Giving Notes: An Interview with Rufus Philpot
Rufus Philpot is a bassist that has perspective. Born in London, he cut his teeth in England before taking his career to New York City and all the adventures that entails. A move to L.A. several years ago has further cemented him into an in-demand musical director and session player. Along the way he’s seen the rest of the world from the bandstand.
His resumé includes work with some of the industry’s top musicians including Allan Holdsworth, Al Di Meola, Virgil Donati, Randy Brecker, Roy Ayers, Paul Jackson Jr. and many more. With all of his playing experience and knowledge of the instrument, he’s taken to teaching the innerworkings of what it takes to be a great bassist.
We caught up with Rufus to get the scoop on his projects, his musical journey, and what most players need to be practicing.
The CPT trio CD Starship Cadillac with Kirk Covington is amazing. Do you have more coming from that group?
That album came out a while ago and we gigged quite a lot when it came out. Then Kirk moved back to Austin, Texas. We saw each other at Bass Player Live for a minute, which was nice because we hadn’t seen each other in a while. We did BPL in 2010 when I did a seminar and we actually did it with that trio, which was cool. I don’t know if we’re going to do another one, but I was just talking with [keyboardist] Scott Tibbs, who wrote a lot of that stuff. We were talking about doing our own project with maybe Omar Hakim or just a bunch of different drummers. We might write the stuff together and then send it to drummers to add the drums last, ironically. It may become more of a collaborative thing or it could be more of just my solo thing.
I had quite a lot to do with CPT Kirk. We gigged it a lot before we recorded it, and even when we recorded it we did it live so we had Kirk’s basic DNA on tape, but then we worked with it. I came up with different stuff for the bass as well, so it’s not as live as it seems. We crafted something out of it with the drums being mainly live. I like the way it came out. In some ways I thought it was better than anything we did live in the end. It was like, “This is the way we should have done these tunes,” just because of the dynamics and layering of stuff. When you’re doing a power trio gig at the Baked Potato, it goes out the window, that stuff.
I know you’re doing a lot of sideman work. How does a bass player stay afloat in L.A.?
That’s a good question. You have to be pretty diverse. I just came from doing a clinic in England where we talked about doing reasonably advanced things on playing over changes, and when I came back I was playing on New Year’s Eve with four singers from American Idol and The Voice. Belinda Carlisle played the headliner, which we mimed to. It was a little unreal.
Having said that, one the guys, David Hernandez, had two really good tunes that he’d actually written himself. The drummer Steven Robinson was really good and he plays with Andrew Gouché. We were able to really get inside those songs. They were slightly R&B pop things but heavier. It almost reminded me of the later, more produced Chaka Khan stuff. There were no actual written bass parts but a lot of figures to catch.
That was actually really good, but it had nothing to do with being a jazz-oriented player. You need to be able to read well for that and know at least something about the idiom. That was a super pop oriented thing. Then another gig I had that week was with an eight-piece band called Genr8r. There’s a whole new scene in L.A. where none of the guys grew up listening to Weather Report or Mahavishnu Orchestra or any of the ’70s stuff. They don’t know the Elektric Band or the Yellowjackets. So their writing is more like Snarky Puppy and all that. That band is really fun. I’m one of the guys that works a fair amount with those cats, even though I’m older. They’re all around 25.
I’m also a teacher. I do masterclasses at Musician’s Institute and the Los Angeles College of Music, and I also do occasional performances there. I’ve got my own students via Skype, as well. I’ve done a few seminars for Scott’s Bass Lessons.
I’m enjoying teaching more and more. I want to do more of it. I think there’s not that many good teachers out there. A lot of them don’t seem to have much of a playing background. It’s like, “Have you done any gigs?” A lot are very solo oriented, and I understand people that want to do that, but when you look at these guys it’s like they haven’t really played bass for anything. When I moved out here I was playing with Planet X and Virgil Donati’s thing. I got a solo in those, but it was bass. You had to be holding it down because the music was rhythmically insane. You couldn’t say, “Oh yeah, I’m kind of a soloist.” No, you’re a bass player.
It’s the same with Scott Henderson. I played a bunch with Scott, doing Wayne Shorter stuff and Weather Report stuff. I got to solo a lot in that band, but Scott doesn’t want a guy who can solo under him, he wants a guy that can play bass. I think I come at the teaching thing from that perspective.
How did you learn to play the bass?
I played saxophone first and I was terrible. Fortunately I stumbled across a bass guitar at a rehearsal at my school. I couldn’t play it, but I was immediately drawn to it. I didn’t look at the guitar or drums… it was just the bass. I took a few lessons at school and got reasonably good by myself after a few more lessons. I went and did a music degree in the North of England at Newcastle. There I met up with Ian Waller, who made Wal Basses. Ian built me a bass. Whilst we were chatting and heard me play a little, he said, “I think you’re gonna like this guy Laurence Cottle.” Laurence is still one of the top jazz guys in England. I met him and took a lesson with him. He got me started on really more advanced harmonic concepts. He literally would give me a sheet of paper and write out all the modes of melodic minor and all the advanced stuff. Honestly, that stuff is still what I work on. When someone reveals melodic minor to you and the modes on that and the triads within those modes… It really opens your mind. Laurence was the first big influence for me.
Then I went to the Guild Hall School of Music, which is a really good music school. I was trying to get on the drama side, too, and they were like, “No way.” [laughs] Those were the main things that got me playing, and then I was just on the local scene. In 1999, I moved to New York after making some trips there. I met Matt Garrison at the Fodera factory and he introduced me to a few people. I had also met Tim Lefebvre in 1996 because he came to London and was stranded there without a work visa. Something happened with the Wayne Krantz trio where they couldn’t get out of there but he was meeting them from another gig so he was meeting them in London. A mutual friend of ours asked if I could show him around and we ended up having a lot of fun. I took him to these jazz bars and late night speakeasy places. It was kind of a good time. [laughs]
So by the time I got to New York, I kind of knew a few people. Kim Plainfield, who is a drummer, teaches at the Drummers Collective, which is also the Bass Collective. I got offered some sub gigs there working for Leo Traversa, who is a really good bassist. He’s on the world music scene and he’s very versatile. Leo said, “Would you be interested in doing some classes?” I said yeah, so Kim called me one day to do a Afro/Cuban fusion class. I turned up and there were these really heavyweight musicians bringing in their own tunes. You’d be playing with them and sightreading with the teachers and the students. It was quite intense, because if you messed up you’d look really bad. You had to read. Kim would throw these Vince Mendoza charts at you that he had been playing for years, but I was sightreading.
From that one class, they kind of crowbarred me onto the faculty. It happened very quickly. I think I was the youngest teacher there apart from Matt. John Patitucci was the head of the bass faculty then, too, so it was a very exciting time. Then I just started getting gigs around town at the Zinc Bar and places like that. I got to play with Randy Brecker.
A friend of mine named Ric Fierabracci was going to move to New York. I had a trio with Joel Rosenblatt, a great drummer who did Spyro Gyra and worked with Michel Camilo. Joel and I worked a lot together. I was thinking about moving to L.A. because of the weather and everything. Ric said, “Hey, Planet X and Virgil Donati need a bass player. You’d be great for it.” I said okay. I had never heard of the band, though I’d heard of Virgil. Ric said, “It’s kind of difficult music,” and I had no concept [of what he meant]. I said, “What do you mean? Difficult like ‘Donna Lee’ or something like that?”
Virgil sent me this care package of crazy music and I didn’t know what the hell was going on. [laughs] The music has all these odd groupings so it would sound like it was slowing down. Usually it was based on groupings of 16th notes: groups of five, seven, and so on. It would just be insane. The quarter note would suddenly seem to be moving. Some of it was written out, but half of it wasn’t written out. It was tough, but it was a cool situation.
I’m musical director for this band called Down to the Bone, which is acid jazz. It couldn’t more different from these other bands. It’s funk, four-on-the-floor kind of stuff, like Jamiroquai with no vocals. I came out to L.A. for some Down to the Bone gigs, and we were rehearsing and staying in a hotel in Studio City. Virgil picked me up after a six hour flight and I went straight to an audition for Planet X. I was jetlagged and delirious. We played all his stuff for three hours with keyboardist Derek Sherinian and TJ Helmrick, the guitar player. Afterward they said, “Yeah, you got the gig but we need you in L.A. now. We’ve got a tour of Italy and Poland.” I said, “Ok, I live in New York but I’ll be here soon,” and they said, “We need you here next week.” So I flew back, packed up, and was back in L.A. within a week. That was it.
Most of the people in New York never even knew I left, kind of like when Tim moved. He didn’t really tell people, but he’s still quite bi-coastal. The seeds of a lot of what he’s doing now came from 20 years ago. The drum and bass stuff, electronica, Zach Danziger’s stuff, and Jojo Mayer’s thing… That was all in the ’90s. Things are – especially out here in L.A. – about ten years behind.
It seems like a lot of guys are making the move from New York to L.A.
There’s been a great scene here. I used to hang out a lot when I lived in Studio City. I’d go out to the Baked Potato three or four nights a week. It was the hang. Michael Landau would be there, and Jimmy Johnson and Simon Phillips. The last two years have gotten rougher I think.
How has it gotten rougher?
I think just economics have affected places. A lot of venues have closed. There are new places opening here in Downtown, but the momentum seems to have slowed down on some stuff. Also, stuff that seemed new ten years ago isn’t new anymore. I’ve seen certain bands so much that I don’t even go to see them now, as great as they might be.
Anyway, I moved down and worked with Planet X and Virgil. Virgil toured more than Planet X and I like the music better. He had a great band with Mitch Forman or Steve Weingert or Jeff Babko on keyboards, but Mitch was the longest standing guy. We also did this thing called the super trio that was really good because Mitch was writing some great stuff.
I think New York has a musical edge with guys like Wayne Krantz and the Dave Binney and Donny McCaslin, but a lot of those guys are coming out here now to play. There’s a lot more exchange. I feel like the two coasts are more interconnected now as a scene. Now I’m getting tight with guys I know from England. I wasn’t tight with them in England, but the connection has grown with guys like Scott Devine and Joe Hubbard.
One of the reasons I dig what Joe does is that he really knows his stuff. We were talking about doing a double clinic next time in the UK. We’re not quite the same player, but we come from similar harmonic backgrounds. Joe is very sound intellectually about music theory.
Some of his more advanced lessons on No Treble scare some of our readers.
That’s why I think one on one, real-time lessons from good teachers are important. Otherwise there are guys who just don’t understand it even if it makes perfect sense because they are overwhelmed, or you have guys that kind of understand but end up not being any good at actually playing. You have to be able to perform it. I think there’s a weird disconnect with education. It’s almost because you’ve got so much education available online that it’s dehumanized it, slightly.
Whenever you have a great teacher in whatever subject, they humanize it for you. The teacher becomes part of the information, right? How they communicate it, how they utilize it… I think sometimes we miss that. You could watch an incredible column with some amazing stuff, but unless you’re able to assimilate it, you’re just going to be bewildered.
When you take on new students, is there a piece of the puzzle that you think most bassists are missing from their education?
That’s a great question. There’s a few things. Even if they’ve studied, like guys from different degree courses, I feel their knowledge of the fingerboard isn’t as good as it should be. I always get guys to learn things three or four different ways, whether it’s a set of arpeggios or modes or a phrase from a solo. As you know, it sounds different in different registers and even in the same register in a different position on the instrument. It will sit under the fingers differently if you play a major triad starting on your fourth finger rather than on your second finger. Those things will make people struggle with that. I always get people to work on that as a foundation.
Another thing is the age old thing of when it comes to playing a solo, developing the vocabulary of a horn player or keyboard player. I tend to have guys really work on learning how to construct bass lines. We look at 12-bar blues and introduce more sophisticated changes, but use the blues as a foundation.
The other questions I get asked are about technique. It’s always about learning to play fast. It’s funny because I never worked on that, but it’s something that everyone wants to do. I’m always emphasizing the fact that if you’re playing things slowly and carefully, you’ll be able to play quickly because you’re building the technique from a strong foundation. It’s funny, but those three areas always come up.
What’s coming up for you this year?
I’ve got Down to the Bone. We’re doing some festivals in the summer and we’ve got some dates in California as well. I’m going to be doing the record with Scott Tibbs, whether it’s under a duo name or as a solo project. I’m working with Trio B.A.D. and we’ve got a few gigs coming up. I’m also feeling much more affinity for teaching, so we’ll be ramping that up.
To keep up with Rufus Philpot, check out his website for lessons, music, and more.