Christoph V. Kaiser: Global Bass 02/02
BASS-Meister By Brent-Anthony Johnson
Jazz Pistols bassist Christoph Victor Kaiser is the epitome of team-player and incredible soloist! His ability to soar, with seeming effortlessness, above the German trio’s tight, punchy, curvy, and relentlessly swinging arrangements of standards, and their own well-written material speaks both to hours in the woodshed… and special gifting. A, “flying fretless bass master”, if you will.
Along the way, the bassist also lends his compositional expertise to the Jazz Pistols releases, as well as engineering and mixing the material as the group’s resident engineer. The Lipstick Records catalogue: 3 On the Floor, 3 On The Moon, and the very recently released, Special Treatment, display each musicians remarkable skill on their chosen instruments! Also, unlike many trios I’ve both listened to and participated in, the Jazz Pistols display incredible maturity in supporting one another… and most, importantly, supporting the tune!
Christoph gracefully moves from fretless, thumb-style, to vicious pizzicato playing throughout the band’s able catalogue, and not since Kai Eckhardt (a former instructor of Christoph’s) have I heard a player that so masterfully encompasses the known aspects of bass guitar playing – as it stands, in the year 2001! He’s also a great guy to chat with, and this interview is a result of our 2-year friendship, and regular email conversations.
After lengthy studies of both the piano and the violoncello (1975-1982) Christoph decided upon the bass guitar in 1987. Since then, he has studied at the Future Music School in Aschaffenburg, Germany, and he won a scholarship to attend the Summer Course at Berklee College of Music, in 1998. There, Christoph studied with Kai Eckhardt, and Bruce Gertz in 1998-1999. Christoph’s time at Berklee also presented the opportunity to attend Master Classes taught by Jonas Hellborg, Milt Jackson, Josef Zawinul, Gary Burton, Johnny Griffin, and John McLaughlin. Most recently Christoph was asked to participate in the next edition of “Basstalk” alongside Stanley Clarke. “Basstalk” is an international compilation of bassists!
A long-time endorsing artist of Fodera Basses, DR Strings, Monster Cables, QSC Amplifiers, and JM Audio cabinets, Christoph brings his absolutely beautiful fretted and fretless 6-string bass tone to the Jazz Pistols discs. Check out the Jazz Pistols arrangement of “Teen Town” on 1997’s 3 On The Floor! It only gets better, from there!
Here’s what we talked about…
BAJ: Chris! Thank you for sending me the 3 Jazz Pistol discs, man! They are fantastic, and they really display what a great player you are! I also appreciate the way "the Pistols" have decided to add popular material to your repertoire! I was pleasantly surprised to hear Bela Fleck's "Blues For Gordon" and Chick Corea's "Spain", on the 3 on The Moon disc! Well done! Has Bela or Chick heard your arrangements? Also, how do you guys decide upon material to record?
CVK: Hi Brent, thank you for this opportunity to speak about the Jazz Pistols, and about my approach to music. It is always difficult to achieve a wide spectrum of different sounds in a trio. We decided to include some compositions of other artist into our program’s repertoire, in order to find out other ways to express our Jazz Pistols’ sound. It is challenging to compose your own music and to try to sound your best… But, it is also interesting to work with a given tune and find out what you could do to present it in your own way! Especially in our situation – as the original recordings of Chick Corea, and Weather Report were, obviously, recorded with a bigger lineup.
To catch the essential character of a tune with just 3 players is both challenging for the musicians, and it also shows the quality of a composition! It doesn’t have to relate to thousands of overdubs, or other studio tricks, in order to sound good.
It is not a general rule for a good composition… but I just feel that way very often. I sent Victor Wooten a copy of our CD that featured one of his compositions… but I don’t know if he had the chance to listen to it, or not. I don’t think that Chick knows about our version of “Spain”. I think he has more important stuff to do than checking out the 1001st version of “Spain”…!
I know from other musicians that they compose a lot of songs, but maybe only record half of them on a given CD. We select our compositions right from the first groove, or melody/fragment. If it doesn’t catch us right away, we don’t lose time by developing it any further – in order that another tune might better work for us.
BAJ: Cool! One of the things I admire most about the Jazz Pistols is that you are able to get to the essence of a tune, very quickly, and economically. I also really appreciate the tone you're able to capture on your recordings. How close is that sound to your live sound, and what are the differences, if any? How do you go about recording your instruments in the studio?
CVK: In the studio, I record directly from the DI-out of my Demeter Pre-amp with an additional Demeter tube compressor. I tried to mike my cabinets… But, in my case, it didn’t give me what I was looking for. Now, I stick with the DI signal – as it is far more precise, and it’s better for our sound. I can say that the studio sound is also my live sound. I don’t use any crazy studio effects that would make it impossible to rebuilt the sound on stage. We’ve recently made a great step with the Jazz Pistols…! We bought a PA, and we’re working with the digital mixing consolefrom our studio, the Roland VM-7200. We can save the presets for our in-ear monitoring system, so each player can have his own mix.
With my foot controller I can also control the console. I don’t use my bass cabinets in Jazz Pistols, anymore. I just go direct from my Demeter – like in the studio. I’m trying to find the best sound for the 18″ subwoofer and 12″+horn PA speaker setup. But, in the end, it will give us a better sound… more relaxed than the small speakers of my personal setup. The PA setup is especially good for my midi sounds – triggered from my midi pickup and the Ivans acoustic guitar I use for some shows.
CVK: I’ve been playing Fodera basses for 6 years, and I’m very satisfied with them! It is an instrument of the highest quality, and it has a sound of its own – but it’s a very understated sound. Its not like a Music Man Stingray… which has a very strong sound! The Stingray can be too strong, at times, especially when switching between different styles of music. After playing and hearing the Music Man for a long time, I can now hear the character of the Foderas – out of which such different players: Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, or Matthew Garrison find their personal sounds. Fodera basses don’t cover up my personal sound approach, or my technique!
Anthony Jackson and Lincoln Goines are currently playing with only one pickup, and they just trust the acoustic qualities of their instruments. I like to mix a little bit of the two pickups on my instruments. I also have a very good 3-band electronic… but I hardly ever use it.
BAJ: Unlike many "fusion bassists" you don't tend to use a lot of effects. You seem to have a deep love for the natural sound of a well-made electric bass guitar. Tell us about that.
CVK: A few years ago, I messed around a little bit with effects… But, I soon realized that effects covered a lot of the character of the bass. Effects also made my sound very muddy in the low end. As a bass player, you are always in trouble sound-wise. The low frequencies present a lot of energy that goes through the different locations you are playing… and it is always different. So, I decided not to use effects, in order to make the bass sound as precise and clear as possible.
I started out with Trace Elliot Amps and bigger cabinets in the 80’s… But, I never could really handle the graphic equalizer so well – there were just too many possibilities to change… and therefore also to destroy, the sound! It takes time to get to know your own sound and the frequencies that are responsible for getting that natural sound.
For the past 6 years, I’ve used the Demeter Pre-amp I mentioned which is very simple: bass, mid, treble, and presence control – but at the right spots! Normally, I just leave them flat. So, the sound I produce with the fingers can characterize my sound and not an equalizer- or sound pre-set.
I also use a German-made JM AUDIO cabinet that is loaded with four 8″ speakers, and a horn. On stage, this cabinet gives me the clarity that I need and it doesn’t produce too much bass… which, would disturb the transparence. I like to switch between different playing styles. So, in order to bring my approach to the audience, I don’t change sound settings… I change the sound with my fingers.
BAJ: Let's move on to the subject of composition… Many of your tunes ("Moby Dick", "Seven Up", and "Special Treatment" come to mind) are collaborations within the band. Do you subscribe to a particular writing formula? Also, do you find yourself writing from the bass guitar… or, do you employ the piano for compositions?
CVK: The Jazz Pistols compositions I write are written on the bass guitar. The reason for this is that I always look to find new approaches on the bass, and many of these searches turn into tunes. In order to get as much diversity between the tunes as possible, in a trio, each instrument has to try to change its sound and approach as much as possible. We often start off with a certain groove – one that is strong enough on its own. Then, we collect our best parts, and very often they match very well. Most of our tunes are composed by ear, by the way.
When I went to Berklee, I learned quite a lot about harmony. However, I don’t start with a given chord on paper and try to think, theoretically, which chord would sound best after another. We, simply, play a chord and then (if we are lucky) we will hear the next chord in our heads… and play it. So, after a tune is composed, we have to ask ourselves which chord progression we just played! It’s definitely not the fastest way to compose… But, we are not producing jingles! So, we take the time for the Jazz Pistols to come up with the best results!
We also work a lot with odd grooves! We never start out with the idea to compose a tune in 9/8 or 15/8 or try to be just odd… We also focus a lot on playing odd grooves that sound even – not playing odd groove because they are odd.
BAJ: The "trio format" can be both liberating, and completely disconcerting! You and your band mates have done well within this format. Could you talk to our readers about his matter, and also about the differences between playing in a trio, and playing in another format – and your approach to going from one to the other?
CVK: The way I play with the Jazz Pistols is almost exclusively connected to this particular trio’s format. I wouldn’t necessarily tap chords or play melodies along with bass lines, if there was a piano, or another additional instrument, playing the chords – and therefore giving the guitar more freedom to focus more on other things.
In other bands I play “normal bass”, and take care of the usual business of a bass player. But, a thing that I always want to incorporate in every band is to use different playing styles, in order to make the structure of the songs clearer, or to give the soloist different backgrounds.
Within a trio, there are so many things that are simply not possible. You have to find a work-around in order to still sound full – and like a band that the audience, after a 2-hour concert, doesn’t say that they missed a saxophone, or a keyboard, on some parts. Our strength is in our arrangements… and our constant rehearsals!
We meet once a week throughout the year and work on our stuff. That’s not usual for professional jazz bands – which typically come together only for gigs a few days or weeks before a tour, or a recording!
BAJ: Tell us about your approach to soloing.
CVK: Actually, I don’t feel so much like a soloist… I feel more comfortable if I can accompany my band mates with good bass lines. With the Jazz Pistols, I feel more like soloing more often than usual. There is so much space for me to do all this tapping stuff, and to change grooves with Lui Ludwig (Jazz Pistols drummer). I’ve never liked the fact that everybody stops playing altogether – or they drastically change their playing level – when the bass player starts soloing. It gives me a strange feeling! I would like to be a part of the band during my solos, and I like interacting with the ideas of the accompanying musicians.
BAJ: I've noticed that you don't "become" a soloist when it's time to go into that space! You solo… like you play grooves! That's a rare facet in most players. Please give us an overview of your approach.
CVK: When I first started to play solos… I listened closely to musicians in order to get ideas about how to start a solo, and how to build up my ideas… and I looked for licks to “steal”! But, somehow, it’s hard to bring a saxophone solo – or other non-bass solos – to the bass. It is, however, a great way to study your instrument, and to nail down new techniques on your fingerboard. This greatly improves your technique!
I didn’t like the way my playing switched to a totally different character, when I first began soloing. Bass solos follow different rules than other instruments, and I’ve come to understand this over time.
When the bass takes a solo, an important instrument of the band drops out: the bass. When I would suddenly switch to play in a higher octave it would give a very harsh cut to the over all sonic structure of the music. So, now, I prefer that a solo evolve and, at the same time, incorporate a connection to the stuff I was playing before. It’s different when Marcus Miller or John Patitucci takes a solo on their CDs… They almost always have a synth bass, or themselves, overdubbing with a different bass line that supports the bass solo. The Jazz Pistols hold very tightly to the trio format, So, I do not overdub myself to support my bass solos.
BAJ: I meant to ask this earlier… What are you studying these days, and are there books you can recommend to our readers?
CVK: The fact that we are also running the Jazz Pistols’ business on our own, takes a lot (too much) of practice time away. But, it is all part of the music business – to promote ourselves, and to get to know our recording studio, and other stuff. Somehow, it is all part of a bigger picture…
I would encourage everybody to focus not on the music, alone! It’s sad to say it… But, it is all too rare for labels to approach an artist, and say, “You just play – we make the rest for you!” It will never happen to me, anyway!
No matter what I’m practicing, I always watch that it is in time. I like to practice with the metronome and switch between different times, styles and not fixate on a certain tempo. I cover a lot of the material I collected at Berklee College of Music. I used to work on technique a lot – I always thought about technique as something learnable. There are some aspects of musicianship which are more difficult to achieve – or, at least, more difficult than others. In the area of learning technique… it is only a case of practice. Some people can slap right away, while others need days, or weeks, to get their first slap sound out of the bass. I firmly believe anybody can get to a great playing level if they just work hard enough. But, then you have to fill this technique with musicality and not just this technique.
BAJ: Absolutely! One of the reasons I've not read a couple of the other bass-oriented magazines, is because they insist upon calling everything someone plays with their thumb, "funky". Some of the people winning this prized "most funky award", are also some of the most groove illiterate players I've ever heard! By the same token, Jaco, who didn't play with his thumb… was FUNKY! The debate between "unlined versus lined fretless fingerboards" is an ongoing matter in the bass guitar world. Please tell about your approach to, and also, how you study the matter of fretless intonation.
CVK: I played violoncello for about 10 years, as a youth. So, I got used to playing without frets and fret-lines. Beside that, I could hardly see fret-lines on the stage, if I needed to. I use the one-finger-per-fret method on both fretless and fretted bass, and try to place my finger exactly on the note. In that way, the approach between fretted and fretless bass is not so different to me – from a fingering standpoint.
But, everybody should choose what fits him/her best. Maybe lines are good for fretless beginners, as well as for great players, like Gary Willis.
The reason I play without lines was also a design choice. It looks more mysterious – just a plain black ebony fingerboard – and I wanted to trust my ears right from the start. On fretless bass you just can’t rely completely on lines, or on visual correctness – where you think the note is. You must learn to check intonation without looking, and to correct every incorrect tone as soon as possible. It’s too late if you correct the pitch after a few beats – once the errant note becomes more and more out of tune! You have to concentrate on every note.
It is similar to working on timing, and playing with a metronome with the beats on 2 and 4. You have to learn to immediately recognize when you are slightly in front of, or behind the click. Then you have to correct your tempo immediately! Otherwise, you are so far off the beat by the next click that it is hard to come back to the groove.
BAJ: Exactly! Interestingly enough, I was making a similar analogy about playing fretless to using the metronome, and making slight, constant timing adjustments, to a student recently. I also give the example of driving a car, to my students who ask about playing fretless in tune: Just because the car appears to move in a straight line, doesn't mean that a number of minute adjustments aren't being made to keep the vehicle progressing along that particular path! When playing fretless, it has to become a natural progression to identify, and then move toward, the correct pitch! I'm so glad to hear another player employ a similar example! Thank you! Who are some of the musicians you're listening to?
CVK: I listen to a lot of musicians! Bass-wise, there are the usual suspects: Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Gary Willis, Jaco Pastorius, and John Patitucci. But, I always try to listen to every unique voice on each instrument! When I like somebody very much, I want to find ways to incorporate parts of his/her style into my own playing. Also, you learn a lot about your own sound, and goals – how you want to sound – when you are listing to somebody with a different approach to music. Even if the resulting conclusion is, “that’s not the way I want to sound.” Find out what it is you don’t like in your own playing, and get rid of it!
BAJ: What are a few of your music-oriented goals for the year 2002? Also, how do you approach seeing your playing goals into fruition?
CVK: A big goal for 2002 is definitely to promote our new Jazz Pistols CD “Special Treatment”! We would like to play a lot of live gigs, Nationally, and also Internationally. Right now, we have to do all the business on our own – we would love to find a competent person, someone who sees our potential, and who wants to work with us. We are also thinking about developing our style for the next recordings. We are taking the Jazz Pistols very seriously and we don’t want to repeat ourselves. More than anything, we want to play in a band that is very encouraging for each ofus, and one that allows us to find new ways to express yourselves!
BAJ: The Jazz Pistols participate in a lot of Workshops. How did that get started, and what is the ultimate goal of the workshops?
CVK: Band workshops are a great thing because they don’t focus on one specific instrument – which, is what you already study your private teacher, or by yourself. A band workshop concentrates on the interplay between the different instruments in a band. Normally, you don’t have a teacher in your practice room… So, it’s a good idea to have a coach – to get ideas for your instrument in a band context.
There are two parts of the workshop… The first part emphasizes the most importance of playing music: Playing it together in a band!
During this part of the workshop, we speak to bassists and drummers, for example, about how to lock up a groove. We also speak about those little details – where a lot of people think, “that’s easy – I can do that.” But, if they actually had to do it, it is an immediately identifiable problem in their playing!
We also cover playing in time; making the right count-off before a tune begins; taking the given time to identify the groove, and finding the important beats of a groove to lay down. The second part of the workshop is to introduce the people to concepts of music that most can’t easily try with their friends – like odd grooves, and other Jazz Pistols oriented stuff.
BAJ: Please talk to us about "Basstalk"…
CVK: Unfortunately it looks like it will not happen. Bert Gerecht and his Hot Wire Record Label are not in good shape, at this time. I don’t now all the details yet… We spoke last year about a track of mine for the next Basstalk CD that Stanley Clarke would have been on. Maybe someday…
BAJ: That's too bad. I know that BASSICS Magazine issues a monthly disc that features the guests in the magazine. It might be an idea… Also, remember that we have Global Bass Station, here at Global Bass! Send a disc to the magazine, and see if we can play if for ya'! How often do you get back to the US, and are you coming to North America this year?
CVK: In past years I was visiting the US at least once a year. I was studying at Berklee from 1999 to 2000, and it was a great experience! Not only because of the music – I got to know many friends from all around the world, there. Berklee, is an unbelievable melting-pot for all cultures from Africa, Europe, Russia, Israel, Arabia, Japan, and of course, the USA. I really loved that environment. It can give you a lot! A friend of mine, a great bass player from Yugoslavia/Serbia was in my class when America and Germany and others attacked his country, in order to put pressure on Millosovich. It was a strange feeling – your own country throws bombs on the city of your family, or of a friend! I wish everybody could have the opportunity to get to know people of different cultures, and to live with them in an environment like Berklee. A lot of misunderstandings based on the different cultures would pass. Anyhow… I believe that good musicians are open-minded and tolerant, because that’s the behavior that is needed in a successful band! You have to interact and try to understand what your fellow musicians. I hope that I can visit some friends in Boston, in 2002.
BAJ: What's next on your busy agenda? CVK: The most important thing for us, right now, is "Special Treatment". We will give a lot of interviews in Germany, and we are thankful for every opportunity, like this, to make people aware of the Jazz Pistols! Otherwise we will play gigs and festivals. I sometimes sub in a famous rock group in Germany, the Jule Neigel Band. I also have a modern jazz quartet with original compositions with Seattle based pianist Pax Wallace. I'm currently recording our disc, "Pax Wallace Quartet", in the Jazz Pistols Studio.
BAJ: Any closing comments for the Global Bass Magazine readers?
CVK: I especially like a comment from Victor Wooten. He said that he always tries to be the best player he can be in the moment. Not some unreachable goal… just to realize and concentrate on your power and your own possibilities… and try to make the best out of it! Thank you all for taking time to read this interview!
BAJ: Thank you, Chris! I think the Jazz Pistols are an important band, and I wanted to do everything I can to see that the US hears about the band, and the new disc! Folks… the Jazz Pistols ROCK! You can read more about Christoph and the band at: http://www.jazz-pistols.de/ and you can email Christoph at: Christoph@jazz-pistols.de
Brent-Anthony Johnson is a bassist/composer/arranger/instructor living in the Denver Metropolitan area. He co-leads the group Sonal Anu and the premier release is scheduled for December 2001! Stay tuned to Global Bass Magazine for more information. His website is at http://www.noisytony.net/ and his email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org