Nolabass: An Interview with James Singleton
New Orleans is a city steeped in tradition, but a big part of their culture is constant evolution. That may be why James Singleton is one of the busiest bassists in town. He’s been a mainstay of the scene for over four decades by playing a myriad of styles with tons of music legends: John Scofield, Ellis Marsalis, Stanton Moore, Chet Baker, and John Medeski, just to name a few. Beyond a standard sideman, Singleton is an accomplished composer and improviser that continues to hone in on his sound by experimentation.
That experimentation can be heard on the brand new album No Revenge Necessary by Nolatet. The band is filled out by fellow Crescent City players vibraphonist Mike Dillon, pianist Brian Haas, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. Each player offers genre-bending compositions that blur the lines between written and improvised music. Part of that deep exploration comes from more playing time, as Haas points out. “The wealth of music experience amongst ourselves is why Nolatet has its own voice,” he says. “After a few years you don’t learn the other person’s music—you learn the other person!”
Singleton already has a tight connection with Vidacovich as the duo has made up the rhythm section for fellow New Orleans band the Astral Project. Together they play with the grooves to propel each song to its potential. The bassist also mixes things up by mixing up his sonic palette with effects pedals, bowing, and instrumentation. Be sure to check out the infectious bass line on “Black Sheep,” which he loops in order to pick up a pocket trumpet for the melody.
Nolatet will be touring the U.S. in support of No Revenge Necessary, which is available April 27th. We caught up with Singleton before the trek to get the scoop on the New Orleans sound, the new album, and how he uses effects on the double bass.
Are you from New Orleans or were you drawn there?
I quit college to move to New Orleans in 1976, so I’ve been here over 40 years.
Were you studying music?
I went to the Berklee College of Music and I went to the University of North Texas for a couple semesters. Then I quit music school at North Texas and tried out psychology and literature and stuff just to make sure [I wanted to do music]. I got offered a gig in New Orleans and came down here.
It’s always good to have work and there’s plenty down there, right?
Well, the work situation has changed a lot, but my situation is evolved because I’m pretty well established here. I play all different styles and write my own music and present it and do a lot of different activities. There’s a lot of work but the pay is not great. It’s part of the overall gutting of the middle class around the world. When I moved here as a greenhorn ignoramus having quit the great jazz industrial complex, I was all the sudden inundated with work and it paid really well. I was making my rent every day on Bourbon Street. That’s no longer the case. Adjusted for inflation it pays about 1/5th of what it paid then. The prices went up and the pay did not.
Did you get busy immediately or was there one gig that opened it up?
I moved to town because I was offered a really excellent gig with a genius blues player, Gatemouth Brown. I played with him for a few months and instantly wanted to quit because there was so much hip stuff happening here. I gave notice and he refused, then we went back and forth for a couple of months. I quit at the beginning of that summer and starved because nobody knew who I was and I had no notion or understanding of how to get work. I ended up having to go on the road with a much less interesting gig. When I came back I started slowly to get established.
The band is called Nolatet. What makes New Orleans music? Is this still New Orleans music to you?
The drummer is Johnny Vidacovich. He’s a great genius drumset player who, when I moved to town, was arguably the strongest musician in town. He was born and raised here and played all phases of music. New Orleans has a huge set of traditions. There’s the traditional jazz music, there’s all the R&B and rock & roll and blues. He’s a master of all those styles. Anything he touches becomes infused with New Orleans style.
The New Orleans style is very wide-ranging. New Orleans is a town that is expert at congratulating itself on the traditions that are here, but New Orleans also has a huge history of combining different styles and reinventing and expanding the style. As early as the 1840s, one of the greatest composers at the time was Louis Moreau Gottschalk. He was getting slaves from Congo Square and putting them with the symphony orchestra. So there’s a huge tradition here of certainly continuing and nurturing traditions, but also changing them. You look at the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars where they combine New Orleans funk with Klezmer music. Then there’s the great Astral Project that Vidacovich and I have played with for forty years, where they’re taking New Orleans rhythms and putting them with more contemporary harmonies and textures and ’70s energy music and avant garde.
I see Nolatet as being a continuation of that. Brian Haas is a classically trained genius composer and pianist. Mike Dillon is a percussionist, vibraphonist, composer, punk rock band leader. All of us really defy category because we’re trying to transcend category with our music. We want to get beyond it and create something new that’s a strong identity by itself.
I get that from this album. There are flavors of all sorts of styles but you can’t pinpoint one exactly. How has the group evolved from the first album, Dogs?
Dogs was purely beginners luck. We had only played a handful of gigs. We were just getting started and it felt so good we said, “Why wait? Let’s go in the studio right now.” We got about halfway through the day and Mike and Brian were saying, “Well that feels pretty good. Let’s have a sandwich and do another three hours and we’ll probably have it.” Johnny V just clapped his hands and said, “Nope, that’s it. If you don’t like it, forget it.” So we just put it out, and it’s pretty good.
For this record, we’d had a bunch more gigs and presented each other with compositions and went through the decomposition process. For that reason, I think it’s more wide-ranging compositionally. It was more difficult to program what we had recorded because it was so wide-ranging. The challenge was to create a cohesive order for it.
Textures are something you play with a lot. Is that where you get a lot of creativity? Do you get more creative with note choice or textures?
Both. I went to jazz school forty years ago. I studied bebop and a lot of different styles. As a bassist, I’ve always wanted to find other textures. To that end, I’m using a lot of different effects. You know, I spent the first twenty years trying to be a good bass player and the past twenty years trying to find an identity. For me, varying the texture has been a big part of that: learning the slap the bass, learning to bow the bass, and finally effects.
Can I get nerdy and ask what pedal you’re using on “Dike Fingers”?
It’s a Big Muff, but I hasten to add that I don’t have any endorsements so why should I swear by any of these? I’m always looking for different distortions. They all sound strange and weird with the upright. It helps me. I was using Robert Keeley’s altered Tube Screamer and that one was doing well because it seemed to preserve more of the bottom than other ones. Then it got stolen. When it’s time to spend money, I say, “Well, why not try something different?” I pick any of them that have EQ built in because then I can notch out some of the mids that seem to take off too bad.
Do you have any tricks or tips for dialing overdrive in for upright?
I like the Schertler pickup because it’s an actual microphone that’s pretty well isolated in the bridge and doesn’t feedback as much. That being said, I’ve been playing with a [Fishman] Full Circle on a really nice instrument that I have. My old instrument with the Schertler has problems and needs work. I use the Schertler on my Chadwick folding bass, so I can get pretty loud without feedback and distortion. I like the DPA microphone, too. I try to run two channels to get the woody, microphone sound, and sometimes I’ll just turn off the pickup completely and just use the microphone when I’m working on a jazzier thing. Then I have a Boomerang phraser. That’s what I use for looping.
I love the looping in “Black Sheep.” Where did the bass line come from for that?
It’s hard to say where my bass lines come from. It’s a descending “Hit The Road Jack” kind of thing but with whole tones all the way, then I figured out the upper structure. For a while in my personal bands, I didn’t use chordal players because I wanted the freedom to create all the upper structural harmony by myself as a bassist – or change it. Usually, it was just me and a drummer with a couple of horns. Now I’m suddenly in a band with two chordal instruments – vibes and piano – and I was a little worried about how we were all going to reconcile upper structures. I love the idea of the upper structure harmony just emerging organically from two or three guys playing in a linear fashion.
I don’t like the whole [idea of] bass/chordal/melody players being separated. Everyone in the band is a composer so it turned out to be a really good combination and really easy to have different harmonies emerge. Brian and Mike are both very polytonal and sometimes atonal in their approach. I was very happy about that because I get tired of hearing chord changes all the time.
I know the band plays a lot of improvised parts. The title track is one of my favorites on the album. Was that largely written or improvised?
Brian Haas wrote that. He showed up to the recording with some very specific compositions. Those are probably the more structured ones. That’s not always the way he rolls; he writes all sorts of compositions. I think we all do. My philosophy is to play the written material and then add to it. I try not to compose a structure for the improviser. Try to execute my notes and then you can do what you want. Those slower tunes that he brought to the recording, we didn’t do a whole lot of improvising. I think they stood so well on their own as written compositions. That happens a lot in our music, where it’s hard to tell what was composed and what was improvised.
Nolatet 2018 Tour Dates:
|April 26||New Orleans, LA||Ogden Museum of Southern Art|
|April 27||New Orleans, LA||The Music Box|
|April 29||New Orleans, LA||Marigny Opera House|
|May 1||New Orleans, LA||Louisiana Music Factory (in-store)|
|May 4||New Orleans, LA||John Bukaty Gallery (w/ Anders Osborne)|
|May 16||Pittsburgh, PA||Cattivo|
|May 17||Harrisburg, PA||HMAC Stage on Herr|
|May 18||New York, NY||Drom|
|May 19||Boston, MA||David Friend Recital Hall|
|May 20||Bridgeport, CT||BRYAC|
|June 4||Denver, CO||Cervantes’ Other Side|
|June 6||San Francisco, CA||Boom Boom Room|
|June 7||Talent, OR||The Talent Club|
|June 8||Portland, OR||Jack London|
|June 9||Seattle, WA||The Royal Room|
|June 10||Rhododendron, OR||Skyway|
|June 22||Houston, TX||Last Concert Cafe|
|June 23||Austin, TX||One-2-One Bar|
|August 29||Kansas City, MO||The Brick|