Rise: An Interview with Joshua Crumbly
Joshua Crumbly began his musical life at a very young age thanks to his family, starting on piano at five years old and picking up the electric bass at just nine. It wasn’t long before his talents were noticed by two bass greats: Victor Bailey and Reggie Hamilton. With their guidance, he honed his craft through grade school and went to Juilliard. Since then, he’s been constantly working with artists like Leon Bridges, Kamasi Washington, Terence Blanchard, Lizz Wright, Ravi Coltrane, and more.
Even with all his success as a sideman, Crumbly knew he had his own story to tell. It was that spark that led him to write the song “Rise,” which began the project that became his debut solo album of the same name.
“The title track ‘Rise’ means a lot to me because at the time that I wrote it, I was going through a tough time in terms of second-guessing the path that I was on,” he explains. “When I wrote it, it literally uplifted me into a more optimistic place.”
Available May 15th, Rise is an amalgamation of all his influences: jazz, rock, R&B, indie, and more. The music is texture-based, like watercolors spread on a canvas by a collective of artists. Although each song incorporates improvisation from each player, they also have central themes and emotions that come through.
We caught up with Crumbly to get the scoop on his debut album, his time with Victor Bailey, and the difficulty of labeling his music.
Rise is very textural, and you’ve mentioned you wanted to focus on communal playing instead of solos. What led to that?
I had been in a lot of jazz settings. Traditionally, a song is built with a “head” (melody) and then you have solos, then take the head out. I started to get to the point of wondering if there was another form that still allowed for a lot of improvisation, but built in a different way. That’s one of the concepts behind the whole album.
How do you write like that? I get the impression you wrote from the bass since there are a lot of lush, chordal bass lines.
You’re definitely right. Prior to this album, I used to write everything from the piano. I wanted to write from the bass to see if that would make me come up with a new way of writing. A lot of times, the songs start from me reflecting on family or something I’m going through. Then it becomes a little mantra I play over and over. The song comes pretty quickly during a reflection process.
Are you writing all the time or did it happen all at once?
Writing comes in spells, but a lot of times it can come quickly. As I said, it all comes from something I’m thinking about. I would say when I wrote the song “Rise” I thought, “There’s something I can say with an album.” Then the songs came together within a year and a half.
Have you always wanted to put out a solo album or did this take you by surprise?
I think it was a little bit of both. As a kid, I idolized some great bassists that were artists of their own and I envisioned myself doing that. But then I moved to New York and became a sideman for a lot of different people that gave me many different perspectives to draw from. I’d kind of lost my vision of being an artist, even though I was still writing over the course of the years. When the song “Rise” was birthed, I realized that I had a vision I was ready to record and share.
Since you reflect on people for ideas and you took lessons with Victor Bailey, I’m guessing that “For Victor” is for him. Is that right?
Definitely. During the recording process, we rehearsed just once before the two days of recording. I would share what the songs meant to me but made it clear to the musicians that they could relate to it in their own way. [In this case], I shared the story about Victor taking me under his wing.
He actually gave me my first bass amp. He saw a gig of mine when I was about 10 and I was playing at a restaurant with my dad in Los Angeles. I just had a JBL speaker. A week later, I got a big box on my doorstep from him and it was a bass amp. I shared how special he was to me and how he passed and how it was a tribute to show gratitude to the legacy he left the world.
For that song, I tried to challenge myself in writing it. It’s a lot more note-y than the other songs on the record. He’d always push me when I took lessons from him, and even just hanging out he was always challenging me. I made it a point to have that aspect in it, but also a heartfelt vibe at the end acknowledging that though he’s gone in one sense, his legacy and inspiration lives forever.
You also took lessons with Reggie Hamilton and Al McKibbon. What were their impact on you?
Around the same time I met Victor, I also met Reggie. He always imparted great knowledge on me. I started studying with him after Victor relocated back to the East Coast and he said, “You need to start playing upright, as well.” I was kind of like, “Why?” [laughs] He said it would open a lot more opportunities and a whole new side of your career.
I think I was 12 or 13 when my dad finally bought me an upright. We called Reggie and said we were ready for upright lessons, but Reggie said, “Before you study with me, I want you to study with a teacher of mine.” It was Al McKibbon, who was then 86 years old. So technically, my first upright teacher was Al McKibbon. I got three lessons before he passed, then went on to study upright with Reggie.
I moved to New York for college and ended up joining Terence Blanchard’s quintet for about five or six years. Ninety percent of my work in New York for that time was upright. Reggie was definitely right that it opened up many more opportunities.
So you also think it’s important for bassists to play both upright and electric?
I think so because music is shifting so much toward being genre-less. A lot of artists that used to be strictly straight-ahead with the acoustic bass have electronic instruments and electric basses now. Versatility is a key now more than ever in music.
Genres are being blurred all the time, which I think is a great thing. However, have you thought about what that means for “marketability” if people don’t know how to describe you?
I wasn’t thinking about that at all during the writing process. It just sort of happened. I think it stems from me growing up listening to so many different types of music that my dad had around the house. I actually started on classical piano first, and when I switched to bass I was playing heavy metal. Jazz and R&B came right after that as well as playing in church by ear. It’s a combination of all my musical experiences.
The marketing aspect of that is something I’m just starting to deal with. When I was uploading “New Rock Thingy” to Tunecore for the distribution, I almost didn’t want to label it. I ended up going with rock since “rock” is in the title. I wish that there was a way to release music by filing it under a certain genre. It’ll be something for me to think about when the whole album is out because there are so many elements coming together. Hopefully, I can file it accurately. [laughs]
You’ve been playing bass at such a high level for such a long time. I’m sure you’ve seen some of these unbelievably talented kids playing bass nowadays, so do you have any advice for them?
The 3 things that I would advise young musicians to do are:
- Write in a journal regularly. (This is something I’ve started recently and it would be great to have started sooner to look back on many travels and experiences from the past.)
- Get to lobby call on time, or at least down to the lobby before the artist that you’re playing for!
- Just enjoy the journey!
Also, Just in the nature of the bass, if you’re playing at a high level you’re going to get called to be a sideman. Try to soak up as much as you can in how the leader leads. Learn their music as best as you can. But the most important thing is not losing your vision and to continue to write your own music. Compile your own voice during the journey of your career.