Teen Town: An Interview With Gabriel Severn
With the increasing amount of content and lessons online, the overall level of musicianship in the world has grown. It’s also become evident that young musicians are becoming better with a handful of prodigies coming into the spotlight. In the world of bass, one of those prodigies is Gabriel Severn.
Severn, who is now 15, first began grooving on the bass at just 7 years old. It doesn’t hurt that his father, a trumpeter and jazz fan, turned him onto Jaco Pastorius when he was just a toddler. His early playing experiences were in a Motown group that he joined just months after beginning to play, but his love for jazz and fusion pushed him to begin learning more complex music. Severn garnered worldwide attention with a YouTube video of himself playing Jaco’s solo on “Havona” when he was just 11 years old.
Since then, he’s only gotten better. Fluent on both fretted and fretless, Severn’s playing is more than a show of chops. His playing exhibits a strong sense of groove and emotion – something that is uncommon in many players his age. This has led him to perform his original music with the U.S. Navy Commodores and be a guest artist at the Jazz Philadelphia Summit, the 2019 Philadelphia WimBash, the 2019 Detroit BASSDAY, and more. Most recently, he’s been focusing on creating new music for his trio, Teen Town, with drummer Logan Bedard and keyboardist Connor Rohrer.
We caught up with Severn to get the scoop on his new music, how he got so good so fast, his practice routine, and more.
How are you getting along with the pandemic?
I’ve just been staying inside. I’ve been getting a lot more time to play and I’ve been getting into writing a lot more. I knew I wanted to do it, but I never had the ideas. Since I’ve had the time, I’ve been able to develop ideas and I have one or two originals now. I’m working on some stuff with a producer for smooth jazz, so it’s pretty exciting.
Is it your goal to do original music?
Yeah, it’s one of them. I do want to play live a lot with my band, Teen Town, too. We’ve been raising funds for an EP that we’ll hopefully have out in early 2021.
Were you writing a lot before this?
I’d been making loads of loops on my looping pedal. I wasn’t experimenting with writing that much, even though I have lots of ideas in Logic. I didn’t have time to expand on them and I also just didn’t really know how to. I’m still not the greatest writer, in my opinion. I could use some help, but in the time that I’ve had, I’ve gotten better.
There are lots of great players who could play that stuff, but to come up with it is a whole different ball game. Do you write on your bass? I’ve noticed a keyboard in a lot of your videos.
I’ve been messing around with the keyboard more just to get into chords. Mainly what I’ve been doing is working on a lot of chord books for bass. There’s one by Janek Gwizdala called Chordal Harmony that I’ve been going through. That really opened up not only my chord playing but also my soloing. I’ve been using that a lot for writing, but I basically transfer the chords from bass over to the keyboard.
When you’re composing, are you thinking of the trio setting or for a bigger band?
My preferred band would be guitar, keyboard, bass, and drums. Sometimes I’d like to have a sax player or an EWI for the electronic stuff. I really like Bob Mintzer’s sound in the Yellowjackets when he uses that. That’s basically the instrumentation I have in mind.
Are you working on a solo album?
I’m probably going to release two more singles because that’s what I’ve been working on with the producer. We’ve been sending ideas back and forth. Hopefully, we’ll get something out pretty soon.
You started at such a young age. How did you get into the bass?
My dad is a trumpet player and I would always be taken to his gigs. I’d hear the bass and I’d point it out. I guess I was always drawn to the low frequencies. I’m not exactly sure.
When we were in the car listening to music, I’d always pick out the bass. When I was a young toddler, I’d sit on my dad’s lap and he would pull up a video of Jaco playing live and I’d just watch it. I had a little toy guitar and would play along.
Do you feel like he steered you towards bass or did it just stick?
He showed me other instruments, but he saw I was always drawn to bass so he showed me Jaco. He always liked Weather Report and all that stuff.
Do you feel like there was a turning point that supercharged your playing to the path you’re on now?
It was probably when I started taking lessons with Anthony Wellington. He showed me a couple of exercises that were going through the modes of the pentatonic scale and a lot of diatonic stuff that I had never experimented with before. I’d say that really helped my soloing in a big way. He also helped a lot with my slap playing. It was challenging, but I’m glad because it really helped.
A lot of amazing young players I see have lots of technical chops but lack the feel and groove that you have. What did you do to work on that?
A lot of it was also from Anthony with his “Yardstick of Time and Groove” and working on 16th notes. It really got me to control playing on the beat, behind the beat, or a little bit ahead for different styles. I also went up to the Berklee Groove workshop. It’s strictly for bass players and drummers and that helped me.
Who was teaching up there?
A lot of great players. Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey kind of run it.
It’s amazing that you have access to all these top-shelf players to show you things here and there. I’m sure you get a lot of comments from older players saying things like, “I’m going to burn my bass now” and stuff like that. How does that make you feel?
Yeah, I get loads of comments. I know they’re joking, but I don’t want people to stop playing. I hope I inspire or influence them in some way. That’s why I put out so many instructional videos. I don’t want them to quit.
I’m sure the other thing you get asked all the time is if you’re practicing nonstop. Do you sit in your room and jam for hours and hours a day?
Well, I like to have a life, too, as a kid. I try to play about three sessions of about 45 minutes to an hour. I’m able to get a lot done because I practice quality over quantity. Whenever I practice, I want to make sure I’m as productive as I can be in the practice session and not just screwing around. I’ve been doing that a couple of years and it really helps me.
I have a routine that I stick to. The first practice session is always warming up. On the next one, I’ll work on writing or a transcription. Then the third practice will be messing around with loops and trying to find content to put out there.
What other kinds of stuff are you into?
I play a lot of soccer and I play video games with my friends.
I know you started playing Motown stuff. Are you still into that?
Yeah. I always like to listen to pretty much everything. A lot of the stuff I put out is about soloing and chords and jazz fusion, but behind the scenes, I do a lot of work on every style. I put some content from Zedd out there, I do Motown… I try to stay as well rounded as I can.
What have you been listening to?
I’ve been really into Tribal Tech for the past couple of years. I’ve also been listening to a lot of CAB, which features Bunny Brunel, Dennis Chambers, and Tony MacAlpine. The songs I really like from them feature Bunny on fretless.
That’s something you do, too. Do you alternate your time between fretted and fretless?
I make sure to play some fretless every day to get the intonation to stay. There have been times that I haven’t played it in a couple of days, then I get back on it and my intonation is all out of whack. So I like to stay on it.
Has your fame on the web for your playing messed with you at all?
I try not to let it get to me. Some of my friends like to talk about it, but I don’t let it get to my head.
What advice do you have for other young players?
A big part of my journey is transcribing. Whether it’s bass lines from James Jamerson or solos by Michael Brecker, I transcribe a lot to help my playing.
Do you have a good place to start for people trying to get into jazz fusion?
I started with “Teen Town,” so I’m not really sure. [laughs] “Portrait of Tracy” is a great one. When I was young, I couldn’t really play that because the notes and the harmonics were difficult to hit with my small hands. As my hands have gotten bigger, I’ve found that the song sounds nice but isn’t too difficult.
A lot of the Tribal Tech stuff, too. The solos are obviously very complex, but some of the bass lines and chords are not as difficult. They’re a good place to get the sound of fusion in your head.