen and Jason Harrison Smith for a long time, so as soon as we got off the road, we had been playing that song every night, we went in the studio and recorded it live. With the exception of ‘Practicality,’ it’s a very live sounding record of guys just playing songs.”
Something that comes to the surface while listening to The Book of Lies
is that it’s an album that contains no shortage of variety. The album features plenty of solo bass but also band-driven pieces that are more built up. One thing that remains consistent is that each song retains an element of spontaneity that keeps the musical interactions pure.
“The idea is to have a record where people can put it on and for 50 minutes be engaged and enjoy it,” Hamm says. “If every song has the same instrument playing, the melody and then the solo and it’s the same instrumentation, after three or four songs, my ears are ready for a little bit of variation.”
Working on the album, Hamm discovered that with one particular song, less was actually more.
“‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is one of those jams that sort of evolved into an arrangement. Carl’s a great guitar player and we’ve been playing together, off and on, for a number of years. We had done an expansive tour of Europe playing that every night,” Hamm remembers. “The idea was just to do a really slow sort of John Scofield-on-heroin version. Jason is really great at playing with the time and playing it loosely and then sort of opening it up for solos. Live, we would change it around and let different people solo on the fast part and the slow part. It’s a good live take. It’s funny. We recorded that at Sweetwater Studios in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. We were going to do some overdubs and I had Carl put on some acoustic guitar overdubs and I was going to overdub some stuff. The more we added to it, the more it took away the energy of the track, which was the three of us just listening and playing together. So I dumped all of that — wasted a day and a half doing overdubs that I used none of — but I’m super-happy with the live feel of that tune.”
For some music fans, their introduction to Hamm’s playing came through his work with guitar virtuosos Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, and it was a period of his career that would bring plenty of “exciting times.”
“Growing up listening to mostly instrumental music, stuff as diverse as Maynard Ferguson to Mahavishnu Orchestra to Brand X, it sort of seemed that with Steve and then with Joe, it was just sort of the next outgrowth of improvisational electric instrumental music with maybe a little bit more of a rock and metal and edge,” he says. “They’re both exceedingly smart guys and great musicians [who are] very adventurous. I learned a lot just being around them and seeing their records sell and just sort of soaking up through osmosis how to deal with record companies, how to deal with being on tour, how to deal with fans, how to deal with the press, certainly there was a lot to be learned from those two guys, because they’re very successful.”
He admits that he hoped for a bit of that success when he released The Urge
in 1991, which was his third solo album and the one that carried the largest recording budget. Playing with Vai and Satriani and seeing them selling millions of records, Hamm took his own shot at appealing to those audiences in the hopes that one-tenth of their crowd would buy what he was doing.
“I can’t say that it’s not music that I wasn’t feeling or hearing, but certainly, you can’t help but be influenced by what you’re playing,” he says. “That’s a great record. I listened back to that and you know, the engineer, it’s well-recorded, and it sounds awesome. It sounds like we had a big budget for it. In trying to appeal to that genre of music, it’s certainly difficult to have the bass be in a more prominent role. I’d say at this point in my career, I have an audience that is what it is and I’m really just trying to make records of what I’m feeling artistically and certainly I hope that one of them will hit some weird thing and I’ll sell millions of copies, but you know, I’m just doing it because I’m an artist and that’s what I feel the urge to do.”
Currently, the veteran bassist is “heavily and deeply” working on demos for the follow-up to The Book of Lies
and although he doesn’t divulge too much about the next album, it sounds like an intriguing project which will be very interesting to hear once he’s finished with it and if he has his way, there will be plenty for both your eyes and ears to enjoy — and if you like bass, this one’s for you.
“The next record is way, way different, man. It’s either going to do really well or people are going to hate it and it’s going to flop,” he says. “You know, there’s a great record by Pat Metheny called One Quiet Night
— it’s a great record and there’s nice playing, but it’s also sort of just a nice record to have on in the background. Nice guitar music. It’s a long involved story, but I’m taking a year to travel around the world and it’s a solo bass record about my travels and I’m writing a book to go with it, sort of what I’m going through. I have some really good ideas and some really interesting stuff that I’m recording. It’s all just bass.”
Stu Hamm Band featuring Alex Skolnick, 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, Nighttown, 12387 Cedar Rd. Cleveland Heights, 216-795-0550. Tickets: $20, nighttowncleveland.com.