Bass Players to Know: Oteil Burbridge
Each time I embark on a new column, I find myself humbled and overwhelmed by the talent and contributions of the chosen “Bass Player to Know.” There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll discover new music, recognize the birth of different styles, and become more in tune with the virtuosity of the player.
As I wade into the pool of Oteil Burbridge’s catalogue, I quickly rediscover someone who is completely fearless — the player who is a mastermind of musical Marco Polo and who is willing to cannonball into the deep end.
With a brilliant and organic approach to making music on a stage, Oteil Burbridge is a bass player to know.
So Who Is Oteil Burbridge?
Hailing from the Washington, D.C. area, Oteil developed an affinity for music early on, one that continues to blossom and evolve the longer he’s in “the biz.” Oteil and his brother Kofi, an extraordinary keyboardist and flautist, began studying classical, jazz, and popular music while still in grade school. Both learned to play a wide variety of instruments and, favoring the rhythm section, Oteil picked up the electric bass. After playing in a number of bands around D.C. and graduating from the Sidwell Friends School, the bassist eventually made his way to Atlanta. There, he became a founding member of the Aquarium Rescue Unit featuring Col. Bruce Hampton in 1991. Oteil toured and released a number of albums with the group before being asked to join the Allman Brothers Band in 1997, a coveted and creative gig that he continues to hold.
In addition to touring with the Allman Brothers, Oteil has been a founding member of many other projects, including Oteil and the Peacemakers, Vida Blue, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. A recipient of two Grammy awards, he has maintained a healthy career touring and recording, playing alongside Herbie Hancock, Victor Wooten, Gov’t Mule, Steve Smith, Soulive, Zac Brown Band, and a countless number of blues and rock legends.
Let’s Talk Style
As many of us spend hours in the woodshed, our ultimate goal is musical liberation — to have the technical ability to play anything, to possess an innate sense of time that allows us to groove the music harder than anyone else, and to comprehend the theoretical rules to the extent that we can break them with creative note choices. Along with each of these, Oteil manages to have a magnetic voice and personality on the instrument, bringing energy, charisma, and soul to everything he plays.
With a deep knowledge of harmony, Oteil playfully brings chords into the mix. Whether it’s using octaves to further push a dynamic solo section, double stops in the higher register as a playful accent, or a series of substitutions during his solos, he understands how to integrate them in a sophisticated and non-intrusive manner. His harmonic understanding is further demonstrated by usage of inversions — Oteil frequently injects punctuating fills to accentuate chord tones and favors the 3rd or 5th to create melodic bass lines under familiar chord changes. Chromaticism and tension are also prominent in his playing; often the driving dynamic and harmonic force of the band, he takes full advantage of the power of the half step. He frequently emphasizes a half step above his destination so that the brief moment of uneasiness will add color and intensity before finding resolution. He uses a similar technique with a series of ascending notes, particularly half steps, to create tension and catapult the dynamic energy of the band.
Engrossed in a number of musical styles, Oteil has particularly unique phrasing and the ability to tie in rhythms from all genres of music. Whether he’s pulsing 8th notes, effortlessly executing an odd-time bass line, or elegantly moving through the changes of a ballad, he provides the band with a confident groove that reflects his knowledge and respect for style. His technical ability allows him to play just about anything and offers a great example for why it’s important to seamlessly execute 16th notes up and down the neck. And finally, his placement of fills and melodic lines are always pleasantly surprising, quickly catching the ear of the listener before retreating back to the groove.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Desdemona (Live)” (The Allman Brothers Band: One Way Out, Live at the Beacon Theater)
“Epic” is a pretty good way to describe this tune. Oteil provides the band with the perfect backdrop during the verse and chorus—sweet and round sounding half notes, tension-inducing leading tones, and the hauntingly beautiful chord thrown in. As the song moves into the solo/jam section, Oteil shows off his walking skills, traversing between the two chords with plenty of rhythmic interplay, quick fills that mimic the melodic lines of the soloist, monstrous octave-chords, and keen attention to the dynamic shifts of the band.
“Bound For Glory (Live)” (Tedeschi Trucks Band: Everybody’s Talkin’)
This tune is another example of Oteil’s “go for broke” live playing. With his unmistakable groove keeping, he intuitively controls the dynamic flow of the song, uses chord inversions to add harmonic diversity, and wholeheartedly supports the soloists. Kicking in with a simple root-fifth-octave groove, he smoothly navigates through the chord changes and pulses notes to build before the soulful old-school line in the chorus. The band breaks down into a groove based solo section, where Oteil provides a dub-funk background accented by conversational fills, chromatic riffs, climbing octaves, and driving 8th notes. If you listen closely, you can also catch his reference to “Inner City Blues.”
“The Garden” (Aquarium Rescue Unit: In A Perfect World)
Heavy, intricate, and undeniably funky, this tune is riddled with complexity and aggressiveness. Oteil exhibits impeccable technique and precision as the band collectively rips through the lead lines, leaving him as the proprietor of the groove throughout the solo sections. He uses clever interval leaps and chords during the flute solo, only to give way to a fierce and acutely punctuated groove before returning to the original theme.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Oteil Burbridge? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!