We are going to continue our interview series with another bass player. Chris Morrissey is a Twin Cities native and has resently moved to New York, probably for the nice people, crappy pizza and calm drivers. Chris has applied his skills to the likes of Ben Kweller, Mason Jennings, Haley Bonar, Bill-Mike Band, Andrew Bird, and Chris Koza to name a few. Here is a video of Chris playing on Letterman a couple years ago. He also played on Letterman just last week, here is a link to that performance if you are interested.
FFTB: What are your musical influences? How do you incorporate those influences into your playing?
The list is always changing, but if I broke it down into an edited list of current influences and omnipresent influences it’d go something like this: Lately I’ve been reading and watching alot of mid 19th c american history. Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War”, Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” and the series “Deadwood” have all been on my mind lately. That’s not really a musical influence and I can’t say that you can hear Bull Run or gold prospectin’ in my playing but they’re influences nonetheless. Three records that have been spinning in my apartment lately are The Walkmen “You and Me”, Elliott Smith “self titled” and Anthony Cox “Factor of Faces”. In general my recent move to NY has inspired a bunch of explorations into jazz recordings from here from the last ten years or so. Of the omnipresent influences: Happy Apple, Bjork, Pino Palladino, Jaco Pastorius, Neil Young Stravinsky’s work for the Ballet Russes, Debussy’s piano works, and some Leonard Bernstien musical theater work like West Side Story and Candide. Of the latter influences I think they come out more in my writting than my playing, but I think on the new Bill-Mike you can hear that I like Pino, and on the new Ben Kweller you can hear that I like Neil Young.
FFTB: How important is a good bass player to a good songwriter?
I of course believe that it’s very important, but it tends to be the least integral position in the band. The fact is that bass is the easiest instrument to get away with playing poorly and I think you get a lot of disenfranchised guitar players or uninspired musicians gravitating towards it. It’s also the most difficult instrument for the lay person music fan can single out as bad or good. In contrast, a good drummer is more important than a good bass player in a songwriter setting. It’s like in a great meal, a fresh high quality cut of meat cooked skillfully can be fine on it’s own but really blossoms as a whole with someone using the right spices and seasonings. I think the bass is the seasoning, and maybe the drummer is the meat and the singer is the chef…hmmm…or the drummer might be the chef. In any case the rhythm guitar player is the dishwasher. Definitely.
FFTB: You’ve played with many different songwriters from Mason Jennings to Ben Kweller and many in-between; do you see any common elements to their songwriting process? How do they involve you?
I’ve been lucky to have been involved with people to whom music is as central to them as it is to me. That’s really been the common thread I think. That even though before I started playing with Mason Jennings I couldn’t name a single Bob Dylan song but we connected on our love for the larger thing that is music. I think that with Mason, Ben, Haley Bonar, Bill-Mike, Andrew Bird, The Pines and the others I’ve encountered over the years I’ve found that these people keep music in their hearts the way that I do. That it’s not just a physical act or a pass time for these people but a sacred practice upon which we’ve built our identities. That sounds a little grand I realize but if feels that big to me, and that spiritual. When you’ve toured with people, toiled with them and created with them a very special bond is created and there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t feel thankful for the ability to play and understand music, and to do so with those that I’ve named.
I’ve also been lucky to work with people who don’t fear a democratic rehearsal process. That doesn’t mean that I wrote any of their songs, but the openness to arrangement ideas and an almost free reign over my own part has been a process that all these bands have shared. I don’t think that’s necessarily rare or anything, I just know that I like working that way. A benevolent dictatorship more than a democracy…because the songwritter always has veto power. That’s different from “Vito power” which is the emboldened feeling you get after you eat a Vito sandwich from Jimmy Johns.
FFTB: Can you explain a little about your approach to writing music for your jazz project. Also, when you write songs, what instrument do you write it on?
I’m glad you asked that. The most exciting thing about putting out a record of my own music is that it validates what is a HUGE part of my musical personality. I don’t put more importance on composing over playing bass for other people but it’s inherently different. Like nannying vs parenting maybe. Although one could argue that parenting is more important than nannying I guess. I’m just saying that it makes my life as a band member, or side man (if you must) easier and even more enjoyable to have a documentation of who I am musically out in the world.
My approach to writing is based on my love for playing piano and of jazz and classical music. I’m not really a trained piano player so I find it really useful as a means of composing what I hear rather than what I can play. Besides the piano being a commonly used composers tool, I don’t bring with me habits that I’ve made as a student of the instrument and I avoid some cliche’s that way I think. Like my composing informs my piano playing, not the other way around. If I composed more on bass I think I wouldn’t have an end product as true to what’s in my ear and I would have these unconscious bass-ism’s in my music.
The music that I write usually begins with some harmonic movement. As in, I think I’m a “changes first” type of composer instead of writing then harmonizing a melody. There are times when they come at the same time but typically I find a harmonic progression that I like or that inspires a melody, and then the melody inspires the form and rhythmic structure of the song. I’m not saying that these are conscious decisions either. It’s just the way it usually happens and most of my favorite stuff I’ve written comes this way.
FFTB: Is it better to be an expert at 1 instrument or good at many?
In terms of a bassist playing both upright and electric , a saxophonist being able to play more than one sax or a piano player being able to play organ I think that it’s both wise from a marketability standpoint and a knowledge of the instrument standpoint to play both or all of the versions of your instrument. Like upright and electric basses have been mutually beneficial to me. They make the other better and less mysterious. For actual “MULTI” instrumentalists though I think you find that most are quite a bit better at their original instrument and necessity or boredom leads them to an instrument that they’ll always be a bit less proficient at. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, and I think that you can have a lot of fun playing different instruments but I think that you’d find most people have a main axe.
A great example of this is Mike Lewis, saxophonist of Happy Apple. He now plays bass with Andrew Bird and that band is full of multi-instrumentalists. Mike is an excellent bass player because he’s a stellar musician and he loves the bass, but mike isn’t only an excellent saxophonist, he’s one of the greatest of his generation and beyond. Here’s an example of when opportunity lead someone away from their home base and lead to a wonderful profession opportunity for him with another axe. I’d bet that mike is learning alot about music this way and maybe learning new ways of appreciating saxophone.
FFTB: When you practice, what do you work on?
That has changed alot over the years. In college it was more regimented. Alot of scales and etudes. Lately I’ve been working alot on time. Meaning i’ll set a metronome and think of it as the 2 and the 4 of a measure like it’s the drummer’s high hat and i’ll just walk. Meaning the classic quarter note jazz baseline. I’ll either do this free of form, or to a 12 bar blues form. I try to make the metronome disappear. You actually stop hearing it and the conscious impulse is shake yourself out of the state you’re in and FIND THAT METRONOME but that’s what I’m trying to teach myself. Total trust of my internal metronome. This is where groove comes from. People playing independent of eachother, each with their own confident sense of time and the happenstance relationship between those entities is what makes things feel good. One of my favorite bassists Reid Anderson says that it’s about throwing away the idea that you need to “hook up” with the other players to create groove. I think this “hooking up” creates a very 1 dimensional groove. That’s why if you listen to African or Indian music there can be very complicated rhythm but it’s still so GROOVING! The D’Angelo record “Voodoo” is a good example even though it wasn’t organically recorded. There are things in seemingly different universes from eachother but it works and mind bogglingly well I might add. I’ve learned from my own development and watching some of my more advanced students mature harmonically before they do rhythmically that rhythm is really where you separate the men from boys and women from girls.
FFTB: I really love the parts you come up with in the Bill-Mike band. It is obvious that you don’t just play the root notes but actually create unique parts that fill out the song. How do you approach deciding your part for an arrangement?
Thank you. That’s a band in particular where my approach is more melodic because #1)The music allows for it, and #2)Mike asks for us to really make everything we come up for in that band to be unique before anything else. It’s an unbelievably comfortable creative environment in that band and being that it’s a trio it’s way more open for me to write bass parts that are also counter melodies.
FFTB: Does your beard enhance your bass playing exponentially?
I’ll let you be the judge of that. I will tell you that the beards days are numbered.
FFTB: Any advice for young aspiring musicians and songwriters?
Care for your craft. That means practicing, but it’s also even more important to seek out playing opportunities. Laboratory work if you will.