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A Life In Bass: An Interview With Tony Senatore

Tony Senatore

We’ve showcased Tony Senatore’s incredible 12-string playing before, but that’s not all there is to the bassist. He’s spent the better part of 38 years working in the New York scene including sessions in the city’s top studios. Working as a session player requires a high degree of versatility, but that’s no problem considering his background.

Senatore was first taught trumpet starting at the age of five by his father, who was a member of Latin jazz superstar Tito Puente’s band. He continued the instrument until the bass came into his life at age 16. A local teacher named Al Faraldi taught him the fundamentals and eventually had him playing Bach Inventions and Carol Kaye bass lines alike, and once armed with the knowledge, he jumped into the NYC scene in 1980. After paying his musical dues, Senatore recently went to college and received a degree from Columbia University.

Now he’s taken all of his experiences to present a new project representing three musical parts of his life. Senatore recorded three songs embedded below: “I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You” with jazz legend Steve Swallow, Robert Schumann’s “Dichterliebe, Op 48”, and Cream’s classic “As You Said.” Though the songs seem far removed from each other, the bassist tackles jazz, classical, and rock with the same level of integrity by focusing on the musicality of the song. He plays the melody on each song, but he also supports the rest of the artists that join him. Even on “As You Said,” which is a solo bass arrangement, Senatore pays homage to his fellow musician – the late Jack Bruce – with a moment of silence.

Each of the songs is embedded below with a description written by Senatore. We also caught up with him to get the scoop on his musical start, the 12-string bass, and connecing with Steve Swallow.

How did your father inspire your musicianship?

My father was a self-taught Trumpet player who was known for his monstrous tone and soulful approach to life and music. I have tried to augment those traits with a serious emphasis on practicing and disciplined study, which were things that my father rarely did.

How do you see your extensive trumpet training affecting your approach to the bass?

I know that Steve Swallow started out on piano and trumpet as a child before switching to double bass at the age of fourteen. Melody is surely the linchpin of his musical ideology. I believe that I could say the same thing about myself, perhaps laying bare the significance of starting out on an instrument designed for melodic playing, and then switching to a rhythm section instrument like the bass that can be used melodically as well as rhythmically. Although I have not picked up my trumpet since 1980, I recently purchased a tuba, and I am teaching myself how to play it. What is interesting is that I am using what I learned about how the bass functions, and this has affected my tuba playing. This is the exact opposite of the first scenario.

Tony Senatore with 12-string Bass

How do you treat playing a 12-string bass differently than a 4-string?

I use it as the ultimate vehicle to express my melodic side. Most 12 string bass players use standard tuning and play it very much like a standard 4 string bass. I use a drop D tuning and play fingerstyle. I focus on playing entire melodies on a single string while keeping the low D resonating much like a Sitar. Regarding left-hand technique, the 12-string bass requires a player to use a flat finger approach to fretting, as three strings are much harder to fret accurately than one. Whether I am live or in the studio, my 12-string bass signal is always stereo; one clean and one distorted.

What inspired your new project?

My time at Columbia University was to date one of the richest experiences of my life, but after eight years of studying sociology and neglecting my music career, I came to the realization that music is what I love most and do best. I am inspired to use video and the modern technology at my disposal to convey all that I hold sacred in music to a global audience.

How did you connect with Steve Swallow?

Steve Swallow at Tony Senatore SessionI connected with Steve in 2007. I had just released a CD (Holyland 2005) and a DVD (a 12 String Bass X-ploration 2007), and I was fortunate enough to get them both to him. Steve has been a friend to me ever since. To be clear, we don’t go out drinking Woodford Reserve and get lap dances on the weekends. Moreover, between 2007 and 2017, I have only met him about three times. On the other hand, we have had extensive email communication over the years, and our friendship has transcended music. Extremely astute and articulate, he is a big fan of the great literature of our time. He turned me on to the Black Mountain poets, Robert Creeley, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams. With his guidance, I have learned that every word, as well as every note, counts, so they must both be used wisely and with great discretion. The most important thing that I learned is that a legend carries him/herself with style and grace, always willing to advise and nurture, as well as administer constructive criticism when needed. As my friend Chris Bacas noted, he is our “Hemingway of the bass.”

What ties these three songs together for you?

Melody, and Steve’s idea which he conveyed to me via email that “the three video segments make a nice point that all kinds of seemingly disparate music are really of a piece, and (paraphrasing Duke) that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.”

“I’m Gettin’ Sentimental Over You” (Featuring Steve Swallow)

I was surfing the internet when I found an incredible version of “I’m Getting’ Sentimental Over You” by guitarist Jim Hall with Steve on upright bass. I used to perform the song of countless gigs with my Dad over the years, as well as with some amazing trombone players. I thought that the song would be a perfect vehicle to convey my jazz background while making Steve feel sentimental about his early years.

“Dichterliebe, Op 48”

Classical music, both tonal and atonal, has had a profound effect on my development as a bassist. I have always been a fan of 12 tone serialism from composers like Schoenberg, Xenakis, and Milton Babbitt, and other music that operates without the safety net of tonality. Although this may be true, I believe that of all the elements that music is built upon, regardless of genre, the melody is the most important factor. In my third year at Columbia University, I had to take a class entitled Masterpieces of Western Music. It was in this class that I heard for the first time Schumann’s Dichertliebe Op 48. The version I analyzed was made famous by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, (28 May 1925 – 18 May 2012) a German lyric baritone and conductor of classical music, one of the most famous Lieder (art song) performers of the post-war period. Immediately after hearing it, the impact it had on me was profound, and I knew I would revisit it upon graduation, and adapt it in an entirely new way.

“As You Said”

Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have offered their definitions as to what constitutes art, and the motivations behind it, but the definition that I believe sums it up best is stated by philosopher Will Durant. Durant said that artists “give lasting form to transient beauty or an illuminating clarity to subtle influence.” Building on what Durant said, I believe that artists of all mediums, from music, art and poetry can accomplish this in two ways; 1) by upholding the traditions of the established masters of the field, not necessarily breaking new ground, but feeding off of the inspiration provided by the past masters, but adding a new twist, and passing this along to a new generation, with love and respect for the teacher , or by 2( vehemently avoiding tradition to the point of sacrilege, creating new rules in the process, breaking new ground; running the risk of being labeled either an iconoclast or a charlatan. My rendition of As You Said fits my first definition and is my hat tip to the great Jack Bruce. If I were forced to name my biggest influence, it would be Jack Bruce.

For more on Tony Senatore, check out his website.

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