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An Interview with Percy Jones

Percy JonesPercy Jones is one of the definitive figures who carved out a role for the fretless bass and helped establish its place on the contemporary music scene. Best known for his work with jazz-fusion band Brand X, Percy collaborated with likes of Phil Collins and Robin Lumley. Brand X’s early 70’s debut Unorthodox Behaviour established the band as one of the UK’s top fusion units.

Percy also held down the bottom in another legendary UK band, Soft Machine for a short time. Notable earlier musical outings were with the Liverpool Scene and the Scaffold, the latter featuring another bassist’s brother, Mike McCartney.

Percy is particularly known for his impeccable intonation and flawless execution of quick clean runs, and of a beautiful vibrato on both single notes and double stops. Brand X’s “Livestock” being a prime example of Percy’s dexterity and inventiveness in a live setting. Percy’s linchpin bass style can also be heard on diverse works from Suzanne Vega and David Sylvain, to the experimental outings of Brian Eno (the classic “Before and After Science”) and guitarist/composer Bill Frisell.

More recently, Percy can be heard playing with jazz-fusion unit Tunnels and his latest release is with the jazz-rock trio Bangtower. This power-prog trio outing finds guitarist Neil Citron and drummer Walter Garces in full-tilt, adrenaline-fueled music that bassists and lovers of fusion will want to check out. Percy has also been playing around the Brooklyn, NY area with experimental improv conspirators where he is found laying it down at what he terms “DIY joints”.

When did you start playing bass?

Around 1961 or ’62 when I was attending grammar school in Wales. My first bass was a Vox Clubman, and I played with a local band.

What would you consider a defining moment for your interest in music and bass playing in particular?

In the early 60’s, I used to listen to Radio Luxembourg during the evenings when it would be audible in the UK via sky wave. It was really the only cool radio station at the time. I distinctly remember hearing Chuck Berry’s “Memphis Tennessee” and really getting into it. I then started checking out more R&B, which at the time was starting to become popular in the UK. A lot of the British Musos were listening to what was coming out of the US.

What lead you to playing fretless bass?

I really liked the sound of the upright bass, but I liked the volume and attack of an electric bass, so a fretless seemed to be the logical way to go. When I first got one, I immediately knew it was the right instrument for me.

Being a pioneer of fretless players, are there any players you would sight as key influences on your playing?

I started playing fretless in 1974. There were so few players back then, at least none that I was aware of. Most of my influence came from upright players, Charles Mingus being a big favorite. An electric player that impressed me at the time was the late Cliff Barton, he played with Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames and Blues Incorporated, amongst others.

Besides electric fretless players, which acoustic players have been influential?

Charles Mingus as I mentioned, also Paul Chambers and Scott LaFaro. A more recent player would be Miroslav Vitous

What do you look for when listening to other bass players?

Overall I think I listen for inventiveness and the unexpected. There is nothing like hearing someone who is full of surprises. Obviously a good tone, good intonation and good technique go without saying, but a good dynamic range also goes a very long way.

When did you make the move to 5 string and how has it shaped your playing ?

I think it was in the late 80’s, I can’t remember the exact year. I went from a 4 string Wal to a 5 string Wal. It gave me the extra range I was looking for in the low end, down to 32Hz instead of 41Hz. The biggest challenge was being able to properly control the damping of 5 strings instead of 4. I think it has expanded my playing, but that’s really for the listeners to decide.

Concerning right hand fingering, what warm up exercise do you recommend?

I have quite a few, mostly scales, where you have different combinations of notes per string. The most difficult being 4 notes per string typical of diminished scales. Also exercises where you have to jump across one or two strings to get to the next note, like octaves 7ths and 10ths etc. Some are not very musical, but are good for warming up.

And the left hand?

The above are also good for the left hand. But there are some others, like playing two consecutive notes on one string then going up a 4th to the next string and repeat all the way up. You do this with different combinations of fingers. It’s a very good work out but sounds completely stupid, musically. Also playing wide intervals which make you stretch is a good one too.

How do you approach your choice of equipment in studio versus live performance?

In the studio I always have (and still do) go direct into the board. Occasionally I will also use an amp which is miced, and the engineer will use a combination of the two. I don’t usually do that unless the engineer specifically wants to do it like that. One thing I’ve learned is to never piss off an engineer, I find them scarier than producers.

Live, these days I use a small Euphonic Audio amp. I needed something that was small, that would fit in the trunk of a cab or car, but that was loud enough. The EA amp uses a 10 inch speaker in a transmission line enclosure and a class D amp. It’s very efficient, so it’s loud for it’s size and I find the response to be very accurate without the low end ringing that you get with some ported cabinets. It’s certainly loud enough for the gigs I’m doing locally with MJ-12.

What style of drummer/percussionist do you enjoy playing with?

Again I like a drummer who is inventive and who has a good dynamic range and sense of space. Obviously it’s great to play with a guy who has good chops. If he has good chops but has a good sensibility of where to unload it all, and can be spacious in the appropriate places, then I’m happy.

You’ve played with Phil Collins, Chuck Burgi, Kenwood Dennard amongst others. Are there any drummers that you would like to play with in the future?

I’ve been very lucky to have played with good drummers over the years. Mike Clark and Pierre Moerlen were great too, we were fortunate to have them in Brand X. I would have liked to have played with Tony Williams, but the opportunity never came up. Christan Vander is a guy I would like to play with. I’m enjoying playing with Steve Moses currently here in New York, he is very inventive. It was great fun to play with Walter Garces on the recent Bangtower recording. All these guys have been a good education for me.

Having heard a few tracks from your new Bang Tower album, I was floored by the aggressive synergy between Neil, John and yourself. Tell us about the new band, the Casting Shadows album, and what you’re doing to support this release.

Yes, I think the record came out well. It was a challenging project to get finished because of various logistics. Considering some of the problems we had to deal with to get it done, I think it came out super duper.

The aggressive synergy you mentioned came about because we had to get it right in a very short amount of time, it was either that or there would be nothing. So Neil, Walter and myself really copped a determined attitude and got stuck in the minute we got into the studio in LA.

We’re planning to support the release with some gigs here and there. We’re currently looking into that.

I remember the first time hearing Brand X in the 80’s and being blown away by the high level musicality of that band. Nuclear burn indeed ! How did your association with that band impact your career?

Well, it was a very big deal to me. I took it very seriously. Prior to Brand X, I was working on a construction site in South London, so when I met up with Goodsall and Lumley, etc., I realized that we potentially had a good thing going there, and bass playing was more appealing than a pick and shovel. We worked very hard on that band and put in a lot of rehearsal to get it sounding as good as we could possibly get it. A fly in the ointment was when Phil Collins was unable to do most of the touring, but we were able to continue with other drummers.

It definitely helped my career since it led to other projects, for example, with Brian Eno.

Do you have any upcoming projects in the works?

I’m playing with a trio here in New York called MJ-12. It’s bass, drums and electronic percussion. Steve Moses the drummer also plays trombone. It’s all improv at the moment. We have been playing at several DIY joints in Brooklyn, experimenting with different musical ideas. If it continues to progress I think it will be good to take it into the studio next year, even at the risk of pissing off an engineer or two.

I’m also working on a few tracks for some new Scott McGill/Ritchie DeCarlo material.

Anything new on the gear front?

I’ve been using a couple of stomp boxes from Eventide. Back in the late 70’s, I used to use effects that I built myself, all analog stuff. Then for the next 25 years I hardly used any effects. More recently I was toying with the idea of building some new stuff and getting back into some processing. But the time involved doing that was kinda daunting. Then Eventide popped up and I realized that what they had would serve my needs. I use a Modfactor and a Timefactor.

Check out more from Percy on his website, as well as Bangtower’s release, Casting Shadows.